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The Most Amazing Battle: The Secret Lao Army and the CIA Defeat the NVA on the Plain of Jars in 1969
BY JOHN PRADOS
August 1969 was an amazing time. America sat proud after the Apollo 11 Moon landing. On August 4 the North Vietnamese released three American POWs as a token of good faith, while in Paris secret talks began between Washington and Hanoi. The Rolling Stones were No. 2 on the Billboard charts for August 16 with “Honky Tonk Women.” Neil Diamond was there too with “Sweet Caroline.”
At that moment, north of New York City, 450,000 people were making Max Yasgur’s farm unforgettable as Woodstock Nation. The No. 1 song, however, was the apocalyptic “In the Year 2525” by Zager and Evans. American troops in South Vietnam could more relate to that: On August 12 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops had opened a new Tet-like offensive, with attacks and bombardments on 150 cities, towns, and bases, including a firefight at the 1st Marine Division headquarters. American and ARVN troops fought hard and beat back the enemy.
But perhaps the most amazing event of that moment was beginning in Laos, where a ragtag tribal army mobilized by the CIA was about to deal North Vietnam one of its worst setbacks of the Indochina War.
The Hmong tribesmen of the CIA’s armée clandestine (“secret army”) were led by Gen. Vang Pao with CIA advisers at his side. They were the best troops on the government side in the Laotian civil war. Nevertheless, a victory of huge proportions seemed unlikely.
Military campaigns were ruled by the weather, with the North Vietnamese and the Laotian communists (the Pathet Lao) on the offensive when it was dry (usually October-March or April) and government forces riposting during the monsoon (April-October). During the dry season, the North Vietnamese had mounted a big offensive and captured all of the strategic Plain of Jars. They had kept going even after the rains started to complete their sweep by capturing the key base of Muong Soui. They were strong. The North Vietnamese had artillery, tanks, armored personnel carriers, trucks, and trained units.
When Vang Pao told the CIA back in 1960 that he could bring in ten thousand Hmong to be trained, the American operatives were stunned. The CIA mobilized them under Project Momentum. By 1969 there were more than that, plus secret army units from other tribes and Laotian factions. Despite enmities between the tribes and the lowland Lao, the Hmong partisans fought on. But a decade of war had taken its toll.
In 1968 alone the secret army had suffered 2,663 dead and 2,051 wounded. The new year was already on track toward an equal number of dead and even more wounded. The entire strength of the CIA’s Hmong army was slightly over 30,000, so the losses were hardly tolerable. Station chief Larry Devlin, accompanying Vang Pao at a typical troop inspection, encountered some older Hmong and a lot of teenagers—the fighters in between had largely perished in the secret war.
There was reason to believe that the North Vietnamese and the Pathet Lao were no pushovers. As CIA Director Richard Helms warned President Nixon on July 18, 1969: “The North Vietnamese now have the option, if they choose to exercise it, of provoking a most serious political crisis in Laos.”
A large concentration of North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao forces were in place near Muong Soui: 19 battalions (7,900 troops) with 60 tanks. They probed toward the west. The roads linking Vientiane and Luang Prabang, the Laotian political and royal capitals, and the Plain of Jars were their targets. A smaller but still significant concentration of enemy troops—seven North Vietnamese and two Pathet Lao battalions—were at Xieng Khouang, in the heart of the Plain of Jars. The tanks plus several battalions had come straight from North Vietnam; most of the rest were of the 316th Division. The Hmong had withstood their attacks at Bouam Long, but an offensive that Vang Pao attempted, Operation Off Balance, had flopped.
Now the Hmong general wanted to try again. He plotted a new offensive. This is what led to the amazing victory.
OPERATION REDEEM HONOR
Vang Pao called the operation “Kou Kiet” (Redeem Honor). Americans knew it as “About Face.” It was conceived as a Hmong ground operation that would force the North Vietnamese to concentrate troops, who could then be plastered by U.S. air strikes. The 7th/13th Air Force, which ran the air war in Laos, allocated 200 sorties a day. Air attaché Col. Robert L.F. Tyrrell, station chief Devlin, and 7/13 officers planned the effort, originally scheduled to begin July 26.
The first problem was the rain. The standard practice in Laos was that the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao attacked when they could move trucks along their supply lines, while the Hmong and government troops, who could move on helicopters, were active in the monsoon. In 1969 the North Vietnamese Army kept attacking after the monsoon started (the last portion of the Muong Soui battle took place then), but then they had to stop. Melvin L. (“Smoky”) Greene, a forward air controller stationed at the secret army base of Long Tieng, gives the flavor for the monsoon that season: All the controllers, called “Ravens,” lived in a team house, and he felt that if he stepped outside, the rain would literally drive him into the ground. The Ravens had a movie, The Ten Commandments—actually, just its second reel. Ravens watched that fragment at least ten times, even playing it backwards. The monsoon poured down 46 inches of rain, not the usual 16.
Nothing moved. The monsoon wrecked the NVA’s strategy. Greene remembers that GIs in South Vietnam sometimes called Laos “Neverland,” and it may well have been—the NVA had moved its supplies forward so they would be ready for the next stage of fighting, then the rains paralyzed the system so they could neither issue supplies nor withdraw them. When the Hmong attacked, the NVA supplies were there for the taking.
Vang Pao had been disappointed at the failure of Off Balance, but was enthusiastic about the new initiative. The CIA sweetened the pot, re-equipping a half-dozen of his best units with new M-16 rifles and deploying a squadron of eight Hmong-piloted T-28 fighter-bombers forward at Long Tieng for the first time.
Airlift support came from the CIA proprietary Air America. The CIA alerted its Raven and Air America crews in early August that About Face was about to begin. Commanders made their final checks at Udorn, Thailand, on August 11. The CIA flew Vang Pao down for the conference, which included 7/13 commander, Gen. George Brown.
The ground op was now set for the 15th, which seemed doubtful—Air Force meteorologists believed the rain would continue for several more weeks. Vang Pao breezily assured everyone that the weather would be fine. Karl Polifka, another of the Ravens at Long Tieng, recalls “the miserable weather in which we had been struggling disappeared overnight. That day was bright with sunshine in a nearly cloudless sky.” Polifka credited Vang Pao with the ability to see into the future.
The Hmong called the CIA “Sky,” and the Sky chief at Long Tieng was Thomas Clines, recently sent up from Udorn, where the agency had its command center. Maj. Joseph W. Potter led the Air Force contingent, which included the Ravens and maintenance personnel for strike aircraft. Closer to Vang Pao was his case officer, Burr Smith (call sign “Yellow Dog”), a veteran of the famous Band of Brothers of the 101st Airborne Division of World War II.
Vang Pao, Smith, and Clines concocted a scheme to distract the enemy by choppering several units into their rear, threatening a battalion stationed along the NVA supply route. That idea worked well. Polifka, who was directing aircraft in that sector, saw the enemy waver. The North Vietnamese abandoned their positions as the Hmong fighters closed in on them.
Major clashes proved few. At first, there was resistance, especially around Muong Soui, but then the North Vietnamese melted away. On the Plain of Jars they left the Pathet Lao to do the fighting. Vang Pao had selected eight of his Special Guerrilla Units—what the CIA called the Hmong battalions—for the assault onto the Plain of Jars. On August 27 they entered the Plain itself.
Only two units encountered significant resistance, and air strikes countered that. Polifka thrilled to see Hmong fighters walking upright across the Plain as if they were on a routine march. Several days later Richard E. Diller, flying a Skyraider A-1E on a combined Raven-armed reconnaissance mission, aborted his attack run upon learning the lights he saw on the Plain were Hmong, not the enemy.
Gen. Vang Pao showed his prescience again one day in late August. He’d gone to Vientiane with Air America for a conference on About Face at the U.S. embassy. At the airport afterward he boarded his helicopter, then got off. “Not this plane,” he said. “Not today.” He reached Long Tieng on a different helicopter. The first one exploded in mid-air.
About Face marked a big push for the Air Force. The first month it contributed 4,132 sorties, or 137 per day. Of the attack missions, 62 were supported by “Combat Skyspot,” a range instrumentation radar that had replaced the one lost at Lima Site 85. Every night several of the new blockbuster AC-130 “Spectre” gunships joined the fray. Airmen called them “Great Laotian Truck Eaters,” which gobbled up dead trucks overnight so the next morning recon planes could not find them.
In September the Air Force added 4,323 more sorties, and the Laotian Air Force 1,831 more. Toward the end of the offensive 7/13 Air Force adopted a new tactic, “Snare Drum,” which sought to counter the enemy practice of using the time just before dawn or just after dusk to take care of essentials when few attack planes were around. Under Snare Drum, a formation of sixteen to twenty-four F-4 fighter-bombers would clobber an area with a mixture of 500-pound and cluster bombs. The planes would make a single pass, guided by a Raven from Udorn. An RF-4 photo plane would follow, trying to beat the Truck Eater. The first Snare Drum raid took place on September 11. The CIA pronounced it a resounding success.
Every sortie was guided by a forward air controller. Raven Greene recorded 140 flights of aircraft in August and 109 in September. The others did just as much. Daniel Davis was killed when his light plane (an 0-1 Bird Dog) collided with an F-105 jet. Four of the eleven Ravens at Long Tieng were downed during About Face, and only one was rescued.
Around mid-September the Hmong took key villages at the center of the Plain of Jars, and on the 19th the secret army captured a cave complex that had been the Pathet Lao headquarters for all of northern Laos. Everywhere the Hmong captured enemy supply dumps, some in caves. One contained a hundred tons of ammunition. Another had 22 trucks.
The Air Force had bombed many of the dumps, with varied opinions as to accuracy. Rich Diller, the A-1E pilot, recalled: “We had a hard time determining how much damage we were inflicting on the bad guys, but we probably zapped a lot of them.” Vang Pao remained a great believer in air support. His standard demands were “Air!” or “More Air!”
Air was certainly ineffective against enemy supplies in caves—and some argued under any circumstance. One CIA officer went into a valley the North Vietnamese had abandoned. He found ten ammunition dumps and a truck park with fourteen vehicles. All were surrounded by bomb craters but remained untouched. He wired them for demolition.
Air America hauled out some of the supplies from the Plain of Jars, and the Lao moved some by truck. North Vietnamese prisoners, chained to their seats, were made to drive some of the captured tanks. But a huge quantity of supplies was destroyed in place.
The Hmong took in 6,000 weapons, 5 million rounds of ammunition, 113 vehicles, and 25 tanks in Operation About Face. According to a CIA special national intelligence estimate, the vehicles raised the overall tonnage captured to 640 tons of weapons and 2,563 of ammo. In comparison, in the much-ballyhooed U.S. incursion into Cambodia the following year, MACV forces captured 317 tons of weapons and 2,142 of ammunition.
Vientiane rejoiced at the victory, the greatest of the Laotian war, but there were scant possibilities for the long term. The Hmong were thin on the ground. At the end of their offensive there were still several NVA regiments in the field, and Hanoi had begun to bring elements of its 312th Infantry Division into northern Laos.
The new year brought renewed enemy attacks on the Plain of Jars. In February, Special National Intelligence Estimate 58-70 predicted: “The available evidence strongly indicates a vigorous Communist campaign during the present dry season. The extent of their military preparations suggests that the Communists may also intend to move against the major Meo [Hmong] bases and eliminate Vang Pao and his forces once and for all.”
The cycle of the Laotian war would be repeated once again.
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