DISASTER AT SITE 85
Chapter 6 of "Honored and Betrayed"
Major General, USAF Retired
I was privileged to have been inducted into Jungle Jim/Air Commandos with Dick Secord in 1961 through the selective processing at Randolph AFB, Texas and the USAF Survival School at Stead AFB, Nevada. He is a member of the Air commando Association(ACA) and graciously gave us permission to use Chapter 6 from his book to use on the ACA home page. If anyone has comments on this page please e-mail them to email@example.com.
In early 1967, Bill Lair and I took refuge from the stifling heat of the summer monsoon at the 7/13th Air Force headquarters at Udorn in a briefing led by four-start General Hunter Harris, commander in chief of the Pacific Air Forces. On the agenda was an important new ground-based radar bombing system called Commando Club that promised to revolutionize the air war over North Vietnam.
The heart of the system, called TSQ-81, was SAC's Skyspot radar bomb scoring system, used for years to predict bomb impact points from simulated drops in training. Now, the same system would be used to radically improve all-weather bombing accuracy in tactical fighter "route packages" in North Vietnam, especially from October through April, when the enemy normally received a respite from sustained aerial attacks due to monsoonal weather. Attacking planes would simply follow the ground system's voice commands to weapons release: "Ready, ready, now!" and all the pilots would drop their bombs together.
To help safeguard the installation, secure voice transmissions would be made from the TSQ to a command and control airplane (usually a C-135) that would relay the bombing commands to strike aircraft in either code or plain English, making it appear as if the radar instructions were coming from the plane instead of the ground.
They system's biggest drawback was its location. To get the best accuracy, the ground station had to be as close as possible to its targets. The development team had already picked out a candidate site on mount Phou Pha Thi, a steep 5,500-foot ridge located about 30 miles southwest of the town of Sam Neua and a equal distance from the North Vietnam border to the northeast. Most important, the site was less than 150 miles as the crow flies from Hanoi.
We already had a 600-foot STOL strip three-quarters of the way up the mountain for resupplying local Meo guerrillas and a TACAN station (tactical air navigation system, which broadcasts azimuth and slant-range information to planes in flight) and a low-frequency radio beacon on the summit, which the CIA called "Site 85." Adding the new compact TSQ equipment by helicopter would present no special challenges, but it would sure increase the site's attractiveness to the enemy if they ever found out what we were up to.
That raised the practical problem of security.
Site 85 was pretty remote and surrounded by unbelievably wild terrain. That would insulate it a bit from surprise attack, and the C-135 decoy ship would probably fool the enemy for a while, but hostile action wasn't our only concern. Laos was officially neutral, and the TSQ-81 represented a major escalation in a war that technically didn't exist. It also had to be manned around the clock by about 15 technicians who were rotated weekly from a cadre of 40 workers based at Udorn-a major new complication. The U.S. ambassador, William Sullivan, warned everyone involved to be sure that no violations of the 1962 Geneva Agreements guaranteeing Laotian neutrality haunt us, but at the time, the political concerns were the least of our worries.
As usual with technical projects, implementation responsibility for Commando Club on Site 85 fell to me, with assistance from Tom Clines. Our main job, in addition to clearing additional space on the white karst limestone mountaintop and heavy-lifting in new equipment, vans, and prefab crew quarters, was to defend the site from ground attack, and therein lay the rub.
One company (about 100 men) of Thai infantry was all we could obtain for full-time perimeter defense, plus a contingent of several hundred Little Guys-Meo irregulars-which would be adequate to foil NVA patrols and provide a trip wire for a large-scale assault, but little else. Because Bill saw right away that ground forces would be marginal, he and Tom agreed to alternate CIA case officers on site as tactical commanders, a very rare thing to do. Given that air power would be the major component in a serious confrontation, and because the whole project was obviously an "Air Force baby," I was the staff officer assigned overall responsibility for Site 85's defense.
My first glimpse of Phou Pha Thi had been in 1966. The place was right out of a travel poster. The crest ran northwest to southeast straight out of a lush valley filled with opium poppies waving scarlet in the breeze. Our elevated landing zone gave us a good view of the surrounding terrain, including the mouth of the valley to the northeast, the direction from which a North Vietnamese attack would most likely come.
Just to be cautious, we assumed that even if the enemy didn't figure out the site's function, all our activity-helo flights and construction and the presence of significantly more personnel in the area-would tip the NVA off that something big was going on, and they might try to neutralize the site on that basis alone. Therefore, one of the first things I did was to formally request through channels a unit of U.S. Army Special Forces (even a squad would do) to guard the site. That meant going through the embassy in Vientiane, which meant a run-in with Ambassador William Sullivan.
Sullivan, in my opinion, was one of those State Department careerists who could be dangerous precisely because of their outward air of competence and authority. In Laos, we CIA guys called him "Field Marshal" Sullivan because he constantly micromanaged military ops. We (CIA and the Air Force) would dogfight with him often on the validation of air targets--what we selected for strikes and why. He and his staff frequently vetoed our plans out of what I thought was a needless fear for civilian casualties--a good instinct, but only when you can separate fact from fiction, which they never seemed able to do.
For example, any time our photo recce showed a target in the general vicinity of anything with a roof, the embassy vetoed the bombing because it was "too close to a village." This was usually a needless precaution. When the NVA parked their trucks or dumped their material near a populated area, hoping to preempt an attack, the civilians would evacuate, knowing that we knew they wouldn't hang around to get blown up. this is aversion/survival training of a very low order. But the embassy people just never got it through their heads that "the natives" were at least as corrigible as Pavlov's dogs. This useless and arbitrary ground rule on hitting only "embassy-approved" targets was to cost us dearly in the coming months, particularly during the monsoon when the ability to visually isolate targets is drastically reduced.
Sullivan rejected out of hand our request for even a tiny contingent of SF troops to reinforce Site 85. He believed that if Washington wanted Special Forces to get in the act, it would have said so in the directives, which it had not.
His concern, of course, was political. Nobody minded Thai soldiers roaming the woods, and the Meo, after all, lived there. But American combat troops on the ground were verboten. Even the American technicians manning the site had been sanitized. They were what the USAF called "sheep dipped" --U.S. servicemen with critical skills posing as civilian contractors on a volunteer basis. That, apparently, was as far as Mr. Sullivan was prepared to go.
With the U.S. ambassador intransigent about using American ground forces to defend Site 85, I could see no way to hold it in the face of even moderately determined NVA assault. My reaction was to draft a straightforward plan to get our guys out of there and destroy the classified equipment if things turned sour. This evacuation plan was based, in part, on provisions made by the CIA's TSD, the Technical Services Division (the "burn, blast and blow" guys) who seeded the entire site with claymore mines and other pyrotechnics to be activated around the perimeter when an attack began, and later at the summit if the place was declared indefensible and our people had been removed.
Unfortunately, TSD's provisions turned out to be mostly smoke and mirrors. Tom Clines inspected the portion of their work at the base of the mountain designed to act as an enemy "trip wire" and declared that, with a little artillery support, he could take the hill "with a troop of Boy Scouts." Again, we requested Special forces through the ambassador. Again, we were denied.
My next step was to get several USAF A-1 Skyraider pilots into the area to familiarize themselves ahead of time with the terrain, likely target locations, and the disposition of friendly forces, such as they were. If history was any guide, the NVA would sneak up and attack the hill at night or in bad weather, hoping to neutralize our air advantage. I wanted our pilots to know that region like the back of their hands--not only to defend the Thai and Meo positions, but to make sure our extraction choppers got in and out and to punish the enemy as much as possible in the process.
That, basically, was my plan for the defense of Site 85. It was less a battle plan than a non-battle plan, because nobody I talked to, including the guys who wrote the book on jungle warfare up north, gave the troops a snowball's chance in hell of surviving a determined NVA offensive, let alone one that would be conducted virtually in the enemy's own backyard.
I added to my plan what I thought was an innocuous but important addendum: arming the civilians. But when I brought it up with the embassy, the reaction was predictable.
"What? You want to arm the civilian, contract employees? Forget it. Civilians don't carry guns. That's a violation of our policy."
This was too much. it was one thing to send sheep-dipped Air Force techs out into a storm; it was another to leave them there without raincoats.
"At least give them a fighting chance to get to the evacuation area," I pleaded to my superiors, but my protests were shrugged off. The ambassador had decided: better a clean corpse than one found clutching an M-16 with Army serial numbers.
There wasn't much I could do about the Special Forces, but there sure as hell was something I could do about small arms. On my own authority, I drew 40 M-16s from USAF stock at Udorn, plus a number of CIA-issue Browning autopistols and cases of hand grenades (and lots of ammo) and delivered it to the case officer on-site with instructions for him to give the "civilians" a little refresher training in small-arms handling and marksmanship. I told the commander of the 7/13th Air Force, as senior military officer directly involved with site defense, I had determined that the men in or associated with my command were in jeopardy and I wasn't going to let them face the Pathet Lao or North Vietnamese regulars without some means of defense. he listened to my speech, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, "Dick, we're with you."
It was refreshing to find an ally; particularly since that commitment would soon be put to the test.
Late in 1967, two ominous events took place.
In the Panhandle, in a previously sacrosanct area, one of our TACAN sites was overrun by NVA and some real (not sheep-dipped) civilian contractors were killed. We didn't know it at the time, but the preparatory phases of the North's theaterwide and soon-to-be historic Tet offensive of 1968 were under way.
A second piece of bad news came to us in November in the form of throwaway data-something so minor that it is often overlooked even by diligent analysts. aerial photos showed what looked like a "trace," or the beginning of a mechanically cleared path, no wider than a goat trail, in the jungle about 25 miles from Site 85 at a place where several skirmishes had already taken place between NVA and Meo patrols.
I immediately arranged for FAC and CIA photo reconnaissance aircraft to take a closer look. The resulting evidence plainly showed that North Vietnamese workers were clearing brush and leveling terrain in an attempt to build a motorable road in the direction of Phou Pha Thi--a dagger aimed at the heart of Site 85. If it was allowed to get within 15 kilometers of the installation by the time the dry season commenced next spring, artillery could be brought up to blast the facility off the map. If they wanted to absorb the losses necessary to occupy the mountain, the enemy could use the road to bring up the men, supplies, and munitions needed for a large-scale infantry assault. Either way, we believed, the key to preserving the site was to stop the road in its tracks.
This discovery began a chain of events, known collectively as the Battle for Site 85 or the Battle of Route 602, that was subsequently documented in a variety of top-secret reports, one of which was recently declassified by the Air Force and called The Fall of Site 85, prepared, unfortunately, without the benefit of interviews with the CIA personnel involved. I reviewed this report, and although it is generally correct as to substance, it is full of factual errors and several mistakes in interpretation. I will attempt to set the record straight here. The disaster at Phou Pha Thi is a shocking story, a bitter pill that was tough enough for me to swallow at the time. It gets no sweeter in the telling. Still, it's a story that must be told, if only to let those who paid the final price rest a little easier.
Once the construction of Route 602 was discovered, Ted Shackley directed me to "stop the road." And that's just what we tried to do.
The official, embassy-approved defense plan for Site 85 went like this. If an enemy attack looked imminent--that is, once troops and equipment had been assembled within a reasonable striking distance--we were to notify the local Meo commander and, at the same time, request permission from William Sullivan's office for air strikes. Sullivan would then notify 7th Air Force in Saigon that the local commander had requested aerial support. However, at Sullivan's insistence, only after the enemy was actually moving would blanket strikes be authorized, and at that point, the TSQ-81 commander, acting as his own FAC, would open a voice channel and provide bombing coordinates to whoever showed up to help. Seventh Air Force was tasked to respond as circumstances and time allowed, even if it meant diverting aircraft from other missions.
The flaw in this plan, of course, was that the longer we waited, the more force would be needed and the greater the danger would be to our troops, let alone the top-secret equipment on the site, which included not only radar-bombing hardware, but encryption devices, codes, and software.
Naturally, I requested 7th Air Force support as soon as we spotted the road. Our goal was to whack 'em hard whenever they cranked up a tractor, to obliterate the construction in the early stages and make it crystal clear that we wold simply not tolerate a road in the area. Since the NVA was basically a "road-bound" army with no aerial support, this would preclude any movement of heavy artillery to the site and basically end the battle before it could start.
However, the response from 7th Air Force was underwhelming.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Secord, we have higher-priority targets," the strike coordinator told me--not once, but several times.
I finally replied, "You cannot expect us to hold this site unless you give us sufficient tac air to prevent the completion of the road!"
"Well, Mr Secord, what would you have us do--assign a whole wing to your operation?"
"If necessary, yes sir!"
"For the duration of the war?"
"If that's what it takes, you're right!"
"Well, I'm sorry, we just have higher-priority targets."
Long weeks passed; more calls. A few strikes were authorized, but the road crept further and further, like a cancer, toward Phou Pha Thi. We'd knock off a bulldozer or tractor and another would arrive the next day to take its place. Burned-out "Cats" littered its shoulder, like locust skins, but the road kept coming.
The enemy also began to show a lot of interest in not only the disposition of our forces around the perimeter, but also what was going on at the crest. Agents with cameras, posing as Buddhist monks, were apprehended near the summit, and on January 10, 1968, a five-man enemy patrol was encountered at the base of the mountain and dispersed. The NVA failed to get any substantive information from these forays, but it sure reinforced our conviction that the countdown had started for an assault.
In the middle of January 1968, one of the strangest episodes of the battle if not the entire war, took place.
Observers near the site spotted four dark green, propeller-driven aircraft, completely unidentified, flying northwest at about one o'clock in the afternoon. When the formation reached a point about 30 miles away, two ships broke off and made straight for Phou Pha Thi. The people on the summit identified them as old-fashioned Soviet-made An-2 Colts-single-engine biplanes right out of the 1930s.
The two aircraft maneuvered into attack positions and dove on the mountain.. As it turned out, one of our jet-powered Air America Huey helicopters happened to be en route to the site with a load of building materials. The site commander gave it a frantic radio call.
"Jesus Christ--firewall it, you guys! We're being attacked by airplanes from World War One!"
The Colts made three passes at the summit, raking the TSQ station with rockets and machine-gun fire. As they flew over, they dumped several bombs, killing two women civilians and two guerrillas, and wounding two others.
Then the Huey showed up.
The jet-powered helicopter was a little faster and a lot more maneuverable than the obsolete Colts, and its Air America crew chief leaned out the open door and sprayed the enemy cockpit with an M-16. The Colt pulled up abruptly, and fell off on one wing, and dove into the trees, exploding on impact. Meos arrived almost instantly on the scene, but little of any consequence was saved from the wreck, least of all the crew, which burned with the airplane.
While this improbable dogfight was going on, the second Colt lined up for its next pass. By now, all the troops on the perimeter, as well as everyone at the summit, had their weapons in hand and were banging away at the intruder. The second Colt roared in, shuddered under withering small-arms fire, and pulled up. It turned to the northeast but was losing power and didn't get far. After limping about 25 kilometers, it smashed into the trees while trying to clear a ridge. Meo guerrillas arrived at the crash scene shortly thereafter and found three dead crewmen, all Vietnamese, and numerous bits and pieces of the aircraft.
Our later analysis of this astonishing air raid--to my knowledge the only air strike ever launched against U.S. ground forces by the North Vietnamese during the entire war--revealed even more bizarre information. Witnesses at the site said the concussion of the "bombs" felt like 250s, but subsequent investigation by 7th Air Force G2 showed them to have been 120 mm mortars "converted" for aerial delivery--an ad hoc device that did not suggest significant new threat was arising from Hanoi's (principally interceptor) air fleet. The Rube Goldberg ordnance was dropped, in fact, by the third crewman through tubes in the fuselage and was armed by the force of air pressure in the windstream. The rockets had been conventional Soviet-issue 57 mm fired from pods, which could-and did--pack quite a punch.
If nothing else, this crude and costly "experiment" showed that Hanoi took the site seriously, was feeling our attempts to interdict the road, and was willing to try just about anything to knock us out. What worried me was what the enemy might try when such quick-and-dirty efforts failed.
After the air raid, Ted and Tom got the Thai government to contribute an additional company of volunteers to the ground defense, which was now augmented to about 400 men. The Thai commander was a former acquaintance of mine from West Point, and I'm afraid I embarrassed the hell out of him by greeting him by name on one of our frequent inspection tours of the site. He had adopted a nom de guerre for his covert work in Laos, and I sort of blew his cover--or would have, if anybody but 10-inch bugs, poisonous snakes, and his own guys had been around to hear it.
The addition of these Thai reinforcements made a big difference in our ability to hold the site long enough to evacuate the technicians and blow the Alamo, and I can tell you, everybody from the site commander on down to the lowliest Meo private was glad to see them. The U.S.S. Pueblo spy ship had just been seized by North Koreans, compromising a lot of intelligence equipment, and nobody was eager to have Site 85 follow in its wake.
We had been watching the Song Mai military district in North Vietnam west of Hanoi for months, waiting for the slowly massing battalions to make their move. We even knew the number of the units and the names of their commanders: two regiments of NVA regulars, about 3,000 troops--one of infantry and one of artillery drawing 85 mm divisional field guns. When it decided to take the field, it would be the largest concentration of heavy artillery observed in Laos since the siege of Dien Bien Phu against the French in 1954.
Now they were on their way, part of the general Tet offensive launched on January 30th throughout the entire theater.
Shackley sent a bulletin to "those listed" -- everybody who had any connection with the project -- stating flatly that the CIA could not guarantee defense of the site after March 10, 1968. How he arrived at this date, I'll never know, but he proved to be eerily prophetic. Naturally, the dispatch fell into a bureaucratic void.
Although we continued to fail in our requests for additional ground and air support, we couldn't just sit there and wait passively for the ax to fall. We told the local Meo commander to begin aggressive patrols around the perimeter, hoping to keep the advanced elements of the enemy forces off balance.
On February 18th, one Meo patrol managed to ambush and destroy an NVA survey party near the head of the road. They quickly searched the bodies and found they had bagged a field-grade officer in possession of a map that showed the NVA's intended artillery emplacements for the upcoming battle.
Naturally, this very valuable set of charts was whisked back to Udorn on the wings of eagles. I remember staring in disbelief at it. In elegant French, as if it had been inscribed by some student officer at L'ecole Polytechnique, were detailed specifications for the placement of every regimental gun and heavy mortar. In the margin were hurried pencil jottings in Vietnamese; and on the crest of the hill, high atop Phou Pha Thi, was a notation in ink, written in English: "TACAN." It did not mention radar, so the enemy -- or at least the poor guy who drew this map -- missed the whole point of the party. Yet here we were, about to go against each other hammer and tongs: me with a catch-22 order to defend our "highest-priority" site without dedicated air power or sufficient ground troops; and the enemy with World War II-era equipment and a lot of guts grinding out yard after bloody yard through the jungle guided by a French colonial map! Crying or laughing, you couldn't look at the thing for long without tears coming to your eyes.
As soon as we got this rosetta stone, I had the gun positions converted to bombing coordinates and told the powers-that-be what a gold mine we'd stumbled onto. I repeated my umpteenth request for air support -- this time asking for saturation bombings, including B-52s, if necessary, which up until now had never been used in northern Laos.
But the Tet offensive was nearing full intensity in South Vietnam. Once again my plea was rejected.
Meanwhile, Shackley's bulletin had drawn some attention, but not the kind we wanted. From over the heads of the Saigon commanders -- the same guys who were denying us air cover -- we received the following message straight from CIA headquarters in Washington:
"You will hold the TSQ Site at whatever cost. It is of vital importance."
The American Embassy, Vientiane, was so advised.
"if we can't have Special Forces, then at least give us a couple of experienced SF officers and NCOs," I asked -- begged, practically. "Give us a few guys right out of combat in South Vietnam, current in tactics and equipment, and let us put them on the summit. With a couple of guys like that, I'm confident we can at least hold the site long enough for an orderly evacuation and demolition of the facility."
Again, my request was denied.
By this time, Tom Clines and I were sleeping at the CIA building, with Pat and Bill spelling each other so that we would have command coverage -- somebody actually awake and at the helm 24 hours a day. It was just after sundown on March 10th -- I was getting a haircut in one of the offices -- when the voice of Evan Washburn, the CIA case officer in command of the TSQ site that evening, came over the radio.
"Jesus Christ! They're shooting artillery at us!" We could hear the incoming rounds explode behind his voice.
I ripped off the towel and ran back to our little command post. Weather reports showed that a pall of smoke from a local slash-and-burn agriculture had drifted over the area, which, in addition to scud and low ceilings, made air strikes very dicey, especially close to our lines. If this was, in fact, the start of a full-scale enemy assault, the NVA couldn't have picked a better time.
Without delay, I called 7/13th Air Force on the secure phone and asked for TAC air support ASAP. Seventh diverted a flight of F-4s, and, as we had rehearsed weeks before, they made some Skyspot-directed passes and actually knocked out some guns, but the visibility was really bad and it turned out to be too little, too late. In the absence of continuous and aggressive pressure from the air, the enemy had been allowed to set up their artillery, and rounds were now landing all over Site 85, setting off the defensive land lines and damaging the generators, cutting power cables, and generally wreaking havoc. Skyspot went off-line, and some technicians had to run outside and make splices, which, as we could well imagine, was like going up on a roof to repair a television antenna during a shrapnel hurricane. To make things worse, we couldn't get firm mission commitments from 7th, so when Skyspot was up, our aircraft often weren't, and vice versa, It was frustrating as hell -- and potentially fatal.
By now our only hope was that the weather would clear enough for us to sneak in the evacuation helicopters. General Vang Pao was airlifting some reinforcements up from the south, but there was no way they could arrive in time to help. I ordered the Air America guys to move the choppers we had earmarked for the mission northward to Site 36, which was several hours away. Of course, that damn cable from Washington kept staring us in the face -- hold the site at all costs. But heroism isn't suicide. Pat, Tom, and I were perfectly willing to withdraw our men, blow the site, and declare victory. However, time was now our shortest commodity, and I racked my brain trying to think of something that might buy us enough of it until the weather broke or the sun came up.
I called 7th Air Force again. "How about an AC-130 gunship?"
"We might be able to get a bird up from Udorn," a staff officer volunteered. "Let me see what I can do."
These gunships had been in the theater only a few months and were rapidly becoming the terror of the skies: mounting four 20 mm Gatling guns and in later versions, 105s and 40s as well. They spotted targets with low-light-level television and infrared, among other sensors, and so had a fighting chance to at least detect cannon and mortar flashes through the soup at Phou Pha Thi. That would be enough to aim the 20 mms and, for the NVA artillery under the resulting fusillade, that would be all she wrote.
However, word quickly came back down the chain. "Negative on the Alpha Charlie One Three Zero. It's got a priority mission on the Trail --"
"Then divert the sonofabitch!" I yelled. "Lemme talk to your boss!"
The authoritative voice of a colonel came on the line, but it was more of the same: The aerial dreadnaught was on a "mission with higher priority--"
Suddenly, the secure voice channel crashed -- went out of business -- as it sometimes did, but never before in an emergency.
I ran out of the CIA building, got in a car, and drove like a fiend to the other end of the base, where the 7/13th kept its headquarters. Ten minutes after I'd been cut off I was on the duty officer's secure line to the 7th Air Force in Saigon talking to the colonel's boss.
"Are you the officer who decided against giving us a gunship?" I asked.
The supervising duty officer, a brigadier general, replied, "We're working high-priority targets on the Ho Chi Minh Trail."
"Are you aware of Site 85? Are you aware of what it is? What the hell is your name?"
"I'm General Arnold R. Craig. Who the hell are you?"
"My name is Major Richard V. Secord, USAF, and I'm trying to defend Site 85 -- tell that to General Momyer!" In addition to evoking the name of his boss, the 7th Air Force commander, I added that a sizable contingent of American and Allied troops, and a ton of classified gear, was about to go down at Phou Pha Thi. I repeated my request as emphatically and urgently as I could and hung up. As I left, a dozen blanched faces followed me to the door. I paused and looked back at them. I was so angry and frustrated and so absolutely terrified at the bloody handwriting on the wall, that all I could say -- whisper to them, really -- was, "We're gonna lose the fucking site!"
I went back to the CIA building completely out of airspeed, altitude, and ideas. As soon as I walked in, Tom told me the artillery barrage had stopped, which was not necessarily good news. More likely, it meant the enemy's big battalions were moving up. Sure enough, reports began streaming in of fighting well within the defense perimeter, with some engagements a kilometer or two from the hill itself.
Still, Tom, Pat, and I worked the problem as best we could trying to think of something--anything--to get some tactical air in and our guys out. If prayers, drums, and feathered rattles would've worked -- cleared the skies over Phou Pha Thi or cleared the cobwebs out from between the ears of the commander of the 7th Air Force -- we'd have tried them. The secure channel came back on-line, but we had nothing new to say into it.
At three in the morning, we lost voice and teletype communication with the radar site on the summit.
We just looked at each other and thought, Oh shit.
But all was not lost. A few days earlier we had positioned an Air Force staff sergeant--a Sergeant Gary--at the CIA STOL strip two-thirds of the way down the mountain. He had a portable HF and an air-ground radio set and had been assigned to act as FAC for any planes that managed to get through to defend the site. I also figured he could coordinate the evacuation, if it came to that. Now we had more urgent things to do with his radio, provided Evan Washburn remembered it was there.
Within the hour, Evan came back on the air, speaking from Sergeant Gary's battery-powered radio at the STOL strip.
"The artillery's stopped," Evan said, "but-I can't believe it! We're picking up small-arms fire at the summit!"
Again we looked at each other, wondering what the hell was going on. With several hundred Meo and Thai veterans deployed around the mountain and a sheer cliff of a thousand feet on one side--not to mention the trip-wire pyrotechnics--there was no way an enemy assault force could've broken through that line without our hearing about it, let alone climbed to the summit without being seen.
Pat took the microphone and said, "Evan, get on top of that goddamn hill--and I mean right now. Take some Little Guys with you and find out what's going on."
I'm sure as far as Evan was concerned, that was going the wrong way, but he was a good troop, gathered up a squad or so of Meos from the defensive perimeter, and did as he was told.
While Evan was out reconnoitering we ordered Vang Pao's reserves north to Site 36 in anticipation of the general engagement that would probably follow the loss of the site. A large NVA force was now in the field and the weather was still dry; they would likely go looking for additional fish to fry. I sent our chief photo-interpreter, a great guy named Pete Saderholm who was popular with the aircrews, over tot he A-1 squadron to brief the pilots for a maximum effort against the enemy as soon as the sun came up.
"Tell them we're trying to get our guys out," I told Pete as he left the command post, charts and photos bulging under his arms. "And Pete, preach a goddamn holy war to those guys!"
He nodded that he would.
About four in the morning, we started receiving calls telling us that the 7th Air Force was now throwing "everything it had" into the defense of Site 85 beginning at sunrise. If it was true, the biggest danger to pilots over Phou Pha Thi would be midair collision, the sky would be literally be black with planes. Word had obviously gotten back to General Momyer from both up and down the chain of command that somebody had fumbled the ball. Now we were going to be embarrassed with too much "hep." We only hoped there would be somebody alive up there to benefit from it all.
I looked out a window and watched the sun come up. The A-1 Spads had long since launched, and the dawn broke with an eerie silence belying the hell breaking loose-or soon to break loose-200 miles to the North.
Before the sun's disk had cleared the horizon, Sergeant Gary was on the radio. The weather was clearing, he said excitedly, and it seemed as if every airplane in the world was descending, like a nest of angry hornets, on Phou Pha Thi.
While we waited to hear from Evan, Sergeant Gary narrated the battle, strings of 500- and 750-pounders crackling like firecrackers as he spoke. The winding road, Route 602, which had taunted and threatened us for so long in the distance was obliterated in the first minutes of the bombing. The sides of the hill facing the mountain, and most of the valley in between, were set ablaze or obscured by smoke from American bombs. Our
A-1s arrived, dropped their ordnance and loitered in the area, acting as FACs for the jet fighters-F-4s and F-105s- that streamed in from the south and east like an endless conveyer. One Skyraider was hit by NVA ground fire and pancaked on a hillside. The pilot didn't eject.
Where the hell was Evan?
After what seemed like an eternity, we found out. An hour after sunup, the evacuation helos landed and Evan came down with the Meos and five wounded technicians. They piled into the chopper, along with Sergeant Gary, and lifter off just as a burst of fire from NVA automatic weapons ripped open the helicopter's belly between the skids. The chopper shuddered but stayed in the air. One wounded and extraordinarily unlucky technician was killed, shot through the back as he lay on the aluminum floor.
As soon as they landed at Site 36, Evan checked to tell us how many guys got off the hill-only the six of them, plus the poor guy KIA'd in the chopper. He then hoped on a C-123 for an immediate flight to Udorn, which we met at the ramp. Evan limped off with a bandage around his leg. "A clean shot through the thigh," the medics told him. "no sweat."
He debriefed us right there on the amazing, chilling story of those last hours before dawn on the summit.
Shortly after three that morning, as Pat had ordered, Evan had taken 10 or so Meos and started up the hill toward the gunfire. Unfortunately, by the time he reached the summit, his skirmish line had dwindled to himself plus a couple of others; the rest hung back until they could see what they were getting into.
Immediately on entering the radar site, they surprised what appeared to be a squad of enemy sappers who apparently infiltrated the summit under cover of darkness and their own artillery barrage-the classic "troop of Boys Scouts" raid Tom had prophesied months before. Evan and his Meos opened fire and dropped most of them, then rooted out and killed several more after a stiff firefight during which Evan took the wound in his leg. Among the bodies they found many but not all, of the technicians, including five who were still alive. They had been surprised by the sappers but had fiercely defended themselves using the weapons we had provided.
Evan immediately dispersed the squad to search for more survivors or more enemy, telling them to be careful which was which. He himself went to the karst wall and was astonished to find two NVA setting up a sandbagged gun emplacement-the bastards had hoisted a heft antiaircraft cannon up the wall on straps! He raised his weapon, an automatic shotgun he always bragged about, but the damned thing jammed. The NVA saw him and dived for their rifles, but Evan had already yanked the pin on a grenade and got them both.
By this time the shadows themselves seemed alive, and Evan had no way of knowing how many enemy were actually on the summit, where they were coming from, or where they's pop next. He regrouped his Meos and withdrew with the wounded to the STOL strip, where the first rescue chopper found them shortly after sunrise.
Six Americans survived. Sergeant Gary was the only man among them escaping without wounds. Of the 10 left on the hill, most were confirmed dead by Evan, but a number were inexplicably MIA, even after a quick but thorough of the site.
Evan left for the USAF field hospital and we went back to the command post. The Air America fliers returned to recover bodies of the KIA and continued to withdraw Meo tribesmen and Thai volunteers from the perimeter, eventually extracting several hundred. Most of the casualties had been taken by the Thais, who bore the brunt of the fighting. The Meos, as usual, managed to escape relatively unscathed-but then nobody expected them to "stand fast" under the pressure of heavy infantry and artillery; that just isn't how guerrillas fight. Those Meos not withdrawn by helicopter broke up into squads and melted into the jungle, to reappear magically at Site 36 with the reinforcements under General Vang Pao himself.
Bill, Tom, and I now had two new and perplexing problems. With the demolition system damaged by artillery barrage, Evan had been unable to blow the site as planned. Destroying it should have become our highest priority, but we still had to account for the missing technicians, who might be dug in or hiding somewhere on the summit.
Although the aerial bombardment was still in progress against NVA in the valley, I ordered a CIA Volpar(a twin-engined reconnaissance bird) to photograph every inch of the summit and surrounding areas for cues to the possible location of the MIAs. If dead, their bodies may have been overlooked in the dark. If alive or wounded there would likely be signs of their survival and we could pluck them out with a chopper-unless, of course, the NVA had already captured them and removed them from the hill. It was only a matter of time before we'd have to reduce the site from the air, but I wanted to give those guys every second I could.
The Volpar's photographs, sadly answered our questions, but revealed yet another weird twist to an already unbelievable episode.
Most of the remaining technicians were found, apparently dead, on a small ledge a short way down from the summit on the karst wall. They had appeared to have descended there on aircraft tie-down straps (the straps Evan saw by the antiaircraft gun emplacement) in order to hide from the NVA. From the look of things, it was not a spontaneous decision but a maneuver planned in advance-unfortunately, without consultation with the site commander. These technicians apparently (and understandably) had little faith in the upper echelon's ability or commitment to save them, so they decided, in extremis, to help themselves. Unfortunately, their escape route may have been the very avenue the NVA used to infiltrate the site, or they may have hidden successfully only to be discovered later by the NVA gun crew on top. However it turned out, all had been killed, and we could only assume that those still missing fell over the narrow ledge after being hit. Unfortunately, with two NVA regiments still roaming around the base of the mountain, it would be a long time before a team could go back to search for the bodies.
This discovery at least allowed us to press ahead with the destruction of the site from the air. The next day, a flight of F-4s from the famous "Triple Nickel" (555) squadron roared in to take out the radar equipment, vans, and other facilities. Believe it or not, every last bomb they dropped missed the mountain entirely. To make matters worse, aerial recon now showed NVA all over the site, where they would remain for the rest of the week.
Ambassador Sullivan met with Laotian Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma on March 15 to give him the bad news: The sensitive facilities on Site 85 had not been totally destroyed prior to evacuation, and some Americans had been left behind-presumably killed but possibly captured, although this was unlikely.
Observers said Souvanna Phouma winced and replied that the enemy could make "some pretty damaging disclosures" if they wished.
By now the battle around Phou Pha Thi had become one of trying to demolish the site while punishing the enemy before they dispersed, and the latter was going much better than the first. For several days, radio intercepts showed some of the most gut-wrenching communications to come out of the enemy camp-no brevity codes, just guys terror-stricken, absolutely panicked, shell-shocked, and demoralized.
One of the most pathetic calls I read in translation came from what had apparently been an infantry batallion-level officer: "My men are gone. I'm the only one left. Can anybody hear me? Can I come home?"
You and me both, brother!
Finally, Bill and I gave up on the jets and asked for the propeller-driven assets to liquidate the site. The job was finally accomplished by a pilot named Bill Plank, an old AT-28 buddy from my first Vietnam tour. Flying nothing more sophisticated than an A-1 Skyraider, Plank stuck his prop in the weeds, stared down the gunsight, and-literally-blew off the top of the mountain.
Two days later, an Air Force lieutenant General, at the direction of Defense McNamara, arrived to take statements about the battle: what happened, what led up to it, why it turned out the way it did. The whole affair was classified top secret by both the CIA and Air Force and that wasn't likely to change, but at least the truth could be made available to those "with a need to know." Shackley met with the general, then the Udorn team, Pat, Tom, and me-and I unloaded on him.
I told him the loss of Site 85, which during its existence had directed over a quarter of all bombing missions in North Vietnam, had been a major disaster made worse by the loss of nearly the entire team and the compromise of our TSQ technology and a variety of top-secret encryption systems that we could only assume were now safely on the way to Moscow. Even more infuriating, the loss could have been prevented easily at any of a dozen decision points over the past few months, beginning with Ambassador William Sullivan's inability or disinclination to deal with the problem realistically. Numerous warnings had been sent from the Laos Station to 7th Air Force headquarters in Saigon, to CINPAC, and to Washington-the CIA and the Pentagon-about the deteriorating status of site defense, and a deaf ear was turned to them all. Instead of allocating assets needed to defend the site properly, or even withdraw from it in an orderly fashion, Washington had ordered us to "hold the site at all costs." Even worse, once the enemy attack was under way, critical assets were denied until the site had been rendered indefensible and timely extraction of the team and demolition of the sensitive gear was impossible.
"Surely you have misunderstood some of the commands and instructions," Mr. McNamara's inspector general said, looking very much like the forlorn, lonely soul he would be when-and if-he turned in this report. "I mean in the heat of battle, and all that. And you yourself admit you were exhausted in these final hours..."
"General," I said, "I've been in the field a long time. I've been in a lot of battles. And I'm telling you, this just doesn't happen. It never should happen. It can't happen. But it did. And it's up to you to do something about it." He and I both knew I was talking about gross dereliction of duty, or worse.
I'm sure neither he nor any other inspector general ever heard a lowly major talk that way about senior officers, and he left the room a very concerned man-at least as shaken, I hoped, as I was. Shackley couldn't believe what he was hearing, but he hadn't faced what we had that night. I figured that my career was finished anyway, so I had nothing to gain by mincing words.
Coming on the heels of Tet and the siege of Khe Sanh in Vietnam, this was something the high-ranking general didn't want to deal with. He took other comments, other interviews, then disappeared in a blast of jet wash back to Washington. I felt sure something productive would come from his investigation-too much was at stake; but Shackley, who had a bit more experience with the bureaucrats, wasn't as sanguine.
We didn't have the luxury of mourning our dead or crying in our beer for long. We still had a major enemy formation in our gut, and the regrouped and reinforced enemy regiments were bearing down on Site 36, the staging area for our rescue forces and our last significant site in northern Laos-a much contested strategic outpost we had dubbed "the Alamo." The air campaign continued, and General Vang Pao made and broke contact with the enemy several times, cat-and-mouse, exacting a toll in men and matériel at every encounter. But to Hanoi's big regiments, he was never more than a distraction.
Then on April 1st(no less), we heard that Lyndon Johnson had gone on national television and announced he would not seek reelection. Instead, he said he would devote his remaining months in office to securing an honorable peace in Vietnam. Along with this, he announced a unilateral bombing halt on targets north of the 20th parallel-Hanoi, Haiphong, an environs. We couldn't imagine this applied to Site 36, which lies north of the 20th, but in Laos, not Vietnam. We had to assume this omission was intentional-that nobody at the Pentagon, after the debacle of Site 85, would leave one of our strategic outposts undefended.
The battle for Site 36 intensified, and we called in requests for massive air strikes, including Arc Light (B-52) strikes, in its defense. In return, we received confirmation, from the director of the CIA, that the bombing halt meant a halt to all bombing north of the 20th parallel.
Incredulous, Tom and I flew up to Vientiane to meet with Shackley. He showed us a reply he had drafted to Richard Helms, director of the CIA, protesting the decree but basically surrending to the "inevitable." He asked me how I liked his cable.
"Frankly," I said, "I don't."
Tempers were a little short in those days, so Ted threw a yellow pad at me and said, "Okay, you write a better one."
I wrote a blistering message to Helms that Shackley actually sent over his signature. The gist of that message was this:
"We don't understand the referenced logic: How can we announce a halt to bombing north of the 20th parallel in Laos when officially we're not even fighting in Laos? Surely the President means to halt bombing north of the 20th in Vietnam, where the whole world knows we're engaged in a desperate war against Hanoi."
"Since neither we nor North Vietnam acknowledge that we are fighting in Laos, why should we tie our hands with a public announcement of this nature? Request confirmation regarding Arc Light strikes in support of Site 36, in your next communications."
We know this message was cycled by the White House, because a reply was quickly received from the Joint Chiefs of Staff(whom Shackley had never contacted with respect to B-52 strikes):
"Your request for B-52 strikes in Northern Laos is denied. However, 7th Air force is herewith directed to furnish friendly forces in northern Laos with up to 300 tactical air strikes per day until further notice and as required by CAS[which meant us at the CIA]."
We felt like starving men suddenly shoved into a banquet-relieved but overwhelmed. The day before yesterday I couldn't get 30 air strikes approved from Momyer. Today, I get more than we could reasonably target, at least in the short term. Perhaps the investigation into the Site 85 debacle had gone forward and was bearing fruit; we couldn't know. We had heard nothing from Washington and Ambassador Sullivan was strangely silent.
We moved fast before this sudden windfall could blow away. We redoubled our on-the ground and aerial intelligence efforts and appraised our Little Guys in the field of the approaching fire storm around Site 36. For the first time we were able to institute a truly "fused intel" program in which intelligence from all sources was combined in support of an integrated campaign plan. Our strategy was to hold Site 36 by air-the Meo just couldn't do it against Hanoi's regiments-and methodically reduce the enemy forces wherever they were found on the model of the massive counterattacks at Site 85.
After the attacks began, SI again submitted translated summaries of NVA horror on the ground: whole battalions eviscerated in an afternoon, companies in attack positions around the site simply disappearing from the map. For the first time in history, a position had been held and a large enemy main force destroyed utterly by tactical air alone-23 years before Desert Storm.
More than a victory over one disputed site, it ended for several years Hanoi's successful big-unit maneuvers in Laos. It allowed our Little Guys next year to recapture, under Tom's guidance, the entire Plain of Jarres, the strategic plateau in north central Laos that the NVA had held since the early sixties.
The rainy season finally began in June, ending Hanoi's ability to reinforce its units; and I have to admit, I had a feeling deep inside that the war had ended for me too. At home Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated. Peace talks had started in Paris but they soon stalled out. It was hard to keep a grip on who or what we were fighting for-what the war was about.
I was simply burnt out, like one of the earth movers by Route 602. From Tet on, I joined the legion of walking zombies who had held the American war effort together with baling wire and bile-and the blood of a lot of good men in the field.
We never received a copy of the inspector General's report. Perhaps there never was one. As far as the top brass knew-or even cared-the fall of Site 85 was just another combat loss. War is supposed to be hell, even when God is on your side.
Ted made me take one much-needed and much-deferred leave, and I didn't put up a fight. We left Tom Clines in charge of the store and all of us-Pat, Bill, a couple of other CIA officers, and me-went to Bangkok, got smashed, and tried to forget the last 12 months.
We were not entirely successful.
Shortly after our too-brief R&R, Shackley, Bill Lair, me and Tony Poe, a well-known case officer, were invited back to Bangkok for a secret ceremony at Thai army headquarters. There, the Prime Minister and his deputy presented us with the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant, Thailand's highest medal for farangs, as foreigners were politely called in that country, in honor of our "heroic defense of Phou Pha Thi" and other miscellaneous services for which the Thai government was suitably grateful.
I looked down at the ornate, gaudy thing on the pocket of my civilian jacket and whispered to Shackley, "Sonofabitch, Ted-this is the first time I ever got a medal for failing."
I could only hope it would be the last.