Knife 61 and Knife 62 were shot down during Operation Junction City, Junior. (Don’t confuse this with the US Army 1967 “Operation Junction City.” The ’67 operation was named after the Kansas town, “Junction City.” Google it, and you’ll find lots of info.)
Perhaps the name for this operation (Junction City, Jr.) was well chosen because the goal was capturing the city at the junction of Ho Chi Minh Trail (HCMT) Routes 9 & 23. Route 9 came into Xepon from the east, and Route 23 was a main artery to the southern portion of the HCMT. The town was Muang Phin (also spelled Phine amongst others.)
Road Watch Teams (Operation Shining Brass/Prairie Fire) had unconfirmed reports of American prisoners held near Muang Phin. These reports were more rumors than actual intelligence. Verification of those reports didn’t matter. With the possibility of prisoners, CIA planners came up with Operation Junction City, Junior. The initial goal was a “hit and run” attack to disrupt NVA logistics and sweep the area for any prisoners.
(Note: Shining Brass/Prairie Fire is another worthy “rabbit-hole” to go down. Perhaps I’ll go there soon.)
The CIA did most of the planning. It involved elements of all allied forces in the region: USAF helicopters, Raven and Nail FACs, Candlesticks (C-123 flair aircraft), and A-1 Skyraiders; The Royal Laotian Army (RLA) and Air Force (RLAF); and Thai mercenaries with their supporting aircraft.
Of particular note is Hmong “Special Guerrilla Units” (SGU) deployed in the operation. They were fresh from their victory, recapturing the Plain of Jars (PDJ) in Northern Laos. There were other SGUs within the RLA, and some documentation doesn’t call out if they were Hmong. Instead, the documents refer to “indigenous SGUs.” However, I’m pretty sure the SGUs were mostly Hmong units during this operation.
The operation began on 1 Sep 69. USAF helicopters from the 21st SOS and 20th SOS started ferrying indigenous troops to the area. (The 20th SOS was merged into the 21st SOS on 5 Sep 69. After that, the rest of the helicopter support for Operation Junction City Junior missions were under the banner of the 21st SOS.) Three battalions of SGUs landed in the area near Muang Phin. While I couldn’t find specific numbers, that was probably about 1000 SGU troops.
Moving overland, the SGUs fought initial strong resistance. However, twelve A-1s and two Nail FACS (23rd TASS) were fragged each day to support the operation. With the massive air support, the SGUs occupied Muang Phin on 7 Sep. One source also credits part of the success to the Thai mercenaries.
During the operation, 2,000 tons of ordinance, mortars, machine guns, etc. were found in and around the village. Supply dumps and other NVA sites were captured or destroyed. However, searches found no prisoner of war camps.
For the first time in 7 years, the Royal Laotian flag flew over Muang Phin. Royal Laotian Army officers and officials were optimistic and wanted to expand the operation. With optimism running high, they moved in regular RLA troops intending to occupy the village indefinitely. The plan also expanded to deploy SGU troops toward Xepon. The new goal was to cut Route 9 of the HCMT and raid supply bunkers in Xepon.
For the rest of September, the plan went reasonably well. Air-power supported the thrust toward Xepon. Raven and Nail FACs directed A-1 close air support for the SGU ground troops. Helicopters of the 21st SOS evacuated farmers and refugees loyal to the Royal Laotian Government. Depending on the source, they evacuated between 1300 and 6000 farmers with their families. The farmers took with them chickens, pigs, and other stuff. (Perhaps one of the 21st SOS guys reading this can confirm the story about chickens and pigs.)
The NVA stopped the SGU’s advance toward Xepon. And when the NVA threatened to counterattack Muang Phin, the regular RLA abandoned their positions. One source called it, “unorthodox friendly maneuvers.” In other words, panic. Soldiers of the regular RLA were known for their poor fighting capability. Few were willing to risk injury or death. They were happy to take their pay, financed by the US, but for them, it was nothing to die for.
I wasn’t able to determine the exact timing of the RLA “retreat.” Of importance here is that by 6 Oct, the RLA had pulled out… and the NVA moved back in. That’s when an attempt to reinforce the area with Hmong SGU troops began. Military intelligence, or perhaps CIA intelligence (“intelligence” used loosely), believed “friendly” forces held the area around the airstrip at Muang Phin (LS 300). As the five helicopter armada with the SGU reinforcements on board began to approach, they found out differently.
The landing site the helicopters intended to use had been used frequently by friendly helicopters for the last few weeks. But this time, the NVA had a trap set. Some believe that they had advance warning. Whatever the case, as the armada of CH-3 helicopters from the 21st SOS began landing, the NVA opened fire. In the action that followed, two helicopters, Knife 61 and Knife 62, were shot-up and crash-landed. All eight crew members and the SGU troops survived the crash landings.
A SAR immediately began and lasted most of the day. In the end, the US crew-members and SGU troops were rescued. While there were a few wounded, there was only one SGU troop killed. More men were saved during this SAR than any other during the war. Again, sources differ, but eight Americans (for sure eight) and about 50 Laotians were rescued.
Without reinforcements, the remaining RLA forces around Muang Phin retreated. That left the Thai mercenaries isolated, and they were forced to withdraw. Operation Junction City Junior fizzled out a few days later.
Most believe the operation was a success. All of the original objectives were achieved. The original plan never intended to hold Muang Phin. In and around the village, NVA arms, supplies, and storage areas had been destroyed. The NVA and Pathet Lao paid a heavy toll with one estimate of 500 killed and 45 captured.
Since portions of the SGU units made it to Xepon, and even though they did little damage before being pushed back, one has to ask; could we have shut down the HCMT at the time? Muang Phin was on the Southeastern flank of Xepon. A larger, more effective force could have held there. And yes… an even larger force would have been needed to take and hold Xepon. But the operation was close to blocking the HCMT as it was.
If Muang Phin had been held, the HCMT would have been blocked toward the south. And if Xepon had been captured, the Trail would have been blocked to the east. Even if it took US “boots on the ground,” interdiction could have been accomplished… the result would have been…
But there I go again… trying to re-write history. None of that happened. The NVA forces in Laos grew to over 40,000 troops in the next 18 months. Some estimates put that number as high as 60,000. Sixteen months after Operation Junction City, Junior, the South Vietnamese army tried to capture Xepon with over 16,000 troops. They failed.