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CAVWV Project

Draft 3 (11 Aug)

James K. Bruton

Significant Lao Military Events During the 2nd Indochina War

Background: Laos is a multiethnic landlocked country in the heart of Indochina. It borders Burma, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. Half to two-thirds of the population are lowland Lao (Lao Loum) who historically have held the political and economic reins. Among the different hill tribe groups are Lao Theung, Lao Soung (which includes the Hmong, and Yao-Mien), and the tribal T’ai (Black T’ai, Red T’ai, White T’ai). These tribal groups include subgroups. Relations among the different ethnicities have been often less than amicable. In 1893 Laos became a French protectorate. Its main cities are Luang Prabang, the royal capital in the northern region, Vientiane on the Mekong near the Thai border, Savannakhet in central Laos on the Mekong, and Pakse in the southern provinces. The French granted Laos autonomy in 1949 and independence in 1953 as a constitutional monarchy as an associated state within the French Union.


July. France granted the Royal Lao Government (RLG) right to form the Lao National Army (ANL), though one led by French commanders. With French and then American assistance the Lao faced the onerous task of developing a functioning army as Laos, having been a French possession, had not cultivated a professional officer corps. ANL subsequently got renamed the Lao Armed Forces (Forces Armées du Laos or FAL – 1959-61) and then Royal Armed Forces (Forces Armées Royales or FAR – 1961-1975).


Vietnamese Communists formed a Lao resistance group, the Pathet Lao, in Sam Neua Province in northeast Laos.



December. US began supplying weapons via France to the ANL.



French airborne cadre organized minority Hmong hill tribesmen in northern Laos under direction of an intelligence organization, the Groupe de Commandos Mixtes Aéroportés (GCMA, or Mixed Airborne Commando Group). The GCMA was successful in intelligence gathering and in seizing territory from the Pathet Lao. The French GCMA program also organized North Vietnam hill tribesmen against the Vietminh.

Toward end of the year and into 1954 the French reinforced a valley junction Dien Bien Phu to prevent Vietminh invasion into northern Laos.



May. Vietminh besieged and defeated French forces at Dien Bien Phu, with logistical support from the People’s Republic of China.

July. Following months of peace talks, the Geneva Accords resulted in French withdrawal from Indochina and independence for her former possessions: Vietnam (partitioned into northern and southern zones); France had granted Laos and Cambodia independence in 1953.



February. The Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) formed as an international organization for collective defense in Southeast Asia modeled on the NATO concept. Though provisions in the Geneva Agreements of 1954 prohibited Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos from participating as members, SEATO offered these countries protection from Communist aggression.

March. US persuaded Thais to train Lao officers. Some Lao training occurred at Thai military centers. Much was done by a special paramilitary formation, the Border Patrol Police (BPP). The BPP in turn developed an elite special operations unit called the Police Aerial Reinforcement Unit (PARU) which assisted in training and other operations in Laos throughout the war.

December. US government established the Programs and Evaluation Office (PEO) in lieu of a standard Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG). Staffed by civilians PEO’s function was channeling funds only.



May 19. Ho Chi Minh trail formally opened. Southern Communist cadre, regrouped in the North (formally the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, or DRV) after the 1954 Geneva Accords, began infiltrating into the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam or SVN) along roads in the eastern panhandle of Laos. In addition to expanding their arteries into South Vietnam, the North Vietnamese began to expand and stock what became seven logistics base areas in the Lao panhandle. These formed the strategic rear area for South Vietnam. Most significant of these was Tchepone almost west of the demilitarized zone between the two Vietnams.

US government considered the response of building an all-weather road across southern Laos past Attopeu to Kontum, Vietnam for the purpose of cutting the Communist infiltration route into SVN. Varying concepts of cutting the Ho Chi Minh

Trail underwent consideration throughout the 2nd Indochina War.

July. Temporary duty Special Forces field training teams, originally under the name Hotfoot (later changed to White Star), arrived to train FAL. In addition to training FAL, SF teams also trained tribal groups as irregulars.



August. Disgruntled paratroop Captain Kong Le launched a coup of “neutralist Army battalions” who wanted to end foreign interference in Laos. (As it became clear, by “foreign” he meant US and allies.)

September. Concerned about asymmetrical clashes between Lao forces and People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) in northeastern Sam Neua Province bordering DRV, an alarmed President Eisenhower alerted for possible action in Laos the Okinawa-based Joint Task Force 116, made up of three carrier groups. Also alerted was an Army airborne battle group in Okinawa whose mission would have been to seize Lao airfields.

October-December. Eventually counter-coup forces under General Phoumi Nosavan regained control of Vientiane. Kong Le‘s forces (called Forces Armées Neutralistes or FAN), having moved northeastward, seemed to be allying with the Communists. FAN received supplies from Soviet aircraft flown from Hanoi. President Eisenhower considered intervention possibilities with SEATO allies, or perhaps unilaterally if necessary.



January. By New Year’s Day, Kong Le‘s forces controlled the Plain of Jars (often referred to as the PDJ from the French Plaine des Jarres) in the northern Military Region II (MR2). Kong Le (who promoted himself to general) and all but a FAN faction re-integrated into the armed forces of the Royal Lao Government to fight the Communists while maintaining pretense of neutrality.

Briefing the incoming President-elect Kennedy, President Eisenhower referred to Laos as the “cork in the bottle” and in a separate venue as the “key to Indochina.”

May. CIA paramilitary case officers and Thai Police Aerial Reinforcement Units (PARU) prepared to organize and train Hmong tribal groups in Military Region II as irregulars.*

*Note: A dual military system evolved in Laos. First part was the regular army and air force of the Royal Lao Government which operated in a standard military chain of command. Second part was an irregular force funded, trained, and directed by the CIA. These irregulars took part in the covert so-called “Secret War” that enabled the US to disrupt PAVN while pretending to respect Lao neutrality and prohibition against foreign troop presence.

Some irregulars evolved from local self-defense militia called ADC companies (Auto-Defense de Choc). The irregulars could include companies or intelligence and reconnaissance teams but were usually battalions that eventually bore the name Special Guerrilla Units (SGUs). Over time the SGU battalions coalesced into regimental type formations call Groupements Mobiles (GM) which contained four battalions. As they began to engage PAVN head on, the SGUs ceased to function as guerrillas and got repurposed as light infantry.

As the war escalated, FAR and the SGUs received close air support, much of it from the USAF – making the SGUs the world's only guerrillas with air superiority. Much aerial transport and resupply for FAR and the irregulars also came from contract companies like Air America.

Some of the better FAR officers selected to lead the SGUs, had undergone training in Thai, US, or other allied schools. The SGUs usually performed better militarily than FAR and FAN simply because the CIA had considerable latitude to hire, fire, and reward. Within FAR, by contrast, family connections and a patronage system often prevailed over merit in assigning officers to key positions. Also the SGUs benefited from direct support from an abundant and efficient American logistics system and administrative system (e.g., the guerrillas usually got paid fully and on time).

SGUs often fell under the operational control of the Military Regional Commander or the commander of a task force conducting a particular campaign. In operations the SGUs received combat support such as artillery, air transport, and close air support from RLG assets including the Royal Lao Air Force. FAR and SGUs frequently operated jointly.

In a program called Project Unity, Thai volunteer battalions, under CIA direction, trained in Thailand to reinforce their ethnic and linguistic cousins across the Mekong. These Unity battalions were called Thai SGUs even though they trained as light infantry, not as guerrillas. Regular Thai military officers and NCOs augmented the Thai SGUs which were deployed specifically to buttress RLG forces in the Long Tieng area of MR2 and also on the fertile Bolevens Plateau in MR4. In addition to support for their own SGU infantry, the Royal Thai Army also provided artillery and air support for overmatched FAR and FAN battalions.

Primary reason the CIA formed the Lao SGUs, with approval from Prince Souvanna Phouma (the nominally neutral leader of the tripartite coalition government), was for US employment against PAVN transport of men and supplies south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail (really a network of paved roads) into South Vietnam. The RLG realistically did not want to sacrifice its regular army against the militarily superior PAVN on the Ho Chi Minh trail, even though DRV was blatantly encroaching on Lao sovereignty.

One Lao general observed the extraordinary nature of the SGU program: “The Special Guerrilla Unit project...was probably unique in the history of warfare. Here was a large nation – the U.S. – hiring soldiers of a small nation – Laos – to fight for the objectives of the large nation on the territory of the small nation against an invader – North Vietnam – on behalf of another small nation – South Vietnam.”

Volunteer irregulars were used in specialized roles. Some were trained as intelligence teams to report on enemy locations,

movements, and sometimes downed pilots. Some functioned as “Road Watch Teams” to observe enemy movement on the Ho Chi Minh trail and specifically truck convoys. At times these Road Watch teams reported a target to an overhead Raven (Forward Air Controller, or FAC) who directed an air strike on the target.

Other irregulars called Commando Raider Teams (CRTs) conducted direct action missions into PAVN-controlled areas, harassed and interdicted traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, or executed missions in DRV itself. The missions of irregular intelligence teams and CRTs often resembled those of US and South Vietnamese Special Forces from the South Vietnamese side of the border. Some Lao irregular operations were coordinated between Vientiane and Saigon.



January-May. Battle of Nam Tha: Nam Tha, a provincial capital in in northern-most Military Region I near the Chinese border, came under pressure from PAVN in the fall of 1961. Prime Minister Phoumi Nosavan, against US advice, had wanted to consolidate control over this area to enhance his position within the government. Fighting in the Nam Tha region simmered and cooled for five months. To re-enforce infantry battalions already deployed, Lao paratroopers made several drops into Nam Tha giving the Lao numerical advantage. But outlying battalions suffered defeats in light skirmishes or simply got spooked and were easily routed.

A three-pronged PAVN attack on May 6 finally drove the defenders from Nam Tha. Many fled 95 miles southwest across the Mekong into Thailand. PAVN captured 2,000 FAR prisoners along with arms and munitions. The defeat forced Phoumi Nosavan to agree into participating in a coalition government with the neutralists and the Pathet Lao. He optimistically hoped his army’s fiasco would dramatically provoke US into providing direct military assistance to the Royal Lao Government (RLG).

May. Communists announced support for a ceasefire. Kennedy shelved plans for intervention into Laos.


July 23. Talks in Geneva, sponsored by the major powers, led to the signing of a Declaration and Protocol for the Neutrality of Laos. This called for a power-sharing coalition government of royalists, the neutralist faction, and the Communist Pathet Lao. Foreign forces were to withdraw from Laos by October 6.

Repeated Communist violations of the Geneva accords prompted President Kennedy to authorize covert support to the Royal Lao Government.

The USAID/Requirements Office (RO) was set up as a covert military assistance organization.

MAAG withdrew from Laos to comply with the Geneva Accords. A Thailand-based organization DepChief (officially Deputy Chief of Staff of Joint US Military Assistance Group Thailand) surreptitiously assumed the role of MAAG for Laos.

The 4802nd Joint Liaison Detachment set up in Udorn, Thailand as rear support headquarters to coordinate all paramilitary activities.

September. White Star mission Special Forces teams withdrew from Laos.
December. By end of 1962, CIA estimated 6,000 People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) remained in Laos in violation of the

Geneva Accords.

November 1962– January 1963. Battle of Lak Sao, MR3: Prime Minister Phoumi Nosavan floated another plan to seize Communist real estate and cut PAVN into by means of a thrust into the upper Annamite Chain to the Napé Pass near the DRV border. Senior US Embassy officials saw the plan as unnecessarily provocative, but acquiesced. The intermediate objective was the site of Lak Sao to be followed by a turn northeast to Napé. A FAR/FAN task force pushed up Route 8 and onto the Nakay Plateau. Irregulars destroyed several bridges to delay a PAVN response. By the end of November the column overcame minimal resistance to occupy Lak Sao. The Embassy advised that the task force stay put; the Prime Minister ordered it to continue to Napé.

December 15 PAVN responded by entering Laos with at least three battalions pushing from a northern and southern front. Lak Sao came under heavy pressure rattling the task force. On December 16 an airborne battalion jumped into Khamkeut west of Lak Sao to reinforce the defenders. Advancing east toward Napé from Lak Sao, the paratroopers were bloodied by a heavier PAVN force at a steel span bridge. They withdrew through Lao Sao back to their Khamkeut drop zone with the Communists not far behind. The Communists launched a mortar attack on Khamkeut forcing the battalion to withdraw.

A second airborne battalion dropped near a village southwest of its sister battalion. Foul weather caused many of the jumpers to miss the drop zone suffering injuries on an adjacent karst. Once linked up the two airborne battalions tried to create a diversion around Khamkeut to enable the FAR/FAN task force to retrace their steps down Route 8. Poor coordination resulted in a disorderly withdrawal under pressure. The end result of this failed offensive was PAVN’s expulsion of the RLG off of the Nakay Plateau.


May. Eleven PAVN battalions deployed to protect north-south trails along the eastern Lao panhandle.

June. President Kennedy approved more Special Guerrilla Units under CIA auspices. 1964:

April. Detachment 6, 1st Air Commando Wing deployed to Udorn, RTAFB to begin Project Water Pump, the T-28 training of the Royal Laotian Air Force. This detachment also qualified a select few of Air America pilots to assist with Search and

Rescue in Laos, and also trained contracted Thai pilots to fly missions in Laos. As needed, the detachment's Instructor Pilots conducted combat flights into Laos in escort with their pilot trainees.

May. The Joint Chiefs of Staff approved Project 404, a program to provide additional air and ground advisors into Laos to circumvent the Geneva restrictions on U.S. forces. These advisors, known as Assistant Air Attachés and Assistant Army Attachés, formed ground advisory teams throughout the five military regions, manned the Air Operations Centers at RLAF airbases, and provided the Raven forward air controllers.

July. Ambassador William H. Sullivan required his authorization for all US activities originating in Laos: that is, for air and ground actions occurring inside the country. The war in Laos acquired the name, “The Ambassador’s War,” one in which the CIA was the lead agency. Use of a civilian agency instead of US ground forces helped maintain the façade of observing Lao neutrality and adhering the prohibition against foreign troops.

Operation Triangle: FAR, FAN, and a company of Hmong irregulars in three task forces converged to take Sala Phou Khoun on the MR1-MR2 boundary overlooking Route 13 to Vientiane. They captured weapons, vehicles, and tons of ammunition from the defeated Pathet Lao – a needed victory following the Nam Tha and Lak Sao disasters.

August. Following Congressional passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, US conducted two air wars in Laos. One was the interdiction bombing on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Second was to protect the RLG against the Hanoi-backed Pathet Lao.


August. In north central MR2 FAR and Hmong SGUs defeated PAVN to seize a mountain objective Hua Moung capturing

weapons and foodstuff.

September. US developed a contingency plan for allied invasion of southern Laos by US and South Vietnamese forces to make multiple cuts along the Ho Chi Minh trail south of Tchepone. In support, US Special Forces were to organize and lead a Lao Theung guerrilla maquis on the Bolevens Plateau in MR3 and MR4. Plan never reached completion. Other plans got drafted for cutting the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but none of these received political approval in Washington.


February. RLG stronghold Nakhang in MR2 fell to PAVN.

May. General Vang Pao, the commanding general of MR2 who was also the Hmong tribal leader, retook Nakhang in May, though it changed hands throughout the war.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff approves Project 404, a program to provide additional air and ground advisors into Laos to circumvent the Geneva restrictions on U.S. forces. These advisors, known as Assistant Air Attachés and Assistant Army Attachés, formed ground advisory teams throughout the five military regions, manned the Air Operations Centers at RLAF airbases, and provided the Raven forward air controllers.

October. A 300-man Special Forces contingent from Ft. Bragg arrived in Lopburi, Thailand, home of the RTA Special Forces

Headquarters. This unit, which soon got renamed the 46th Special Forces Company, undertook a variety of missions. Most significant was their training, often alongside Thai SF and PARU, of Lao, Hmong, and Thai for the war in Laos conducted in the up to six camps in Thailand.

November: Lao intelligence team entered China’s Yenan Province to conduct a telephone wire-tap operation.



January. POW Rescue: Acting on intelligence from a Pathet Lao defector, a nine-man commando raider team led by a Lao

Theung Sergeant Te conducted the largest POW rescue mission of the 2nd Indochina War. Inserted into a landing zone two days walk from a prison at Ban Naden between Thakket and the Mu Gia Pass in MR2 (the northern terminus of the Ho Chi Minh trail) the team surprised the Pathet Lao guards at 0400 and freed around 80 prisoners confined within caves. About 30 freed prisoners fled into the jungle immediately. Sergeant Te’s team led the remaining 50 to an exfiltration site where they were extracted to Savannakhet. Several Americans had been kept at Ban Laden, but they previously had been transferred to other prisons.

December: In MR1, PAVN launched an offensive on Nambac, which stood on the traditional Vietnamese invasion route to the royal capital Luang Prabang.

January: Battle of Nambac: RLG reinforced its Nambac stronghold as the PAVN offensive continued. Here the RLG suffered a major defeat due to poor artillery support, ineffective air-ground coordination, and senior leadership failures: many troops were routed leaving behind massive amounts of equipment and ammunition. The North Vietnamese captured 2,400 RLG troops.

February-March. Fall of Site 85: Top secret Site 85 around Phou Phathi ridgeline in northeastern Sam Neua Province, a short drive from the DRV border, housed an air-transportable all-weather AN/TSQ-81 radar bombing control system co-located with a TACAN beacon (US air navigation system) both critical to US bombers. A guerrilla battalion and Thai infantry guarded the site. Following a fog, case officers looked east to see North Vietnamese engineers and laborers extending Route 602 right to their doorstep.

Hitting Site 85 with mortar and machine gun fire, PAVN sappers attacked the defending forces and swarmed into the radar site

followed by infantry tossing grenades and firing at all structures while braving US air support. They absconded with as many documents and as much equipment as they could carry. Some defenders and Air Force technicians got evacuated. (Eleven missing technicians were awarded posthumous citations by the Secretary of the Air Force in 1983.) President Johnson in a March 30 televised address announced an end to the bombing over the northern half of DRV. According to one account, “the loss of Phou Phathi TSQ – and its precision navigation assistance – was rumored to be a key factor in the president’s decision.”

February: PAVN overran two mountain strongholds, Nakhang and Moung Soui in northwestern MR2 inflicting significant casualties, despite strong air support for the defenders. Destroyed at Nakhang was another TACAN.

November 1968 – January 1969: Vang Pao launched a failed offensive to retake Phou Phathi. 1969:

June: Advancing to retake Moung Soui in MR2, FAN troops encountered PAVN’s first use of tanks in northern Laos. RLG had to evacuate Moung Soui, giving it to PAVN. But air power inflicted a considerable cost. By the end of 1969 the war had turned largely conventional.

August-September. Weapons haul from Operation Kou Ket: Responding to reported supply shortages facing the Communists on the PDJ, Vang Pao launched a new eastward offensive called Kou Kiet (Redeem Honor). Discovery of emaciated Vietnamese stragglers confirmed the reports: Vang Pao saw PAVN had generally withdrawn leaving behind considerable amounts of equipment. Airpower had destroyed or damaged 308 vehicles on the plain. His troops liberated 20,000 civilians many of whom had been pressed into service as porters for PAVN. Kou Kiet had achieved Vang Pao’s territorial objectives and cleared most of the PDJ of PAVN and Pathet Lao.

August 31. Truck park destroyed, MR3: A Savannakhet road-watch team near the Mu Gia pass discovered a PAVN truck park under thick canapy with 55 trucks and five guards. After extraction, they reported their findings and were reinserted with charges. As the explosives went off, USAF A-1Es arrived to increase the damage. Part of the mission success was attributable to the fact that the guerrillas, natives of that region, knew the terrain.

October. Supply cache discovered: Continuing Operation Kou Kiet, Vang Pao drove eastward. At a locale called Khang Khay in the middle of the PDJ, the troops found in caches along Route 7 perhaps the largest amount of Communist booty discovered

by any army up to this point in the 2nd Indochina War: six million rounds of ammunition, more than 6,400 weapons, 25 tanks, 113 vehicles, 202,000 gallons of fuel, along with food supplies. The approximately $12 million of supplies captured was roughly five times the amount FAR lost at Nambac.

Success carried a cost: “between 1966 and 1969, the RLG had been losing 7,000 men a year, about equal to the annual growth in eligible male candidates for military service. Far more critical were percentages for the SGU forces, which accounted for 13% of RLG strength but 70% of RLG casualties.” At the time, Laos had a population of around 3 million.

PAVN dedicated about 32,000 of its troops to northern Laos and was incurring an estimated 10,000 casualties there annually but had a much larger recruitment pool to replenish its losses. Its Pathet Lao allies by contrast were often understrength being based in sparsely populated areas Laos. The Communists controlled roughly two-thirds of the land mass of Laos, but the RLG controlled more than two-thirds of the population.


February. Dien Bien Phu raid: Hmong Commando Raider Team infiltrated into Dien Bien Phu, DRV and launched a rocket

attack into a PAVN headquarters during an officers’ meeting.

Training Center Raid: A MR3 30-man Commando Raider Team slipped into DRV near Rao Qua PAVN training center. They carried five 60mm mortars and 50 rounds. They dropped their mortar rounds at 0500, set the camp ablaze, and successfully exfiltrated.

March 18. Cambodia coup: In Phnom Penh, Cambodia Prime Minister Lon Nol, former army chief of staff, led a coup overthrowing the government of Prince Norodom Sihanouk. While feigning neutrality, Sihanouk had acquiesced to Hanoi’s use of the Sihanoukville port to supply Communist forces in Vietnam. Much of eastern Cambodia served as a supply and sanctuary area for PAVN and Vietcong forces. Route 110 (the “Sihanouk Trail”) ran from Sihanoukville on the southwestern coast to the northeastern border region and into southeastern Laos. Pro-Western Lon Nol allied Cambodia with South Vietnam, formally evicted PAVN from Cambodian territory, and tried to shut down Communist supply traffic in the eastern border areas. Over time PAVN compensated by shifting its Ho Chi Minh trail network further west in the panhandle. Moving into the more populated areas afforded them protection against US bombing.

November 1970 – August 1972. Prisoner snatch operations: A CIA officer in MR4 developed and executed an imaginative intelligence gathering program: operations to capture or encourage defection of PAVN soldiers. Intelligence teams received training on ways to apprehend an enemy soldier and to extract him back to headquarters for intelligence exploitation. The main motivation was a “cash-on-delivery” system whereby teams received a hefty bounty based on the rank of the prisoner captured. Many North Vietnamese soldiers let their guard down at times when relaxing in Lao villages in areas under their control, a practice the snatch teams took advantage of. The teams sometimes seized valuable documents along with the prisoners. Under the CIA officer and his successor the teams snatched or induced the defection of 17 enemy soldiers.

In January 1972 one defector informed his debriefers of the forthcoming PAVN Easter Offensive in Vietnam. The officers sent this critical information up the chain of command. It was discovered after the fact that a bureaucrat in the intelligence hierarchy in Saigon canned the report as unreliable because the defector had not undergone a polygraph test. As a result the

US and South Vietnamese got caught off-guard by the Easter Offensive into Quang Tri and Binh Phouc provinces because of this human intelligence omission.



March-May. Battle of Muang Phalane in MR3: Muang Phalane is a market center that sits midway on east-west Route 9 between Savannakhet on the Mekong River and Tchepone near the Lao-South Vietnamese border. From February 8 to March 25, 1971 the South Vietnamese Army conducted Lam Son 719, a limited offensive into Laos, to interdict and destroy PAVN command and control and logistics centers. In mid-March PAVN advanced toward Muang Phalane rocketing part of the city and causing the small FAR garrison to withdraw west. PAVN’s intention may have been to protect its west flank against Lao harassment at a critical moment. MR3 commanders thought their ultimate objective might have been Savannakhet.

Ordered to Moung Phalane, two understrength paramilitary battalions of ethnic lowland Lao from GM30, a force of about 540 men, captured, occupied, defended, and finally lost Muang Phalane in southern Laos. The SGUs had access to US and Royal Lao air support in the form of F-4s and T-28s to make up for their small numbers. After first taking Moung Phalane, they dug in well. Counterattacking PAVN had to cross rice fields where air power caught them in the open breaking the attacks. Ordered to reinforce the GM, a previously uncommitted battalion advancing toward the city came under PAVN indirect fire north of Phalane and was rendered combat ineffective. Though eventually forced to withdraw, the Lao survivors of GM30 felt triumphant. Along their escape route they saw an array of enemy bodies and weapons. The outnumbered troops knew that PAVN had paid a dear price for its gain. Understrength GM30 tied up six PAVN battalions that otherwise would have been used against South Vietnamese troops.

December. Critical wiretap operation in DRV: Two Lao commandos were infiltrated into Vinh, DRV, where they wiretapped multiplex landlines southeast of Vinh. The wiretap enabled National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger to access a stream of information from inside DRV that may have shaped his ongoing negotiation strategy with the Communists at the Paris peace talks.


December 1971 – January 1972: Battle of Skyline Ridge, on the Plain of Jars, MR2: PAVN’s seasonal offensive in MR2 reversed Vang Pao’s gains of the previous year. This battle occurred on a western PDJ mountain range that lies in the middle of the Hmong heartland. The plain had acquired more military significance for the Vietnamese Communists than just a corridor toward Vientiane and beyond. The air war over North Vietnam had induced the US to construct a helicopter base near the MR2 tactical headquarters of Long Tieng to support rescue missions of downed pilots in North Vietnam. To defend this base area, the CIA altered the former guerrilla role of the MR2 irregulars into a necessary static defense mission, though one that did not play to their core strength of hit and run tactics.

Meanwhile Communist advances on the PDJ and in several regions of Laos had prompted the Royal Thai Government with US funding to raise volunteer battalions of Thai soldiers who were deployed to Laos. In early 1971 several Thai SGU battalions with supporting artillery took up positions in Long Tieng to reinforce the Lao fighters. Additional Lao GMs, US air support, and the advent of the rainy season all pressured PAVN withdrawal to eastern MR2. Thai infantry and artillery continued to reinforce the Long Tieng area.

In December 1971 taking advantage of the dry season when their vehicles could move unimpeded, PAVN attacked toward the MR2 tactical headquarters at Long Tieng employing over two divisions of troops with armor and long-range artillery. Hmong defenders screening one of the artillery bases broke under pressure. Over the next three days PAVN overran other strong points and artillery bases defended mostly by Hmong irregulars and Thai Unity battalions. Three supporting US F-4s went down over the eastern Plain, one shot down by an unexpected MiG 21. The Communist forces had seized and occupied much of the PDJ as well as controlled much of MR2. PAVN gained control of the commanding mountain range Skyline Ridge.

Offering relief, the MR3 commander in Savannakhet broke loose three of his irregular GMs who were flown north to reinforce Long Tieng: GM30, GM31, and GM32. Fresh Thai artillerymen also arrived. GM30 with 1200 men was ordered to retake the Northern Skyline Ridge. Supported by US B-52s and Thai gunners, the GM cleared Vietnamese troops from most of the ridge by January 17, 1972. After a week of intense combat, GM30 lost nine hundred guerrillas killed, wounded and missing in action, according to its CIA officer. But GM30 had defeated two NVA regiments on Skyline Ridge.



January-April. Battle of Skyline Ridge (continued): For its part GM31 shored up the defensive line. In the words of its case officer: “In early 72 the only unit that was deployed between Long Tieng and a determined enemy was GM31. Four battalions defended a twenty six hundred meter line for a month, at which time they had to withdraw due to casualties.”

For the time being the PAVN advance was stymied. The Communist forces withdrew from the Plain in April to take part in the Easter Offensive in South Vietnam. But Lao success on the PDJ came with a butcher’s bill. The three MR3 GMs lost more than half of their strength in addition to Thai, Hmong, and other Lao casualties. Three GM commanders were wounded. The original GM32 commander was killed and 500 of his men killed, wounded, and missing in two days.

June-October. Battle of Khong Sedone, MR4: The population center of Khong Sedone sits below the MR3-MR4 boundary on Route 13, the route connecting Savannakhet to Pakse. The PAVN 39th Regiment reinforced by elements of the 19th Regiment seized the city in April 1972 uncharacteristically during the rainy season. Control of Khong Sedone would cut off MR4 from the remainder of Laos. A FAR battalion and a partially trained GM failed to retake the city. In June the Savannakhet-based GM32 and GM33 received orders to drive out the North Vietnamese and were inserted by helicopter. After several days of fighting, GM32 entered Khong Sedone as the PAVN regiment withdrew to a former FAR camp at the foot of Phou Kong Mountain and to other outlying locales. The Vietnamese had orders to defend in place.

Their static positions left them vulnerable to GM32 recoilless rifle fire and bombing from Lao T-28s. Incurring heavy losses, the remaining Vietnamese retreated up Phou Kong mountain. GM33 shifted its mission from retaking Phou Kong to destroying

remaining PAVN forces surrounding Khong Sedone. The commander of the GM33 task force conducting the offense prepared to block enemy reinforcements and to ambush the enemy’s route of escape. Three weeks after insertion, GM33 destroyed nearly half of the 39th Regiment and a significant part of the 19th Regiment – killing its commander – and captured 17 North Vietnamese, the largest number of enemy POWs in Laos up to that time.

October-November. In MR4 a FAR GM defending the liberated Kong Sedone fled upon rumors of an impending PAVN assault. Another FAR GM and a FAR airborne brigade retook it in three weeks.

In MR3 three understrength GMs (30, 31, 32) out of Savannakhet advanced eastward to retake the much-fought-over Moung

Phalane from a battalion of the 19th PAVN Regiment. This time it was PAVN who broke and ran leaving behind weapons and munitions.

October-December. In MR4 GM33 received orders October 18 to conduct an airmobile assault on Ban Lao Ngam, a major PAVN transshipment point east-southeast of Khong Sedone. The previous night a CRT had parachuted in to secure the landing strip. GM33 entered the site unopposed. A few days after insertion, the GM destroyed five PAVN tanks, damaged three, and captured a large quantity of enemy weapons, ammunition, and trucks. This was the single most successful Lao operation against armor in the entire war. GM33 linked up with a Thai Unity GM, and the combined Savannakhet/Thai force went on to take the city of Paksong east of Pakse.

In MR2 despite attempted offensives under Vang Pao to establish a defensible front line on the western PDJ, PAVN’s armor and long range artillery decimated two irregular GMs from MR1 and MR3. Four Thai unity battalions counterattacked to the east, but PAVN held its position.

December. Hanoi’s intransigence threw the Paris peace negotiations into deadlock. On December 18 President Nixon launched Linebacker II, a massive bombing campaign against North Vietnam. Serious negotiations resumed. The Vinh telephone wiretap provided Kissinger a vital stream of information to include Hanoi’s candid response to the bombing.

RLG strongpoints in MR1 started to crumble. The Pathet Lao with newly acquired tanks drove FAR units off Route 7 and captured Sala Phou Khoun overlooking Route 13 to Vientiane.


January. In a multi-battalion operation GM31 (quickly flown north to MR1 from Savannakhet) retook Sala Phou Khoun and

helped clear Route 13.

The Paris Peace negotiations prompted PAVN to continue land grabs throughout the country to give their Pathet Lao proxies a stronger hand in a reconstituted coalition government following an anticipated ceasefire. Many FAR battalions, on the other hand, became dispirited about the prospect of combat operations: who wants to be the last soldier to die just before a ceasefire? Some senior FAR officers were said to display “a ‘ludicrous’ and ‘pathetic’ apathy. The apathy stood in boldest relief in MR 1, where the nonfeasance of the regular army had left the defense of Luang Prabang to CIA's Lao Theung irregulars. [One observer] noted the irony of the Lao abdicating the protection of their royal capital to members of a despised ethnic minority.”

His own Hmong forces heavily depleted, Vang Pao’s operation to retake Moung Soui in MR2 failed due to deteriorating discipline within four Thai Unity battalions who spearheaded the attack.

January-February. In MR4 a threat of a PAVN tank attack prompted Thai Unity troops defending Paksong to withdraw outside the city. PAVN took the city and resisted counterattacks by the Unity task force. GM33 conducting a separate mission north of Paksong was ordered back to reinforce the task force. Surprising PAVN, GM33 moved back into Paksong with little opposition and held the city until the February 22 ceasefire. On that date while celebrating their victory, a PAVN artillery barrage hit the troops just minutes before the noon-time ceasefire was to go into effect. GM33 fled west.

At Paksong gunfire continued a day after the ceasefire, which led Prince Souvanna Phouma to appeal to Washington for intervention. Nine B-52s and a dozen fighter-bombers hit the outskirts of Paksong. Though control of the city did not switch back to RLG, Communist ceasefire violations ended – for a time.

Special operations involving CRTs continued, including raids on the Ho Chi Minh Trail where south-bound supply convoys continued in violation of the Paris Accords. A Vietnamese attack on Ta Vieng in southwestern MR2 triggered another B-52 strike.

To comply with the agreement protocols, RLG renamed the SGUs the Lao Irregular Forces and merged them with FAR within two massive divisions, forcing the former SGUs to take a demoralizing pay cut. Parts of the overall military began to downsize, while the Pathet Lao strengthened its forces. A shaky coalition Provisional Government of National Unity commenced in Vientiane.



April-August: The fate of Laos linked to that of South Vietnam. Saigon fell on April 30. The royalists had fallen into disunity and discord among themselves, while the Pathet Lao consolidated territorial and political gains with PAVN muscle in the background. The Pathet Lao seized control idealistic student organizations and youth groups, who agitated in the major cities forcing serving officials out of office. Many senior military officers saw a grim future and quietly escaped to Thailand. On August 23 a Pathet Lao artillery unit entered Vientiane and declared Laos liberated.

Aftermath. On November 29, 1975: King Sisavang Watthana was forced to abdicate the throne. December 2, 1975: The Lao People's Democratic Republic was proclaimed. In the mid-1970s: Tens of thousands of the former civil servants and military officers were ordered to brutal “re-education camps” for indefinite duration, without outside world visitation. The Hmong faced particular persecution. One sixth of Laos’ population of six million fled the country, seeking refuge in free and democratic countries (USA, Canada, Europe, and Australia).


March 1, 1977: King Sisavang Watthana, Queen Khamphoui, Crown Prince Vongsavang and other royal family members were arrested and sent to the labor camp in the northern province of the country. May 1, 1978: The Crown Prince died while in the prison. May 13, 1978: The last King of the Lao Lan Xang Kingdom died while in the prison. December 21, 1981: The Queen died while in the prison.

References: the content of this chronology is drawn from the below sources.
Ahern Jr, Thomas L., The Undercover Armies 1961-1973: CIA and Surrogate War in Laos. Center for the Study of

Intelligence, Approved for release: Date 19-Feb-2009. This account is an official CIA history.
Briggs, Thomas Leo, Cash on Delivery: CIA Special Operations During the Secret War in Laos. (Rockville, MD:

Press; 2017). An account by an MR4 case officer concerning his employment of Road-Watch teams.


Castle, Timothy N., At War in the Shadow of Vietnam: U.S. Military Aid to the Royal Lao Government 1966-1975. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).

Chavez, Eli. “The Battle for Skyline Ridge, 1971-1972: GM-30 a Low Land Lao Combat Force” (A letter written by former CIA case officer who directed Groupement Mobile 30 in this battle).

Conboy, Kenneth with James Morrison, Shadow War: the CIA's Secret War in Laos (Boulder CO: Paladin Press, 1995) is a comprehensive account of actual CIA operations in Laos based on hundreds of interviews and declassified documents. This chronology relied heavily on Conboy and Morrison.

Courtney Major Ian D., “FOUR SECRET WARS: CIA Involvement in Paramilitary Operations in Laos.” (Quantico: USMC Command and Staff College Marine Corps University, 2003). Excellent overview of the peoples and geography of Laos and of the specific types of special operations in each MR that the CIA conducted.

Hurd, John “GM31” (A letter written by former CIA case officer who directed GM31, dated March 6, 2011.)

Insixiengmay, Khao and Mark Carroll, History of the Secret War in Laos 1953-1975, Monograph from 2013 that focuses on Col. Khao’s personal experiences.

Insixiengmay, Khao and James K. Bruton, “The Battle of Khong Sedone.” A monograph from 2014. Colonel Khao commanded GM33 which helped defeat on the 39th PAVN Regiment in 1972.

“Laotian Civil War,” Wikipedia,
Leary, William M. “The CIA and the ‘Secret War’ in Laos: The Battle for Skyline Ridge, 1971-1972” (Athens: University of

Georgia; date unknown). Coherent overview of the three separate PAVN campaigns to take Long Tieng.
Parker Jr, James E., Battle for Skyline Ridge: Timeline 18 December 1971 to 4 April 1972. Parker Press: Kindle Edition,


Sananikone, Oudone, Major General, RLA, The Royal Lao Army and U.S. Army Advice and Support. Indochina Monographs Series, U.S. Army Center of Military History, Washington, D.C., 1978. This is an account by a former Chief of Staff of the RLA that includes discussion of the SGUs as well FAR/FAN.

Stockinger, Edwin K. "Five Weeks at Moung Phalane." Studies in Intelligence 17 (Spring 1973): 11-19. Detailed account of this battle by a former CIA case officer.

Vongsavanh, Soutchay, former BG, RLA, Military Operations and Activities in the Laotian Panhandle. Indochina Monographs Series, U.S. Army Center of Military History, Washington, D.C., 1981. Highly readable and candid account of the war in the Lao Panhandle, and how he as MR4 commanding general re-organized his command structure and significantly upgraded the combat effectiveness of regular and irregular forces in MR4 who fought right up to the ceasefire.


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