submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

Laos was a very different war. The twelve-month tour length in Vietnam pretty well flushed out collective memory of many lessons learned at substantial expense of life after about a year. Much in Vietnam had to be re-learned to remain credible and functionally alive in current memory. Raven FACs rotated, turned over after about six to eight months. But the diverse staffs and combat forces Ravens were supporting in the field in Laos didn’t rotate or change much over time.
This process had obvious advantages and not so obvious disadvantages. One of the disadvantages was an implicit expectation, among those who had long served “up-country”, that the future would be pretty much a re-run of the past. The enemy would do what they had done previously. Attack the same targets. Assault the same positions without imagination or tactical creativity. Resident memory of the NVA having mounted an assault on Long Tieng – known in the trade as Twenty-Alternate – was considerable. The NVA had managed to get tanks up on the crest of Skyline Ridge, commanding terrain from which their armor could observe and fire directly down into every part of Long Tieng. Repelling that was quite a fight. The experienced held a consensus that Long Tieng remained a target of absolute priority to the NVA. They’d be back. As soon as the NVA gathered together enough forces and munitions, they’d have another try at taking Long Tieng.
As a new Raven, I had every reason to share this expectation. VR’d carefully. The NVA were expending a lot of energy keeping a slithering, tortuous road open across mountainous terrain. The NVA used that particular road to re-supply troops dug in at the southwest end of the PDJ. We called that road segment the “Switchback”.
Tactical air bombed the hell out of the Switchback almost every night and the NVA immediately went to work with pick and shovel to restore the road to functionality by dawn. We weren’t winning the war, but we kept the enemy quite busy with the Switchback just supporting what they already had in place.
Gradually, after VRing for a few weeks, I concluded the NVA focus had shifted away from Long Tieng in MR Two. Ground movement and visible traces of activity were bypassing Long Tieng over the road north of the PDJ, Highway 7, and were concentrating roughly in the area of Sala Phou Koun. This evident enemy activity was in a different Military Region, MR One, near an intersection of the primary road connecting Vientiane with Luang Prabang. If the NVA massed there, they’d be able to cut off ground access to the north of the country and would have a geographically unimpeded forty five mile shot at taking Vientiane using flat, easy terrain.
In 1972 we no longer had any Ravens assigned to MR One. My observation reports about what was going on were not at all welcomed – they conflicted with tactical expectations – and I was strongly discouraged from sniffing around MR One, told to stay out of MR One, and stick to finding and killing things on the ground inside MR Two. Fine. MR Two was Vang Pao’s turf and he wasn’t interested in his resources being used elsewhere. This was a parochial perspective to which he and his supporting elements were entitled. My occasional VR of MR One became limited to what I could see while flying to and from work on the PDJ. I developed an up-front technique for debriefing Intel at the completion of missions. “First, I’ll give you the facts, what I saw and where I saw it. When we’re finished with all that and have answered any questions you have, I’ll tell you what I think, if anything, it all means.”
Two reasonably accessible routes existed for an O-1 to fly between Vientiane and Long Tieng. One route went up the Mekong, across a lake formed behind a new dam, then up through a narrow canyon and out across the hills that bounded the PDJ. That was the “front door”. The other route, the “back door”, extended from Vientiane up to Vang Vieng then a bit to the east of Muang Kassi to intersect Highway 7. Following that highway east brought one out near Muong Soui (L108), the Jungle’s Mouth and to the edge of the PDJ. I frequently used the front door in the morning and flew the back door route coming back to Vientiane at the end of the day. But that varied – no set routine. Becoming predictable was dangerous for a FAC.
Occasionally I remained at Long Tieng over night and fed the bears a few bottles of imported beer. Our Intel troops and radio operators normally departed Long Tieng by Porter just before sundown late every afternoon.
Flying the backdoor route one morning I noticed a patch of grass had been tromped down right at the edge of MR Two just off the road on a ledge where terrain steeply descended down to a recently used trail. In the U.S. a location like this would have a big VIEW sign, a pull-out and parking for tourists. Standing on that patch of grass one had an extended panoramic view of the lowlands below and terrain clear down to Vang Vieng. Orbited a few times, made my VR notes, recorded the UTM coordinates, then pressed on. Put in a few sets of fighters on the PDJ and landed at Long Tieng a little before noon. Debriefed Intel on the morning observations. Finally got to the grass item and waited while he wrote notes for his daily intelligence summary.
“At TG434525, between sunup and eight-thirty this morning, a minimum of eighty and a maximum of 120 troops stopped, rested briefly, and from the shape left in the grass were likely briefed by cadre concerning the next leg of their mission.” Yes. I kept my map bag and notebook and have them sitting here next to me while writing.
“How the hell can you know how many people there were?”
“The grass was tromped down in a crescent shape around the point where the trail descends down a fairly steep slope. Estimated the number of people from the half-moon shape and the area tromped down. The time from the way the weeds were springing back up when I came by.”
“Where do you think they are headed?”
“That trail through the lowland heads straight for the canyon where the road goes through a pass connecting Vang Vieng and Muang Kassy. That canyon is a natural terrain blocking point that can easily be held by a group that size and is a lovely location for an ambush.”
“I’ll pass it on.”
A parochial perspective was endemic through-out much of Laos. Although there were firm borders published on maps, which defined the country, and formal international diplomatic recognition of the nation’s existence, the people living in Laos hadn’t the slightest sense of a national identity. They thought of themselves as members of this or that tribe and didn’t much give a damn about people from any tribe other than their own. French was casually spoken in urban areas. Most people were marginally multi-lingual, spoke their own tribal language and understood a variant of a dialect spoken in Northeastern Thailand. They understood Thai but spoke it with reluctance and contempt. This caused problems in combat because Hmong backseaters had an ethnic aversion to speaking with Thai troops over the radio.
The Hmong were hill tribesmen. They hunted up something for breakfast every morning using a cross bow, caught huge crawdads the size of small lobsters to eat with their rice, fermented their own booze, and farmed small, temporary slash and burn plots on the sides of hills. Hmong women wore identically decorated knitted hats and were immediately identifiable, anywhere, as Hmong ladies. The Hmong complained of a kind of inverse altitude sickness when they visited the lowlands and wouldn’t stay down there for long. The Hmong were proud and were not at all pleased when confused with Lao people. The Lao lived in the lowlands, farmed in a more conventional fashion, and expressed their superior cultural contempt for the Hmong up in the hills. Neither group had any contact with flush toilets, dentistry, or had ever even seen mechanical objects much more complex than a bicycle. Both groups waved enthusiastically when the Ravens flew near them at low level. A three-headed elephant in living color lashed to the sides of our fuselage, we were their Air Force.
One behavioral characteristic differentiated these two groups, the Hmong and the Lao. The Hmong would fight, endure hardship loyally, and do their best to persevere. The Lao regarded their military as a kind of ceremonial thing with pretty uniforms. With occasional and welcomed exception, most Lao hadn’t the slightest cultural interest in combat and did their best to get far out the way at the first hint of the onset of armed conflict.
I gave it a few days. Enough time for those troops, who had tromped down the grass on that ledge before continuing their combat march, to make it all the way to Vang Vieng if they wanted. Warm, sunny afternoon. Flew home by way of the back door and made a few orbits over a steep-sided pass between Vang Vieng and Muang Kassy to see if there was anything interesting there, but nothing was out of place. Everything ordinary. Saw nothing of significance. Flying at a fairly low altitude. On my fourth orbit, while crossing the ridge on the northeast side of the pass with my tail towards the road, I heard a single AK round go by me on the left side of the aircraft. One of the attractive features of the O-1 – one could hear bullets. Made my day, of course. Had an instant vision of an NVA cadre on the ground grabbing the shooter and shouting, “Don’t shoot at bringer-of-death, stupid!”
I was smiling at everything in the cockpit. Was flying over terrain well out of the areas in which I normally worked. Needed to break out a map covering the area below from the map bag parked beneath my knees. My maps were all indexed and stored in order. Getting that map out required use of both hands. Normally a pilot would just trim the aircraft up into dynamic equilibrium so it would fly straight and level, hands off. Doing that in combat made the flight path quite predictable and invited accurate fire from the ground. Used a different technique. A useful fact: an aircraft can’t stall unless it is under load, has force being applied to the stick or rudder. Pulled the nose of the aircraft up violently to about twenty-five degrees above the horizon, took hands off controls, then allowed the aircraft to recover by itself while I pawed through the map bag with both hands. Had several maps sprawled open across the cockpit, verifying location, noting radial and DME from the TACAN, and writing down coordinates of the target in grease pencil on the window when Cricket called.
“Two-zero, I’ve got some ResCap birds coming off station still fully loaded. Can you expend them?”
My smile expanded into a permanent feature. Said I sure could and gave Cricket a rendezvous point. Rescue birds carried a variety of dispersible sparkle and pyrotechnic munitions designed to suppress enemy interest during a rescue operation. A perfect load since I didn’t have a precise location on whoever it was that was shooting at me.
Hobo flight of two A-7 fighters checked in, were briefed, and we went to work. Their load was twelve CBU-52 plus 20 mm. Worked over the slopes on the southwest side of the road. I didn’t see that we’d destroyed or damaged anything. Target was TG 245146. BDA was 100% on target, results not observed, smoke. There was a lot of smoke. Hobo flight departed for their home plate just about the time Sandy 6 flight checked in with twelve CBU-46, ten LAU-3, and two CBU-38. It wasn’t going to be all flash and sparkle. Worked some of the CBU into a grove of banana trees at the base of a cliff. Hoped the shooter was hidden among the bananas. A banana tree is just a huge lily. Provides shade and bananas but zero protection from even the most modest projectile. You can cut down a banana tree with a dull nail file. Pretty well saturated all the best places for setting up an ambush. Expended, gave Sandy 6 the same BDA I’d given Hobo and thanked them for their fine delivery. The fighters left. I landed at Wattai, stopped by AIRA for a quick Intel debrief, then headed for Nong Bone and supper.
Three days later. Evening. The Ravens are all gathered along the sides and ends of our long teak table for supper. Bo Mee Bruce, the AOC for MR One was eating with us. Bruce tapped his water glass for silence and announced: “Silence please. I have story tell.”
“Yes – silence! Lizard has a story!”
“Today honorable lieutenant and I drive jeep from here go Moung Kassy. I have go there help them fill out supply requisition forms they find very difficult write. We stop at Vang Vieng, eat two good hot dog, then press up road Moung Kassy. Soon after enter steep side canyon lieutenant look me and say ‘Smell very bad here!’ I say, “Lieutenant, ‘Chai! Numbaten smell this place.” We park jeep along road. Get out of jeep, Pick up M-16s, canteens. Walk up hill. Walk all around place. Find many, many, dead body all over hill. Make smell very bad there”
“How many you count, Lizard?” “Eighty-two dead body.”
Passed the revised and ground verified strike BDA to Hobo and Sandy 6 the next day. Lest the syntax imply a pejorative, retarded flavor, I should note that Bruce was a university educated command pilot and Lieutenant Colonel, USAF. We all spoke an ad hoc kind of Pidgin in sentences cobbled together with words from Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, French and Grunt most of the time. Knew you wouldn’t want me to change a word of it.
One week later. 12 January 1973. Another early morning first go. Still dark. Picked up my parachute harness, chest pack, weapons, map bag and survival gear, which were stored within a room-sized walk-in safe located inside a gray, detached metal trailer. Left a pile of the day’s frag orders inside the walk-in safe for Ravens launching later in the morning. Walked out across the dark military ramp at Wattai looking for my aircraft. No lights. A little hammering noise was coming from activity behind the PSP blast shields near the edge of the ramp behind the parked T-28s. Three Lao Air Force maintenance troops were carefully disassembling live fifty caliber belted rounds and creating three piles on the ground. Brass cartridges, a heap of gunpowder poured from each of the cartridges, and a mound of projectiles. Very busy troops. Paid an absurdly low monthly wage, they supplemented their income by selling the components of munitions on the local market. Much of their other economic activity was less visible. In 1971, Laos was a net international exporter of hydraulic fluid although they had no petroleum industry and no distillation or hydrocarbon cracking capability within the country. Laotian industrial capability was non-existent. Within all of Laos there was but a single elevator, an Otis. It connected the ground and second floors of a hotel just down the hallway from an attached saloon, Le Spot. We routinely brought visitors to up-country over to that hotel, patted the nation’s only elevator with pride, and spoke briefly of the magnificent pace of indigenous industrial development in Laos. After experiencing, first hand, that nation’s somewhat primitive state, visitors were usually ready to proceed into Le Spot for a drink.
The duty crew chief condensed out of the darkness of the ramp and traced a gnarled path through tie-down ropes to a particular O-1 tail number I was looking for. Each Raven, or Lao FAC in-training, flew a different O-1G or U-17 everyday. (The G-model had a toggle switch which, when activated, bypassed the entire fuel carburetion input path to the engine and just poured raw fuel directly into the cylinders. In a circumstance where the fuel plumbing had been destroyed by triple-A, too rich was better than having no fuel at all!)
Checked the 781 then did a pre-flight walk- around. Checked the fuel for water or other contamination. Pure. No fresh speed tape over bullet holes. An airworthy machine fit for flight. Strapped in. Parked my map bag on the deck behind the battery near my feet. Opened a new page in the strike notebook then cranked. Ran the engine up on the ramp parking spot with the crew chief observing the instruments with his head poked through the open side window. Got a 180 rpm drop on the right magneto, so burned out the carbon by leaning the engine close to ‘best power’ for a couple of minutes. Pretty normal. On my first solo flight over the PDJ my engine had quit. Carbon buildup. Most of our pilots had earned their wings in an all-jet training course. Reciprocating engines and what manifold pressure really was remained an undefined conceptual mystery. They tended to drive around with their mixture lever in full rich for the entire duration of a mission, clogging the engine exhaust valves with a carbon buildup. Burned the carbon on the valves a second time and finally got a good mag check. Cleared to taxi, altimeter set, before takeoff check completed and was cleared for immediate departure. Turned right out of traffic about forty feet above the ground, flipped off the electric fuel boost pump, retracted the flaps. Called my off time to Dragon Control then switched frequency and called airborne to Cricket. Dawn was in progress. Tops of towering cumulus to the east were in full, golden sunlight while their bases remained curtained in darkness.
Headed up to the new lake created by the dam, an international USAID hydroelectric Peace project. A contiguous billowing line of thunderstorms blocked the usual path through the front door up to the PDJ. Tops to about sixteen-thousand. Decided to try the back door route. Headed for Vang Vieng then turned northeast. The back door route was blocked solid all the way across by thunderstorms extending along a 270 degree arc above the ridge line beyond Sala Phou Khoun. No path open through that weather into MR Two for an O-1. Decided to go over and land at Muang Kassy, wait out the weather, and see what the local Lao ground troops were up to. Landed on their gravel runway, parked and shut down. Two teenage Lao soldiers appeared from nowhere and immediately began refueling my aircraft, hand pumping the gas from a fifty-gallon drum. I walked about 100 meters down the road, passed two Lao baby tanks on static display and went into a tent that served as the local TOC. (These were real tanks, had armor, tracks and onboard artillery. Each was not very much larger than a Volkswagen and never moved out of the place where they were parked. Somebody’s status symbol. Never learned the official designation of these baby tanks). There was no one else in the TOC so I walked over to the 1:50,000 map display and began taking notes on where their troops were currently deployed.
Handy data. Recorded locations in case any of them got in trouble later on. I’d copied unit identities and coordinates into my notebook to that point when a Lao Lieutenant Colonel, their operations officer, entered the TOC and said, “I no talk radio my troops since two this morning. Call many time. No talk me.”
He was agitated, anxious, upset. Said, “We go fly look for them your airplane.”
Since I’d just completed a reasonably comprehensive look at the disposition of his forces, knew where they were and where we were on the map – and knew where the weather was, told him, “Weather number ten. Too bad sky to fly where your troops are.” Then I resumed kneeling while copying coordinates into my notebook.
He disappeared for about three minutes then reappeared and tapped me on my left shoulder. Very insistent, “We go fly now. No can wait.”
Clearly his brain wouldn’t come into synch with what was out there until he saw the weather for himself, so we left the TOC and went out to the O-1. My chest pack was lying on the back seat. He picked my chute up and put it behind the rear seat well out of reach. Nice touch. Was amused that he imagined I might jump out and leave him all alone in the sky.
Took off to the south at 0715 then climbed northeast up the road from Moung Kassy. Called Cricket airborne. The stratus overcast was solid, nice smooth base at 900 feet AGL, light rain. And we went out hunting for his troops who had been silent for the past five hours. The thunderstorm line that had been blocking the back door to the PDJ was still active and hadn’t moved at all. The road beneath us was ascending the terrain, wedging us into a narrowing triangle of space between ground and cloud base. We stayed to the right side of the single lane and followed the dirt road up the mountain. Went about as far as we could rationally proceed to the point where the road climbed into the base of the cloud and was no longer visible. Then orbited a few times so that he could begin to comprehend the problem. Where the road disappeared into the clouds, fog was rolling down, turning into mist, then evaporating. It looked the way heavy fog behaved when it poured across the hills near San Francisco. Looking through the left window, I was watching the place where the road, fog and overcast all converged when I thought I saw a grayish shape walking slowly downhill out of the fog. I did. After he’d walked a few more feet the gray shape became a soldier cradling an AK-47. Not very far away. I pointed and asked, “That one of your troops?”
No answer.
I wasn’t comfortable with his non-response and didn’t know if he had any teams using captured weapons. So, I moved the airplane out a few hundred feet to put some distance between us and whatever it was that was coming out of the clouds and walking down that hill road. Continued watching. Three more shapes coalesced and came walking out of the clouds. Carrying the same kind of weapons. “Those your people?”
Still no response.
I leaned back and checked his interphone connection and asked if he was hearing alright through his headphones. He nodded an affirmative. We continued orbiting and watching. Then, incredibly, headlights on the front of a tank very slowly appeared out of this cotton candy mist. Pointed and asked my mute backseater, “That your tank?”
No response. His tanks had still been parked forty feet from the front door of the TOC when we’d taken off. No baby tanks had passed us on our way up the road. Didn’t know if he had any other tanks on his property books.
“Cricket, Raven 20 has a tank about ten clicks up the road from Moung Kassy.”
“You got to be kidding. Who’s tank is it?” “Not quite sure.”
“What kind of tank is it?”
“Can’t tell. The tank has altitude on me. I’m looking up at it. Never learned to identify tanks from the perspective you’d have if you were lying on the ground on your back as one passed by.”
“How can you be sure it isn’t a friendly tank?”
“I have the friendly three, their ops officer, in my back seat. He’s not saying much.”
Then a second tank very slowly and carefully emerged out of the clouds in the close company of a small herd of troopers.”
“Cricket, now have two tanks coming down the road with company sized infantry support.” The first tank began hosing me with 12.7 while I was talking with Cricket so I jinked, pulled up into the overcast, changed heading, and reverted to flying needle, ball and airspeed. The O-1 instrumentation was wretched. I flew south long enough to get out of 12.7 range then dropped down below the overcast to see what was happening. “Guess that wasn’t one of yours shooting at us, huh?” The mute in my back seat silently gazed out the window.
“Cricket, these tanks definitely aren’t friendly. Can tell by the way they are firing their 12.7s at me.”
“Doesn’t sound right. Maybe they are confused friendlies. I’ll check it out with AIRA.”
Two T-34 tanks with jerry cans on the exterior and about 120 infantrymen, a mix of NVA and Pathet Lao, were now slowly moving down the road toward Moung Kassy at about four miles per hour. Cautious drivers. The road was rotten, had a narrow single lane and a precipitous edge along cliffs. Unlike the first troops who emerged from the clouds, the rest of their foot soldiers were wearing the sort of raggedy ass mix of civilian clothing one sees worn by new recruits just getting off the bus for reception at a Marine Corps Recruit Depot. One of them was even wearing a red shirt. What looked to be an experienced and competent NVA NCO kept up his vigorous activity, running about, grabbing a hold of shoulders, and offering intensive corrective counsel to his troops. I felt a momentary empathy with him as he worked shaping up his troops trying to get his Pathet Lao in a combative mood.
The ceiling had slowly risen up to 1,200 feet AGL and the tanks descending down the road were now at an altitude lower than mine. My bird was still at the base of the overcast. The second tank fired a short burst at me. Responded in kind. Armed up and fired a single WP rocket. Didn’t hit the tank. But the rocket goes through the Mach on the way in. A convergence of mountain, overcast and ground focused the noise and evidently made an impressively loud sound. The enemy infantry found the noise of the Willie Pete frightening. All the infantry disappeared into the woods leaving the tanks to fend for themselves.
A lot is going on over UHF. Cricket has three sets of salivating fighters orbiting overhead. Too much weather to bring them down on target. I requested T-28s with standard bombs be launched out of Vientiane, to stay low, and check in when they arrived overhead Vang Vieng. My plan was to bring them up the road under the base of the overcast and skip bomb the tanks. That way they could stay in VMC. Someone at Wattai kept changing their ordnance – loading and unloading this and that. Those T-28s never managed to get into the air during the four-hour duration of this exercise. An Air America helicopter checked in. Said he’d heard a Raven was down around Moung Kassy and wanted to know where to look for him. Air America and the Ravens were a mutual aid society providing immediate emergency support to one another. Told him I was doing fine, had no other Raven in the area, and thanked him for coming by. Cricket requested a coordinate on the lead tank every few minutes in order to compute the tanks’ ground speed.
AIRA came up on VHF company frequency. Colonel Curry, the Air Attaché, had invited the Army Attaché over to his operations center. Pretty unusual. The only previous time AIRA had ever called me while in flight was when they objected to my use of profane language over the radio. By their patient, let's-not-get-excited language and down home front porch style it was clear that I was dealing with a credibility problem. Staff down town clearly thought all this tank stuff they were hearing about up the road was pure BS. If the enemy had tanks they’d sure as hell go for Long Tieng, not Moung Kassy! The Army Attaché, a U. S. full Colonel came up on the frequency, introduced himself then said,
“You know, people often confuse all sorts of vehicles they see out in the field. Lots of different vehicles drive around on tracks, even tractors and bridging equipment. They get all mixed up about what it is they’re looking at and call almost anything with tracks a tank.”
“You’re right about that, sir. Happens all the time.” It does! The Colonel continued on for another professionally patronizing paragraph or two and I listened carefully. Sure hoped he spoke Grunt and hadn’t spent his entire career as an indoor office weenie ordering plaques, arranging travel schedules, and writing obsequious, little attached notes summarizing staff papers for his beloved leader.
Finally, my turn. “Glad to hear your view of that, sir. It may be useful for you to know that I served as ALO to the First of the Tenth, the First of the Fiftieth, and the Second of the Five-Oh- Third during a previous tour.”
Abrupt silence on VHF. His silence told me he did speak Grunt and hadn’t spent his life in an office as somebody’s wimp exec or aide-de-camp. He’d recognized that each of the units mentioned owned and operated real fire breathing armor, and that the FAC out there knew what the hell tanks looked like. I later learned that he’d handed the mike back to Colonel Curry on his brisk way out of the building and said, “I didn’t know your troops had that level of experience.” More impor- tant, what had been conveyed was that the assault in progress, which the staff had been monitoring all morning back in the city, over radio and teletype from Cricket, was a reality and they needed to deal with it.
The overcast was beginning to break up a bit. Patches of sunlight coming through. But there was still too much cloud immersing the immediate mountain peaks to safely bring fighters down to take out the tanks. Cricket had shifted its orbit and was directly overhead to watch, through occasional holes in the clouds, and see what was going on below. Cricket’s usual orbit was closer to the Channel 119 TACAN. At one point Cricket had seven sets of fighters orbiting, waiting for the weather to break. The grunt attaché began getting ground people interested in what was going on. My backseat mute, who hadn’t spoken a word in several hours, tapped me on the shoulder and asked, “Can talk FM?” I got the frequency he wanted from him, dialed it in, put his comm selector switch in the FM position and told him, “Okay, talk now.” Didn’t understand a word of his conversation so didn’t listen very long.
“Where is the organic Lao armor? What is it doing?”
“The baby tanks are still in their usual static display location. I can see them from here.”
Both NVA tanks stopped after hosing the only house in Moung Kassy with 12.7. It was an unpainted, very weathered wood house with a porch. Hoped nobody was at home. Top hatches opened. Crew members from both enemy tanks got out, gathered in a group in the middle of the road and engaged in very animated discussion of something which required a lot of gesturing, pointing and arm waving. Looked like the tank crews were having their morning meeting. Not fond of meetings of any sort, I put a Willie Pete on their gathering. Just a distraction. The NVA evidently made some sort of decision because the meeting broke up. The rear tank was abandoned. Crews of both tanks crawled up and into the lead tank, closed the top hatch. The lead tank got underway and resumed course toward Moung Kassy.
I watched as one of the Lao baby tanks cranked its engine and vented a lot of exhaust smoke during the effort. Wonderful. Was surprised the thing could run after sitting in the same place for three months. After a modest struggle moving out of the hole in which it was parked, the baby tank emerged and moved up the road about 150 meters toward the enemy armor – then carefully parked off the side of the road in the weeds. The place he’d chosen to park offered no tactical advantage. Looked like he’d chosen his ground, when much more advantageous ground was immediately accessible, just to avoid offending the attacking armor. The other baby tank remained on static display, unmanned. Never cranked or moved.
The weather was breaking up fairly rapidly. Great patches of sunshine starting to appear on the ground. The stratus overcast was slowly churning into cumulus.
I was ready to bring the fighters down when Ed Chun, Raven 52, came chugging by in his O-1. Ed was an IP tasked with training an initial group of Lao FACs and he had a Lao student FAC onboard. “My Lao student needs to put in one more strike in order to become fully combat qualified.”
“No problem, Ed – your student can have this one.” Perfect. The student could kill a few tanks before lunch and we’d have a brand new qualified FAC! Handed the target off to Ed, coordinated the transfer with Cricket and headed south. Continued to listen on frequency. Ed and his student brought down the first set of fighters and didn’t want to screw around with the briefing. They had the tanks in sight and were ready to go to work. Ed explained his empathy for their aggressiveness – but this was a check ride and the student would have to go through a full briefing.
Briefing had just been completed when AIRA came up on frequency and said to cancel the strike, don’t destroy the tanks. Said they had an observer who had informed them that both T-34 tanks were now abandoned and unmanned. Ed cancelled the strike. Wondered where the hell their observer had been all morning.
I landed at Vang Vieng on fumes at 1115. The Mute Ops officer got out, walked away, and I never saw him again. Got a hot dog and coffee for lunch while the bird was being refueled and rearmed, then flew to Long Tieng. Welcomed, sort of.
“You need to stop screwing around and wasting time over in MR One – we got lots of stuff to kill all around us here in MR Two.”
Learned the reason the Mute hadn’t heard from his troops all night was that his troops out in the field were hearing the unique squeaks made by tracks on tanks and had thought it best to remain uninvolved. Thirty-seven POWs were scarfed up from the jungle along the Moung Kassy road. A mix of NVA and Pathet Lao. Interrogators of the POWs said their unit was a battalion, not a company as I’d thought. The second tank had simply run out of fuel. Refueled by U.S. advisors, it started right up and was driven all the way to Vientiane under its own steam. The lead tank suffered an undefined mechanical problem and had to be towed to Vientiane. The baby tank had never fired a round. The two captured T-34s were placed on public display in the square next to the Vertical runway and served as tangible evidence that Laos was winning the war. Perked up morale among the population of Vientiane. Photos of the tanks were featured on the national calendar for 1973. The newspaper enthusiastically gushed that this superb combat victory over the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao had been achieved through the combined efforts of the Royal Lao Army, Royal Lao Navy, and Royal Lao Air Force.
Really liked the bit about the Navy. Hadn’t suspected that Laos even had a Navy and wondered how they’d managed to acquire one without access to an ocean. The road between Vientiane and Luang Prabang remained open.
Postscripts by the author:
“I spent my final five years on active duty as Director of Quality Assurance at the Defense Mapping Agency Aerospace Center in St. Louis. Responsible for FLIPs, charts, data, gravity, geodesy and everything we produced for earth or space. With an enduring residue of irritation over having been sent out to fight using these two sleazy 1:50s, I put out a request for the map history file to see who it was who had given final cartographic approval prior to their publication. Those history files became “un-findable” by staff. Became clear to me that whoever it had been was still around and being protected.
Our cartographers weren’t indifferent or slothful. They suffered from an institutional belief that, when it came to producing a map, “something was better than nothing”. Terrible concept. They had no idea that military pilots have total theological faith in map and chart content – topography, scale, and annotation – and that pilots will follow those little blue lines charted through the sky without the slightest apprehension about prematurely terminating their mission in a granite obstruction while doing so. Any pilot will prefer an area of a chart being left as blank white space over having that space being filled with someone’s best guess. Being aware of what is unknown on a chart has substantial survival value in flight.
The worst examples were charts across northern II Corps (Don’t have those charts here). The cartographers used old (about 1886) French survey data coming from three directions, with a data void between them, to produce a current chart. They simply scrunched all these survey data together best they could and filled the void with utter topographical nonsense whipped up by someone’s imagination. Not fit for combat. But you wouldn’t know that until orbiting overhead and noticing that your map and the terrain below weren’t even close. One of my Boron FACs landed one afternoon (1970) and complained, during debrief, that he’d spent a good part of the mission drawing a map of the terrain in his notebook because his map of the area was BS. So, (I) called the map-chart liaison officer at BlueChip and told him about the rotten map product. He already knew about it. Substance of his argument for doing nothing about it was that producing a new, accurate chart would take two years and no one on the staff there expected we’d be here that long. So we continued to fight our war with Nineteenth Century mapping data.
That has all changed over the past fifteen years. Maps and charts are now created from accurate, reliable sources and are stored in digital layered form – digital terrain elevation data, features, drains (streams, rivers, etc.), place names, etc. One can choose to display only selected layers or couple a chart to overlay data of your own making. Need a special map containing special detail for a particular area? Available within a few hours of request for installation on your laptop – or that chart can be digitally transmitted via satellite and copies printed quickly in the back of a mobile van equipped with high speed digital color printers. GPS receives scant media mention but it is a fundamental enabling technology which supports precision in combat mobility and an array of munitions delivery systems. For less than $100 and the cost of two AA cells today, anyone can precisely determine her location within seventeen feet anywhere on the earth using a pocket size GPS receiver. Day, night, or in weather. All that is extraordinary progress over what we carried in our map bags while navigating with a whiskey compass.”