My how time flies. A fifty-year Non Disclosure Agreement (NDA) sounds like a lifetime to any normal person. It certainly did to me in Spring of 1970. After this long, and even throwing an extra year in for good measure, it still feels like I’m committing some UCMJ security Bozo no-no that could put me in Fort Leavenworth manufacturing government license plates for 10 to 20. Seriously, when it’s drilled into you and integrated into your frontal lobe or wherever that info resides, divulging anything classified from that era still has to go through the logic circuit to get to the tongue -even now.
Some will say it’s already public knowledge and for the most part, it is- but not the specifics of day-to-day operations. Project 404 didn’t even resemble Hollywood’s take off with Mel Gibson starring in Air America. 123s loaded with opium were not shuttling into and out of what few Lima sites we still had operational up in Barrel Roll (Military Region II or MR2). Maybe some cases of good single malt Scotch but never narcotics. Hell, if you wanted to get that high, you could just reach in the aircraft medpak and grab some morphine styrettes which worked one-handed like an epi-pen. Well, that or smoke some opium-soaked Thai stick.
When I arrived for my one-year, all-expenses-paid vacation (which turned into two years) in sunny Southeast Asia (May 1970), the “conflict”, as the VFW and others referred to it then, was still in high gear. Arriving at Udorn-Thani Royal Thai Air Force Base was an eye opener. Guns. Lottsa guns. Sandbagged bunkers. F4s and T-28s loaded for bear taking off and arriving back with empty hard points. I was in communications and was assigned to the 1973rd Communications Squadron and housed in the “Swamp”- the hootches on stilts over the water that had the sheen of petroleum distillate on it. They were the ones that abutted the perimeter that was sprayed to keep the line of fire open…with AO. Just where you wanted to camp out for a year.
Seems like I was there less than a month before someone called me in to the CBPO (Central Base Processing Office) and wanted to know why I hadn’t checked the box indicating I was a French speaker. Moi? Parlez Français? Well, maybe. Whoosh. I found myself sitting in the waiting lounge at 7th Tactical Air Combat Control (TACC) at 7th Air Force Hqs. about 39 hours later. This is where it got interesting. Have you ever tried to get a salesman to cough up the bottom-line price tag for that beautiful new time-share condo in Oahu? Ditto the Intel weenie in Saigon.
It began with a basic test to ascertain my level of comprehension and fluency. Following that, I got refingerprinted and a new file picture taken, signed a gazillion forms including a will, some other stuff I disremember and then the NDA sign-here moment. I paused and asked where my duty assignment was going to be and with what outfit. “Just sign here, son, and I’ll brief you in.” Well, what exactly am I going to be doing? “As I said, sign this and I’ll explain it all.” Do I get Hazardous duty pay and tax-free? ” Sign here, Airman.” Well, can’t you at least tell me what the casualty rate is in this gig? “No prob. About 20-25%.” To most, if you knew that ten of you were going to work somewhere at 0600 and the odds were spot on that only seven point five of you were going to show up for Happy Hour at 1630, it might give you pause. But then if you’re 19 years plus, wet behind the ears and have waaaaay too much testosterone on board, you say “Well, that means 75% make it. I gotta find out what this shit is all about. Now, where do I sign again?
Turns out I was slated for 19th Tactical Air Support Squadron (19th TASS) out of Bien Hoa. Seems President Nixon had authorized a slight intrusion across the border. They were flying O-2s over to Cambodia in the Parrot’s Beak area and doing FAC for the Cambodian Air Force. I guess I can see where that might require a little more than fluency in French and a Secret clearance. I completed all my 7th TACC briefings and was told to hightail it back to Udorn to collect my bags and report back. On the 130 Klong flight from Tan Son Nhut to Bangkok, I met an interesting guy named Rich Paulus. Rich was Hispanic. You could tell from the lilt of his speech. But Rich had lived in South LA in a predominantly Thai immigrant neighborhood. He spoke and looked like a Thai. He convinced me it would be okay to “miss” the 0800 daily 130 Klong flight that hedge-hopped upcountry to Korat, Ubon, Nakhon Phanom (NKP) and lastly Udorn at 1600. Well, actually, I missed it two days in a row. But boy howdy did Rich and me paint Bangkok from stem to stern. We even hired “tour guides” who accompanied us 24 hours every day. The hotel was a little rough around the edges but it had air conditioning. I remember this hiatus involved incredible amounts of adult beverages and little else. Fortunately, I didn’t wake up with any tattoos.
I got back to Udorn and three days later was all packed and sitting in the 6th Aerial Port Squadron waiting for departure to Bangkok and Bien Hoa. Someone got on the PA system and and asked if Airman Graham was in the waiting lounge. The Admin weenie from the orderly room called to explain there had been a minor change of plans. Apparently, the interpreter assigned to Detachment 1, 56th Special Operations Wing (SOW) up in Long Tieng, Laos had been shot down while running a low altitude PsyOps operation on Route 7 near Roadrunner Lake. BNR. Since I had been briefed in only on Operation Rustic (the FAC mission in Cambodia), I had no idea what this was going to entail. In fact, I don’t remember actually volunteering for this. A Major arrived and drove me, an Airman First Class, over to the AirAm Air Operations Center on the flightline side and they spent the day familiarizing me with my new job. I even got to pick out a New-in-box Browning Hipower and a Swedish K. This was beginning to feel like Terry and the Pirates. In reality, it was nicknamed the Steve Canyon Project after the funny papers guy.
The next morning I boarded an unmarked Goonybird and departed for Wattay Airport- or Lima Site 08 on the old French military flight maps left over from WWII. Really. We didn’t even have our own American Issue maps. Fact was, we didn’t even wear uniforms. Laos was neutral like Switzerland…on paper. In reality there were three warring factions in addition to us. I assembled this from old maps and it now hangs in the Man cave. You can left click on these to magnify them.
I arrived and was processed in at the US Embassy and taken over to the annex where the Air Attaché was located. I got a new Laotian Driver’s License with my shiny new photo in black and white. I was issued a USAID identification saying I was a French teacher. I turned in my Virginia Driver’s license, my USAF ID and the Geneva Conventions card. The air attaché then went through my wallet and retrieved my picture of my girlfriend , my draft card and asked for my yellow shot book. They referred to this as “sheep-dipping”. If you were captured, it was going to go down like Mission Impossible- America was going to say “Who? Don’t recognize the name. Check over at the French Embassy and see if they’re missing anyone.” And then I caught a 123 up to LS 20A at Long Tieng-or simply Alternate.
Five Klics to the NW was LS 20 Sam Thong (Ban San Tong). They had a small hanger to work on AirAm aircraft and a 12-bed infirmary where I would soon get my transfusion after an injury.
The job was multifaceted. At least three days a week, Major General Vang Pao, the Hmong leader of the US-financed upcountry “conflict” against the Pathet Lao/Democratic Republic of Vietnam, had quasi-dinner parties with the “Controlled American Source” or simply the CAS. I leave it to the reader’s imagination as to who employed the CAS- let alone came up with some idiotic title. John (no last name) needed to know what was said in French at these parties among the Hmong or any visiting Royal Laotian Air Force pilots (RLAF) themselves. This was standard Trust…but verify. He didn’t want to get blindsided by the Hmong. I was the fly on the wall. I was never introduced as anything more than a bean counter with a notebook. My other day job was flying up and down Route 7 on Tuesdays and Thursdays in a PC-6 Porter dropping fliers or broadcasting entreaties to the Pathet Lao to surrender and sign up with the Hmong and get a free ½ hectare of land. If you turned in an AK or an SKS, you got a bonus water buffalo to plow your brand new fields with. Most of them expressed their immense displeasure by shooting at us. Which explained my immediate predecessor’s demise. Turned out this job had about a 40% casualty rate-something no one deigned to tell me before I was briefed in. My nickname was Chieu Hoi Boy. Have any of you ever watched a gook tracer come up at you? It appears to corkscrew visually to the intended recipient even though it doesn’t do so physically. Did I mention they’re a very beautiful green color.
Route 7 was not Interstate 95. It was mostly a dirt road in dry season and a muddy disaster in monsoon. It was barely 30 feet wide in most places and constructed by the French before WWII. The Japanese improved it somewhat but each monsoon reduced it back to a slip-n-slide. The gooks were prone during the monsoon periods to rely on tracked vehicles or elephants for transportation. To avoid offending anyone’s sensibilities in radio land, we referred to the latter as Gray Jeeps. That was the one part I hated to do. Calling in an air strike on them seemed cruel but they were packed with munitions as evidenced by the secondary explosions when strafed. This was the beginning of Operation Leap Frog. It didn’t go well.
But that’s all I’m going to say about that today. I don’t want to spoil a good yarn all in one sitting.
Once upon a time in a faraway land…