1st AACS Mobile Communications Group
TRN-17 TACAN installation
Lima Site 85, Phou Pha Thi, Laos
Story by Richard Grimes and William "Gary" Boros
(TACAN installation photos courtesy of Richard Grimes unless otherwise noted)
Richard and Gary, 2002 TLCB Reunion, Washington, DC
Team members: 1st Lt. William G. Boros, OIC TACAN installation
SSgt Richard G. Grimes, NCOIC Power Production
SSgt O. J. Wallace, NCOIC TACAN Maintenance
A/1C Lawrence J. Simolin, Power Production
A/1C Robert L. Stradling, TACAN Maintenance
A/1C Richard Westlund, TACAN Maintenance
The 1st MOB, located at Clark AB, Republic of the Philippines, supported many communication projects in SEA, including bare base operations in Vietnam and Thailand. They also supported the Apollo shots on a site in Perth, Australia. I (SSgt Grimes) personally had been selected for deployment to Perth. However, I got invited into the Group Commanders office (Col. Bertie) one day and he informed me I was recommended for deployment to a classified location in SEA. The team would work in civilian clothes, all equipment would be unmarked and camouflaged. We would be armed and provided with a cover story, in case we were captured. Lt. Boros, who had also received a call while attending the "Jungle Survival" school at Clark AB, would head up the team and I would be the ranking NCO. He said the mission was very essential to aerial operations in SEA, but no other details were provided. I was given a couple of days to think it over. No pressure, but this was a much more important mission than Apollo follow-ups. The Colonel recommended reading a book, "Reported To Be Alive", by Grant Wolfkill. The book is about a news correspondent who was shot down over Laos, captured and held captive until his escape, a couple of years later. Got some of the book read, before the decision was made.
In July, 1966, Lt. Gary Boros and SSgt O. J. "Wally" Wallace were deployed to the LS85 location for a site survey. They landed at an Air America strip down the mountain from where our "permanent" location was to be.
Air America STOL (Short Take Off Landing) strip at "Phou Pha Thi"
Photo courtesy of Lt/Col Douglas Farnsworth
Bob Destatte comments: "Traces of what I believe is the airstrip depicted in this photo were clearly visible when I visited the site in 1994 and 1998. This particular airstrip is located on the west side of the mountain, below the TACAN/TSQ site, on a ridge that runs from UTM coordinates UH 650 610 to UH 645 609. High grass, brush, and trees have reclaimed much of the landing zone and surrounding area".
[Source: e-mail Bob Destatte to Ron Haden 4 January 2003]
Hmong tribesmen from the village met them and took them to the village and then to "The Site". In order to get up from the village level of the mountain, they had to ascend a rope ladder. They were on the site long enough to determine locations for the TACAN (TACtical Air Navigation) and our base camp. And to make arrangements with the local Hmong to assist in land clearing and moving heavy equipment into place.
In August, 1966, we deployed from Clark AB in a C130 with a TACAN, MB5 generator sets along with our equipment to Udorn RTAFB, Thailand where we met Lt. Boros and SSgt Wallace for subsequent movement to LS85. We were finally told of our ultimate destination. The location should be secure as it is on a mountain top with drop offs of a couple of thousand feet. Everything is CLASSIFIED. Next of kin cannot be told anything about the mission, or location.
Upon arrival at Udorn, we rented a house off base. Because of our mission sensitivity we were not to reside on base. We had our own vehicle, a black, unmarked, pickup truck. We used it as our own vehicle to and from the military side of the base and Air America side. We spent about a week at Udorn going through a mini weather school. They taught us how to use a couple of instruments and estimate ceilings, etc. We were to call in weather reports every morning and any other times as requested. After completing the weather school, we were ready to roll. However, a change in the weather prevented us from leaving Udorn. By the time we completed the mini school Army CH46 Chinooks had arrived from the Republic of Vietnam. They were on loan from the Army at Long Bien to transport us and our equipment to our destination.
Many areas were flood ravaged
Gary had volunteered us, and received permission to use the Chinooks to aid in dropping supplies and rice to flooded areas along the Mekong. During this period we were advised that unfriendlies had populated the LS85 area and there would be a delay until the area was made safe for us. Finally, the BIG day arrived. The TACAN was loaded onto a C-123, heading for Lima 20 (Sam Thong). We loaded ourselves, personal gear and all the rest of the equipment into the two Chinooks and directed the 123 to Lima 20. We headed North of the Mekong.
We had machine guns in each window and an army gunner. Boy what have I got myself into?
Lima Site 20 Sam Thong
(Photo courtesy of Bryon Hukee)
At Lima 20, the TACAN was off-loaded from the 123 and slung underneath one of the Chinooks.
Departing Lima 20
Next stop was Lima Site 36 (Na Khang) for fuel. What a place, a couple of small buildings on a small hill off the runway. One American in site and a lot of radio equipment. Don't ask questions. As I recall, his name was John. We fueled up and ready to roll...Next stop...Lima Site 85.
Phou Pha Thi,
our home away from home
We arrived at Phou Pha Thi and the TACAN was dropped at the top of the mountain.
The natives had taken about 20 meters off the top of the mountain to create a level place for the NAVAIDS equipment. After dropping the TACAN, the Chinooks landed in a clearing about 1000 yards down hill.
The next major chore was to lay the power lines UP the hill to the TACAN. With the help of the Hmong, a path was cleared and the cable pulled up.
The Hmong had built a frame and floor for the tent. They had just finished pulling the canvas over the frame (a 32 man tent) the day we arrived for work. A major chore out of the way.
The jungle was pretty thick and at the top, there were a lot of rocks we had to climb over.
Again, with the aid of the Hmong, the three diesel generators were put in their positions.
Wally and Larry at the TACAN, Larry and myself at the generators. Fire one up and put Channel 97, code name "Clara", on the air...OPERATIONAL!!
For TACAN operations, we are put on a seven day rotation. Seven on site and seven in Udorn. Of course this is totally dependent on weather conditions along the way, and North Vietnamese/Pathet Lao activity. Security was provided for us by the Hmong living on the mountain and General Vang Pao's troops at the base of the mountain. Also a Thai PARU (Police Aerial Reinforcement Unit) crew a few yards from us. Shortly after getting operational, we were warned that an attack was likely to happen that night. The PARU, instead of going on a search and destroy, hid in our tent. Because of that Gary tried to get the Thai removed from the mountain. That was unsuccessful.
Thai PARU with Lt. Gary Boros
A couple of our guards.
The Hmong stayed on guard at night while we slept
Everyone considered the place impenetrable. The TACAN was on top and a sheer drop on three sides. The Hmong were armed with everything including cross bows and hand made flintlock rifles. NO way are the North Vietnamese or Pathet Lao going to make it to our site.
Of course there was NO attack at this time. The Assistant Air Attaché from Vientiane came to the site in early October and wanted us to camouflage the TACAN and base camp "before the enemy had a chance to locate it". This was 30 days after deployment and Gary told him that was a stupid idea and my team wasn't going to do it. The Attaché eventually got the Hmong to camouflage the TACAN site.
Our rotating teams consisted of two people per team. Wally and Larry on one team, Bob and I on the other. Gary remained as part of the team until after Thanksgiving when the Page Communications people took over. Gary alternated rotation with me and when in Udorn he often slept in the Comm Group office because he was playing poker many of the nights. He was supposed to have returned to Udorn to meet a team taking a TACAN into the panhandle of Laos but weather kept them socked in until after Thanksgiving. Gary recalls a little pig running around the camp site that suddenly disappeared and we then found out that among our Thanksgiving delights were marinated pig entrails. For better fare, when in Udorn we often ate at the "Wolverine" restaurant and enjoyed their "Kobe" steaks.
Several times we were "buzzed" by aircraft. We would call Vientiane to confirm friendly. No friendlies in the area and friendlies would have been at a much higher altitude. Fighters would be scrambled to check things out. As I recall, there was an airborne command post in a C-47, call sign "DOGPATCH". Believe he had some sort of RADAR on board and could plot the locations of the aircraft.
On our normal rotation days we would bring our Petroleum, for the generators, with us. POL (Petroleum, Oil and Lubricants) was either picked up at 20, 20Alt or 36.
POL storage area
and covered generators
Most of our flights from Udorn north
were in a Swiss Pilatus Porter PC-6
Destination was wherever we could get to. 36 being our last stop and choppered to LS85 from there. Pony Express, Jollies, AA or CAS furnished chopper rides. Never knew who or what until we got to 36. Never had to stay overnight at 36, but did stay at 20 or 20Alt overnight a couple of times. Getting back to 20 was like going to the Big City, they had tiled showers.
Lima Site 20 - Sam Thong Laos
"Air America Chalet"
Lima Site 20Alt - Long Tien
(Photo courtesy of The Pararescue Association)
Water was brought up in 55 gal barrels from a creek below the mountain and purified with a ceramic filter provided by the Embassy. Frequently we would try and get into Vientiane to the compound to buy groceries and personal supplies for our week on the hill. AA would take us into the Vientiane airport and someone from the Attaché office would pick us up. Several times we were "Forced" to stay in Vientiane overnight, due to weather or transportation problems. Some of us got initiated at the Villa de la White Rose during our overnighters.
Click here to see my Certificate of the Order of the White Rose.
We hadn't been on site very long when the Vientiane Embassy decided our radio transmissions needed to be encoded. So, we now made weekly stops in Vientiane to pick up KAC codebooks. A good legitimate excuse to hit the big city...KAC books and groceries for a week. We were under strict instructions to destroy the KAC books after use. As I remember we used a different book each day. It took awhile to get used to using the code in our transmissions. Gary recalls that one of the funny stories on coding was the made up codes that some of the radio operators on the network used. He remembers that a "bushel of oats" was a load of bombs. One morning one of the operators was passing on a list of groceries to another site, when the second operator asked the first what code he was using. The first fellow responded that it wasn't a code but only his commissary list. Sometimes we were too clever for our own good.
One time OJ and Larry took the truck from Udorn and drove to Vientiane, ferried over to get to the compound. The Attaché office was NOT happy about that. Neither was Gary. He almost sent the two of them back to Clark. (note from Gary: "I was NOT a happy camper that day")
One of our return trips to Udorn turned into a rather hairy experience. We were in Pony Express choppers and airborne just a few minutes then, as I recall, both choppers lost navigational facilities. We had radio contact between the two, but NO compass or anything. Seemed real strange for both to lose navigation capabilities. Anyway, the pilot said we were strictly visual, and sense of direction. Pilot tells the gunner we are over the PDJ (Plain of Jars), hang on. We flew directly over enemy locations below. I guess they were as surprised as we were and had no time to fire. Our door gunner was locked and loaded anyway. Then we understand that we also flew over the North. Pilot said we all ought to get the Air Medal for that. Then we go South and eventually the Mekong River is in sight. Oh boy, safe haven... Uh Oh... The chopper I was in runs out of fuel. We do make it to the West side of the river. We land just inches from the water. Immediately upon touchdown, we are surrounded with about 25 armed, dark skinned men. We each have an M16, the gunner has his 50 Cal. machine gun and the pilot and co-pilot have 38's. No match... For the armament and number of people we saw... You talk about scared. It turns out they were Thai (Thank God). There were plenty of NVA in the area so they stayed with us while the other chopper went to NKP for a barrel of fuel. A lifetime later the chopper is back with a barrel of fuel and a hand pump. We pump the fuel in, fire it up and head to NKP for a full tank. Just minutes away from NKP a few rounds of small arms were fired at us... A couple of blasts from the machine gun and we headed on in to NKP. Got gassed up and headed to Udorn. It was rather late when we got back... Don't want to try that again.
Larry recalls on one of his rotation trips back to Udorn they had a new AA or CAS pilot. They stopped at a pad below us, LS95 possibly, and picked up a couple of Thai Monks in route to Vientiane. The pilot took off in a southerly direction, Uh Oh, wrong direction. They flew right into a Pathet Lao controlled area. Sure enough, they were fired on and a couple of tracer rounds went through the bottom of the chopper. One of the Monks was sitting on a foot locker and a tracer round went through it just a very few inches from him. They stopped at LS36 and the Monks got off. The Monks wanted to find different transport to Vientiane. They would NOT get back on that chopper.
Sometimes we would be in a Porter or Chopper and get called to mark a target. We would get to watch as the Sandy's would do low level bombing and strafing. Sometimes the right hand seat would be open on the Porter and the pilot would ask if one of us wanted to sit up front. Great, and quite a view. Sometimes we would get deferred off course to FAC a particular mission. It was very interesting sitting in the right seat and watching the Sandy's work. The Sandy's were A1E's out of Udorn. Don't recall any fighters stationed overnight at 20 or 20Alt at this time.
Each trip to site 85 was a stopover at the Embassy in Vientiane to pick up groceries, supplies or whatever. If we could not get transport out, we would RON. The guys at the compound would take us out for a round of drinking. They had a Diplomatic Immunity tag on their vehicle. We would make the bar rounds and me without any ID what-so-ever. They went right through military or police roadblocks. I was uneasy, to say the least, if anyone of them had stopped us and asked questions or for ID, I was SOL. After several trips, we were given civilian employee ID cards. Our cover stories were initially non-existent except for what we concocted. Gary finally got that resolved by going to the Air America side and asking to see the folks who were to give us the ID's and cover story. They played dumb and Gary returned to the 7/13th AF Comm office. In about 30 minutes a Lt. Col. came storming into the office and stuck a foot long cigar in Gary's face and said, "Lt. what the blankety, blank, blank are you trying to do". Gary asked him to have a seat and proceeded to tell him about the run-around we had been getting for a month over the cover story. As I recall, we had the story, USAID employees, and ID's within 24 hours.
Gary remembers that on the last trip off the mountain we were with a rookie hotshot in an HH34. The natives burned their fields in the Autumn and the visibility was non-existent. We wandered a long time between LS85 and LS36 (Na Khang), too long in fact. I finally got up next to the pilot and he told me we were lost along the Laos/North Vietnam border. He finally put out a homing beacon and a Porter pilot homed in on us and led us to 36. We had 13 minutes of fuel left when we arrived. After refueling the pilot was in a hurry to get to LS20 (Sam Thong), so he took a "short-cut" over a mountain ridge instead of flying around it. Shortly thereafter, I smelled raw fuel. He told me that we had taken a couple of rounds in the fuel tank and would have to land in what was a corner of the PDJ. No further incidents because a Porter or Daimler picked us up and ferried us to Sam Thong. Needless to say I made sure that I was with a different pilot the next morning for the final leg to Udorn.
This concludes the story of the TACAN installation at Phou Pha Thi (Lima Site 85)