Return to the Land of a Million Elephants

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

For months, I was looking forward to my return to Luang Prabang. Memories of the time that I had spent there in 66-67 will stay with me always. The opportunity to relive this experience had caught me by surprise. The Air Commandos, at the request of the Embassy, would again provide the up-country staffing to support the RLAF. SOF previously gave up this staffing requirement in 1966 when the 606th ACS arrived at NKP. Almost immediately, T-28 pilots from Det.1, 56th Air Commando Wing took over the operation of the up-country Air Operations Centers (AOCs). Wing commander, Col Heinie Aderholt had worked hard to get the mission back for SOF, and he felt it was important to pick good experienced people that would do a good job and not let him down. The group would consist of Dick Secord, Howard Hartley, Jim Walls, Joe Potter, Jerry Klingaman, Wayne Landen, Jesse Scott, Jerry Rhein, Bob Downs, and myself. Personnel would be sent TDY for 179 days. Some members of the team were to depart right away before the end of the year, and others to be phased in over the next year. Other than Hartley, we were all a rowdy bunch of Majors looking for a good fight. It has often been said, that when General Aderholt is involved there will always be a good fight.
I felt good to be part of the first group to deploy to Laos in the fall of 1968. Everything that I had learned during my first tour would surely make my job a lot easier the second time around. However, when time came for me to go, the Air Attaché asked if I could delay my departure a couple of months especially if I wanted to return to LP. Vientiane was very happy with the performance of the present AOC Commander who had several months remaining on his tour. Not wanting to go to any of the other sites, I agreed to the delay, and my departure was moved to March 1969.
I thought that March would never arrive, but finally, I got to make the big trip back to SEA over the route that so many of us had taken in the past: Travis AFB, to Honolulu, to Clark AFB, and finally Bangkok. Our guys in Vientiane knew I was coming so Howard Hartley flew the Embassy C- 47 to Bangkok and picked me up. The next morning we departed Don Muang and headed across Thailand to Laos and after two and a half-hours Vientiane finally came into view. We began our letdown and started our approach into Wattay Airport, circling the monument that looked like the Arc de Triumph but known locally as the vertical runway. The origin of this monument is a story in itself. It seems that the monument was built with materials given to the Laotian Government to build the Wattay runway. The runway project couldn’t be finished until an embarrassed USAID official could come up with some additional concrete. Thus it was called the vertical runway.
I enjoyed a couple of leisurely days in Vientiane checking out some of the local landmarks and getting daily briefings from AIRA and Dick Secord. Dick was coordinating air operations in Laos for the Embassy, a role similar to one he had in a previous assignment. He also had an interest in the up-country AOCs and provided me with guidance on what was expected. Dick took me to a celebration with some local Lao bigwigs, and I was asked to participate in a Basi as I was soon to depart for LP (Luang Prabang). A Basi is a local custom where every one in attendance wishes the traveler good luck and a safe journey. Then everyone ties a string around the traveler’s wrist. All of these much-coveted bracelets on your arm give one a strange appearance. Dick was to visit LP often. Once I asked him if he would like to ride my back seat, and he sternly informed me that he never rode the back seat. I gave him his own T-28 and off we went to assist the RLAF in taking it to the bad guys. General Secord was the finest officer, leader and dive-bomber pilot that I knew – a true warrior in every sense of the word – although later on, I frequently took money from him on the gunnery range when I was a member of his A-37 squadron.
I wasted little time in putting all of my credentials in order and getting rid of my military items and packing all my gear for the trip up to LP. Again I was told to alter my plans. The Attaché office asked me if I would spend a little time in Ban Houie Sai on my way up-country. LP had sent four T-28s and Raven Dale Richardson
over to provide support for the FAR operating in an area close to the Burmese border. They only needed me for five days, but when I found out the real reason the FAR had for this operation, I was not a happy camper. The airstrikes were directed against the caravans bringing questionable cargo (opium) down through Burma. I guess that the FAR Generals felt it was necessary to get the warlords back in line to ensure their cooperation. Not pleasant duty, but I found out real quick that unless I was flying, I had nothing to say about where the airplanes flew. Once the last mission took off, we loaded the Mark 107 radio jeep on a C-123 and flew back to LP.
Arriving at LP was like old home week. Greeted like the long lost friend that I was, I unloaded my gear from the airplane and parked the radio jeep behind the AOC. I noticed that the COMMO van that had been there when I left in 1967 was gone. The drive into town was refreshing after the drab scenery of Ban Houie Sai. Our route took us down Airport Road to the bridge then to the AIRA Compound, which was located on the backside of a dead end alley. The two houses in the compound looked the same as when I left in 1967. However, upon closer inspection, I could see some changes.
The first difference was a pet monkey house installed on a pole in the front yard. This is where Suzy and Floyd resided.
I noticed changes to my old room. It had been repainted and the metal cot and ammo cans were gone. It had been refurbished with nice furniture, but all the paint in the world wouldn’t cover the memories of the night the NVA commandos came. In addition, they had installed new shutters on the windows and put in air conditioning. This would make the hot nights a lot more bearable and was a pleasant surprise.
After getting settled, I took inventory of the local area to see just what all had changed in MR- I since I was last there. First I noticed the Raven FACs. They first began to show up in country late in 1967 about the time I left. After the fall of Site 85 (Lima 85), the Embassy had finally realized that with the increased bombing in Laos, permanent party assets were needed. More FACs were required to handle the increase in TACAIR sorties that were now available to support air ops in Laos. Gen. Vang Pao was becoming more offensive minded and also required more Close Air Support sorties that required a FAC. I believe that Dick Secord was responsible for making the Raven Program happen.
Until now, we had tried to control strikes using the combat controllers and AOC Commanders in Porters, but we had too many restrictions placed on us by the Embassy. For example, we were not allowed to mark targets by throwing smoke
grenades out the windows of the Porters for fear that dropping things out of airplanes that were used for humanitarian purposes would change the rules of the game. The bad guys might think that all of those Air America and Continental air- craft flying around Laos were combat aircraft and make a special effort to shoot them down – as if they didn’t already. The truth was that we needed our own FAC aircraft and we got them when the Ravens came. Great bunch of guys those Raven FACs. They were volunteers that were being asked to fly an increasingly dangerous mission. Because as we stepped up the number of sorties that were being flown in Laos, the bad guys increased the number and quality of the triple-A defenses.
A new Joint Operations Center (JOC) stood at LP. Before I left in 1967, while I was recovering from injuries, I was given the job of teaching the Laotian Army the Principles of Air Ground Operations and how to set up a Tactical Air Control System. They were starting to get the general idea, when it was time for me to rotate back to the States. Now I see that they had a JOC that met every morning with an Intel type, an Army rep and an RLAF rep to determine priorities for potential targets and publish a daily FRAG Order. They were doing something right just like I taught them.