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PROJECT CHECO

Contemporary Historical Examination of Current Operations


THE FALL OF LIMA SITE 85

(9 AUGUST 1968)

HQ PACAF DIRECTORATE TACTICAL EVALUATION CHECO DIVISION

Prepared By: Captain Edward Vallentiny

Project CHECO, 7th Air Force, DOAC


THE FALL OF SITE '85



About 2000L on the evening of 9 March, Site '85 reported enemy contacts around the site. Additional sorties were requested throughout the night and a number of flights were diverted to support the defenders.

However, the enemy apparently had not mounted a serious attack. To lend support for the next day, 13 missions loaded with CBU and 750-pound bombs were fragged into the area.

On 10 March, friendly patrols continued to report enemy activities and the movements of villagers fleeing the general area. To help restore guerrilla influence into certain areas west of Site '85, as well as to attempt to recapture some villages and outposts, General Vang Pao began making plans to introduce nearly two battalions of his Meos to the region west of Site '85. Unfortunately, these forces were to be of no help to Site '85.

Final Enemy Attack

Although weather in the Site '85 area had been generally poor in early March, good weather prevailed throughout most of 10 and 11 March.

The afternoon forecast for BARREL ROLL on 10 March called for 2000 foot scattered with occasional rain showers. Attache reports at 0138L and 0247L on 11 March termed the weather "workable" and that it "permits air defense". A survivor reported the weather on the morning of the 11th was clear. Later, on the day of the 11th, the weather deteriorated again somewhat.

Shortly after 1800L on the evening of 10 March, mortar, artillery and rocket rounds from Phou Den Din began falling on the defenders of Phou Pha Thi. Early in the barrage, the 105mm Howitzer position near the summit of Phou Pha Thi sustained a direct hit. The living quarters immediately next to the TACAN/TSQ facility had suffered some damage, and by 1830L the technicians had sought shelter in a bunker just north of the living quarters.

Prior to retiring to the bunker, site personnel notified 7/13 TACC at Udorn AB, Thailand of the attack and reported they were abandoning the radio. Contact via portable radio was maintained with the senior CAS representative in the command bunker near the helipad.


THE FALL OF SITE '85


At Udorn, plans were rapidly developing to divert sorties to Site '85. Flare ships had to be provided to allow visual strikes because with the TSQ personnel in their bunker, the site could not direct airstrikes. Airborne A-26s were already being diverted. Additional tanker support was required for eight flights of F-4s being sent from Ubon.

When the barrage ceased at 1945L, the technicians left the bunker and returned to operating the TSQ/TACAN equipment.

Only minor shrapnel damage to the TACAN antenna was sustained and no American casualties had been suffered. By 1950L, many of the flights which had been in the process of being diverted, were returned to their fragged missions, and until midnight, two A-26s and five F-4s hit targets in the Site '85 area.

All of these were under TSQ direction.

In addition, six A-1s were readied to support the site and the pilots were placed in crew rest.

From 0001L to 0700L, 11 March, three A-26s and five F-4s supported Site '85; the last time on target was 0320L.

By 2020L the Ambassador at Vientiane had judged circumstances to be serious enough to authorize the site to conduct the direction of sorties via clear voice transmissions. However, the lull in activity at the site continued. At 2100L, heavy fighting was reported at Ban Pha Thi, a village at lower elevations on the Phou Pha Thi ridge, only 1 1/2km south of Site '85. Allegedly, the enemy was using flashlights to facilitate his climb to the village. By 2117L, fighting was going on only 1/2 hour walk from the site atop Phou Pha Thi.

An entry in the 7/13 AF TACC log noted that at 2105L the Ambassador in Vientiane was already considering evacuating the personnel from Site '85 at first light. However, this decision was not made at that time. At 2150L, the Deputy Commander, 7/13 AF contacted the Attache's Office in Vientiane concerning the possible evacuation of the site.

It was indicated that evacuation should only be effected as a last resort if the situation became untenable; furthermore, the situation should be followed on an hour to hour basis. These views were to be expressed to the Ambassador. Any decision to evacuate was to be relayed to the Deputy Commander at once.


THE FALL OF SITE '85


At 2121L, intermittent mortaring and shelling of positions around Site '85 was begun again, but the TSQ facility continued to operate and direct missions. Shortly after this resumption of shelling, the Ambassador decided to conduct a partial evacuation of American personnel. Nine personnel were to be evacuated at 0815L on the 11th.

The situation remained static at the site until about 0300L. On the lower slopes of the ridge, sporadic but violent firefights broke out; however, the enemy had not succeeded in overrunning any of the major outposts. As a matter of fact, the senior CAS representative later commented:

"Commo was maintained from the CP with all the defending outposts at Site '85 throughout the attack on Site '85 during the period 10 to 11 March ... (the) ... defenders gave a good account of themselves and they held fast under heavy incoming fire."

At the TSQ/TACAN location, it has already been related that, with the lull in the barrage after 1945L, the technicians had left the bunker and returned to operating the facilities. While one crew operated the TSQ facility, some of the other men tried to get some sleep. Apparently, since the living quarters had been damaged, and sometime later the technicians' bunker was also hit, some of the American personnel took sleeping bags and descended the slings to seek rest and shelter among the rocks down the steep slope only a few feet from one of the entrances to the TSQ/Supply/Communications structure.

Shortly after 0300L, on 11 March, either automatic weapons fire, shelling, or both once more caused the crew to abandon the facility in haste. At this point all radio contact with the TSQ location and personnel was severed, even that via portable radio with the command bunker near the helipad.

As the technicians came running out of the operations structure, they were met with a hail of small arms automatic weapons fire from close range. These men scrambled for safety down the slings which were only a few feet away. But apparently, three Americans were killed at once -- among them the TSQ senior officer and commander.

The crucial fact concerning the equipment at the site was that it was not destroyed. The detonation devices had not been triggered and the TSQ personnel never again entered the command building.


THE FALL OF SITE '85


In an interview with survivors, some questions concerning the detonation devices were raised when it was revealed that explosives for demolition of the site had earlier been thrown over the side of the cliff to prevent them from being hit by incoming shells.

However, the charges which were to destroy the classified equipment were pre-mounted and could not have been easily or swiftly moved. Extra charges were available to destroy other equipment and facilities at the site, and apparently it had been these extra charges which were thrown away.

Evidently a small force of approximately twenty enemy troops (most likely North Vietnamese as judged by the unfamiliar language) had somehow infiltrated to the summit. No mine detonations, shouts, or other warnings preceded the volley which hit the Americans exiting the operations structure. It has been only guessed that either the enemy infiltrated the more gradual but still treacherous northeastern side of Phou Pha Thi or that this small force scaled the almost sheet northwestern face. None of the outposts was aware of this enemy force atop the summit.

Seemingly familiar with the layout of the site, the camouflaged fatigue-clad invaders methodically threw grenades into most of the buildings, but it was not clear if the TSQ facility was also blown up.

At about 0315L, the senior CAS representative in the command bunker near the helipad observed the TACAN beacon "go up in smoke", but it was thought at the time that a mortar round had done the damage. Meanwhile the helipad area was under particularly heavy shelling and small arms fire.

Subsequently, enemy troops at the site discovered the escape slings leading down the slope and directed automatic weapons fire in that direction. Some of the Americans down the slope returned the fire and it was estimated that five or six of the enemy were killed.

After pulling back from the American line of fire from below, the attackers responded by lobbying some fifteen to twenty grenades onto the slope and then intermittently spraying the area with automatic weapons' fire. It was deduced that most of the American casualties were suffered at this time.


THE FALL OF SITE '85


In Vientiane, meanwhile, the situation was being closely monitored. Plans for the partial evacuation had been finalized at 0015L for implementation at 0815L the next morning. Incoming reports indicated that air support was sufficient, weather was good, and the situation remained static.

Although unaware of the fate of the TSQ facility, American officials at Vientiane were to become cognizant later that increased enemy fire was being directed at the site. Hence, at 0515L on 11 March, the Ambassador decided to evacuate all Americans from Site '85 at 0715L.

An attache report summed up the situation at Site '85 as it was known in Vientiane at 0540L:

"As of 10/2240Z: Heavy mortar and small arms fire on top of Phou Pha Thi (Site '85). Embassy ordered evacuation of all, repeat, all U.S. Personnel."

"CAS estimates their outer positions will hold but place untenable as operating radar site.

"TACAN unit reported burning and damage to other TSQ equipment. Steps being taken to destroy all remaining equipment prior to evacuation."

Shortly before 0700L, incoming fire ceased; at 0620L smoke had been observed rising from the TACAN site. About 0700L, the helicopters were standing by, ready to come in, but were drawing enemy fire from the top of the summit. The senior CAS advisor with ten MEO guerrillas proceeded to the TSQ/TACAN site to ascertain the status there and determine from where the fire directed at the helicopters originated.

Upon arrival at the TACAN location, the CAS representative found the living quarters locked and the TACAN severely damaged. The senior CAS representative then called out to any Americans who might have been hiding nearby, but he received no response. Coming around the west side of the complex, shots were exchanged with one enemy soldier dressed in "typical North Vietnamese/Pathet Lao uniform". After circling further south and west, two more of the enemy were encountered, one manning a machine gun behind sandbags. Fire was exchanged and one of the enemy was hit, but the friendly force beat a hasty retreat down the hill toward the command bunker. En route, the CAS representative was wounded slightly in the leg.


THE FALL OF SITE '85


Back at the bunker, the CAS representative estimated that either the TSQ-81 was in enemy hands or they were conducting a raid, hence friendly heavy weapons fire was directed at the TSQ site and some hits were scored. A-1Es in the area apparently noted that the defenders were firing at the site and also delivered their ordnance on the TSQ location.

The CAS representative was of the opinion that the TSQ gear was demolished. However, this was incorrect. Unfortunately, as one survivor reported later, the A-1E attack forced one enemy soldier to scurry for safety down the slope and en route he engaged in a firefight with another American survivor, killing him.

The helicopters were then able to come in and perform the rescue attempts. Of the 19 Americans at the site, only five technicians and two CAS people were extracted. One of the CAS people was wounded; five of the six technicians were wounded, one of them being hit while in the helicopter ... this man died en route to Site 36 and Udorn AFB, Thailand. The remaining eleven Americans were presumed dead.

Return flights by helicopters were able to recover a few American and Laotian bodies, plus some wounded defenders from the summit, but they continued to draw occasional fire.

Apparently the defenders around the site still held the trail systems to the summit as late as 0730L.

Soon thereafter, the guerrilla defenders melted away to regroup at other locations for airlift to safer areas.

It was not expected that the enemy offensive would halt with the fall of Site '85.

In fact, Site 111 fell on 12 March; to the east, enemy pressure mounted at Site 184; Site 239 and Site 107 were abandoned due to enemy activity.

On 13 March, Site 204 was subjected to heavy but sporadic enemy fire.

By 12 March, 129 of 203 defenders of Site '85 had definitely been evacuated.


THE FALL OF SITE '85


As early as 0940L on 11 March the Deputy Commander 7/13AF at Udorn AB, Thailand, had begun coordination to utilize some of the available helicopters to airlift a force of approximately 200 Laotian military personnel to Site '85 in order to recapture the site, but this design was delayed indefinitely so that a maximum effort could be exerted to try to recover the remaining U.S. personnel and friendly forces.

Denouement

After the evacuation of Americans and friendly forces was completed on the morning of 11 March, only three tasks remained to be performed:

- Missing Americans had to be accounted for, either by recovering them as they still evaded capture or by recovering their bodies and establishing their death.

- Site '85 had to be destroyed so that the equipment would not fall into enemy hands for subsequent analysis. In addition, any politically embarrassing evidence had to be eliminated.

- The Prime Minister of Laos, Souvanna Phouma, had to be informed of the situation to permit him to prepare a position against potential communist charges of American involvement at Site '85.

As more details of casualties were obtained from survivors and a concentrated search and rescue effort was conducted at the site, American losses became somewhat clearer.

Of the nineteen Americans at the site, sixteen had been site technicians, two were CAS representatives, and there had been one Attache Office FAC.

The CAS representative and the FAC were rescued. The senior CAS representative had been slightly wounded.

Of the sixteen American technicians, five were extracted (one died en route), eight were known to be dead, and three others were unaccounted for, but presumed dead.

There was the possibility that the bodies of the three missing men might have fallen from the ledge where the Americans hid. Off the ledge, there was a sheer drop of almost 2,000 feet.


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