Site hosted by Build your free website today!
November 27, 1968 Savannakhet Laos

The day began like many others. Hoss McBride is up early as usual. He fires up a fresh cigar and heads for the bathroom. I awake to the smell of cigar smoke. How can he smoke one of those things so early in the morning? Hoss clumps down the hall and descends the stairs to the first floor. Jungle boots make such a sweet sound on wooden floors. That is my signal to get up and dress. I am still tired from  the Air America crash earlier in the week.8  The target validation fiasco with MOONBEAM last night didn’t help either.  Maybe it was a new guy on the ABCCC who sent just a coordinate for validation.9 Normally the night guys are real good; it could have been a bad night for them too. I visit the bathroom for a quick shave and follow McBride down to breakfast. Mr Hai, our venerable Vietnamese cook, brings in the coffee pot so we can jump start our hearts.10  He takes our orders for eggs - a stirring motion means scrambled, a flip of the hand means fried over easy. Those were the breakfast egg choices at the Green House diner, take um or leave um.11

We hold our breakfast operations planning meeting. Discussions center on what is going on in the southern part of MR III. We are uncomfortable about not knowing what the bad guys are doing. Our concern is that they might get organized and mount a counter action to the Fa Ngum  One offensive last August when Muang Phalane was retaken by a joint SGU/FAR operation.12  Another possibility is a move west along the Sé Bang Hiang  (River) to the Keng Kok region, or even to the Mekong, cutting the country apart near the MR3 and MR4 boundary. We do not know.

With breakfast complete we go our separate ways. The FACs go to the base, and I drive to the morning meeting at MR3 headquarters.13  Concern at the morning meeting also centers on activities in the south. Both the FAR and CAS sources seem to agree that something strange is occurring. It concerns a multi-unit troop activity near the Sé Bang Hiang.14  Coordinates are passed. No change from yesterday. The meeting adjourns. Thankfully short for a change. Bureaucrats worldwide are the same. They can take a 30 minute meeting and cram it into hours.

Hoss will take the morning flight with a Lao observer. FAC preflight preparation is relaxed; nothing like the formal USAF briefings of our brethren across the river. There is no intelligence prebrief since the intelligence is the information from the MR3 meeting. The AIRA site did not try to maintain an enemy ground order of battle due to the tenuous stream of intelligence and our one deep level of manning. In 1968, there were no known anti-aircraft defenses in this area so there was no threat brief. Ground fire was always a possibility and everyone knew that. Radio frequencies of the air and ground contacts were already in the check list. This will be a visual reconnaissance (VR) flight with the possibility of action depending upon what is found in the target area - a typical FAC flight in MR3 at this time.

Hoss gathers up his flight gear from the Intel Shop's storage area behind the map stands. He takes his survival vest, map case, flak jacket, binoculars, AR-I5, and .38 caliber sidearm.15  The RAVENs in Savannakhet do not wear flying helmets nor did they have them. For the most part they do not wear long sleeved flying clothes like their USAF compadres. Most wear flying gloves. On his way out of the building Hoss stops to fill his canteen with fresh water from the water cooler. Usually he leaves his signature straw hat at the site for safekeeping or in his jeep which is brought back to the site from the flight line. Today, it is the site. He leaves the hat on my target validation map table just to jerk my chain because he knows that I will have to move it to use the maps underneath. This is one of the comic relief gotcha games we play.

Hoss picks up his Lao observer from the new AOC building before he goes to the flight line. Preflight of an O-1 is not exceptionally complicated; A walk around of the bird, a check of the armament (Willy Pete rockets),  check the flight control surfaces, a fuel and oil check. Everything looks OK.16

Load up the aircraft. Lao observer and AR-15 in back plus other gear. Map case and binoculars in front. Put on the flak vest, climb in and readjust the front seat to the big boy position. Hoss is the biggest man flying these airplanes at L39.  All Clear. Crank the engine. The little Continental engine coughs and then roars to life. Systems stabilize and instruments look good. Contact SMOKEY Control for radio checks - victor, uniform and fox mike. Radio checks acknowledged. Ground crew removes the safety pins on the rockets. The wheel chocks are pulled. Time to go.

Throttle applied, the engine responds and the Birddog begins to move. A 180 degree turn toward the taxiway. Dust billows across the PSP as the little bird taxis. Onto the the asphalt surface of the taxiway. The dust stops. Side windows are open to get a little cool air in the aircraft. Stop at the runway. Call the tower. What a joke! If the tower is manned, and if its radio works, it serves only as a lookout for landing aircraft. But it is an attempt at air traffic control. Little things are important in Laos. Visual check the approaches to insure there is not incoming traffic, regardless what you are told by the tower. This is do it yourself Air Traffic Control. Taxi onto the runway. Heading  220. Run up, release brakes and go. Call airborne to SMOKEY, bank left over the Air America ramp and then  head southeast  following Route 11 toward Keng Kok. Soon after getting airborne, the ever present cigar is lit. Ah! The flight departs L39 about 0845 (0145Z). This allows for a three hour operational flight and recovery by Noon. That schedule permits a minimum maintenance turnaround if that aircraft is needed in the afternoon. The flight from L39 to the target area takes about 45 to 60 minutes given Hoss is observing the road and activity along the way. He is over the search area by about 0945 local (0245Z). The cigar goes out and the work begins.

8. An Air America C-46 serving as the USAID courier crashed at Savannakhet on Monday afternoon killing all 34 people aboard. (The newspaper article in the bibliography was in error.) Hoss and I went to the crash site together. He organized the recovery effort. We pulled bodies from the wreck Monday evening till dark. We were “extracted” from a makeshift LZ near the crash site aboard Captain Ed Reid’s Air America Bell 205.  The stress level and emotional trauma was already high in Savannakhet before this accident, due to the loss of another associate, CAS case officer, Wayne McNulty in August 1968. The small American community in Savannakhet was a closely knit group. This accident drove the stress level to the near limits. But it was to go higher.
9. I was the US Embassy target validation officer in South Laos (usually my night job). The night airborne command and control aircraft (MOONBEAM) was providing incomplete information while trying to get target validations approved.
10. Hoss received care packages of 100% Colombian coffee from his wife who was from Colombia. The 100% Colombian coffee really got us going in the morning.
11. The Green House was the name for the “officers” quarters in Savannakhet. But since we were all misters I guess I can’t say that. The “Grey House” was the quarters for the enlisted misters. The dwellings were named for their exterior colors.
 12. The village of Muong Phalane is along Route 9, approximately 50 nautical miles east of L39, about two thirds the distance from L39 to the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Since 1965 it had formed the de facto eastern boundary of FAR influence and the western boundary of PAVN influence. The installation of a USAF TACAN site in March, 1968 upset this stalemate since it was used to attack the infiltration routes. The town was attacked by PAVN battalion and a Dac Cong (special task) company late on December 24, 1967. They destroyed the USAF TACAN station located at the nearby LS61, an Air America radio station and USAID facilities. See Van Staaveren, CAP 671165, and Conboy. Two Americans, four Thai and 21 Lao Army were killed. BI 28, the FAR unit guarding the town fled. This was the first significant enemy action in a year in this part of the Panhandle. The town was retained in December and subsequently lost in February, 1968. In August 1968, the First Special Guerrilla Unit (SGU) Battalion supported by the Royal Lao Army (FAR) retook the village with significant assistance from the RAVENs, the Lao T-28s and USAF/USN air strikes. Hoss was a major player in this first offensive success in MR3 in a year.    .
13. This meeting was an attempt at joint coordination. The participants usually included the MR3 Chief of Staff, Col. Thao Ly, his staff, the Assistant Air Attache, the Project 404 Army representative, the Controlled American Source (CAS) representative, and AIRA Intelligence.
14.  Sé  is river in Laotian.
15.  We were provided the latest in small arms. Ha! We carried the civilian Armalite,  the AR-15, rather than the military M-16. Remember we were civilians! The .38 caliber revolvers the FACs carried during missions were worn out USAF sidearms. We joked that the RAVENs had the last of the “smooth bore” pistols in the USAF inventory.  Often we borrowed better weapons from the CIA, or carried liberated Chinese AK-47s. I carried a new .38 caliber revolver all the time, but that is another story.
16. Willy Pete is White Phosphorus. It creates a white marking smoke for the fighters to see and use as a reference while bombing.
 17.L39 was the code for the Savannakhet airfield. See “Air Facilities Data, Laos”; Flight Information Center; Vientiane; May 1970.