1971 – Into The Briar Patch
In March 1971, the United States Air Force flung me into the briar patch of northern Thailand because they knew not what else to do with me. Now I realize that statement requires some explanation, so here goes. Please bear with me.
The situation actually began in September, 1969, when I took an "in the blind" assignment at the start of my second tour of duty in Saigon. The offer was $16 per diem for a temporary duty assignment in civilian clothing for six months at a "classified location"; my military specialty and security clearance were needed, but no other details were given. I knew there was only one assignment in Southeast Asia that paid that much. That extra $16 per day was available only for those stationed in Bangkok.
Some choice, I thought…another year in a stinking shattered craphole of a wartime city inhabited by grasping harpies who loathed me for a sucker even as they ripped me off, or being paid a bonus to rollick in the party capital of the world. Of course, I elected for party hearty; as it turned out, I got one whole night in Bangkok, as I passed through. I spent that night destroying my sleep deficit.
I spent the next night on an air base, which I later found out was Udorn. The night after that, I was in Vientiane, Laos in civilian clothing, equipped with freshly forged identification as an unarmed civilian employee of the American Embassy. My fourth and 500 odd subsequent nights were spent in Luang Prabang, Laos. I became a member of an ad hoc Air Commando team (called an Air Operations Center) that supplied the technical knowledge and support to run a squadron of the Royal Laotian Air Force. All of the American enlisted men had volunteered blindly as I had. The officers were volunteers recruited from among the most aggressive forward air control pilots flying in Vietnam. There were eleven of us in all—three officers, eight enlisted men.
No one ever mentioned to us that an Air Commando team manning a radar site not too far from us, over by the North Vietnamese border, had been overrun and pretty much wiped out the year before. No one mentioned that the Royal Laotian Army had also been irrevocably shattered the year before, in the Battle of Nam Bac, just north of Luang Prabang. Then again, no one ever mentioned that any of us could be shot out of hand if captured by the Vietnamese communists because international law defined us as spies. However, the ambassador we worked for reassured us that our safety was assured via a gentleman’s agreement with the enemy.
I had entered the secret world of “Terry and the Pirates” and “Steve Canyon”, though aspects of the experience were much more like a trip through Alice’s looking glass. The official line was (and is) that there were no American troops stationed in Laos. The official Vietnamese communist line was that their troops weren’t there either. Battalions of Thai “volunteers” just happened to join their Royal Lao brethren in solidarity without anyone noticing. The Chinese road building crews were in western Laos by legal treaty, but still needed military protection by their own army, from “subversive elements”. Hmong and other hill tribesmen recruited by the CIA to fight the North Vietnamese in eastern Laos seemed to be the “subversive elements”. The French military mission played tennis in Vientiane. The reputed combatants–the Royal Lao and the Lao communists–were pretty much bystanders to the war. The Royal Lao followed in the path of our air strikes and occupied hilltop strongholds for our side. The Pathet Lao followed in the path of the Vietnamese communists, and occupied their hilltop bunkers. Occasionally, various hilltops swapped occupants, often without bloodshed.
From the standpoint of nostalgia, the Secret War can seem so exotic and adventurous. An enemy horde poured down upon us from Dien Bien Phu in North Vietnam. We few gallant heroes opposed them with a guerrilla army run by the local warlord, and a tiny air force of tired trainers and an ancient gunship flown by local pilots. The bad guys had the manpower; we had the firepower. They swarmed down upon us, trying to overrun us during the dry season. We bombed them relentlessly to hold them off until the rains came again, when the bad guys would recede back into Vietnam.
Exotic excitement carried me through my six months of temporary duty. The excitement was marred only by the loss of my friend Lieutenant Liao, one of the Lao pilots, shot down over the Chinese Road in western Laos. At the end of my six months, I was supposed to leave Laos, because Air Force regulations said temporary duty could not last longer than that. The stress level inherent in the assignment said the same. But by the end of my tour, I spoke a little Lao, and had a lot of Lao pilot friends. It seemed coldhearted to just walk out on them while the dry season fighting was underway, so I volunteered for another six months. It took some argument, but keeping a volunteer on board saved training a replacement; also, one less person knew the secrets, so one less person could spill the beans. The paperwork was jiggered, and I remained in Laos.
During this tour, the fighting became hotter, both figuratively and literally. The weather became so hot that we had to ground our planes during the siesta hour because the 105-degree sun inflamed them so that they would burn whoever touched them. Later, in the cool of dusk, we could stand on the airstrip while the last missions landed, and watch enemy mortar shells being lobbed at the defended ridgelines surrounding us. A couple of times, I watched enemy infantry soldiers assault those very ridgelines. Our Lao pilots now no longer had time to retract the landing gear on their planes before they were pickling off the bomb load and landing to reload. Once, we barely got the gunship up in time to save the Royal battalion shielding us from being overrun by the North Vietnamese. Finally, the blessed rains came, and the enemy offensive was washed out just shy of overwhelming us.
Once again, my temporary duty was at an end. However, the new guys on the team that had gradually transferred in still seemed a bit green. And by now, I ran around every night with the local pilots, riding pillion on a motorcycle to either the Tiger Bunker Bar or the Barn. I felt I was still needed, so I asked for a third temporary duty tour, and was refused. I then requested a permanent change of station order. Great consternation followed. No one had ever volunteered to stay on for a year in permanent status. With not so veiled aspersions to my state of sanity, the request was granted.
And then it all went bad.
Our commanding officer was hit by ground fire while on a strike mission and augered in. I ended up running the search and rescue operation because no one else would take the responsibility. We failed to save him, and we couldn’t retrieve his body.
His replacement was a falling-down drunk. He had no idea of how to run an Air Operations Center, so the guys turned to the old hand for advice; that was me. I found myself pressured to supply answers in technical fields in which I was untrained, all while doing my own tasks. On top of it all, I was running the house staff, ordering our commissary goods, and overseeing the menus and meals.
This situation shouldn’t have hurt us during the wet season lull, but for once the bad guys hadn’t all gone home to Dien Bien Phu. Four of them crept through the Royal Lao lines, and strolled through town taking notes and photographs. No one shot them. When they were done with their reconnaissance, they walked back into the hills unperturbed. The wanted posters for us showed up shortly afterwards, offering a fortune for killing or capturing us. Then a sapper squad came in one January night and blew up our airplanes and fuel dump. After a long night of dread, dawn’s light convinced us we weren’t next—yet.
The weather broke, and we started flying our replacement planes. My best remaining Lao friend led one of the first missions. He was renowned for his good fortune and hairs-breadth escapes from harm, but his luck ran out that day. When the flight hit bad weather, he decided to climb up through the clouds to clear air to return to base. His wingman edged in closer, to keep him in sight. The midair collision killed both of them. This loss forced me to face the fact that all my Lao pilot friends were eventually going to be killed in action.
To this day, I cannot tell what possessed me next. I can only state, that when I had eighteen months in Laos, I awoke one morning in a state of mindless automation, drove down to the airfield, caught an airplane south, marched into the embassy, and quit. I unvolunteered myself. Sort of desertion in the face of the enemy, risk of courtmartial and of death by musketry, etcetera. Except that because it was a top secret hush hush war, when I told my superiors to go screw themselves, they were faced with some difficult choices. If they tried and shot me, there would be too many nasty explanations, the top secrets might be spilled, and careers could be ruined; incidental to all this, a war might be lost. So because they couldn't court-martial and shoot me, they hastily reassigned me to a technical job in Udon Thani for lack of anything better. I was escorted back to Wattay and put on the next flight south. I had punched Ole Bro' Tar Baby right in his military chops, and been flung into the briar patch to repent.
To say I was used goods when I showed up at Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base in March 1971 was a bit of understatement. Distressed goods was more like it; maybe even more like abused goods. If my body had escaped combat unscathed, my psyche definitely had more than its share of nicks and dings, and my military attitude definitely left a lot to be desired.
Now, consider for a moment how an air force works. The officers fly their airplanes and do the fighting. The enlisted men man their desks and do the chores. Any necessary dealing with battle happiness takes place in the cool refinement of the officers club. On the other hand, the enlisted guys go party merrily after work, unscathed by nothing more hazardous than hang nails, hangovers, or the clap.
Nice setup. Except my new squadron now had an enlisted combat veteran aboard. Me. And it had a raging case of combat fatigue to deal with. Me again. And it had no clue and no milieu in which to deal with an adrenalin-crazed wacko in the ranks. Think of a cage fighter being turned loose post-bout on a high school campus, and you have a pretty accurate picture of my place in my new unit's ranks. I had zero patience for the petty crap of a peacetime air force; in turn, their choices were going to be either to jail me for being a combat veteran, or to handle me very warily indeed. It was a very tense and weird situation, seemingly without solution. So, yes, I was in the briar patch, but how was I going to be scratched?
Mine was not the most usual entry to Thailand, eh?
Wonderful start and look forward to reading more about your time in the country!