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.
Haven’t you heard? The US fought a secret war in Laos from 1960 to 1973! And, it was quite a messy and complicated affair. But, here is a little introduction and map that will help sort out some of the main players and their machinations.
Post Colonial politics in Laos were very complex, and the events and politicians involved can be quite confusing. Here is a very brief summary of the leadership and forces that most shaped the Laotian Civil War.
Royalist – Boun Oum
Neutralist – Souvanna Phouma
Communist – Souphanouvong (“The Red Prince”)
Royalist Prince Boun Oum, cousin to the other two princes, overthrew the Phouma Government in late 1960. He was supported by Phoui Sananikone, General Phoumi Nosavan, and the Hmong Leader, General Vang Pao.
Pro-western Prince Souvanna Phouma was supported by Kong Le and ultimately regained control of the Royal Laotian Government after the Kong Le coup in early 1960 and Boun Oum coup later that year. His government remained in Vientiane and continued through most of the “Secret War” until 1975.
The Laotian communist movement, led by Prince Souphanouvong, was called the Pathet Lao. They were supported by the North Vietnamese Communist Party, (Dang Cong,) and the Peoples Army of Vietnam, (PAVN.) By 1963, this movement abandoned Vientiane, and 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. After 1975, it was renamed Vieng Xai. (City of Victory)
The US Goverment favored the Souvanna Phouma regime, and had CIA (Central Intelligence Agency,) operations in Laos since 1960 with Bill Lair in charge. The “White Star” program began with CIA agents in Laos, called CAS for “Controlled American Source.”
“Secret War” Begins
In 1962, the Geneva treaty established Laos as a neutral nation. President Kennedy ordered all US military to leave Laos. Two CAS operators, Vint Lawrence and Tony Poe secretly remained. Bill Lair continued to direct secret operations in Laos, from his office in Nong Khai, Thailand, across the Mekong River. This secret war was kept from the American people and even Congress. The American Ambassador in Vientiane, Leonard Unger had authority over all American operations in Laos. In 1964, William Sullivan succeeded him.
The CIA began to support, and train Hmong forces under General Vang Pao. This was known as “Operation Momentum.” They were allied with the Royal Laotian Army (RLA,) and under the government of Souvanna Phouma.
Hmong forces were supplied by Air America, a CIA-owned civilian “airline,” which had a fleet of transport aircraft, and helicopters. Landing strips, called “Lima Sites” were set up all over Laos to bring in supplies, and move Hmong troops to fight the Pathet Lao and PAVN. Some notable Lima sites were LS-85, LS-36, and LS-20A.
After the Kennedy assassination, President Johnson allowed more CAS operatives in Laos. In addition, US Air Force (USAF) sorties were allowed to attack targets in Laos to support Hmong and RLA troops. These operated from Thailand, Navy carriers, and sometimes from Long Tieng, Laos. These pilots were “sheep dipped,” – stripped of all military identification, and sworn to disavow US military service if captured. Forward air controllers, (FAC) with callsign RAVEN flew “Bird Dogs,” – Cessna single engine aircraft to direct the bombing runs. These pilots were recruited under the “Steve Canyon” program, and operated primarily out of the “secret base” Long Tieng, where General Vang Pao’s headquarters were located. Some RAVENs flew out of Pakse, in the southern Laotian panhandle.
Major Battles and Asymmetry of Forces
The Plain of Jars (Xiang Khoang Province,) was fought over and changed hands many times. The area was critical for transportation as several highways converged there. (Routes 4, 6, 7, 42, and 61) The two notable PAVN divisions supporting the Pathet Lao battalions were the 312 (Chien Thang – Victory) and 316 (Bien Hoa – Highland) Infantry Divisions.
In the Sam Neua area of eastern Laos, (in the Houaphan Province,) a major conflict erupted over the control of LS-85 on Phou Pha Thi Mountain. This Lima site had a TACAN radar station, and directed bombing missions over North Vietnam. The North Vietnamese captured this facility in March, 1968.
The Ho Chi Minh trail (Truong Son) was predominantly in Laos, and operated by North Vietnamese Doan 559. Royal Laotian Army troops tried to interdict the trail with “Action Teams” to report truck movement, and perform sabotage. B-52 bombing also attempted to destroy the roads and bridges with operations such as “Barrell Roll”, “Steel Tiger,” and “Commando Hunt.” Although Laos is the most heavily bombed country in history, the US and Laotian interdiction efforts on the Ho Chi Minh trail were ineffective.
In the southern panhandle, most of the fighting took place because of the Ho Chi Minh trail. Battles in and around Saravan and Pakse were fought between the RLA and the 968th group, which later became a PAVN infantry division. PAVN operations became more intense in the later war years.
Jungle fighting in Laos was fought conventionally by the North Vietnamese, (PAVN) using infantry, supported by heavy artillery, and occasionally tanks. The Pathet Lao battalions were ineffective, but were inserted mainly for propaganda, (“War of liberation,”) purposes. PAVN went on the offensive in the dry season from November to April.
The Hmong forces did not have heavy artillery. Alone, Hmong guerilla battalions were ineffective against PAVN conventional troops. Sometimes, Thai artillery battalions were brought in. But, most of their combat support came from USAF fighter-bomber sorties, directed by RAVENs. They usually attempted to regain lost territory in the wet season from May to October. The Hmong were organized into Special Guerilla Battalions, SGU. Groups of these were organized into Groupement Mobiles or GMs.
Vang Pao’s Hmong forces lost ground overall, including the Plain of Jars, but were able to prevent a complete takeover of central Laos. For several years, they tied down two PAVN divisions, which would otherwise be used in Vietnam. But in 1973, the Paris Peace Treaty was signed. All American support for Laos was withdrawn, including all CAS operators. The good Hmong fighters were now decimated; only teenagers and old men were left to fill their ranks. Without American support, they were no match for the North Vietnamese. In 1975, the Pathet Lao took over all of Laos including Vientiane.
Tony Poe was quite a colorful CAS operator. Going “Bamboo,” he spent over a dozen years in Laos, training Hmong troops, and directing operations. By American standards, his tactics and methods were sometimes unorthodox, and his superiors viewed him as a rogue. Some writers claim he was the inspiration for Colonel Kurtz in the movie “Apocalypse Now” . . .