I laughed out loud when I saw my orders. "Bangkok, and such additional places as required" This was my plane ticket in to Laos. Leaving my Air Force ID card safely in the Maintenance Commander's recipe box, I was flying north on Air America, in civilian clothes, my destination was Long Chen, or officially Lima Site 20 Alternate. Also known as Skyline named after its radio beacon. I was really looking forward to this duty. Kind of pretty, yet just a little spooky, usually cloudy and snuggled in to a mountain valley. The US support of the Royal Lao Air Force consisted of 4 other locations in Laos, too. In the south, Pakse and Savannakhet. The main location at Vientiane, the country's capital, and farther north Luang Prabang the ancient capital. 20 Alternate was conveniently located near the Plain des Jarres, the site of many battles in this war, and previous ones.
Highly classified at the time, I didn't talk about it until several years later. But I can't remember many days in the last 30 years that I didn't at least think about it. The entire operation in Laos was a surprisingly complex system of administration involving several divisions of not always cooperative arms of the US Government. The administration wasn't my problem though. My job was to make sure the flightline weapons loading, aircraft weapons release systems, and the munitions storage area was squared away. I had spent the previous year at Det. 1, 56 SOWg at Udorn in the munitions loading and weapons release shop of the Lao student pilot's training program. The year before that on the flightlines of NKP, Danang, and Pleiku (during the Parrot's Beak invasion). I had more current experience than anybody, and that was what got me the job, at the ripe old age of 22, and the lofty rank of buck sergeant.
At each of the above locations in Laos, there was an NCO for each critical job. A radio man, an aircraft crewchief, an engine man, a weapons mechanic, and a line chief. In addition` there were Raven Facs, intell guys, a flight surgeon and a Commander. I had the good luck to serve under Jerry Rhein here. The positions were filled from the pool of "talent" at Udorn and out of Hurlburt Field. This was the supervisory staff of the RLAF. Truth be told, we did most of the work ourselves, and at a pace impossible in the real Air Force.
The Lao people aren't known for the aggressiveness, in fact just the opposite. They did show an interest in their work, had decent attitudes most of the time, but weren't known for their work ethic. Under pressure, and with us setting an example they sometimes surprised us. Keeping it in perspective, these people were from an agrarian culture, had no exposure to technology and were really quite confused about how they found themselves in a war. They didn't like the Vietnamese and hadn't for several hundred years. They thought they were rude and too aggressive. The Lao would have much rather just been left alone. Their fate however found them in the middle of a power struggle between the USSR's expansionist programs via the NVA, and our efforts to thwart the Russians from taking over all of Southeast Asia.
At 20 Alternate, we were assigned 13 T-28s. The RLAF had a group of maintenance men who gravitated to their own interests as far as aircraft maintenance. If they had separate specialties it was one of the war's better-kept secrets. I always had a few that would load the ordnance, and help me fix the electrical systems and un-jam the guns. In retrospect, I used my personality and interest in learning their language to keep them cooperative. I also arranged to pass out their CIA paychecks myself, further endearing them to me. There was one Lao airman that stood head and shoulders above the rest. He was born of an Italian father and Lao mother in a land that had been recently colonized by the French. But, he spoke some English, and it was he I relied on to translate my wishes in to the work to be done. His name was Airman Sakhone. Nicknamed "falang" by his peers, meaning French or foreigner, in Lao.
The pilot corps consisted mostly of ethnic Lao, with a few Hmong selected by General Vang Pao. Their life expectancy wasn't much better than an Army helicopter pilot's. They adopted the swagger and aviator glasses, and were a credit to the fraternity. Sometimes they did things that wouldn't have been done by an American pilot, because they didn't know their own safety limitations. Target fixation was something they had trouble relating to. Bad weather and vertigo brought a few down too, due to their lack of experience. They called themselves Chao Pra Kao, loosely translated to be "White Knight of the Sky" in English. They all had a professional attitude and a peculiar sense of invincibility common to any pilot, but in this case it belied the underlying knowledge of their mortality. One of the flashy ones was called "Frenchy". Far more outgoing than the rest, he was the son of a Frenchman and a Lao mother. He didn't survive either. The way I remember it, his aircraft suffered from a "spun prop". That was a term that was probably used more often that the real reason for a failure of one kind or another.
Upon my arrival I found the bomb dump to be in total disarray. The NCO that preceded me had left a rather unsafe mess. As I sorted through the usable munitions components, I took the opportunity to explain to the staff that each kind of munition had to be stored separately for safety, and neatly for ease of inventory. No one had told them that you shouldn't keep the white phosphorus bombs with the fuses. They did it, but I don't think they really understood. Another problem was that the black powder bursters for the white phosphorus bombs were far short of the same number, although they were always shipped as equal quantities. Upon further investigation I learned that the bursters had been used for fishing to stun fish and then scoop them up when they floated to the surface. I made it clear to them that the next time there were bursters missing I would tell General Vang Pao, and they knew what that meant. In hindsight that could have put my well being in danger, but it worked.
The training of the Lao airmen was always a work in progress, but some showed varying degrees of aptitude. Especially when it came to creative engineering. They were used to doing things with limited resources, and showed some resourcefulness, but it was the kind of stuff that wasn't on the checklist. After a while, I recognized that they could do a job after getting their attention and doing it with them slowly. Most of the time though, things weren't slow. On one day that I will never forget, we flew 123 sorties with 11 aircraft. We reloaded them with CBUs on the flightline while their engines were still running, and they didn't need to be re-fueled because they hadn't gone far. In fact, they had to fly past their target off the south end of the runway to get enough altitude to drop their bombs. Days like that could have never happened if we weren't trusted to use our judgment, and work on the ragged edge. Flightlines seldom come under combat conditions like that, and thankfully we never had an accident.
That night, Dec 21st 1971, we had intruders on the base. The next morning, I had the distinct pleasure to inspect the bomb dump for satchel charges, and trip wires. There had been two shape charges set off on the flightline that did minor damage to two aircraft. The decision was then made that we had to spend the night at Vientiane, and fly in during the day if it was safe enough. That worked for a few days, and then we operated out of Vientiane only. My last day at 20 Alternate was uneventful, but we knew there was trouble coming soon. We boarded a Caribou that evening, and my last view of Skyline was out the back door.