The ONLY successful POW Prison raid in Laos during the entire Vietnam War.
Above Photo: the mountains and jungles of Laos – how many POWs and prisons did they hold?
Because both my novel BACK and our forthcoming film, MIA: A Greater Evil, in part deal with the fate of POWs who were left behind in Laos, I was recently interested to read about the only successful POW rescue raid in Laos during the whole of the Vietnam War.
The account appears in Ken Conboy’s book, “Shadow War, The CIA’s Secret War in Laos”. I have edited his account and added photos for illustration below.
In early December 1966, a Communist fighter defected from the communist Pathet Lao to an US-backed intelligence team near Thakhek, Laos.
Interrogated by the local CIA office, the defector told of a Communist jungle prison at Ban Naden, a secluded village near the entrance to a karst cave. He said the prison contained an Air America employee.
The CIA had been picking up vague reports about the Ban Naden camp for a year; now with more precise intelligence, a unit in the nearby Laotian town of Savannakhet began planning for a raid. A heliborne strike directly onto the camp was briefly considered (similar to the Son Tay raid in North Vietnam in 1970), but the CIA case officers instead decided to use a small guerrilla team to attack the camp.
To lead the raiders, Walt Floyd, the CIA advisor responsible, chose his best local team leader, a Royalist Lao sergeant named Te.
Raised in the Ban Naden area, Te was a former paratrooper, and he was allowed to choose his own team for the raid. They then spent two weeks rehearsing the operation, during which strict secrecy was observed.
On 5 January 1967, Te and nine of his men loaded up with carbines and bolt cutters. Call-signed ‘Team Cobra’, the guerrillas boarded H-34 helicopters along with the Pathet Lao defector and were inserted into a landing zone a two-day hike from the prison. Over the next 48 hours, they took an indirect approach to their target without making enemy contact.
During the darkness of 7 January, the team stole toward the prison camp from along a narrow creek. Triple canopy jungle covered the sky, with sections stripped of foliage by air strikes.
They came upon a pair of adjoining caves, six meters wide at the mouth, at the base of a 500-meter high limestone cliff. Bamboo bars covered both entrances; behind each were more than 20 inmates. Two bamboo buildings were situated in front of the caves. Also evident was a series of earthen detention cells swelling from the ground.
At 0400 hours, the team struck, killing three Pathet Lao Guards, wounding a third, and driving off the rest. Bolt cutters in hand, Te raced to the mouth of the caves and sliced through the chains holding shut the bamboo latticework.
Holed up in one of the earthen detention cells in front of the cave was a Thai man, Pisidhi Indradat. Pisidhi had joined Air America as a kicker and had been aboard a C-46 supply plane which had been shot down in September 1963 near Moung Phine in Laos.
Pisidhi had an interesting escape back-story. He and four of his Air America crew mates who’d survived the 1963 crash – two other Thai kickers, one Hong Kong Chinese radio operator and American Eugene Debruin – parachuted from the flaming aircraft and survived, only to be captured and imprisoned by the Pathet Lao.
Shunted among four jungle camps over the next nine months, they managed to escape in May 1964. Recaptured six days later, they were tortured before being separated among three new prison camps. In December 1965, a sixth detainee, USAF officer Duane Martin, joined the pack. Two months later, Dieter Dengler, a downed U.S. Navy pilot, made it seven.
In June 1966, after being shifted to yet another camp, the prisoners made a second escape. Taking different directions, two Thai kickers, the Chinese radioman, and Eugene Debruin were never seen again.
Of the two pilots, Martin was hacked to death five days later upon entering a nearby village; more fortunate was Dengler, who attracted a rescue chopper and was whisked to safety on 20 July.
Pisidhi, meanwhile contracted malaria, was recaptured and was beaten all the way to the prison at Ban Naden. Having shown a flair for escape, Pisidhi was isolated in one of Ban Naden’s solitary detention cells. He was eventually joined in the cell by another Royal Laotian Army officer (who soon died of his injuries) and two sergeants.
Back to the Ban Naden prison rescue. The remaining 80 plus prisoners included a Ho Chi Minh Trail covert spotter unit that had been captured near the Mu Gia Pass, plus several dozen civilians and ex-Pathet Lao who had in some way besmirched communism.
When the rescue party broke into the camp, Pisidhi, down 31 kilograms from his normal 70, assembled with the other freed prisoners. Many quickly disappeared into the bush, leaving 52 of the ex-captives to join their rescuers for a convoluted escape route west toward a prearranged pickup site.
Within two hours after the raid, Communist troops began to give chase. Forced to go slow because of the poor health of the freed prisoners, Te worked his way to the closest roadway, Route 12. Overhead, T-28’s arrived and began firing at the pursuing Communist forces. They were soon joined by F-4s, which laid down thick diversionary strikes along Te’s escape route.
At nearby Savannakhet, Air America Captains, Jerry McEntee and Sam Jordan that afternoon were directed to fly a pair of H-34s north to Thakhek.
Arriving at 1600 hours, they then got further orders to head east for a team exfiltration. Although company regulations at the time normally prohibited H-34 flights after dark, they were assured by case officer Floyd – who climbed aboard one of the choppers – that the rules were being waved for this particular mission. The choppers were quickly airborne, disappearing into the eastern sky.
Team Cobra and the ex-prisoners, meantime, veered from Route 12.
Shortly thereafter, the sound of helicopter rotors filtered across the jungle. Heartened, the escaping prisoners pushed forward arriving at a massive black karst outcropping framed by the jungle. There they found the landing zone pickup site defended by friendly partisans. On the far side sat the two Air America H-34s.
Smiling for the first time in months, Pisidhi paused as Floyd took pictures.
The photo session over, he crossed to the idling helicopters and, together with the Cobras and some of the ex-prisoners, lifted off from the site. Heading southwest, both H-34s arrived back at Savannakhet shortly after dark.
Pisidhi remembered: “They took me to the Thai officer’s Club. Tom Fosmire (the Savannakhet chief of unit) showed up with a carton of cigarettes; I smoked all night”.
For his role in the prison break, Te was awarded a personal commendation by the king of Laos. Apart from that brief ceremony, no other publicity was given to the raid, the most successful of its kind in the entire Vietnam War.
See news of our latest Vietnam War-related film, MIA: A Greater Evil here: http://peteralanlloyd.com/mia-a-greater-evil-an-exclusive-introduction-to-our-forthcoming-film/
And for POWs left behind in Laos:
© Peter Alan Lloyd
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