In 1354, King Fa Ngum and the people of Laos began calling their kingdom "Lane Xang" which translated as "Land of a Million elephants." During these years, the capital was Luang Prabang which was surrounded by large grazing pastures, and home to hundreds of wild herds of elephants which were revered by the people. The great beasts lived peacefully off the thick and abundant forest vegetation and felt no pressure from the human population. For 600 years, the elephants and humans in Laos flourished. Things changed with the advent of French colonial rule, and grew worse during the second half of the 20th Century when elephant numbers dwindled due to growing human populations, technological pressures, and modern wars which caused the defoliation of their forests homes. As of 2016, there remained only 700 elephants in the wild and roughly 400 domesticated elephants.
The ruin of this once idyllic land began in World War II during the Japanese occupation and continued during the struggle to expel the French, climaxing with the "secret war" in Laos. Americans arrived in what the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) designated the "Land of Oz," in the 1950s to attempt to keep Laos from falling to the Viet Minh forces that had recently seized North Vietnam from the French. During the Cold War the U.S., with her allies, were confronted by the Soviet Union and hers. U.S. leaders embraced the "Domino Theory" which supposed if one Asian state fell those around it would also become Communist. This had happened in Eastern Europe after World War II and, when China had become a Communist state in 1949 followed by North Vietnam in 1954. In Korea in the early 1950s, the United Nations (UN) had prevented South Korea from being overrun by the Communist North.
Many in the U.S. feared states like South Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos would fall next. Laos was in the middle of this struggle. Operatives of the CIA soon confronted forces of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) supplied by Russia and China. The Laotians were about to experience all the horrors of modern war and lose its innocence forever.
War Comes to the Land of a Thousand Elephants
During the U.S. presence in Laos, the struggle for control of this tiny kingdom was fierce and ruthless. Like the rest of mainland Southeast Asia, the U.S. slowly entered the conflict seeking to prevent these nations from falling to what they believed were agents of the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China (PRC). This effort failed and, when the U.S. departed in 1973, all of Indochina fell, leaving the people and lands devastated; with worse yet to come.
In looking back, most Westerners at the time knew little of the Laotian conflict. That was the way U.S. leaders wanted it. From the beginning of America's assumption of the military aspects of the Vietnam War, no political or military leader wanted the people ofthe US. to know about the secret war in Laos. Led by US. personnel and fought mostly by Laotians of varying ethnic backgrounds, this war unfolded in the shadow of the larger war in neighboring Vietnam. The outcome was no more successful, nor less destructive. This article focuses on the covert war and one specific aspect of it known as Operation Barrel Roll.
What Was Barrel Roll?
The U.S. air campaign, designated Barrel Roll, derived from the failure of the Geneva Accords of July 23, 1962, which called for the creation of a nonaligned and independent Laotian state. Throughout late 1962 and all of 1963, neutralist Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma was unable to establish a coalition government due, in large measure, to Communist intransigence. As a result, he requested and received U.S. military aid in the form of arms, equipment, supplies, and AT-28 fighter-bombers. Once they received these materials, plans went forward to initiate a primarily defensive war which included Barrel Roll. This air operation took place in northern Laos and officially lasted from December 14, 1964 to March 29, 1973.
The operation unfolded primarily to support ground forces of the Royal Laotian Government (RLG) and the native mountain people known as the Hmong. These irregulars were trained and supplied by the CIA and led by the controversial Gen. Vang Pao. The specific area of operation (AO) stretched from the Laotian capital of Vientiane on the border of Thailand north to the historic and, strategic Plaine de Jarres (PDJ) or Plain of Jars then, northeast to the Pathet Lao capital of Sam Neua located in Sam Neua province on the DRV border. (1)
The Plain of Jars was littered with hundreds of forty to sixty pound stone pots and jars which archeologists believed were crafted in pre-historic times. One expert described the Plain of Jars as a megalithic archaeological landscape. The jars were scattered around the upland valleys and the lower foothills of the central plain of the Xiangkhoang Plateau. (2) While there is disagreement over what the jars were, most archeologists believe they were funeral urns. (3)
The main air components of the campaign were covert units of the U.S. Air Force's 2nd Air Division (2AD) which evolved into the Seventh Air Force (7AF) and the Navy's Task Force 77. At the behest of President Lyndon B. Johnson; the Commander-in-Chief Pacific (CINCPAC), then Admiral Ulysses Simpson Grant Sharp, Jr., (1964-1968); Commander, United States Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (COMUSMACV), General William C. Westmoreland (1964-1968); and William Healy Sullivan, the U.S. Ambassador to Laos (1964-1969) in Vientiane, Rules of Engagement (ROE) evolved. Mostly at Sullivan's insistence, they placed heavy restrictions on all U.S. military forces in Laos and were augmented by restraints, rules, and policies determined by the Commander, 7AF, eventually William M. "Spike" Momyer. The ROEs also stated what was permitted or forbidden regarding air operations. (4)
By January 1967, Air Force and CIA leaders had divided Laos into operational sectors specifically A-G. Armed reconnaissance in northern Laos was designated Barrel Roll and operations in the south Steel Tiger. Later, Steel Tiger East was created. It was also known as Tiger Hound since it was part of air operations in the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam).
In these AOs, U.S. aircraft conducted strikes around villages against targets of opportunity. They were allowed to attack any of these during the day or night if it was within 200 yards of a traversable trail or road. They could attack fixed targets of opportunity if the target was "a validated Royal Laotian Air Force (RLAF) A' or 'B' target or the pilot had the okay from officials in Vientiane or received fire from said target." (5)
Members of the ground and aerial Forward Air/Area Control System (FACS) and the AN/MSQ-77 guidance system directed attack aircraft to these targets. The AN/MSQ-77 was often employed during attacks against validated targets, day or night, and in all types of weather. Early in the Vietnam War, the U.S. did not have precision navigation capabilities like the Global Positioning Satellite (GPS). Many aircrews, especially in B-52 bombers, nicknamed BUFFs, could not "see" ground targets, and the existing navigation systems lacked sufficient precision to conduct the types of missions ordered by the Johnson Administration. (6)
Early in the Vietnam War, the U.S. did not have precision navigation capabilities
The Air Force developed the AN/MSQ-77 radar system to guide the aircraft to the target during sorties designated as Ground Directed Bombing (GDB). The radar portion of the system could follow any aircraft within 200 miles of the station allowing a single radar system to track planes over all of North Vietnam and South Vietnam. The ground station was originally called "Radar Bomb Directing Central" and was constructed as a computer containing vacuum tubes and a "Plotting Board," which literally drew a precise map for the tracked aircraft. These maps identified the aircraft's location in relationship to a chosen target. The computer constantly gauged the altitude, airspeed, wind drift corrections, and ground elevation changes using the ballistics of the bombs carried by the aircraft. In turn, the plotting board and computer operators alerted the aircrews to required changes in their flight path and, then, the exact moment to drop their bombs. More than 3/4th of all the bombs dropped in Vietnam, used this GDB process. (7)
The FACs, often known as "Ravens," had to request permission from the U.S. Embassy to direct attacks on targets within ten miles of the Cambodian border; during all night strikes against fixed targets unless under MSQ direction; and against large numbers of boats on streams and rivers other than the Song Ma River. Pilots making assaults without FAC or MSQ had to confirm their position beforehand via radar or Tactical Air Navigation (TACAN) systems. (8)
Within the Steel Tiger AO, the Allies created two zones employing slightly different ROEs. The first was designated Cricket West, or Fringe, near the Nape Pass which the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) used as part of their infamous resupply route known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. During the Vietnam War, a variety of U.S. aircraft, including B-52 heavy bombers, conducted concentrated interdiction operations that included Commando Hunt I-VII. Cricket West was an area west of this interdiction zone. When NVA units, also called the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN), jeopardized pro-American troop positions in this AO, U.S. and Allied aircraft provided Close Air Support (CAS). During the secret war as these operations expanded, the outer edges of the AO became known as Cricket Fringe. (9)
In November 1966, officials designated the other unique region the Steel Tiger Special Operating Area. It was a narrow strip of the eastern Laotian panhandle from a point barely north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) "along the NVN and SVN borders, south to Cambodia." Leaders sought to employ...