Category Archives: Bombing Campaigns

Articles about bombing campaigns conducted during the war

The Secret War in Laos That Wasn’t a Secret

By Phillip Jennings

President Obama said this week in Laos that sometimes Americans “feel lazy and think we’re so big we don’t have to really know anything about other people.” 1 He then addressed America’s “secret war” in that country, and proved what he didn’t know. What went on in Laos was hardly a secret, and was not much of a war either, except for those of us who fought it.

When President Dwight D. Eisenhower met President-elect John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office prior to passing the reigns of the presidency, he warned the young Prince of the dangers of war in Southeast Asia. In Laos to be exact. Over first months of the tragically short Kennedy administration, the communists – Soviet, Chinese and North Vietnamese — kept their aggressive pressure on the small nation as only communists seem able to do; through killings, kidnappings, thievery and rabid control of all aspects of life.

Kennedy sent U.S. Marines to the southern border of Laos, with a warning to the communists to get out and stay out. The bluff worked, and in July 1962 fourteen nations signed another in a long line of Geneva accords, this one guaranteeing Laotian neutrality. The buck was passed to South Vietnam to become the whipping boy for communist aggression in Indochina.

Kennedy, meanwhile, made a rookie mistake which haunted and inhibited America’s commitment to keep Ho Chi Minh’s brutal troops out of Saigon over the next decade; he ceded the eastern third of “neutral” Laos to the communists. And that strip of jungle and Annamite foothills became the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The trail – actually a superhighway — was built using Laotian slave labor to wage war in South Vietnam. The locals were under constant attack from tens of thousands of North Vietnamese regulars.

After North Vietnamese troops moved into Laos, the Marine helicopters in northern Thailand mysteriously lost their MARINES markings and ended up being flown by civilian (mostly former Marine) pilots in what would become part of a company known as Air America. And in late 1967, I became one of those former Marine pilots who flew the former Marine helicopters in and around Laos for the next three years.

The war in the countryside was brutal, but small and mostly contained. The Americans who trained and led the anti-communist troops were among the gutsiest our country has ever produced. There was less than a thousand of them in-country at any one time. They were primarily CIA (we called them customers) and U.S. Army. They worked alone in the country- side, depending on the locals for everything but air support, which was aptly supplied by Air America, the U.S. Air Force Ravens, and the sometimes available American fighters and bombers for close air support when things got really dicey. This small band of warriors and their local counterparts kept Laos from being overrun by the North Vietnamese divisions until South Vietnam fell and Laos became a domino.

It was tragic that the Laotians were caught in the middle of the North Vietnamese invasion of South Vietnam. But it is not dismissing the tragedy to point out that the overwhelming majority of American bombs fell on unpopulated areas along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Most of the Laotian population live in the lowlands, and near the Mekong River which was the western border for much of the country. The cities of Houi Sai, Luang Prabang (the Royal Capital), Vientiane, Savannakhet, and to the far south, Pakse, were never bombed, and lay as peacefully in the Indochinese sun when the Americans left as when they had arrived.

Good Soldier Obama rightly commented that the U.S. has a moral obligation to continue, and in fact intensify, the efforts to find and defuse/destroy the unexploded ordnance scattered mostly over the eastern one-third of Laos. This is a noble and necessary effort the Americans who fought there, and most Americans at large, would whole-heartedly support.

Obama did not mention the greater moral obligation the Americans have to the remaining Huang/Meo people who gave up a large percentage of their population fighting the communists in Laos on our behalf, led primarily by the great Lao general, Vang Pao. When the Democrat U.S. congress abandoned the South Vietnamese in 1973, they also abandoned our friends and allies in Laos. The communists then slaughtered, bombed, gassed and exiled them from their native lands. It is to our shame for betraying our friends and allies. I would not have expected Obama to bring this up while he was kow-towing to the existing Laotian communist government, and he met my low expectations.

Yes, there was a war in Laos (I was shot down more than once) and the Laotian and American deaths at the hands of the communists were tragic and often extremely brutal. Was it a secret? Absolutely, unless you read The Bangkok Post, The New York Times, or any one of dozens of newspapers and magazines constantly reporting on the war in Laos. I myself was interviewed for articles in Time and the Wall Street Journal while I was “under cover.”

We fought the good fight in Laos. A small, neutral country was being invaded, and we were providing the barest of support. We were enforcing a Geneva Convention mandate, and worked with the indigenous people who carried the brunt of the fighting, and the casualties. Given what we had, we did a respectable job.

The left at the time could find nothing to protest in what we were doing, but they did anyway. Leftists have an innate desire to blame America for all the world’s evils. It was obvious to me, hearing our President speak about Laos, that he was one of the people who hadn’t taken the time to learn about our history and sacrifice in that very gracious and beautiful land. His speech inferred that the United States inflicted massive airstrikes and ruined cities. He expressed regret about the brutality of bombing a peaceful country. He used all the old clichés and leftist tropes (e.g., more bombs than on Europe in World War Two). He all but apologized for our attempt to defend Laos from the communists. And if he knew the first thing about the war we actually fought, he kept it a secret.

Phillip Jennings is an investment banker and entrepreneur, former United States Marine Corps pilot in Vietnam and Air America pilot in Laos. He was also an agent for the Central Intelligence Agency in Central and South America. He is the author of two novels and one best-selling non-fiction book, and received the Pirates Alley Faulkner Prize for fiction in 1999.

Polling the Burns/Novick ‘The Vietnam War’ Documentary

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The Rules of Engagement in the 2nd Indochina War

By Paul Schmehl

This is a subject that is little known or discussed among the so-called experts on the war but had a significant impact on its outcome.  While it is well known that Washington micromanaged the war (thus the famous story about LBJ boasting that the military couldn’t bomb an outhouse without his approval 1), the details of what that meant are not as well-known.  When viewed through the lens of military strategy they border on the insane.

The rules of engagement were drawn from three different sources; the President and Secretary of Defense, through the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Commander of the Military Assistance Command and the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Command. Except if you were operating in Laos. Then the State Department set the rules.2 3 4

There are two primary facets to the rules of engagement; the air war and the ground war.  The following are lawful targets according to the laws of war. 5

  1. Military
    1. complexes
    2. equipment and supplies
  2. Economic
    1. power
    2. industrial (war supporting/import/export)
    3. transportation (equipment/lines of communication/petroleum)
  3. Political
  4. Geographic
  5. Personnel
    1. military
    2. civilians participating in hostilities

The targets that the US military were permitted to attack from the air per Secretary McNamara were

  1. Transportation
  2. Military outside of populated areas

Air War 6

  1. Pilots could not attack targets that were not on the approved list
    1. Hanoi and Haiphong had 30 mile perimeters that were no bombing zones
    2. A 30 mile perimeter on the northern border of North Vietnam prevented pursuit of attacking MIG fighters
    3. Rail yards and switching stations were off-limits
    4. Airfields were off-limits
    5. MIGs could only be shot at if they were airborne, clearly identified and displayed hostile intent
    6. SAM sites could only be attacked if they attacked first
    7. SAM sites and antiaircraft sites could not be attacked while they were under construction
    8. Locks, dams and dikes could never be attacked
    9. Hydroelectric plants could not be attacked
    10. Military targets could not be attacked if they were in protected zones
    11. Trucks in Laos and North Viet Nam could not be attacked unless they were on a road and displayed hostile intent
    12. Military truck parks more than 200 meters from a road could not be attacked
  2. Pilots had to travel routes specified by Washington and would face court-martial if they disobeyed.
    1. The PAVN knew these routes and placed all their antiaircraft defenses on those routes, forcing American pilots to run a gauntlet of enemy fire to complete their missions.
    2. They were forced to fly over targets in weather so bad they could not release their bombs but still had to face the enemy’s radar controlled ground fire.
  3. Pilots in South Viet Nam could not provide air support to ground troops, even if fired upon, unless they got clearance, and they first had to drop leaflets warning possible civilians to clear the area.
  4. The average time in Laos between the discovery of a target and permission to strike was fifteen days!

Senator John Stennis, Chairman of the Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee, stated, in 1967, “That the air campaign has not achieved its objectives to a greater extent cannot be attributed to impotence or inability of air power.  It attests, rather, to the fragmentation of our air might by overly restrictive controls, limitations, and the doctrine of ‘gradualism’ placed on our aviation forces which prevented them from waging the air campaign in the manner and according to the timetable which was best calculated to achieve maximum results.” 7

The Subcommittee found that Secretary of Defense McNamara and President Lyndon Johnson had “discounted the unanimous professional judgment of U.S. commanders and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and substituted civilian judgment in the details of target selection and the timing of strikes.” 8

In 1972, President Nixon authorized all of the targets that the JCS requested with the exception of three.  The results were reported by Admiral Stockdale, who was a prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton at the time.

At dawn, the streets of Hanoi were absolutely silent. The usual patriotic wakeup music was missing.  The familiar street sounds, the horns, all gone. In prison, interrogators and guards would inquire about our needs solicitously.  Unprecedented morning coffee was delivered to our cell blocks.  One look at any Vietnamese officer’s face told the whole story. It telegraphed accommodation, hopelessness, remorse, fear.  The shock was there; our enemy’s will was broken.  The sad thing was that we all knew what we were seeing could have been done in any 10-day period in the previous seven years and saved lives of thousands, including most of those 57,000 dead Americans. 9

Ground War 10

  1. Commanders in direct contact with the enemy in uninhabited areas could request direct artillery fire without prior authorization.
  2. Commanders in direct contact with the enemy in inhabited areas could only authorize direct fire if their mission was in jeopardy and the enemy was positively identified and only for defensive purposes.
  3. Indirect fire could only be utilized after approval of the Province Chief for the province where the fire would be directed.
  4. No artillery could be fired in areas where friendly troops were not operating without the prior use of leaflets or loudspeakers, even if enemy fire was received from the area
  5. Direct fire against enemy forces that were not in direct contact in inhabited areas required approval of both the Province Chief and the battalion commander
  6. Indirect fire missions in inhabited areas required the approval of the Province Chief, the battalion commander and the dropping of leaflets or the use of loudspeakers to warn civilians prior to commencement
  7. Cordon and search missions could only be conducted with the approval of the district and village chief as well as the US commander, and RVN advisors must accompany all missions
  8. Attacks in inhabited areas required that the commander explain to the inhabitants why the action was initiated, after the attack was over
  9. Fleeing enemy troops could not be engaged unless they were first ordered to halt and failed to obey.  Then they must be fired upon with the intent to wound only, by firing at the lower extremities.
  10. The much discussed “free fire zones” had to have prior approval from RVN political authorities and were still restricted by all the other rules of engagement.

Senator Barry Goldwater was so appalled by the rules of engagement that he had them entered into the Congressional Record along with this statement.

Mr. GOLDWATER. Mr. President, I ask this because I think it 1s very, very necessary for the Members of this body. the public, the press, and media to understand fully the restrictions that were placed upon aU of our forces in South Vietnam.

It is absolutely unbelievable that any Secretary of Defense would ever place such restrictions on our forces. It Is unbelievable that any President would have allowed this to happen.

I think on the reading of these restrictions, members of this body will begin to understand in a better way just what happened to the American military power in South Vietnam. As I say, it is unbelievable.

I am ashamed of my country for having had people who would have allowed such restrictions to have been placed upon men who were trained to fight, men who were trained to make decisions to win war, and men who were risking their lives. I daresay that these restrictions had as much to do with our casualties as the enemy themselves.