#BookReview – CIA Station D: Area 51 – The Complete Illustrated History of the CIA’s Station D at Area 51

#BookReview – CIA Station D: Area 51 – The Complete Illustrated History of the CIA’s Station D at Area 51

T.D. Barnes, CIA Station D: Area 51 – The Complete Illustrated History of the CIA’s Station D at Area 51. Danbury, CT: Begell House, 2021. Photographs. Appendices. Bibliography. Index. 590 pp. HBK.

Reviewed by Dr Michael W. Hankins

cia-station-d-area-51

Area 51 has long been a source of fascination, intrigue, and conspiracy theories. It has also inspired popular culture from television and film to 2019’s widely publicised (but barely attended) Facebook-based attempt to ‘storm the site. However, those familiar with the military aviation world have long known that Area 51 is little more than a US Air Force (USAF) (formerly Central Intelligence Agency, CIA) facility where experimental aircraft are tested. This includes everything from the U-2 spy plane to the F-117 stealth fighter. T.D. Barnes, who worked with the CIA during its formative years at Area 51, attempts to set the record straight with this new book covering the CIA’s activities in the Nevada desert during the early and mid-Cold War. The result is a profoundly informative work that reveals new stories and will please enthusiasts. Still, the size of the book and its challenging organisation might be overwhelming for casual readers.

From the early origins of Station D, which only much later became known as Area 51, Barnes traces the major CIA aviation programs based there. These include the U-2, the A-12 (and associated Blackbird ‘family’ aircraft of the YF-12, SR-71, and M-21), and the MiG exploitation programs that evaluated and flew captured Soviet aircraft. Some side projects associated with these significant programs are explored as well, most notably Project PALLADIUM, which provided valuable intelligence on Soviet radar capabilities. The details of these programs will already be known to many readers. For example, the Blackbird family programs are well documented by works such as Paul Crickmore’s Lockheed Blackbird: Beyond the Secret Missions (revised edition, 2016) or Richard Graham’s The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird (2015). However, Barnes’ work reveals fascinating new details about even these well-covered topics. Barnes presents both familiar and new stories from the perspective of the CIA rather than from the USAF or industry contractors. The Palladium program is particularly interesting, involving complicated, world-ranging plots to send fake signals in the direction of the Soviet Union to see what their radars could detect. Barnes does a good job of tracing the story from field teams collecting information to how information was analysed and used in technological and strategic decision-making at the highest levels.

A12radartesting
A scale model of an A-12 prepared for radar cross section measurements at ‘Area 51,’ c. 1959. (Source: Wikimedia)

This fresh perspective is also wide-ranging. At times, Barnes zooms out to discuss broad historical topics and focuses on minute details of a particular program. As a result, readers will find a wealth of immense detail, as well as many photographs, some of which have not been published before (although some of the photos are of low resolution and appear pixelated on the page). Although technology is often at the centre of these stories, Barnes also sheds interesting light on the institutional histories; seeing the organisational evolution and institutional rivalries from the CIA’s perspective is an interesting and welcome lens on this material. For example, Barnes traces the various tensions between the CIA and the USAF, from high command to individual personnel.

The individual level is where the book really shines. Barnes gives a true, ‘on the ground’ account of many of these programs, not only showing how the CIA’s efforts affected the Cold War, but depicting what it felt like to live there, to work there, and the realities of day-to-day life inside a top-secret facility working on advanced, world-changing programs. The Blackbirds may have been top-of-the-line, sleek, space-age aircraft. Still, Barnes contrasts that with stories about the trouble getting clearances and badges, the type of housing available on the station, the type of bars that employees frequented, and the games with which personnel and pilots amused themselves. Whether he is telling a detailed technological history or something personal, the focus is on the details of these stories – there is no large historical analysis, nor a broad historical argument made in this book.

4477th_Test_and_Evaluation_Squadron_MiG-21_in_flight
A MiG-21F-13 flown by United States Navy and Air Force Systems Command during HAVE DOUGHNUT in 1968. (Source: Wikimedia).

As interesting as the material is, some readers have a few barriers to entry. The first is the whopping price tag of US$149. Although this cost might be too high for some readers, it is worth noting the amount of material one gets for the price. The book is heavy and massive, almost unwieldy. It contains nearly 600 oversized, double-columned pages, each of which is almost twice the dimensions of a typical print book. In terms of word count, this is probably about three typical books’ worth of material, which might help to justify the cost for some readers.Historians looking for a thesis will not find one, as the work does not seek to make a historical argument. Instead, it is focused on detailed accounts of individual stories. Furthermore, although the book is packed with detail, the immense amount of material might be difficult for some readers to navigate. In addition, it is written in a meandering style, which is sometimes charming, but at other times leads to repetition. In some cases, stories are told and retold, sometimes more than once. Usually, the retellings of stories contain slightly different emphases, but periodically sentences are repeated verbatim, and in some cases, photographs are reused. There are no footnotes and only a brief bibliography. Except for a few instances where a document is referenced directly in the text, readers may have trouble finding sources for information or quotes.

In conclusion, enthusiasts of the U-2, A-12/SR-71, and captured MiG programs will likely find much to like about this book, including newly discovered details and fresh images from a new perspective. Although it is a bit less accessible to casual readers, researchers will find plenty to pore over here.

Dr Michael Hankins is the Curator for US Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps post-World War II Aviation at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and the author of Flying Camelot: The F-15, the F-16, and the Weaponisation of Fighter Pilot Nostalgia (2021). He is also the Podcast Editor at From Balloons to Drones. He is a former Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool, and former Instructor of Military History at the US Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD in history from Kansas State University in 2018 and his master’s in history from the University of North Texas in 2013. He has a web page here and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.

Header image: A Lockheed M-21 carrying Lockheed D-21 drone in flight. (Source: Wikimedia)

#ResearchResources – Recent Articles and Books (January 2022)

#ResearchResources – Recent Articles and Books (January 2022)

Editorial note: In this series, From Balloons to Drones highlights research resources available to researchers. Contributions range from discussions of research at various archival repositories to highlighting new publications. As part of this series, we are bringing you a monthly precis of recent articles and books published in air power history. This precis will not be exhaustive but will highlight new works published in the preceding month. Publication dates may vary around the globe and are based on those provided on the publisher’s websites. If you would like to contribute to the series, please contact our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney, at airpowerstudies@gmail.com or via our contact page here.

Articles

M. Abbott and J. Bamforth, ‘Determining the reasons for the failure of British aircraft manufacturers to invest in Australia’s industry, 1934–1941,’ Australian Economic History Review (2021). https://doi.org/10.1111/aehr.12235 

The aim of the article is to identify the factors that prevented British aircraft manufacturers from investing in Australia in the second half of the 1930s, a period when rearmament was creating demand for aircraft. The article looks at several unsuccessful proposals by British manufacturers to establish factories in Australia to build aircraft in the late 1930s, with additional attention being given to one proposal in particular. There is evidence that the Australian Government favoured the creation of an Australian-owned industry building aircraft under licence to foreign manufacturers, and it was this factor that largely deterred British investors.

Marc J. Alsina, ‘Aviation for the People: Class and State Aviation in Perón’s “New Argentina,” 1946–55,’ Technology and Culture 63, no. 1 (2022).

This article investigates the culture and politics of aviation in mid-twentieth-century Argentina under Juan D. Perón’s populist government. For enthusiasts around the world, aviation seemed poised for the long-prophesized “Air Age” transformations. Most emphasized the middle-class or elite nature of this quintessentially modern industry and its customers. Recent aviation scholarship in Europe and the United States has thus focused on affluent passengers or aircraft owners as the consumers of aviation technology. But this article reveals that Peronist Argentina implemented a massive political aviation program aimed at elevating socioeconomic conditions for the working classes. State media show that the authorities harnessed aviation as a technopolitical tool to both represent and enact their vision for a “New Argentina” by providing “dignified” work for the lower classes.

Xiaoming Zhang, ‘High-Altitude Duel: The CIA’s U-2 Spy Plane Overflights and China’s Air Defense Force, 1961-1968,’ Journal of Military History 86, no. 1 (2022).

During the 1960s, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s U-2 spy planes, piloted by Chinese Nationalist airmen from Taiwan, flew routinely over the Chinese mainland monitoring the Chinese nuclear weapons program; the overflights also demonstrated Beijing’s military weakness and inability to control its airspace. In spite of having only a few Soviet-made surface-to-air missile systems, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force was convinced that human factors, especially agility in strategy, operations, and tactics, could overcome a superior enemy. Although much remains secret, sources now available provide new insights into this secret Cold War history. Moreover, as the Chinese claimed themselves, these experiences remain valuable for China’s military response to war.

Books

Kevin Wright, We Were Never There – Volume 2: CIA U-2 Asia and Worldwide Operations 1957-1974 (Warwick: Helion and Company, 2022).

Devised by Kelly Johnson and operated by the CIA from 1956-74, the U-2 is the world’s most famous ‘spyplane.’ It flew at unprecedented altitudes and carried the most sophisticated sensors available, all in the greatest secrecy.

The second volume of We Were Never There concentrates on the period of operational missions mainly across Asia from 1957-74. The book utilises a large number of declassified documents to explore some of the remaining secrets of these missions.

The book starts by looking at some of the missions conducted by the CIA’s Detachment ‘C’ U-2s against key targets in the Soviet Far East up to Mayday 1960. It moves on to explore in detail the overflights of the Peoples Republic of China by Nationalist Chinese pilots in conjunction with the CIA. In particular, the study of Project TACKLE looks at efforts to gain intelligence on the PRC’s expansive nuclear programme from the early 1960s. This is supplemented with details of Taiwanese/CIA operations against North Korea and its Yongbon nuclear reactor. It presents target images and reveals detailed routes for many of these overflights that have not been publicly seen before.

Whilst the USAF took the lead in operations against Cuba, the book explores the earlier CIA missions against Cuba during the Bay of Pigs landings and the missile crisis. Another chapter explores the efforts to equip the U-2 for operations from US Navy aircraft carriers. Detachment G, based at Edwards AFB, had a worldwide contingency role, able to quickly deploy anywhere in the world. It undertook missions targets in Tibet, the PRC, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, British Guiana, Venezuela and elsewhere.

A section of the book examines the development of the U-2R, a major update of the original aircraft, making it larger and much more capable. Its handling characteristics and comparisons with the U-2C are explored with the help of interviews with two former USAF U-2 pilots who flew both models of the aircraft.

The final chapter looks at the return of the U-2 to Europe, in particular the UK, for training missions from the late 1960s. It covers details on operations over the middle east monitoring ceasefire arrangements between Israel and its neighbours in 1970 and 1973. It ends with the phasing out of Agency U-2 operations, the closure of projects TACKLE and JACKSON and an evaluation of the U-2’s contribution to aerial intelligence collection.

Bill Yenne, America’s Few: Marine Aces of the South Pacific (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2022).

America’s Few delves into the history of US Marine Corps aviation in World War II, following the feats of the Corps’ top-scoring aces in the skies over Guadalcanal. Marine Corps aviation began in 1915, functioning as a self-contained expeditionary force. During the interwar period, the support of USMC amphibious operations became a key element of Marine aviation doctrine, and the small force gradually grew. But in December 1941 came the rude awakening. Within hours of Pearl Harbor, heroic Marine aviators were battling the Japanese over Wake Island.

In the South Pacific, the aviators of the US Marine Corps came out of the shadows to establish themselves as an air force second to none. In the summer of 1942, when Allied airpower was cobbled together into a single unified entity – nicknamed ‘the Cactus Air Force’ – Marine Aviation dominated, and a Marine, Major General Roy Geiger, was its commander. Of the twelve Allied fighter squadrons that were part of the Cactus Air Force, eight were USMC squadrons. It was over Guadalcanal that Joe Foss emerged as a symbol of Marine aviation. As commander of VMF-121, he organized a group of fighter pilots that downed 72 enemy aircraft; Foss himself reached a score of 26. Pappy Boyington, meanwhile, had become a Marine aviator in 1935. Best known as the commander of VMF-214, he came into his own in late 1943 and eventually matched Foss’s aerial victory score.

Through the parallel stories of these two top-scoring fighter aces, as well as many other Marine aces, such as Ken Walsh (21 victories), Don Aldrich (20), John L. Smith (19), Wilbur Thomas (18.5), and Marion Carl (18.5), many of whom received the Medal of Honor, acclaimed aviation historian Bill Yenne examines the development of US Marine Corps aviation in the South Pacific.

Supporting the Secret War: T-28s over Laos, 1964-1973 – Part 3: Other Roles and Conclusion

Supporting the Secret War: T-28s over Laos, 1964-1973 – Part 3: Other Roles and Conclusion

By Jeff Schultz

Editor’s Note: In the final instalment 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 other roles, such as reconnaissance. Parts One and Two can be found here and here.

Other Roles

The T-28 performed a range of other missions such as search and rescue (SAR), reconnaissance, night interdiction, observation and leaflet dropping. Early SAR missions sometimes featured T-28s, flown by Air America crews depending on the situation. They were often the closest assets available depending on where in Laos the pilot was shot down; he had a ‘better chance of being rescued by […] Air America.’[1] Working in conjunction with Air America T-28s, unarmed helicopters rescued some downed American pilots including US Navy Commander Doyle W. Lynn in June 1964.[2] Air America continued to fly T-28s in support of SAR missions into the late sixties, often flying as overhead cover.[3] In 1968, Air America helicopters rescued some American pilots, such as A-1 Skyraider pilots Lt. Colonel William Buice, and Major Howard Jennings, with perhaps 30 total U.S. military pilots rescued in Laos and North Vietnam.[4] T-28s also covered the insertion of road watch teams in Military Region IV (MR IV), which attempted to radio information about traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.[5]

Reconnaissance missions were another mission flown by a few of the T-28s provided to the RLAF, as ‘RT-28s,’ with mounted cameras under the fuselage.[6] The RT-28s were used to take photographs while on recon flights and provided the RLAF with a modest ability to conduct their reconnaissance. According to a report from 1965, the need to process the RT-28 mission film needed to be given higher priority.[7] Night Recon missions were considered but then dismissed in favour of ‘Yankee Team’ reconnaissance planes, which were evaluated as more effective at night.[8] A Thai recon pilot was shot down in an RT-28 in August 1964 near Phou Khout ridge in the Plain of Jars.[9] Another example from 1964 showed that even when three RT-28s were available to the RLAF, only one was flyable due to lack of parts or other serviceability issues.[10] USAF Captain Jack Drummond, assigned to help the RLAF via PROJECT 404 based at Pakse and Savannakhet, related one case where photographs of a Chinese-built road in north-west Laos were needed. He went to Udorn, Thailand and using an RT-28 from the base, eventually flew the recon mission himself to get it done.[11]

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

The war in Laos changed once the American ‘Raven’ FAC (forward air control) pilots, previously known under the callsign ‘Butterfly,’ got involved in 1966 directing strikes in Cessna O-1s, U-17s and T-28s, which significantly improved the situation in favour of the US aims.[12] Ravens, according to a contemporary:

[w]ere all six-month volunteer air force types, civilian clothes, discharged from the service for six months and then automatically became back into the Air Force after six months […][13]

Drawing out the enemy in a war of attrition to be destroyed by air power worked, at least briefly, in Laos in 1967 when the careful use of Ravens, RLAF T-28s, Douglas A-26 ‘Nimrods’ and other American air support contributed to defeat repeated NVA assaults on Na Khang and assisted with forcing the withdrawal of the NVA 316th Division.[14] Another Raven, First Lieutenant Jim Lemon, recalled:

[w]orking under low cloud cover, using Lao T-28s, American A-1s and T-28 Trojans from NKP [Nakhon Phanom] we killed three trucks and a bulldozer.[15]

Some of the Ravens, contrary to orders, also flew combat missions with T-28s such as USAF Major Tom Richards in 1968.[16] Another Raven, USAF Colonel Joseph Chestnut, was shot down and killed flying a T-28 in October 1970 near Luang Prabang, Laos.[17]

By 1966 another use of T-28s was for night interdiction by the ‘Zorros’ of 606th Air Commando Squadron of the 56th Air Commando Wing, which attacked the Ho Chi Minh Trail at night from neighbouring Thailand.[18] Their mission was to destroy trucks and other targets of opportunity moving along the trail.[19] The ‘Zorros’ benefited from the T-28’s slower speed and accuracy to strike vehicle convoys or other objectives, similar to what the A-26 Nimrods had done.[20] By 1968, the ‘Zorro’ AT-28s were replaced with Douglas A-1 Skyraiders, ending this chapter of the T-28 involvement.[21] Coming budget cuts as part of Vietnamization would reduce the ability to interdict the trail even more.[22]

Lastly, a few examples exist of the T-28 used for psychological warfare leaflet drops, which led to some Pathet Lao defections, according to a 1964 report from Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Green.[23] Another source mentions the use of T-28s for leaflet drops and some leaflet drops took place in conjunction with SAR missions.[24]

Conclusion

An unsung trainer turned fighter-bomber went on to be one of the most significant propeller aircraft in Laos from 1964-1973, even on to 1975. It served all over in the strike, recce, and SAR roles as a reliable, simple platform to bring the fight to the Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese Army. T-28s bombed the Ho Chi Minh Trail and flew with Lao, Hmong, Thai and American pilots. T-28s met the needs for a COIN aircraft that allowed a relative novice to become a skilled aviator, such as in the cases of Ly Lue, Vang Sue and Vang Bee. Some of the last planes flying in Cambodia in 1975 were T-28s of the Khmer Air Force. The venerable trainer was, therefore, active from 1961 in South Vietnam all the way to the fall of Laos and Cambodia in 1975.[25] The T-28s alone, however, could not change the outcome in Laos, much as American airpower alone did not defeat the North Vietnamese. In his end-of-tour report in 1969, Major General Seith, Deputy Commander, 7/13 Air Force, summed up the T-28s role:

USAF and the RLAF T-28 force have performed remarkably well in defense of friendly ground positions, in providing close air support for offensive moves, and in destroying enemy supplies, equipment and bivouac areas.  But air forces cannot substitute for ground force; they can only supplement them and increase their fire power and maneuverability.[26]

Jeff Schultz teaches history and political science at Luzerne County Community College in Pennsylvania. He has an MA in History from Central Michigan University. His research deals with a broad range of historical periods such as the American Civil War, World War II, and Vietnam-era.

Header Image: An unmarked North American T-28D Trojan. This aircraft was probalby transferred to Laos in 1964. It was an USAF aircraft maintained by Air America at Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base, but flown under the command of the USAF Attaché, Vientiane, Laos. It was transferred to the Royal Laotian Air Force in February 1973, its eventual fate being unknown.

[1] Joe F. Leeker, Air America in Laos I – Humanitarian Work, Part I, CAT/Air America Archive at the Eugene McDermott Library, University of Texas at Dallas, p. 54.

[2] Anthony and Sexton, War in Northern Laos, 1954-1973, p. 111.

[3] Leeker, Air America in Laos I, p. 47.

[4] Marrett, Cheating Death, pp. 84-6; Leeker, Air America in Laos I, p. 53.

[5] 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. 40.

[6] Adcock, T-28 Trojan in Action, p. 37.

[7] Project CHECO Southeast Asia Report #254 – Continuing Report: YANKEE TEAM – May 1964-June 1965, 08 March 1966, Folder 0201, Box 0044, Vietnam Archive Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, p. 16.

[8] Ibid, p. 26.

[9] Conboy and Morrison, Shadow War, p. 112.

[10] Anthony and Sexton, War in Northern Laos, 1954-1973, pp. 141-2.

[11] Chinnery, Air Commando, p. 202, 206.

[12] Short Story – USAF – re: 1960 to summer of 1962, 06 November 1997, Folder 01, Box 03, Jan Churchill Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, p. 2; Quincy, Harvesting Pa Chey’s Wheat, p. 278.

[13] Interview with Larry Clum, 29 February 2000, Larry Clum Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, pp. 22-3.

[14] Quincy, Harvesting Pa Chey’s Wheat, pp. 278-9.

[15] Ralph Wetterhahn, ‘Ravens of Long Tieng,’ Air & Space Magazine, (November 1998), p. 3.

[16] Christopher Robbins, The Ravens: The Men Who Flew in America’s Secret War in Laos, p. 59, 167.

[17] ‘Chestnut, Joseph Lyons Biography,’ P.O.W. Network.

[18] Chinnery, Air Commando, pp. 183-4.

[19] Hamilton-Merritt, Tragic Mountains, pp. 149-50.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Bernard C. Nalty, The War against Trucks: Aerial Interdiction in Southern Laos 1968-1972, (Washington D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 2005), pp. 28-9.

[22] Lewis Sorley, A Better War: the Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam, (New York: Harcourt Inc., 1999), p. 177.

[23] Marshall Green, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, ‘Immediate Actions in the Period Prior to Decision,’ (Part VIII of Working Group Outline), 7 November 1964, The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition, Volume 3, pp. 606-10.

[24] Joe F. Leeker, Air America: North American T-28s, CAT/Air America Archive at the Eugene McDermott Library, University of Texas at Dallas, p. 65.

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

[26] Barrel Roll 1968-73 : An Air Campaign in Support of National Policy,  01 September 1996, Folder 04, Box 07, Glenn Helm Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, p. 45.

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

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

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]

Jeff Schultz teaches history and political science at Luzerne County Community College in Pennsylvania. He has an MA in History from Central Michigan University. His research deals with a broad range of historical periods such as the American Civil War, World War II, and Vietnam-era.

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.

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

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

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]

Jeff Schultz teaches history and political science at Luzerne County Community College in Pennsylvania. He has an MA in History from Central Michigan University. His research deals with a broad range of historical periods such as the American Civil War, World War II, and Vietnam-era.

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.