Finally… at long last, the government of Laos is opening its borders again to tourism!!! According to the Laotian Times, all border entry points will be open 9 May 2022. I’m already starting to plan again.
I’m currently targeting the next dry season… for now early January next year. Anyone interested in joining on this epic adventure should contact me immediately to be included in the plans and “dreamin’-n-schemin’. email to: email@example.com
During the “Secret War,” anyone who was there have their own memories of Christmas. Most of those memories stay locked away in the back of our brains and only come out for a few minutes during the holiday season. Maybe it’s on Christmas eve like it is for me. Or perhaps it’s Christmas day. Or for almost all of us, it’s when Bob Hope came to visit.
For me, and I suspect most, it’s all of the above. For those of us involved in the Secret War, there was no cease-fire. Every day was just like the next. There was no stopping the war. We flew the same number of sorties on Christmas eve and on Christmas day. There were trucks to kill.
The only thing that made the day any different was on Christmas Eve, we painted messages on the bombs to be dropped:
Merry Christmas Ho Chi Minh
Fuck You Ho Chi Minh
I’m sure there were more “pleasantries” painted on the bombs that day. Those are just two of the “nicer” ones. Yes… even “fuck you” was nicer than most others.
On the 24th, after 12 hours of loading bombs, we all went back to the hooch. After eating chow, I (we) spent the rest of Christmas eve getting staggering, stumbling, jibberish talking, falling down drunk.
On Christmas Day, we were back on the flightline at “OMG it’s way too early…” 06:00… still hungover and probably still a bit polluted with all we drank through the night. But somehow, and with a lot of help from Speedy Alka-Seltzer, all of the bombs were loaded and trucks were killed on the HCMT that night.
I bought this set of DVDs a few years ago. I often drag them out and play the segments from my year. Bob never fails to put a smile on my face. There’s something for almost everyone in all the segments. Clicking on the pic will take you to Amazon in a new window.
(Weasel words I am required to put here: this is not a “Pay-per-click” deal. However, I am paid a small (tiny) commission if you buy something you click on. This helps pay a small percentage of the costs to operate this site.)
My most vivid memory of the Bob Hope show was that I missed the last half. All of us in the 609th Load Section were sitting together. The Masters Sargent in charge of the section pulled us all out. We all moaned and groaned. We wanted to stay for the traditional singing of Silent Night.
But it was no use complaining. It was the dry season, and the trucks were running. The war and the Ho Chi Minh trail weren’t going to wait for Silent Night nor Bob Hope. There were bombs to load for that night’s missions. So as they were singing Silent Night at a distant part of the base, we were loading the bombs the A-26s used out on “The Trail” that night.
Although I know we had work to do… I still feel cheated that we didn’t get to stay to the end of the Bob Hope show.
“I want to make it clear to the American people, and to all of the world, that all we want in Laos is peace, not war—a truly neutral government, not a cold-war pawn, a settlement concluded at the conference table and not on the battlefield. Our response will be made in close cooperation with our allies and the wishes of the Laotian government. We will not be provoked, trapped, or drawn into this or any other situation, but I know that every American will want his country to honor its obligations to the point that freedom and security of the free world and ourselves may be achieved.”
PRES. JOHN F. KENNEDY, Press conference, State Department, March 23, 1961
With President Kennedy’s public stance, he could not take direct military action in Laos. Instead, the U.S. increased its covert activities by boosting its support of the Hmong guerilla units. Given the name “Special Guerilla Units” (SGUs), these soldiers were armed, trained, and paid by the United States. There were 9000 Hmong armed by 1962… 20,000 by the end of 1963.
As I get started here, I want to put out a few weasel words. You know, those words you say so you can deny anything and everything. These weasel words are; I have no first-hand knowledge of the Hmong people. Everything I know comes from books and the things I have read. I hope to gain some first-hand knowledge during the Great Ho Chi Minh Trail Ride.
As I go along, I’ll be putting up links to the books and other places for information I found useful in learning about the Hmong and the war. Click on the book image, and a separate tab will open up on Amazon, where you can check it out.
For much of this segment, information came from the book, Tragic Mountains by Jane Hamilton-Merritt. This excellent book not only chronicles the war but also gives you a feel for who the Hmong were… and are.
(More weasel words I am required to put here: this is not a “Pay-per-click” deal. However, I am paid a small (tiny) commission if you buy something you click on. This helps pay a small percentage of the costs to operate this site.)
After Laos was established as an independent country, a significant problem was a lack of national identity. Under French control, there was no attempt at Nation Building. The French were happy with things the way they were. They viewed the Laotians as mere peasants. The French were only interested in Laos because it provided a buffer to the west of their more lucrative interests… Vietnam.
With no national unity, the majority of Laotians identified primarily with their local region. They were grouped around their hamlets or villages. Few people ever traveled outside of their local areas. Most sources describe the people as “tribal.” I hate the word tribal because of some negative connotations that may have. But I looked up the meaning and found:
“a social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognized leader.”
Ok… with that definition in mind, then using the word “tribal” applies. For the Laotians, their loyalty was to the local leaders and clan.
Laos might be the last place you would expect a war. The people there are friendly and welcoming. Go into their town or hamlet, and you will soon be treated like family. For the most part, Laotians recognized that they were part of a Kingdom and gave deference to the King. But they were mainly loyal to their regional community.
The Hmong were different than the typical “lowlander” Lao. Yes, they were “tribal” by the definition. But with a population of around 300,000, that hardly made them what most would consider a tribe. Instead, they should be regarded as a “Nation.” By definition, a nation is:
“A stable community of people formed based on a common language, territory, history, ethnicity, or psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.”
As a nation, the Hmong go back thousands of years. First persecuted as a minority in China, they ultimately migrated in the 19th century to the mountainous region of what is now Laos. Seen as outsiders, the Hmong were an ethnic minority. Those of Lao descent treated the Hmong as second-class people.
I should mention that like any “nation,” The Hmong are not a homogenous group agreeing on everything. During the Second Indochina War, some joined sides with the Communist forces. That said, the majority joined the fight against the Pathet Lao and NVA.
There were [are] several different Hmong groups, or clans, organized by the region where they lived. The clans were often identified by the colorful ceremonial dress and headdress styles: Green, Blue, Black, Striped, White, Flower, and Red. They covered an area from northern Burma to northern Laos, northern Vietnam, and southern China.
What the Hmong wanted was to live peacefully without external effort to control and manage their affairs. They specifically wanted to be free from North Vietnam’s interference. The North Vietnamese had been their traditional enemy since the Hmong migrated to the region. Since the Pathet Lao were aligned with the North Vietnamese, the Hmong saw them (the Pathet Lao) as adversaries too.
“Do not worry about the words in Geneva, they are only words. Worry about the Vietnamese soldiers in Laos, They are real.”
A Hmong elder’s warning after the 1954 Geneva peace accords.
In the months and years following the Geneva peace accords, the French withdrew from Laos, and the United States gradually replace them. Only the Americans gave the Hmong and Laos any hope of stopping Uncle Ho’s goal of complete control of Indochina.
The war in the northern part of Laos centered around the Plaine Des Jares (Plain of Jars, or PDJ). The PDJ itself isn’t very large… only about 50 square miles. But it was the center of farming and trading in the region. Major routes in the area also ran either through or near the PDJ.
Zoom in on the map, and you’ll see why the PDJ was the center of the war in Northern Laos. From the east, Route 7 (from the North Vietnamese border) ran right through the middle of the PDJ. Route 6 from the Pathet Lao Headquarters in Sam Nuea junctioned with Route 7 only 30 miles east of the PDJ. Route 13 from the north junctioned with Route 7, about 40 miles west of the PDJ. From that junction, a force could have a straight shot down Route 13 to the Laotian capital of Vientiane.
The area of the PDJ is mountainous. The PDJ itself sits at an altitude of about 3500 feet. The “White” Hmong lived in the hills and mountains surrounding the PDJ. Their political leader was a man named Touby Lee Fong. Although Vang Pao (VP) became the Hmong’s military leader, it initially required Touby’s approval to go forward with the United States’ help.
It is important to note that it took an entire village’s decision to throw their support to VP. Men were reluctant to become full-time soldiers unless they knew their family would be taken care of. Sometimes, this meant that the families were evacuated to refugee camps. This took commitment by the United States to support the families of the men who took up arms.
There were many instances where all the able-bodied men would leave the village to join with VP. The villages they left behind would need support for food and supplies since the men were not there to work the fields. Supplies, predominately rice, were air-dropped into the villages by Air America. There were cases where the children of some villages did not know rice was grown in the ground. They believed it came from the sky.
Make no mistake about it, the United States did not have to persuade the Hmong to fight against the Communists. As the North Vietnamese began to invade their region, the Hmong wanted to do everything they could to stop them. To do that, they needed support from the United States.
Before the wars, they were mainly subsistence farmers. Vang Pao knew the Hmong’s traditional, independent way of life would not (and did not) survive under the Communists.
“For me, I can’t live with Communism. I must either leave or fight. I prefer to fight.”
Vang Pao – 1960
By 1967, there were 22,000 Hmong soldiers in Vang Pao’s army. Each soldier was paid about three dollars a month. But they weren’t fighting for pay… they were fighting for their nation and their way of life.
As the battle for control of the PDJ and the areas surrounding it went back and forth, Hmong families left the region for the safety of areas fully controlled by the Royal Laotian Government. Estimates are all over the place on how many Hmong “refugees” there were during the war. I’m going with 170,000, but there could have been as many as 250,000.
(I put the word refugees in quotes because that word doesn’t exactly describe the situation. A large portion of these were the families of the Hmong soldiers. When the soldiers joined VP’s army, the families went to safe locations. I should note that when I went to NKP or other unaccompanied tours, my wife & family went to live with her parents while I was gone. So, in the same sense that the Hmong were refugees, my family were refugees too. Such is the life of anyone joining the military.)
The field manager who became responsible for the “care and feeding” of the Hmong “refugee” families was Edgar “Pop” Buell. Pop was a retired farmer from Indiana who volunteered to go to Laos. Starting in 1960, Pop and his staff organized education, medical care, clothing, and food for families of Hmong soldiers and other refugees.
Pop was also responsible for seeing to it that Hmong villagers in remote, isolated locations received air-drops of supplies. Through his efforts, He developed a great trust with the Hmong. They knew Pop would make sure they would be taken care of. This was especially important for the morale and support of the Hmong soldiers.
There is no accurate accounting of how many Hmong Soldiers served in either VP’s army or the Royal Laotian Army. In essence, anyone who could fire a rifle became a soldier. Their losses were horrible. One account says that in the worst two year period, there were 18,000 soldiers killed in combat. [Likely ’Nov 67 – April ‘69]
Yet they kept coming. The Hmong valued their special and direct relationship with the United States. They believed it was a guarantee that they could save their way of life and never return to being viewed as inferior within Laos. By 1969, Hmong troop strength was nearing 40,000.
They were giving everything for their nation.
A short time ago we rounded up 300 fresh recruits. Thirty percent were 14 years old or less, and ten of them were only ten years old. Another 30 percent were 15 or 16. The remaining 40 percent were 45 or over. Where were the ones in between? I’ll tell you—they’re all dead.
EDGAR “POP” BUELL, International Voluntary Service employee.
Based on the uncertainty of travel in the next few months and the response I have received from those interested in going on the Great Ho Chi Minh Trail Ride, I’m going to hold off on a schedule for a group tour. Instead, I’m going to go on short notice as soon as Laos opens up again.
As I’m sure you know, Laos still has it’s borders closed and is not issuing any tourist visas. It appears that may change soon… January or February by my reading of the tea leaves. But, there is no way to count on it. So, my plan is for me to get myself to Laos as soon as they resume issuing tourist visas. My business allows me to leave on short notice like that. However, not many people can drop everything, jump on an airplane, and head off to the jungles of Laos.
I will use this trip sort of like an “advanced team” to scout out everything. This will allow me to spend more time in the most interesting areas and plan a future group trip accordingly.
This is not to say no one else can join in as part of the “advanced team.” You just have to keep your stuff packed and ready to go on short notice. I think “short notice” means 3 or 4 weeks, but it could be less. By my reading of the “tea leaves,” this is most likely to happen in late March or early April 2021. If it runs into the rainy season, then I will hold off.
I also intend to make the future group trip more of an “all-inclusive” sort of “package plan.” That way, rather than just showing up in Vientiane, riding gear in hand, I’m looking to package everything on the way there and back… hotels/bungalows, airline transportation, and possibly a couple of side trips in Thailand before or after our time in Laos. (Don Duval already handles the “all-inclusive” while in Laos.) I am in the process of working with a travel agency to see if we can get group rates.
After the “advance team” trip, I will organize the group trip for the next dry season. There is a fairly large window for that… Nov 2021 – Apr 2022.
Anyone interested in either the “Advanced Team” or group trips, please contact me.
This is the first of a multi-part series about the best ally the United States has had… ever… the Hmong in Laos. I can only give you a brief idea of their story… who they are, what they sacrificed, and what they continue to sacrifice. Telling the complete story would take many book volumes. My goal here is for you to come away from with at least some understanding of what the Hmong people gave to the United States.
Anyone who thinks he understands the situation here simply does not know the facts.
Attributed to an early Ambassador to Laos, source unknown
Trying to understand the Second Indochina War is, at best, complex and confusing. At worst, it was a quagmire that no one really understood, and that’s why it became such a mess. That’s truer of Laos than any other part of the war. So… how did this whole mess get started?
As I go along, I will give you Amazon links to some of the books I own or have found valuable. Note that this is not a “Pay-per-click” deal. However, I am paid a small (tiny) commission if you buy something you click on. These clicks help with a small percentage of the costs to operate this site.
If you are new here, you’ll notice that I called it the “Second Indochina War.” Most people in the United States call it the Vietnam War, and it’s called the American War in Vietnam. It involved more than the Americans and Vietnam. Laos, Cambodia, and to some extent, Thailand were also involved. Since it involved all of Indochina, most of the world outside of the US and Vietnam call it the Second Indochina War.
It was the “Second” one because the first one (duh) started in 1946 when the French tried to reclaim its colonial territories held before WWII. Again, the First Indochina War encompassed mostly the same territories as the second one. Then the region was known as “French Indochina.”
The First Indochina War ended in 1954 following the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. The United States involvement began toward the end of that war when the U.S. gave military aid to the French. It was too little, too late.
During the siege at Dien Bien Phu, American pilot James “Earthquake McGoon” McGovern and first officer Wallace “Wally” Buford were shot down while flying a C-119 cargo aircraft on a resupply mission to the French. McGovern and Buford were flying missions for the CIA owned “CAT”… the forerunner of Air America. They crashed and died near the village of Ban Sot in Laos. This was the first shoot-down of Americans in Indochina.
[I’ve created a glossary for terms like CAT or Air America. Click on the highlighted term, and a glossary will open up in a new tab.]
I contend that the Second Indochina War began before the ink was dry on the Geneva peace accords that ended the First Indochina War in 1954. Those peace accords created North and South Vietnam with provisions for an election to unify Vietnam would be held in 1956. That election was never held. The accords also affirmed an independent Laos.
The US began sending aid… and military advisors to the region almost immediately. President Eisenhower’s administration began providing “military training assistance” to South Vietnam only 3 weeks after the accords were signed. Likewise, some US military advisors were sent to Laos.
On 8 September 1954, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) was formed with its principal objective of protecting Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam from Communist aggression.
Pewwwww! All that background stuff and barely a mention of Laos. I’ve it’s like stepping into the abyss. Well… here are a few more tidbits directly related to Laos:
Two months after the peace accords, North Vietnam formed Group 100 to direct, organize, train, and supply the Pathet Lao in order to gain control of Laos.
In Dec ’58, North Vietnam launched an invasion of Laos and occupied parts of Northern Laos.
In May ’59, North Vietnam established Group 559, which began operation of the Trường Sơn Strategic Supply Route… AKA, the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
In Sep ’59, North Vietnam formed Group 969, which was an expanded version of Group 100. Group 969 assumed control of Pathet Lao forces.
As he left office, President Eisenhower told incoming President Kennedy that Laos “was the key to Indochina.”
Laos erupted into Civil War between the North Vietnamese-backed Pathet Lao and the US-backed Royal Laotian Government. Laos became President Kennedy’s first crisis.
In early 1961 Kennedy pressed for a ceasefire. In May, the Pathet Lao accepted the cease-fire at the behest of the North Vietnamese. The North Vietnamese used this “ceasefire” to capture and consolidate their hold on the Ho Chi Minh Trail… in particular, the transportation hub of Tchepone.
Starting in 1953 and continuing until 1975, Laos’s government was referred to as the Royal Laotian Government. It was a Constitutional Monarchy which, in this case, meant it had a King, but the real power rested with the Prime Minister and his cabinet. However, the real form of the government morphed many times over the years. To keep from getting too sidetracked, I won’t go into details here. Instead, if you want a better understanding, click the sidebar below.
I’m not sure I’ll ever understand all of the elements of the civil war in Laos. It wasn’t a two-sided conflict like most civil wars. Instead, there were at least three factions at war with each other. Princes and other royalty all vied for control of the country. They all claimed loyalty to the King, but they were mostly loyal to their own position.
Add to that, a Royal Laotian Army Captain named Kong Le staged a nearly bloodless coup d’état. He captured the administrative capital of Vientiane and took over for a few months. However, it was short-lived. A counter-coup ensued and ran Kong Le “outta Dodge.”
Kong Le and his 1200-man force trekked north and joined with the Pathet Lao. However, Kong Le soon flipped back as a “Neutralist.” No one really knew who Kong Le and his army would fight for. When they did engage, they fought poorly. Kong Le promoted himself to General at the head of his own private little army. In the end, when “General” Le faced mutiny from his subordinate commanders, he fled to exile and never returned to Laos.
The “Adventures of Kong Le” are but one instance of how complicated everything was in Laos. There were many factions (often blood relatives) and lots of infighting between them.
Before we leave Kong Le in our dust, I need to mention that he set up “shop” with his “Neutralist” army in Moung Soui, a little bit Northwest of the Plain of Jars. Moung Soui was also known as Lima Site 108 (LS-108). LS-108 changed hands between the Pathet Lao (NVA) and Royalist forces several times.
In chapter 31, “Why Me (Again),” A-1 pilot Bill “Bags” Bagwell tells of his close air support mission to friendly forces as the Pathet Lao were capturing LS-108 in June of 1969. Shot down on that mission, “Bags” gives a dramatic description of ejecting from a burning A-1E.
Communist North Vietnam’s intentions toward Laos were clear. They wanted control of Laos and, in particular, control the territory needed for the development of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In the midst of the Cold War, the United States was not about to let that go unanswered. However, the US (Kennedy, in particular) had been promoting the goal of a neutral Laos.
This was a departure from the previous President Eisenhower’s approach. Eisenhower wanted a strong Royal Laotian Government Army to counter any Communist advances. Kennedy’s approach was for a Neutral Laos with a coalition government. He felt such a “Neutral” coalition would prevent a complete Communist take-over.
I want to note here that the North Vietnamese were signatories to many agreements calling for the neutrality of Laos and the withdrawal of North Vietnamese forces over the years. North Vietnam never had any intention of honoring any of their agreements. They were focused on their goal and did anything necessary to accomplish it. When it came to international agreements, they simply nodded their heads yes, signed the agreements, and then went on and did what they always intended to do. Here are four of many examples:
The Geneva Accords of 1954.
The 1959 agreements on the neutrality of Laos.
The 1962 Geneva Peace Conference which specified the neutrality of Laos and called for the withdrawal of all but a handful of foreign military.
Ultimately, following the peace agreements of 1973, the US withdrew… the North Vietnamese did not abide by their agreements. In 1975, the North Vietnamese completely ignored the 1973 Paris Peace agreement, invaded and conquered South Vietnam.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch… ok… back in Northern Laos, the North Vietnamese supported Pathet Lao were attempting to gain ground in the early 60s. Following North Vietnam’s invasion of Laos, they established their operations base at Sam Nuea (many other spellings) in Northeast Laos. Opposing them was a small guerrilla force with a charismatic leader named Vang Pao.
As a young teenager, Vang Pao worked with the Free French to protect the Hmong from the invading Japanese during World War II. The French recruited Vang Pao again during to First Indochina War to help them against the Viet Minh.
Most Americans who worked with Vang Pao always referred to Vang Pao as “VP.” (Probably not to his face.) So, while he certainly deserves the title “General Vang Pao,” I’ll use the vernacular “VP” most often to keep things simple.
After the Viet Minh (forerunner to the North Vietnamese Army) invaded Laos in 1953, VP led a group of Hmong irregular guerillas against the Viet Minh. VP performed so well, he was sent to the French Officers School and became a 2nd Lieutenant. As the French departed the region, VP was given increasing responsibility within the Royal Laotian Army. In 1958 he had been promoted to Major, and by 1960 he was a Lieutenant Colonel.
VP’s (and his Hmong followers) hatred of the North Vietnamese was further increased when the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) rustled cattle from his home village of Nong Het. Nong Het is only about seven miles from the border of Vietnam. The North Vietnamese intrusion left the people of Nong Het cold and hungry.
VP appealed to a CIA representative named Stu Methven for help. Methven couldn’t do much to help against the North Vietnamese but was able to provide an airdrop of blankets, sweaters, rice… and of all things, an anvil to the Hmong village.
When Methven returned to visit VP in Nong Het, a village-wide event was held in the CIA man’s honor. All of the villagers gathered to greet Methven… wearing olive-drab sweaters from the airdrop
And so, VP’s relationship with the US and the CIA began.
A detailed description of these meetings between Methven and VP is in chapter 2 of “Battle for Skyline Ridge: The Cia Secret War in Laos”
Soon after taking office, President Kennedy was faced with the deteriorating situation in Laos. Fighting was underway as the NVA was moving into Northern Laos. Publicly, Kennedy announced he would seek a “neutral Laos.”
However, as the situation quickly worsened, Kennedy prepared to use air power against the Pathet Lao and NVA. B-26 aircraft and personnel were deployed to Thailand under the code name “Millpond.” Preparations for the air attacks were completed. The aircraft were loaded, armed, and ready to fly their first attack. However, before the aircraft launched, the failure of the Bay of Pigs Invasion in Cuba caused Kennedy to rethink his options. The planned air attacks from Operation Millpond were called off.
I should mention that Operation Millpond was initially to be more than just the B-26s. All branches of the US military, especially Marines on Okinawa, were alerted to support the action if needed. Also, note here that the CIA was set-up as part of operation Millpond.
Kennedy decided not to take direct military action in Laos. Rather, he increased his attempts to achieve a neutral Laos. No matter how admirable the goal of neutrality was, it had the effect of backing the United States into a corner. There was no way the United States could take overt military action while “advertising” to the world the goal of neutrality.
Simultaneously, the CIA began to take covert action to slow the Pathet Lao/NVA in their advances. A CIA man named Bill Lair met with VP early in 1961 to talk about what was needed for the Hmong people. (Most documents use the name “Bill Lair,” however his full name was James William Lair.) Lair assured VP that the United States could provide the Hmong with the food and supplies they needed… and weapons, ammunition, and support they wanted.
VP supported the Royal Laotian Government and, more importantly, saw it as his duty to protect the Hmong by fighting against the Communists. During that 1961 meeting, VP convinced Lair that he and his Hmong guerillas would fight the Communists “at all cost.”
Following the meeting with Lair, VP convinced the Hmong elders that the United States would provide the support they needed and not abandon them when the going got tough. Simultaneously, Lair briefed his CIA superiors, and a few days later, they received approval from Washington to equip and train 1,000 Hmong irregulars. (Most sources cite the 1,000 to be trained, but a few go up to 4,000.)
And so it began. The United States started training and sending arms to the Hmong guerillas. For the United States, the Hmong became their surrogate army against the North Vietnamese.
“Communism was spreading in our part of the world—pouring into Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam. We had to find a way to stop them. The US had the vision to stop them from spreading into these countries. I aligned with the US because they were the most powerful country in the world at that time. The United States had won World War I and World War II, and I assumed that winning the Vietnam War would be no problem.”
GEN. VANG PAO, St. Paul, interview 2006
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