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.
Old guys absolutely should ride dirt bikes. If you are reasonably healthy and are willing to get into just a little bit of shape, then there’s no reason not to. Besides, it will all be good for you. You can either sit on the couch and listen to your arteries harden… or get up and keep on living.
You don’t believe me? Take a look at this video. It’s less than 5 minutes long. Watch it all.
Don’t think that because you aren’t twenty-something, you can’t go on this Ho Chi Minh Trail Ride. There’s plenty of time to get ready if you want to go. We will be tailoring the ride and difficulty to suit the riders. It’s not a race. We’re going to take our time and smell the… make that… see the HCMT. If the guy in the video can do it, so can you.
The paraphrase the end of the video: Old age is the perfect time to do something outrageous.
Riding the HCMT may not count as outrageous… but it isn’t playing scrabble in the old folk’s home either.
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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I always debate how to deal with terms some folks might not recognize. Normally if it’s short, then I’ll put the meanings inline and keep going so I don’t break the flow. But, where a longer explanation is needed, then this is the way I deal with it. Note that this will be a “living, and growing” list.
Air America – covertly owned and operated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from 1950 to 1976. In this context, Air America flew a variety of cargo, observation, and rotary-wing (helicopter) aircraft supporting the Secret War in Laos
CAT – The Civil Air Transport was created by Claire Chennault (of Flying Tiger fame during WWII) to supply airlift to war ravaged China in 1946. The CIA bought the company in 1950. It was reorganized and renamed Air America in 1959.
Indochina – This is often referred to as French Indochina. It stems from the mid 1800s when the French colonized a large portion of the region. Although the borders have changed a little, this encompasses what is now Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
Pathet Lao – The Communist forces and political organization that opposed the Royal Laotian Government in Laos from the 1950s to 1975. (They won and took over the Laotian government in 1975). The Pathet Lao were also organized, trained, equipped and led by the North Vietnamese Army. China also provided them with 115,000 guns, nearly a million grenades, 170 million bullets, and trained 700+ or its military officers.
RLG – Royal Laotian Government – From 1954 to 1975, the term “Royal Laotian Government” was almost indiscriminately used to mean Laos’s government. However, this government took many forms over the years.
I have been holding hope that we could make our November date for the HCMTrail Ride. But it appears that the Cootie Bugs have foiled us again.
Even though Asia is opening up for travel, it appears as of today that Laos is still not issuing tourist visas. While I suspect that may change soon, I don’t think it will change soon enough to make the advanced reservations, airline, overnight stays, etc, that we would all need for this adventure.
So… I think it will be best to further postpone the HCMTrail Ride. For now I am looking at the last part of February or through March, 2021 as the potential time frame. Before I pick specific dates, I would like to hear from anyone still interested in this trip. You can post here in the comments or contact me directly at:
In the meantime, I will begin posting more about places to go, things to see, and information about Laos in general. I will be writing more about places and events of the HCMT as well as the Laotian people.
My first new posts will be a series about the Hmong… the best allies the United States ever had. Since there are many books written on the subject, I can’t possibly tell a lot in a few 2000 words or less posts. But I will at least tell you something about these brave people and post some places where you can find out more.
Again, please contact me if you are interested in making this trip.