Purpose of this blog

Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, October 20, 2019

The CIA's Air to Air

In 1965 the US launched Operation Rolling Thunder over North Vietnam. Things went poorly for the US at first, with organisational and equipment issues, compounded by political interference. To make matters worse the monsoon weather in the region was proving a massive impediment to accurate navigation let alone bombing. There was at least an answer to the last problem, in Laos the CIA had for many years maintained a small base on top of Phou Pha Thi, a 5,800ft mountain with sheer sides all the way around. There was a single trail leading to the top of this mountain, and so it was judged secure. It was also only 125 miles from Hanoi. In August 1966 a radar beacon was installed at the base and became known as Lima Site 85. Lima was the phonetic name for L, and thus Laos. To US pilots it simply became "Channel 97" which was the frequency the radar beacon could be obtained from. It was able to tell pilots where they were with a margin of error of only a few feet. Over the next two years the system was upgraded several times, and even had the technicians at the base guiding bombing in very bad weather. Navigation and bombing results improved in very quick order.

The radar site on LS-85
It became such an issue for the North Vietnamese that they began to draw up plans to destroy LS-85. Originally the US had expected the sites destruction within six months. All buildings had been fitted with demolition charges, and the personnel were issued small arms for defence. However, it wasn't until January 1968 that the North Vietnamese started operating against the base. An NVA patrol was destroyed on the 10th of January, on the 11th there was an overflight by North Vietnamese aircraft, presumably a reconnaissance run for the mission on the 12th of January.

On that day two specially modified AN-2 Colts were sent to attack the site. These rugged biplanes had been fitted with an assortment of twelve shot 57mm rocket pods and machine guns under the wings. In addition, their cavernous fuselages had been loaded with tubes of 122mm mortar rounds. These were placed vertically with the openings pointing downwards, and a rudimentary set of bomb bay doors fitted. The mission also included other AN-2's, although accounts differ on how many. Some say one other plane, others say two. But these stood off and orbited the attack, obviously serving as either a master bomber, or equipped with navigation devices to find the site.
 As luck would have it, there was a US aircraft nearby. A lone UH-1 Huey from Air America was making a supply run to the site with ammunition. This UH-1 was flown by Ted Moore. Moore had been a UH-1 gunship pilot in the early years of the Vietnam War, before rotating back to the states as an instructor. He was then recruited to fly in Air America. As they approached LS-85 they saw the two attacking AN-2's clumsily looping and diving on the site, Moore said it looked like something out of the First World War. Unfortunately, his current Huey was utterly unarmed. Then his co-pilot, Glenn Woods, scrambled out of his seat, and grabbed an AK-47 they were carrying as a survival rifle. Woods slid open the side door and perched himself on the runner, as Moore gave chase.
A couple of Air America UH-1's at the LS-85 landing strip.
Over the next twenty minutes, the UH-1 chased one of the Colts, with Woods firing several magazines at the AN-2. Back at LS-85 a local guerrilla had managed to hit one of the Colt's with several rounds from his AK-47, which forced the attacker to break off. As Moore was flying above the AN-2 he was chasing, his downwash was disrupting the airflow over the plane and reducing its speed, so the second Colt was able to catch up. In short order both aircraft crashed, within three miles of each other presumably from the hits from small arms they had suffered. The remaining AN-2's that had been circling LS-85 left the area without taking any offensive action. This was the first (and likely only) time a biplane was shot down by a helicopter, it was also one of the few air-to-air kills the CIA has on its records (or at least admits to!). Moore would leave Air America and become a stockbroker.

LS-85 would remain in operation for another few weeks. Unbeknown to the US forces the North Vietnamese had been planning a special forces attack for some time. Around forty men had been undergoing rigorous physical training, especially in mountaineering. They had been observing the site since about December 1967. On the 10th of March 1968 regular units of about 3,000 men surrounded the base, and began to bombard it with artillery. Overnight the special forces had been scaling the sheer cliffs, and by 0345 the next morning were within 30 meters of the base, at which point they launched their attack.
Lay out of LS-85 radar beacon
Large numbers of the USAF technicians manning the site were killed in the initial assault, all the equipment was disabled. A small group of personnel managed to form a defensive position on the edge of the sheer drop down the side of the mountain. At the airstrip the special forces assault had run into guerrilla positions and had failed, leaving the North Vietnamese fighting desperately to prevent being overrun. At around 0700, Air America helicopters arrived, the first landed at the air strip to evacuate US personnel. Later in a daring rescue attempt another UH-1 hovered, out of ground effect alongside the mountain face, while under small arms fire to pluck the last wounded personnel from the mountain. Of note, was Master Sergeant Richard Loy Etchberger. He helped load wounded onto the helicopter, at the same time kept on fighting off the attacking North Vietnamese special forces. With the last wounded man aboard Sgt Etchberger climbed into the helicopter himself, only to be hit and killed by a bullet, the same bullet over penetrated his body and stuck the co-pilot’s AK-47 shattering it. Sgt Etchberger was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour. But LS-85 had fallen and would remain in enemy hands for a few months until they abandoned it. The USAAF would return in a couple of days and flatten every building left standing.

Image credits:
www.soc.mil and www.thegtrider.com