Sappers Sack secret radar site
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On March 11, 1968, The U.S. Air Force sustained its greatest hostile ground loss of the Vietnam War at Lima Site 85, an isolated mountaintop in Laos. That unit’s top-secret mission there remained classified until 1983.
A unique mission held top-secret until declassified 15 years later. Lima Site 85 holds a dubious distinction. Amidst the “shadow” war in Laos, the Air Force saw its largest single combat loss of the Vietnam War. Not only was the program, code name “Heavy Green,” classified but the participating airmen were “sheep-dipped.”
Because the U.S. military was not allowed in Laos, airmen were given cover as Lockheed employees while actually still serving in the Air Force. Although American leaders foresaw an imminent North Vietnamese Army (NVA) attack on Site 85, they were reluctant to give up any advantage over the enemy sooner than necessary. In hesitating to get the airmen out, 12 American lives were lost on March 11, 1968, “We may have pushed our luck one day too long in attempting to keep this facility (Site 85) in operation,” said Laos Ambassador William Sullivan. Sullivan’s quote became the title of Timothy Castle’s 1999 full-account book, One Day Too Long: Top Secret Site 85 and the Bombing of North Vietnam.
We knew something happened.
Phou Pha Thi (“Sacred Mountain”) stands about 5500 feet, a broad-based, ridged limestone formation that rises first gradually then suddenly and then nearly vertically, with a plateau on top. A cliff graced the western side.
The mountain was chosen for Lima 85 for its location, less than 150 miles from Hanoi. Nicknamed “Commando Club,” Site 85 was part of the Air force’s Combat Skyspot radar bombing program. With these sites in the range of bombing targets, aircraft could hit them with a fair degree of accuracy even when visibility was limited due to bad weather. Lt. Col. Gerald H. Clayton, commander of the 1043rd Radar Evaluation Squadron, headed the team of airmen from the 1st Combat Evaluation Group, a secret radar tracking unit based at Barksdale Air Force Base in Shreveport, La. Detachment 1, consisting of 16 airmen, one forward air controller and two CIA operatives, manned the site.
On January 12, four enemy biplanes bombed Site 85. A CIA helicopter, an Air America UH-1, pursued the planes. Flight mechanic Glen Woods shot down the aircraft with an AK-47 from the helicopter. This is the only such recorded incident during the war. This and an attack yet to come remained a secret that many troops were suspicious of.
Even when I was in Laos in 1969-1970, we knew something happened but knew nothing else, “said Eugene D. Rossel, who served with special operations on Project 404. It was so classified that it was better for any inquirer to just mind his own business when it came to the fall of this site. Against a decree by his supervisors, Air Force Major armed the men working at and defending Site 85. He refused to see them remain defenseless. On my own authority, I drew 40 M16s from the USAF stock at Udorn.
He wrote in his 1992 book, Honored and Betrayed: Irangate, Cover Affairs, and the Secret War in Laos. plus, a number of CIA-issue Browning auto pistols and cases of hand grenades (and lots of ammo) and delivered it to the case officer on-site with instructions to him to give the “Civilians” a little refresher training in small-arms handling and marksmanship.
On the night of March 10, NVA Lt. Truong Muc Led troops of the 41st Dac Comg (Sapper) Battalion and the 93rd NVA Infantry Battalion in a ground attack on Site 85. The enemy fired on the mountain from the north and east with mortar, artillery, and rocket rounds, damaging living quarters, an antenna, and a defensive gun position. Then 33 NVA sappers scaled the western side of the mountain and hid for three hours before attacking.
According to his Medal of Honor citation (upgraded from a DSM and awarded Sept. 21, 2010), Chief Master Sergeant Richard Etchberger was manning a defensive position when the base was overrun. The enemy was firing directly upon his location from higher ground. With his entire group either dead or wounded, Etchberger continued to return fire thus denying NVA access to the ledge. He also continued to direct air strikes and call for air rescue on his emergency radio, enabling the air evacuation force to locate him and his men.
When the rescue team arrived, Etchberger deliberately exposed himself to the enemy fire in order to place the three surviving, wounded airmen into rescue slings. After Etchberger was rescued, he was fatally wounded aboard the helicopter by enemy ground fire. “His fierce defense, which culminated in the supreme sacrifice of his life, saved not only the lives of his three comrades but provided for the successful evacuation of the remaining survivors of the base,” according to the citation.
Major Sliz was wounded, but survived on the rock overhang enough to be rescued.
“The boy on my right died almost instantly,” he said in Christopher Robbins’ The Rovens: The Men Who Flew in America’s secret war in Laos. “The boy on my left had a broken leg from a bullet. There were at least half a dozen grenades tossed in through a small, cavernous hole. We had no way of defending against it except when the grenades came bounding on in, they would land in my proximity, and I would just grab them and throw them down the hill.
“Huey Marlow (actually an alias), working for the CIA, earned the intelligence Cross for his actions leading a group of Laotians in a counterattack. This band destroyed an NVA machine-gun nest on the summit of Phou Pha Thai and rescued four or five wounded troops on the ridge. They retreated back down the mountain, engaging in hand-to-hand combat all the way. In all, 12 Americans were killed on the mountain 11 were never recovered, one was later recovered, as well as 42 Thais and Laotian Hmong troops.
“Wounded Americans were rescued with the help of an Air America helicopter. On March 13, Capt. Donald Westbrook, 602 Fighter Squadron, died when his plane was shot down as he returned to the site to search for survivors. All KIA received Bronze Stars for valor In 1984.
“MIA searches from December 1994 to January 1995, did not recover any remains. A trip in March 2003, turned up remains of four unidentified troops. In October 2005, the remains of Tech Sgt Patrick Shannon were officially identified. Tech Sgt James Calfee was on the airmen killed in the attack but never recovered.” (He was awarded the Silver Star in 2012.)
Verna Yeamans, his sister, wrote a letter to President Lyndon B. Johnson seeking details of her brother’s death and still seeks answers today. “Don’t give up”, she wrote. “Keep looking, keep asking questions because there are still some answers there that we don’t know.”) Another family member of the fallen, Cory Etchberger, has also said that he didn’t know the truth about his father’s death and the surrounding missions until long after. “I would say it wasn’t until seven years ago that I really knew what had happened,“he told the Kansas City Star in 2005.
In recognition of the lives lost, The Skyspot Memorial at the Barksdale Global Power Museum at Barksdale Air Force Base in Shreveport, LA, was dedicated Sept. 19, 2008. John T. Correll aptly summed up the actions of the airmen on Lima Site 85 in Air Force magazine: The courage and sacrifice of those who died on the mountaintop stood in counterpoint to the strategic indecision and changing political winds in Washington.