Newsletter: Determined to Do What We Can

A view of the great hall of the Vieng Xai Cave Complex now used as a lecture hall and space for official meetings in the Houaphanh province in Laos (February 2019)

Laos: The Aftermath

From the camera and desk of Don Super         

I enlisted in the U.S. Army Security Agency in March 1968. I was trained at the U.S. State Department Foreign Service Institute to read, write, and speak the Lao language. I was subsequently assigned to Ramasun Station 7th RRFS near Udorn Thani, Thailand, from June 1969 to June 1970 as a Lao linguist/translator. My primary duty was what I came to call “target acquisition,” a task effectively providing the 7th and 13th U.S. Air Force and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) “Secret War” with coordinates for daily bombing missions in Laos. I also helped in the recovery of downed U.S. pilots and crew. Upon my return to the U.S., I was assigned from June 1970 to Sept. 1971 to the National Security Agency, where I was tasked to provide daily situation reports on military activities in Laos to the White House and the Pentagon.

I struggled for decades with the guilt and shame that haunted me concerning my participation in the “Secret War” and its devastating impacts on the Lao people. 

I eventually came across a quote by Clarence Darrow: “As long as the world shall last, there will be wrongs, and if no man objected and no man rebelled, those wrongs would last forever.” I realized then that I had to travel to Laos to witness firsthand the devastating effects of the nine-year bombing campaign. 

From left to right: Tham Piu Cave, Muang Kam, Laos just north of Phonsavan; Bomb craters at the Plain of Jars, site 1, Xieng Khouang, Laos; my friend and fellow Vietnam War veteran John Jones standing at a bomb crater turned into a fish pond at the Vieng Xay Cave Complex (February 2019)

Finally, in February 2019, my good friend and fellow Vietnam veteran, John Jones, and I traveled to the Lao PDR to examine the aftermath nearly fifty years after the final bombing missions.

We planned our itinerary to include visits to the COPE Centre in Vientiane; the Plain of Jars in Xieng Khouang Province; active unexploded ordnance (UXO) removal sites along the Ho Chi Minh Trail; a traditional Hmong village; and the Tham Piu Cave, where an F-4 launched a missile, killing 374 doctors, nurses, patients, and villagers. We traveled along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to Houa Phan Province, Sam Neua, and the Vieng Xai Cave complex that sheltered the Pathet Lao during the bombing. We then went to Luang Prabang to regroup and took a two day “slow boat” trip up the Mekong River to Houei Xai and the “Golden Triangle” area before retiring to Chiang Mai, Thailand.

We had discovered that the “Secret War” has not been adequately addressed. Nearly fifty years after the last bombing mission in Laos, villagers were still being dismembered and killed by the unexploded ordnance (UXO) left behind by our clandestine air operations. The U.S. had dropped two million tons of bombs on a neutral sovereign country the size of the state of Oregon; the equivalent of a bombing mission every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years.  We were stunned to learn that nearly thirty percent of the 270 million cluster munitions that were commonly employed had failed to detonate at the time, leaving around 80 million unexploded cluster bombs littering Laos. Although the U.S. has participated in funding efforts for decades to locate and detonate these munitions, the level of funding is only equivalent to what it had cost to fund ten days of the bombing campaign. Additionally, the fact that the U.S. still has not joined the 2010 Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), an international treaty banning cluster munitions, left us dumbfounded.

The results of being the most heavily bombed country in the history of the world are horrendous. At the war’s end, over two hundred thousand Laotians — civilian and military — had perished, including 30,000 Hmong tribesmen. Nearly twice that number of Laotians were wounded by ground fighting and bombing. Lao refugees totaled 750,000, more than a quarter of the total population. Additionally, more than 700 Americans were killed, nearly all of them CIA operatives, contractors, or U.S. military that had been “sheep dipped” and on loan to the CIA, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), or International Volunteer Services (IVS). Many of these American deaths were not revealed to the public for decades.

We were overwhelmed by the experience and returned home determined to do what we could to spread awareness of the “Secret War” and the ongoing efforts of UXO removal in Lao PDR. John Jones created a documentary video of our travels and observations that may be found on YouTube at “Super Laos 2019” and we began a series of presentations to heighten awareness of a moral obligation to help with the UXO removal efforts in Lao PDR, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Donations were taken and forwarded to the COPE Centre in Vientiane. Future presentations will be scheduled following the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. We will continue working with Legacies of War, the UXO Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives, and our own Washington state legislators to further fund UXO removal efforts.

Click here to watch a video featuring Don and John during their 2019 trip to Laos.