By Jeff Schultz

Editor’s Note: In the second 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 attack role. Part One can be found here.

Perhaps the most important mission performed by T-28s was in the attack role, dropping ordnance and strafing ground targets, which was the most commonly performed mission in Laos by T-28s. The armed trainers were flown by some different operators carrying a broad range of ordnance on multiple bomb racks such as .50cal gun pods, unguided bombs and rockets, napalm and/or cluster bomb units.[1] The cluster bomblets would fall in a series and per a former pilot could be devastating to troops in the open.[2]

In 1963, former Thai pilot Chert Saibory, now flying for the RLAF, defected to North Vietnam, his T-28 later returned to service for the VPAF as its first fighter plane, which per one source, nearly shot down a Nationalist Chinese C-123 during a night attack mission in 1965.[3] An early example of the attack role of T-28s came from June 1964, when the first US Navy aviator was shot down over Laos. Lieutenant Charles Klusmann was on a ‘Yankee Team’ RF-8 reconnaissance mission when Pathet Lao ground fire hit his plane.[4] During nearly three months of captivity, while being transported at one point to Vientiane via truck, the column was ‘halted by intense air raids by jet aircraft and T-28s,’ per his POW debriefing.[5] T-28s also flew in support of search attempts following Klusmann’s shoot down.[6]

In 1964 not only Air America pilots (forming the so-called ‘A-Team’), but also Thai volunteer pilots flew T-28s (as ‘B-Team’) and the Laotians as ‘C-Team’ which, would be much easier to explain than downed Americans.[7] The Thai ‘B-Team’ pilots flew missions under the call sign ‘Firefly’ and conducted attacks on the crucial Plain of Jars (French: Plaine des Jarres) region in north central Laos, knocking out two enemy trucks in one particular mission.[8] In June 1964 the CIA evaluated the T-28s as probably having more effect on enemy morale than otherwise, owing to the lack of RLG (Royal Lao Government) forces supporting them.[9] RLAF T-28s also flew the first missions against the Ho Chi Minh Trail in October 1964, which acted as the unofficial beginning of the later American attacks against the Ho Chi Minh Trail in December, known as BARREL ROLL.[10] Laos often featured very heavy AAA, another hazard to the T-28s, as Ted Maudlin, a former Air America pilot, related in an interview.[11] From 1964 to 1969 the RLAF flew occasional missions against targets in the Laotian panhandle, but eventually AAA became too heavy for daylight attacks.[12]

As a witness to T-28 missions in Laos, Reginald Hathorn flew with the American 23rd Tactical Air Support Squadron out of Nakhon Phanom, Thailand and coordinated air strikes in Laos as a Forward Air Controller (FAC). He provided an account of the role of RLAF T-28s in a strike mission in support of a Laotian Army base then under mortar fire from the Pathet Lao in 1968. After Hathorn had marked the intended target with unguided white phosphorus rockets, the accompanying T-28s dropped their ordnance accurately. He pointed out he could never be sure who was flying the RLAF T-28s they worked with, until this time an American voice came over the radio in contrast to the Lao or Thai pilots.[13]

Captain George Marrett, who flew USAF A-1 Skyraiders from 1968-69, summarised the war in Laos as follows:

All the ground fighting – and dying – was done by a group of mountain people known as the Hmong. Early in the war, they provided much of their air support, flying mission after mission until they died.[14]

Among the T-28 pilots produced in the American-led Water Pump training course at Udorn, Thailand were several standouts: Ly Lue and Vang Sue. According to one source, Ly Lue could be called the ‘Hans-Ulrich Rudel of the Laotian war’ about his effective bombing exploits, flying over 5,000 missions.[15] At his funeral in Long Tieng in July 1969, a Distinguished Flying Cross was placed on his casket by Colonel Tyrrell, the USAF Air Attaché for his incredible feats.[16] Vang Sue flew at least 3,000 combat missions in four years.[17] Both of these men went on to great success but like all the Hmong fliers they lived with the unfortunate reminder as fellow pilot Vang Bee recalled, ‘Hmong pilot have no limit to missions, they fly until they die.’[18] Depending on the source consulted, about 20 of the 37 total Hmong pilots survived the fighting.[19] An American who served with the Hmong called them, ‘some of the finest pilots in this world.’[20]

In 1969, during the early days of Vietnamization, Kissinger sent a memo to President Nixon advocating, among other things, more T-28s for the RLAF since he intended for them to be supported but without being able to send more evident help in the form of Thai ground units or B-52 strikes. The reliable T-28 remained the simplest way to support our ally given the existing rules of engagement.[21] In 1969, RLAF T-28s knocked out a former ad hoc guerrilla weather station captured by the enemy using bombs and napalm.[22] As an indication of the T-28 contribution in the attack role, from November to December 1969 alone Thai, Lao and Hmong pilots flew an impressive 4,629 sorties with an average of only twenty-eight T-28s available on a given day.[23]

By 1970 the Thai T-28 ‘B-Team’ pilots became redundant and were phased out since enough RLAF pilots existed for the task.[24] In 1971, an article in the Milwaukee Sentinel discussed the grim situation in Laos and ominously mentioned the likelihood that the Nixon Doctrine would not protect the small country from North Vietnam with or without more aid, with only two new ‘T-28 propeller driven bombers’ provided to the RLAF per month as replacements.[25]

Eventually, the Plain of Jars suffered so much from air attacks that it became, according to one source, ‘the most intensely bombarded place on the face of the planet’ while Laos itself was eventually hit by 2 million tonnes of bombs.[26] In 1970, John Halliday, an American C-123 “Candlestick” flare-ship pilot, described the situation supporting friendly forces at night near the Plain of Jars region:

Our flares light the area below for…our Laotian allies fighting the Pathet Lao bad guys. The light we provide…is their only security against being overrun in the dark by overwhelming enemy forces.[27]

 The situation in Laos declined during Nixon’s Vietnamization, and as a 1970 Life magazine article pointed out, ‘In the last two years the pendulum of war in Laos has been swinging harder and wider, and each wet-season dry-season offensive has mounted a little higher than before.’[28] In 1971, the NVA attacked Long Tieng and forced the T-28s based there to withdraw, while others arrived to strike at the attackers.[29] In 1972 when USAF General John Vogt, commander of Seventh Air Force, visited the base at Long Tieng he was impressed by the Hmong pilots and ‘awed.’[30] A CIA officer working with the Hmong, James Parker, Jr., described the role of Vang Pao’s pilots in 1972 as follows:

There was no politics involved, no sterile high-tech environment where the converted T-28 trainers from the Second World War were parked. It was honest warring, primitive, a throwback to combat flying in the First World War. The Hmong flyers strapped as many bombs and bullets as they could get on their planes and went out and found North Vietnamese to attack – flight after flight, hour after hour, day after day […] the major part of our close fire support was left to the T-28s.[31]

The steady attrition of Vang Pao’s CIA-backed Hmong army and the slow drawdown of American financial and material support until the 1973 ceasefire, all contributed to the sense that things looked much worse. Since the Pathet Lao and NVA had won in Laos, it was simply a matter of time until the final defeat. In 1973, in one of the coup attempts involving T-28s, after years in exile in Thailand, Laotian General Thao Ma attacked Wattay, near Vientiane, along with other loyal RLAF personnel. Shot down while landing; General Ma was soon after that executed for his part in the coup attempt.[32] Also in 1973, the USAF Ravens withdrew from Laos, which forced Vang Pao to provide his FAC ability via what T-28s were available.[33] By 1974, the CIA withdrew all support, and by 1975, Laos was overrun. Per one source, Vang Pao sent RLAF T-28s on one last attack against a Pathet Lao column even as late as April 1975, just before the collapse.[34] Further south in 1975, the Cambodian Khmer Air Force T-28s flew support for the American withdrawal from Phnom Penh, Operation EAGLE PULL, when only weeks remained for Cambodia.[35]

Header Image: A row of T-28s in Laos. (Source: USAF)

[1] Chinnery, Air Commando, p.73; Ginter, North American T-28 Trojan, pp.54-6.

[2] Interview Notes – Unknown Source – re: Joe Holden, Missions in Vietnam and Laos, ca. October 1998, Folder 01, Box 03, Jan Churchill Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, p.8.

[3] Conboy and Morrison, Shadow War, p.103.

[4] Anthony and Sexton, War in Northern Laos, 1954-1973, pp.109-10.

[5] Initial Debriefing of Klusmann, 02 September 1964, Folder 16, Box 13, George J. Veith Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, p.2.

[6] CHECO Report: U.S. Air Force Search and Rescue in Southeast Asia (1961-1966), 24 October 1966, Folder 09, Box 05, Allen Cates Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, p.34.

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

[8] Conboy and Morrison, Shadow War, p.110.

[9] Current Intelligence Memorandum: Effectiveness of T-28 Strikes in Laos, 26 June 1964, Folder 14, Box 03, Douglas Pike Collection: Unit 01 – Assessment and Strategy, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, pp.1-2.

[10] Conboy and Morrison, Shadow War: The CIA’s Secret War in Laos, p.121.

[11] Interview with Ted Mauldin, Undated, Ted Mauldin Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, pp.69-70.

[12] CHECO Reports: RLG Military Operations and Activities in the Laotian Panhandle, 01 January 1981, Folder 24, Box 01, Contemporary Historical Examination of Current Operations (CHECO) Reports of Southeast Asia (1961-1975), The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, p.27.

[13] Reginald Hathorn, Here There are Tigers: The Secret Air War in Laos, 1968-69 (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2008), pp.45-55.

[14] George J. Marrett, Cheating Death: Combat Air Rescues in Vietnam and Laos (New York: Harper Collins, 2006), p.25.

[15] Boyne, ‘The Plain of Jars,’ p.78; Chinnery, Air Commando, p.201.

[16] Jane Hamilton-Merritt, Tragic Mountains: The Hmong, the Americans, and the Secret Wars for Laos, 1942-1992 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), pp.213-5.

[17] News article – ‘Meo Pilots: Flights Against the Odds,’ No Date, Folder 01, Box 01, Tom Matthews Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University.

[18] Interview with Vang Bee, No Date, Vang Bee Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, p.11.

[19] Danya Hernandez, ‘Hmong Pilots Saluted in Maplewood,’ TwinCities.com Pioneer Press, June 15, 2012.

[20] Interview with Ronald Happersette Lutz, Jr., 05 November 2002, Ronald Happersette (Hap) Lutz, Jr. Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, p.49.

[21]Document 112 – Memorandum from the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon, Sep 2, 1969,’ in Edward C. Keefer and Carolyn Yee (eds.), Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976, Volume VI, Vietnam, January 1969–July 1970 (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 2006).

[22] Bernard C. Nalty, The War against Trucks: Aerial Interdiction in Southern Laos 1968-1972, (Washington D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 2005), p.32.

[23] Anthony and Sexton, War in Northern Laos, 1954-1973, p.322.

[24] Conboy and Morrison, Shadow War: The CIA’s Secret War in Laos, p.264.

[25] Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, ‘US Aid Cut, Laos at Hanoi’s Mercy,’ Milwaukee Sentinel, September 29, 1971.

[26] Kenton Clymer, ‘The War Outside Vietnam: Cambodia and Laos,’ in Andrew Wiest (ed.), Rolling Thunder in a Gentle Land: The Vietnam War Revisited (New York: Osprey Publishing, 2006), p.106; George Herring, American’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975, (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2014), p.353.

[27] John T. Halliday, Flying Through Midnight (New York: St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 2005), p.62.

[28] Greenway, ‘The pendulum of war swings wider in Laos,’ pp.32-3.

[29] News Article – ‘Reds Shell Laotian Outpost,’ 17 February 1971, Folder 01, Box 01, Tom Matthews Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University.

[30] Parker, Codename Mule, p.129.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Conboy and Morrison, Shadow War, pp.406-7.

[33] Dommen, The Indochinese Experience of the French and Americans, p.932.

[34] Conboy and Morrison, Shadow War, p.415.

[35] Albert Grandolini, Tom Cooper, and Troung, ‘Cambodia 1954-1999; Part 2.’ ACIG.org.

2 thoughts on “Supporting the Secret War: T-28s over Laos, 1964-1973 – Part 2: Attack Role

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s