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Early Covert Action on the Ho Chi Minh Trail

Originally published by Vietnam magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Throughout the First Indochina War (1946-54), Communist insurgents in northern Vietnam wrestled with the challenge of shuttling supplies from the People's Republic of China to their comrades on southern battlefields. Complicating their plans was the fact that the narrow central 'waist' of Vietnam had a sizable presence of opposing French colonial forces. As an alternative to that direct route, Communist supply columns sidetracked into neighboring Laos and maneuvered down trails on the eastern side of the Lao (or Laotian) panhandle before veering back into Vietnamese territory.

After a brief respite during the mid-1950s, traffic began building on these trails once again in the spring of 1959, as Communist authorities in North Vietnam sought to stoke the simmering VC insurgency in the South. This revived effort followed from North Vietnam's forces crossing the Laotian border on December 14, 1958, and annexing a remote corner of Laos immediately west of the DMZ. Soon the trails in the supply corridor gained a new collective nickname, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, in honor of the Vietnamese Communists' chief revolutionary.

It did not take long for both the Royal Lao and South Vietnamese governments to get wind that the trail was back in business. The trouble was, however, that the Lao government had little in the way of population or a military presence in the rugged eastern corridor, so Communist porters could move down the panhandle without attracting much attention.

All of this greatly concerned the South Vietnamese authorities in Saigon. In 1959, anxious to get better intelligence on infiltration along the trail, ARVN officials began negotiating with their Royal Lao counterparts for permission to mount shallow forays west from Lao Bao along Route 9, into Laos. To disguise their origins, the ARVN troops would wear Lao uniforms. Implemented by year's end, the agreement resulted in a semipermanent South Vietnamese outpost across the border in the Lao village of Ban Houei Sane.

North Vietnamese use of the trail was soon overshadowed by events elsewhere in Laos. In August 1960 an obscure Lao paratroop captain named Kong Le seized control of the capital and declared Laos a neutral country. In the confusion that followed, right-wing military officers gathered in southern Laos to plot a countercoup, while the indigenous Lao Communist movement — known as the Pathet Lao — lent support to Kong Le. By December the warring parties had converged on Vientiane, reducing much of the city to rubble.

As seesaw battles erupted across the kingdom in January 1961, the Royalist 12th Infantry Battalion, which had been holding defensive positions in the eastern panhandle town of Tchepone, shifted west to the Mekong town of Thakhek. Into its positions at Tchepone moved the newly formed Bataillon Voluntaire (BV) 33.

Sensing an opportunity for a further land-grab — especially along the trail — the NVA, with Pathet Lao support, attacked Tchepone and neighboring Muong Phine on April 29, 1961. Both locations fell within a day, despite the reported 11th-hour arrival of a Thai army artillery battery sent to bolster the Royalists. Cut off to the west, BV 33 beat a hasty retreat east toward Ban Houei Sane.

North Vietnam's plan now became evident. Six months earlier the Communists had eliminated another isolated outpost farther to the south at Sam Luang. The presence of Royalists at that locale had impeded the trail's expansion through eastern Saravane and Attopeu provinces along a series of long-established paths leading to Vietnam. A company from BV 43, positioned at the village since August 1960, had been overrun on October 14. One week later, on October 21, two of the Communist columns had crossed into South Vietnam's Kontum province and taken five villages north of Dak Pek. By November 8, they had finally been turned back. Those incidents marked the first time since the First Indochina War that northern troops had traversed Lao territory before attacking South Vietnam.

Understandably, all this activity unsettled the top brass in Saigon. Following the attacks of April 29, 1961, several of the ARVN's leading officers pressed President Ngo Dinh Diem to retake Tchepone. Fearing a flurry of Communist propaganda, however, Diem waffled. Instead, he authorized only a limited cross-border foray to assist BV 33.

The core of the South Vietnamese relief column consisted of troops from the ARVN 1st Infantry Division, assisted by commandos from the 1st Observation Group. The latter unit was the chief action arm of the Presidential Liaison Office (PLO), an ambiguously titled special warfare/intelligence unit with a long and convoluted lineage. First known as Section Six during the French era, the PLO originally was intended as a counterintelligence office. After being turned over to the Republic of Vietnam in 1954, it underwent two name changes in as many years before Lt. Col. Le Quang Tung became its chief.

Tung was one of President Diem's most trusted military officers. Like Diem, he was a Catholic from central Vietnam. Owing to his pedigree, the low-key, professorial Tung went from lieutenant to lieutenant colonel in just two years. While maintaining the PLO's counterintelligence mandate, he was able to branch out in early 1957 when the U.S. government offered to raise a South Vietnam-ese special forces group.

Beginning with 70 officers and sergeants selected by the PLO, the contingent was put through airborne and communications training. In the summer of 1957, 54 of the troops began four months of commando training at Nha Trang under the direction of a U.S. Army Special Forces (USSF) training team. This first training cycle (nicknamed 'Cycle Cramer,' in honor of a USSF captain who died in October during demolition practice) yielded the first 38 soldiers who went on to form the core of the 1st Observation Group.

As South Vietnam's designated special forces unit, the 1st Observation Group was unusual in that it was supported by both the U.S. Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency. Its initial function was to act as a resistance cadre in the event of an invasion by the People's Republic of China — an event some American and Vietnamese officials considered likely during those tense years of Cold War confrontation.

The group grew quickly in its new role. In March 1958 Training Cycle B took shape, this time under the auspices of instructors from Cycle Cramer. Cycles C and D, each with roughly 50 officers and sergeants, were conducted the following year. Graduates were organized into 15-man teams, each assigned a specific geographic area of responsibility for establishing guerrilla pockets during any invasion of South Vietnam.

Although the 1st Observation Group was well trained and armed, it accomplished little during its first three years of existence. Colonel Tung's attention was focused on covert operations inside North Vietnam, an additional CIA-supported mandate that the PLO assumed in early 1958. The group's de facto commander, Captain Dam Van Quy — a minority Tho tribesman from northern Vietnam — was content to hold his commandos in readiness for the post-invasion mission. Aside from a few brief forays against the VC in the swampy Mekong Delta, the group rarely ventured far from Nha Trang.

Not until November 1960 did the South Vietnamese special forces get its true baptism by fire. Rather than facing an occupying Chinese army, however, they were ordered to fight their fellow countrymen. That came about after paratroopers from the ARVN's Airborne Brigade took over parts of Saigon in an attempt to unseat the increasingly unpopular Diem. When the president turned to the loyal Tung for help, the 1st Observation Group rushed to the capital from Nha Trang and fought a pitched battle against the airborne troops near the city's horse track.

In the aftermath of the failed paratrooper putsch, Captain Quy was promoted and placed in command of the rebellious 3rd Airborne Battalion. Captain Bui The Minh replaced him in the PLO. Although a Buddhist, Minh had joined a militant Catholic group during the First Indochina War, thereby earning the president's trust.

Under Minh's command, the special forces were next called to duty to assist BV 33 inside Laos in the spring of 1961. On May 5 a half-battalion task force — comprising both commandos and troops from the ARVN 1st Infantry Division — crossed the border. There, the infantry helped the remnants of BV 33 form a new defensive position at Ban Houei Sane. The special forces, meanwhile, positioned themselves six kilometers farther west, to serve as a temporary blocking force. South Vietnamese artillery also moved to the border outpost at Lao Bao to provide fire support.

While that was happening, the administration of U.S. President John F. Kennedy was fuming at the Communist power play in Laos, especially since the land-grab along the eastern corridor had come immediately prior to a scheduled cease-fire. On May 6, 1961, Washington authorized a top-secret program of action in response to the North Vietnamese — inspired moves across mainland Southeast Asia. As part of that plan, the 1st Observation Group was slated to expand operations against the VC inside South Vietnam. Additionally, the group was to infiltrate teams under light civilian cover into southeastern Laos to locate and attack Communist lines of communication. Those teams would be used in conjunction with South Vietnamese assault units numbering between 100 and 150 commandos.

To implement the Lao portion of the program, Washington turned to the Combined Studies Division (CSD), the cover designation for the small CIA paramilitary support office located in the Saigon embassy. Colonel Gilbert Layton, the CSD chief, took the mandate to Major Tran Khac Kinh, the PLO deputy and a graduate of Cycle Cramer. Working together, they quickly planned for Project Lei Yu (Mandarin for 'Thunder Shower'), a program that soon became known by the more dramatic English translation — Typhoon.

Kinh relied upon existing units in the 1st Observation Group for Typhoon's intelligence teams. Rather than using 15-man teams, however, he reconfigured them as 14-man units. 'This allowed for four 3-man sub-units, plus a team leader and a radio operator,' he later recalled, which would 'enable them to split if they came under pressure.' By midsummer, 1961, 15 14-man teams — numbered 1 through 15 — had been gathered at a new Typhoon camp established near the Thu Duc Infantry Academy on the outskirts of Saigon. As all team members already had completed airborne and commando training, they underwent only mission-specific instruction at that point.

The PLO and CSD had to start from scratch in establishing the assault units. Authorized to recruit two companies, Kinh first approached the Kontum-based 22nd Infantry Division, which was composed primarily of Tai tribesmen who had fled their traditional homeland in the hills of North Vietnam for the relative freedom of South Vietnam. The 160 Tai selected were brought down to Thu Duc, just north of Saigon, in July and given three months of airborne and ranger training. Upon graduation, the newly dubbed 1st Airborne Ranger Company was placed under the command of Captain Luong Van Hoi, a Tai from Dien Bien Phu who had fought with the 3rd Airborne Battalion during the First Indochina War.

Kinh also approached the Song Mao-based 5th Infantry Division, which was dominated by Nung tribesmen originally from the coast of northernmost Vietnam. He selected a company of Nung and brought them to Thu Duc as well. Designated the 2nd Airborne Ranger Company, the 160-man team was commanded by Lieutenant Voong Chay Menh, a veteran of the Nung-based White Star anti-Communist guerrilla movement that had been supported secretly by the Republic of China on Taiwan during the First Indochina War.

While the two airborne ranger companies were undergoing final outfitting, Major Kinh went ahead with the first deployment of intelligence teams in August 1961. The initial group of 14 commandos — Team 1, under Lieutenant Nguyen Van Ton — boarded an unmarked Douglas C-47 at Saigon's Tan Son Nhut Air Base and headed across the Laos border into Attopeu province. The team parachuted into the jungle east of the provincial capital, along the riverbanks of the Se Kamane. All were outfitted in sterile uniforms and carried Swedish K submachine guns, offering Saigon some measure of plausible deniability in the event of their capture.

The next day, three more teams — Nos. 2, 3 and 6 — filed into a single C-47 and headed for Laos. They floated to earth over the same drop zone that had been used the previous day. Shortly thereafter, two additional teams — Nos. 7 and 8 — parachuted to the south of the first four. After the group was resupplied by parachute drop, the commandos divided up and began patrolling in different directions. The operation took place during the rainy season, which complicated movement for the troops and apparently reduced Communist trail activity in Laos to a minimum. 'We had very little contact,' summed up Lieutenant Dang Hung Long, the Team 6 commander.

After almost three months, the teams regrouped and made their way overland to the South Vietnam border. Already, elements of the two airborne ranger companies had been flown to Kontum, where they were aided by USSF medical NCOs Paul Campbell and Ray James, recently arrived on temporary duty from Okinawa. From Kontum the troops were trucked to a border outpost near the village of Ben Het. Once there, Captain Hoi — commander of the first company — took a 90-man column into Laos to link up with the four northern intelligence teams and escort them home. At the same time, a second ranger task force moved across the border to rendezvous with the two southern teams. One week later, all the commandos and rangers were safely back at Ben Het.

Back in September, meanwhile, Major Kinh had opened a second Typhoon operational zone just south of Tchepone. Because of some earlier concern that the South Vietnamese C-47s were not hitting their correct drop zones, two teams — Nos. 5 and 10 — were shuttled to Takhli Air Base in Thailand and loaded aboard an Air America Curtiss C-46. The U.S. crew, it was felt, could insert them with more precision. Such sentiment did little to reassure the commandos. 'They were packed in pretty tight,' recalled Miles Johnson, one of three American jumpmasters on the flight. 'We taped cardboard over the windows so we could turn on the cabin lights to calm their nerves.'

While the C-46 circled south of Tchepone, the two teams jumped above a small hill near the village of Muong Nong. Everything did not go smoothly. One of the commandos seriously injured his back upon landing. Establishing radio contact with headquarters, his teammates called for a medical evacuation. This resulted in a flurry of activity in Saigon, since at that time Typhoon had only been authorized to make fixed-wing flights for cross-border work. They had not been authorized to use helicopters. In the end, however, the CIA's deputy station chief granted them permission. A South Vietnamese Sikorsky H-34 went to the rescue.

Ironically, the evacuation placed the rest of the commandos in great danger. In the process of investigating the chopper landing, Communist troops located and attacked both teams, capturing a medic from Team 5 in the process. Fleeing without their radio, the rest of the commandos managed to reach the safety of the South Vietnamese border outpost at Lao Bao.

For the next round of Typhoon, the CIA and PLO decided in November 1961 to re-establish a presence in the southern zone near Attopeu. For added punch this time, Team 4 would infiltrate with a platoon from the 2nd Airborne Ranger Company. Back to using South Vietnamese aircraft, the combined force jumped near the banks of the Se Sou. After hiding a bag of rice near the drop zone, the troops began to conduct short patrols in various directions. Unlike on the earlier Attopeu foray, when there had been little evidence of the enemy, the Communists were more in evidence this time. 'There were punji sticks set up near the drop zone,' recalled Team 4 commander Cam Ngoc Huan. 'We could see cooking fires and other activity around.'

Foul weather made resupply drops difficult. When the team members returned to their original rice cache, they found it had been spoiled by rodents. They decided to head for the airfield at Attopeu, in the hope of getting food from the local Lao garrison. Along the way, the South Vietnamese troops came upon a village and placed it under observation. They saw some soldiers milling around and guessed from their uniforms that they were Royal Lao troops. That put the commandos more at ease, but they spent the night hidden in the nearby jungle.

The following morning, the commandos radioed headquarters word of their movements and continued heading west. After moving only 100 meters, however, they came under heavy fire. 'We saw some footprints,' said Huan,'so we again presumed they were Royalists. I yelled in the Lao language for them to cease fire.' As the rifle reports died out, a platoon surrounded the South Vietnamese. The commandos lowered their weapons to offer greetings, but instead they were ordered to disarm and surrender. Huan now realized they were facing a mixed Pathet Lao/North Vietnamese patrol, but it was too late to put up a fight.

As the Communists collected their weapons, six of the South Vietnamese — three commandos and three Nung rangers — bolted into the jungle toward Attopeu. The remainder were marched a kilometer into the jungle and interrogated. Their radio was still operational, and they were ordered to contact Saigon and request a supply drop. The radio operator did as told, but he included his safety code, alerting headquarters they were under duress.

Aware his men were in danger, Major Kinh pondered his next move. Playing for time, he instructed the captured commandos to move back to their original drop zone. He intended to drop some airborne rangers to the west and then flush the Communists toward an infantry blocking force positioned along the border. The infantrymen, however, flatly refused to participate in the scheme.

As an alternative, Kinh contacted his Royal Lao counterparts and asked them to launch an airstrike. After a delay of four days, Kinh radioed his men in the field and told them to expect the promised drop. The Communist captors — with their South Vietnamese prisoners in tow — were met by a flight of Royal Lao Air Force North American T-6 fighter-bombers. As bombs exploded nearby, three more commandos — including the Team 4 radio operator — broke loose and disappeared into the jungle.

Incensed by the delay and the double-cross, the Communists forced the remaining captives to remove their shoes. Marching barefoot and with their hands bound, they were told they were headed north on a week-long trek to a jungle airstrip, where they would then be taken to North Vietnam. After only one day, however, another group of South Vietnamese — including Huan — managed to escape toward Attopeu. In the end, only one commando remained a captive.

Aware of the unfolding situation, the Royalist commander in Attopeu, Colonel Khong Vongnarath, dispatched two companies to meet the fleeing commandos. By the close of November, some 35 had made it to Attopeu. Kinh arranged for a C-47 to transport them back home.

Unfazed that a previous operation had gone sour, Typhoon units returned to the Tchepone sector in early December. Of the six teams selected, two — Nos. 1 and 5 — were on their second mission. Having learned a few things from the first time around, Team 5 commander Nguyen Ngoc Giang had proposed that his normal 14-man configuration be cut to six commandos to enhance mobility. Major Kinh agreed, although the five other teams retained their full complement.

After three teams were already on the ground, the remaining three teams boarded a pair of C-47s in Saigon and headed for the drop zone. For an hour, they circled in an attempt to locate the three teams below. Failing to do so, they scrubbed the mission. The following night they were back in the sky, and this time they managed to establish radio contact with the ground.

Flying in the lead plane, Team 5 leader Giang jumped first, with his radio set packed in a rucksack between his legs. That proved to be a major mistake. When Giang crashed through the jungle canopy, the heavy set drove him hard into the ground. He fractured both his right tibia and the right side of his jaw in the fall. The rest of his team found him an hour after the jump. Placing Giang in a small cave in the cave- and fissure-studded limestone karst, they took away his weapon after he threatened to commit suicide. Then they gave him a morphine injection. Miraculously, the radio was still intact and they were able to contact headquarters and request a heliborne evacuation.

Once again, Kinh was able to overcome initial CIA opposition to an H-34 exfiltration. This time, however, the chopper was to be escorted by a pair of South Vietnamese Douglas A-1 fighter-bombers. Kinh would personally coordinate the operation from a C-47 command ship overhead. As planned, Kinh lifted off in the C-47, while a pair of H-34s staged through the village of Khe Sanh for final refueling. Soon after the two A-1s left Da Nang, however, they lost radio contact. After repeated attempts to raise the A-1s failed, the H-34s stood down and the rescue was aborted. The rescuers later learned that both fighter-bombers had crashed into Ba Long Mountain.

With aerial rescue no longer an option, four of the commando teams converged around Giang, trying to protect him. North Vietnamese troops were approaching, however, forcing the commandos to flee toward Lao Bao. On December 10, 1961, Giang and a medic from Team 1 were captured.

By year's end, Operation Typhoon was in for some cosmetic changes. Back in July, a member of the 1st Observation Group seconded to a different operation had been captured aboard a downed plane inside North Vietnam, thereby compromising the operation. The ARVN special forces unit was consequently redesignated Group 77, in honor of July 7, the date in 1954 when Diem took over the reins of government. During that same plane crash, the name of commander Bui The Minh also was compromised by one of the captured aircrew, leading to his replacement by Major Pham Van Phu. The first Vietnamese deputy commander of an airborne battalion during the French colonial period, Phu had jumped into Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and had been taken prisoner when that outpost fell. Fearing he had been brainwashed, South Vietnamese officials gave him a series of innocuous posts after his release. After proving himself trustworthy, however, Phu was entrusted with the command of Group 77.

Under Phu, the group was set for expansion. Plans called for the raising of two additional airborne ranger companies — the 3rd and 4th. For the first of these, Major Kinh canvassed the entire ARVN for any paratroopers who had been transferred to line units. 'Most of them were disciplinary cases,' he later admitted. The 4th Airborne Ranger Company, meanwhile, consisted of Catholic volunteers recruited with the assistance of a staunchly anti-Communist priest named Mai Ngoc Khue. That company was placed under the command of Lieutenant Tran Khac Khiem, Major Kinh's younger brother.

Now numbering four companies, Typhoon was operating in full force by early 1962. This time, however, there was a difference. Rather than airborne insertions in two different sectors, the operation now concentrated on the area around Tchepone and relied exclusively on ground infiltrations from Khe Sanh.

The 1st Airborne Ranger Company and a complement of four intelligence teams kicked off the new Typhoon campaign in January. Proceeding on foot to the border outpost at Lao Bao, they then veered south toward Muong Nong. The plan was for them to remain in the field for four weeks, but shortly after arriving at their target area they came under heavy enemy fire. After the rangers sustained four casualties, they withdrew back to Lao Bao. 'At Lao Bao we had two 105mm howitzers and a company from the 1st Infantry Division,' recalled a ranger commander. 'From this base, we turned around and conducted hit-and-run attacks toward Tchepone.'

Until late summer 1962, Typhoon forces took turns staging from Khe Sanh and Lao Bao. In October, however, an international peace agreement went into effect for Laos, requiring all foreign military forces to vacate the country. Accordingly, the South Vietnamese task force left Lao Bao and Operation Typhoon came to a close.

In all, the South Vietnamese program had resulted in 41 team-size infiltrations lasting from one week to three months. One notable mission had maintained a two-month watch on the airstrip west of Tchepone, which was being used by North Vietnamese supply planes. In addition, eight company-sized raids had been conducted based on team intelligence.

While Typhoon came to an end, the moratorium on operations in Laos did not last. By the beginning of 1963 a series of Communist cease-fire violations had put the lie to Hanoi's adherence to the Lao peace agreement. Moreover, an escalation in VC activity pointed to an increase in traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In response, Washington once again called for cross-border operations to collect intelligence and conduct ambushes. The second round of the covert war against the trail was set to begin.

The article was written by Ken Conboy and James Morrison and originally published in the August 2000 issue of Vietnam Magazine.

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