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