Sunday, May 24, 2020

Ban Laboy Ford: "The Canyon of Death," Laos

This is a report on a place in Laos about which most Americans know nothing, the Ban Laboy Ford, shown in this photo. It crossed a canyon of the Nam Ta Le River, yes, that little river. I knew nothing of it until tipped off in 2011 by Jimmie Butler, an USAF pilot who flew O-1E forward air control missions over and around it many times.

Ban Laboy was one of the three most highly defended targets in central Laos and one of the most heavily bombed by the USAF in the Indochina War.

First, a quick introduction to the geography

When talking about the US-Indochina War, one has to talk about the Ho Chi Minh Trail over which most North Vietnamese Army (NVA) logistics equipment, men and supplies traveled from North Vietnam (NVN) to the war front in the Republic of Vietnam (RVN).

There were three major passes through the Annamite Mountains separating the NVN from Laos: Mu Gia, Ban Karai and Ban Raving.  The NVA moved most of its logistics through these passes into Laos. The only alternatives were by sea or by crossing the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), both very dangerous and unable to support the level of logistics required to fight in the South.

Focus on the Ban Karai Pass. Once the NVA moved through it, they would most often cross the Ban Laboy Ford. It was was a major crossing from North Vietnam (NVN)  into southern Laos, known as the Laotian Panhandle. NVN Route 137 connected to Laotian Route 912 through this pass.

Route 912 in Laos crossed a canyon of the Nam Ta Le River. This crossing was known as the Ban Laboy Ford, shown here.

In a thesis done by Major Gregory T. Banner, USA, entitled, “The war for the Ho Chi Minh Trail,” he wrote:

“... The Laotian panhandle (southern Laos) is not a nice place. It has incredibly difficult terrain, numerous streams and rivers, thick vegetation, and a rain pattern which causes major seasonal variations in trafficability.”

In his paper for the Center for Air Force History entitled, “Interdiction in southern Laos, 1960-1968”, Jacob Van Staaveren wrote this:

“Among the Indochina states, Laos had the harshest physical environment. The monsoon weather virtually assured that any given day, pilots and other crewmembers would encounter rain, drizzle, overcast, or fog. On a clear day they were likely to encounter smoke and haze from native slash-and-burn farming and fires from bombings. The jungle terrain of the mountains and the valleys further obscured much of the route and trail system. These conditions, making so difficult the task of pilots and aircrews in flying combat missions in daytime, compounded the problem in finding and striking targets at night. In addition, the airmen had to contend with a wily enemy who traveled under the cover of darkness and was adept at speedily repairing bombed routes, trails, and bridges; building bypasses; and extending his routes and trails. The airmen also had to comply with a bewildering array of ever-changing air restrictions imposed by higher authorities to minimize the danger of causing civilian casualties and over-escalating the war.”

The Ban Laboy is shown here. It was about 5 miles from the Ban Karai Pass. The Ford itself consisted of a prepared Ford, a cable bridge and a cable ferry-pontoon bridge across the river in Laos. Some pilots referred to it as “The Canyon of Death.” This photo of the Ban Laboy was taken by Bill Tilton in July 1966. In the day Bill was a Cricket 23rd Tactical Air Support Squadron (TASS) O-1 Forward Air Controller (FAC). He was kind enough to send this photo to me along with some maps he had notated. Bill wrote me the following in an e-mail:

"The view is looking south down the back of the neck of the 'Dog's Head.' This feature is the peculiar shape of the river that the fighter pilots could notice from 10,000 feet. We FACs of 1966 never called it that--we were too low to notice that distinctive shape that does look like a dog's head. In this photo the underwater bridge is just before the river turns right at the top of the photo. The road crossed there and on the far bank it made a sharp right turn and went up the hill to the right--you can see that on the map and the photo. In mid-1966 we were just beginning to strike this target and there were only a few craters and flare parachutes lying around. Later it looked worse than the surface of the moon.

"The main reason I took these photos was the cable bridge, near the foreground. These two cables really puzzled us, and I was hoping I could study the photo and figure them out. In more recent times I have learned that it was indeed a bridge--that they laid planks across the cables at night and hid them in the daytime. All the manpower it took to operate things like the Ban Loboy Ford system were that many soldiers we did not have to face in Vietnam, so that may have been the major contribution of our frustrating interdiction efforts!"

Note on the photo you can just make out the two cables running across the river to some sort of housing mechanism to run it located to the right.

General George Keegan,
USAF, the deputy chief of staff, Intelligence, 7th AF, wrote this about the Ban Laboy Ford in 1968:

“The Ban Laboy Ford in Laos links Route 137 with Route 912. During the Southwest Monsoon, from May to November, Route 912 is the enemy’s main road into southern Laos from North Vietnam. 

"For nearly three years, the enemy trucks have utilized an underwater rock causeway to transit the Ban Laboy Ford. Until recently this causeway had never been successfully damaged or fully interdicted.

“Ban Laboy was protected by bad weather ... During July and August, daily radar bombing attacks by fighter bombers were conducted against this Ford without visually observed results. Sensors implanted to the north and south of this Ford confirmed in mid-August that the enemy was having great difficulty moving his trucks across the Ford.”

I commend the book A Certain Brotherhood, by Colonel Jimmie Butler. Jim was a Forward Air Controller (FAC) pilot with the 23rd Tactical Air Control Squadron (TASS) at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base (NKP RTAFB).

Butler wrote the Ban Laboy was one of the three most highly defended targets in central Laos. He also said there was a large karst between the Ford and the NVN border. In his book, he talked of a NVA headquarters hidden in a cave nearby. The area was infested with caves, many used for storage.

Gerry Frazier wrote this about the Ban Laboy:

“The ford itself was pretty simple, but our near-constant bombing with Tacair (tactical Air: fighter aircraft) and B-52s probably really did ‘destroy’
the original ford. But, there were a few choices for re-routing the road to better areas. So the engineers contrived a variety of alternate solutions to keep this particular part of their road system open and functioning for several years, despite practically
 everything we could throw at it.

“Among the alternate solutions was a ferry. To the best of my knowledge, we rarely if ever saw the ferry itself, but we saw things necessary to make it work, and we saw the effects - the trucks kept moving. The HCMT (Ho Chi Minh Trail) basically ran at full capacity during the dry season, but during the rainy season, parts of it were shut down by mud and high water.”

The enemy, attempting to prepare for a major offensive against the RVN, significantly ramped up movement of men and supplies on the Trail in the 1967-1968 dry season. As a result, during the period 1967-1968, when US interdiction against the Ban Karai and near environs was the heaviest, most flights were daylight ones. So the enemy parked during the day, drove at night. The enemy took all kinds of countermeasures to offset the power of American bombing. In response, the C-130 Blind Bat flareships were very active at night along the trail lighting up the skies for air attacks.

On March 31, 1968, LBJ imposed new restrictions on bombing the NVN below 20 degrees latitude, which actually turned out to be 19 degrees, which gave the enemy an extra 60 miles of sanctuary inside the NVN to get to the Trail.

As a result, the 7th AF in Saigon initiated its “Summer Interdiction Campaign” focused on the roads into Laos and the Ban Laboy Ford. That they specifically identified the Ban Laboy as part of the campaign reflects how important a target they felt it was.

This was to be a 30-day campaign. Analysts had concluded that the enemy always launched major logistics efforts prior to a major offensive. The idea here was to prevent what was called the “Third General Offensive.” US planners also knew that during the Southwest Monsoon, from May to November, Route 912 and the Ban Laboy were the enemy’s main road into southern Laos from the NVN. Many of the other roads were useless. 

Six interdiction points were selected for the campaign. The 7th AF considered these “non bypassable” points on the trail, meaning the enemy had to use them. Two such points were on Route 137 and Laotian Route 912 through the Ban Karai Pass and toward the Ban Laboy.

The Campaign began with Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) mainly to support B-52, fighter bomber and photo reconnaissance. 

In his book, Flying from the Black Hole, Robert O. Harder commented:

“By the end of 1967, (B-52) Arc Light (B-52) trips to the north around Mu Gia, Ban Karai Pass, Ban Laboy Ford, and selected other scenic mountain locations were becoming as routine as the air refuelings above the Philippines.”

The B-52s were assigned bombing boxes thought to host major base and assembly areas. Then General Keegan wrote that without the approval of higher authority, the USAF directed the B-52s against “previously invulnerable truck parks, storage areas, and transshipment points, hidden by jungle canopy.” Then interdiction runs by fighters disrupted traffic with a view toward choking a few of the enemy’s vulnerable points. The flow of enemy truck traffic began to decline, so armed reconnaissance sorties were sent in to strike the choke points. Finally, photo reconnaissance missions were employed as well.

After three weeks of such attacks, the enemy was forced to dump its cargo prior to water crossing areas.

On June 14, 1967, Butler and Lt. Jack Little, USAF, flew an O-1E FAC mission to Sector 12, which hosted the Ban Laboy. Butler remarked:

“(Ban Laboy became known as) the most bombed spot on the face of the earth.”

By the end of August, Routes 137 and 15 were closed 50 percent of the time. The passes were in some places turned into gravel pits, which, when struck by the September rains, turned the passes into difficult mud roads. From September through November Route 137 was closed more than 80 percent of the time. The major interdiction points were dealt quite lethal blows. So was the Ban Laboy in Laos.

The USAF planted sensors north and south of the Ford to measure traffic flow and confirmed that by mid-August the enemy was finding it very hard to move traffic through the Ford. Quite often they dumped their supplies north of the Ford and returned to NVN. The USAF estimated the enemy had piled up some 8,000 tons of supplies in truck parks just north of the Ford.

On September 18, 1968, the air campaign to destroy the Ban Laboy Ford complex began with 18 B-52 and 12 F-105 fighter-bomber sorties. They destroyed the pontoon bridge and severely damaged the cable bridge. But the main ford remained operational. Continued bombing attacks from September 20 through October 1 still were unable to destroy it.

On October 1, 1968 30 B-52s dropped 900 tons of bombs against the Ban Laboy complex, reported 73 secondary explosions, ranging from 5-20 times normal size in that area. They employed a bomb train of 780 feet rather than the normal 4,500 ft., and hit the ford directly. A bomb train is the distance in which the bombs impact; 4,500 ft. bomb train would be considered carpet bombing with no specific target in mind, while 780 ft. would be targeted against a pinpoint target. The B-52s destroyed two-thirds of the underwater causeway that had been working for the enemy for three years, and on October 2 F-105s came in and destroyed the other third employing 2,000 lb. bombs.

On October 12, B-52 sorties bombed truck parks and storage areas around the Ford. More sorties on October 16 using a single aiming point destroyed the repaired cable bridge and interdicted the Ford and its approaches. Following attacks destroyed road and repair machines and storage areas. From September 18 through October 26, B-52s flew 93 sorties against the complex. 

The Ban Laboy Ford was closed, and remained so for 30 days.

Between September 18 and October 2, over two million pounds of ordnance were delivered to what was now being called the Ban Laboy Ford Strategic Complex. One can only imagine a truck backup and traffic jam like this. The enemy moved in two battalions of engineers but persistent harassment attacks day and night, often using 260-pound proximity fuzed bomb clusters, severely inhibited their progress. 

The enemy was now forced to build a bypass crossing the river to the west, which consumed considerable manpower and time. 

On March 1, 1969, Major Wendell Kelly and his co-pilot 1 Lt. Virgil Meroney were flying their F-4D out of the 433 TFS at Ubon RTAFB, Callsign “Sherman 01,” in a flight of two targeted against a storage area and suspected vehicles moving through the jungle out of the Ban Karai. On his final pass, Sherman 01 was hit and went down, just six miles from the Ban Laboy.

The area was described as completely in enemy control and no search and rescue (SAR) was attempted.

I'll conclude here. A friend, Chris Corbett, motorcycles around Laos and has been working hard to map the Ho Chi Minh Trail. He has been to the Ban Laboy a couple of times, the most recent trip in December 2012. He sent me some photos he took. Here are two.

 A motorcycle tour group rider went to the Ban Laboy Ford in 2018-2019. He posted this next photo.

Life goes on.

Editor's note: I have not been able to find a credible accounting of USAF losses flying missions against the Ban Laboy. One would think this would be readily available given the fliers called it "The Canyon of Death." Since they ascribed that description to it, I will accept that the losses, either killed in action, wounded in action, or captured-missing in action were high. The thought has also occurred to me that maybe they meant Ban Laboy was a Canyon of Death for the enemy. I don't know.

I do know this. The USAF's air interdiction campaign over the Ho Chi Minh Trail damaged the enemy, but did not destroy his ability to move incalculable amounts of men and supplies over the trail, and did not break his will to fight on. The USAF campaign did scare the hell out of the enemy to be sure. But he fought on all the way to April 1975 when he took Saigon and the US evacuated. Incredibly, Secretary of Dense Robert McNamara had accepted that air interdiction was not going to work in 1966. Nonetheless, he moved to expand the war.

There are many reasons why the USAF interdiction flights were not as effective as hoped. Many have studied the problem in great detail. As a retired USAF and Indochina War veteran, it hurts me to acknowledge all of this. I'll close by saying the men who flew these missions were and are among the most brave and courageous men our country has grown. I salute them all. They experienced considerable challenges, but they kept on coming back. They fought throughout with great valor, such valor I lack the words and the talent to describe. God bless them all.

Monday, May 11, 2020

"No compromise. No rationalization. No Hesitation. Fly the mission. Now!"

"No compromise. No rationalization. No Hesitation. Fly the mission. Now!"

This was the creed of Major Charles L. "Combat" Kelly, viewed by many as the founder and inspirational leader of the world renowned "Dust Offs," the men and women of Army military medical evacuation helicopters, the air ambulances. Their stories are incredibly inspirational. Their courage and steadily improving tactics have reduced deaths among those wounded on the battlefield almost exponentially since WWII, to where today, about 85 percent of our wounded in Iraq survive. MSgt. Stan Hutchson, a Vietnam vet, wrote a poem entitled, simply, "Dustoff," and it opens like this:

"They come in fast and furious. Sliding in over the top of a tree. A better sight on all this earth. Believe me, you’ll never see."

"Dustoff to strike force. Ready your wounded. ETA (Estimated time of arrival) 60 seconds from your LZ (landing zone). We're coming in."

Vietnam: the 57th Medical Detachment (Air Ambulance), and Combat Kelly

Helicopter medevacs in Vietnam began early in the war. Recall that in the early days of that war, the South Vietnamese did most of the fighting and the US provided mostly advice, training and support, such as in this rescue.

The first full-fledged aeromedical evacuation unit sent to Vietnam was the 57th Medical Detachment (Air Ambulance-AA), arriving in Nha Trang, Vietnam on April 26, 1962 from Fort Meade, Maryland.

In January 1963, the 57th was moved to Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base (AFB) outside Saigon. It later split operations between Tan Son Nhut and Pleiku in South Vietnam's central highlands, dividing its UH-1 fleet between the two bases.

UH-1 Iroquois "Huey", photo courtesy of Global Security
As an aside, the 57th was also the first unit to use the UH-1 "Iroquois" helicopter for medevac in actual combat. The name "Iroquois" never really caught on.

This ship was more fondly known as the "Huey." Before it left Vietnam in 1973, the 57th had evacuated more than 100,000 patients within the combat zone.

There are several elements of history tied up in the 57th crucial to understanding US military helicopter medevac history.

First, let's introduce you to the 57th's commander, Major Charles L. "Combat" Kelly.

He was born in a small town in Georgia in 1925. At the age of 15, he ran off and joined the Army, serving in Europe. He came home, finished school, including college, became a high school principal, got out of that, joined the Army as an enlisted man and then became an officer. He served in Korea with the 50th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance - HA). This is where he earned his medevac spurs.

Following Korea, Capt. Kelly would get promoted to major and then go off to Vietnam, taking command of the 57th. I am not sure of the date, but believe it was in 1963.

In any event, one of the first things Kelly noted was that the 57th had no radio callsign of its own. There was a vacant call sign, “Dust Off,” in the operations instructions so Kelly grabbed it unofficially and started using it.

At the time, the 57th covered Vietnam with five UH-1 helicopters, and they were old ones.

“Dust Off” became not only the callsign used by all Army aeromedical evacuation flights (except the 1st Cavalry, which used “Medevac”), but its use told everyone that when they heard that call used on the radio, it was an aeromedical flight.

Soldiers in the heat of battle need only remember the callsign “Dust Off” when radioing in for help. They knew they would get the desired response, any time, anywhere.

The callsign "Dust Off" also became the nickname for development of the concept of operations for such operations that blossomed throughout the Vietnam war.

"Combat” Kelly, besides being a tremendous leader by example, employed some verbiage that soon became the motto of many in the medevac business.

Patrick Brady, a Dustoff pilot who would rise to major general and receive the Medal of Honor,  wrote:

"(Capt. Kelly) said that if we were to save Dustoff (as a callsign and nickname) we had to prove we could rescue patients better than anyone else. He led the way, and we tried to follow. Our helicopters were moved to the areas of heaviest combat ... Up to this time there had been little night flying. Reaction time is immeasurable in life-saving. Why must a patient wait for sunup when helicopters fly just as well – actually, better – at night, and the crew is safer from enemy fire?

"Our casualty load increased significantly, breaking all previous records. Kelly became a legend, flying up to 150 hours a month. Entire villages turned out for his pickups, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer began covering him. Because our night missions were unprecedented, many actually thought that Dustoff was specially trained for night flying. One commander ordered a study into how we did it, which concluded that night operations were too dangerous. But Dustoff defeated those dangers every night.

"Dustoff pilots, of course, were not specially trained. But through repetition, we became specialists in combat pickups at night, in weather and under fire. Through trial and error, we found ways to get patients with an alacrity previously unknown. If we encountered a situation beyond our capability we could call Kelly, but we never left a patient in the field; the welfare of the patient was our universe. 

"We were a free-enterprise operation. Individual initiative ruled. We determined the risk (although I don’t remember ever hearing that word) by launching immediately and flying to the site. We had our own radio frequency and call sign and dealt directly with the grunts at the pickup site. There were no middlemen. Although we had three categories of patients – urgent, priority and routine – we responded to all calls instantly if we had the resources. This is the only way to prevent overclassification. It was unheard of to use two ships – a “gaggle” – or to waste time waiting for gunships except in extreme situations. 

"Area security was undefinable, and a waste of time, between grunt and crew. We set a simple definition: stand up and help us load, and we will come in."

On July 1, 1964, he arrived at a very hot area to pick up the injured, and came under intense hostile fire. He was ordered to withdraw several times, and responded that he would depart “when I have your wounded.” That idea quickly became the unofficial motto of all Dust Offs.

In the minds of most Dust Off pilots and crew who flew with or knew of Combat Kelly, he is a legend. There is much written about him, all worth reading if you wish to be uplifted by the incredible devotion to his fellow man displayed by this short guy from Georgia.

Kelly was killed in a Dust Off mission on July 1, 1964, shot through the heart by ground fire. His chopper went down, his crew made it out, and retrieved his body. This flight had a US physician aboard and he declared Major Kelly dead on the scene.

A group of Dust Offs, who had heard Kelly was hit, rushed to the area, only to learn they were too late. They completed his mission and rescued the patients Kelly had gone to get. My information is that Major Kelly was the 149th American to die in combat in Vietnam.

From what I have read, Major Kelly's impact on the Dust Off crews around the world to follow was enormous. I see a phrase attributed to him that seems to fit the man, the mission, and the crews who flew before him and after him:

"No compromise. No rationalization. No Hesitation. Fly the mission. Now!