Upper Left: This was taken at the Officers Club at Nakhon Phanom in 1967 or 68. The men lined up are all pilots assigned to the 56th Air Commando Wing and are being given medals for air action on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, either air rescue or attack missions. Mike is on the far right reading the citations which had been "sanitized" to make sure that Laos or any words that would identify the mission as being there were expunged. Upper right; A Hmong family near one of the LIMA sites in Laos. Lower Right: A T-38 fighter bomber used by the Royal Lao Air force from bases in Thailand for truck destruction raids against North Vietnam supply lines on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. Lower left: Captain Mike Burton (second from the left) on an inspection tour of one of the villages in Laos, accompanied by a Thai driver and Lao guide and a member of the Embassy Staff in Vientiane.
From December 1966 until December 1968, I was assigned to air bases in Thailand. The primary mission of the units to which I was assigned was to stop the flow of personnel and materials coming from North Vietnam through the “Ho Chi Minh Trail” to South Vietnam. The trail was located almost entirely in Laos.
My assignment to the 56th Air Commando Wing at Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, and the 7/13 Air Force Headquarters in Udn, Thailand, happened through a mistake in my USAF paperwork.
At some point, my records stated that I spoke French and Russian. I had taken Russian in college and spoke some Spanish, but not French.
Through a comedy of errors -- or perhaps I should say a tragedy of errors -- I found myself reporting to the Wing Commander at the Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base, or NKP, as it was called, who embraced me as his French-speaking Intelligence Liaison Officer. Once we both got over the shock and it was determined that I did not speak French, the Commander said he would find something else for me to do.
At this time, I was a 26-year-old, newly-promoted captain who knew little more about the “war” in Vietnam than the majority of Americans at that time. I bought into the notion that there was a need to hold the line against the possible domino effect of a Communist takeover across all of Asia if the U.S. didn't stop them in Vietnam.
My naivety went back to my youth, growing up with a John Wayne view of America. We were the good guys, always on the right side and exercising our power only to ensure democracy and peace.
Within a few months, I was disabused of those notions.
I was shipped to Saigon with classified orders that simply said I was to receive further instruction once I checked in to the Tan Son Nhut Air Base. That being done, I found myself in Northern Thailand at a base that was still under construction, but was called Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base. The American commander was Colonel Harry Aderholt, a legendary officer of sorts.* I had heard of him while in training and learned over time that he lived up to his legend.
The day after I reported in, I returned to the Colonel's office to see what he had “found” for me to do. He said that at that time, there was a shortage of personnel, so I would go ahead with my assignment, adding, “You will be working with the Hmong, and they don't speak French anyway.” He then turned to a large map on the wall and pointed to an area on it. I had no idea where or what he was pointing to, except that the area was southwest of Hanoi and northwest of Saigon. “This is where we fly our missions, all of them in Laos.”
I had heard of Laos and in my head could locate the country, but had no idea how it fit into the war effort in Vietnam, nor the position of the U.S. in our efforts in Southeast Asia. Aderholt then instructed another colonel to take me to Intelligence and get me up to date. Intelligence turned out to be two windowless trailers hooked together by an air-conditioning unit. At the time, it was the only air-conditioned unit on base. I spent the next few 12-13-hour days in that trailer trying to come to grips with a myriad collection of maps, aerial photos, and conflicting fragmentary orders that stretched from Washington, D.C., to Vientiane.
All of these documents were marked Top Secret and I had been required to sign a document stating that I would at no time reveal the location nor the activities of the Wing or its subordinate units, not even to immediate family members. Actually, any U.S. personnel assigned to that base was required to sign a similar document — mine just went into greater detail. As I clawed my way through this pile of documents, often asking questions and trying to coordinate the messages with maps, certain names appeared more often than others. When I asked about Ambassador William Sullivan, the U.S. Ambassador to Laos, I was told he was “Field Marshal” Sullivan who often ran orders through Saigon or directly to Aderholt. I also recall a Major Dick Secord, who was the USAF liaison to the Laotian Air Force. When I asked where the Lao Air Force was, I was told, “It depends on where you are looking.”
Photo of Major General Vang Pao (right) with USAF Colonel Roland McCoskrie at Long Thien, Laos in 1968. McCoskrei was commander of the 56th ACW and General Vang Pao was commander of the Lao Special Guerilla Forces of the Royal Lao Army. Long Thien was the main CIA-built base in Central Laos.
Then there was Vang Pao — Major General Vang Pao. His name appeared on most documents. He was the head of the Special Guerilla Unit Army, which, I discovered, had been recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency and was based at Long Tieng in Xaisomboun Province. The base was constructed by the CIA and at one time grew to be the second-largest city in Laos, although its name never appeared on a map, Later I would visit Long Tieng on three occasions, once with Colonel Aderholt and later with Colonel Roland McCoskrie who took over the 56th from Aderholt. The final time, I was part of a group of “advisors” sent there to “make a show” for Ambassador Sullivan who was there to tell Vang Pao that he could not have command of the Lao Aircraft pilots that the U.S. had trained.
If all this sounds a little crazy, it was. My three-day emergence in those intel trailers — while not making things clear — did make me wonder just what the U.S. was trying to do in Laos. Two dates kept cropping up in reference to one or another action: 1954 and 1962. These were the days before the internet and the base had no library, so finding out the significance of these dates was impossible. However, I was able to make a telephone call to Bangkok where an Air Force friend of mine was stationed with the Air Staff at the embassy. I said I wanted to ask a few questions and he said he would try to answer as long as it wasn’t classified. I found out from him that there were Geneva Conferences in 1954 and 1962 regarding the neutrality of Laos. The U.S. did not sign the 1954 accords, but had signed the 1962 accords. In those second accords, the U.S. agreed to the neutrality of Laos and pledged to not interfere directly or indirectly in the affairs of Laos.
That night after I returned to my quarters, I began to wrestle with the facts I had learned. Just four years earlier, the U.S. had pledged to not interfere in the affairs of Laos. North Vietnam and South Vietnam had also signed that pledge. Yet here were full-fledged air and ground battles between those countries going on all over Laotian territory. To complete the matter, I was to realize I was caught in the middle of two civil wars: one between North and South Vietnam, and the other in Laos itself.
I won't go into the details about the Laotian Civil War, but the chaotic circumstances there added up to the entire fiasco being a huge part of the Second Indo-China War, with the biggest loser of all being Laos, and especially the Hmong.
I was about to find out just the depth to which the U.S. and the North Vietnamese were in violation of the 1962 Accords the next day as I took my first flight orientation "upcountry.”
Upcountry was the euphemism for any mission into Laos. NKP is located in the far end of Northeast Thailand, just a stone’s throw from the Mekong River. It was literally the closest U.S. base to North Vietnam and had easy access to many of the LIMA sites that dotted Laos. A LIMA site was an encampment that had a runway and some support equipment for aircraft. The runways varied in length: up to the 4200 ft, like at Long Tieng, to as short as 700 feet or less in other locations. There were literally hundreds of LIMA sites and battles were constantly being fought over many of them. Pilots had to always call in before landing to make sure who controlled the sites because they often changed hands.
Many of the sites were used as a waiting zone for A1C recovery aircraft along with Jolly Green Giant helicopters who would wait to rescue pilots who might have been shot up over North Vietnam and couldn't make it back to Thailand.** Others served as launch positions for attack aircraft against trucks coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
My first flight over Laos was in a T-28 Zorro, a U.S. Navy two-seated Trainer that had been converted for interdiction missions on the Trail. These are the same aircraft flown by the Hmong pilots trained in the U.S. — more about that later.
The mission was uneventful. No targets were spotted, so we returned to base. But one thing should be noted: about halfway back and in an unspecified area, the pilot jettisoned the Cluster Bomb Units that had been affixed to the aircraft. Why? CBUs are an unstable munition. Any one of the clusters could contain from two to 2000 submunitions or bomblets. During the Vietnam War, these were used indiscriminately and often. The BLU-3 used extensively over Laos had 360 bomblets. These were not often used on the T-28 as rockets and conventional bombs served as better armament against trucks. However, when the bombs were carried and not used against specific targets, they were jettisoned because they could explode on landing.
The U.S. dropped 25 million tons of bombs on Laos. Many of them, like those we ejected that day, were simply dumped on the farm lands of Laos, and over 50 years later are still maiming or killing the people there.
Learning the “Ropes”
I was the junior officer (referred to as the junior woodchuck) on the Air Staff of the 56th. Occasionally, I would be brought along to meetings at the Embassy in Vientiane, mostly to carry the maps and charts for the meetings. One meeting with Ambassador Sullivan was attended by a general officer from the 7th Air Force as well as two officers from General Vang Pao’s staff. An argument ensued when Aderholt asked Sullivan to allow targets in the Mu Gia Pass area to be bombed. Mu Gia Pass was the pinch point of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and a lynchpin for supplies coming south. But Sullivan refused, reminding Aderholt that the pass was in the disarmament zone and an attack there would be a violation of the ’62 Accords. Aderholt retorted that there was a division of Royal Lao troops near the pass that with air support could close the pass and cut off the North’s main supply line into the south. Aderholt added that Vang Pao’s forces could come up from the east to shut down all the lines into the area. When Sullivan pressed that the U.S. couldn’t direct Laotian troops in any battle plans, Aderholt blew up saying, “If we are going to fight a war, we can’t do it with one hand tied behind our backs.”
I watched this exchange and considered that we were sitting in the middle of the Laotian capital, a city split in civil war, discussing the fine edge of violating international law and worrying about violating agreements the U.S. had signed. Hell, we were violating the agreement every day all under the cover of secrecy. It also reminded me that the U.S. seemed to have no strategic military goal in SE Asia. I grew up during WWII when the goal was Berlin and Tokyo. Even in Korea, there was the goal of the Yalu or the 38th Parallel, but here, we seemed satisfied to go bomb the hell out of everything, then pull back into our hangers to lick our wounds. War is nothing more than a final commitment of forces to carry out an aspect of public policy when all others have failed. U.S. policy in SE Asia had gone terribly wrong with the Americanization of the war itself.
The U.S. went wrong in the first place by trying to shore up the failing French Empire at the end of WWII. By 1967, U.S. troop commitment into Vietnam made the war not one in which we were aiding the South Vietnamese, but one where the U.S. was in charge of total military operations. For anyone in the field, Laos was known to be a critical component of the battle. The Laotians themselves, especially the hill people, were caught in the middle of a maelstrom.
The Ground War
Other than the two “high-level” meetings in Vientiane, my first excursion on the ground into Laos was made by boat. The 56th had established a so-called civic action unit to bring medical and other necessary materials to “civilian populations in the area surrounding NKP.” NKP is on the banks of the Mekong and just across the river on the Laotian side was Savannakhet. This is a fairly large city and became a focal point for fighting between Royal Lao and Pathet Lao later in the war. The civic action boat was commanded by Dr. (Major) Phil Coate, who dispensed medicines and gave care to anyone who found the boat, be they civilians or military personnel, no matter whose side they were on.
My primary responsibility was to act as a liaison to many of the LIMA sites spread thoughout parts of Laos. LIMA sites were covert locations at hundreds of sites throughout the country. Some were as developed as Long Tieng with a 1300 ft runway and a population of close to 45,000. Most, however, were smaller. Some had paved runways, and some did not. They may exist in an isolated location or near villages, and many were subject to battles that saw the site put in different hands from week to week. I was sent to visit some of these sites and to assess the security of the locations. If they were located near a village, I was to meet with the villagers and see if they had any needs we could provide. Because of this, I saw first-hand the destruction that was occurring to Laos. People had to constantly move because bombs rendered fields unusable and unexploded bombs remained in the land. I saw the wounded, maimed, and dead.
One visit in particular remains on my mind to this day. I visited a village near Ban Houei Sane, a heavily-armed Royal Lao Army base that also had a runway. In late December 1967, I paid a visit to the headman of the village, a school teacher named Tung. Over chai, I asked what he would like us to do to help his village. His reply was terse: “Leave. Leave before we are all killed.” I asked what he meant, and he said that this was not his war: it was a war between the North Vietnamese and the Americans, that many of the young men of his village had already been killed, and that his expectations were that “Americans will bomb us or the North Vietnamese will shell us.” I assured him that the U.S. would protect him — a comment that I still regret.
Two weeks later, I was in Saigon to give an operations briefing to some big-wigs at 7th AF when the Tet Offensive broke out. I was immediately flown back to NKP where, within a few days, I found out the damage the North Vietnamese had done in Laos. One of their offensives was against Ban Houei. I was told that the headman there, Tung, was executed in the village center in the most horrible way for his treasonous collaboration with the Americans.
That incident finally snapped my soul in two.
I was transferred at this time to 7/13th AF headquarters located in Udorn, Thailand, where a group of U.S.-trained Hmong pilots manned a squadron of T-28s. I had hoped to work with this group, but was assigned to the reconnaissance wing to help with ground identification of targets and bombing runs. Once again, I saw the destruction being done to Laos from the air. I volunteered to act as an air observer for the T-28s going out, but on my final mission, we had to ditch the aircraft. I was injured, so was sent home in early 1969.
I resigned my regular commission and was assigned to the reserves assigned to the USAF Academy. In 1975, I was recalled to active duty and sent to Bangkok. The U.S. ended its involvement in SE Asia in 1973 in a treaty signed by all parties. But like the Accords, this treaty was quickly ignored, and by 1975, the communist forces had achieved all they had hoped for in 1954. They overran Saigon and Vientiane became the capital of the Laos People Democratic Republic.
I got to Bangkok too late to be of any use. Aderholt, by this time a Brigadier General, was hopping across the former U.S. bases in Thailand, trying to both make amends and secure aircraft to fly into Long Tieng — amends because the Thais felt the U.S. had abandoned them to the communists, and aircraft to try to lift General Van Pao and his troops to safety. The Thais provided a couple aircrafts while the CIA was very involved in the extraction process. If the Thais thought the U.S. had abandoned them, think what we did to the Hmong.
To this day, I do not know the total number of Vang Pao’s troops who were extracted by aircraft, but it was far less than how many we left behind. For them, the Fall of Saigon marked the beginning of the long trek to the Mekong and hopefully to refugee camps, where they might wait years before finding new homes in the U.S. and elsewhere.
When I finally retired from active duty, I moved to Portland, Ore., where a number of Hmong were being sent for resettlement. I became involved through the city in efforts to ease the resettlement and met someone who looked familiar. On one of my visits to General Vang Pao’s headquarters, I had been introduced to a young 14-year-old who was one of Vang Pao’s interpreters. This young man spoke English, French, and several dialects of Lao. He attended school in Vientiane, but Vang Pao would have him flown up and then back, so he could continue to attend school. Everyone called him Bruce. Well, here in Portland was Bruce, only it was now Dr. Bruce Bliatut who had become the head of the county refugee and health administration.
Bruce and I, along with other members of the Hmong community, started the Immigrant and Refugee Committee Organization (IRCO), which today serves a diverse group of immigrants and refugees from countries all over the world. It was through this organization that I became aware of the work of Legacies of War and the critical work that they do.
Burton and a group of Lao in Portland at a promotion ceremony for two Lao-American GIs.
I have much to regret about the time I spent in the war, many things I try not to remember. But I also recall with fondness the people of Laos and am sad for all the terrible things that took place during the war, and am driven to make amends in any way that I can for these people and their beautiful country.
*See “Air Commando One, Heinie Aderholt and America’s Secret Air Wars,” Warren A. Trest, Smithsonian Press, 2000.
** See “Air Rescue Behind Enemy Lines,” National Geographic, Sept. 1968. (Note that there is no mention of Laos in the article. I was assigned to “assist” NG with this story and all missions mentioned were over Laos.)