Sidebar 3: Heroes of the Alamo

I normally don’t cite sources since I don’t claim my stuff to be “scholarly work” with footnotes and all that crapola. After all… this is just us guys talkin’ while sippin’ on a Singha or shot of Mekong. (OK… these days my shots are tequila.) That said… I’m making an exception here because the sources don’t all agree on the facts. Most of the primary sources are listed at the end if you want to check it for yourself.

Cover of the CHECO report, “Second Defense of Lima Site 36.” Originally classified “Secret”

The NVA and Pathet Lao began serious attacks on LS-36 in Feb ’66. A few days before, they over-ran LS-27 about 10 miles north. A full-scale assault on LS-36 began overnight on 16/17 Feb. First the NVA overran an outpost about a mile to the south just before midnight on the 16th. Between 600 and 1,000 NVA/Pathet Lao moved quickly from there and began attacking the airstrip with mortars.

The next two days saw the kinds of events movies are made from. In the wee hours… still O’Dark-Thirty, an AC-47 (AKA Spooky, AKA Puff the Magic Dragon) held off the attackers until daylight. Then a FAC, Capt. Ramon Horinek, took off as small arms fire hit his aircraft. The Captain flew to LS-27 directing air strikes on the captors at that site.

When Capt. Horinek returned to LS-36, the strip was under full mortar attack. He directed air strikes to neutralize the attacks on the runway and landed with the aircraft again being hit with small arms fire. After landing, the Capitan ran to a nearby defensive trench and spent the rest of the day “FACing” air strikes.

Before noon, F-105s had delivered twenty-seven 750-pound bombs, eight pods of 2.75” FFAR rockets and thousands of rounds 20mm cannon ammunition. That stopped the attack… at least for the time being. At 17:30, Americans at the site (Including Capt. Horinek, two USAF weathermen and a USAF medic) boarded a helicopter and flew to LS-48a.

Again the next morning at O’Dark-Thirty, the NVA and Pathet Lao renewed the attack. And again, F-105 pounded them with 750-pound bombs, rocket pods and 3,000 rounds of 20MM cannon fire.

Capt. Horinek returned to the fight. It took him two attempts. First, he tried in a U-10 Helio Currier from LS-48a, but couldn’t land because of runway damage. He returned to LS-48a and finally made it to LS-36 by helicopter. He joined the RLA (Hmong) forces at their command post. From there he led the RLA across the runway where the Captain captured an NVA soldier virtually single-handed.

From there, Horinek carried a wounded Hmong soldier back to the command post and  began calling in air strikes to within 25 yards of his position.

VP showed up by helicopter. While assessing the situation, the attacking force recognized his helicopter and mounted a full assault against VP’s position. VP was wounded and evacuated to Korat in an Air America helicopter.

Because of the dire situation, the US Ambasitor (Sullivan) authorized use of napalm  for the first time in Laos. More F-105s dropped sixteen 750 pound napalm bombs on NVA/Pathet Lao positions. It wasn’t enough.

The NVA surrounded the site by late afternoon. There was a helicopter evacuation point on a hill north of the runway. The RLA troops began evacuating. Capt Horinek remained to “FAC in” strikes on the POL and ammo dumps as well as covering the evacuation. After evacuating all the RLA, Capt. Horinek was the last person helicoptered off the hill… just as the NVA overran it.

Air strikes were then used to destroy anything that the NVA could use. Again on the 19th, air strikes were brought in to destroy any remaining war materials. In total, 165 sorties were flown against the forces attacking LS-36. Even though the site was overtaken, the communist losses were so high that they did not occupy it until the 21 Feb.

For most of the war, Vang Pao’s strategy was: “Never attempt to hold ground against a superior enemy force.” Instead, “fix the enemy so that tactical air power could strike the massed NVA troops.” Here, the strategy worked.

“Although the Communists won the field, they may have lost the battle.”

                                          Closing comment, CHECO report 25 May 66

Captain Horinek was the one largely responsible for the Communist’s heavy losses. In ’65 he had been an A-1E pilot in the 1st Air Commando Squadron and volunteered as a FAC. He extended his tour and then volunteered to fly F-105s. In Aug ’67, he returned to Southeast Asia with the 333rd TAC Fighter Squadron at Takhli. For his bravery at LS-36, Captain Horinek was awarded the Air Force Cross.

On 25 Oct 67, then Major Horinek, was shot down flying a “Thud” against a MiG airfield northwest of Hanoi. He was captured and spent 1,967 days as a Prisoner of War at the hands of the North Vietnamese… three years of that were in solitary confinement. Besides his Air Force Cross, Capt. Horinek’s combat missions earned him 2 Silver Stars, and 3 Distinguished Flying Crosses. Following his return from Hanoi, he returned to flying status ultimately retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel.

LS-36
Pic of LS-36 from 1960s CHECO report. This photo was likely taken by an RF-4C following the over-run of the strip in Feb ’66. An RF-4C was used for photo recon to verify all assets had been destroyed.

Even though VP’s wounds were not life threatening, the Pathet Lao announced VP had been killed. So great was VP’s stature with his fighters, this greatly demoralized the Hmong. To revive their spirits, a tape was made by Vang Pao and played over government radio stations for three days.

In May ’66, VP’s Hmong forces attacked toward LS-36 and met heavy resistance. Butterfly FAC Charlie Jones directed air strikes for two days. The RLA recaptured LS-36 on 25 May’66. Retreating NVA were caught out in the open by air strikes… again FAC’d by Charlie Jones. Charlie Jones’ call sign was Butterfly 44. You’ll see more of him later.

Msgt Charlie Jones (Butterfly 44) talks over airstrikes with VP. Photo from Charlie Jones collection.

The Pathet Lao and NVA were not about to let that stand. It must have really given them the “mo-ho*” when Vang Pao took LS-36 back. In the late months of ’66, the NVA began a troop buildup in Sam Neua. CIA in Vientiane concluded they were likely to attack one of three Lima Sites: 36 or 52 or 85. They attacked LS-36.

* Mo-ho – Those of us at NKP believed the word (or maybe phrase) “mo-ho” meant, mad or angry. We thought it literally translated to “red ass.” I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I’m sure the communists really did have the “red ass.”

On 6 Jan 67, the NVA launched the attack when they thought a low cloud cover that day would protect them from air strikes. A force of 600-800 troops tried to infiltrate close to the main command post. However, an outpost detected them, and at 0600, the firefight began.

Hmong fighters defended the site with two American advisors. The communists closed to within 100 yards of the command post. One advisor, Don Sjistrin was killed “while trying to protect the back of the team house.” The other barricaded himself in the shack and called for air support.

The ceiling was down to around 200 feet. The karst in the area were taller than that and poked up into the clouds. At 0730 F-105s arrived on scene but were unsuccessful in getting down below the overcast. Somehow the flight lead, Lt. Col. Eugene O. Conley (Commander of the 354th TFS at Takhli) managed to get under the clouds and “snake” his way between the karsts to get to LS-36.

Because he was so low, Lt. Col. Conley could not deliver any ordnance. Instead, he lit his afterburners over the NVA positions… scaring the poop out of them. He continued to overfly the area lighting afterburners holding off the communists advance until he went “bingo fuel.”

Lt. Col. Conley was recommended for the Air Force Cross for this action. Fifteen days after his heroic actions at LS-36 was shot down and killed flying a mission thirty-five miles north of Hanoi… for which he was awarded the Air Force Cross

As the F-105s were leaving the area, two A-1s from the 602nd Fighter Squadron (Commando) arrived. They faced the same weather and ceiling problems the F-105s had. This time Major Robert E. Turner spiraled down through the clouds… hoping not to bump into the karst until he broke out at 5,500 feet. Just so you know, the tops of the karsts were up to 5,900 feet.

By this time the communist forces were on both sides on the runway, in a POL (fuel) storage area and in the trees on a third side of the field. They were also on the side of the hill next to the runway toward the command post. Maj. Turner started making passes firing 2.75 FFAR high explosive rockets, and short bursts with his 20 mm cannon. All while dodging hills and trees with each pass. He continued until he “went Winchester”… out of ordnance.

According to his wingman, Captain John D Haney, “Major Turner was down there for, altogether, probably 25 passes.”

Now it was Capt. Haney’s turn. Maj. Turner led him down through the clouds. Haney’s passes forced the NVA and Pathet Lao out of the compound, back across the runway and into the trees a few hundred yards away. Even though Turner was out of ammunition, he made passes as if to fire guns to “keep the communists’ heads down.” As they made their passes, both aircraft received battle damage from ground fire.

Together Haney and Turner spent over an hour bombing, strafing, and shooting high explosive rockets into the communists. This allowed the Hmong forces to counter-attack and establish a perimeter around the command post. As Haney and Turner finished, the weather began clearing. They had bought enough time for the “cavalry” to get there… in the form of a FAC, Butterfly 44, and two more A-1s; Firefly 11 & Firefly 12.

More A-1s arrived. By noon the weather cleared. Laotian T-28s, F-105s, F-104s came in throughout the day. Over 400 high explosive rockets, sixty odd MK-47 and napalm bombs, and over 25,000 rounds of ammunition were expended. (I have no clue what the Air-to-Air interceptor F-104 could have done, but the CHECO report says they were there.)

The NVA wasn’t finished. However… before they could attack the next day, the air strikes resumed. On the 8th, the weather was clear. A-1s… Sandy’s, Dragon Flies, Fireflies, and every other kind of flies… came in. Once again, Butterfly 44 directed the strikes and caused an estimated 250 KIA to the NVA.

For his action, Major Robert Turner was awarded the Air Force Cross, Capt John Haney was awarded the Silver Star, and 11 A-1 pilots were nominated for Distinguished Flying Crosses.

One of those receiving a Distinguished Flying Cross for the action, Major John S. Hamilton, received an Air Force Cross two month later for his actions during a Search And Rescue (SAR) for two downed F-105 pilots in North Vietnam. During that SAR, Major Hamilton was killed when the Sandy A-1E he was flying was shot down by a MiG-17.

As the next dry season approached (Dec ’67), the NVA again marshaled forces in the Sam Neua region. First on their agenda was LS-85 which they took on 11 Mar 68. Next, they overran other Lima Sites in the region, and The Alamo was in their cross-hairs next.

By late March, four NVA battalions (more by some reports) surrounded LS-36. When President Lyndon B. Johnson announced the halt in the bombing of North Vietnam, a request was made to support LS-36 with B-52 strikes. This was denied. However, since no missions were going “up North,” available F-105, F-4 jet fighters, A-1 Skyraiders, and Laotian T-28 aircraft pounded the NVA.

Depending on the report you read, up to 300 air strikes a day were flown against the communists. As the NVA was retreating, Ambassador Sullivan sent a request to Washington for B-52s to “cripple the Communists once and for all.” President Lyndon B Johnson denied the B-52s because he thought that might hurt ongoing peace talks with Hanoi. (This was March ’68 folks… the peace talks were going nowhere… the “Tet Offensive” was well underway. Johnson clearly had his head “up and locked.”)

In any case, LS-36 was “saved” with air power alone. There was no attack on LS-36 during the ’67-’68 dry season. In May and June, when the rains came, VP regained many of the lost positions.

The bombing halt of North Vietnam ordered by President Johnson had a profound effect on Laos. First, the portions of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in North Vietnam leading to Laos became the Ho Chi Minh Super Highway. The same applied to the roads to Northern Laos. Further, with the bombing halt, the North Vietnamese moved anti-aircraft defenses from “The North” to Laos.

As the ’69 dry season got underway, the NVA again moved toward The Alamo. This time with even greater numbers than before. By late February, the Hmong fighters had taken a beating losing many of the Lima Sites they had regained just months before.

On 28 Feb 69, the NVA attacked LS-36 with a full division. (One report says 2 regiments, another says 4,000 NVA regulars, and another report says, “overwhelming numbers,” and yet another says the Hmong and NVA forces were about equal.)

Whatever the actual strength was, the 1,500 Hmong defenders put up a good fight. They repelled two attacks. During that time, air power was called in and seemed to “blunt” the attack. Overnight, AC-130s (new to the theatre) supported the defenders. The A-26 Nimrods out of NKP were also “re-fraged” to support LS-36.

On a personal note, I specifically remember the re-frag. We had already loaded most of the aircraft for the night’s missions against the HCMT with the usual mix of ordnance. When the change came down, it was “ass-holes and elbows” downloading the existing weapons and loading a mix of hard bombs, CBU 14s, and napalm. Through the night we “humped out” with even the pilots helping us load the aircraft.

It was all for naught. On the third attack by the NVA, the defenders were forced to withdraw. Two battalions of NVA cut them off, and many Hmong were killed in the retreat. The Alamo would remain in the hands of the NVA.

Before the NVA overran the site on 1 Mar 69, 1Lt. Clyde W. Campbell of the 602nd Special Operations Squadron was supporting the defense of The Alamo. He was shot down attacking an NVA position 10 miles west of LS-36. No chute was seen… no beeper was heard. He was married and had two young daughters. Capt Campbell finally came home and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery on 21 Jun 2012.

Here are the main sources in no particular order:

  • The Ravens, Christopher Robbins: ISBN-13 978-0517566121
  • CHECO Report, “The Defense of Lima Site 36, 25 May 66
  • CHECO Report, “Second Defense of Lima Site 36, 28 Apr 67
  • Vietnam Air Losses, Chris Hobson: ISBN-13 978-1857801156
  • From a Dark Sky, Orr Kelly: ISBN-13 978-0891415206
  • Any Time, Any Place, Phillip D Chinnery: ISBN-978-1557500373
  • At War in the Shadow of Vietnam, Capt. Timothy Neil Castle: PHD dissertation, 1991; University of Hawaii.
  • The War in Northern Laos, Major Victor B. Anthony and Lt. Col. Richard R Sexton: Center for Air Force History
  • Air America in Laos – Unpublished notes, William M. Leary, PhD: professor University of Georgia.
    • Dr Leary passed away while working on this, his third book about clandestine “airlines.” His outline covers operations from 1954 to 1975 and includes interviewers with many of the “players”. There are twenty PDF files with his notes. The files are available online at the UT Dallas library. Beware of the rabbit holes this will send you down.

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