UXO from the Battle for Salavan, Laos (When Air America and the CIA Fell Out).
Above photo: UXO Salavan operative gets down, dangerous and dirty with an unexploded Vietnam War-era bomb.
On a recent trip to Laos I visited Salavan (or Saravane) Province, to go out into the jungle with a UXO Lao team to sites where they were hard at work clearing the jungle and the city of UXO (unexploded ordnance) from the Vietnam War.
Below photos: Different kinds of cluster bombs still litter the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos
I have been surprised by the amount of UXO still littering Salavan, not just along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which split into three main trails not far from the town during the war, but also now very close to Salavan itself, as it expands into what used to be countryside and jungle.
I recalled this visit when I recently read Air America, by Christopher Robbins, who spends a few pages detailing the bitter fight for Salavan and the flights made by Air America pilots to insert 3,500 Royalist (America-friendly) Lao troops to fight the North Vietnamese Army who were encircling the town during the Vietnam War.
He calls it “one of the costliest missions Air America took on.”
He goes on to describe how a rift developed between the CIA case officers tasked with resupplying the Lao troops, and Air America pilots who realised from day one, when a helicopter was shot down and a rescue chopper shot to pieces, that the Salavan operation was a deadly operation to fly.
In the end, resistance from the NVA and Communist Pathet Lao was so fierce that only 2,000 of the 3,500 troops were eventually dropped, and they were eventually surrounded by vastly superior numbers of NVA and Pathet Laos forces around the town.
Robbins details how the Air America resupply choppers and planes were constantly being hit by anti-aircraft fire from very large caliber weapons, as well as by mortars and even artillery when they were on the ground.
When the Air America pilots realised the risks, they refused to fly into Salavan, but their ‘customers, the CIA case officers running the operation, brought pressure to bear on them to keep flying and were dismissive of the pilots’ stories of being hit by close range AA fire, in one instance suggesting it was AK-47 gunfire they had mistaken for anti-aircraft fire.
The CIA were also running another operation on a road that led from the Ho Chi Minh Trail into Salavan town, where pockets of Lao troops were holding three hills, and where Air America choppers and planes had to fly in to resupply the soldiers on the ground.
This area also became extremely dangerous for pilots because of the number of NVA troops, who were able to fire anti-aircraft guns from very close range, with impunity.
In the end, it was all in vain, as Salavan ultimately fell to the NVA, as it was always likely to.
With the enormous benefit of hindsight, my reading of the situation in Laos is that it was ridiculous to believe either Vang Pao and his few but valiant Hmong troops, or the fractured, motivation-challenged and ill-trained soldiers of the Royalist Lao forces could ever defeat the NVA and their Pathet Lao comrades, but that’s for another article.
It was interesting to read the account of this battle in and around Salavan in Christopher Robbin’s book, as it helped explain the extraordinary amount of UXO still lying around in the rice fields and jungles of Salavan, which UXO Lao are conscientiously dealing with on a daily basis.
See the trailer for our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Set in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the film deals with the possible fate of US servicemen left behind after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.
For POWs left behind in Laos, see:
© Peter Alan Lloyd
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