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Contemporary Historical Examination of Current Operations
THE FALL OF LIMA SITE 85 (9 AUGUST 1968)
DIRECTORATE TACTICAL EVALUATION
Prepared By: Captain Edward Vallentiny
Project CHECO, 7th Air Force, DOAC
THE FALL OF SITE '85
The TSC-81 facility at Site '85 was established to help enhance the United States Air Force all weather strike capabilities against the northern route packages in North Vietnam, and targets in Northeastern Laos.
Since the weather over North Vietnam generally turns unfavourable for air operations in mid-October and does not begin to improve until April, it was imperative that the site be operational when the weather deteriorated. It became operational at the end of October.
In addition to housing the TSQ-81 and TACAN (Channel 97), Site '85 was a major supply point for guerrilla operations in Northeastern Laos. The older site consisted of a closed 600-foot runway with associated buildings near coordinates UH 6860. The TSQ and TACAN locations were northwest of this point on higher ground at coordinates UH 66276106.
The TACAN and TSQ facilities were situated on the western rim of a steep ridge that looked down on a nearby heliport, only 300 yards away and on the same ridge. The ridge ran in a north-northwesterly direction, fitfully rising to the highest point, Phou Pha Thi, at an elevation of 1786 meters, about 2 1/2 kilometres (km) from the TSQ location. The TSQ/TACAN elevation was about 1700 meters, or about 5580 feet; the heliport elevation was about 5300 feet. This ridge, generally called Phou Pha Thi in its entirety, dominated the local area.
For the defense of Site '85, Meo guerrillas were to provide the primary force. Although greatly outnumbered by the potential forces which the enemy could draw upon, the concept for the defense of Site '85 depended on exploiting the unique geography of the area, an intelligence net to warn of approaching enemy forces, and the impact of properly placed air-strikes. At worst, it was envisioned that the necessary technical personnel could be evacuated and the equipment destroyed if the site was in danger of being overrun.
Due to the sensitivity of the site, evacuation could be required for either political or military reason. The fact remained that although Site '85 was deemed to be defensively strong, if the enemy was "judged" to be fully intent on capturing it, and withstanding the accompanying losses, the political rules necessitated that the TSQ and TACAN be destroyed and American technicians be evacuated, so that neither these personnel nor the equipment would fall into enemy hands.
THE FALL OF SITE '85
Sensibly, there could be no pre-established "time" at which to relinquish this increasingly valuable asset; that decision rested on judgement and circumstances.
Also, if the enemy posed such a threat to the site that the site was to be destroyed and the personnel evacuated, then there was little sense in "fighting to the last man" to defend what had become only "real estate", bereft of its primary importance. These factors made up the dilemma of the defense of Site '85.
One of the advantages of the TSQ installation at Site '85 was that the system possessed the capability to provide direction of air-strikes in its own defense. Although the U.S. Ambassador in Vientiane had withdrawn blanket approval on 8 December 1967 for Commando Club directed strikes in the Barrel Roll area, he continued to give approval for strikes on an individual basis. In line with this policy, on 23 December he authorized strikes against six enemy "strong points" approximately 20 kilometres east and southeast of Site '85.
These targets were only the first to be stipulated as "part of the planned defense of Site '85".
Four days later a formal plan, in coordination some weeks, was distributed which defined procedures for the self-defense of Site '85.
The key role in the plan was played by the Local Area Defense Commander (LADC), the local Meo commander. In essence, the plan rested on three assumptions:
- The LADC would have from 1-24 hours notice of enemy concentration or buildup which would indicate an imminent attack.
- The LADC would know the local terrain and potential locations where an enemy buildup might be expected.
- The LADC would have communications contact with the U.S. Embassy at Vientiane as well as the TSQ-81 facility at the site.
THE FALL OF SITE '85
The concept was that if the enemy threatened the site, the LADC would coordinate with the Embassy in Vientiane and get authorization to call for air-strikes. With authority given, the Embassy would then notify 7AF that execution authority had been given to the LADC. When the enemy attack was imminent, the LADC was authorized to notify the TSQ-81 commander of the requirement for the strike and supply him with the target coordinates (hopefully pre-computed, otherwise a 10-minute delay ensued).
At this point, the TSQ commander was to contact 7AF via secure voice and request the strike force. Seventh Air Force (7AF) was then to provide the strike forces as circumstances and time allowed, even calling upon the Airborne Command and Control Centre (ABCCC) to divert airborne missions if necessary.
Aircraft were to be vectored to TSQ control and the strikes would be carried out. Strikes conducted under emergency conditions were authorized within a 600-foot proximity to friendly forces; otherwise 1000 metres was the limit. Authority for requesting additional strikes rested with LADC who would coordinate the need with available air or ground observers.
Estimated Enemy Objectives
In a December 1967 briefing for CINCPACAF, a CAS representative discussed estimates of upcoming enemy objectives in Northeastern Laos.
"Because of his complete dependence on surface transportation, the enemy must mount all his major offensive actions during the dry season. The dry season generally starts in mid-October and continues until June. The major advantage which the enemy has is the stiffening of the Pathet Lao (PL) forces by first class North Vietnamese (NVA) military personnel and the fact that the enemy can reinforce at will by bringing in additional NVA units from North Vietnam at any time during the dry season".
"All available intelligence which we believe to be reliable and relatively complete indicate that the enemy plans to capture the following objectives during the coming dry season: Site 220, Site 205, Site 36, Site 85 and Site 201 .... during November the enemy trucks and troops entering Laos have increased at an alarming rate".
THE FALL OF SITE '85
It was further estimated that the enemy would apply pressure to General Vang Pao's southern defensive line which protected Vientiane and the Mekong River valley. Apparently the enemy hoped that pressure on General Vang Pao would prevent him from sending reinforcements to frustrate enemy plans in Sam Neua Province near the Vientiane-Laotian border.
Enemy Clearing Operations:
With the addition of three (3) NVA battalions in November, the enemy began a concentrated effort to clear friendly forces away from their vital Routes 6, 68, and 611 which ran from near the North Vietnamese-Laotian border northeast of Sam Neua towards the Plaine-des-Jarres. All of the sites mentioned earlier as estimated enemy objectives were located within approximately 15-25 kilometres (km) of these routes.
One of the first clearing operations occurred on 19 November 1967, when an enemy force of 150 men attacked Site 179 (Ban Nhot Phat, 20 kms. west of Route 68 and 17kms. south of Site '85, Phou Pha Thi). After a short, spirited defense, friendly troops withdrew to the north and by 24 November, they were able to re-occupy Site 179 virtually unopposed.
For the succeeding weeks, PL/NVA activity was concentrated mainly in areas east and southeast of Highway Routes 6, 68 and 611, and many of the friendly outposts in this area were captured by the enemy.
Along with the outposts, Site 220 fell on 6 December 1967.
In addition, the enemy continued to build up supplies and manpower.
Informants in the Sam Neua area had given information to friendly sources that enemy activity was not to be limited to areas east of the highway routes.
Troops of two enemy battalions who had moved southwest from Sam Neua, on 5 December 1967, had boasted that Houei Kha Moun (Site 111, only 10km north of Site '85) and Phou Pha Thi (Site '85) were also to be captured in December.
THE FALL OF SITE '85
The First Attempt:
On the evening of 15 December 1967, an estimated two enemy companies probed ADC defenses near Phou Den Din (UH 7660) only 12km east of Site '85. After dark, contact with the enemy was broken. Early the next morning, 30 enemy troops attacked and captured these same ADC positions, but ADC forces recaptured them later in the day. Repulsed, the enemy returned with mortars and by 1700 hrs on 16 December, began shelling Phou Den Din. The defenders held out and this initial move toward Phou Pha Thi degenerated into mere harassment.
Two companies of Pathet Lao were sighted two days later moving toward Phou Den Din. Although it was not established whether these were the same two companies which had attacked previously or were reinforcements, this force was struck hard by pro-government aircraft and, by 26 December, were reported returning to Sam Neua. The enemy had been discouraged for the time being; subsequently, he would resume his efforts toward Site '85 with a new twist.
The security of the facilities at Site '85 was an issue of constant attention. As early as 20 October 1967, before the site was judged operational, two so-called "agents" with a camera had been apprehended upon reaching the summit of Phou Pha Thi. However, CAS interrogation, film evaluation, and investigation revealed that the suspects were in fact bona fide Buddhist monks. The CAS final report stated that no pictures of the site or approaches thereto had been taken and the interrogation had gained negative results. The monks were released to Laotian government and military authorities for further disposition at their discretion.
The increased enemy activity in December continued to prompt responsive concern for Site '85's safety, but the situation in the immediate vicinity remained unchanged. The overrun of Site 61, a TACAN station in Southern Laos, called attention in late December to the security of all TACAN sites in Laos.
The American Embassy at Vientiane reported: "Lima Site '85, Channel 97. CAS has done an analysis of this site ... Briefly stated there are 200 troops in immediate vicinity of site; and additional 800 troops in the lower portion of the mountain ... believe reasonable security exists and feel that adequate warning will be provided in case evacuation is determined necessary. An emergency plan for evacuation ... exists"
THE FALL OF SITE '85
This same report described the situation at each of three TACAN sites in Laos, and remarked on the potential danger of these sites if the enemy decided on a major commitment of troops.
The report concluded:
"Also, there is always the possibility that a small skilled commando/sabotage team could penetrate and damage/destroy any of the three. The enemy also has the capability of moving artillery or mortars within range of any of the sites. It is the consensus here that ... all reasonable precautions are being taken to safeguard the sites".
Enemy Activity In January:
Site 111 (UH 6868), some 8km. north of Site 85, received minor shelling on the last day of 1967. There followed 10 days of relative inactivity in the close proximity of Phou Pha Thi (Site '85), although scattered sightings were reported 15km to the east.
The enemy continued to clear out friendly pockets east of highway routes and a CAS report of 8 January commented on the enemy's effectiveness in this endeavor:
"The enemy has succeeded in driving most of the pro-government forces from the area east of Route 6. This will effect the road-watch coverage of this key enemy supply line into the area east of Kakharg and into Xieng Khouang Province. General Vang Pao will probably soon attempt to replace units again".
A minor jolt to the security of Site '85 was received on 10 January, when a five-man Pathet Lao patrol was discovered only 2km north of Site '85, and at the base of the ridge.
They were dispersed, withdrawing to the north.
A major jolt came two days later.
THE FALL OF SITE '85
Enemy Air Attack:
The enemy's second attempt against Site '85 came in the form of a surprise attack.
CAS reported 13 January 1968:
"Four dark green aircraft flying in a north-westerly direction passed the vicinity of Muong Sang (UH 8350) at 1300 hrs. on 12 January 1968. When the four reached Ban Housi Soui (UH 7852), two of the aircraft broke from formation and orbited in the Houei Souk area, while the second two aircraft, which were AN-2 Colts, continued to Phou Pha Thi (UH 6860) and commenced bombing runs while flying on an approximate heading of 304 degrees".
In three passes, the two Russian-built Colts rocketed, strafed, and bombed the summit of the mountain. Two women civilians and two guerrillas were killed, and two guerrillas were wounded.
One of the attacking Colts was shot down and crashed and burned near UH606865. Apparently two crew members escaped and an ADC team reported nothing was salvageable at the crash site. The other attacking aircraft was also hit and crashed some 25km to the northwest while trying to clear a ridge at UH 570895.
A ground team recovered numerous pieces of equipment from this second wreckage and found three dead crew members. The bodies were identified as Vietnamese. The site suffered negligible damage; no ground attack materialized.
Initial reports stated that the enemy had used 250-pound bombs. However, subsequent investigations at the site and of the aircraft wreckage by a 7AF Intelligence team revealed that 120mm mortar rounds had been converted to "bombs", dropped through tubes in the floor of the AN-2. The "bombs" became armed in the slip stream and detonated on impact. The rockets were 57mm, and were carried in rocket pods under the wing of the AN-2.
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