Photo Reconnaissance and Analysis Over The Ho Chi Minh Trail During the Vietnam War.
Above: Reconnaissance photo of the result of intensive bombing at a choke point on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. (USAF)
Peter Alan Lloyd talks to Les Halfhill.
I arrived in Thailand in July 1970 and was assigned to the 11th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron (TRS), Udorn RTAFB, just south of the city of Udorn Thani. I had been trained in the field of Aerial Reconnaissance Photo-Processing in Denver, Colorado, and at Udorn I began working in the 11th TRS Photo Processing and Interpretation Facility (PPIF) as a film processor.
The 11th TRS PPIF, and its sister squadron, the 14th TRS PPIF, were located side-by-side on a concrete pad on the west side of the air base.
The PPIF was a mobile grouping of aluminum modules with detachable wheels that were interconnected, and which could be quickly dismantled and air-lifted or towed to another location.
Their function was to process and interpret the photographic film taken by the reconnaissance aircraft based at Udorn.
In the five-year period I spent at Udorn (1970-1975), the primary reconnaissance aircraft was the McDonnel Douglas RF-4C Phantom II. It carried several cameras, some that were static and pointing in various fixed directions, and one that moved on an axis from left-to-right and back, taking panoramic images from horizon to horizon.
When aircraft returned from a mission, they were met by a van with two or three airmen who would remove the film from the cameras on board. The film was then delivered to the PPIF.
My job was to process the film in a Kodak Versamat processor, which could run two rolls of 5in-x-500ft film (or one roll of 9.5in-x-500ft film).
After the film was processed, it was a negative image. It was then taken to another module to have a positive-image copy made. This involved running the negative film and a blank roll of positive film through a machine that shined a light through the negative film onto the positive film. This new positive-image roll of film was then processed in the Versamat just as the negative film had been.
The positive film was now ready for “interpretation”, which is the process of examining the images to search for predetermined targets, and also any obvious “targets of opportunity” (unexpected targets of interest). This was done on “light tables”, which had illumination and special optics that allowed for the detailed examination of the film.
After the film had undergone interpretation, a report of findings was generated and sent to higher command authorities for their action. This was for time-sensitive target response.
After six months with the 11th TRS, it was shipped out and most personnel went with it. However, I stayed at Udorn and was assigned to the 14th TRS. In July 1972,
I came back to the U.S., returned to Udorn in October 1973 and I was then assigned to the 432nd Reconnaissance Technical Squadron.
In that position I created/transcribed and electronically transmitted two different types of reports; the IPIR (Initial Photo Intelligence Report), and the SUPIR (Supplemental Photo Intelligence Report). This squadron did not do any film processing on its own, but only did photo-interpretation. The film from the 14th TRS would be sent to us after their initial review, and we would then examine it in greater detail.
Using the same light-tables as the 14th TRS personnel, we would look for potential targets that were not part of the initially-tasked group. For instance, in following a road through the jungle I discovered a truck convoy on the Ho Chi Minh trail that consisted of 20+ Soviet ZIL-131 trucks carrying supplies from North Vietnam through Cambodia to South Vietnam.
On others, we might notice increased activity at a formerly defunct fuel storage depot. All these findings would be reported for consideration for future targeting.
We would also look at film from other sources. These included drones flown in a program called “Buffalo Hunter”. This film was only 70mm wide, but the image quality was superb since the drones, not having a pilot, could fly at much lower altitudes than the Phantoms without risking lives.
The drones were launched (and controlled, if required) from C-130 aircraft, and flew a pre-programmed course to find requested targets.
Occasionally we would also receive film from SR-71’s, which flew out of Kadena AB, Okinawa. These images covered areas in North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and south-eastern China.
Three months before I arrived at Udorn, in 1970, an RF-4C crashed during landed. There were nine U.S. military personnel killed and 30 other people injured at the Armed Forces Thailand Network radio station and vicinity when the aircraft crashed, the pilot and copilot having bailed out.
I left Udorn in May 1975, just after the fall of Saigon. That event marked the end of the use of tactical reconnaissance in South East Asia. All further aerial reconnaissance would be conducted by U-2, SR-71 and satellite craft.
For a modern-day take on the Vietnam War, POWs/MIAs and Adventure Backpackers trekking into the war-ravaged jungles of Asia, see our trailer for MIA: A Greater Evil:
For POWs left behind in Laos, see also:
© Peter Alan Lloyd
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