A Veteran’s View from the Sky

Posted: Nov 6, 2020

From the desk and camera of Mike Burton:


Upper Left: This was taken at the Officers Club at Nakhon Phanom in 1967 or 68. The men lined up are all pilots assigned to the 56th Air Commando Wing and are being given medals for air action on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, either air rescue or attack missions. I am on the far right reading the citations which I had “sanitized” to make sure that Laos or any words that would identify the mission as being there were expunged. Upper right; A Hmong family near one of the LIMA sites in Laos. Lower Right: A T-38 fighter bomber used by the Royal Lao Air force from bases in Thailand for truck destruction raids against North Vietnam supply lines on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. Lower left: Photo Captain Mike Burton (second from the left) on an inspection tour of one of the villages in Laos. Accompanied by a Thai driver and Lao guide and a member of the Embassy Staff in Vientiane. 

From December 1966 until December 1968, I was assigned to air bases in Thailand. The primary mission of the units to which I was assigned was to stop the flow of personnel and materials coming from North Vietnam through the “Ho Chi Minh Trail” to South Vietnam. The trail was located almost entirely in Laos.


My assignment to the 56th Air Commando Wing at Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, and the 7/13 Air Force Headquarters in Udn, Thailand, happened through a mistake in my United States Air Force paperwork.


At this time, I was a 26-year-old, newly-promoted captain who knew little more about the “war” in Vietnam than the majority of Americans at that time. I bought into the notion that there was a need to hold the line against the possible domino effect of a Communist takeover across all of Asia if the U.S. didn’t stop them in Vietnam.


My naivety went back to my youth, growing up with a John Wayne view of America. We were the good guys, always on the right side and exercising our power only to ensure democracy and peace.


Within a few months, I was disabused of those notions.


I was shipped to Saigon with classified orders that simply said I was to receive further instruction once I checked in to the Tan Son Nhut Air Base. That being done, I found myself in Northern Thailand at a base that was still under construction, but was called Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base. The American commander was Colonel Harry Aderholt, a legendary officer of sorts.* I had heard of him while in training and learned over time that he lived up to his legend.


The day after I reported in, I returned to the Colonel’s office to see what he had “found” for me to do. He turned to a large map on the wall and pointed to an area on it. I had no idea where or what he was pointing to, except that the area was southwest of Hanoi and northwest of Saigon. “This is where we fly our missions, all of them in Laos.”


I had heard of Laos and in my head could locate the country, but had no idea how it fit into the war effort in Vietnam, nor the position of the U.S. in our efforts in Southeast Asia. I spent the next few 12-13-hour days in the Intelligence trailer trying to come to grips with a myriad collection of maps, aerial photos, and conflicting fragmentary orders that stretched from Washington, D.C., to Vientiane.


All of these documents were marked Top Secret and I had been required to sign a document stating that I would at no time reveal the location nor the activities of the Wing or its subordinate units, not even to immediate family members. Actually, any U.S. personnel assigned to that base was required to sign a similar document — mine just went into greater detail. As I clawed my way through this pile of documents, often asking questions and trying to coordinate the messages with maps, certain names appeared more often than others.


Photo of Major General Vang Pao (right) with USAF Colonel Roland McCoskrie at Long Thien, Laos in 1968. McCoskrei was commander of the 56th ACW and General Vang Pao was commander of the Lao Special Guerilla Forces of the Royal Lao Army. Long Thien was the main CIA-built base in Central Laos.  

Then there was Vang Pao — Major General Vang Pao. His name appeared on most documents. He was the head of the Special Guerilla Unit Army, which, I discovered, had been recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency and was based at Long Tieng in Xaisomboun Province. The base was constructed by the CIA and at one time grew to be the second-largest city in Laos, although its name never appeared on a map.


If all this sounds a little crazy, it was. My three-day emergence in those intel trailers — while not making things clear — did make me wonder just what the U.S. was trying to do in Laos. The U.S. did not sign the 1954 accords, but had signed the 1962 accords. In those second accords, the U.S. agreed to the neutrality of Laos and pledged to not interfere directly or indirectly in the affairs of Laos.


I was about to find out just the depth to which the U.S. and the North Vietnamese were in violation of the 1962 Accords the next day as I took my first flight orientation “upcountry” — the euphemism for any mission into Laos.


My first flight over Laos was in a T-28 Zorro, a U.S. Navy two-seated Trainer that had been converted for interdiction missions on the Trail. The mission was uneventful. No targets were spotted, so we returned to base. But one thing should be noted: about halfway back and in an unspecified area, the pilot jettisoned the Cluster Bomb Units that had been affixed to the aircraft. Any one of the clusters could contain from two to 2000 submunitions or bomblets. When the bombs were carried and not used against specific targets, they were jettisoned because they could explode on landing.


The U.S. dropped over two million tons of bombs on Laos. Many of them, like those we ejected that day, were simply dumped on the farm lands of Laos, and over 50 years later are still maiming or killing the people there.


Learning the “Ropes”


As the junior officer on the Air Staff of the 56th, I would occasionally be brought along to meetings at the Embassy in Vientiane. One meeting with Ambassador Sullivan was attended by a general officer from the 7th Air Force as well as two officers from General Vang Pao’s staff. An argument ensued when Aderholt asked Sullivan to allow targets in the Mu Gia Pass area to be bombed. Mu Gia Pass was the pinch point of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and a lynchpin for supplies coming south. When Sullivan pressed that the U.S. couldn’t direct Laotian troops in any battle plans, Aderholt blew up saying, “If we are going to fight a war, we can’t do it with one hand tied behind our backs.”


I watched this exchange and considered that we were sitting in the middle of the Laotian capital, a city split in civil war, discussing the fine edge of violating international law and worrying about violating agreements the U.S. had signed. I grew up during WWII when the goal was Berlin and Tokyo. Even in Korea, there was the goal of the Yalu or the 38th Parallel, but here, we seemed satisfied to go bomb the hell out of everything, then pull back into our hangers to lick our wounds. U.S. policy in SE Asia had gone terribly wrong with the Americanization of the war itself.


The Ground War

My primary responsibility was to act as a liaison to many of the LIMA sites spread throughout parts of Laos. If they were located near a village, I was to meet with the villagers and see if they had any needs we could provide. Because of this, I saw first-hand the destruction that was occurring to Laos. People had to constantly move because bombs rendered fields unusable and unexploded bombs remained in the land. I saw the wounded, maimed, and dead.


One visit in particular remains on my mind to this day. I visited a village near Ban Houei Sane, a heavily-armed Royal Lao Army base that also had a runway. In late December 1967, I paid a visit to the headman of the village, a school teacher named Tung. Over chai, I asked what he would like us to do to help his village. His reply was terse: “Leave. Leave before we are all killed.” He said that this was not his war, that many of the young men of his village had already been killed, and that his expectations were that “Americans will bomb us or the North Vietnamese will shell us.” I assured him that the U.S. would protect him — a comment that I still regret.


Two weeks later, I was in Saigon to give an operations briefing to some big-wigs at 7th AF when the Tet Offensive broke out. I was immediately flown back to NKP where, within a few days, I found out the damage the North Vietnamese had done in Laos. One of their offensives was against Ban Houei. I was told that the headman there, Tung, was executed in the village center in the most horrible way for his treasonous collaboration with the Americans.


That incident finally snapped my soul in two.


I was transferred at this time to 7/13th AF headquarters located in Udorn, Thailand, where a group of U.S.-trained Hmong pilots manned a squadron of T-28s.  I had hoped to work with this group, but was assigned to the reconnaissance wing to help with ground identification of targets and bombing runs. I volunteered to act as an air observer for the T-28s going out, but on my final mission, we had to ditch the aircraft. I was injured, so was sent home in early 1969.


In 1975, I was recalled to active duty and sent to Bangkok. The U.S. ended its involvement in Southeast Asia in 1973 in a treaty signed by all parties. But like the Accords, this treaty was quickly ignored, and in 1975, the communist forces overran Saigon and Vientiane became the capital of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.


I got to Bangkok too late to be of any use. Aderholt, by this time a Brigadier General, was hopping across the former U.S. bases in Thailand, trying to both make amends and secure aircraft to fly into Long Tieng — amends because the Thais felt the U.S. had abandoned them to the communists, and aircraft to try to lift General Van Pao and his troops to safety.


To this day, I do not know the total number of Vang Pao’s troops who were extracted by aircraft, but it was far less than how many we left behind. For them, the Fall of Saigon marked the beginning of the long trek to the Mekong and hopefully to refugee camps, where they might wait years before finding new homes in the U.S. and elsewhere.


When I finally retired from active duty, I moved to Portland, Ore., where a number of Hmong were being sent for resettlement. I became involved through the city in efforts to ease the resettlement and met someone who looked familiar. On one of my visits to General Vang Pao’s headquarters, I had been introduced to a young 14-year-old who was one of Vang Pao’s interpreters. Everyone called him Bruce. Well, here in Portland was Bruce, only it was now Dr. Bruce Bliatut who had become the head of the county refugee and health administration.


Bruce and I, along with other members of the Hmong community, started the Immigrant and Refugee Committee Organization (IRCO), which today serves a diverse group of immigrants and refugees from countries all over the world. It was through this organization that I became aware of the work of Legacies of War and the critical work that they do.


I have much to regret about the time I spent in the war, many things I try not to remember. But I also recall with fondness the people of Laos and am sad for all the terrible things that took place during the war, and am driven to make amends in any way that I can for these people and their beautiful country.

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