Places to go – Mu Gia Pass Part 2

The more I learn about the Mu Gia Pass… and the more I look at images of the area, I can’t figure out why the US couldn’t shut it down. I guess that’s part of why I want to go there… to see for myself.

Before Nov 68, the Laotian side of the Mu Gia pass, indeed all the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos, was secondary to the US bombing in North Vietnam. The Ho Chi Minh trail in general and Mu Gia Pass area in Laos received comparatively few dedicated missions. Many attacks in Laos were made on return trips with munitions not used up in North Vietnam.

This makes sense. It was far easier to hit targets in the relatively flat areas in North Vietnam before getting to the pass than it was to hit them after they entered Laos. It would have been even easier to hit the truck depots in the Haiphong harbor and other mass staging areas, but that’s a story for another discussion.

This recon photo and “intel” analysis (above) shows the amount of truck traffic to the Mu Gia pass typical during the dry season in 1967. In the pic there are seven trucks going through a bombed out area. This is likely a section of “The Trail” inside North Vietnam. The “intel” analysis also suggests Continue reading

Places to go – Mu Gia Pass Part 1

The Mu Gia pass will probably be our first area to explore on our trip down the Ho Chi Minh Trail (HCMT). There’s so much to talk about that I decided to break this into three parts rather than one very long posting.

The Mu Gia Pass enters Laos through a gap in the Annamite Mountains. In this area, this mountain range forms the border between North Vietnam and Laos. The pass sits in the bottom of a canyon with 3,000-foot ridges on either side. As it enters Laos, elevation at the bottom of the canyon is about 1275 feet and is only about 1/3 mile wide.

Party suit patch. Not really any snow there, but the “100 Exciting Trails” part is true.

The HCMT (Route 12) winds its way through the canyon as it drops down out of the mountains until it enters Continue reading

Places To Go – Alternate

No… this isn’t an alternate place to go. This is a place that was most often called “Alternate” by Americans “visiting” there…. Lima Site 20a.

“Alternate” was the epicenter of the Royalist war against the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese Army in Northern Laos. “Epicenter” hardly describes the place at the height of the war. It was the heart and soul of the Hmong armed forces. Their leader, Vang Pao (often just VP), and all his senior officers lived at “Alternate.” VP and the officers had their houses along the runway. There are stories of children playing right by the runway.

Seems the Laotians now spell it “LONGCHENG.” Photo courtesy of Don Duval

Long Tieng, with a variety of other spellings including Long Cheng, was the town that grew up around “Alternate.” At least 50,000 civilians and refugees lived there. Families of the Hmong army and air force also lived in Long Tieng. By 1968 VP had recruited 40,000 Hmong infantry. At one time, Continue reading

Places to go – LS-85

“… 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: Continue reading

Places to go – The Alamo

Nope… this isn’t the San Antonio, Texas where Davy Crockett met his fate. It’s Lima Site 36 (LS-36) which was one of the most important Lima Sites to the United States and Royal Laotian Government (RLG). LS-36 earned the nickname “The Alamo.” You’ll see why in a minute.

Early in the war, the site was important because it was close to North Vietnam. This served two purposes. First, helicopters used for rescuing pilots downed in the North didn’t have enough fuel range to get there. Second, It was a much shorter response time to reach “The North.”. LS-36 was about 165 miles from beautiful downtown Hanoi. The nearest base in Thailand was at NKP… almost 265 miles away. That extra 100 miles would make a lot of difference to a downed pilot when the guys he just bombed were after him.

HH-43 and then Jolly Green helicopters began their forward deployment in 1965. Initially, helicopters flew from either Udorn or NKP first thing in the morning, stood rescue alert, and then went back “home” or to “Alternate” (LS-20a) at night. Later, the helicopters would stay for a few days before returning to their base.

LS-36 with “Jolly Green Giant” Helicopters. US Government photo, circa ’66

Another important purpose was as a supply point for smaller Lima Sites in the region. There were over twenty Air America sites supported from LS-36. The dirt runway was just long enough so C-7 Caribou and jet engine pod equipped C-123s could take off and land there… just barely.

Another important purpose was Continue reading