One Day Too Long: Top Secret Site 85 and the Bombing of North Vietnam, by Timothy N. Castle, Columbia University Press, New York, $25.
In 1967 aircraft from U. S. Navy carriers in the Tonkin Gulf and U.S. Air Force fighters based in Thailand were bombing North Vietnam. During good weather both forces were effective, but during the monsoon sea-son only the Navy’s Grumman A-6 Intruder had all-weather bombing capability. The Air Force developed all-weather capability by controlling bombers from ground based radar, called “Sky Spot.” Sky Spot had a maximum range of 200 miles, which precluded having radar based in South Vietnam controlling bombers in the northern areas of North Vietnam.
A high plateau in Laos, designated Site 85, was selected as the ideal location for a Sky Spot facility. Laos ostensibly was neutral, but large NVA and Pathet Lao units protected the Ho Chi Minh Trail on the Laotian eastern border, while American forces based in Thailand and South Vietnam attacked the trail daily. American Ambassador Lewis Sullivan and Laotian Premier Prince Souvanna Phouma agreed to allow the building of a Sky Spot facility in Laos, but they required deniability of the project by both the United States and Laos. To provide that deniability, the Air Force discharged its Sky Spot technicians, who then were hired by Lockheed Aircraft. They would work in Laos as civilians, but they were promised reinstatement in the Air Force when the project was completed. The technicians and their wives signed top-secret agreements prohibiting them from discussing the project with anyone. The story of what happened to the site is set forth by Timothy N. Castle in One Day Too Long: Top Secret Site 85 and the Bombing of North Vietnam.
By late 1967 Site 85 was successfully controlling McDonnell F-4s and Republic F-105s bombing targets north of Hanoi. The North Vietnamese, fully aware that the site was only 12 miles from their border, set out to destroy the operation, building roads from North Vietnam toward Site 85. In January 1968 the NVA attempted to bomb the installation, using biplanes that flew at 90 mph. It was the only North Vietnamese aerial attack against allied ground forces. The attempt was unsuccessful, and an American helicopter shot down one of the biplanes.
As the NVA and Pathet Lao forces closed in on Site 85, more and more of the missions controlled by the base were for its own protection. By early March, at least 2,000 enemy troops surrounded the location. Ambassador Sullivan recommended that the equipment be destroyed and the operators evacuated. President Lyndon B. Johnson, through the State Department, Pacific Air Forces in Hawaii, the Seventh Air Force in Saigon and the American command in Thailand, resisted this recommendation. On March 10, acting on his own authority, Sullivan ordered the site evacuated the next morning “at first light.” At 3 a.m. on March 11, NVA commandos attacked Site 85. Eleven technicians were killed and three others wounded, one fatally. Only five of the technicians on the mountain survived.
Efforts by the technicians’ widows to learn details of their husbands’ fates were later met with lies and subterfuge. For 30 years the U.S. government sought to hide the facts from the surviving families as well as the rest of the world. Only a series of lawsuits forced the release of some information. When POW-MIA investigators began to uncover the fate of the technicians, the Vietnamese proved to be as reluctant to release information as were the Americans. Shamefully, the U.S. government did not press for the whole truth in order to preserve renewed relations with Vietnam. There the story rests today. The full story about what happened at Site 85 will probably never be known.Castle served two tours in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. Since 1990 he has visited Laos frequently as a researcher and senior Department of Defense POW/MIA investigator for Laos and as a consultant for NBC News. He is an associate professor of National Security Studies at Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base.
Calvin G. Bass