Camp A Shau was the last of three US Special Forces camps in the strategically important A Shau Valley in South Vietnam. Just two miles from the Laotian border, Camp A Shau sat astride a juncture in the Ho Chi Minh Trail where supplies could continue south, or enter infiltration routes to the cities of Da Nang and Hue, both thirty miles away.
On the morning of 9 March, 1966, four communist regular North Vietnamese Army battalions of 2000 men attacked the camp defended by 17 Americans, 40 Nung mercenaries, and 400 Vietnamese and Montagnard militiamen of the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG).The communists took part of the camp the first night but the battle raged for the next 36 hours. On the night of 10 March, out of ammunition and water, with staggering loses among the air support, the camp was ordered abandoned. A squadron of US Marine Sikorsky H-34s, HMM-163, flew through what they called “The Tube” in an attempt to evacuate the camp.
In addition to withering fire from all angles, including above, the evacuation proved more difficult than expected. Discipline broke down as the helicopters approached. Many of the Vietnamese switched sides or, with the Montagnards, tried to swarm the helicopters as they landed. Unable to take off because of the weight of soldiers hanging off of the birds, crew chiefs and green berets had to resort to shooting the hangers-on, after yelling and beating didn’t work. In the chaos, this resulted in full-fledged gun battles inside some helicopters, a breakdown in the defense as the NVA surged onto the landing zone, and some special forces leading a breakout into the jungle to escape.
The next day, the squadron conducted a series of search and rescue missions looking for survivors. Over half the garrison was killed or turned, and all but three of HMM-163’s helicopters were either shot down or too damaged to fix. The NVA would turn the A Shau valley into one of its major logistics and staging areas, and over the next four years the US would launch increasingly large operations to clear the valley, culminating with the Battle of Hill 937, aka Hamburger Hill.
In October 1963, the US 5th Special Forces Group established a small camp in the heart of the South Vietnamese Central Highlands at Plei Me in order to train indigenous Montagnard tribesmen for the South Vietnamese Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) initiative. The 450 CIDG troops at Plei Me, with 12 Americans of ODA-217 and 14 S. Vietnamese advisors, were tasked to gain civilian support among the Montagnards for the South Vietnamese war effort against Communist North Vietnam, and interdict Ho Chi Minh trail access routes along the Ia Drang River.
On 19 October, 1965, the 32nd Regiment of the North Vietnamese Army encircled the camp, while the 33rd Regiment waited for the inevitable relief column from the South Vietnamese army units outside of the city of Pleiku, 25 miles away. The 32nd Regiment came close to overrunning the camp but massive American air support, dropped as close as forty meters from the perimeter, defeated the NVA assaults.
That night the US airlifted 175 Vietnamese Rangers and US Special Forces, led by MAJ Charlie Beckwith, to reinforce the camp. And as the NVA predicted, the ARVN launched a 1400 strong armored task force from Pleiku. Over the next three days the NVA ambushed the column multiple times. Although there was heavy fighting, the combination of South Vietnamese armored firepower and American air support broke up the ambushes.
On 24 October 1965, the North Vietnamese commander broke off the siege and withdrew back toward his base camps around the Chu Pong Mountain near the Cambodian border. That same day, US General William Westmoreland ordered the recently arrived US 1st Cavalry Division, with its unprecedented air mobility through the use of helicopters, to pursue the North Vietnamese before they could escape across the Cambodian border.
In March 1965, the first US Marines landed in South Vietnam to protect US airbases as they supported the South Vietnamese Army’s fight against the Viet Cong and North Vietnam. On 15 August, the Marines learned that the 1st VC Main Force Regiment occupied the village of Van Tuong outside the Chu Lai Airbase on the South Vietnamese coast. In only two days (!?!?!) the Third Marine Division staff planned a joint combined arms hammer and anvil operation in complete secrecy to prevent VC infiltrators in the ARVN from tipping off the regiment about the attack.
On the morning of 18 August, the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment stormed ashore near Van Tuong in LTVPs launched from the landing ship USS Iwo Jima in the first contested amphibious assault since Inchon 15 years before. They were followed by 3/7 Marines. They were the “hammer” while the 2/4 Marines was the “anvil”. 2/4 was air assaulted into three landing zones west of the village by a company of Sikorsky S-58DT helicopters (you know: Riptide). The final battalion in the assault, 1/7, was reinforced with a company of M48 Patton tanks and secured the resupply convoys from the south.
The VC were completely surprised, but the Marines unknowingly played directly into their hands. The landing force did not have enough amtracs for more than one company at a time, so it was fed piecemeal into the fight for the small hamlets south of the village. Also, the far southern landing zone was only 400m from the communist Regimental HQ, was overlooked by the key piece of terrain in the area, Hill 43, and nearly overrun. Finally, one of the supply columns moved before the operation matured, and was promptly ambushed and surrounded. All three general actions (hamlets near beaches, the helicopter LZ’s, and convoy) were not coordinated effectively, and the operation was consumed in trying to desperately and disparately relieve each one simultaneously. Nonetheless, after heavy fighting, the battle was finally sorted out by nightfall: the Marines cleared the village and had the VC regiment surrounded.
Unfortunately, the Marines’ unfamiliarity with the terrain and distractions caused by severe thirst allowed the VC to exfiltrate that night. The Marines suffered 50 killed and 200 wounded, and the Viet Cong suffered about 600 killed. Operation Starlite, or the Battle of Van Tuong, was the first unilateral American ground offensive operation of the Vietnam War.
After being replaced in power by a soft coup in 1967, the Soviet faction inside North Vietnam led by Võ Nguyên Giáp was forced to watch impotently as the Chinese faction prepared to engage in large scale battles against the US, Allied, and South Vietnamese units. Led by Le Duan, the Chinese faction believed that the Americans could be beaten by large scale pitched battles, just as the French had been defeated the decade before, not through guerilla warfare as Giap proposed. Though a political victory in the United States for the Communists, the General Offensive/General Uprising, aka the Tet Offensive of 1968, was a complete disaster for the North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies in South Vietnam. The Tet Offensive thoroughly discredited the Chinese faction. Giap returned to power.
Throughout the late 60s, Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia believed in inevitable Chinese Communist domination of the Indochinese peninsula and was firmly allied with the Chinese faction in North Vietnam. Cambodia was all but a formal North Vietnamese and Chinese ally. Eastern Cambodia was essentially a North Vietnamese colony with the Ho Chi Minh trail and large areas along the border of South Vietnam under PAVN’s (People’s Army of North Vietnam) control. Soviet and Eastern Bloc ships routinely used Cambodian ports, and most of Cambodia’s rice harvest went to PAVN troops. The Cambodian Communists, the Khmer Rouge (Red Khmer) were a small indigenous guerilla auxiliary of the PAVN.
By 1969, Sihanouk was caught up in complicated plots while attempting placate all sides in the conflict. Cambodia’s support for the Vietnamese communists was one sided and destroying Cambodia’s economy. Sihanouk thoroughly supported the Chinese faction and had purged most urban i.e. Soviet supporting communists from the country. In 1970, Cambodian nationalists overthrew Sihanouk when they felt he wasn’t going far enough to restore Cambodian autonomy from Vietnam. The coup created an unholy alliance between the Sihanouk monarchists, the discredited Chinese faction of the PAVN, intellectuals outside the capital of Phnom Penh, and the agrarian peasants of the Khmer Rouge led by the unassuming and nondescript Pol Pot, to oppose the pro US Khmer Republic.
As Giap reconsolidated his hold on the PAVN in the wake of the Tet Offensive, the PAVN and the Khmer Rouge launched an offensive into north eastern Cambodian to continue the Maoist struggle against the Khmer Republic. In 1972, when Giap and the Soviet faction finally regained control of North Vietnamese leadership, the Khmer Rouge, like a petulant teenager who ran away from his parents, broke with their Vietnamese socialist brothers, and sought direct support from the Chinese Communist Party. By the end of 1973, all Sihanouk loyalists were purged. The agrarian-intellectual Khmer Rouge was greatly expanded by support from Mao Zedong’s CCP. The Khmer Rouge became the dominant force in the war against the Khmer Republic and Pol Pot the most powerful man in Cambodia.
Pol Pot was the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), the official name of the Khmer Rouge, since 1963. Known “First Brother” to his socialist allies, Pol Pot was born in French Cambodia and an early French Communist. Pol Pot patterned the Khmer Rouge on the secretive French Maquis in the Second World War and Maoist agrarian socialism, combined with a Cambodian cultural distinctiveness. Pol Pot exploited the Khmer cultural divides between urban and rural, Heaven and Hell, civilization and the wild to create an indisputable boundary between the Khmer Rouge and its enemies, whomever they may be. Sihanouk’s purge of Soviet communists i.e the proletariat, in Phnom Penh left no place in the Khmer Rouge for industrial workers, just an ideal of happy and ignorant peasants lorded over by their supposedly intellectual superiors. Pol Pot’s ideology was especially effective on teenagers and younger children. Hundreds of thousands of Khmer children were indoctrinated and desensitized to violence. They were given power of life and death which their developing minds were incapable of handling. The CPK controlled areas were “Lord of the Flies” on an exponential scale. Pol Pot’s volatile political concoction led to an ideological violence seen only in the darkest depths of socialist and pseudo religious identity politics.
With declining support from America, the Khmer Republic declared a unilateral ceasefire with the Khmer Rouge when the United States signed the Paris Peace Accords with North Vietnam. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge saw no reason to abide by the terms. Throughout 1973 and 1974, they launched continuous offensives that eventually took them to the gates of Phnom Penh, the “Pearl of Asia”. After a yearlong siege, Phnom Penh fell to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge on 17 April 1975, just a few days before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese.
The Khmer Rouge’s popular slogan at the time was “The Rotten Must Be Purged”. They killed anyone that did not fit their ideal. These included:
-Anyone associated with the former Cambodian government, their extended families and neighbors.
-Anyone with foreign connections or even knew the basics of a foreign language.
-Intellectuals. The Khmer definition “intellectual” included students who did not drop out of school to fight for them, anyone who could read, anyone who owned a book, or even anyone who wore glasses.
-The sick and infirm, and any caretakers.
-Anyone who owned a business or employed people.
-Anyone who displayed any signs whatsoever of individualism.
-Anyone who resisted, did not support the party, or offended a member of the party.
The punishment for being an enemy of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge was swift, brutal, and agonizing.
The Khmer Rouge forcefully evacuated all three million residents of the city. Phnom Penh went from bustling metropolis to ghost town in less than a month. What was left of the population of the city went on a weeks long Death March into the Cambodian countryside. Anyone who stopped moving or fell out of the march was killed. Way stops became torture centers. The Khmer Rouge played god with people’s lives just because they could. Once there they were used as slave labor on the collective farms.
20,000 mass grave sites were later identified, results of Khmer Rouge’s capture of Phnom Penh in 1975, the subsequent Death March, and the atrocities born from forced collectivization. At least 1.7 million Cambodians were murdered during Pol Pot’s and the Khmer Rouge’s Chinese sponsored reign in Cambodia.
Cambodian journalist Dith Pran coined the term “Killing Fields” to describe the clusters of skeletons and corpses he encountered on his forty mile journey during his escape from Cambodia in 1978.
In January 1975, the United States Congress refused to further fund the war in South Vietnam. Emboldened by America’s refusal to assist its ally, Communist North Vietnam launched the Ho Chi Minh campaign, a massive conventional invasion of South Vietnam. On 3 April 1975, the first shells from communist artillery slammed into South Vietnam’s capital, Saigon. The next day, President Gerald Ford authorized Operation Babylift to evacuate Vietnamese orphans from South Vietnam to prevent them from abuse, exploitation, and/or murder at the hands of the oncoming North Vietnamese troops.
Operation Babylift got off to an inauspicious start. On 4 April, a C-5A Galaxy crashed twelve minutes after takeoff from Tan Son Nhut airport when an unknown explosion rocked the rear of the aircraft. The first sortie of Operation Babylift killed 138 people, including 35 Saigon embassy personnel and 70 children. Nonetheless, Operation Babylift continued in coordination with international and Catholic non-governmental organizations.
The number of orphans vastly outweighed the capacity of the military transport planes assigned to the operation. When American businessman Bob Macauley heard it was going to take more than a week to evacuate the children, he sold his house and chartered a World Airways 737 to assist the US Air Force. Over the next ten days, Operation Babylift evacuated 3300 Vietnamese orphans to Guam or the Philippines. There they joined the nearly 130,000 Vietnamese refugees who had previously fled the communists.
The 3300 Operation Babylift evacuees found foster homes in the United States, Australia, France, Canada, and West Germany after the war.
Almost ten years to the day after the first US combat troops entered South Vietnam, Communist North Vietnam launched their war winning conventional offensive against South Vietnam.
In 1964, the South Vietnamese Army was almost completely combat ineffective and had to be rebuilt. To buy the time to do so, General William Westmoreland, the commander of the US and SEATO Military Assistance Command- Vietnam (MAC-V), brought in US airpower and US combat troops. Between 1965 and 1968, Westmoreland used US and Allied troops to search for and destroy VC and NVA main force units, while relying on special forces, indigenous militias and the ARVN for counter insurgency and security. These tactics proved effective to a point, but didn’t play well on TV and certainly weren’t quantifiable, though Westmoreland tried with “body counts”. When Westmoreland was denied the authority to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail and seize communist base camps in the Laotian panhandle and the Fishhook in Cambodia, the war was militarily unwinnable for the US and South Vietnam. North Vietnamese Minister of Defense and commander of the North Vietnamese Army, General Võ Nguyên Giáp, took advantage of this reality and advocated for a slower insurgency campaign that avoided costly big unit engagements. This approach would empower the VC, increase US casualties, embolden the US anti-war movement, and allow time for the Soviet propaganda machine to work over America.
This slower, but inevitably successful, course of action was backed by the Soviet faction inside the North Vietnamese Communist Party, led by Giap and Ho Chi Minh. In 1967, when Ho was ill and Giap at a conference in Moscow, the Chinese faction in the government and armed forces staged a soft coup. The Chinese faction, led by COSVN commander Tran Van Tra and North Vietnamese politician Le Duan, came to power and demanded big unit battle with the Americans, because that was how the French were defeated previously. Returning to Vietnam, Giap was forced to accept the new strategy.
In January 1968, the NVA and VC launched the “General Offensive/General Uprising” i.e. the Tet Offensive, which shocked the Americans and South Vietnamese. However, though the General Offensive portion of the plan was executed, the General Uprising of South Vietnamese was nonexistent. The South Vietnamese populace on the whole refused to support the communists. The NVA and VC were defeated in a few weeks, the VC decisively so. Although the communists suffered extremely heavy casualties, the Tet Offensive turned the US public opinion against the war. The scale of the offensive gave lie to the official Johnson and Westmoreland position that there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Gen Westmoreland was replaced that spring by General Creighton Abrams.
The Tet Offensive destroyed the Viet Cong as a viable military entity, and forced Giap to move NVA regular units into South Vietnam to take their place, setting the insurgency back years. This gave Abrams the opportunity to implement new tactics in Vietnam dubbed the “Inkblot Strategy”. American and ARVN troops secured the cities, town, hamlets, and then the countryside of S. Vietnam through counterinsurgency tactics the way ink blots spread on a piece of paper. Combined with targeted strikes on high value targets and partnering and training of South Vietnamese troops and irregulars, the “inkblot strategy” proved effective. Dubbed “Vietnamization” the strategy was successful, and the ARVN took over security of the country with most American combat troops out of Vietnam by 1972.
Though Abrams’ strategy was successful, the four years of lost time under Westmoreland meant that the South Vietnamese still needed American advisors, air support, supplies, and financial assistance to deal with the increasingly conventional NVA attacks. With American assistance, the ARVN held its own against the NVA coming out of Cambodia and Laos. On New Year’s Eve 1972, Giap conceded that “We have lost the war” (his words) after Operation Linebacker II and the disastrous Easter Offensive, both of which prompted the North Vietnamese to accept the Paris Peace Accords in early 1973. South Vietnam repelled North Vietnam’s 1972, 1973, and 1974 spring offensives, without American combat troops.
As usual for modern American peace deals, the United States kept its part of the bargain and its adversaries did not. In February 1975, the US public was tired of the war. The newly elected Democratic congress cut off all funding to South Vietnam, while North Vietnam was awash in funds and supplies from various Communist bloc countries. On 10 March 1975, Giap launched the spring offensive, named after the deceased former leader of North Vietnam Ho Chi Minh, with hundreds of tanks and artillery pieces. “The Ho Chi Minh Campaign” was the fourth massive conventional spring offensive in as many years against South Vietnam. Giap had reached the bottom of his manpower pool, but unfortunately South Vietnam had neither the resources nor the will to properly defend. The NVA broke through within days and Saigon fell on 30 April.
Contrary to popular historical opinion, South Vietnam did not fall to a popular insurgency, but a conventional attack that would not have been out of place in the Second World War.
130,000 South Vietnamese fled the country and 200,000 more were be murdered by the North Vietnamese over the next month. Hundreds of thousands more were forced into re-education camps. Following their victory in Vietnam, Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge, and Laos fell to the Pathet Lao. A further 1.6 million men, women, and children were murdered by the Communists.
In early 1965, there were 22,000 US Special Forces advisers, pilots, and support personnel in South Vietnam assisting the Republic of South Vietnam in the war against the communist National Liberation Front insurgents aka Viet Cong (VC), and their backers in North Vietnam. The situation in South Vietnam steadily deteriorated over the previous two years and the chaos reached a crescendo in February 1965. The Army of the Republic of South Vietnam (ARVN) was recently defeated in two conventional battles against the VC and regular North Vietnamese Army (NVA). Also the civilian government of South Vietnam endured a successful coup by the ARVN Army Chief of Staff, Gen Nguyen Khanh and his Buddhist supporters, only to be immediately followed by another failed coup by communist sympathizers on the Armed Forces Council (The Vietnamese version of the Joint Chiefs of Staff). Furthermore, the South Vietnamese village pacification program was recognized as a complete failure in February. Additionally, Viet Cong terror bombings became increasing common in South Vietnam’s major cities. But the final straw was the attack on Pleiku Air Base which killed eight Americans, wounded 128 others and destroyed 20 aircraft in the first large scale attack directed solely at Americans.
In response to the chaos, on 2 March 1965, President Lyndon Johnson authorized Operation Rolling Thunder, a sustained bombing campaign against the Viet Cong’s supply routes aka the “Ho Chi Minh Trail”, and military and industrial targets inside North Vietnam. Rolling Thunder was a major escalation to the war. The operation was scheduled to last eight weeks; it would go on for three years.
In order to protect the Rolling Thunder airbases from further Pleiku style attacks, the Military Assistance Command – Vietnam commander, Gen. William Westmoreland, requested American ground combat troops. The first of these arrived on 8 March 1965 when two battalions of US Marines landed on the beach at Danang, where they assumed security of the US airbase there. They could have flown directly to the airbase, but Westmoreland thought it more dramatic for the cameras if they landed on the beach like their fathers did in the Pacific War.
95,000 more American troops followed over the course of 1965.
The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the beginning of serious American involvement in Vietnam in 1965 began a new and more volatile phase in America’s Civil Rights Movement. The booming post war economy of the 50s and early 60s couldn’t keep up with the competing fiscal requirements of enforcement of the CRA, Johnson’s Great Society Programs, and the Cold War. A combination of Southern Democrats (for mostly racial reasons) and Northeastern Republicans (for mostly economic and political reasons) consistently steered money away from urban programs creating a widening economic gulf in America. In response to this, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, at the forefront of America’s Civil Rights Movement, organized the Poor People’s Campaign in late 1967 and early 1968, focusing on jobs and income for America’s urban poor.
As part of this campaign, Dr. King traveled to Memphis Tennessee in March 1968 to give support to the plight of black sanitation workers who received unequal pay and benefits compared to their white counterparts. Memphis was no stranger to Dr. King: he was there often and routinely stayed in the same hotel, even the same room. At 6pm on 4 April 1968, a gunman, James Earl Ray, took advantage of this situation. Ray shot and killed Dr. King as he stood on the 2nd floor balcony of his usual room in the Lorraine Hotel. Ray would escape, but would be captured in London two months later.
Later that evening, at a campaign stop in Indianapolis, Senator Robert Kennedy learned of Dr. King’s assassination. He had one last campaign speech to make that day but he tore up his remarks. During this impromptu address he gave one of the most memorable speeches in American history. He focused on Dr. King’s belief of non-violence and abhorrence of racial divisiveness. He concluded by saying,
“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”
In 1962, the Geneva Accords declared Laos a neutral country in the fight for Vietnam. US and SEATO (South East Asia Treaty Organization, the Pacific’s NATO) pulled out immediately, but North Vietnam kept about 7000 troops in the north of the country to support the Pathet Lao, the Laotian Communist insurgents. Unwilling to accept the political costs of sending troops back into Laos, Kennedy and later Johnson supported the Royal Laotian government with cash, mercenaries, and covert support. The war in Laos became the purview of the CIA. The “Secret War in Laos” was the largest CIA covert operation of the Cold War until Afghanistan in the 80s.
In 1965, the monsoon disrupted US bombing campaigns against the Communists, specifically Operations Rolling Thunder in North Vietnam, Steel Tiger on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the Laotian panhandle, and Barrel Roll against the Pathet Lao in northern Laos. So a navigational station was put on top of Phou Pha Thi, a jagged and steep mountain in the Hmong dominated area of Laos. The Hmong, like the Montagnards in Vietnam, were a tough mountain people who had been fighting Communists for a decade. A tactical navigational aid (TACAN) transponder was placed at Landing (Lima) Site 85 on the very top of Phou Pha Thi, a Hmong sacred mountain whose summit was thought to be impenetrable to anyone who hadn’t lived in the area their entire lives.
Lima Site 85 was just one of hundreds of landing sites for the CIA’s proprietary airline in Laos, Air America. Also, LS-85 was quickly discovered to be the perfect place for radar to cover the North Vietnamese heartland, and its height gave a straight shot to cover Hanoi and Haiphong, just 175 miles away to the east. The site was expanded but still small, just a landing pad, and three small buildings for commo, operations, and living quarters. However, the TSQ-81, a portable version of the venerable and reliable MSQ-77 radar, required a team of 12 US Air Force technicians to operate. This posed a problem: No US military personnel were allowed in the country. So the CIA “sheep-dipped” them. Sheep Dipping is the practice of asking for military volunteers for a covert mission, discharging them from the service, hiring them through a civilian company, in LS-85’s case Lockheed Aircraft Service Corp, and when the mission was over they releasing themd back into the service.
By the end of 1967, Lima Site 85 directed nearly a quarter of all US airstrikes in theater. The North Vietnamese knew of the site and in mid-1967 began a concerted effort to break into Hmong territory and seize Phou Pha Thi. By 1968, almost half of LS-85’s airstrikes were in support of Royal Laotian troops or CIA led Hmong militia. In January 1968, the first direct assault on LS-85 occurred when two North Vietnamese Antonov-2 Colt biplanes attempted to bomb the site. But the slow moving planes were shot down by Air America Huey crewmembers with small arms, a submachine gun in one case.
With the failure of their air attack, the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao began ground operations against LS-85 in earnest. They were close enough to shell and rocket the site, but its position meant almost all of the incoming rounds either hit the side of the mountain or flew harmlessly overhead. Nonetheless, the indicators were ominous. The CIA brought in several companies of Hmong militia and a Thai Army infantry battalion that were under cover as “mercenaries” to defend the base of the mountain.
The Hmong were excellent guerrilla fighters but they were unsuited for a static defense against a deliberate attack by North Vietnamese regulars and a swarm of Pathet Lao. On 18 February 1968, a North Vietnamese officer was captured five miles south east of the site. On him were papers that indicated an imminent attack on the site by four battalions of the veteran 766th PAVN Regiment and one PL battalion, supported by a battalion of artillery. However, LS-85 was integral to the air campaign and would not be evacuated. The authority to evacuate rested solely with the American ambassador in the Laotian capital of Vientiane, and then only at the sole request of the Air Force. Furthermore, no more troops were brought in to defend the site as air power and the terrain were thought to be sufficient.
On 9 March, 1968, the Communists attacked. Despite massive American airstrikes, the North Vietnamese and Communist Laotians pushed the Hmong and Thai soldiers with their CIA commanders slowly up the mountain. Even during the attack, the Air Force did not want to request evacuation as the inclement weather in North Vietnam made the radar exceptionally valuable. But for the first time, they did issue the technicians M-16s, who up to this point had been unarmed because they were posing as civilians working for Lockheed. Only the senior NCO, CMSgt Richard Etchberger, knew how to competently operate the weapon. On 10 March, the fighting was dangerously close to the site, but even as late as 9pm the Air Force thought they could hold out. The ambassador authorized a dawn extraction by Air America for the technicians and the remaining Thai and Hmong soldiers. The CIA station chief immediately commented that it “was a day too late.”
The Air Force might have been correct, the Communists sustained significant casualties assaulting the mountain and looked to suspend attacks. But they were just waiting on their trump card – Communism is nothing if not dangerously seductive and a dozen local Hmong mountaineers volunteered to scale the northern cliff face to show their dedication to the cause. At 3 am on the morning of 11 March, the Hmong sappers attacked the compound from the rear. They killed several Air Force technicians in the barracks and surprised several more exiting the ops building fumbling with their weapons. The technicians weren’t ignorant of their precarious situation and knew they couldn’t rely on the ambassador and their own command for a timely evacuation. So they prepared ropes to rappel down the mountain to safety. The off-duty shift immediately did this, but the sappers killed them on the shelf below the cliff face. That any Americans survived the initial attack at all was due to Etchberg fighting from the commo building.
Upon hearing firing from the top of the mountain, the senior CIA commander, a former Green Beret Huey Marlow, took his Hmong radio man and trotted toward the site’s buildings. With his shotgun and some gratuitous close combat, he killed a sapper machine gun crew positioned to stop any counterattack from below, and scattered the remaining sappers. However, his missing presence from the fight at the base of the mountain was the final straw that broke the Hmong and Thai resistance from the unceasing Communist attacks.
After dawn Air America helicopters evacuated 8 of the 19 Americans on Lima Site 85, and as many Hmong and Thai soldiers as they could in four chaotic landing attempts. The last American brought off was the wounded TACAN technician Jack Starling, who had been playing dead underneath one of the buildings. At 9:46 am, nearly four hours after dawn and six after the sapper attack, an MH-53 Jolly Green Giant returned for him after a friend said he was probably still alive. Starling sprinted and jumped into the helicopter hovering off the cliff face while the door gunners returned fire against the multitude of Communists then at the site. Hollywood has nothing on reality.
Eight of the eleven remaining Americans were known to have been killed in the attack and three were initially thought captured. Later in the day, it was determined that they also were killed, and the Air Force bombed the hell out of the site to prevent the equipment from being analyzed by the Communists.
The surviving technicians of the Battle of Phou Pha Thi returned to Air Force service. Marlowe received an Intelligence Star for actions on the mountain during the night 10/11 March 1968. In 2003, a Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command expedition to Laos found the remains of one technician and the equipment of four more, whose bodies were thrown off the mountain by the North Vietnamese. CMSgt Etchberger’s widow (he was killed in the evacuation from ground fire that penetrated his helicopter’s floorboards) received a Medal of Honor from President Obama at a small White House ceremony in 2012.
The Fall of Lima Site 85 was a grievous blow to Operation Rolling Thunder. Without the TACAN and the radar, the bombing had to be severely curtailed during the monsoon season. Politically, ending the operation became more useful than any military effect it had when the monsoon arrived. President Johnson suspended Operation Rolling Thunder in May, 1968, and cancelled it completely in November.
The North Vietnamese “General Offensive, General Uprising” during the Tet holiday of 1968 did not produce the “general uprising” among the South Vietnamese people. The “Offensive” however did strike every significant American and South Vietnamese military and political center in South Vietnam, including the American air base outside the city of Bien Hoa.
Bien Hoa Airbase was 60 miles north of Saigon and the primary tactical air base for War Zones C and D along the Cambodian border. At 0330, 31 January 1968, the 68th, 274th, and 275th NLF (National Liberation Front, i.e. Viet Cong) main force regiments assaulted Bien Hoa Airbase. The Viet Cong broke through and overran a portion of the perimeter secured by the US Air Force’s 3rd Security Police Squadron and seized the eastern portion of the airbase. Before they crossed the last remaining obstacle, the runway, the Communists stopped to regroup to coordinate a massive final assault.
The flat runway bisected Bien Hoa Airbase from north to south and presented an obvious killing ground for American defenders on the west side. But unbeknownst to the Communists, they overran the air base’s arms rooms, which were located on the east end of the base. The 10,000 airmen and civilians trapped on the west side of the base were unarmed. Just a single platoon, 30 airmen, were left to secure the 3050m long runway. All the Communists had to do was cross the runway and they could have massacred everyone.
Just after the sun rose, at about 0640, the Communists began their assault. “You could see the VC rise for the attack”. At least 2500 Communists charged across the open space, and the airmen and civilians watched helplessly from the west side of the runway. They had no weapons. Their arms were all securely locked away and seized the night before when the NLF overran the eastern perimeter.
Every one of the Americans assumed they were going to die.
As the powerless airmen looked on the mass of humanity screaming across the runway, their saviors appeared in the form of three Cobra gunships from the 145th Aviation Battalion. The Cobras strafed and rocketed the airstrip breaking up the Communist attack. The Cobras’ attacks would continue for the rest of the day. One section would attack, as one would disengage and return to rearm and refuel at a small helipad on the south side of the airbase. One more would return to replace the attacker. The Cobra gunships continued the rotation for the next 51 hours.
On the morning of 1 February, 1968, crew chiefs of Bien Hoa’s F-105 Thunderchief fight-bombers on the far west side of the base readied their planes as Cobras were still killing anything they saw. Dodging bodies and craters on the south side on the runway, the Thuderchiefs took off and then immediately turned and plastered the NLF, in the only instance in US Air Force history where they had to bomb their own base.
The next day, a squadron of the 11th Armoured Cavalry Regiment and two battalions of ARVN (Army of the Republic of [South] Vietnam) arrived to secure the airbase.