Laos : Secret War Pilots Remembered

LAOS : War Pilots Remembered

"Nyob zoo" .....Welcome !

The Royal Laos National Flag, as proudly flown until 1975

LAOS : Originally known as "Lan Xang" :
( "Land of the Million Elephants" )

A few of the brave bold Lao Pilots of the War in Laos

These photos were taken during 1966 and 1967

Lt. Khampane (NOT Lt. Khamphanh)

Nickname was "Gold Mole" and said to have been given to him by his parents at his birth because of a prominent black mole on his lower right cheek.
Khampane is also the RLAF T-6 pilot who shot down a Soviet-supplied Li-2 (like a C-47) aircraft a few years earlier. He hit it with an air-to-ground rocket.
After the PL took over Laos in 1975, Khampane was sent to a Pathet Lao "re-education" prison. He was a spirited young man and he escaped from the prison. The PL caught him. He escaped a second time and when caught again, the PL executed him.
Khampane was a good artist and designed the first Tactical Command shoulder patch for the RLAF T-28 pilots.
NOTE : ABOVE LT. KHAMPANE DATA SOURCE ; Albert D. Shinkle, L/Colonel, USAF (ret.)

This Pilot sadly stands by the remains of his bird following a night time raid by Pathet Lao communists, at the Luang Prabang Royal Laos Air Force Base in northern Laos during 1966.
In the background you can see our Operations Building which was greatly damaged during the attack.
One of the Lao guards was asleep inside the generator shack and woke up hearing the explosions and shooting. He peeked outside to see some Pathet Lao running past his doorway, so he realized he would be killed if seen or be killed if they blew up the generator shack, so being quick witted he kicked open the door and started shooting his rifle into the air screaming pro-Pathet Lao slogans ! Then his heart stopped when two startled Pathet Lao looked his way, stopped with their weapons pointed at him, then smiled in appreciation of his support. As the Pathet Lao made their way towards the Bomb Dump the guard slipped away to safety.
Below is another view of our Luang Prabang Operations Building following the attack.
Also showing are two of several T-28's and helicopters destroyed out front, during the attack, which left two T-28 aircraft able to be patched and flown flowing the attack.

In memory of the
Royal Lao Air Force and
their Commander, 1959-66
Brigadier General Thao Ma

( Born 1931 - Died 1973, at age 42 )

Brigadier General Thao Ma's determined focus, nationalism spirit and friendly personality was well liked and admired by a group of us young Americans who were covertly assigned to highly classified support roles for the secret war operations in Laos, Cambodia and two still secret locations.
Brig. Gen. Thao Ma was an awesomely powerful alert leader, who had experienced previous trickery during government coup attempts, so he firmly demanded absolute unwavering loyalty, and was very protective of 'required measures' to maintaining the independence of the nation of Laos from internal hostile Communist Pathet Lao guerrillas and external Communist forces from Vietnam, China, the Soviet Union and materials from Warsaw Pact nations under the Soviet military umbrella.

    Brief Background 1963 - 1966

    1963 :
      The first Royal Laos Air Force (RLAF) Pilots to attend USAF Pilot training to fly T-28s graduated in June 1963 (Class 63-D) and returned to Laos shortly thereafter.
      The RLAF received their first T-28 Fighter / Bomber aircraft in August 1963.
      NOTE : ABOVE 1963 DATA SOURCE ; Albert D. Shinkle, L/Colonel, USAF (ret.)

      NOTE : T-28's were previously used as single engine propeller Navy combat Trainer aircraft but their slow speed, munitions capacity and delivery effectiveness made them excellent choices for the jungle wars of Southeast Asia (and elsewhere).

    1964 :
      The Communists had gained control of almost 50% of the land area of Laos.

      JULY 1964 : OPERATION TRIANGLE : USAF-RLAF-RTAF-FAR-Thai Artillery-Lao Neutralists conducted Operation Triangle with the intent of relieving Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese pressure on Lao Neutralist forces located in the Muong Soui area at the western end of the Plaines Des Jarres. Three friendly columns of troops, with USAF Air Commando Forward Air Guides, advanced on Muong Suoi. One column advanced from Luang Prabang, another from Vientiane and a third from Muong Suoi on where three highways met. The operation was a success. The air power used were the RLAF and the RTAF mercenary T-28 pilots.
      14 OCTOBER 1964 : FIRST EVER BOMBING OF HO CHI MINH TRAIL : The Royal Laos Air Force initiated its first bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, occuring near Mu Gia Pass and with the express encouragement of the US Air Attache/Laos, the US Embassy/Vientiane and the highest levels of the USAF and the US Government.
      Laos Air Force Commander Gen. Thao Ma was a paratrooper before becoming a pilot. He made a combat jump into the Mu Gia Pass area just as the previous armistice took effect. He was within about 100 meters from the top of the pass and the North Vietnamese enemy positions when ordered to stop. In short, he knew the target area pretty well.
      NOTE : ABOVE JULY 1964 & 14 OCTOBER 1964 DATA SOURCE ; Albert D. Shinkle, L/Colonel, USAF (ret.)

    1965 :
      FEBRUARY 1965 : COUP : Due to concerns that the Laos government was leaning dangerously too far towards Communism, it was the Commander of the Royal Lao Army -(General Phoumi Nosavan)- and Head of the Lao National Police -(General Siho)- who directed a Coup in February 1965, focused in the Capital city of Vientiane, and directed against the Laos Government -(then headed by Prince Souvanna Phouma)-.
      The Coup failed, so General Phoumi Nosavan and General Siho fled to Thailand to secure safe political asylum for themselves and their respective families.
      New elections were held in July 1965. Souvanna Phouma was returned to head the Laos Government, that then consisting of newly sanctioned introductions of Communist members to form a coalition government.

      MARCH 1965 : BATTLE OF DONG HENE : The Reserve Officers Training School, Dong Hene, came under attack by at least two battalions of enemy infantry. B/Gen Thao Mao had intelligence information that the attack was coming and told the school officials to hold out and the RLAF would be there at first light. The enemy attacked as expected, the school officials held out, the RLAF was there at first light and the fight continued for three days. Lt. Prayoon Khamvongsa broke the back of the attack on the second day when he observed enemy troops running into a large clump of reeds. He put a 250-lb anti-frag bomb on the target. The next day I personally counted sixty-two enemy bodies killed by air (KBA) in those reeds. I counted a total of one-hundred eighty-two enemy KBA on the battlefield. In the RLAF Lt. Prayoon Khamvongsa was given credit for causing the enemy to break off the attack. (L/Colonel, A. Shinkle [then Captain])
      NOVEMBER 1965 : ATTACK ON THAKHEK WAS BROKEN : RLAF T-28 pilot Lt. Touane broke a two-battalion infantry attack on Thakhek, Laos. He put a 250-pound anti-personnel bomb on a large clump of bamboo under which he detected enemy troops. The next day I counted forty-two enemy KBA in that area. The NVA (no Pather Laos troops present) had set up two 82mm recoilless rifles with which to shell Thakhek that night. Lt. Touane's bomb killed most of the battalion's staff members. The enemy suvivors fled a short distance and took shelter in a karst cave. It took two weeks for them to starve themselves out. Lt. Touane saved the small provincial capital of Thakhek from destruction with that one bomb. We talked with the NVA headquarters in Vinh, North Vietnam the next day via one of the attacker's radios which had not been destroyed.(L/Colonel A. Shinkle [then Captain]).
      NOTE : ABOVE MARCH & NOVEMBER 1965 DATA SOURCE ; Albert D. Shinkle, L/Colonel, USAF (ret.)

    1966 :
      U.S. economic support had boosted the Lao economy like at no other time in previous history, but due to the dire threats of armed communist conflicts worldwide that threatened American and allied locations there was concern that Laos was ripe and falling like another Communist domino, so American economic support for the new government was delayed (withdrawn).

      MARCH 1966 : BATTLE OF ATTOPEU : More than two enemy infantry battalions attacked the southern provincial capital of Attopeu. The RLAF responded and with the help of USAF, USN and USMC aircraft stopped the attack and forced the enemy from the battlefield. This battle saw the first use of USAF AC-47s from Nakhon Pranom air base, Thailand, against targets in Laos. Two USAF Forward Air Controllers/Intelligence officers flew FAC missions at Attopeu twenty-four hours a day for the entire month of March and for a few days in Apr 1965. One USAF intelligence officer collected information during this period that led to the discovery of the Sihanouk Trail, an adjunct to the southern part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. (L/Colonel A. Shinkle [then Captain]).
      EARLY SUMMER 1966 : Lt. Khamvongsa and a wingman were flying an armed reconnaissance mission along Route 9 and encountered a new and previously unknown flak trap. The wingman was shot down over the trap and Lt. Khamvongsa's T-28 was almost shot to pieces. By his skillful airmanship he got T-28 #622 back to Savannakhet and landed it. I met him and suggested to him that Buddha was indeed watching out for him that day. He had been repeatedly hit by 12.8 and 14.5 caliber machine gun rounds; as I recall #622 had been hit twenty-two times. T-28 #622 was ready for the scrap heap -- but those intrepid RLAF mechanics repaired it in a few months.
      NOTE : ABOVE MARCH & EARLY SUMMER 1966 DATA SOURCE ; Albert D. Shinkle, L/Colonel, USAF (ret.)

      SEPTEMBER 1966 the Laos government, -(led by Souvanna Phouma)- was bankrupt.
      The National Assembly had demonstrated its economic failure and was dissolved.
      New national elections were scheduled for early 1967, but this posed a perceived renewed threat by some, who feared such would usher in an even worse threat of Communist domination of the Lao government and result in Laos falling to the Communists.
      Brigadier General Thao Ma -(Commander for the Royal Laos Air Force)-, was a paratrooper before he was a pilot. He was a hard-liner --staunch Communist hater-- who had no room for Communists or corruption in his future vision of a safe Laos. So a move was made by those opposed to his way of thinking, to seek his resignation as Commander of the Royal Lao Air Force, that he had built into its present level of strength unmatched previously, and who had served the RLAF as Commander since 1959.
      So Brigadier General Thao Ma and his most trusted Staff of Pilots were prepaired to take extreme bold measures to protect Laos independence from any further concessions to the Pathet Lao or their foreign supportive Communist governments.

      Then on the 15th day of October 1966 a very desperate Brig. Gen. Thao Ma rebelled, after hearing of a high level secret meeting adjacent to the Bomb Storage Area near the capital city of Vientiane, Laos. The meeting reportedly included high level officials from powerful Communist nations bringing cash filled attaché cases prepared to pay for a secret deal with an extremely high level Lao Government control person.
      That extremely high level Lao Government control person was also reportedly viewed by Brig. Gen. Thao Ma as the primary behind-the-scenes manipulator who was responsible for too many wrongs imposed upon Laos.
      Urgently Brigadier General Thao Ma assembled an air detachment of thirteen T-28 aircraft from his base at Savannakhet and immediately was in the air, in route to bomb the secret meeting place adjacent to the Vientiane Bomb Dump.
      In the meantime, it was apparent that our people in Vientiane were in danger, especially those working at and near the Bomb Storage area, that was to be bombed. So urgent phone calls were made to warn our people to safeguard themselves.
      Reaching Vientiane, their primary target was the secret meeting place,...... but a telephone 'warning' (attributed to an American Official) sent those in attendance fleeing for their very lives moments prior to the T-28's arriving with their bombs and rockets diving close over the heads of our people while assaulting the meeting position just a short distance away.

        NOTE : Our people described, just prior to the bombing raid, observing the various expensive vehicles with several nationality identifications slowly pass nearby their position, headed for an old mansion meeting place, ... then suddenly later seen returning at break-neck speeds fleeing the area like scared rabbits just prior to the actual air attack.
        The outcome of the attack, as described to me, could have erased the all-powerful insider Lao government Mole, plug-in person, who was alleged secretly building a huge personal fortune from supporting a much greater role for the Communist Chinese, Soviet and North Vietnamese controls of Laos, and getting very wealthy with 'personal enterprises' extending into Europe.
        Had the attack been successful, Brigadier General Thao Ma could have forever been remembered as a national hero,...... Although there was concerns that any deaths to any government official(s), from communist nations attending the same meeting, could have escalated the war in Laos and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, presenting far greater adverse problems for Laos, Southeast Asia, America and allied interests, that would need to be further addressed, ... while also possibly setting the stage for a rapidly opening threshold leading into World War Three.

      Following the daring bombing raids, Brig. Gen. Thao Ma used his remaining fuel and flew with his flight group to Udorn Royal Thai Air Base in Thailand where their T-28's landed at 'Waterpump', where I was assigned to work out-of in 1966-67.
      There, at Udorn RTAFB, having recieved word of the bombing, they anxiously awaited for word about the effectiveness of the bombing raids,...... but the news confirmed that the air attack failed to 'eliminate' the intended person(s), reportedly, because of a mysterious phone call warning them to flee the 'target' scene before the RLAF bomb group arrived.
      So the urgent bombing mission led by Brig. Gen. Thao Ma resulted in NOT being seen as any salvation of Laos at all, ... the air assult did NOT result in Brig. Gen. Thao Ma forever remembered as an even greater National Hero of Laos, ... but rather seen merely as an ineffective coup attempt that failed.
      As a result, Brig. Gen. Thao Ma had no option but to fly his trusted bomb group out of Laos, to stay in exile in Thailand.
      Soon after those early days of exile in Thailand there were rumors of propeller driven 'ghost planes', who had no national identity, that were reportedly bombing Communist insurgent targets in Cambodia, in the southern Panhandle of Laos, along southern Lao Ho Chi Minh Trail infiltration routes leading into Vietnam and Cambodia, and even border crossing flights into Vietnam.
      Faint whispers were also heard about low flying 'ghost planes' flying low across the mountains from the direction of Vietnam, landing to be refuled at small dirst landing strips where fuel had to be pumped from steel drums, and then entering Mainland China bombing military supplies traveling towards North Vietnam.
      Even hints of more 'border stories' must wait word of eventual declassifications when political correctness is not as important as history.
      To those who knew Brig. Gen. Thao Ma, he will always be remembered in the highest ranks of the Lao Patriot,.... who to his dying breath sought to save his Lao people and provide the soul of Laos a path to more freedom to protect its national spirit and resist final surrender to the global clone of Communism.

      Soon after Thao Ma exiled himself to Thailand, another Lao Patriot and staunch anti-Communist left Laos. It was none other than the bold courageous Commander of the Neutralist forces, General Kong Le, (Cong Lee) who resigned in protest against the integration of his troops into the Rightist Royal Lao Army. So he then left his homeland of Laos to settle in a self-imposed exile in France.
        NOTE : Kong Le too had also revolted previously against the Royal Lao government. It was in August of 1960, when Kong Le led a ground and paratroop coup assult on the Capital city of Vientiane, Laos where he demanded that the country return to a policy of genuine neutrality, that all foreign military bases be abolished, that Laos accept aid from all countries without strings attached, and that corruption within the Laos government be eliminated.

Thao Ma lived in self-imposed exile for seven years, after leaving Laos in 1966. A few of those years he was held under an arrest arrangement in Thailand........ until it became apparent that the leadership of the Laos government was preparing to turn over majority government rule during 1973, to his staunch enemy, the Pathet Lao Communists.
At that time many right-wingers in the Lao military resented those concessions to their enemy, the Communist Pathet Lao, who they fought against for so many years, who waged bloody attacks against them and the Lao citizenry for so many years. Thailand too is rumored to have held its own concerns about a developing Communist nation on its northern and north-eastern national borders.
Which all, and more, set the stage for Thao Ma's last urgent heroic attempt to return to Laos, to save the independence of Laos. A near suicidal plan of urgent salvation was developed with Phoumi Nosavan, Colonel Bounleut Saykosi (Bounleuth Saycocie).
Thailand had given sanctuary to Thao Ma and others who had taken exile from Laos, with many of their supporters and their families. Thailand was worried about a Communist take-over of Laos, and encouraged and supported Thao Ma and others with their plan of salvation for Laos......., but somehow the Royal Lao Government (RLG) troops were once again alerted of Thao Ma's plans, ... and waited, expecting this to happen !

20th of August 1973 the attack quietly began around 1:30 A.M. across the Mekhong River at the Wattia Airport, in the Capital city of Vientiane, Laos.
In the meantime, proud gleeful Lao nationals who supported the uprising handed out Blue-and-white ascots to help identify Thao Ma's supporters. Although our people were ordered NOT to accept or wear those ascots, some of those ascots were briefly worn without hesitation by airport Security, by Mechanics, by some Air America employees, and by some of our loaned out "Waterpump" younger troops...., untill our people were ordered to remove them by supervisors fearing they may become targeted for reprisals during any gun fights.
Around noon on the 20th of August 1973 some Lao T-28 fighter-bomber aircraft were 'liberated' by Thao Ma, to aid in the bombardment attack, took off to begin bombing missions. In the meantime Thao Ma's associates had captured the city Bank and begun transmitting messages from the captured downtown Radio Station.
During the aerial attack, the T-28 flown by Thao Ma was battle damaged, with a particularly badly damaged wing. Afterwards, his battle damaged T-28 crashed short of the runway while returning to land at Vientiane.
Thao Ma, although badly injured from the plane crash, was then murdered at age 42 (head shot), following his capture by General Kouprasith Abhay. And 60 of the leaders supporting his coup were also reportedly shot, execution style, following some being captured and others surrendering to authorities.
Meanwhile, others stayed behind to continue resisting the oppressive Communist take-over of Laos, and yet others had no means to escape, when, in the months ahead, the Vietnamese Army and Soviets poured in with more and more soldiers, and proceeded with massive air attacks against the jungle villages that had previously resisted armed Communist domination of their homeland. And so it went inside Laos until even Secret Army Commander, General Vang Pao, and most of his secret Army hill tribesmen retreated into Thailand with their respective families.

Thousands of pro-American Lao's were murdered, others were gathered up for arrest and entire families force marched for days to prisons, hard labor jungle prison camps and Reeducation Concentration Camps, some for many years, while others were escorted away into the jungle with guards and simply vanished forever.

In 1975, less than two years after Thao Ma's death, Laos became 'ruled' by the Lao People's Revolutionary Party.
Thao Ma was not alone in his quest for peace in Laos. There were thousands of Lao patriots who sought a better way of life in Laos, who were supported by Americans and others too......, but thousands of them have fled Laos, (along with others who were far less involved), and thousands more died in Laos after the war was officially over.

General Vang Pao alleged that between 1975 and 1980 some 50,000 Hmong civilians died from Pathet Lao chemical gas poisoning, from starvation and diseases or were shot by guards while trying to escape across the Mekong River to reach Thailand.
Many hundreds of Refugees claimed they were forced to flee Laos when their villages were suddenly attacked, with the much disputed "Yellow Rain" (Soviet T-2 toxin) by Soviet aircraft and Vietnamese, leaving hundreds of women, children, elderly dead, ill and the luckier ones suffering severe breathing difficulties, but still alive.

Since 1980, 324,172 Laotians have been resettled in third countries, while some 24,237 Laotians have been sent back home from Thailand Refugee Camps where some had been held for many-many years.

On the morning of 28 September 1999 it took more than 1,000 Thai anti-riot Police more than an hour to quell a small riot while trying to load almost 300 UNwilling Lao Refugees and their belongings into 16 six-wheel trucks for the repatriation of those Lao Refugees, under an agreement between Thailand, Laos and the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees. Those Refugees were aware of other returnees rumored to have been arrested, disappeared and presumed murdered since their return to Laos.

By October 1999 there are 1,064 more Lao Refugees who remain in the Baan Napho Refugee Camp in North-Eastern Thailand, whose fate then remained unknown.

Since the 30th day of March 2000 (to early 2001) a series of explosions have rocked Vientiane, mainly in public places such as a restaurant, bus station, post office and bridge.

By May 2000 concerns existed about the fate of refugees from Thailand forced to return into Laos. Other claims include persecution of Christian tribesmen in rural Laos. Some of whom had since fled Laos to join with Christian Hmong tribesmen camped at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam, who are also describing persecutions from Vietnamese military personnel in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.

In October 2000 bombings again erupt in Laos cities, followed by the Lao government reportedly assaulting rural mountain villages of the Hmong.

30 January 2001 the U.S. Department of State issued a ''public announcement'' advising its citizens to avoid travel to some areas of Laos, citing possible bombing incidents,.....''There is credible information that individuals may be planning to bomb Lao government and public facilities in and near Vientiane'' and four other areas, it said.

In the year 2001 it has been 28 years since Thao Ma died in 1973, yet the suffrage continues in Laos......, while some still wonder what would have changed if Thao Ma had succeeded to turn the tide further away from Communism in Laos. Would the fighting have slowly ended or simply continued ? Others wonder if true lasting peace will ever come to Laos, or if those who profit from war even want peace or will ever allow harmony to exist for the peoples of Laos.

Will Peace and individual security ever come for the kindhearted peoples of Laos ? Lets Pray it does !
Let us Pray that the massive projections of economic development now being deployed inside Laos, by the international community who will be pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into Laos during the next twenty to fifty years, is hopefully enough capital prosperity that economic stability and lasting peace may someday be assured for ALL Lao peoples.
Hopefully such influx of foreign capital investments will soon create situations of stability in Laos, from employment opportunities and higher paying jobs, to hopefully allow any of the old and homesick Refugees now living in foreign countries, who want to return to Laos, to be allowed to go home to safely visit, ... to take with them their now-grown children and grandchildren to also visit their former homeland, ... to see for the first time the images of the mountains that are remembered so well by the memories of their parents and grandparents.
Maybe someday the Lao government will feel strong enough to even allow Refugees to safely return to reside again in Laos, .... or at least some sentimental elderly or sickly Refugees to return to live their last days of life in peace and to then die naturally of their own old age 'in their former homeland', where their last years of life can be with the comfort of environmental things belonging to their treasured past memories, .... where they can once again be close to the mountain spirits of their ancestors so when they die their spirits can find each other and together dwell on the mountains forever.

And so that the mistakes of history are NOT repeated in Laos, lets never forget the past situations and courageous sacrifices made by true Lao Patriots, of those patriots who compose various ideologies and tribal peoples,..... indeed like Thao Ma.

In the meantime, some eyes watch Thailand, while other eyes more closely watch China and Vietnam, as they wonder about the future of Laos.

NOTE : For more information about the history of Laos see my research on Asian History.

BRIEF UP-DATE 2005 : By late 2005 most of the last hold-outs of the pro-American Hmong Tribes, who have hid in the jungles since 1975, have surrendered.

BRIEF UP-DATE 2006 : Now in 2006 alot of foreign capital investments have been made in Laos and more are in line for future years of developement, adding to todays mining of gold and other minerals, hauling off its petro-chemicals, Teak wood, building industries, military transport highways being constructed from Mainland China southward to the Thai border and into Cambodia.
The face of Laos is changing and with those changes 'the old ways' may become lost but maybe such rapid growth will afford a more secure future, when hopefully someday the old refugees who feel lost in foreign lands can come home to live their last days in peace, as brothers and sisters, in the places some may feel more content with the spirits of their ancestors.
The new refugee children from Laos can be found today scattered around the globe, where they are identified by various nationalities. Where they too have many achievements, many professions, much knowledge that could be benifical, if someday invited to help with the future developements of Laos. Who knows what blessings the future might bring,... but the sadness of the past is known already.

In Memory of Thao Ma

Photo provided by : Steve Khamvongsa

"It's not for sleeping, the night crown of flowers with zodiac stars.
The night, for one who knows, is for staying awake.
If I were to fall from my elephant's shoulder, and a tusker trampled me,
death in battle would be better for me, than that I, defeated, survive."

(Source : Theragatha, Book 8 of Khuddaka Nikaya, Sona Potiriyaputta Sutta)


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1966-67 "Project Waterpump" ' 462'

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