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BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In the later half of 1966, a Top Secret Operation (Heavy Green) was conceived to install a TSQ-81 Bomb Scoring Radar System, at TACAN Channel 97 (Lima Site 85).  Lima Site 85 (LS85) was located on a mile-high mountain top, Phou Pha Thi, in northern Laos.

 

The TSQ-81 is a cargo-trailer, transportable version of the MSQ-77.  The  TSQ-81 is a sophisticated piece of electronic equipment to direct air strikes without the pilot actually seeing his target.  The advantages being 1) that the aircraft can fly at an altitude reachable only by Surface to Air Missiles (SAM), and 2) bombing can be accomplished in all types of weather, day or night. The advantages were obvious, but the political obstacles were going to be difficult.  Laos was a neutral country.  Placing this equipment in northern Laos would imply that Laos was allowing another country to use their country to mount an attack on a neighbor, which had recognized their neutrality. But this neighboring country, North Vietnam, was using their soil to transport men, equipment and supplies through the Laos panhandle into Cambodia and South Vietnam (Ho Chi Min Trail).

To maintain the cover of Laos neutrality, the USAF personnel that were handpicked from an elite group of 1st Combat Evaluation Group (1CEVG) Radar Operators and Maintainers, would be required to voluntarily walk away from their military careers, (most had close to or more than 20 years in service), and they would immediately be hired by Lockheed Air Corporation (LAC) as technicians  

The men and their wives were all flown out to Washington, DC., where the men signed their discharge papers and signed their contracts with LAC, and life insurance policies.  The men and their wives also signed secrecy statements, requiring their total silence and to not divulge any information about the operation,to anyone.


.On March 11, 1968, LS85, code named Commando Club, was overrun by PAVN commandos. Of the 16 Circuit Riders at the site at the time of the attack, five were rescued.  While some of the eleven remaining men were confirmed by survivor statements to have perished during the battle, and some, although unable to be confirmed by survivor statements,were believed to be dead, the government never has been able to verify that all of the remaining men were killed during the battle.

 

Although five men were rescued from the site, CMSgt Richard "Dick" Etchberger, who was responsible for getting three of his men into the rescue helicopter before he was airlifted, was mortally wounded by ground fire as the chopper was pulling away and died before reaching the hospital.

 

This was the largest, single, ground-combat loss of USAF personnel during the entire Vietnam war.

CMSgt Etchberger was originally awarded the AF Cross, due to the secrecy of the mission.  In 2010, his award was upgraded and he received the Congressional Medal of Honor. (see the Etchberger profile page)

In 2012, MSgt James Calfee had his Bronze Star upgraded and he was awarded the Silver Star.  (See the Calfee profile page)

Since that tragic day in 68, the US government has conducted a few excavations.  Of the eleven originally unaccounted , SSgt Patrick Shannon was identified in 2005, from a 2003 excavation.  In 2012, Lt.Col. Clarence Blanton was identified from a bone recovery in 2005.  To this day, nine Circuit Riders remain unaccounted.

THE FALL OF LIMA SITE 85.

A series of Telegrams and Memorandums are used to develop the story of the unnecessary loss of Commando Club and the great  american patriots called Circuit Riders. 

Below is a telegram from CINCPAC to the Chairman JCS.  Dated February 25, 1967.

278. Telegram From the Commander in Chief, Pacific (Sharp) to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Wheeler)/1/
Honolulu, February 25, 1967, 0152Z.
/1/Source: Center of Military History, Westmoreland Papers, Message Files, COMUSMACV, 1 Jan-31 Mar 1967. Top Secret. Repeated to Westmoreland and General John D. Ryan, Commander in Chief, Pacific Air Force.
250152Z. Installation of MSQ 77 in northern Laos (S). A. CINCPAC 282347Z Nov 66 (Genser). B. OUSAIRA Vientiane AIRA/EMB 01834/291055Z Nov 66 (Genser)./2/
/2/Neither reference has been found, but they are summarized in the text below.

1. A front channel message which I have just released provides the military rationale and the necessity of installing an MSQ-77 at Site 85 in Laos.

2. In November CINCPACAF requested authorization to develop a concept and plan for installation of an MSQ-77 in northern Laos and authorization to discuss this matter with Ambassador Sullivan. Ref A authorized CINCPACAF to proceed with plans as requested and directed that AmEmb Vientiane be provided with detailed requirements. Ref A further urged the Ambassador's concurrence in this proposal and assistance in selection of a suitable site. Ref B stated that Ambassador Sullivan's view of installation of MSQ on Lao territory was decidedly negative, but would authorize his representatives to discuss proposal with PACAF representatives. He further doubted that RLG would be willing to accept such a major installation for which they would consequently feel security obligations beyond their means.

3. In early December Gen Harris/3/ sent a message to Ambassador Sullivan stating that due to the urgency of this proposal and potential impact on the success of our air operations in RT and BR he welcomed the opportunity to provide a briefing to him at Udorn on 10 December 1966. His response again restated his grave doubts that RLG would be willing to permit installation of MSQ-77 in Lao territory and that he had even graver doubts that Washington would even authorize him to propose such an installation to the RLG. Nevertheless, the Ambassador agreed to meet PACAF representatives at Udorn and attend briefing.
/3/General Hunter Harris, then the Commander of the Pacific Air Force.

4. At the briefing Ambassador expressed keen interest in the tactical merits of an MSQ in northern Laos but again stated that he had misgivings about its political acceptability. He expressed concern that the RLG would most likely term such an installation as an indication that they would in fact be proving direct support to offensive operations against NVN rather than maintaining a neutral position and taking defensive action only. No commitment was made by Ambassador that he would provide further support to this proposal.

5. I discussed the subject with him during his visit en route to Washington. He again emphasized his previous views. It appears that he did not intend to give his full support to this proposal at State level. Due to the significant increase in air operations capability which this MSQ will provide, I believe we must attempt to obtain approval.

6. The information contained in my Genser message is a condensed version of PACAF briefing and plan for implementation. It has been concluded that we can support this plan. I understand that HQ USAF has already taken action to repackage MSQ-77 equipment for this type development and if not used as proposed, it will still be valuable for contingency purposes. If go ahead is received, we can have this MSQ in operation in 30-45 days.

7. In summary, from a military viewpoint an MSQ located in northern Laos would greatly enhance our air campaign against the enemy. This is no cure-all by any means, but we must do more now to increase the effectiveness of our air operations in the northern area. The Ambassador's original objection was based on doubts about the security of site which we have overcome to some degree as expressed in other message. However, his later objections, which shifted to the political angle, may or may not be completely valid. This is something that will have to be flushed out at other levels.

The dialog continued and plans were being developed.  Then on May 1, 1967 the following memorandum from the Laotian Ambassador (Sullivan) was sent to the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (Bundy).

283. Memorandum From the Ambassador to Laos (Sullivan) to the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (Bundy)/1/

Washington, May 1, 1967.
/1/Source: Library of Congress Manuscript Division, Harriman Papers, Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, Far East, General. Top Secret.
SUBJECT
Limitations on Military Actions in Laos
1. You asked me to set out in a paper my estimate of the limitations which face us with respect to extending military actions, both ground and air, in Laos. I will list by subheading those various items which have been proposed or contemplated, and give you my current best judgment with respect to each.

3. Air Action

A. Overflights. Despite the Soviet protest and the probable ICC action on US overflights of Laos, I think Souvanna will hold the line and permit these to continue. The one exception to this would be B-52 overflights. For some reason which is hard to define (perhaps the nuclear capability) overflights by B-52's carry much more propaganda wallop than overflights by fighter bombers. The political and propaganda repercussions of such overflights are in my judgment far greater than the limited marginal operational gain. In short, the 20 minutes to an hour which we would save by overflying Laos rather than going south of Cambodia are just not worth the consequences. Therefore, I believe we should hold the line in running our B-52's from Utapao south of Cambodia.
The B-52's which come from Guam will continue to execute the bulk of the raids in Laos in any event. I am not convinced that there is such a crying need for flexibility that we must change this pattern. Consequently, we must avoid public acknowledgment of B-52 activity in Laos and we must guarantee no slippage by preventing B-52 overflights from Utapao.

B. Air Seeding. As I indicated above, air seeding can be done provided we characterize it as a continuing part of our interdiction campaign and don't label it a barrier. As a matter of fact we have already done some air seeding in Laos and I have Souvanna's concurrence in it. Therefore, if we handle this one correctly it presents no problems. If we get the issues all tangled up with barriers it could cause many great difficulties in attempting to obtain Souvanna's concurrence.

C. MSQ-77. Air Forces wishes to install MSQ-77 at site 85. I am having further discussions with Air Force Secretary Brown and Chief of Staff McConnell today. In general, I think Souvanna would reject this if it were put to him honestly. He has agreed to the installation of the navigational devices in Laos and we have installed TACAN's on Lao soil. However, the TACAN is a passive device. The MSQ-77 is a command radar which takes positive control of air strikes in North Vietnamese territory. Moreover, it involves several buildings and about 40 men. It would be very conspicuous. I wonder if it is worth it.

 



Site 85's location in northern Laos was roughly 120 Miles from Hanoi, or the distance between San Diego and Los Angeles, CA. The existence and location of Site 85 was declassified in 1983.

 


A little over a month later, June 3, 1967, a Telegram was received at the Embassy in Laos from The Department of State.  It looked like the political problems could be worked out to everyone's satisfaction.

290. Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in Laos/1/

Washington, June 3, 1967, 12:15 a.m.
/1/Source: Department of State, Central Files, DEF 15 LAOS-US. Top Secret; Priority; Exdis. Drafted by Hamilton; cleared by Aldrich, Habib, and Steadman; and approved by Kohler. Repeated to JCS, CINCPAC, and COMUSMACV.
207815. Subject: MSQ-77. For Ambassador from Kohler.

1. We have carefully reviewed JCS request for MSQ-77 installation at Phu Thi (Site 85),/2/ in light your judgment of political risks and liabilities for us and Souvanna, expressed in previous correspondence and during your consultations, and of renewed DOD affirmation of need and urgency to achieve maximum effectiveness in air operations over North Vietnam.
/2/As reported in telegram 194052 to Vientiane, May 13. (Ibid., POL 27 LAOS)
2. Unless you perceive new factors not previously taken into account, I would like you to discuss this matter with Souvanna at earliest time you judge opportune. To minimize possibility of damage to our essential relationship with him, you should present proposal as an idea we are considering--with view to obtaining his acquiescence but short of making direct request for authority. You should note that basic function of this installation--like others on SEA mainland--would be precise navigational control of aircraft; that MSQ-77 is a quantum jump beyond TACAN facilities already emplaced within Laos; and that USAF has necessary equipment and personnel for immediate installation. Such a facility may have appeal to Souvanna with respect to US operations in Laos (though we are aware that you believe tactical changes would in fact be minimal at least initially). You will, of course, have to acknowledge capability of system to direct air strikes against North Vietnam. In other words, you should avoid both exclusive concentration on offensive use against North Vietnam of ground installation in Laos and dissimulation that would jeopardize our relationship of candor and trust in event we decide to approve emplacement and installation should ultimately be exposed./3/

/3/In telegram 7712 from Vientiane, June 14, Sullivan reported he had discussed hypothetically the question of MSQ-77 with Souvanna the morning of June 14. Souvanna's reaction was "cautious, but generally positive." If the unit were to be installed, Souvanna suggested that it must be done without his knowledge. Technicians servicing the site would have to be civilians or military personnel with civilian documentation. The site would need to be camouflaged both physically and electronically, and would need demolition units attached for emergency use. (Ibid., DEF 15 LAOS-US)

3. If Souvanna does not object and you can now agree to positioning of MSQ-77 at Site 85, you may wish to provide your judgment as to whether USAF personnel need be under shallow cover and on any necessary restriction on pattern of crew rotation by helo.

4. I plan to review this proposal with the Secretary on basis of your report.

Rusk

The Telegram from Ambassador Sullivan to The Department of State on June 14, 1967 indicated that Souvanna would cautiously go along with the installation of an MSQ-77 at Site 85.  A Telegram from The Department of State on June 29, 1967 to the Embassy in Laos gives the go ahead for the installation if new objections are not brought forth by Souvanna.

294. Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in Laos/1/

Washington, June 29, 1967, 4:43 p.m.
/1/Source: Department of State, Central Files, DEF 17 LAOS-US. Top Secret; Exdis. Drafted by Hamilton; cleared with Habib, Rear Admiral Lemos of DOD/ISA, Arzac, Salans, and Brigadier General Dobson of the Joint Staff, J-3; and approved by Kohler. Repeated to JCS, CINCPAC, and COMUSMACV.
218801. MSQ-77. Refs: A. State 207815./2/ B. Vientiane 7712./3/ Joint State/Defense message.
/2/Document 290.
/3/See footnote 3, Document 290.

Part One: For Vientiane

1. We are pleased that Souvanna reflects a generally positive attitude about MSQ-77 installation in Laos. His concerns are fully understood and, except with respect to location, those mentioned in Ref. B can be allayed:

a. Souvanna's position that he would wish to be able to deny knowledge of installation is understandable. If facility were to be exposed, we would propose to acknowledge presence of navigational aid in area where such facility woefully deficient. In such circumstance, is it likely that Souvanna would be willing to acknowledge in general that US has provided navigational aids to RLG, so that question in fact directed toward MSQ-77 might be dealt with by allusion to TACANS which we understand Souvanna has approved for use in Laos? We hope in any event that Souvanna would hold in abeyance any comment on "violation" until nature of disclosure precisely known and could be discussed.

b. USAF personnel will operate facility, [less than 1 line of source text not declassified].

c. Equipment would be prepared for emergency destruction at time of installation. In event of communist attack, we will wish to count on Vang Pao for vigorous defense long enough to evacuate personnel but not, if pressure heavy, for defense of equipment.

d. Previous communications should provide basis for assurances that every feasible measure will be taken for physical and electronic camouflage.

2. Taking into account technical requirements (primarily line-of- sight feature and range of system) and security and low visibility requirements, it remains Washington judgment that Site 85 is not only best but only feasible location. We have understood your analysis supported this judgment. Unless you have alternate proposal we could quickly review, believe justification for this selection must stand.

3. Secretary Rusk has determined that military requirement justifies accepting potential political liabilities and we are hopeful Souvanna will understand basis on which this difficult decision made. In light contradiction (Ref B) between Souvanna's desire for reassurances on specific points and his wish not to know what we are doing, will have to leave to your judgment how best to bring him to awareness that we have taken his concerns (which we share) fully into account in reaching decision to proceed. Advise action taken to square your account with him.

Part Two: For JCS

4. Unless report requested from Vientiane in para 3 above indicates new objection, you may proceed installation of MSQ-77 at Site 85, subject to coordination of arrangements for installation and continuing support with US Ambassador Vientiane by appropriate USAF authority.

Rusk

Chapter 2

The following Telegram from the Embassy in Laos to The Department of State, on July 6, 1967, outlines assurances made to Souvanna and answers a specific question he had concerning the capabilities of MSQ-77.  TSQ-81 was actually installed, it is a more compact and mobile version of MSQ-77. The TSQ-81 was designed by the Reeves Instrument Corp in New York on very short notice.

296. Telegram From the Embassy in Laos to the Department of State/1/

Vientiane, July 6, 1967, 0830Z
/1/Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 15 LAOS-US. Top Secret; Priority; Exdis. Repeated to CINCPAC, COMUSMACV, and JCS.
108. Ref: State 909./2/

/2/In telegram 909 to Vientiane, July 4, the Department of State agreed that in the "worst" case of full-blown disclosure of the installation at Site 85, the United States would accept Souvanna's denial of prior knowledge and in turn remain silent or say "no comment." (Ibid.)

1. Souvanna agreed this morning to installation of MSQ-77 at Site 85. I assured him that:

a) All USAF markings would be removed from equipment,

b) Detonators would be affixed to permit immediate destruction in case of imminent danger,

c) Personnel would be under civilian cover,

d) Maximum measures would be taken to camouflage against detection from the air, and

e) Electronic camouflage would be undertaken by scrambled transmission to relay aircraft over Gulf of Tonkin.

2. In turn, Souvanna accepted agreed formulation on public relations posture. If there are deniable allegations concerning presence of this installation, he will say "I have no knowledge of such facility in Laos". If it is blown in undeniable fashion, he will say "I did not know it was there". In both instances, U.S. can either remain silent or say "no comment." This should bring all of us angels together on the head of the same pin.

3. Souvanna also asked whether this radar could function to detect violations of Lao air space. There have been contributing reports of unidentified aircraft in vicinity Plain des Jarres. (Just last evening, we made an abortive effort to intercept a reported Ilyushin 18 near Moung Kheung.) He says he fears these are ChiCom planes used to provide liaison with ChiCom Mission at Kheng Khay. I told him I thought this could probably be worked into installation, but it might degrade our communications security.

4. Please provide technically sound reply whether MSQ-77 could serve as early warning radar, or, in a pinch, as intercept control./3/ If so, would this cause shift from agreed line of sight, scrambled, and relayed emanation pattern.

/3/In telegram 3371 to Vientiane, July 8, the Department of State informed Sullivan that the early warning and intercept control capacity of the equipment of MSQ 77 "is so limited as to be of little or no use in detecting violations of Lao airspace." (Ibid.)

5. Assume JCS will now direct 7th AF to make contact with my Air Attaché to get this project moving. Timing and other factors involving sensitivity will be coordinated by this Embassy.

6. I would like assurances that info on this installation will be held on the closest need-to-know basis, that all personnel who do know will be briefed on need for maximum security and that all efforts will be made to avoid indications of its location on maps, charts, or instructions. If operational strike units can function without actually knowing exact location of MSQ-77, this would clearly obviate possibility that captured air crews could become source of compromising information.

7. Please advise steps being taken to accomplish objectives of para 6 above. It should be made clear that a compromise might result in a requirement to remove the installation if it, and the RLG, are sufficiently embarrassed.

Sullivan

And so... the installation started... and was completed.  If my memory serves me correctly, it became operational during the first week of November, 1967. 

Lima Site 85.

The trailer with the open door housed the communications equipment. Trailer to the left was the TSQ-81 with Radar Dish camouflaged. To the left were electrical generators and frequency converters.  The living quarters is shown in the foreground. The outhouse was approximately 20 feet to the left of the living quarters.

 

 

 

January 12, 1968, two AN-2 Colts, made in the Soviet Bloc, (Pictures) attempted to destroy Site 85 by dropping 120mm mortar shells from a hole in the bottom of the aircraft (they were armed by the slipstream).  There are other opinions of what the AN-2's had in the way of munitions, but this seems to be the general consensus of opinions. The attack was basically ineffective.  The TACAN installation was down for a few days due to a damaged antenna.   A few power cables had to be repaired.  The TSQ-81 was not harmed.  One AN-2 crashed into the side of a mountain as a result of small arms fire from the ground,  the other was brought down by an Air America sharpshooter (Glen Woods), with a rifle, while airborne(Newspaper Article).  Glen was KIA on 12 August 1969. There were two other AN-2's in the area,  orbiting at a higher altitude. They made no attempt to attack the site.  Operations continued but there were other problems, as indicated by the Memorandum from the Country Director for Laos and Cambodia  to the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs on February 1, 1968.

330. Memorandum From the County Director for Laos and Cambodia (Herz) to the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (Bundy)/1/
Washington, February 1, 1968.
/1/Source: Department of State, EA/Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia Files: Lot 75 D 394, TS. Top Secret. Drafted by Slutz. Copy sent to Habib.

SUBJECT
Enemy Pressure on Site 85

1. The most recent reports of enemy action around Site-85 (Phou Pha Thi) indicate that an attempt to seize the site is imminent. Two key outposts defending the approaches to Site-85 have already been taken by the North Vietnamese and pressure is continuing to close in around the site.

2. Over a year ago when Vang Pao attempted to defend Site-36 (Na Khang), his troops suffered a great number of casualties. At that point he decided never again to commit his units to the all-out defense of a position. That tactic is still being followed and, while his units will continue to defend Site-85 as long as possible, he does not intend to accept heavy casualties in exchange for real estate.

3. As you know, the TSQ 81,/2/ as well as a TACAN facility, is located at Site-85. When the decision was made to install these facilities it was understood that no last ditch stand would be made to defend them. Although this equipment is costly, it is expendable--the men who service it are not and they will be removed prior to the fall of the site, if the situation becomes hopeless.

/2/TSQ 81 was the mobile version of MSQ 77.

 

 

General Vang Pao
was commissioned to defend Site 85 with his
Hmong troops.

 

 

A Radar composite showing enemy locations at Site 85 as of 12 January 1968.

The following Memorandum is from the Director of Intelligence and Research to the Secretary of State stating the importance of Lima Site 85, dated February 28, 1968.

336. Memorandum From the Director of Intelligence and Research (Hughes) to Secretary of State Rusk/1/
Washington, February 28, 1968.
/1/Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, 5 EE (1) Laos, 10/67-12/68. Top Secret; Exdis.

SUBJECT
Significance of Phou Pha Thi (Site 85) in Northeastern Laos

This is in response to your request for information on the significance of Phou Pha Thi.

Equipment. Phou Pha Thi is the site of a very important US radar-navigational station for supporting US air operations in North Vietnam and northern Laos. Equipment installed at the site are:

TSQ-81--a portable version of the MSQ-77--an extremely sophisticated radar-navigational device used by US bombers for precision-bombing of targets in North Vietnam north of Vinh at night and in inclement weather. It has an effective range of about 200 miles (see map for area covered in North Vietnam)./2/ Installed on November 1, 1967, it is the only device of its kind in Laos. Two MSQ-77's are installed in Thailand, and two in South Vietnam.

/2/Not printed.

TACAN--a navigational aid which emits beams to help orient US aircraft operating primarily in northern Laos. It was installed about a year ago. There are three other TACAN sites in Laos, the nearest one to Phou Pha Thi being at Long Tien, south of the Plain of Jars (see map).

US Personnel. At any one time, there are 15 Americans stationed at the site: 12 to service the TSQ-81, two to service the TACAN, and one presumably to oversee the operation. As at the other TACAN sites in Laos, these individuals are USAF personnel, formally converted to civilian status as Lockheed employees for the duration of their tour of duty in Laos. There are three teams based on Udorn, each serving a five-day shift. Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma has authorized the stationing of US personnel at the TACAN sites, but he has not been told about the TSQ-81 at Phou Pha Thi.

Guerrilla Base. Pho Pha Thi, which is situated only 25 miles from Sam Neua town, has also served for some time as a major base for guerrilla operations. At present, about 700 Meo irregulars are based there to carry out forays into enemy territory as well as to man a defensive perimeter with a radius of about 12 miles. This perimeter has been breached during the past week.

Enemy Threat. The enemy is undoubtedly aware of the importance of the site as a radar-navigational installation and of the US presence there. The site was bombed unsuccessfully by North Vietnamese aircraft on January 12./3/ Since then, the enemy has been completing elaborate preparations, including the building of roads, to make a ground assault upon the site. Ambassador Sullivan believes that this will take place within two weeks. We believe that should enemy artillery come within range of the 600-foot airstrip, it would become extremely difficult to extricate the small US unit as well as the 700-man Laotian force.

/3/The attack was by two Soviet-manufactured Colt (AN-2) single engine biplanes, which bombed the site at 1:20 in the afternoon. The aircraft dropped 15 bombs of 250 lbs. wounding three Lao soldiers and one U.S. technician. The bombing resulted in slight damage to the TACAN antenna and temporarily closed it down. The TSQ-81 continued to operate. Both planes were lost after the raid. One crashed into a ridge after being hit by small arms fire from the ground, and the other was shot down by a sharpshooter with a rifle from an airborne Air America helicopter. (Telegram 3779 from Vientiane, January 12; Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 LAOS)

Chapter 3

An estimated 6-7 Battalions of PAVN/PL troops were assembled at the base of Site 85.  General Vang Pao's troops were ineffective against this large enemy force, they were responsible for a 12 mile perimeter defense.  During the enemy's advance on Phou Pha Thi, General Vang Pao's 700 troops could do nothing but harass the enemy. Site 85 even called in air support in its own defense, but it was not effective enough to deter the enemy's progress.  To paraphrase Dr. Timothy Castle's outstanding book on this disaster, "One Day Too Long",... they waited "Two Days Too Long" to evacuate the personnel on Site 85.  This was the largest North Vietnamese offensive ever conducted in Laos.  After seeing the radar image above, how could there have been any doubt that it was time to destroy the equipment and evacuate.  The decision makers evidently did not have the whole story or 1) still considered Site 85 impregnable or 2) wanted to squeeze one more day of operations out of the Site.  Considering the sizable enemy force assembled, Helicopters should have been assigned and sitting on the ground at Site 85 for possible evacuation. On March 11, 1968, the inevitable happened... three teams of PAVN commandos... under cover of darkness, scaled the cliffs of Phou Pha Thi.  (There is also the theory that they came in through the South defensive gate because the CIA trained locals had abandoned it.)  Against previously agreed upon terms, Major Richard Secord (now retired Major General Richard Secord and author of "Honored and Betrayed", Chapter 6 concerns Lima Site 85) provided M-16's, Grenades and a few hand weapons to the Site 85 personnel.  The non-combat technicians were no match for the trained PAVN commandos.

 

Attack route presumed used by the PAVN commandos on March 11, 1968.  Route provided by Col Jerry Clayton on the NBC documentary "Mystery on The Mountain"  Col Clayton, the
commander of Site 85,
was not on the mountain
at the time it was overrun.

Why wasn't Col. Clayton at the site during this critical period?  Here are Col. Clayton's own words.

 "It was not 'by chance' that I was not there that night. At the request of the ambassador in Laos (for all intents and purposes, my boss) I had requested another crew be dispatched from the US so we could continue the around the clock operation he wanted. Bill (Lt/Col Blanton) and I agreed that he would take an extra crew up there right away and I would relieve him with the new crew in 8 days. There was no other way to do it."

On March 11, 1968 the following Telegram from the Embassy in Laos to the Department of State was sent.

341. Telegram From the Embassy in Laos to the Department of State/1/

Vientiane, March 11, 1968, 0532Z.
/1/Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 LAOS. Secret; Immediate; Limdis. Repeated to JCS, CINCPAC, CINCPACAF, 7th AF, and 7/13 AF.

5038. 1. As Dept has probably learned from military sources, enemy has effectively eliminated air navigation facilities at Site 85. Action began yesterday evening with artillery and mortar shelling. Decision to destroy facilities by self-destruction was taken in small hours of morning. Helicopter evacuation was arranged for first light this morning.

2. Evacuation plans have been seriously disrupted by enemy activity and several [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] personnel have apparently been dispersed from pre-planned evacuation sites. Although seven of them have been accounted for as of this time, eleven are yet to be located. Of those seven accounted for, three are dead on the site, one died in the helicopter en route and three are at Udorn.

3. In addition to these personnel, two CAS and one AIRA forward air controller have been withdrawn from their evacuation sites. Other local personnel (wounded, etc.) have also been extracted.

4. Fighting and shelling continues, as well as helicopter and ground evacuation efforts. Because of confused situation at site and withdrawal our CAS personnel (one of whom was wounded) it will doubtless be some time before we have clear picture or further significant reports.

5. We will, of course, continue reports as information comes in. At first glance, however, it appears we may have pushed our luck one day too long in attempting to keep this facility in operation.

Sullivan

The next telegram from Ambassador Sullivan to the State Department on March 13, 1968, indicates the destructive end of Lima Site 85.  It also drastically reduced the chances of recovering any remains of KIA's.  The poor evacuation results were blamed upon the USAF personnel.  All indicators pointed toward destruction of sensitive equipment, and an evacuation, on the morning of  March 10, 1968.  The military and political situation could have been dramatically reduced if this had occurred.

342. Telegram From the Embassy in Laos to the Department of State/1/

Vientiane, March 13, 1968, 0558Z.

/1/Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 LAOS. Secret; Priority; Limdis. Repeated to JCS, CINCPAC, CINCPACAF, COMUSMACV, 7AF, and 7/13 AF.

5073. Ref: Vientiane 5038./2/

/2/Document 341.

1. Evacuation operations at Site 85 have been completed and site is currently in enemy hands. Personnel from mountain-top positions have been extracted by helicopter with exception relatively small group SGU local troops who have descended to base camp positions, joined other units there, and are withdrawing overland to previously agreed safe havens. Since we may assume that these safe havens will also come under enemy pressure soon, there may be required a second phase of withdrawals for these latter personnel.

2. Final count on [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] personnel accounts for all but three. One of these may subsequently be listed as dead if and when we can get more coherent information from survivors, some of whom in state of considerable shock./3/

/3/In telegram 5103 from Vientiane, March 12, Sullivan reported that there would be a search and rescue operation for personnel still unaccounted for, the remaining structures at Site 85 would be destroyed by napalm bombs dropped from U.S. aircraft, no publicity would be given to the battle, Souvanna would be informed, and the next of kin would be notified in the United States. (Ibid.) In telegrams 5119 from Vientiane, March 13, Sullivan reported that he informed Souvanna of the capture of Site 85. Sullivan also reported that 11 U.S. personnel were killed; the 3 previously unaccounted for were killed according to the survivors. (Ibid.)

3. Contrary to figures cited reftel, there was total of 16 of these personnel at communications site, rather than 18 as we had earlier understood. Of these 16, five were extracted alive but one was killed in helicopter when he was hit by ground fire. Eight others are known dead. Three are unaccounted for, although one of these, as stated above, may be presumed dead.

4. Confusion surrounding extraction these personnel stems from two factors not yet fully explained. First was fact that these personnel, instead of assembling at pre-arranged evacuation site, decide to climb down over face of sheer cliffs to a narrow ledge, using some sort of cargo harness system which they devised for this purpose. It is not known why or when they decided to take this action. But it is presumed that they must have thought, contrary to fact, that trail to evacuation site was blocked. (See comments below from Lt/Col Douglas Farnsworth)

5. Second was fact that small enemy "suicide squad", which seems to have made improbable ascent up these same cliffs, surprised and caught these [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] personnel on their narrow ledge, gunning and grenading them while they were trapped in this inescapable position. It was here that these men suffered such heavy casualties and where most of them are reported to have died. Three bodies were subsequently seen on this ledge, but remainder are assumed to have fallen off sheer 2000 foot drop. (See comments below from Lt/Col Douglas Farnsworth)

6. We and Air Force personnel at Udorn will attempt reconstruct story further from survivors when latter have recovered from sedation and shock. Conclusion, however, seems quite definitive that none of missing personnel are likely to be alive.

7. For this reason, USAF late yesterday afternoon flew several missions against remains of navigation and communications equipment on mountain top, as well as abandoned artillery position, in order destroy materiel left behind. Photo missions are being run today to determine whether further strikes are necessary.

8. Several follow-up actions remain to be accomplished, and will be subject of meeting this afternoon between Ambassador and DEPCOM 7/13 AF.

A. We must discuss with RLG and determine what, if anything, needs to be said about this action. It remains to be seen whether Hanoi or Pathet Lao radios will announce their victory.

B. We must decide how to handle next of kin notification, casualty announcements, etc.

C. We must expedite action for replacement site, at least for TACAN.

D. We should discuss possibility that Site 36 will be next on enemy list and what contingencies we should consider there.

Sullivan


From Lt/Col Douglas Farnsworth, Commander of the TSQ-81 Installation team at Site 85.

"In December or possibly late November 1967 I was passing through Bangkok and ran into Lt/Col Bill Blanton.  We talked at length, six to eight hours.  The main thrust of our conversation was site defense.  I told him that I thought the defense posture was unsatisfactory as the site could be destroyed by infiltration, a small team, two or three men.  To the best of my knowledge, there had never been any Site 85 plans developed to guard against such an attack. In fact, I thought a full scale attack would not be necessary.  With an infiltration attack by sappers there would be no warning and thus no chance for escape or rescue.  I told Blanton that I thought the attack would come at night against the main radar van with collateral fire on the men in the living quarters.  I emphasized the fact that during the construction phase we were continually visited by indigenous personnel among whom there must have been numerous unfriendlies.  There was no way we could keep everyone off the construction site much less the mountain.  It is my firm belief that the full scale assault launched against the site was for political and propaganda reasons as well as site elimination.

     I advised Bill to brief the men on an alternate pickup site in the area of the range marker.  And to practice how to get there, individually and in the dark.  However, this would be a long shot as I didn't think many men would survive a sapper attack.

     We also discussed the ridge line.  I told Blanton I had walked the ridge line for a short distance and thought it passable.  I also told him I had forwarded my findings to 7/13 AF but never received any acknowledgement.  I did not follow the ridge line to its end since it was one of those risky trails which are easier to climb than to descend.  I felt that in following the ridge line too far I might get into a position which would require calling for outside help.  This I did not want to risk for obvious reasons.  I might add, I also investigated the ridges on the other side of the site and found a line which might have been useful.  Again, I did not investigate it fully for obvious reasons.  Blanton and I discussed hanging ropes over the side of the cliff as an escape possibility.  However, we ruled this out since it would have revealed the escapees location."  
{Source: ltr Lt/Col Farnsworth to Dr. Timothy Castle 28 August 2000}

 

Recce Photo taken 16 March 1968
Photo courtesy of Ken Molly Lt. Col. USAF (Ret)

RF4c Commander: Lt. Col. Alexander (Al) Milligan IV
RF4c WSO: Lt. Col. Ken Molly

Picture taken on Ken's 30th Birthday.  By coincidence, Al and Ken were both from Pittsburgh, PA, both were stationed together at RAF Alconbury and Udorn RTAFB.  Ken retired. Al later made Full Col. and was assigned to Peterson Field, CO.  Al was on an inspection team visiting AF bases in Turkey in 1982 when the C-130 they were on crashed, killing everyone on board

A flight of F-4's from the 555th TFS were sent to destroy the Radar equipment and other facilities, they were not effective.  Finally, Bill Palank and his team of A-1E Skyraiders accomplished the objective. 

This does not end the story of Phou Pha Thi (Lima Site 85).  There are on going efforts to account for the KIA/BNR, POW/MIA's.  Ann Holland, wife of TSgt Melvin Holland, is continuing to dig deeper into documents, interviews and wherever else she can find any information.  On June 19, 1996 Ann Holland testified before Congress.  HERE is her testimony.  Several documentaries are being developed to be aired late 1999 or early 2000.  This is also grist for Hollywood.