“… it appears we may have pushed our luck one day too long in attempting to keep this facility in operation …”Cable from William Sullivan, U.S. Ambassador to Laos, to the U.S. State Department, March 11, 1968
I don’t know if Sullivan really sent that cable… I just read somewhere that he did. But if he didn’t send it, he should have.
I’ve had several false starts trying to write about Lima Site – 85… Phou Pha Thi. There a mish-mash of confusing information available, so it’s hard to tell what really happened there. One problem is the tragedy was classified (mostly “top secret) longer than most others. Some documents are still classified or redacted more than fifty years later.
So I give up. I can’t possibly describe everything here. It would take a book, and even then I’m not sure I could make definitive conclusions. The problem is everyone writes from their “side.” Perhaps the most telling is a book written from the North Vietnamese side.
At the end of this, I’ll give you links and places where you can get more information. For now, here’s the extra short version:
- The US set up a bomb navigation site on top of a mountain at LS-85.
- LS-85 was fifteen miles from North Vietnam and 160 miles from Hanoi. The site had a bombing system to guide F-105s to their targets during inclement weather.
- The Bombing system became operational 1 Nov 67. (A regular TACAN site had already been operational for quite some time.)
- Sixteen sheep-dipped USAF personnel were manning the site along with some CIA types.
- They knew an NVA attack was coming with an overwhelming force… they had seen the buildup for weeks.
- The site was overrun and twelve Americans were killed there… and it didn’t have to happen.
The finger pointing began… who did what and when and to whom depends on who originated the document. Even if they don’t come right out and say it, most official documents try to point the finger at someone else. And every player has some memo, document, release, or book covering the fiasco.
Here’s my take: Every damn agency involved was at fault. They all knew the site would come under attack. The “players” all exchanged messages aboutwhen and how the attack would come. None thought the site could be held beyond March 10.
Any one of the “players” could have called for the evacuation of the site… none did. To them, their precious bombing system was “worth the risk.” On March 11, well-trained NVA sappers overran the site. Only five of the USAF and two of the CIA types were rescued.
Who were these players? Well, let’s start with our old friend General Momyer who denied multiple requests to evacuate the site… and refused the air support to protect it. Then there’s Ambassador to Laos, Sullivan, who failed to act until it was too late, even though he had the authority as Ambassador. Of course, LBJ had to have known too. He controlled every aspect of the war from the Whitehouse.
When Sullivan apprised the “Whitehouse” of the concerns, they responded that LS-85 must be held at all costs… while not allowing “higher priority” air strikes to be diverted to protect the site. And I can’t leave out the entire leadership of the CIA… they knew what was about to happen and did nothing.
The list goes on… too many to list here… who denied the support needed… denied the requests to evacuate… or as a minimum, did nothing. In the aftermath, there were lies, cover-up, and secrecy to hide what happened.
And all for what? Twenty days later, President LBJ called a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam.
In the immortal words of Gunny Highway:
“What a cluster fuck!”(Heartbreak Ridge, 1986)
LS-85 Today – For most of the last fifty years, going there was prohibited. Now, although the Laotian military still guards the site, it has become a tourist attraction. I even found a Lao TV video production (Houaphan TV) showing the site today. Even though it was in Laotian and I couldn’t understand a word, you could tell the guide had great pride in telling the story of how they “Kicked the enemy off their mountain.”
Getting there is by a well graded (usually) dirt road leading up to Phou Pha Thi. At the base, (about 5000ft altitude) there’s a tourist welcome center… and Laotian Army guard post. There, you pay a fee. They will provide you a guide to take you to the top and show you around. I don’t know all the details on the rules for Americans, but I’m sure Mr. Mapper knows the ins-n-outs.
During ’66-‘68, helicopters or landing on a 600 ft dirt runway got you to the top. Now days, stairs get you there. But… going to the top is not for everyone. Depending on whose count you go by, there are as many as 1375 steps. That’s the equivalent of about 75 flights of stairs. The Empire State Building has 86 flights. So get out your Stair Masters and start working out… that or call in a Jolly Green to take you.
Once you reach the top, your guide will take you anywhere you want to go. There’s lots to see. Air strikes after the site fell attempted to destroy everything. But that was not before the NVA likely had some classified equipment on the way to Hanoi and Moscow. Today the area is still littered with destroyed equipment as testimony to the battle.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, the next video is worth a million.
The video exploring the top of Phou Pha Thi is only a portion of the full video made by Don Duval (The Midnight Mapper.) I have included the full video in the “Video” page. Just click on “Video” in the banner at the top of the page or just click here
For more information – You’ll get way more than you want if you do a Google search for “LS-85” Laos. You can also search “Lima Site 85”. This turns up hundreds of sites with original documents. Check those out… and go down that rabbit hole… at your own risk.
Note: after “The Fall of Lima Site 85” was written, the Air Force Cross posthumously awarded to CMSgt Etchberger was upgraded to the Congressional Medal of Honor.
There’s even a complete 371-page book “One Day Too Long” about what happened at Lima Site 85. This book examines every aspect of who did what and when. It has 74 pages of notes and references if you really want to check stuff out. The book is well written and easy to read. The last chapter, “Conclusions,” is by itself worth the price. It is available on Amazon. Here’s the link: One Day Too Long (Opens in another tab) You can get a good used one for about five bucks. (No I don’t get any royalties of any kind on this.)
Next up in Places to go – “Alternate” (Lima Site 20a)