This is the first in a series of posts I’ll be making on the places I hope to go during the Ho Chi Minh Trail ride. I sorta didn’t know which place to start with. There are so many interesting and now historic places. I know we won’t get to all of them in a reasonable number of days. So I decided to start with places that aren’t even on the HCMT… Lima Sites. I know… that doesn’t make sense. But I chose this because the Lima Sites were an integral part of the “Secret War” in Laos.
But before I can talk about the most interesting individual sites, I need to give a little background on how the Lima Sites came about. There are a zillion books, CHECO reports, and articles written about this. And… the history of Laos in the ‘50s, ‘60s is so complex and convoluted that to really understand it takes all those books, etc. Not to worry… I’ll try to do it in around 500 words or so.
Laos has been in turmoil since almost forever. The colonial French added the “s” on the end of Lao (to make Lao plural) when they combined three “kingdoms” in 1893. It never worked out. Fast forward to 1954 when Vietnam defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu. The Geneva Accords that followed set the stage separating Vietnam into two different countries.
The accords also called for all foreign forces to withdraw. Following the accords, the French essentially pulled out, leaving the US to begin dealing with the region. I should note that there was a separate agreement establishing the Kingdom of Laos. I should also note that the withdrawal of foreign forces allowed the Pathet Lao to gain a foothold in the North of Laos. I should also note that North Vietnam never abided by the agreement to remove forces. Lastly, I need to note that the US was not a signatory to the accords, but made a gentleman’s agreement to go along.
For the next few years, turmoil bubbled in Laos. All the events are too convoluted to describe here. Suffice to say that by 1959 civil war broke out between the Pathet Lao (supported by North Vietnam) and the Royal Laotian Government (RLG). At the time there was only minor sporadic fighting and skirmishes, but it established sides for the coming years of war.
(As a personal side note, the “conflict” in Laos made enough of the “nightly news” in 1959 that I did a report on it for my 7th grade Government class.)
(Pewwww… I’ve already used half of my 500 words. Maybe I should make it 750)
As he was leaving office, President Dwight D. Eisenhower told the new President, John F. Kennedy, that Laos would be the key to Indochina. Between ’59 and ’62, the civil war bubbled up and down. The US sided with the RLG and financed a series of “public works” and “civic actions” to help prop up the government in the eyes of the people. During this time, the US also supported and financed 100% of the RLG military.
About this time, the US began supporting and arming General Vang Pao’s Hmong guerrilla army. I’ll have more to say about Vang Pao (often referred to as “VP”) in future posts. For now, I just want to say that VP and his Hmong warriors were the most fierce fighters and best allies the US had during the war.
All over Laos, the US created what became known as “Lima Sites.” These were little landing strips… some not more than a wide spot on a mountainside dirt road. Some were bigger, and some were bare spots of dirt where only a helicopter could land. These were used by the CIA, Air America, and the US Military.
Initially, they were to support USAID to Laos helping support the “Neutral Royal Laotian Government (RLG) with public works projects… flying chickens and rice to the local regions. By the early 60s, the support became military support for the Royal Laotian Army (RLA) and Royal Laotian Air Force (RLAF). Depending on who is counting, there were over 200 Lima Sites.
As the US involvement grew, these sites gained increasing importance to the overall effort in Indochina. Besides flying chickens and rice, the Lima Sites were used as bases for the RLA, VP’s forces, and to fly military support (troops, arms & ammunition) where needed. Throughout the war, battles raged between RLG forces and the NVA/Pathet Lao for control of the Lima Sites and the regions all around the Plain of Jars.
Pewwww… I barely exceeded my self-imposed word count. In the next posts, I’ll tell you about three of the Lima Sites we might visit as well as the Plane of Jars.
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Next up… LS-36 – The Alamo