What Price Freedom?

Email reports on French involvement in the Viet Nam war - after (their) defeat (August, 2001)
The question: Were the French directly, or even indirectly, involved with aiding
North Vietnam after their defeat in Indochina?
Fellow USAFA '62 Classmates, (Aug, 2001)
I think Russ, Shep, and the "non-person" should get together and write a book! It has to be a best-seller! What a story -- the French, VC, Michelin rubber, secret units, the Chinese, Russians, CIA -- jeez! The Mother of all historical novels. Seems unbelievable after the French ordeal there.
How about it, Russ??!! Get with Shep and crank out the exposé of a lifetine!!!
Also weird is that only one guy is alive out of 54 assigned... he, I presume, is the one you spoke with, Jim? Guess he's in hiding now, huh?? I would be too. It would REALLY be interesting to explore how each one of them died!
Bob Felts
Like I told Chuck, I had access to the Intelligence vaults over there.
The information on the French came from several different sources. The vaults
were one source. I represented Cam Ranh on a fact-finding trip through the
Thai bases and visited the CIA "hotel" and flightline at Udorn. I was guest
of the CO of the 101 outfit and talked to some of the CIA guys at the
flightline. Some of the information came from them. And the two missions that
I led against Michelin were against Viet Cong training facilities that were
allowed to operate among the rubber trees at Michelin. The French
participation against us at that level was common knowledge.
You ask for "credible" books. No books, to my knowledge, were written
about the subject. The information about the Chinese participation came from
those aboard the Connie that was monitoring the Strike Frequencies just off
the coast of Haiphong. I talked to them at Cam Ranh. And I also flew Mig
Screen missions for the RB-66s flying electronic recce between Hanoi and the
Chinese border. I saw the Chinese Migs operating out of the five Chinese air
bases located just north of the North Vietnamese- Chinese border. I don't
need a "credible" book to tell me what I saw or what our intelligence briefs
reported. Chinese Migs were also "allowed" to operate in northern Laos. I did
not see French flown Migs personally, only heard of them third person. They
were "rumored" to be flying out of Cambodia. The Intelligence reports did
warn us of the Cambodian Mig threat, which was deemed minor. Shep, I am not
sure, but it might have been one of their Migs that shot Val down? Anyway,
that is what I was told by another Academy grad and did not have a chance to
verify from any other source. I did personally see Chinese and Viet Migs
operating out of Hainan, north of the border and over Haiphong. The Russian
Migs were only an Intelligence "rumor". Reportedly, the Russian Migs had
green tails. This I also could not verify.
Much of the French activity was known to those of us flying out of Cam
Ranh. The situation regarding Cambodia at that time was extremely confusing.
We had Cambode mercenaries operating on our side and the VC had them
operating for them. We had Cambodes and Marines operating on clandestine
ground and air missions against the "Trail" areas of Southern Laos. Cambodia
also housed VC schools and "rest" areas. I did fly one mission in 1966
against a VC school across the Mekong. Our base flew over 9000 sorties
against the "Tiger Hound" region of southern Laos in early 1966, four years
before our government admitted our participation in the Laotian war. By the
way, I was one of over 600 American Air Force and Navy pilots shot down in
Laos. Did you know that only two of those guys ever returned? Chuck Klusmann
and Dieter Dengler (both Navy) escaped and made it back on the ground. Not
one of the others was returned from Hanoi or Laos. Now why do you suppose
that the US Government and the USAF never even admits to their existance?
Could it be that they did not want to admit that the CIA and CIA fronted
"airlines" were fighting over there? Why we kept it secret, I will really
never know. I do know that at the time my squadron was operating over there
that the North Vietnamese had over 70,000 troops in southern Laos guarding
the supply routes. When I was downed, it was in the middle of the 25th North
Vietnamese Division which was operating southwest of Saravane.
If you really want to get confused, there were several "Air Forces"
operating in Laos, Thailand and Cambodia that were civilian in addition to
the French. Air Asia, Continental Air Services, Bird and Sons in addition to
Air America were flying combat in association with the CIA and Laotian
missions flown throughout the area. The Cambodians were flying prop fighters
as well as Bird and Sons and CAS. Continental Air Services had 42 prop
fighter bombers in Laos and Cambodia. You guys who flew for the Air Commandos
out of Hurtburt know the type of planes that they were flying. Same as the
Commandos. And the USAF was flying black choppers into Laos as well as our
regular interdiction missions. Those are all facts Shep.
The information on targets and areas of operation of many of these
units, as well as the French participation was only partially known and could
only be gathered in bits and pieces from a variety of sources. I do know that
a lot of the missions were flown by pilots in civilian clothing and that the
CIA planes would change identity from day to day. I saw that at Udorn. I was
offered money to fly black choppers into Laos, which I refused because they
would refuse to admit national identity if we were downed. The CIA guys were
often in it for the money. The mixes of forces operating as mercenary,
clandestine and under different national IDs made it all a confusing mix and
mess. .
Jim Annis was in charge of declassification of all of the AF and Navy
documentation from the SEA war. He headed up a team that took over five years
to accomplish that task. And some of those documents make very interesting
reading. Jim sent me several on the Rules of Engagement that I requested. The
"Rules" detailed a lot of the historical involvement, including the
participation of the US Navy and the Department of State in Vientienne,
Clark, Saigon and the Thai bases. Basically, the two reports that I read were
Air Force historical documents written, apparently, by two different authors.
The original classification was Top Secret Noforn. Neither of those documents
reveals anything of what we knew of the French participation. But they do
include info going back to 1954 and the 13000 sorties we flew in support of
the French at Dien Bien Phu. They also show the level of control of air
operations by American "organizations" other than the USAF or USNavy air.
It was that level of control and the daily control of 7th Air by the
basement Command Post in the Johnson White House that helped us lose the war.
Shep, I don't know if I have answered your questions or just confused
and created more questions? If you are confused, then I don't feel so alone.
A lot of this info should become public knowledge. Only then will we be
able to comprehend the complex nature of the larger involvement and the
decisions made that prevented us from winning the war.
At the urging of friends, I did use my diary written while flying combat
missions, the Rules of Engagement and my own notes & photos from my
involvement and wrote a book. I have not published the book. What I have
found incomprehensible is that the credit due the F-105 guys flying out of
Thailand has never really been documented. Those guys went through hell. Our
Phantom units were given lesser targets. So much has been written about our
attacks against German targets in WWII. The Thud guys went against targets
much more heavily defended than any in Germany including Berlin or the Ruhr.
Perhaps our government does not want us to know that the 10,000 anti-aircraft
artillery guns aimed at them in the Red River Valley were manned by Cubans
and North Koreans or that the Russians manned the SAM IIs? That was the
heaviest aerial defenses in the history of warfare. Whatever the reason, the
sacrifices of the Thud pilots should be properly documented. Typical three
month rotations into Korat or Tahkli would lose over 60% of the pilots. In
the face of all of that, they still kept flying and fighting. They did the AF
Shep, hope all is well with you and look forward to getting together with
you and all the rest of our outstanding class next year.
Regarding the reported French Alouette helicopter flights in support of
the Viet insurgency in northeastern Thailand. I also wondered at the reported
number of Vietnamese. It does seem strange that there were no other
confirmations of the movements. Especially something that large. The CIA guys
probably were exaggerating. I did hear another report later concerning the
insurgency, but never did hear of any threat against NKP, Udorn or Ubon. I
would have thought that an operation of that magnitude would have had some
results against our Thai bases. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between?
But, as to the involvement of the French against us, I have no doubt. It is
just the level of involvement that is a question in my mind.
Shep, you know the level of positive interaction between pilots flying
in different forces that are allied. It was great fun getting to know our
NATO sister squadrons in Europe. And you also know the level of animosity in
the USAF against the French when they kicked us out of our French NATO bases.
When I was over in the UK, we often overflew France to get to Libya in North
Africa for bombing and gunnery training. When we overflew them, the French
Air Force would intercept us for "training". They flew close enough for us to
see their faces quite clearly. There were no smiles. We got the feeling that
those were serious intercepts. It was an overwhelming urge to turn the
bastards. If we did not land at Wheelus with only fumes in our tanks from the
non-stop, we would have done so.
Regarding books, I wish there were more. The River Rats have some books
out and have a pretty complete list of those written regarding the Air War.
Ralph Wetterhahan, class of 63, just published a book called the Last Battle.
He became a journalist and it is not about the Air War. It is the story of
the Mayaguez Incident and the end of the Vietnam war. But it is about a
battle fought on a Cambodian island. Ralph writes well. It is his first book.
Our own John Guilmartin has written several books. He saw the war from
the perspective of a chopper pilot and was heavily involved.
Perhaps it is time for all of those involved to contribute their
knowledge? One that I can remember was written years ago by an F-105 pilot.
It is called Thud Ridge and is a good story.
Hi Jim,
Interesting about the F-4 guy who flew the "black" missions. When I was
offered the "chance" to fly them, but in choppers, I asked what they would do
if I was shot down? They said nothing. I asked them if they would even admit
I was an American, and they said no. No way was I going to be part of that
mess. The CIA guys flying in their Hawaiian shirts into the North and Laos
had a life expectancy of six months.
When I walked the CIA flightline in Udorn, they did have Jolly Greens
that were painted black. And their prop aircraft had slotted "receivers" on
the side so that they could be one country one day and another the next.
Wasn't it a lovely war?
Regarding F-4 activity in SEA: The Navy might have been involved with
their F-4Bs, but the first Air Force F-4 combat mission was flown by the 45th TFS
out of Ubon in June of 1965. The 45th was in the 15th TFW stationed at
MacDill. I ferried the replacement plane from Naha, Okinawa to Ubon, Thailand
for the first Air Force Phantom downed in the War. And that was around June
9th, 1965. We (the 12 TFW) were the first AF Phantom Wing at MacDill. If
there were any missions involving F-4s prior to the rotation of the 45th to
Ubon, we were unaware of it. The F-4 was utilized in a variety of roles, even
that of FAC out of NKP. But, I am unaware of any clandestine roles flown.

The first assignments to the F-4 directly out of pilot training were to
the F-4H, which was the initial designation for the F-4. When we started training
at MacDill, the Air Force had no F-4Cs so we were trained in the Navy F-4B.
Reb Daniel, Bo Daugherty, George Harrison, Al Harwick, Terry Griffey and
Scotty Wilson were all there. Scotty, Al and I were in the same squadron, the
559th. Scotty was shot down on a mission against the north after he had
transferred from Cam Ranh to Danang. It was an undercast day and he probably
did not see the white SAM against the undercast? Terry was with me at Cam
Ranh when he went down. He was blown out of the sky by his own snake eye bomb
on a mission against a coastal village. We lost two flights on Skyspot
against the SAM sights when the snake eyes preignited. George and Reb were in
the 557th TFS, which was the first AF F-4 squadron. I am not sure, but I
think Bo was also in that squadron. They also ended up at Cam Ranh.
Al Harwick and I reunited in the United Kingdom flying out of RAF
Woodbridge. Al was a fine Phantom pilot and he ended up with more time than
anyone in the world in the F-4. I think he was one of those guys who later
flew the Phantom in evaluation missions of the PAVE series of laser guided
weapons being evaluated in Laos. Those laser weapons were later used
effectively in the Gulf War. Al also trained the Israeli Air Force pilots
when they transitioned into the F-4.
I suspect both of those classmates would agree that luck has a lot to do with
what happened to all of us after we graduated from the AFA. It was the
greatest experience of my life followed closely by the Fighter Weapons
School. I would do it all over again! But, I'm not a volunteer to be CJCS!
Dick Myers is a good friend and former squadron mate. Frankly I was
surprised, but thrilled at his selection. He is not a political officer and
while he was a regular guy in the fighter squadron, he has blossomed and I
would now call him a giant among those I have had the pleasure of knowing
during my career. Last saw him at the AF 50th here in Vegas a couple of
years ago. It was like a squadron reunion. Dick will do well as CJCS and if
the SDI can be made to work, he will be the guy to make that happen. I'm not
truly sure about the need, but am optimistic about the technology. I guess I
agree with the argument that one nuke prevented from being heaved into our
country by anybody justifies the initiative.
Al, your report on the F-4 evolution matches my recollections exactly. I've
flown them all from the F-4C to the F-4E with LES and that includes a couple
hundred RF-4C hours as well. About 2000 total with around 1000-1500 hrs IP
time. Not even close to Alex Harwick or some of the others. But, I also
have a bunch of T-33, T-38, F-5 and F-15 time. Just turned 5000 logged hours
this summer. Not even close to the airline pilots amongst us, but when the
hours to landings ratio is compared, then??? BTW logged 3.6 hrs today in our
T210 during an out and back from Vegas to San Diego for lunch with a daughter
and granddaughter. Life is sweet. Miz Peggy and daughter 2 Jennifer made
the trip with me.
Shep, can't wait for your book! BTW any of you that are interested in this
line of blather and haven't read Flanigan's book have really missed a treat!
Russ, I am fascinated by your reports. I didn't start to fly the F-4 until
1968. My 163 trips out of Ubon in 68 and 69 were comparatively without the
drama of your experience. But, I had no special security clearances, etc.
Just a line jock. I did train in the electro optical mission with the
Walleye (a Navy TV guided glide bomb) before leaving RTU at MacDill. I
dropped 3 or 4 of them in NVN before being assigned as a night flight leader
(100 trips). After completing the night assignment I dropped dozens of laser
guided bombs in Laos. I never saw one miss although intel would sometimes
grade our BDA film as 5 or 10 foot misses. With the weapons effects of a
Mk84 (2000 pounder), to me 5 or 10 feet was acceptable.
I did fly one CIA supply mission with a guy named Hugh Goforth in a Turbo
Porter. I had no permission, he just invited me to come along one night over
much scotch at the club. I took him up on it. I declined the second
opportunity. As I recall the airplane was silver metal. Went into a strip
on the side of the Bolvins Plateau (Southern Laos) that could not have been
150 feet long. On the ground about 20 or 30 seconds. So, I can verify that
a lot of that kind of thing was going on. They flew out of Ubon, pretty
openly. There's a lot more to the story regarding his family in Bangkok and
how he had to quit to get time off - then was rehired when he showed back up,
etc. Kept up with him until he busted his ass flying a Bearcat at an airshow
off the beach in Atlantic City.
My friend Bill Joy was the CIA watch officer in the White House during the
Johnson years. I met Bill at Armed Forces Staff College in 1975.
Unfortunately I haven't kept up with him. He told both chilling and
stunningly compasionate stories about Lyndon.
I also have a very close cousin whose husband was a CIA logistician in Laos.
She and family lived in Vientiene (Sp?) with him in the late 60s. Had dinner
with them recently and pulled some amazing stories out of him including one
about the TACAN station up in north Laos that was ultimately overrun by the NVA.
So, whoever suggested writing some of this down, lets get it organized and go
for it. My part is less dramatic than Russ or Shep's role (and others).
But, I was there along with a lot of the rest of you and would be willing to
contribute both what I know and pull from the contacts I have developed over
a lifetime in the fighter community.
Who will lead this raggedty ass gaggle?
For those among us with fuzzy memories of a quarter of a century ago (100%?). the Mayaguez incident involved ultimately-successful attempts to rescue the crew of the American container ship SS Mayaguez, hijacked by the Khymer Rouge on 12 May '75. Intelligence indicated that the crew was held on Koh Tang, a small island off the Cambodian coast. President Ford ordered measures to get them back, pronto. The result, after a lot of thrashing around (read my book!), was an invasion of the island at dawn 15 May by a reinforced infantry company of the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, inserted by Thailand-based USAF H-53s of the 21st Special Ops Squadron and the 40th Rescue Squadron flying from U Tapao. For what it's worth, it was the first, last, and only USAF helicopter assault operation unless you count the Son Tay Raid.

Solid enemy order of battle intelligence was available, but got bottled up in SAC channels and was never passed on to the guys at the pointy end. The Marines and helicopter crews were briefed that the island was defended by fourteen to forty lightly armed militiamen. In fact, it was defended by an understrength battalion of elite Khymer Rouge naval infantry (200-250 men minimum by my estimate) armed with everything from 106mm recoilless rifles to 81mm and 60 mm mortars, RPGs, and -- the kicker -- well-sited 12.7mm machine guns on anti-aircraft mounts covering the LZs like a blanket.
The upshot was that we had three Special Ops '53s shot down in the first five minutes of the action and another so badly shot up it barely made it back to the Thai coast. At the end of the day, only three of the twelve helicopters committed to the operation were still in commission. We came very close to losing a Marine company (there were never more than about 215 Marines on the island, some of them wounded, and the book says you need a three to one numerical advantage to even start thinking about a helicopter or amphibious assault), but got off because of the incredibly good combat performance of the Marines, the Air Force helicopter crews (mostly kids, 1Lts and 2Lts, a lot of them USAFA grads, good men all), the crew of the destroyer Henry B. Wilson (who rescued the Mayaguez's crew when the Khymer Rouge sent them out from Kompong Som in a Thai fishing boat), a couple of standout Spectre crews, and, last but not least, a couple of outstanding OV-10 FACs who arrived over the island just in time.

Three Marines were left behind, an M-60 team whose company commander left the island before most of his men. That's all we knew when I did my research, or at least all I could get my hands on. Subsequent information has come to light indicating that they may have been captured by the Khymer Rouge some days later and executed, and that's where Wetterhahn comes in. He visited the island with a POW/MIA resolution forensic team several years ago, and was involved in interviewing several former Khymer Rouge, one of whom claims to have commanded the communist garrison on the island.

So far, so good. The problem is that Wetterhahn's research is sloppy (he depended very heavily on my book, but doesn't seem to have read it very closely) and his analysis is suspect. He has key US players places where they weren't doing things they couldn't have done and relies uncritically on the Khymer Rouge interviews with regard to the fate of the missing three Marines. To make things worse, he profiles the three Marines in the very best Neil Sheehan/Oliver Stone tradition, portraying them as the unwitting numbskulls that the anti-war movement would like us to believe all "Vietnam vets" were.

I don't recommend the Wetterhahn book and I'm putting it mildly. See my review on the Koh Tang Beach Club home page, http://www.geocities.com/lbarnett/777index.html You might also check the reviews on Amazon.com.
More later.
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