By Jeff Schultz

Editors Note: In the first of a three-part series, Jeff Schultz examines the use of the North American T-28 Trojan during the so-called Secret War in Laos during the Vietnam War. In this part, Schultz examines the aircraft’s training role.

Scant attention has been paid to the two-seat T-28 Trojan trainer (or armed versions called the ‘Nomad’), of all the aircraft associated with the Vietnam era, and its important role in Laos during the Vietnam War. The most important single aircraft for the prosecution of the ‘secret war’ was the venerable T-28, used as a light ground attack aircraft adapted for counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare.[1] The T-28 sustained this COIN effort through a variety of missions and operators, eventually becoming a nearly ubiquitous fixed-wing aircraft during the Vietnam era. Its users included the US Air Force (USAF), Air America, South Vietnam, Thailand, Laos (including the Hmong), Cambodia, and even North Vietnam.

This article chronicles the mission types flown by the T-28 in Laos over the period 1964 to 1973. According to one source, ‘Laos has been a prisoner of geography, fought over and plundered by powerful neighbors,’ and the period after the 1954 French withdrawal only confirmed this notion of geographical entrapment.[2] American involvement in Laos before 1964 included a brief period of direct participation under President Kennedy until the 1962 Geneva Accords forbade outside intervention in Laos in an attempt to create a supposedly ‘neutral’ state. While America and the Soviet Union did withdraw their forces, the same could not be said of North Vietnam. After that the United States would attempt, from the Kennedy to the Nixon years, to maintain a supposed ‘civilian only’ presence in Laos so as to not violate the accords. This meant that in practice the ambassador and the embassy acted as the American command for Laos and therefore it was not a military, but rather a civilian affair. The ambassador occupied a critical role in the future of the country, as he controlled the means to support the Lao government such as financial and military support in the form of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other covert means.[3] As a CIA-owned subsidiary, Air America, provided a considerable portion of the aerial support for the war in Laos and in particular for the Hmong and Lao Army, in addition to search and rescue (SAR). As one source pointed out, the 1962 Geneva Accords ‘prohibit foreign military aircraft in Laos, but they say nothing about civilian planes.’[4]

‘Why the T-28?’ one might ask. The answer was simple enough: availability, simplicity and a proven record. USAF pilot Major Richard Moser flew the T-28s in his training phase and enjoyed flying the trainer he called ‘a memorable airplane’ with a ‘very classic sound.’[5] Already serving as one of the primary trainers for USAF/US Navy pilots, it operated a basic tricycle landing gear arrangement attached to a rugged airframe meant to teach trainees how to fly and could take some punishment from the fledgeling aviators.[6] Also, the airframe demonstrated its usefulness when the French used it with success as a COIN aircraft from 1961-62 during the Algerian War where they were called the T-28S ‘Fennec’.[7] T-28s also saw action as COIN aircraft in the Congo and Ethiopia against insurgents during the 1960s.[8]

Training Role

091029-f-1234o-002
A row of T-28s in Laos (Source: USAF)

The most basic mission the T-28s performed was the critical role of training new pilots, the trainee pilots sitting in the rear seat as ‘backseaters’ until they completed language and flight training phases progressing to graduation.[9] While the USAF could not openly operate in Laos per the 1962 Geneva Accords, it could do as it pleased in neighbouring Thailand. When the issue of training Lao and Thai pilots arose, the USAF did the same thing they had done in South Vietnam in late 1961, using special air warfare (SAW) personnel to ‘train foreign indigenous air force personnel in counterinsurgency operations.’[10] In South Vietnam, it was called Project FARMGATE as the Americans trained the pilots of the South Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF); the new unit set up in Thailand to train the Lao pilots used the name WATERPUMP.[11] Coincidentally, Captain Robert L. Simpson, the first American fighter pilot killed in South Vietnam, was from FARMGATE, who died when his T-28 Nomad crashed on 28 August 1962.[12] The VNAF pilots trained by FARMGATE went on to fly strike missions against the Viet Cong using American pilots and Vietnamese ‘backseaters’. In one 1962 instance, according to author Neil Sheehan, it was evident that the:

converted T-28 Trojan trainers were better than jets for this work because the pilots could dive more slowly and see better to strafe and rocket.[13]

American WATERPUMP personnel from the USAF 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron (4400 CCTS) based at Eglin AFB, Florida made the Royal Laotian Air Force (RLAF) T-28 mission possible in Laos, but Thais and Americans flew T-28s such as Air America pilots and later the USAF ‘Raven’ forward air controllers (FACs) for some missions.[14] Another group of operators to fly the T-28s were Thai mercenary pilots, who also flew under RLAF colours but with no outward distinction as to their non-Lao identity, sometimes referred to as ‘Friendly Third World Power’.[15]

The American-backed RLAF used the T-28 as its primary strike aircraft from 1964 until its demise in 1975.[16] The Lao operated T-28s featured:

[t]hree-sided frames on the fuselage into which metal insignia plates could be slid: the Lao insignia on one side, Thai insignia on the other, or no insignia at all.[17]

It was Project WATERPUMP that turned the RLAF recruits into T-28 pilots starting in 1964, and later in 1967 Hmong were also accepted for training, which concerned some of the non-Hmong RLAF who viewed them as ‘mere savages.’[18] A RAND study from 1972 characterised the relative Lao performance in a negative light: ‘The consensus of those who have worked with them is that the Lao make poor soldiers.’[19] Combined with lacklustre leadership which lacked aggressiveness and a general inability to maintain aircraft properly, the RLAF never progressed beyond flying the propeller-driven T-28s to operating jets like the American-supported VNAF (South Vietnamese Air Force), for example, had done.[20] The RLAF gained T-28s from the VNAF after they replaced them with the larger and more robust Douglas A-1 Skyraiders in 1964.[21] Before the T-28s were available, the RLAF operated a few old WW2-era North American T-6 Texan armed trainers, which quickly demonstrated the need for a more capable strike capability to counter the Pathet Lao, as the T-6s were able to carry little ordnance to make any significant impact.[22] In the initial RLAF that flew T-6s, Thai pilots augmented the few available Lao pilots to increase the sortie rate.[23]

One man, Vang Pao, rose from relative obscurity to change the fortunes for the Meo (or the Hmong) people, an ethnic minority that did not consider themselves the same as the lowland Lao. Many of the Hmong tribesmen had never seen aircraft before the French arrived, but a few of them, such as Vang Bee, would later go on to fly T-28s. The Hmong slowly transformed into regimental-sized groups from their original guerilla warfare orientation, so powerful was the inducement of air power, which represented a watershed in the manner in which the Hmong fought.[24] During the Dien Bien Phu era, Vang Pao had witnessed what airpower could do to the Viet Minh, and that impression heavily influenced his future.[25]

Header Image: Damage caused by a communist ground attack on Luang Prabang airfield, Laos, 1967. (Source: USAF)

[1] Al Adcock, T-28 Trojan in Action (Carrollton, TX: Squadron Signal Publications, 1989), p.31.

[2] Hugh S. Greenway, ‘The pendulum of war swings wider in Laos,’ LIFE, April 3, 1970, p.34.

[3] Interview with John Webb, 1999, Wisconsin Veterans Museum Research Center, p.12; Interview with Larry Clum, 29 February 2000, Larry Clum Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, p.22.

[4] Richard Halloran, ‘Air America’s Civilian Façade Gives It Latitude in East Asia,’ New York Times, April 5, 1970.

[5] Interview with Richard Moser, 24 February 2006, Richard E. Moser Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, p.15.

[6] Steve Ginter, North American T-28 Trojan: The T-28 in Navy, Air Force and Foreign Service – Naval Fighters Number Five (Simi Valley, CA: Ginter Books, 1981), p. 29; James E. Parker, Jr., Codename Mule: Fighting the Secret War in Laos for the CIA (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1996), p.103.

[7] Adcock, T-28 Trojan in Action, pp.42-3.

[8] Ibid., p.33.

[9] Phillip D. Chinnery, Air Commando: Fifty Years of the USAF Air Commando and Special Operations Forces, 1944-1994 (New York: St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 1994), pp.201-2.

[10] Corona Harvest Waterpump 1964 – 1965: A Special Report by Captain Thomas Knox, USAF (January 1970), 1964-1965, Folder 01, Box 01, Edward H. Douglas Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, p.ii; Victor B. Anthony and Richard R. Sexton, War in Northern Laos, 1954-1973 (Washington DC: Center for Air Force History, 1993), p.67.

[11]  Ibid., p.67, pp.96-97.

[12] Chinnery, Air Commando, p.75.

[13] Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (New York: Random House, 1988), p.85.

[14] Chinnery, Air Commando, p.71; Walter J. Boyne, ‘The Plain of Jars,’ Air Force Magazine, June 1999, p.78.

[15] Roger Warner, Shooting at the Moon: the Story of America’s Clandestine War in Laos, (South Royalton, VT: Steerforth Press, 1996), p.132 and 136; Christopher Robbins, The Ravens: The Men Who Flew in America’s Secret War in Laos (New York: Crown Publishers, 1987), p.163.

[16] Joe F. Leeker, Royal Lao Air Force / Raven: North American T-28s, p.1.

[17] Roger Warner, Shooting at the Moo, p.132.

[18] Keith Quincy, Harvesting Pa Chey’s Wheat: The Hmong and America’s Secret War in Laos (GPJ Books, 2011), p.280; Anthony and Sexton, War in Northern Laos, p.259.

[19] Douglas S. Blaufarb, Organizing and Maintaining Unconventional Warfare in Laos, 1962-1970, p.47.

[20] Boyne, ‘The Plain of Jars,’ p.78; Christopher Robbins, The Ravens, pp.58-59, p.64.

[21] Chinnery, Air Commando, p.94.

[22] Anthony and Sexton, War in Northern Laos, p.37, p.40; Arthur J. Dommen, The Indochinese Experience of the French and Americans: Nationalism and Communism in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), p.591.

[23] Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison, Shadow War: The CIA’s Secret War in Laos (Boulder: Paladin Press, 1995), p.50.

[24] Keith Quincy, Harvesting Pa Chey’s Wheat, p.279-80.

[25] Roger Warner, Shooting at the Moon, p.29.

5 thoughts on “Supporting the Secret War: T-28s over Laos, 1964-1973 – Part 1: Training

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