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Laos, 1948-1989; Part 2
By Troung, Albert Grandolini & Tom Cooper - with additional photographs supplied by Dr. Istvan Toperczer
Nov 13, 2003, 02:27

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The War for Supplies

As the situation was stabilized to a degree through a series of attacks and counterattacks, and due to US and Thai involvement, there was a new reorganization of airborne operations over Laos. The RLAF, whose headquarters were meanwhile shifted to Savannakhet, concentrated its efforts on the south of the country, while the Thais – under direct and constant American control – continued operating over the north. Although the operations of the T-28s were very successful in general, it took not much longer until losses the RLAF and RTAF were suffering started increasing. On 14 August 1964 the North Vietnamese 37mm anti aircraft guns shot down an RT-28 and four days later RTAF Lt.Col Viriyapong likewise was shot down over the Plain of Jars. A third machine was lost on the same day, when it entered the North Vietnamese airspace by mistake and was then hit by AA—fire.

The area in the northeast of Laos was not the only battlefield in the country. Already in August 1964 the Americans began - in the course of the operation Barrel Roll – their first air raids on the Ho-Chi-Minh-path in the southeast of the country. Originally this was described in the public as “deployment of armed reconnaissance aircraft”, but the number of operations undertaken was permanently increasing. The Ho-Chi-Minh Trail consisted actually of several dirty and primitive strips through the jungle and over terrible terrain, via which the North Vietnamese were transporting supplies connect to Viet Cong in Southern Vietnam, but also to their allies in Laos and Cambodia. The working conditions for the people involved in maintaining these supply routes were terrible, but they kept it open despite all the problems – and especially in the face of heavy US air strikes. The USA had a vital interest in stopping the flow of supplies along the Trail, and already in September 1964 the US Ambasador inLaos was given the task of presenting the government in Vientianne with a list of potential targets that were to be hit by RLAF T-28s. Accordingly the Laotians started a new series of air strikes along the Mu Gia Pass, from 14 October onwards. Few hours later American reconnaissance planes flew over the same area to take post-strike pictures.

The North Vietnamese reacted with violent anti-aircraft fire and the US president Johnson felt forced to order new strikes against sellected positions of AA-artillery. In the very moment the first US bombs started falling on the North Vietnamese positions in Laos the massive battle along the Ho-Chi-Minh Trail began, which was to last for the next ten years.

Most of the early air raids by the USAF were led by Cessna O-1 Bird Dog FACs and T-28 attack aircraft operating from Thailand, and flown by crews recruited in the frame of the Operation “Steve Canyon”, which at the time was considered so secret that the involved pilots had to quit their service in the USAF and had officially purchased their aircraft from the US government – at a price of $ 1,--, of course. In order to remain under control they were subordinated directly to the US Ambassador in Vientianne. Subsequently, the scope of these operations was to widen by a considerable margin, however. By all purposes a major war was now fought in Laos, and the US was supporting it through a range of services. Aside from Air America, also the Continental Air Services became involved, providing a wide range of logistic support and search and rescue tasks, as well as FAC. In some cases even “sanitized” USAF transport aircraft were flown by Air America, including several C-130s. The 56th Special Operations Wing (SOW), at Nakhon Phanom provided also support and training, and in due course the 40 ARRS supplemented the Air America’s rescue efforts. Of course, strike aircraft based in South Vietnam and Thailand were available on demand.

During the period 1965-1966 the Neutralist forces of Kong Le received military aid from Indonesia, in an attempt to retain a certain degree of freedom from the Americans. The Neutralist units deployed in the Plain of Jars then were supplied with weapons and munitions by the AURI C-130s and An-12s that transited by Phnom Penh in Cambodia. One of the AURI C-130Bs was seen here taking off for another sortie. (Photo credit: Albert Grandolini Collection)

In 1965, the Indonesians also became involved in the war in Laos, by openly supporting Kong Le. They began to train his troops as paratroopers in airborne tactics and to fly-in ammunition and weapons. Eventually, the Indonesian Army advisers trained a total of six Neutralists paratroop battalions which became, however, rather a sort of “élite” light infantry then true airborne troops. AURI C-130s were nevertheless used to transport supplies for the Neutralist forces which included medicine, guns and uniforms, and flew out 65 junior officers sellected to receive training in Indonesia. During the anti-communist coup of 1965 in Indonesia, they were placed under a house arrest until it was over and then the training continued. Subsequently, from December 1965, more supplies were delivered on board AURI An-12 transports, and in April 1966 the officers that had finished their training were brought back to Laos, forming the 58th Battalion, originally based near Vientianne. By November 1966 the remaining Lao officers, trained in communications, were flown home on board Indonesian C-130s.

Piece of History: this cockpit hood found at the dump in Vientianne is a relatively strange found, then it belongs to no aircraft that was ever even based in Laos. On the contrary, it belonged to an USAF F-4C (serial "64-0728"), from the 8th TFW, and was originally based at Ubon. The aircraft was shot down over Laos, on 21 February 1966. The crew, consisting of Capt. J. L. Moore, and 1st Lt. M. J. Peters, survived. Moore and Peters were on a Barrel Roll mission over norther Laos, looking for traffic on the Ho-Chi-Minh Trail when they spotted several trucks near Ban Muang Phan, on the eastern edge of the Plain of Jars, and rolled into attack. Their Phantom was hit by AAA and burst into flames: the crew ejected safely and was recovered by an USAF HH-3 SAR helicopter. The serial number stencilled on the lower side is 64-0728. (Photo by Istvan Toperczer)

RLAF in Trouble

Despite heavy American air raids on Ho-Chi-Minh-path, and support from Thailand, the1965 year for the Lao Air Force began with a literal explosion. During preparations for a combat mission on the Wattay AB, in January 1965, a T-28 suffered a short-circuit in its electrical systems and the cannons of the plane opened the fire. Eight T-28Ds loaded with bombs, as well as a C-47, were hit and exploded in spectacular balls of fire. The lost airplanes were quickly replaced by new ones, but the Americans meanwhile had to bring a decision to temporarily stop the operations of the Firefly Unit.

The RLAF mainly used the UH-34 as his standard medium helicopter. This machine was seen at Luang Prabang in 1970. At that date, dozen of them was in service, a figure that rose to 43 in 1973. (Photo credit: Roger Routin via Albert Grandolini)

It was only in May that the RLAF T-28s began to restore their operational capability. They even scored a spectacular victory that boosted the morale of his pilots. A convoy of North Vietnamese tanks and trucks had been surprised in open terrain in Plain of Jars and attacked. The T-28s knocked out two tanks and five trucks. After spending all of their ammunition, they then called in a flight of USAF F-4Cs and led them to the target. The Phantoms claimed two additional tanks destroyed and two other damaged.

In August 1965, the RLAF T-28 force was again fully operationnal with some 27 aircraft on strenght, including 3 RT-28s. Under the command the Brigadier General Thao Ma, the RLAF increased dramatically its sorties rate. Thao Ma had also converted several C-47s into “bombers” as well as “gunship” to defend the RLAF bases at night, as these came under increasing pressure from enemy sappers. After the sunset the T-28s would be grounded leaving the bases open to communist attacks, but the modified RLAF C-47 “gunships”, armed with .50 Cal machine guns, proved very successful in keeping the communists away. The converted “bombers” were fitted with a curved roller system out of the side door that allowed the dropping of ten 250lb bombs. This practice was, despite a considerable success, eventually stopped as other Lao generals complained bitterly that “their” C-47s were removed from the task of smuggling drugs for them. Behaviour like this was causing quite some quarrels within the Laotian military establishment: Gen. Ma, for example, opposed the transfer of his headquarters from Wattay to Savannakhet, feeling this would remove him much to far away from the center of the power. Ma, a former paratrooper, one of the first Lao T-6 and then T-28 pilots and the Commander of the RLAF since 1961, was a charismatic person, actually a true warrior, excellent and aggressive pilot, well-liked by most of RLAF and also US-pilots, and – despite his mixed Lao-Vietnamese heritage – a true Laotian patriot. Initially a fierce opponent of foreign presence in Laos, with the time he developed into the most powerful proponent of the US military assistance. His popularity within the Royal Laotian military grew to a degree where most of the other higher officers were endlessly jealous – to a point where some of them were organising attempts against his life. Gen. Ma knew that, for example, the Hmong General Vang Pao was sponsored by the CIA with an extensive secret base at Long Tieng, and that the Air America and RLAF transports were used to support Pao’s Xieng Khouang Air Transport in shifting raw opium. He also knew that there were frequent quarrels between different generals and local warlords because of opium consignements.

Under the command of Brigadier General Thao Ma the RLAF reached a new level of efficiency. However the mercurial commander, who likes to fly himself many T-28 missions, was strongly opposed by other Lao military and politicians. He then staged a Coup attempt in October 1966 before fleeing to Thailand when it failed. He returned to Laos in August 1973 for another attempt to take the power from the coalition government then in place. He was killed when his T-28 was shot down over Vientiane. He was seen here in 1966, posing with the US Air Attache Bill Keeler at Wattay AB. (Photo: Ken Conboy via Albert Grandolini)

Eventually, Ma remained stubborn in his refusal to have the RLAF headquarters moved to Savannakhet: only after many attempts – to a considerable degree by Americans as well – was he to change this decision. In summer 1965, however, the military leadership bribed a number of RLAF pilots to stage a mutiny against Ma. In reaction, he secluded himself in Savannakhet, refusing all orders to return to Vientianne, and ignoring the charge for subordination. Under heavy pressure from the US Ambassador and the General Staff, he eventually agreed to turn the command of the RLAF to his disloyal chief-of-staff: however, he actually had his own plans. On 4 June 1965 he organised a coup d’etat – which failed, however, when an Army regiment that was to support him failed to appear – then Ma started the insurrection two days early!

Cornered, Ma nevertheless remained in his position. However, from this time on the RLAF was split into two commands: Ma was appointed commander of the Tactical Air Force, while Gen. Sourith – the pre-1961 aviation commander – became the chief of the newly-established Military Airlift Command, based in Wattay. While the RLAF was in full turmoil, the Americans tried to stabilize the situation and to improve the service efficiency and cooperation with the ground forces. By mid-1965, it was decided to establish within the five military regions of the Laos an Air Operation Center (AOC), in charge to centralize and to rationalize the air support needs of each military region. Each AOC was staffed by a team of USAF advisers, disguise as civilians, including a commander, a “line chief” engineer, some specialists in communications and a Medic.

Gen. Ma was now forced to leave Savannakhet: taking around a dozen of his most loyal pilots he deployed to Luang Prabang, from where they started flying combat sorties in the north. Disappointed by the overal situation, Ma finally organized a second coup d'etat. At dawn of 22 October 1966, eight RLAF T-28s set out to strike different targets in Vientiane. Two ammunition depots and the main command of the armed forces along with the homes of several Generals were attacked and 36 people died on the ground and dozens more were wounded. Then the American and the British Ambassador interfered and forced the general to give up. He and 12 of his pilots had then fled to Thailand, where – after several months in prison – all were granted political asylum.

While the Laotians aircrews were taken in the turmoil of local politic, the American had relied more and more on the Thais recruited in the frame of the Operation Firefly, meanwhile known as “B-Team”, to wage the expanding air war. During the summer of 1965, it was even decided to fly strike sorties against communist depots inside North Vietnam. During one of such missions, on 18 August 1965, a B-Team T-28D was shot down. Two other strikes had already took place on 1st and 2nd of August when it was decided to suspend them. Other cross-borders strikes were flown by B-Team in October when Washington dicided to stop them altoghether.

While flown by B-Team, the T-28 usually carried no national markings at all. Many of the new Trojans, however, could easily change their national markings, with a help of a cardboard-mounting they carried on the rear fuselage: on the cardboard they usually carried the RLAF insignia, but underneath was that of the US Air Force. The reason for this measure was the lack of trained Lao pilots, which necessited the deployment of RTAF fliers instead, with an addtional 23 who arrived in Laos in the spring of 1966 when the number of T-28 in Laos rose to 40. Training and bombing accuracy of Thai pilots were excellent, but they were quite often used as FAC as well, replacing Air America machines that played this role in previous times. Eventually, the RTAF-pilots became so active over Laos that they flew more combat sorties within the same year than the whole RLAF during the war up to then!

Starting from November 1965, the RLAF received five O-1Es from US Army stocks to supplement the US Firefly/Raven FACs. The American combat aircraft stationed in Thailand and South Vietnam undertook meanwhile up to 1,000 combat missions monthly over Laos and all of them needed FAC control after the US Embassy had edited a new sets of restrictive “rules of engagements” after a series of fratricide bombings.

Many of T-28s supplied to Laos were equipped with side-panels, which enabled the ground crew to quickly change the national insignia - in correspondence with the nationality of the pilot that was to fly the next mission! The insignia was usually applied on cardboard, and would be slid into the panels: Lao insignia would be installed when the pilot belonged to RLAF, while USAF insignia would be substituted if some USAF "adviser" flew the plane - officially on "liaison" or "weather reconnaissance" missions, of course. No insignia was worn if the aircraft was flown by Air America, or by the members of the A-Team, Thai mercenaries, Raven FACs, or B-Team. In the field it was fequently difficult to respect these rules, so often enough the aircraft flew with a combination of USAF and RLAF markings - as seen here. This T-28D probably belonged to the Composite Squadron, based at Wattay AB (Vientianne). The unit marking - consisting of a black and yellow tiger with a blue top background and white puffy clouds beneath his feet - was applied on engine cooling gills of several aircraft (including the one later serialled 3411 while in service with the post-1975, communist-controlled, air force, as seen on the artwork in Part 3 of this article), with red borders to the gill. This unit maintained a permanent detachment at Long Tieng airfield, and is known to have had a Tiger as insignia. Note that - interestingly and somewhat unusually - the upper and under wings of this aircraft were devoid of national insignia, while the wingtips were painted yellow. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)

Insurgency from Within

The RLAF never completely recovered from the blows and problems such accidents caused, and even less so from Ma’s insurgency: Gen. Sourith, who took over the command of the whole Air Force after Ma’s departure, was a neutral personality. In order to retain his command, he turned a blind eye when some other military and political clans used the RLAF transport to smuggle gold or opium. Sometimes in 1967 he sent RLAF T-28s to attack an opium caravan coming from Burma, not on the part of the government but to capture the consignement for the personal benefit of a warlord general. The situation became finally so bad that in 1968 the Americans refused the supply five additional C-47s to Laos, knowing too well how these would be used. In 1970 the RLAF C-47s were even used to ferry opium to the remote Ban Houei Sei airstrip to hand it over to civilian registered or unmarked Taiwanese C-46s and C-47s that in exchange delivered weapons within a secret deal with the Nationalist Chinese Intelligence Agency. Between August and November, some 70 tons of weapons, mostly M-16 rifles were then received by Laos from Taiwan.

The remaining pilots of the T-28 were also a source of problems so that the B-Team had to undertake ever more combat sorties over southern Laos as well. Besides, after in late 1967 a RLAF strike hit an Army base that was under attack by Pathet Lao, causing severe casualties, the Army refused to cooperate with the air force – and especially the Thais. Nevertheless, the RLAF was still able to fly up to 3.000 combat sorties per month of that year. The maintenance crews of the Firefly unit were also desinterested and many US and Thai pilots had to develop their own “tricks” to keep them interested in the work: one of the best-functioning was to channel the CIA’s pay-checks via pilots, so that these would distribute them to the ground crews.

As if this all would be insufficient, on 12 January 1969 the North Vietnamese launched an attack against the important US base of Phou Pha Thi, in northern Laos. Positioned barely 300km away from Hanoi, this base was established in 1966 in the frame of the Project Pony Express, when ELINT/SIGINT-gathering equipment was placed by CH-3Cs of the 20th SOS. Also equipped with a strong beacon radio station, this post helped to support US long range bombing operations over North Vietnam. Phou Pha Thi was thus an extremely sensitive position and well-guarded by a group of Hmongs. The Communist attack began on 12 January 1968, by four VPAF An-2 biplanes gunships armed with two 57mm rocket-pods under each wing, and machine guns installed on the windows. In addition, a section of the floor had been cut open to hold a cluster of tubes. Each tube contained a 120mm mortar round to be dropped. Guided by radio from a North Vietnamese commando infiltrated at the base of the hill, two An-2s attacked first, firing rockets on the first pass, then salvoed their 120mm mortar rounds slightly damaging the TACAN antennas.

An Air America UH-1 was on the scene and one of the Antonovs was shot down by door-gunners of the US helicopter. The two others were scattered and then crashed in collisions with high mountains in the area.

On 12 January 1969 four An-2 gunships from the VPAF 919th Transport Regiment attacked the USAF Phou Pha Thi ELINT station in northern Laos. The base also housed a TSQ-81 radar/TACAN used to guide the airstrikes against North Vietnam. The An-2s caused moderate damages by firing 57mm rockets and dropping 120mm mortar rounds but three of them were lost; one was shoot down by an Air America Bell 204 while the two others collided in mid-air by trying to escape the pursuing helicopter! This An-2 was recovered by an USAF HH-53 to be displayed at Vientiane. When the Hmong guerrillas reached the wreckage they found inside the cockpit an agonizing North Vietnamese pilot that they quickly executed. (Photo: Ken Conboy via Albert Grandolini)

Nevertheless, the Hmong fighters that defended Phou Pha Thi were hard pressed defending the perimenter and on 10 March 1969 the US technicians and most of the sensitive equipment had to be evacuated by helicopters. The remnants of the base were finally destroyed by two USAF air strikes, so that whatever was left of the secret equipment could not fall into the hands of the communists.

This T-28D - serialled "3758" - is one of only a few RLAF Trojans known to have worn permanent Lao insignia. The aircraft was seen sometimes in the 1960s and probably belonged to the Composite Squadron, based at Wattay AB. Like many other Trojans delivered to Laos it was modified to carry the "Yankee Seat" pilot-extraction system, that could "fire" the crew out of the cockpit in the case of emergency. This was not a classic ejection seat as such. On the contrary, it consisted of a rocket connected with a long stabilization cable that was in turn connected on pilot's harnesses. If activated, the rocket would fired, thus pulling the cable out of the cockpit, in turn pulling the pilot outside as well. It was simple and rugged, but very usefull mechanism. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)

Projects Igloo White and Nimrod

The development of the communist logistical corridor in Laos, better known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, was now so fast expanding that Washington put it on top of its priority list. The Americans had initially envisaged a ground attack against southern Laos to interdict the communist logistical flow, but for political reason the scheme was dropped. Instead, the US planners counted on air power and high-tech that seemed very promising to create an “air barrier” to stop the North Vietnamese flow. This led to an ever escalating air war over Laos, that saw the deployment of a full range of ever sophisticated aircraft and systems.

In December 1965, the main Communist entry points into Laos, the Mu Gia and Nape Passes, were bombed for the first time by the B-52s. On 10 December, 24 B-52s saturated these areas with M-117 bombs calibre 750lb and BLU-3B cluster bombs. Other massive strikes followed by formations varying from 12 to 27 B-52s. But as most enemy trucks traveled at night, the Americans were forced to adopt new tactics. Portions of the Ho Chi Minh Trail road network were now surveyed by specially trained crews flying black-painted O-1s that directed airstrikes.

RLAF T-28s and O-1s as seen in 1969 at a forward airfield somewhere deeper inside Laos. Note the outgoing C-123 Provider transporter - probably operated by Air America - overhead. (via Troung)

The most successful aircraft during this first part of the interdiction campaign were the AC-47s, that frequently operated in conjunction with Martin B-57 Canberra bombers and C-130 “Blind Cat” flare-droppers.

The Martin B-57 Canberra was considered as one of the best close-air support platform in South East Asia, with an excellent manoeuvrability, loiter time and a heavy weapons-loading capacity. It obtained good results in truck-hunting night missions over Laos. This B-57B from the 13th TBS was prepared for another sortie from Phan Rang AB, South Vietnam. (Photo credit: Robert C Mikesh via Albert Grandolini)

The Laotian territory was now segmented into the Barrel Roll area, covering the north-eastern part of the country and the Steel Tiger area in the south-eastern part. Airborne command posts in C-130 ABCC orbited over Laos to coordinate the strikes.

Back at Washington, a scientific study group, known as the “Jason Committee”, was solicited to submit a proposal for an air-supported electronic barrier system across Vietnam and Laos. That later evolved into the Project TRIM (Trails and Roads Interdiction, Multi-Sensor) that was adopted as the “MacNamara Line”, by the name of the then US Defense Secretary. Initially, it was the US Navy that initiated the program by trying to adapt the Sonobuoys system for acoustic acquisition at ground. Another early research led to Project Shed Light, which saw the development of Low Light Level Television (LLTV) sets and forward looking infra-red (FLIR) systems to be installed on aircraft. A small number of A-1Es; P2V-7s and B-57Bs were tested operationally with these systems with mixed results, the main problem being that of developing systems that would be sensitive enough to detect vehicles operating under cover of the thick jungle canopy.

The next phase in the Project TRIM led to a sophisticated operation involving air delivery of acoustic and seismic sensors, air delivered mines, and specialized aircraft in charge of picking up the sensors data and enabling night-time operations against truck traffic. A joint Army-Navy-USAF “Task Force Alpha” at Nakhon Phanom in Thailand was in charge of processing the data and directing air airstrikes. The overall electronic warfare program of dropping sensors along the Ho Chi Minh Trails was known as Operation “Igloo White”. The delivered sensors were the ADSID (Air Delivered Seismic Intrusion Detector), with the seismic “Spikebuoy” device and the acoustic-microphone Acousid system.

The ADSID sensors were modified to be released by high speed aircraft in order to reduce their vulnerability to ground fire. These USAF armourers were loading the sensors on an SUU-42A dispenser pod. The pod was then matted to a LORAN equipped F-4D. Using their very accurate LORAN navigation system the Phantoms could implant the GSQ-117 or GSQ-141 acoustic and seismic sensors in precisely known locations. (hoto credit: USAF via Albert Grandolini)

The enemy paths and roads were also seeded with little XM-41 “gravel mines” in order to detonate under the foot of a communist soldier or to damage the tires of a vehicle. The explosion then provoked was recorded by the dropped microphones and then transmitted to orbiting ELINT EC-121s that downloaded the data to Task Force Alpha Infiltration Surveillance Center. The signals thus gathered were then processed by an IBM 360/Model 65 computer system while the analysts determined the speed and direction of the North Vietnamese convoys. They then directed the “shooters” to the targets through the Seek Data II, CREST and PIACCS automatic, computer-operated net-link-systems.

Some 21 EC-121s were deployed by the USAF 533rd Reconnaissance Wing to Thailand to support the Project Igloo White. They flew orbit high above southern Laos to monitor the dropped ADSID sensors and then relayed the data to the Task Force Alpha Center at Nakhon Phanon. (Photo credit: USAF via Albert Grandolini)

At first surprised by the sensors, the communists quickly found parades to lure them. Specially trained teams were deployed along the roads to uncover the hidden or buried devices and to neutralize them. Another trick was to use some vehicles to “make noise” in order to divert the airstrikes from the true convoys. The ambient factors also played against the excessive sensivity of the sensors. The thunder or other animal noises (especially frogs) then activated them at a rate four times higher than during testing in United States.

In reaction the Americans started developing and deploying specialized aircraft to run and operate the Igloo White project, including eight OP-2Es from VO-67 in charge of low-altitude/low-speed ADSID delivery, as well as 12 AP-2H gunships from VAH-21 and 21 EC-121s from 533rd Reconnaissance Wing for ELINT relay. From 1970, the EC-121s were partly supplemented by the QU-22 developed as a joint USAF/DARPA program. Twenty two QU-22s were built and could be also used in remote control mode.

Within the Project Igloo White, the Americans deployed a wide variety of aircraft and sensor across the Ho Chi Ming Trails to try to stop the North Vietnamese logistical flow. Among the different specialized types were eight OP-2Es from the US Navy VO-67 Squadron operating from Nakhon Phanon AB, Thailand. They were used to drop ADSID seismic sensors at low level and slow speed but the unit quickly suffered three losses. The unit was operational from 15 February 1967 until 1 July 1968 when the role of Neptunes was taken over by the less vulnerable A-1Es and F-4Ds. (Photo credit: US Navy via Albert Grandolini)

Another aircraft involved with the Project Igloo White were the twelve AP-2H gunships from the US Navy VAH-21 Squadron, operating from Cam Ranh Bay AB, South Vietnam. The unit was deployed from 1 September 1968 until 16 June 1969 and operated mostly over the Ho Chi Minh Trails. The aircraft was equipped with a sophisticated electronic set, including an AN/APQ-92 search radar, a FLIR and LLTV sensors mounted in a chin fairing under the nose, and a SLAR mounted aft of the wing trailing edge on both sides of the fuselage. Additional equipment included a real time IR sensor, an airborne Moving Target Indicator and the DIANE (Digital Integrated Attack and Navigation Equipment) system. The tail gunner used a Night Observation Scope (NOS) in place of the standard reflector gunsight. The additional jet engines were also fitted with silencers. (Photo credit: US Navy via Albert Grandolini)

Another exotic anti-truck technology was the rain-making Operation Popeye that consisted by seeding the clouds with silver iodide. The targeted areas saw an extension of the monsoon period from average 30 to 45 days. The continuous rainfall was intended to slow down the truck traffic and was relatively successful. Operation Popeye continued from September 1967 until July 1972.

Another curious experiment that failed was Operation Commando Lava that aimed to turn the soil of the enemy roads into mud with chemicals that when mixed with rain water destabilized or gelated the earth into mud. The mixture of trisodium nitrilo-triacetic acid and sodium tripolyphosphate packed in palletized bags were dropped on chokepoints of roads by the C-130s. Even if aerial observation saw a degradation of the soil, the North Vietnamese sappers quickly overcome the problem by laying bamboo matting on the hit zones. The trucks continued to pass unhindered so the most efficient way to stop them was their physical destruction. In fact, in July 1969 alone the USAF tactical combat aircraft flew no less but 12,821 combat missions over Laos and the B-52 heavy bombers another 661, but these was nowhere near being enough to stop the communist advance. Towards the end of 1969 the USAF was flying over 300 daily combat sorties over Laos and there were extensive demands for FAC aircraft, especially after the Pathet Lao put the Hmongs in central Laos under heavy pressure. The RLAF lacked well-trained FAC-pilots, however, while the Americans started deploying “fast-FAC” – fast jets (F-100F, TA-4F, F-4D) in the FAC role. Due to most of the pilots lacking the knowledge of the local terrain and being inexperienced, a great majority of the strikes eventually failed to hit their targets. In fact, despite the intensive US operations the North Vietnamese and the Pathet Lao were even able to improve their positions and to deploy immense concentrations of AAA around the country. Many aircraft were shot down and their crews captured. Frequently, downed crews were also used as baits and many Air America SAR-helicopters were shot down as well.

Laos became a testing ground for a vast array of aircraft to experiment new night fighting tactics and new weapons. The F-105s, A-4s and F-4s were now the most prominent types in theatre, with the Grumman A-6 Intruder proving the most capable in operating in bad-weather and by night. Specially developed munitions were also deployed like the BLU-43 Dragontooth anti-truck bomblets, the M-31, -32, -35 and -36 “Funny bomb” family that was basically an improved fire-bomb, which burned hot enough to melt steel and provided long period of burn time. Tear gas mixed with napalm in the BLU-52 bomb was also used against the anti-aircraft positions while a whole range of fuel air explosive (FAE) devices were also deployed. The most noticeable ones were the huge 2500lb BLU-72 “Propane Bomb” used alongside the smaller CBU-55.

One of the most prominent types used over Laos in the early part of the war was the Republic F-105, based in Thailand. Better known for its participation to the Rolling Thunder campaign against North Vietnam, the Hun was also massively deployed against targets along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Usually when weather foiled a strike over North Vietnam, the F-105s were redirected against secondary objectives in Laos. Some 59 F-105s were lost in Laos. (Photo credit: USAF via Albert Grandolini)

Air Commandos

In addition to this high tech-arsenal, the Air Commando units, operating slow and outdated propeller-driven aircraft, emerged surprisingly as far more efficient than the marvels of the “wiz-kids” of the Jason Committee. In fact the still not mature new technologies developed many snags on the field; the most difficult being the time elapsing between the detection of a target and when a “shooter” was directed toward it and to destroy it. A continual quest not yet fully fulfilled until today. Helped by a fleet of O-2As and OV-10As flown at low level despite heavy AAA concentration, the Air Commando T-28s, A-1s and B-26Ks could loiter longer times over the trails and attacked the discovered targets. The B-26K Invader of the 606th SOS, better known by their radio code of Nimrods, went on top of the truck killing count board. A study then indicated that an A-1 or a B-26K destroyed an average of 12.8 trucks per 100 sorties for a cost of $ 55 000 per target against an average of 1.5 truck per 100 sorties for a jet for a cost of $700 000 per target! On other side, the propeller-driven aircraft were four more times vulnerable to enemy antiaircraft fire.

At the end of 1966 the expanding air war in Laos forced the USAF to introduce FAC aircraft to guide the Americans fighter-bombers. Within Project 404 was then initiated Operation Steve Canyon that saw deployment of USAF FAC pilots in Laos. The project was so secret that the selected pilots had to officially quit their service and went to Laos as “civilians” who had bought their “own airplanes” at a price of $1! Better known as the Ravens, they flew on unmarked Cessna O-1, U-17 and T-28 with Hmong or Lao observers until 1973. (Photo credit: Albert Grandolini Collection)

With the termination of Operation Rolling Thunder against North Vietnam, in 1969, most of the US air assets were redirected against Laos. A series of new truck-killing campaigns code-named Commando Hunts was now ordered with the deployment of the new AC-119K and AC-130 gunships. Other aircraft deployed were the US Army OV-1 Mohawk equipped with SLAR and the very sophisticated B-57G that attacked its targets with the GBU-3 laser guided bombs. From 1970 on, the main mountain passes used by the North Vietnamese to pour-in supply in southern Laos were targeted within “Interdiction Boxes” where the B-52s flew round the clock missions to dump-in their bomb-loads to create landslides. After the seventh Commando Hunt campaign in early 1972, the Americans claimed between 35 000 to 51 500 trucks destroyed – a clearly over-inflated figure. Nevertheless, heavy losses had been inflicted to the communist, even if the overambitious Projects – like Igloo White, the cost of which was running at around one billion annually – had not deter the enemy logistical buildup for the famous Tet Offensive of 1968. Worse, the North Vietnamese were able to deploy in 1972 some 300 000 troops and hundreds of tanks and heavy artillery pieces into South Vietnam for a new all-out offensive.

Demise of the RLA

The Laotian Army forces suffered by the begining of 1968 its worst defeat until that date when five of its best regiments delpoyed in Nam Bac Valley, north of Luang Prabang, were encircled by the North Vietnamese 316th Division and wipped out, their losses amounting to an equivalent of 1.5 divisions. After this resounding setback, what was left of the RLA – amounting in strenght of one and half division-sized force - was completely demoralized and reduced in strenght, being effectivelly put out of action for the rest of the war. In turn, two runways in northern Laos also fell into the communist hands, easing the question of supplies for the Communist even more.

It should be mentioned here that the RLA had no divisional organization at the time. On the paper it boasted a strenght of 45.000 but these were organized solely into battalions, sometimes loosely assembled in regimental combat task forces or "groupement mobile" for specific tasks. rest of the war. It was not before 1971 that the first "ligth infantry division" of the RLA was organized, which was known localy as "Strike Division".

For the time being, however, the only effective military "obstacles" remaining in the way of the Communists were now the guerrilla tribal units and the RLAF. The Laotian air arm was fully backed by the US support and was reorganized along four Composite Wings deployed around five main airbases. An average of 45 T-28s was avalaible in Laos, a figure that could surge up to over 50 in case of crisis. They were supported by 16 C-47s and nine UH-34s. Some 25 to 30 other T-28s were retained in Thailand for maintenance, training or use by the B-Team against the Thai communist guerrillas in northeastern Thailand.

RLAF order of battle June 1968

- 101st Composite Wing – Luang Prabang AB, T-28s, UH-34s, Aero Commander, Allouette IIs
- 202nd Composite Wing – Wattay AB, T-28s, UH-34s, C-47s and L-20s
- 303rd Composite Wing – Savannakhet AB, T-28s, C-47s, UH-34s, O-1s
- 404th Composite Wing – Pakse AB, T-28s, UH-34s
- Air Training Command – Savannakhet AB, O-1s, U-17s
- Unamed Det. – Long Tieng AB, T-28s
- Raven FAC, T-28s, O-1s, U-17s

This former RT-28C was seen in 1970. Many of Trojans delivered to Laos were former T-28Bs and RT/T-28Cs, brought up to D standard. In the case of the RT-28Cs, the camera pod - attached under the fuselage - was removed and the aircraft then equipped with weapons. Laos is known to have got at least three reconditioned RT-28Cs in 1964, and at least this example survived by 1970. The red and blue colours on the engine cooling gills indicate that it was operated by the Composite Squadron's detachment at Savannakhet. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)

Hmong on Advance

The Hmong repulsed the Pathet Lao somehow, however, and with support of the RLAF and US air support retook most of the Plain the Jars in Operation Kou Kiet (Recovering Honnour) in late 1969. They captured over 2.500 tonns of ammunition, 600 heavy weapons, and even 25 PT-76 light tanks from the North Vietnamese Army. Undeterred, the Vietnamese then doubled their forces in Laos to over 67.000 and started preparations for an offensive to recapture the strategically important plain.

The RLAF continued its expansion by deploying in combat its first AC-47s in December 1969. These aircraft arrived only shortly before, mainly from the USAF and VNAF stocks. Apparently, however, Vang Pao did not trust the RLAF to be able to carry out precise strike missions by night with their AC-47s and so he refused to cooperate with them due to fears that his own troops might be hit, which would cause a break in cooperation. Nevertheless, the subsequent developments finally forced him to accept this kind of support and he certainly did not regret it as the AC-47 proved excellent in night close air support. Quickly, an average of three AC-47s flew around 50 sorties a month. Instrumental to this success was the commander of the AC-47 squadron, the French-trained and agressive Colonel Thao Ly. In Jully 1971 the unit was brought up to full strenght with ten AC-47Ds in inventory. Unfortunatelly, Col. Ly was killed soon afterward when his aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft artillery. The aircraft caught fire and he attempted to ditch on the Mekong River, but then a wing hit the water surface causing the plane to cartwheel and explode on impact.

A typical RLAF T-28D seen on an advanced base (Lima Site) with in foreground a row of fragmentation cluster-bomb units. The rugged and dependable Trojan was well adapted to the conflict in Laos, operating from unprepared airstrip. As often was the case, the plane did not have any national markings. (Photo: Ken Conboy via Albert Grandolini)

RLAF Expansion

By early 1970, while the United States began its “Vietnamization” policy of the war in South Vietnam, a similar effort was done in Laos. The purpose of the program was to make the Laotian fully autonomous then relieving the American forces from many tasks, at a time when Washington had decided a gradual withdrawall of its forces from South East Asia.

The US instructors then began an expanded training program for the Laotian aircrews. Until that date, few RLAF T-28s strikes were done under FAC control; most of the targets hit were those selected in advance. The FAC-controlled missions gave better flexibility against fleeting or unexpected targets just discovered. The progess in this field was slow but soon the situation improves, with the RAVEN FAC directing more RLAF strikes.

In order to improve the tactical control of the RLAF and his responsiveness to an unexpected situation, it was decided to create a new combined and centralized control system in 1970. Known as the Combined Operation Center (COC), it functinoned like a local tactical air command in close cooperation of the Army Headquarter, the two command structures being closely associated. To the surprise of the US advisers, the progess was soon impressive in the RLAF close air support control. The COC continued to expand its operations under the command of the very competent Colonel Bouathong Phontivongsa. The COC became the cornestone of the RLAF operations and worked effectivelly with very few US advisers control.

The T-28 sorties rate rose from an average of 3.573 a month in 1971 to an average of 4.239 a month in 1972. Already in the early 1971 the RLAF also began its own FAC program by deploying 15 O-1s and four U-17s. The transport capacity was also increased to 23 C-47s at the end of the same year, with some aircraft flying flares-dropping night missions within Operation Moon Shine.

Nevertheless, the main RLAF shortcoming remained the neverending lack of sufficient trained personnel. The training program could never catch up the RLAF expanding oprations as well as its very high loss rate, notably among the T-28 pilot community. Statistics proved that an average Laotian fighter pilot did not surive longer than two years of intensive fighting. This meant that a Lao T-28-Pilot was either dead after approximately 20 months of combat missions or had to be shifted to other units. The morale began to sink, so a rotational system was put in place to spare the pilots from being exposed for too long.

One attempt to overcome this shortcoming was suggested by the CIA to train members of the Hmong tribe as pilots. Very independent and aggressive, these men were excellent fighters on the ground, and it was obvious that they might have become excellent pilots, but the generals in Vientiane opposed this suggestion. The first screening of the Hmong candidates had inded not fitted the academic criteria of the Savannakhet Air Academy. Then the whole project was taken over by the CIA that had to improvise a special training syllabus adapted to these fierce tribesmen. The training then emphasized more practical knowledge than theorical ones. The first Hmong candidates were sent to Nong Khai (later to Khon Kaen) in Thailand at the end of 1966 where they were taken on charge by the CIA. There a primary flying training was done on some Piper Cherokees, a Cessna 180 and Cessna Piper Cubs before moving to basic and advanced training with the T-28 of the Water Pump program. Several dozen Hmong students went through this program: most of them were either washed-out or deployed as airborne observers, flying with the RAVEN FACs. Some were qualified as liaison or transport pilots, while a few were qualified on helicopters, after training on some CIA Bell 47Gs. Only seven were retained as fighter pilots but two of them were quickly lost in an air collision in bad weather. Of the surviving candidates Capt. Ly Lu, was to become a legend in his life time: before July 1969, when he was shot down and killed, Lu had flown over 1.000 combat sorties within only 18 months. Within this relatively short period of time he suffered numerous injuries and became also very sick: he continued flying until being killed, sometimes executing up to ten missions in a single day!

The last difficulty for the RLAF was the fact that the Americans administered their entire logistics system and the Laotians could not learn anything about this aspect of operating an air force. Measures were then taken to improve the Lao logistic and maintenance systems but here also the lack of qualified personnels was a great concern. An expanded training program for technical personnels took place in 1970 when all the RLAF T-28s were released from the direct control of the USAF 56th SOW, Det.1 in profit of the Laotians. Despite sensible progress taking place on this last field, the RLAF still continued to rely on foreign contracted personnel, notably from Air America, to fullfill its technical needs. The US ambition of forging an independent RLAF was never realised: in fact, little changed until the end of this phase of the war, in 1975.

This tail of a RLAF T-28 was photographed at a museum in Vientianne. It clearly shows the serial of the aircraft - 0-17746, but even more interesting is the - pretty bleak - unit insignia applied over it, and consisting of a tiger-head in yellow, black and white. We hope to be able to identify the background of this insignia and the unit that used it in the future. (Photo: I. Toperczer)

Unity and White Horses

Despite an intense US air campaign in northern Laos, the North Vietnamese launched a new offensive in March 1970 to retake the Plain of Jars. Additionally, the North Vietnamese sappers attacked the Luang Prabang base and destroyed no less but 17 T-28s there. Within few days, on 18 March, the advanced base and runway at Sam Thong was overrun while Long Thieng was in danger of being captured. The C-123s of the Air America flew about 500 Thai soldiers there, in turn evacuating most of the civilians from the area. Additional specialists and their sensitive listening equipment were evacuated by CH-53s of the 21st SOS and the base was finally strengthened in such a way, with a full strenght of Royal Thai Army regiment, that all further attacks were repelled. The RLAF lost over the Plain of Jars some three T-28Ds, two O-1s and a U-17. Nevertheless, by the end of the month the RLA eventually managed to recover Sam Thong. The North Vietnamese now deployed approximately 18,000 troops in northern Laos and all hope to fully reocuppied the Plain of Jars faded away. Only airpower allowed the gouvernmental forces to hold the fringes of the Plain. All the air assets were mobilized, including some Air America Caribou transports turned into makeshift bombers that dropped barrels of Napalms.

The B-57Gs of the 13th TBS from Ubon were also deployed in September 1970 to bomb the Vietnamese positions, using the new LGB-3 laser guided bombs. This unit suffered the first loss already two months later, when one of the bombers collided with an O-1!

Another Air America much-used aircraft was the De Haviland C-7 Caribou. Its STOL capability was well adapted for the small Laotian airstrips. In March 1970 several of them were even turned on makeshift bomber by dropping barrels of Napalm against the advancing North Vietnamese on the Plain of Jars. (Photo credit: Albert Grandolini Collection)

By the end of 1970, nearly all the Air America and Contiental Air Services assets in South East Asia were redirected to support operations in Laos. Air America then had 9.657 employees and a fleet of 135 aircraft while CASI had 600 employees and 45 aircraft. In detail they comprised:

Air America: one L-1049H, one DC-6A, two DC-4s, nine C-123s, nine C-7s, four C-46s, eight C-47s, 32 Volpars and Beech 18s, two Do.28As, two Piper Apaches, 23 PC-6s, nine Hellio Couriers, seven Bell 205s, five Bell 204s, and 23 UH-34s.

CASI: three C-46s, eleven C-47s, one Twin Pionneer, four Do-28As, ten Beech Barons, one Beech 18, one Wren 460, and a single FH 1100.

Mercenary pilot R. L. Brongersma, who worked for CIA in Laos in 1970, is seen here in the cockpit of an Air America Dornier Do.28. (Tom Cooper collection)

Beside the UH-34 Air America also used an important fleet of Bell 204 and 205 helicopters. The turbine-powered machines offered more power when operating in mountainous regions. Here a Bell 205 leaved a Hmong Fire Support Base atop a hill south-east of Plain of Jars in 1969. Photo: Ken Conboy via Albert Grandolini.

The North Vietnamese threat was such that Vientiane once more time turned to Bangkok to request help. Thailand was already withdrawing its troops from South Vietnam and redeploying other units in Laos could not politically be wise. Instead, the Thai Special Forces decided to recruit Thai “volunteers” units within the Project UNITY. These “volunteer” battalions were officially part of the Laotian Army but in reality were run by Thai and CIA advisers. They were deployed into Laos at the end of 1970 and would later play a key role in stabilizing the situation. Without them, Laos would probably fall into Communist hands by 1971. Accompanying the UNITY units on the field was a squadron of Thai operated UH-1M gunship helicopters, armed with the XM-21 minigun-rocket system. The helicopters wore no national insignias while a white horse head and the unit’s radio-code, was painted in front of the machines. The unit had initially ten Thais and three CIA-trained Hmong pilots. In a last demonstration of force, Thailand also hosted in October 1970 the last significant OTASE air excercises to dissuade Hanoi to march towards the Thai border. Operation Air Chandra then saw the first deployment in Thailand of RAAF Mirage IIIOs and RAF Lightnings.

The CIA began to recruit Hmongs to train them as pilots at the end of 1966. If most of them were graduated only as observers to fly with the RLAF/RAVEN FACs, some of them become pilots, including seven who were qualified on T-28 fighter-bomber. Among them was Lee Lu, a former elementary school teacher, who becomes an exceptional flier. He was always willing to accept the most difficult missions and his bombing accuracy was impressive. He quickly rose to command the Wattay’s T-28 squadron but preferred to be detached at Long Tieng, the Hmong Headquarter. He became a sort of national hero for the tribesmen. His legend even spread to the other allied airmen based in Thailand and involved in the air war in northern Laos. He seemed to have never enough, flying up from eight to ten sorties per day! Unfortunately as many RLAF T-28 pilot, he was shot down and killed after 18 months of intensive aerial operations. (Photo credit: Albert Grandolini Collection)

Lam Son 719

Despite the intense air campaign to stop the North Vietnamese logistical flow along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the Communists continued to reinforce their troops in South Vietnam, threatening to disrupt the “Vietnamization” process, and the gradual withdrawal of the US forces. Saigon and Washington then decided in February 1971 to launch a ground offensive to destroy the enemy logistical depots and to prevent a new offensive into South Vietnam. The plan became known as Lam Son 719 or Dewey Canyon, and had two options: if the North Vietnamese would fall back under the attack – like they did under similar circumstances in Cambodia – the ARVN would move along the Ho-Chi-Minh Trail and destroy all the bases undeway. If the North Vietnamese would put up resistance, the ARVN was to cause as much damage and inflict as many casualties as possible and then do a fighting withdrawal back into South Vietnam. Whatever the true motives behind this operation it involved only three ARVN divisions. As soon as 1967, the US responsibles had already planned a ground offensive against Laos and had estimated that if it must suceed, it was needed to deploy between five and seven US-ARVN divisions. Now, Hanoi had deployed in southern Laos a full army corps (Army Corps 70B) with tanks, ready to repel any ARVN foray, but Saigon was to deploy a smaller force.

Lam Son 719 was the largest air mobile (helicopter transport) operation of the war - but also one doomed to failure right from the start. Due to cooperation between the South Vietnamese and the Americans all the written plans had to be translated and the translators were largely communist-simpathisers. Consequently, Hanoi had copies of the whole documentation in hands almost as soon as South Vietnamese and US Army commanders of participating units. Additionally, neither the Americans nor the South Vietnamese knew the terrain really well, while the North Vietnamese were well-prepared for defense.

The Operation Lam Son 719 seen the largest air helicopter assaults ever carried out during the war in South East Asia from the part of the Americans. These airmobile operations took place against an entrenched enemy equipped with tanks and a huge number of anti-aircraft guns. By consequences the losses were extremely heavy, with 109 helicopters shot down after a month of combat and over 600 others damaged. The wreckages of a US Army OH-6 and an USMC CH-53 were seen on a hill just south of Tchepone in March 1971 after they were brought down by a North Vietnamese 37mm battery. (Photo credit: Albert Grandolini Collection)

The ARVN units tasked with this operation included the 1st Airborne Division, 1st Infantry Division, the Marine Division, 1st Ranger Group, 1st Armored Brigade, and the 5th Regiment of the 2nd Division – some of the best troops the ARVN ever had. Facing them were the 9th, 19th, 29th and 39th infantry regiments of the North Vietnamese Army, reinforced by the elements from 208th, 304th, 320th and 324th Divisions, as well as the 202nd armored regiment. The North Vietnamese also had 20 air defense battalions with weapons ranging from 14.5mm heavy machine guns all the way up to 100mm artillery pieces. Hanoi planned was to smash the attack and then counterattack towards Tchepone, using the Route 9.

Lam Son 719 began when the 1st Brigade of the US 5th Infantry Division launched a heliborne operation along the border of Laos, in order to establish several fire support bases (FSB). The 1st Brigade succeeded in its mission and soon four battalions of the US 108th Artillery Group were deployed in order to cover the advance of ARVN troops. American units were forbiden to cross the border while the US advisors did not accompany the ARVN units into Laos: this was to be a test of the “Vietnamization” policy.

A massive air armada consisting of 64 scout helicopters (OH-6A and OH-58), 177 gunship helicopters (AH-1G and UH-1C) and 418 transport helicopters (UH-1H, CH-47, CH-53 and CH-54) under the command of the American 101st Airborne Division then flew into the Laotian airspace with ARVN troops aboard. A part of the well-proven ARVN 1st Infantry Division was deployed along the southern flank of the intended advance axis, while the 1st Airborne Division and the Rangers were deployed along the northern flank, seizing important ground to prevent large-scale ambushes and set up additional fire-bases for 105mm and 155mm artillery. American B-52 bombers were used to clear the landing zones before the helicopters landed. The main thrust was backed with M-41A3 light tanks and M-113 armored personal carriers of the 1st Armored Brigade.

The advance of the Paratroopers and Rangers was slowed down by the large number of the North Vietnamese tanks from the 202nd regiment. Bad roads and heavy North Vietnamese counter attacks, that included tanks and M-46 field guns, halted the main ground thrust. The southern advance of the 1st Infantry Division went smooth however, as there was little opposition. The central thrust was then reinforced with the 1 Airborne Division’s 9th battalion in 10 February. Meanwhile, due to the heavy rain, the main axis of the attack, the Route 9, became nearly impassable: the supply columns bogged down and the tanks and armored personnel carriers became completely dependent on helicopters for supplies.

By 12 February, the North Vietnamese began to probe the ARVN positions and began counter attacks on the FSBs. The Ranger’s FSB in the north (called Ranger North) was taken, and the ARVN rangers had to flee and hide in the jungle to survive. Over 2000 North Vietnameses supported by at least 20 PT-76 light tanks attacked Hill 31 held by around 400 men of the 3rd Airborne Battalion. The paratroopers held of two assaults with the support of American air power during the next few days: two squadrons of armoured cavalry sent to support the 3rd Airborne Battalion were stopped 2000 meters short from Hill 31 by an ambush. A breakdown in communications then prevented any kind of help from reaching the isolated position. F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers were sent in to support Hill 31 but after one fell victim to anti-aircraft fire the USAF cancelled the air operation and started a massive CSAR attempt instead. Eventually, the North Vietnamese overrun the paratroopers, and only 55 troops made it to safety. With this setback, all the northern arm of the invasion fell, leaving the central and southern routes exposed. The FSB Ranger South and Hill 30 had to be abandoned subsequently: the artillery in both fire-bases lacked the range of the M-46 field-gun used by the North Vietnamese, which in turn were well-concealed and almost impossible to hit from the air.

From 3 March, in an attempt to save the operation, the ARVN 1st Infantry Division was redeployed by US Army helicopters to launch a series of “leap frogging” assaults towards Tchepone. This surprised and shocked the North Vietnamese who did not expect such a development and were unable to stop the rapid drive. Some 5.000 ARVN troops had been landed by nightfall for the loss of seven helicopters destroyed in the landings, but by 5 March Tchepone was in the hands of the South Vietnamese, which was a victory of a kind. The South Vietnamese commander, Lieutenant General Le Xuan Lam, however, was now in a difficult position: the North Vietnamese resistance was increasing and he was not interested in driving even deeper into Laos, knowing his problems could only increase. Consequently, he ordered a fighting withdrawal. This began on 12 March, when the first troops were evacuated from the Landing Zones (LZ) Hope and Sophia II (the last was near Tchepone).

This part of the operation was completed without any problems. But, when on 16 March three battalions of the 1st Infantry Division were to be evacuated from the LZ Lolo, some nine kilometres south of Route 9 and about eleven kilometres from Aloui, their rearguard of 420 men of the Division’s 4th Battalion came under attack by the North Vietnamese. During the vicious battles of the following two days, this unit was reduced to 88 men, commanded by a sergeant: on the afternoon of 18 March the last 36 survivors were evacuated by US Army helicopters.

On the next day, the 1st Armored Brigade and a paratrooper battalion were ordered back along Route 9 to recover 17 damaged M-41 tanks and M-113 APCs left behind. The unit had been promised American air cover but this never came and the convoy – with 17 heavy vehicles in tow – was ambushed near Aloui while crossing a river. Four M-41 light tanks were knocked out with RPG-7 anti armor weapons, blocking the convoy. During the next three hours the South Vietnamese had to fight fiercely in order to survive until the disabled M-41s were pushed by the side and the convoy could continue moving. The 1st Armoured Brigade left behind all the 17 M-41s and M-113s they had been towing and the four knocked out M-41s: these had later to be taken out by US Army AH-1G gunships. Losses mounted elsewhere as the ARVN troops pulling out of Laos became easy targets for additional ambushes: finally even the US fire-bases along the border had to be evacuated, the US Army deploying tanks to escort their personnel and equipment out.

Despite the extremely heavy South Vietnamese casualties – by 25 March the ARVN had lost 1.529 killed and 5.483 injured, as well as 96 artillery pieces and 71 tanks destroyed, the communists had suffered a severe blow. Thousands of tons of enemy supplies were destroyed, including 1,500 crew-served heavy weapons, 106 tanks and 76 artillery pieces. Along with that over 4.000 individual weapons were captured, and the ARVN claimed 13,345 enemy dead. The Americans suffered considerable losses as well, including ten OH-6As, eight OH-58s, 53 UH-1Hs, 26 AH-1Gs, three CH-47s and two CH-53s, and another 618 helicopters damaged. The VNAF also lost seven UH-1Hs. Some 219 Americans were killed and 1.149 wounded in support of the operation.

In the end, Lam Son 719 lasted for 45 days, and the airpower was the only thing that saved the ARVN from a complete defeat in Laos. The North Vietnamese nevertheless did not get off unpunished: their losses were indeed heavy to a degree where their planned invasion of South Vietnam had to be postponned for a full year.

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