Tony Poe’s Outpost #6 – The Laos Air War

Campaign Series Vietnam | Tony Poe’s Outpost

In Tony Poe’s Outpost series, David Galster sheds some light on the secret war in Laos for the upcoming CS Vietnam tactical-wargame, as well as some background information about who was involved and why.

Hey Grunts,

Do you know which country is the most heavily bombed in world history? An estimated 2.5 million tons of bombs were dropped on Laos – far more than WWII Allied planes unloaded on Germany and Japan, combined. The Laos air war was how the Americans expected to support the Laotians against the North Vietnamese, and stop the flow of Communist soldiers and supplies through the Ho Chi Minh trail. This is an overview of command and communications, forward air controllers, airbases and squadrons, and finally, the CIA’s own airline, “Air America.”


The codename for a covert command structure to “advise, assist in targeting effort, and to coordinate Laotian air support requirements,” was PALACE DOG. This was organized through Detachment 6 of the 1st Air Commando Wing, and was the Department of Defense “Project 404.” About 120 USAF and Army personnel were stationed at Royal Laotian Air Force (RLAF) bases, Royal Laotian Army (RLA) Military Headquarters, and air bases in Thailand. While only part of these men were Lao trainers, a number helped coordinate Lao Air Operations Centers (AOCs) and RLAF and USAF aircraft. A program, code-named “Water Pump” trained Laotian pilots to fly T-28 Trojans.

One of the challenges that PALACE DOG faced was that the U.S. Seventh/Thirteenth Air Force, based in Thailand (which carried out the majority of the Air Force’s strikes in North Vietnam), had a dual command structure. It reported to the Seventh on operational matters, but, to Thirteenth Air Force (HQ in Philippines,) for logistical and administrative concerns. These command and control complexities grew even more tangled with four competing operational areas: South Vietnam, North Vietnam, and Laos (both north and south).

The headquarters for PALACE DOG was at Udorn Air Base, Thailand. The ground-based Direct Air Support Center, (DASC) and the Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Centers (ABCCC) operated here. Up to 1967, the ABCCC coordinating all air strikes were USAF EC-47s, and since 1967, they were Udorn-based EC-130E aircraft. Two ABCCCs “orbited” over Laos, one operating in northern Laos, using the radio call-sign “Cricket” during daytime and “Alley Cat” during night, and another one operating in the Laotian panhandle, using call-sign “Hillsboro” in daytime, and “Moonbeam” at night.

The ABCCCs coordinated all USAF, Navy, and RLAF aircraft. Raven Forward Air Controllers (FAC) reported target locations to the ABCCCs and they assigned fighter-bomber sorties. As has been made clear, these ABCCC did not give the orders themselves, but they served as relay stations between the “Country Team” as well as other military headquarters and the aircraft involved in the air strike. When a target chosen by a Raven was approved, ABCCC would call in RLAF T-28s, AC-47s, or USAF jet fighters.

While the fighters were on station, their operation would be controlled by the Raven, and after departure, the Raven FAC remained over the target to make bomb damage assessments (BDA), which he relayed to the fighters and to the ABCCC. The ABCCC aircraft would send BDAs thru to the Air Attaché’s office at Vientiane, who gave direct orders for the next missions.

Bombing Campaigns

Several major bombing campaigns were directed by PALACE DOG: Barrel Roll, Rolling Thunder, Steel Tiger, Tiger Hound, and Commando Hunt.

Operation Barrel Roll was a covert, interdiction and close air support campaign conducted in Laos between 1964 and 1973. The majority of the close air support aircraft were Douglas A-1 Skyraiders and T-28 Trojans. Until 1968, most jet fighter-bomber sorties occurred when returning aircraft from Rolling Thunder missions carried unexpended ordnance. They would then be directed to targets in northeastern Laos under Barrel Roll.

Operation Rolling Thunder was an aerial bombardment campaign conducted against the North Vietnam from 1965 until 1968. The majority of strikes were launched from four air bases, in Thailand: Korat, Takhli, Udon Thani, and Ubon. The aircraft refueled from aerial tankers before flying on to their targets. Aircraft included F-105D Thunderchiefs, F-4C Phantoms, and F-8 Crusaders. Navy Task Force 77 also participated from Yankee Station using A-4 Skyhawks.

Operation Steel Tiger was a covert interdiction effort on the Ho Chi Minh trail. This began in 1964 and continued until 1968, when it was merged with Operation Tiger Hound and renamed Commando Hunt. The Tiger Hound area was much smaller and adjacent to the South Vietnamese border in the most southern part of Laos. These campaigns used B-52F Stratofortresses deployed in Andersen Air Force Base in Guam and U-Tapao Royal Thai Navy Airfield in Thailand. Their involvement was code-named “Arc Light.” Other aircraft were fixed wing gunships including the AC-47, (SPOOKY) AC-119, (STINGER) and AC-130. (SPECTRE) These were more effective, but were involved in a small fraction of total sorties.

Steve Canyon Program

Forward air controllers in Laos were selected and assigned within the “Steve Canyon” program, named for a 1950s action comic strip. Air Force pilots completing six months of FAC duty in Vietnam were selected, and offered this option.

If accepted, they would go through a military status change called “sheep-dipping.” This was basically resignation from the Air Force. Service records were transferred to top secret CIA files. A cover story was written to explain the resignation, and the pilot basically became a civilian. If killed or captured, all sorts of pension and insurance issues would arise, and the CIA created its own insurance company to handle this.

These pilots were called “Ravens.” Their call sign included a number afterwards, usually a sequence. “Raven 45” was Karl Polifka, who wrote “Meeting Steve Canyon . . . and Flying with the CIA in Laos.” Initially they reported in at Udorn, assigned to Detachment 1 of the 56th Special Operations Wing. After some orientation, sent to either Long Tieng or Pakse depending on the needs at the time.

Ravens usually flew the Cessna O-1 single engine plane. The speed was low, and they could circle over targets, sometimes marking them with white phosphorus rockets, called “Willy-Pete.” Some pilots could use U-17 Cessnas or even T-28 Trojan aircraft.

Typically a Hmong “back-seater” accompanied Ravens on their missions for help in target identification. Ravens were in radio contact with the ABCCC, Long Tieng, and various pilots in the fighter squadrons making the bombing runs. The Lima Sites were often used to land and refuel.

Squadrons Stationed in Thailand

Virtually all Laos Secret War US Air Force assets were based in Thailand. Rather than using a narrative, these squadrons, bases, and aircraft composition are best communicated by table. Thus the reader can readily see some of the key squadrons that participated in the air war, the aircraft used, and locations and times of their service.

This is not a comprehensive list. On 1 August 1968, all Air Commando Wings, (ACW) were redesignated as Special Operations Wings, (SOW) and Air Commando Squadrons, (ACS) became Special Operations Squadrons. (SOS) The SOS/SOW nomenclature is used here unless there was a change in airbase. See abbreviations below the table.

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ACS    Air Commando Squadron

SOS    Special Operations Squadron

SOW   Special Operations Wing

ACW   Air Commando Wing

BS       Bombardment Squadron

BW      Bombardment Wing

FBW   Fighter-Bomber Wing

RS      Refueling Squadron

RW     Refueling Wing

TFS     Tactical Fighter Squadron

TFW    Tactical Fighter Wing

TRW   Tactical Reconnaissance Wing

NKP    Nakhon Phanom

Air America

This was a civilian passenger and cargo airline, covertly owned and operated by the US government from 1950 to 1976. It began with Civil Air Transport (CAT) that was started by Gen. Claire Chennault in China in 1946. In 1950, the CIA formed a corporation named Airdale. This company bought 40% of CAT and used the name as a subsidiary corporation. It was based in Taiwan initially. In 1957, Airdale changed its name to Pacific Corporation, and CAT changed its name to “Air America.”

In Laos, starting in 1959 the airline provided transportation for US operations  “Ambidextrous”, “Hotfoot”, and “White Star”, which trained the regular

Royal Laotian armed forces. After 1962 (Geneva Laos Neutrality Treaty,) Project 404 fielded numerous US Army attachés and air attachés to the US embassy in Vientiane.

Air America inserted and extracted soldiers, and flew in supplies to the Royal Lao Army, Hmong Army, and Thai volunteer forces. They transported refugees, and flew photo reconnaissance missions. Its civilian-marked helicopters frequently performed search and rescue missions for pilots downed in Southeast Asia. Air America pilots were generally civilian US corporate employees.

Laos operations were headquartered in Udorn. The main routes were into Vientiane (Wattay) Airport and Long Tieng. In addition, they made flights to all the Lima Sites to bring in supplies and move troops.

There were about 490 Lima Sites in Laos. These were typically dirt strips, with only one runway, often 600 meters or less in length. Some were in elevated mountain areas, and might have 20-degree bends, or up-slope gradients of forty-five degrees, and in some cases, had steep downward slopes at the end, where aircraft would go down if the brakes failed. Of course, there were no beacons, nor navigational aids whatsoever.

For these reasons, Air America used many helicopters, and short take-off and landing, (STOL) fixed-wing aircraft like the Pilatus Porter.

Some of the typical aircraft used by Air America included CH-34 Helicopters, and later Huey UH-1Ds. Pilatus Porters, C-47s, and Caribou transports were the typical fixed-wing craft used.


This should give a good overview of the massive air war that was fought in Laos. Some of it was effective, like providing combat support to the Hmong. Other parts of it failed,  like inability to shut down the Ho Chi Minh trail.

I imagine that Tony Poe was very familiar with the air war, particularly Air America and the Lima Sites. It was Tony who set up the early Lima Sites in the 1963 Operation Momentum.

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Tony Poe’s Outpost #5 – CIA in Laos

In Tony Poe’s Outpost series, David Galster sheds some light on the secret war in Laos for the upcoming CS Vietnam tactical-wargame, as well as some background information about who was involved and why.

Hey Grunts,

You might be wondering how the CIA, a civilian intelligence organization, could run a war. Hopefully, this article will give you an idea of the challenges that the US faced in Laos, and how the CIA conducted the operation.


The main concept in the Laos Secret War was to keep US involvement to a minimum. No US ground troops or special forces fought in Laos. CIA case officers, RAVEN forward air controllers, Air America personnel, and fighter pilots were the only US personnel in the war. Only 10 to 15 CIA case officers were in Laos at a time, and the total number of Americans were about 100 at any given time. The CIA’s annual Laos budget was approximately what the US Military spent in one day in Vietnam.

US Policy in Laos

On January 20, 1961, the John F. Kennedy administration was inaugurated with President Eisenhower’s “Domino Theory” advice that “Communist control of Laos would lead to the loss of all Southeast Asia.” Laos was the “cork in the bottle,” in Eisenhower’s words.

Kennedy supported Laotian neutrality as a means to prevent communist takeover, but the 1962 Geneva Neutrality treaty did not stop the Pathet Lao’s revolutionary initiatives. The CIA was assigned to assist Laos to resist takeover. Pursuant to an order by President Kennedy, all U.S. military operations in Laos were under direct supervision of the Ambassador.

At that time, the ambassador to Vientiane was Leonard S. Unger. (1962 – 1964)  He oversaw the implementation of the 1962 Geneva Agreement. As a China specialist and pragmatic manager, Unger was cautious about the treaty, wanting to avoid military action. Initially, he allowed rice and civilian supply drops, but wanted no more arms or ammunition, until they understood the behaviour of the other side. When it was clear that the Communists had no intention to withdraw from Laos, new initiatives, under CIA direction began.

The main question was the purpose of US support to the Laotian anti-communists: Did the US want them to hold their own against the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese? Or, should they merely serve as a tripwire, resisting a Communist offensive long enough to let the West decide how to react? The State Department’s answer to Unger was hesitant, and not coordinated with the CIA. Washington wanted the Lao to be able to “hold long enough against attack to focus international attention on the situation.” Then, when a clear picture emerged, they would decide what actions to take. But, this virtually admitted that the US did not know what it wanted until imminent disaster compelled it to act. The CIA lobbied for a more forceful statement of intentions.

After the Kennedy assassination and Lyndon Johnson became President, the US adopted more aggressive policies. William Sullivan was the next Ambassador, serving from 1964 to 1969. During Project 404, Sullivan personally directed the bombing of the Ho Chi Minh trail. This civilian control, and the restriction on military operations irritated the US military.

Sullivan understood the limitations of tribal irregulars, and opposed the MACV drive to use South Vietnamese tribesmen in cross-border operations against the Ho Chi Minh Trail. But he had another, more substantive, reason for conservative military application,  including US bombing missions on Laotian soil. This was the imperative to maintain Souvanna Phouma’s support in any US actions against the communists.

McMurtrie Godley succeeded Sullivan. (1969 – 1973) He acted on pessimistic appraisals of the Hmong ability to withstand the NVA forces, and asked Washington to authorise the B-52 strikes against enemy troops. Godley was also the ambassador during the successful Battle for Skyline Ridge.

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Bill Lair – Chief of Base

The first CIA official in charge of paramilitary operations in Laos was Bill Lair. (1959 – 1968) He set the stage for all subsequent CIA programs and practices in Laos. Initially stationed in Vientiane, then  Nong Khai, Thailand after the 1962 Treaty, he ultimately set up CIA headquarters in Udorn, Thailand.

Bill was a WWII D-Day Veteran. Joining the CIA in the early 1950s, he was appointed Captain in the Royal Thai Police, in 1953, where he organized PARU units. (Police Aerial Resupply Unit) By 1957, PARU consisted of two light infantry companies, as well as a pathfinder company personally commanded by Lair. Although dubbed “police,” the extensively cross-trained PARU agents were trained to special forces standards.

Sometime around 1959 Lair got involved with Laotian issues. He realized that the Hmong, led by Vang Pao could effectively counter the Communists. From his point of view, “The Hmong appeared determined to fight—they only wanted arms, training, and food.” Their commitment to maintain their tribal way of life was in line with the CIA strategy to “fight insurgencies with counterinsurgency.” This suited Lair because his overriding principle was to keep US involvement to a minimum.

With assistance from elite Thai paratroopers (PARU), Air America, and White Star, arrangements (code named Project Momentum) were made to provide the Hmong with essentials needed to support and train village-based guerrilla militias.(ADC) This included supplying rice and care for their dependents.

In early 1961, Lair approached Vang Pao to evaluate Hmong potential for irregular warfare against the Pathet Lao. Lair and Vang Pao bonded through a series of meetings and Baci ceremonies. They developed a strong relationship.

The arming of the first 300 Hmong volunteers began on 24 January 1961 when three C-46 cargo planes crossed the Mekong into Laos carrying weapons and equipment. The CIA would provide a support role for the Hmong, while no American soldiers would be on the ground in Laos. Lair convinced Fitzgerald, who was his boss’s boss, that the CIA should support Vang Pao’s proposed guerrilla army. Funding was allocated via the Programs Evaluation Office for organizing the first 2,000 recruits into 100 man companies. The operation was classified under the code name Project Momentum. The eventual result of Lair’s initiative was a clandestine army of 30,000 hill tribesmen under Vang Pao’s command

In summer 1962, Lair arranged USAID air drops of food, medicine, and other essentials to Hmong uprooted by the growing war. In June, when The Saturday Evening Post ran an article on this program, Lair was content to let Edgar ‘Pop’ Buell be the public face of refugee relief, as a means of hiding CIA involvement. In October 1962, in accordance with the International Agreement on the Neutrality of Laos, the Americans in country drew down to two CIA agents in Laos —Tony Poe and Vint Lawrence. However, 100 PARU troopers also remained, still engaged in training the Hmong. Lair and Landry withdrew to Nong Khai, Thailand, just across the Mekong River from Vientiane. In turn, the Vietnamese Communists officially withdrew 40 soldiers, with at least 5,000 others remaining in Laos.

Tony Poe was a CAS advisor (Controlled American Source) His codename was UPIN. He trained Hmong recruits on rifles and heavy weapons. He also accompanied Hmong troops on missions as a field advisor. The Lima Sites were also designated by Tony during the early war years.

Vint Lawrence was the personal advisor of Vang Pao. He tried to maintain relations between the Hmong and Royal Laotian Army. Vint Lawrence had a personal “nation building” agenda for the Hmong.

By early 1962 Project Momentum expanded into Sam Neua Province, and at the same time a new paramilitary formation, the Special Guerrilla Unit (SGU) was created. The SGUs were designed to serve as enhanced ADCs for unconventional offensive-type operations.

Things changed dramatically in 1965 with American troops being committed in South Vietnam. And in 1966, Ted Shackley became the new Far East Station Chief. Lair had worked successfully under three chiefs of station, running his paramilitary operations with a relatively paltry annual budget of $20 million. For 15 years, he had encouraged and nurtured native martial talent, believing the covert operation was best done with the fewest Americans possible. As a result of his influence, there were fewer than 100 Americans working in northern Laos.

Schackley was assigned to deal with the infiltration of the Ho Chi Minh trail. A big change was Major Richard Secord. He succeeded Col. Tyrell as manager of air operations in Laos. The covert RAVEN forward air controllers came into being to direct the increasing bombing sorties. This increased effort required greater CIA staffing. As the war escalated, there were turf conflicts within the US effort because it lacked a unified command structure.

An example was LS-85, the radar site that directed bombing in North Vietnam. Bill Lair advised that the site could not be defended by Hmong because they neither trained nor equipped for fixed defensive battles. He said that the NVA would simply build a road to to the site on Phou Pha Thi mountain and bring in heavy artillery and surround it. Lair advised use of special forces or trained infantry. When LS-85 finally fell in March 1968, Lair was blamed by Sullivan and Schackley for its loss. Lair left Laos in August 1968.

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Lloyd “Pat” Landry replaced Lair, bringing to the job the same single-minded dedication but a very different personal style. His command was the 4802nd Joint Liaison Detachment, the CIA’s operations center for Laos.  He was even more impatient with bureaucracy than Lair had been.

Nicknamed “Stick,” Landry was recruited, like Lair in the early 1950s, out of Texas A&M University, where they had played football. Squat, hard, square-jawed ex-GI, Landry had been in Indochina most of his adult life, and served as Bill Lair’s deputy from the start of Laos operations in 1961.

Landry was well liked by the Thais, Hmong, and his subordinates. He also had excellent rapport with General Vitoon Yasawatdi (“Dhep”), commander of “Headquarters 333,” that directed Thai forces in Laos. He lived by himself in the upstairs area of his Udorn office, and had no known interests outside of work. He was blunt and decisive in making hard decisions, and holding to them. He carried a variety of “swagger” sticks, which he would wave around and smack on his desk or some object when emphasizing a point.

As Landy liked to delegate, Jim Glerum, the new deputy chief, found himself running not only administration, but also liaison with Air America and the US Air Force. In addition, he dealt with the military aid mission to Laos. Landry also wanted no part of the unending difficulties with lead-times and delivery schedules and delegated the logistical problems to Glerum.

Notable CAS Operatives

Landry had a gruff exterior, but was a considerate and caring man. He worried about his subordinates, especially the “kids” he was sending up country. These CIA case officers, known as CAS advisors were assigned at various locations in Laos to advise and to gather intelligence. They were young, with only a few years experience, and were thrust into very difficult situations. Each Hmong SGU battalion was assigned a CAS advisor.

In addition to Tony Poe and Vint Lawrence mentioned earlier, Jerry Daniels, (Hog) was an important personal advisor to General Vang Pao. He had been a “smoke jumper” in Montana before being recruited by the CIA. Daniels was a rugged outdoorsman who formed a deep and enduring bond with the Hmong. They revered him for fighting at their side for months on end, north of the Plain of Jars, and learning their language.

James Parker, Jr. (Mule) was another CAS that served from 1971 to war’s end. He was involved in the Battle for Skyline Ridge at Long Tieng. Parker authored two books: “Codename Mule: Fighting the Secret War in Laos for the CIA,” and “Battle for Skyline Ridge.”

All CAS advisors had code names. There were many, but here are a few: “Kayak,” “Greensleeves,” “Digger,” Hardnose,” “Moose,” “Bamboo,” “Ringo,” “Red Coat,” and “The Greek.”

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Long Tieng 1969 Vint Lawrence, General Vang Pao (Woodland Camo)

Final Outcome

The CIA and associated American forces helped the Royal Laotian Army and the Hmong for almost 15 years, holding off a Communist takeover. This war effort tied down two NVA divisions that might have been used in South Vietnam. Some notable successes were Operation Counterpunch, in 1970 in which the Hmong regained the vital all-weather forward fighter base at Muang Soui on the Plain of Jars. The preemptive strike delayed an imminent PAVN wet season offensive for a month. The guerrilla army survived, though still heavily outnumbered by the PAVN.

The 1972 Battle for Skyline Ridge was another success. This time, the NVA 312th and 316th Divisions were thwarted from taking the Hmong Headquarters at Long Tieng. The Hmong, with Thai mercenary support, held the mountain ridge north of Long Tieng, known as “Skyline.” CIA, Air America, and USAF sorties were heavily involved in this successful effort.

It was the 1973 Paris Peace Accords that required withdrawal of all American support in Laos. After the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, Laos was soon overran by the Pathet Lao.

Naturally, Tony Poe was deeply involved in all aspects of the covert CIA involvement in Laos. . .

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Tony Poe’s Outpost #4 – The Hmong and L’Armee Clandestine

Campaign Series Vietnam | Tony Poe’s Outpost

In Tony Poe’s Outpost series, David Galster sheds some light on the secret war in Laos for the upcoming CS Vietnam tactical-wargame, as well as some background information about who was involved and why.

Hey Grunts,

Do you wonder why the Hmong, under Vang Pao’s leadership, were the most effective opposition to the Communists in Laos? Why did the CIA work more closely with them than the Royal Laotian Army? Hopefully this article will explain their motivation to fight for their mountain homeland in Xieng Khouang and Houaphan provinces.

Hmong Origins

Hmong history is not precise, because there were few written records. The Hmong came  from the basins of the Yellow and Yangzi Rivers, in the cradle of Chinese civilization. Hmong myths say they are descendants of the people of the Kingdom of Chi You in Chinese legend, and are historically and culturally linked. Throughout their 5,000 year history, the Hmong were pushed and pulled to move from north to south, east to west, and from the lowlands to the highlands of China. This migration eventually reached Vietnam in the early 18th century, and Laos in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.


There are many folklore traditions including the myths of the Dragon King, creation of the world, and the original twelve clans. A flood myth is also part of Hmong folklore.

These strong traditions, and ties to mountain areas motivated the Hmong to fight for their way of life.

Another Hmong legend suggests why they prefer to live in the mountains. An ancient warrior named Sin Sai defended the first peoples of the earth against evil giants. Once this great undertaking had been accomplished, the legendary hero told the people to stay on top of the mountains to avoid any other evil giants that may come to harm them in the future.

Ever since the Hmong left their Chinese homeland, they dreamed of having their own kingdom, where they would no longer be oppressed. This dream was kept alive by the difficult conditions. In Laos, the lowlands were already occupied, and there was nowhere to go except mountains. Paddy farming was not possible, so they adapted themselves to hunting, forest gathering, and clearing and burning the jungle to grow upland crops.

Shamanism, superstition, and ancestor worship pervade the culture. Shamans are integral part of each family, and call upon the spirits to protect the house. A person’s twelve souls must remain in harmony to remain healthy. But they can fall into disharmony, and may even leave the body. The loss of a soul or souls causes serious illness, which can only be resolved by the Shaman “calling” the souls back.

Clans are a dominant part of Hmong society. Laos has eighteen Hmong clans. All children are members of the father’s clan, through which they will trace their ancestors. Women become members of their husband’s family upon marriage, but will retain their clan name of their father. Members of the same clan consider each other to be as “brothers”, “siblings,” and are expected to offer one another mutual support.

Clan groups are exogamous: that is, Hmong may not marry within their own clan group; a marriage partner must be found from another clan. However, they are allowed to marry blood relatives from their mother’s side.

The bride price is compensation for the new family taking the other family’s daughter, as the girl’s parents are now short one person to help with chores. The elders of both families negotiate the amount prior to an engagement.

There are many superstitious beliefs a bride must follow. For example: When the groom’s wedding party is departs the bride’s house, the bride must never look back, or else it is a bad omen for the marriage.

Hmong women are responsible for nurturing the children, preparing meals, feeding animals, and sharing in agricultural labor. Traditionally, Hmong women eat meals only after the men have eaten first.

Traditional Baci ceremonies are common, and they involve gatherings like a party. The people tie strings around each other’s wrists as a bond of reciprocal loyalty.

Hmong wear deep indigo dyed hemp clothing that includes a jacket with embroidered sleeves, sash, apron and leg wraps. They are known for very brightly colored embroidered traditional costumes, with beaded fringe.

Main Hmong Leaders

In 1961, only two Hmong, Vang Pao and Ya Thotou, reached the military rank of

Colonel. Ya Thotou, who died in 1961 from a traffic accident, was a Colonel and Commander of the Pa Chay battalion, one of the most decorated battalions of the Lao People’s Army (LPA). Pasert Fong Ya was Ya Thotou’s successor. In 1975, the Pathet Lao deployed him to take charge of Long Tieng after Vang Pao left. He was assassinated not long after.

A very well respected man among the Hmong was Touby Lyfoung. As one of the few Hmong educated in the French Colonial school system, he gained leadership positions in the Laotian Government. In 1945 North Vietnamese and Lao Issara troops took the Plain of Jars, (PDJ) from the French. It was recaptured by Hmong forces under Touby Lyfoung. In 1949, he was promoted to deputy-governor in charge of Hmong affairs in Xieng Khouang province where PDJ is located.

Vang Pao

Vang Pao became the primary military leader of the Hmong, and also General in charge of Military Region II in Laos. (MR II) He was able to maintain good relations with the Royal Laotian Government (RLG) and Army. (RLA)  But more importantly, he was the beloved leader of the Hmong, and organized them for war against the Communists. Further, the American CIA identified him in the early 1960s as a competent military leader they could trust and work with.

Family and political relations were important to Vang Pao, and he married four women, each in different clans, in order to expand his influence. He appointed representatives of the most powerful clans to the top posts in his army. To reach beyond clan leaders to the rank and file, Vang Pao distributed an array of benefits to ordinary Hmong who

supported his cause. With the CIA’s deep pockets, he was able to pay volunteers much higher salaries than that of regular RLA soldiers.

For the Hmong in Auto Defense Choc units, (ADC) family dependence on military pay was not a life and death matter. Soldiers headquartered in their home village had a farm to fall back on. But, the Special Guerilla Units, (SGU) were at Long Tieng, and Vang Pao encouraged the soldiers in these battalions to relocate their families to the military base. Without a farm to work, military pay was the only income, which was an additional reason to reorganize his entire army into SGUs; it increased Vang Pao’s control.

Vang Pao also expanded his opium network to cover nearly all Hmong opium grown in Laos. Much of it was transported by his private airline, Xieng Khouang Air Transport, launched in 1967. Thousands of Hmong villages in opium growing areas became dependent on him for their cash income, an economic fact of life that made them reluctant to deny his requests for military volunteers to flesh out his growing army.

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Vang Pao

L’Armee Clandestine

The Hmong were the main part of Vang Pao’s Army, and because of the 1962 Neutrality Treaty and secret US CIA involvement, this army was sometimes referred to as: “L’Armee Clandestine.” When Vang Pao became commander of MR II in 1963, he doubled his army from seven to fifteen thousand troops, organizing the bulk into SGUs. These were  battalion-size units of five hundred soldiers, divided into a headquarters unit and three line companies, armed with 60-mm mortars, 57-mm recoilless rifles, machine guns, and M-16 rifles. The SGUs were designed to pack a punch, and yet be highly mobile. They could be inserted or extracted at moment’s notice by helicopters or transport aircraft.

MR II encompassed Xieng Khouang and Houaphan (Sam Neua,) two provinces populated mainly by Hmong, but including Montagnards, Khmu, and highland T’ai. One condition Vang Pao insisted on in accepting command of the military region was that he be granted complete authority over the ethnic minorities. Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma did not object.

The main combat areas were the Plain of Jars to the area around Lima Site 85 in Sam Neua. During the dry season from November to April, the Hmong Army was on the defensive, fighting as guerillas. In the wet season, they went on the offensive, and in many cases recaptured lost ground.

Long Tieng, known as the “Secret City,” was the MR II headquarters. It is located about 25 kilometers southwest of the Plain of Jars. It was also the Lima Site LS-20A, and had significant aviation activity. This is where the CIA  case officers and Raven forward air controllers were based.

SGU battalions could generally whip the Pathet Lao. But, against NVA battalions, the Hmong could not hold up very long without US air support. The Hmong did not have much heavy artillery, and relied on the RLA and Thai artillery battalions.

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Hmong Troops


“Harvesting Pa Chay’s Wheat: The Hmong and America’s Secret War in Laos” by Keith Quincy

“Field Guide to Hmong Culture” by Dia Cha, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Anthropology and Ethnic Studies, St. Cloud State University, St. Cloud, Minnesota; Mai Zong Vue, and Steve Carmen

“The Secret War” by Fred Branfman

“Undercover Armies – CIA and Surrogate Warfare in Laos” by Thomas L. Ahern

Tony Poe and the Hmong

Tony Poe was a CIA Case Officer in Laos from 1961 to 1973.  Going “Bamboo,” he
knew quite a bit about the Hmong. For many years, he was stationed at Long Tieng. But, he had disputes with General Vang Pao, among which were about the opium trade. After 1965, Tony set up an outpost near the Chinese border, where he trained members of the Yao tribe as soldiers. He married the Yao chieftain’s daughter.

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Tony Poe’s Outpost #3 – Communist Forces in Laos Secret War

Campaign Series Vietnam | Tony Poe’s Outpost

In Tony Poe’s Outpost series, David Galster sheds some light on the secret war in Laos for the upcoming CS Vietnam tactical-wargame, as well as some background information about who was involved and why.

Hey Grunts,

Did you know that the Laotian Communist forces were led by Prince Souphanouvong, and were called the Pathet Lao? He was known as the Red Prince, and the Pathet Lao  were supported by the North Vietnamese Communist Party, (Dang Cong,) and the Peoples Army of Vietnam, (PAVN.)

Prince Souphanouvong and the NLHS

Prince Souphanouvong and the group following him favored close alliance with the Vietnamese Communists. In 1949, they broke away from the Lao Issara movement that began in 1945 as an anti-French movement, but was not Communist. The Red Prince organized a new Lao political party called the Neo Lao Hak Sat (NLHS). This faction was a Communist “front,” but to have broader appeal,  proclaimed support for traditional Laotian culture, Buddhism, and protection of the royal throne. They aligned with the Pathet Lao, and were supported by the Dang Cong and North Vietnamese Army.

After the 1954 Geneva Conference, the French left, and the Vietnamese could devote more attention to political organization in Laos. So, in 1955 the  People’s Party of Laos (PPL) was formed. It was unabashedly Communist. The NLHS was subordinate, and continued to serve as a “front.” The Pathet Lao, (PL,) was the military branch of the Communist movement.

NLHS Participation in Laotian Government

By 1957 and 1958, many NLHS members were being imprisoned or killed. During this time, politicians attempted to integrate the Pathet Lao into the Royal Laotian Government. (RLG) In the fall of 1957, Souvanna Phouma and his half-brother Souphanouvong reconciled in which he and Phoumi Vongvichit were brought into the government as ministers. The NLHS particpated in National Assembly elections in 1958. Two Pathet Lao-controlled provinces, Sam Neua and Phong Saly, were included in the national government. They agreed to integrate 1500 Pathet Lao soldiers  into the Royal Laotian Army. (RLA)

Right-wing leaders were dismayed when the NLHS won nine seats in the 1958 election. They inflicted police surveillance, and other harassment upon the newly-elected NLHS politicians. Following the collapse of negotiations to integrate the Pathet Lao into the Royal Army, the Phoui Sananikone government arrested sixteen NLHS leaders.

The PPL sought increased assistance to consolidate the revolutionary movement, and  an active North Vietnamese military phase began in Laos. Communist forces reoccupied Sam Neua and Phong Saly. In 1959, Doan (Group) 959 was organized as part of this initiative. This was a military organization to support the Pathet Lao, and it was strongly supported by Hanoi.

Laotian Neutrality Treaty – Geneva 1962

With the 1962 Geneva Neutrality treaty, a tripartite government was established in Vientiane. This returned the NLHS to participation in a “unified” government. Although Prince Souphanouvong served as deputy prime minister and Phoumi Vongvichit was a minister in the tripartite government, the NLHS front and its government continued to exercise authority in the areas that Communist armed forces controlled. During the short period of NLHS participation with the RLG in Vientiane, there were no elections for the NLHS to contest. By 1963, relations were once again strained, and the NLHS  leaders, claiming they had insufficient personal security, quit Vientiane for the NLHS-controlled regions.

The Pathet Lao set up headquarters in the Sam Neua (Xam Nua) area, near the North Vietnamese border. Caves in Ban Nakay Neua (Hidden City) protected the leaders and staff from US bombing.

Pathet Lao Organization

Prince Souphanouvong was the official leader, but Kaysone Phomvihan was the minister of Defense and more closely directed the operations of the Pathet Lao. Phoumi Vongvichit was Minister of Foreign Affairs. Later, General Singkapo Chounramany would be the commander of the Pathet Lao forces.

The Pathet Lao was organized into different regional headquarters in Laos. These corresponded to the Laotian provinces. Sam Neua, Phong Saly, Xieng Khouang, Nam Tha, Luang Prabang, Vientiane, Khammourane, Savannakhet, Saravane, and Attopeu were the major ones. The Plain of Jars was heavily contested throughout the war, and that was in the Xieng Khouang region. The Ho Chi Minh trail ran through the Sam Neua, Khammourane, Savannakhet, Saravane, and Attopeu regions. Doan 559 was the North Vietnamese military organization that operated the Ho Chi Minh trail.

The largest Pathet Lao military units were battalions. There were several numbered battalions in each region, and they acted as “local forces.” The total PL troops in Laos were 9000 in 1960, 25000 in 1965, and over 48000 in 1970. These were predominantly infantry. The Pathet Lao had little heavy artillery, no armored forces, and no engineer battalions.

Each PL battalion had at least one NVA advisor, and also Vietnames political advisors – commissars – to enforce party doctrines. One such advisor, Captain Dai Hap, defected, and provided a great deal of intelligence to the US. (The North Vietnamese Military Adviser in Laos: First Hand Account – Rand Corp. 1968 by Paul F. Langer and Joseph J. Zasloff)

NVA and Pathet Lao Relationship

Pathet Lao were ineffective against Hmong fighters. The PL lacked discipline and motivation despite having NVA advisors. Their weapons were not as advanced as the NVA’s.

The NVA maintained at least one division in Laos. The 312th and 316th Infantry Divisions were in Laos most of the time. Doan 959 was organized to provide support for the Pathet Lao. This included transportation companies, anti-aircraft battalions, and engineers. The NVA supplied most of the heavy artillery and armor. Pathet Lao battalions typically had 82mm mortars and sometimes 107mm mortars. They were strictly foot soldiers, with no mechanization.

The NVA sometimes backed off, and tried to let the Pathet Lao fight in combat situations where they could win a victory. This had propaganda advantages. But, in critical combat situations, NVA forces always took over.

During the dry season, from November to April, the NVA and Pathet Lao went on the offensive from their base in Sam Neua. Their main goal was to control the Plain of Jars, but they also sought to capture Lima Sites. (airfields) However, in the rainy season, the Hmong and RLA forces generally pushed the Communists back. The Plain of Jars changed hands several times during the war.

War Outcome

In 1973, with the Paris Peace Accords, US military support for the Laotians and Hmong was withdrawn. In 1975, the Pathet Lao were able to overrun all of Laos and the Communists took control.

I imagine that Tony Poe became very familiar with the Pathet Lao, and trained the Hmong to fight them effectively. The fighting was a very grisly affair, with many atrocities committed by both sides.

For awhile, Tony demonstrated Hmong combat effectiveness to his CIA superiors by paying for ears cut off from dead Pathet Lao. One day, he saw a couple of boys walking through a village with their ears removed. . . He realized the unintended consequences, and ended the practice immediately.

Campaign Series Vietnam | Tony Poe’s Outpost

Tony Poe’s Outpost #2 – Chaotic 1960 Laotian Coup

Campaign Series Vietnam | Tony Poe’s Outpost

In Tony Poe’s Outpost series, David Galster sheds some light on the secret war in Laos for the upcoming CS Vietnam tactical-wargame, as well as some background information about who was involved and why.

Hey Grunts,

Didn’t I tell you that things in Laos were very confusing? Maybe this little briefing on the 1960 Laotian Coups will help clear things up, just a little.

Kong Le

The “wild card” that caused so much turmoil was a young Lao Theung Captain named Kong Le. Enlisting in the Army in 1951, he showed promise and gained appointment to the Officer Candidate School at Dong Hene. Graduating 19 out of a class of 21, he showed aggressiveness but, changeable temperament and rapid mood swings. Later, he attended Scout Ranger training at Fort William McKinley, in the Philippines.

On return to Laos, Kong Le joined the Bataillon Parachutistes 2, as second in command. His peers during this early paratroop service were the notable Vang Pao and Thao Ma. The battalion was considered the “cream” of the Royal Laotian Army.

Kong Le was no mere soldier, looking to serve dutifully, and follow orders. Instead, he was very political and outspoken. His causes were strict Laotian neutrality, and ending government corruption.

Campaign Series Vietnam | Tony Poe’s Outpost

1959 Coup

In December 1959, the commanding officer of BP 2 was in the United States, leaving Captain Kong Le in charge. This was at a critical time when the term of the National Assembly expired. Generals Ouane Rattikonewhile and Phoumi Novasan encouraged him to fill the power vacuum. And so, on 25 December, 1959 Kong Le and the Bataillon Parachutistes 2 took control over Vientiane in a rather bloodless coup. Phoumi Novasan became the Minister of Defense, but actually held actual power over the Royal Lao Government.

However, in the following months, Kong Le’s Bataillon Parachutistes 2 went upaid much to the time, and became mutinous. Kong Le decided to seize the capital again, for his own power and on August 10, 1960 seized power a second time, this time deposing Phoumi Novasan.

Kong Le’s aims in seizing the capital became apparent in his radio broadcasts:

“What leads us to carry out this revolution is our desire to stop the bloody civil war; eliminate grasping public servants and military commanders…whose property amounts to much more than their monthly salaries can afford…. It is the Americans who have brought government officials and army commanders, and caused war and dissension in our country.”

 The CIA was at first “charmed” by Kong Le and perhaps thought he could be a useful leader. Kong Le, in CIA’s own judgment, was a “highly competent professional soldier,” an essentially apolitical “born leader” whose motivation when he staged the August 1960 coup was hostility toward the admittedly “corrupt bureaucracy” of his own government. Ulitmately however, his disparaging remarks about Americans did not win US support. Vang Pao would become America’s favored Laotian war leader.

 Phoumi Nosavan did not give up power easily, and he flew to Bangkok, soliciting support from his first cousin, Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, the dictator of the Kingdom of Thailand. Phoumi then flew to Savannakhet, Laos to establish a headquarters and assemble a resistance movement.

The Pathet Lao pledged their cooperation with Kong Le. The next four months of turmoil saw Kong Le struggle to maintain control over the Kingdom of Laos in the face of a increasing resistance. Kong Le convinced Souvanna Phouma to become Prime Minister in the new government; in turn, Souvanna appointed General Ouane commander in chief of the RLA.

1960 Coup

In early October, Vang Pao declared Military Region 2 support for Phoumi. After internecine struggle, Military Region 1 also remained in Phoumi’s control. On 16 November, General Ouane flew to Savannakhet to join Phoumi. With Central Intelligence Agency financial backing, and aided by CIA-trained commandos, Phoumi’s troops set forth at 0800 hours on 21 November 1960 to reclaim Vientiane. On 13 December 1960, Phoumi’s counter-coup column began his assault on Kong Le’s paratroopers occupying Vientiane. For four days, the two sides fought with crew-served weapons without close combat. On 16 December, Kong Le’s forces withdrew northward toward the strategic Plain of Jars, leaving Phoumi once again in charge of Laos. Not long after, Souvanna Phouma retumed as Prime Minister. This government was to remain in power until the Pathet Lao took over in 1975.

Coup Aftermath

For about two more years, the Pathet Lao and Soviet communists provided support for Kong Le’s forces, which became known as Forces Armee Neutraliste, FAN.

These forces were headquartered at Khang Khay in the Plain of Jars. They drove the Royal Laotian forces completely off of the Plain of Jars.

The FAN forces grew to about 8000 by the end of 1962, and Kong Le promoted himself to Major General. In 1963 however, a split-up occurred, and FAN rejoined forces with the Royal Laotian Army. Kong Le’s second in command, Colonel Deuane Sunnalath broke off, and stayed with the Pathet Lao, under the name of Patriotic Neutralist Forces, PNF.

Thus, the “Secret War” began in earnest with the CIA-backed Hmong, allied with the Royal Laotian Army, plus the Forces Armee Neutralistes opposing the Pathet Lao, North Vietnamese, and Patriotic Neutralist Forces.

Kong Le’s Demise

With the coups of 1959 and 1960 and Kong Le’s subsequent alliance with the Pathet Lao, the Royal Laotian Government never really trusted him again. Starting in 1964, with Operation Triangle, Kong Le’s forces were assigned to defend the airfield at Moung Soui, west of the Plain of Jars. They were also given the mission to retake Phou Kout, a mountain that overlooked Route 7 between Moung Soui and the Plain of Jars. Over a two-year period, Kong Le was never able to retake Phou Kout from the Pathet Lao. He did not exert good leadership in this period, and during some of these battles, he spent time in a Buddhist monastery, in meditation.

As for the US State Department, impatience grew with Kong Le, and Under-Secretary Dillon said he was, “a Castro communist-type individual.” No government he controlled could be trusted.

In January 1966, Bataillon Infanterie 14 mutinied in protest against Kong Le’s lack of leadership. Bataillon Infanterie 8 then mutinied on 30 March 1966, walking off the battlefield. By now, Kong Le lost support of most of his subordinate officers. His interest in a French intelligence officer’s daughter did not help matters. Three of his subordinates divided up command of FAN, and forced him into exile. Kong Le sought asylum in the Indonesian embassy in Vientiane. On 17 October, 1966, he left Laos.


Well grunts, what do you think about all of that? Kong Le was quite a colorful character, huh? Maybe very energetic and unpredictable. It seems he couldn’t quite figure out which side he wanted to be on, and stick with it to victory.

I imagine Tony Poe had to figure all of this political wrangling out too, so he could advise Bill Lair on the best US policy to fight communism. Tony Poe also was very energetic and unpredictable, but at least he knew which side he was on . . .

Campaign Series Vietnam | Tony Poe’s Outpost