The Fall of Lima Site 85
The radar site was
deep in enemy territory. The assumption was that it was impossible for attackers
to climb the sheer face of the mountain.
By John T.
The story of Lima Site 85 began
with the weather.
With the onset of the northeast monsoon in October, the
weather over North Vietnam turned unfavorable for air operations and it did not
improve again until April. This was a big problem for Rolling Thunder, the air
campaign against North Vietnam from 1965 to 1968.
At the time, the US had
two all-weather strike aircraft: the Navy’s A-6 and the Air Force’s B-52. Only a
limited number of A-6s were available, and for reasons of political reluctance
in Washington, the B-52s were held to bombing near the Demilitarized Zone. That
left it up to F-105s and other tactical aircraft to carry the war to the north,
and during the monsoon, they could strike targets around Hanoi for only four or
five days a month.
A solution of sorts appeared in 1966 with an
adaptation of Strategic Air Command’s radar bomb scoring system. This
modification, called the MSQ-77, guided aircraft to a precise point in the sky
where ordnance was released. It wasn’t pinpoint accuracy, but it was good enough
for targets such as airfields and industrial areas.
By 1967, the Air
Force had five MSQ-77 radars working in South Vietnam and one in Thailand.
However, none of these sites covered the North Vietnamese heartland around
Hanoi. That required putting the radar where it would have an unobstructed line
of sight to the airspace over Hanoi. Also, the target area had to be within 175
miles of the radar, which was the effective range of the system.
place existed at Phou Pha Thi, a mountain in Laos 160 miles west of Hanoi. The
Air Force already had a TACAN navigational beacon in operation on the rim of the
mountain at an elevation of 5,580 feet. That was high enough to give the radar a
straight shot to Hanoi.
There was also a rough landing strip, Lima Site
85, on the flank of the mountain. It was one of several hundred such Lima sites
built all over Laos by the CIA’s proprietary airline, Air America, to supply
Hmong hill tribesmen fighting the Communist Pathet Lao. By strict definition,
the Lima site was the airstrip, but the area around the TACAN was generally
referred to as Lima Site 85 as well.
A portable version of the MSQ-77
radar, the TSQ-81, could be broken down into sections and transported to Phou
Pha Thi by helicopter.
In Hostile Territory
several problems with Lima Site 85 as a location for a radar bombing
According to a 1962 Geneva agreement, which the United States had
signed, Laos was a neutral country. No foreign troops were supposed to be there.
The US promptly withdrew its forces in 1962, but only about 40 of the 7,000
North Vietnamese troops in Laos ever went home. Rather than confront the North
Vietnamese in Laos openly, the United States chose instead to give covert
assistance to the Royal Laotian government.
As the conflict gathered
momentum, the CIA and Air America supplied and trained the Hmong hill tribesmen,
who were the best fighters in the Laotian Army. The war in Vietnam spilled over
into Laos as well. By 1965, US aircraft were flying regular combat missions
against targets in Laos. In the north, Operation Barrel Roll supported the
government troops fighting the Pathet Lao, and in the south, Operation Steel
Tiger interdicted the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the Laotian panhandle.
a secret war in the sense that the American public was not told about it,
although Congress and the news media knew generally what was going
Lima Site 85 was situated in the part of Laos where the enemy was
strongest. The mountain was 15 miles from the North Vietnamese border and less
than 30 miles from the Pathet Lao capital of Sam Neua.
Sullivan, the US ambassador to Laos, was wary of installing a bombing radar in
Laos, and he was adamantly opposed to bringing in US combat troops to defend the
site. If there were to be a TSQ-81 system at Phou Pha Thi, the defenders would
have to be Hmong, trained and organized by the CIA (which was known in Laos as
CAS, or Controlled American Source). For further defense, US air strikes could
be used against any forces that threatened the site.
If worse came to
worst, air rescue could bring the people out. The assumption was that there
would be plenty of time for helicopters to land at the helipad, 300 yards down
the ridge from the radar site, and extricate the technicians.
At the urging of the Air Force and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the
United States took steps in 1967 to establish a TSQ-81 facility at Phou Pha Thi.
Sullivan obtained concurrence—with conditions—from Souvanna Phouma, the Prime
Minister of Laos.
“If the unit were to be installed, Souvanna suggested
that it must be done without his knowledge,” Sullivan notified Washington in
June. “Technicians servicing the site would have to be civilians or military
personnel with civilian documentation.”
In July, Souvanna agreed to the
proposal. Sullivan reported, “I assured him that: a) All USAF markings would be
removed from equipment, b) Detonators would be affixed to permit immediate
destruction in case of imminent danger, [and] c) Personnel would be under
The Air Force rejected the idea of sending airmen into
Laos with fraudulent ID. If they were captured in “shallow cover,” pretending to
be civilians, they would have no protection under the Geneva Convention as
prisoners of war.
Instead, volunteers would go through a process known in
the shadowy world of special operations as “sheep dipping.” They would leave the
Air Force, be hired by a legitimate civilian company, and go into Laos as
employees. When their mission was over, they would be welcomed back into the Air
Force. If they were captured or killed, their families would be covered by
company or Air Force benefits.
Lt. Col. Gerald H. Clayton, who had
extensive experience with MSQ-77 radars, would head the team. He and Lt. Col.
Clarence F. “Bill” Blanton handpicked the airmen who would be asked to
volunteer. They had known most of them for years.
The proposition was put
to the selected candidates at Barksdale AFB, La., in September 1967. Forty-eight
of them—four officers and 44 enlisted members—volunteered for the program, which
was named Heavy Green. They were separated from the Air Force and employed by
Lockheed Aircraft Service Corp., a subsidiary of Lockheed Aircraft Corp. While
they were in the program, they would be paid by Lockheed, which also gave each
of them a substantial life insurance policy.
Their wives were brought to
Washington, briefed, and required to sign security agreements to keep the
program secret. SSgt. Herbert A. Kirk’s wife, a German national, could not be
granted security clearance and she did not attend.
Additional space was
cleared atop Phou Pha Thi to make room for the radar installation, and an Army
CH-47 Chinook cargo helicopter brought in the larger pieces of Heavy Green
equipment. The expanded TSQ-81/TACAN area reached about 150 feet inward from the
southwest rim. Beyond that point, the mountain rose in a tangle of rocky
outcroppings and scrub brush to a peak 1.6 miles to the north.
was rigged with explosives so it could be destroyed before the enemy could
capture it. Heavy Green took over the TACAN as an additional duty. The radar
bombing system went operational on Nov. 1, 1967.
The Heavy Green team deployed to Udorn Royal Thai Air Base in
northern Thailand and set up shop in two quonset huts in the Air America
compound. The sheep-dipped airmen lived in rented housing off base. Around
Udorn, they wore uniforms and carried military ID. Ironically, this was a cover
role, since they were, in fact, civilians, having separated from the
When they flew to Lima Site 85 for two-week rotational tours of
duty, they wore civilian clothes and carried their Lockheed ID.
was commander of Det. 1 of the 1043rd Radar Evaluation Squadron, which had
headquarters at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C. He also was manager
of the Lockheed field service group at Udorn.
The clandestine nature of
the site led to fuzzy lines of control and responsibility. The Air Force was the
main user of Lima Site 85 services, and the daily tasking for support of bombing
missions came from 7th Air Force in Saigon. However, Sullivan was the ultimate
authority over US activity in Laos and everybody knew it.
agreement prohibited a US military headquarters in Laos. Therefore, under a
“Country Team” policy, military affairs were directed by the ambassador.
Sullivan was vigorous in the exercise of his authority, and the war in Laos was
marked by a power struggle and antagonism between Sullivan and the military.
Various arms of the US government had an interest in Project Heavy Green, but
none of them was exclusively in charge.
Vang Pao,was commissioned to defend Site 85 with his Hmong troops.
In response to an inquiry
from 7th Air Force, the office of the air attache in Vientiane reported that the
approaches to the top of Phou Pha Thi were “virtually a vertical climb and those
avenues which can be traversed are heavily mined.” Phou Pha Thi could be taken
if the enemy concentrated a large force—about four battalions—charged in full
strength, and was willing to accept heavy losses, the attache office
The northeast monsoon of 1967-68 was especially severe. For the 18
weeks the Lima Site 85 radar was in operation—that is, from Nov. 1, 1967, to
March 10, 1968—the Air Force relied on it for 23 percent of the air strikes in
the northern part of North Vietnam. Operations conducted under the direction of
Site 85 were called Commando Club.
Bombed by Biplanes
attempt to destroy the radar site came from the air. About 1 p.m. on Jan. 12,
two Russian-built An-2 Colt biplanes made three bombing passes against the
summit of the mountain.
The biplanes had a World War I look to them, but
they were really not that old. The An-2 first flew as a crop duster in 1947.
Cruising speed was below 150 mph, which probably was an advantage in this case
because the biplanes were dropping improvised munitions through tubes in the
The “bombs” were converted 120 mm mortar rounds that would arm in
the slipstream and detonate on impact. The brunt of the attack fell on the CAS
area, where shiny rooftops apparently drew the attention of the An-2 pilots.
They did not target the TSQ-81 facilities until the final pass, and the bombs
they dropped there all missed. The attack killed two Laotian civilians
and two guerrillas, but it did no damage to the radar site.
America Bell 212 helicopter, the civilian version of the Huey, was on the
helipad at the time of the attack. The crew leaped aboard and gave chase. The
helicopter was faster than the biplanes. As it flew past the An-2s, the flight
mechanic blasted them with a submachine gun, firing out the door and hitting
both of them. One An-2 crashed and burned, and the other crashed 16 miles to the
northwest while trying to clear a ridge. The rudder from one of the biplanes was
recovered and taken to the Air America base at Long Tieng for a
The security challenges increased. On the evening of Jan. 30,
the enemy pounded the southern end of the mountain with a 30-minute mortar
attack. It did not amount to much and was written off as a probing
By the middle of February, the enemy was on all sides of the
mountain, about seven miles away. On Feb. 18, the Hmong wiped out a small party
of North Vietnamese five miles southeast of the site. Among those killed was an
officer who carried a notebook with plans for a coming attack on Phou Pha Thi.
It said three North Vietnamese battalions and one Pathet Lao battalion would
take part. The notebook contained the word “TACAN” in English and it had the
Lima Site 85 continued to direct bombing in North
Vietnam, but, by February, more than half of the Commando Club strikes were
flown against the enemy forces surrounding the mountain itself.
February, the CIA said that the security of Phou Pha Thi could not be predicted
beyond March 10, and Sullivan sent a message to the Air Force warning that the
site probably could not be held much longer.
The Air Force did not want
to pull out. “Due to the desirability of maintaining air presence over [the
North Vietnamese] during present inclement weather period, Site 85 probably
would not be evacuated until capture appeared imminent,” 7th Air Force said in a
March 5 message to Pacific Air Forces officials. “The fact that complete
security could not be assured in the original plan is noted.”
Up to then,
the Heavy Green personnel at the mountain had not been armed. In March, the
embassy approved the issue of M-16 rifles, although the technicians had not
achieved proficiency with them before the big attack came.
11—the TSQ-81’s last day of operation—19 Americans were at Phou Pha Thi. Sixteen
of them were Heavy Green personnel. The radar technicians were divided into two
shifts, one led by Blanton (a sheep-dipped lieutenant colonel and Clayton’s
deputy) and the other by Stanley J. Sliz (a sheep-dipped captain). Also at the
site were a combat controller who had been sent from Vientiane to direct local
air strikes and the two CIA paramilitary officers in their own building near the
Pictured Right; The trailer with the open door
housed the communications equipment. Trailer to the left was the TSQ-81 with
Radar Dish camouflaged. To the left were electrical generators and frequency
converters. The living quarters is shown in the foreground. The outhouse was
approximately 20 feet to the left of the living quarters.
stopped at 7:45 p.m., having inflicted some damage on the living quarters, the
TACAN antenna, and a defensive gun position. Fighting continued at the lower
elevations. Blanton’s team took the duty in the TSQ-81 van, while Sliz’s team
was sent to rest in preparation for duty later. With their quarters vulnerable
to shelling, Sliz and his group decided to spend the night on one side of the
mountain, where they would be sheltered from the artillery that was firing from
the opposite direction.
They took their sleeping bags, weapons, and
survival radios with them, descending about 20 feet over the side by means of a
makeshift ladder fashioned from a C-130 cargo net. That took them to a small
cliff, partially protected by a rocky overhang. The airmen often went there when
off duty because it was a change from the tight confines of the radar site.
There was nothing below except a straight drop to the valley
Eventually, the North Vietnamese discovered Sliz’s
team on a rock overhang about 20 feet down from the top. The sappers shot down
the side of the mountain with automatic weapons and lobbed grenades over the
Several of the Americans on the ledge were killed outright. Sliz
and John Daniel were wounded. However, CMSgt. Richard L. Etchberger was unhurt
and, because of him, his wounded companions would live to be rescued. Etchberger
kept the sappers at bay with his M-16 rifle.
At least eight Americans
were still alive on the mountain. Etchberger, Sliz, and Daniel were on the
ledge. The TACAN technician, Jack Starling, was by the TACAN, wounded and
playing dead. Bill Husband was on top of the mountain, just north of Starling.
The Combat Controller, Sgt. Roger Huffman, was near the helipad. The two CIA
officers, Howard Freeman and John Spence, were at the CAS area south of the
At 5:15 a.m., Sullivan decided the evacuation of
all personnel would begin in two hours, at 7:15 a.m. Incoming fire stopped just
before 7 o’clock. Air America and Air Force rescue helicopters were standing by,
ready to go in, but they were drawing fire from the summit.
continued on the lower parts of the mountain. The senior CIA officer, Freeman,
and 10 Hmong soldiers went to TSQ/TACAN area to determine the situation. Freeman
got no response when he called out, but his party exchanged fire with the North
Vietnamese attackers. Freeman was shot in the leg and several of the Hmong were
killed. A flight of A-1E Skyraiders made a strafing pass over the site to brush
back the enemy before the helicopters approached.
First in, at 7:35 a.m.,
was an Air America Huey from Long Tieng. Spotting the men on the ledge, the
pilot pulled close to the cliff and the flight engineer brought the survivors up
by cable. Husband ran to join them.
Etchberger helped Daniel and Sliz,
who were wounded, board, then he and Husband went up the cable. Etchberger was
no sooner inside the helicopter than ground fire came up through the floor,
mortally wounding him. He died minutes later. (Etchberger was awarded the Air
Force Cross, posthumously. It was presented to his wife, Katherine J.
Etchberger, by Gen. John P. McConnell, the Air Force Chief of Staff, in a closed
ceremony in the Pentagon Jan. 15, 1969. Present, in addition to the family, were
Clayton and almost every senior officer on the Air Staff.)
At 8:20 a.m.,
an Air America helicopter took out Thai and Hmong wounded. Freeman went with
them. A USAF Jolly Green Giant brought out more Hmong wounded at 8:46 a.m. At
8:54 a.m., Air America picked up Spence and Huffman. Husband told the rescuers
that one more person, Starling, was probably still alive at the site. A Jolly
Green Giant went to get him and picked him up at 9:46 a.m.
Of the 19
Americans on the mountain, eight had been brought out. Of the remaining 11, the
first count was eight dead and three presumed dead, but that was updated by the
Vientiane embassy within 24 hours: “Latest interrogation and discussion with
survivors has led to a firm conclusion that three previously carried as missing
were indeed seen dead by one or more survivors. Therefore, we are no longer
carrying any personnel missing, but consider all of those who were not, repeat
not, extracted, to be dead.”
In their report, which surfaced years later,
the North Vietnamese claimed to have killed 42 men at the site and wounded many
others, “primarily Lao and Thai soldiers.”
Fall of Site 85
Hmong defenders around the site held the trail to the summit as late as 7:30
a.m., but they were badly outnumbered and the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao
force was too powerful. Phou Pha Thi soon fell to the enemy. In the furor of the
attack, nobody detonated the thermite with which the radar had been
“Presuming those who were not evacuated on the morning of 11
March were dead, a fairly concentrated air effort was launched on that same day
to destroy the technical and personal equipment left behind on Site 85,” the
embassy in Vientiane reported.
Sullivan met with Souvanna Phouma and told
him that Site 85 had not been destroyed but that Air Force napalm strikes were
being delivered. “He urged me to destroy as much evidence as we can rapidly,”
A message from the embassy on March 16 said that the next
of kin had been notified of the “missing status” of the 11 airmen who were not
evacuated. The message said the Air Force wanted to delay for a “reasonable
period” or until confirmation of death before officially going from “Missing in
Action” to “Killed in Action.” That change was made March 25, thereby
authorizing insurance payments to the families.
The Heavy Green survivors
were restored to membership in the Air Force. The families of the 11 missing men
received payments from the Lockheed insurance policy, and, in 1969, all of them
except Herbert Kirk were reinstated in the Air Force. Kirk’s wife did not have
security clearance to be told about the classified project. Apparently, Kirk
agreed that, in the event of his death, the government would stay with his cover
story and not reinstate him in the Air Force. His family would rely on the
Lockheed survivor benefits instead. This arrangement would be later overturned
The North Vietnamese and the Pathet Lao moved to consolidate
their victory. By September, they had more than 20 battalions in the Sam Neua
area. Hmong Gen. Vang Pao launched a major operation to retake the mountain in
December. His forces did recapture the landing strip, the helipad, and the CIA
area, but they were unable to take the mountaintop. They fell back, and Phou Pha
Thi was never recaptured.
There was no attempt to install another TSQ-81
in Laos. On March 31, President Johnson announced a partial halt of bombing of
North Vietnam and made the bombing halt complete on Nov. 1. There was no longer
a need for a radar to guide strikes in the north.
The Americans at Phou
Pha Thi on March 11, 1968
• Rescued: Capt. Stanley J. Sliz, SSgt. John
Daniel, SSgt. Bill Husband, SSgt. Jack Starling, Sgt. Roger Huffman, Howard
Freeman (CIA), John Spence (CIA).
• Killed during rescue: CMSgt. Richard
• Killed in action/body not recovered: Lt. Col. Clarence
F. Blanton, MSgt. James H. Calfee, TSgt. Melvin A. Holland, SSgt. Herbert A.
Kirk, SSgt. Henry G. Gish, SSgt. Willis R. Hall, SSgt. James W. Davis, SSgt.
David S. Price, TSgt. Donald K. Springsteadah, SSgt. Don F. Worley.
Killed in action/body recovered: TSgt. Patrick L. Shannon.
The “Secret War” in Laos was publicly disclosed in 1970,
but the announcement revealed nothing about Lima Site 85 and what had happened
there. Up to then, the families had not been told much of the story. In 1970, an
Air Force team, which included Clayton, visited the families and gave them more
of the details.
One of the widows, Ann Holland, did not believe she was
getting the full answers or the straight answers about the fate of her husband,
TSgt. Melvin A. Holland. In 1975, she sued the Air Force and Lockheed for
negligence. She said the government had not candidly informed her of the facts
of his death. The suit lingered in the courts until 1979, when it was
According to Timothy N. Castle, author of a deeply researched
1999 book, One Day Too Long: Top Secret Site 85 and the Bombing of North
Vietnam, Ann Holland’s lawsuit alerted the Kirk family as to what had happened
at Lima Site 85. Mrs. Kirk had never been informed of the operation because she
had no security clearance. The Kirk family filed a lawsuit of its own. Not until
then was Kirk’s membership in the Air Force posthumously restored and full
military survivor benefits given to his family.
The 11 men not recovered
from Phou Pha Thi, including Kirk, were awarded the Bronze Star posthumously in
The story came out in bits and pieces. Among the earliest public
revelations was an official Air Force history of the war, published in 1977. It
described the fall of Lima Site 85, but described it as a navigation facility,
leaving out any reference to the TSQ-81 bombing mission. In 1978, Airpower in
Three Wars, written by Gen. William W. Momyer, former commander of 7th Air
Force, described the mission and operation of the site in some detail but did
not mention its capture.
A 56-page official Air Force history of the loss
of the site, written for internal use and classified Top Secret when it was
completed in August 1968, was declassified in its entirety in 1988. It adds
substantial detail but is marred by a number of factual errors. The history is
now available on the Internet.
The North Vietnamese report—titled “Raid
on the TACAN Site Atop Pha-Thi Mountain by a Military Region Sapper Team on 11
March 1968”—was published in 1996 and obtained and translated by the Department
of Defense in 1998.
Castle interviewed dozens of survivors and former
officials for his 1999 book. It filled in numerous details and identified
mistakes in earlier works.
In recent years, there have been recurring
reports that some of the technicians at Lima Site 85 were captured, not killed.
A former high-ranking Pathet Lao officer told Castle that prisoners were taken.
He, however, had not been present at Phou Pha Thi, and his statement was
contradicted by the statements of others, including former enemy soldiers who
were there. They said there had been no prisoners. The detailed North Vietnamese
account of the attack, published in 1996, did not report any prisoners
The Department of Defense credited the statement of the American
survivors and other evidence, including study of aerial photos of the site taken
on March 11, and held to its assessment and carried the 11 airmen on its rolls
as “Killed in Action/Body Not Recovered.”
Return to the
Since 1994, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, headquartered
at Hickam AFB, Hawaii, has interviewed witnesses and made trips to Laos and
Vietnam, gathering information about the fate of Americans at Phou Pha Thi.
Among those interviewed have been villagers who lived near the site and former
enemy soldiers who took part in the attack.
Excavations at Phou Pha Thi
in December 1994 and January 1995 produced no information about American
casualties. In March 2003, however, acting on information from new witnesses,
representatives of the command searched the summit, the eastern and western
slopes, the western cliffs, and the slopes below.
Two former North
Vietnamese commandos who took part in the attack showed the investigators three
places where they had thrown bodies over the cliff. The investigators threw
mannequins over the edge at those points while a photographer in a helicopter
videotaped their fall. That pointed the investigators to a ledge, 540 feet
Mountaineer-qualified specialists scaled down cliffs to the ledge,
where they discovered human remains, leather boots in four different sizes, five
survival vests, and other fragments of material that indicated the presence of
at least four Americans. The team worked in hazardous conditions, including
strong winds and falling rocks, which constrained the search.
2005, the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office announced the
identification of the remains of TSgt. Patrick L. Shannon, one of the 11 airmen
at Phou Pha Thi. Further excavation of the ledges is planned, assuming the
willingness of the Laotian government to approve access to the
Today, commentaries on the fall of Lima Site 85 appear with some
regularity in newspapers and military journals, but interpretations differ and
the controversy continues.
The losses at Phou Pha Thi seem all the more
tragic because, 20 days after the attack, the White House put an end to Rolling
Thunder operations above the 20th parallel, of which the Lima Site 85 radar was
a part, and the bombing of Hanoi came to a halt. The courage and sacrifice of
those who died on the mountaintop stood in counterpoint to the strategic
indecision and changing political winds in Washington.
CMSgt. Richard L. Etchberger's family will be awarded the Medal of Honor by