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Enemy locations at Site 85 from 1 to 9 March 1968

A Radar composite
showing enemy locations
at Site 85 as of

   9 March 1968.  

   
An estimated 6-7 Battalions of PAVN/PL troops were assembled at the base of Site 85.  General Vang Pao's troops were ineffective against this large enemy force, they were responsible for a 12 mile perimeter defense.  During the enemy's advance on Phou Pha Thi, General Vang Pao's 700 troops could do nothing but harass the enemy. Site 85 even called in air support in its own defense, but it was not effective enough to deter the enemy's progress.  To paraphrase Dr. Timothy Castle's outstanding book on this disaster, "One Day Too Long",... they waited "Two Days Too Long" to evacuate the personnel on Site 85.  This was the largest North Vietnamese offensive ever conducted in Laos.  After seeing the radar image above, how could there have been any doubt that it was time to destroy the equipment and evacuate.  The decision makers evidently did not have the whole story or 1) still considered Site 85 impregnable or 2) wanted to squeeze one more day of operations out of the Site.  Considering the sizable enemy force assembled, Helicopters should have been assigned and sitting on the ground at Site 85 for possible evacuation. On
March 11, 1968, the inevitable happened... three teams of PAVN commandos... under cover of darkness, scaled the cliffs of Phou Pha Thi.  (There is also the theory that they came in through the South defensive gate because the CIA trained locals had abandoned it.)  Against previously agreed upon terms, Major Richard Secord (now retired Major General Richard Secord and author of "Honored and Betrayed", Chapter 6 concerns Lima Site 85) provided M-16's, Grenades and a few hand weapons to the Site 85 personnel.  The non-combat technicians were no match for the trained PAVN commandos.

Attack route presumed used by the PAVN commandos on March 11, 1968.  Route provided by Col Jerry Clayton on the NBC documentary "Mystery on The Mountain"  Col Clayton, the
commander of Site 85,
was not on the mountain
at the time it was overrun.


Why wasn't Col. Clayton at the site during this critical period?  Here are Col. Clayton's own words.

 "It was not 'by chance' that I was not there that night. At the request of the ambassador in Laos (for all intents and purposes, my boss) I had requested another crew be dispatched from the US so we could continue the around the clock operation he wanted. Bill (Lt/Col Blanton) and I agreed that he would take an extra crew up there right away and I would relieve him with the new crew in 8 days. There was no other way to do it."


On March 11, 1968 the following Telegram from the Embassy in Laos to the Department of State was sent.


341. Telegram From the Embassy in Laos to the Department of State/1/

Vientiane, March 11, 1968, 0532Z.
/1/Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 LAOS. Secret; Immediate; Limdis. Repeated to JCS, CINCPAC, CINCPACAF, 7th AF, and 7/13 AF.

5038. 1. As Dept has probably learned from military sources, enemy has effectively eliminated air navigation facilities at Site 85. Action began yesterday evening with artillery and mortar shelling. Decision to destroy facilities by self-destruction was taken in small hours of morning. Helicopter evacuation was arranged for first light this morning.

2. Evacuation plans have been seriously disrupted by enemy activity and several [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] personnel have apparently been dispersed from pre-planned evacuation sites. Although seven of them have been accounted for as of this time, eleven are yet to be located. Of those seven accounted for, three are dead on the site, one died in the helicopter en route and three are at Udorn.

3. In addition to these personnel, two CAS and one AIRA forward air controller have been withdrawn from their evacuation sites. Other local personnel (wounded, etc.) have also been extracted.

4. Fighting and shelling continues, as well as helicopter and ground evacuation efforts. Because of confused situation at site and withdrawal our CAS personnel (one of whom was wounded) it will doubtless be some time before we have clear picture or further significant reports.

5. We will, of course, continue reports as information comes in. At first glance, however, it appears we may have pushed our luck one day too long in attempting to keep this facility in operation.

Sullivan


The next telegram from Ambassador Sullivan to the State Department on March 13, 1968, indicates the destructive end of Lima Site 85.  It also drastically reduced the chances of recovering any remains of KIA's.  The poor evacuation results were blamed upon the USAF personnel.  All indicators pointed toward destruction of sensitive equipment, and an evacuation, on the morning of  March 10, 1968.  The military and political situation could have been dramatically reduced if this had occurred.


342. Telegram From the Embassy in Laos to the Department of State/1/

Vientiane, March 13, 1968, 0558Z.

/1/Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 LAOS. Secret; Priority; Limdis. Repeated to JCS, CINCPAC, CINCPACAF, COMUSMACV, 7AF, and 7/13 AF.

5073. Ref: Vientiane 5038./2/

/2/Document 341.

1. Evacuation operations at Site 85 have been completed and site is currently in enemy hands. Personnel from mountain-top positions have been extracted by helicopter with exception relatively small group SGU local troops who have descended to base camp positions, joined other units there, and are withdrawing overland to previously agreed safe havens. Since we may assume that these safe havens will also come under enemy pressure soon, there may be required a second phase of withdrawals for these latter personnel.

2. Final count on [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] personnel accounts for all but three. One of these may subsequently be listed as dead if and when we can get more coherent information from survivors, some of whom in state of considerable shock./3/

/3/In telegram 5103 from Vientiane, March 12, Sullivan reported that there would be a search and rescue operation for personnel still unaccounted for, the remaining structures at Site 85 would be destroyed by napalm bombs dropped from U.S. aircraft, no publicity would be given to the battle, Souvanna would be informed, and the next of kin would be notified in the United States. (Ibid.) In telegrams 5119 from Vientiane, March 13, Sullivan reported that he informed Souvanna of the capture of Site 85. Sullivan also reported that 11 U.S. personnel were killed; the 3 previously unaccounted for were killed according to the survivors. (Ibid.)

3. Contrary to figures cited reftel, there was total of 16 of these personnel at communications site, rather than 18 as we had earlier understood. Of these 16, five were extracted alive but one was killed in helicopter when he was hit by ground fire. Eight others are known dead. Three are unaccounted for, although one of these, as stated above, may be presumed dead.

4. Confusion surrounding extraction these personnel stems from two factors not yet fully explained. First was fact that these personnel, instead of assembling at pre-arranged evacuation site, decide to climb down over face of sheer cliffs to a narrow ledge, using some sort of cargo harness system which they devised for this purpose. It is not known why or when they decided to take this action. But it is presumed that they must have thought, contrary to fact, that trail to evacuation site was blocked. (See comments below from Lt/Col Douglas Farnsworth)

5. Second was fact that small enemy "suicide squad", which seems to have made improbable ascent up these same cliffs, surprised and caught these [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] personnel on their narrow ledge, gunning and grenading them while they were trapped in this inescapable position. It was here that these men suffered such heavy casualties and where most of them are reported to have died. Three bodies were subsequently seen on this ledge, but remainder are assumed to have fallen off sheer 2000 foot drop. (See comments below from Lt/Col Douglas Farnsworth)

6. We and Air Force personnel at Udorn will attempt reconstruct story further from survivors when latter have recovered from sedation and shock. Conclusion, however, seems quite definitive that none of missing personnel are likely to be alive.

7. For this reason, USAF late yesterday afternoon flew several missions against remains of navigation and communications equipment on mountain top, as well as abandoned artillery position, in order destroy materiel left behind. Photo missions are being run today to determine whether further strikes are necessary.

8. Several follow-up actions remain to be accomplished, and will be subject of meeting this afternoon between Ambassador and DEPCOM 7/13 AF.

A. We must discuss with RLG and determine what, if anything, needs to be said about this action. It remains to be seen whether Hanoi or Pathet Lao radios will announce their victory.

B. We must decide how to handle next of kin notification, casualty announcements, etc.

C. We must expedite action for replacement site, at least for TACAN.

D. We should discuss possibility that Site 36 will be next on enemy list and what contingencies we should consider there.

Sullivan


From Lt/Col Douglas Farnsworth, Commander of the TSQ-81 Installation team at Site 85.

"In December or possibly late November 1967 I was passing through Bangkok and ran into Lt/Col Bill Blanton.  We talked at length, six to eight hours.  The main thrust of our conversation was site defense.  I told him that I thought the defense posture was unsatisfactory as the site could be destroyed by infiltration, a small team, two or three men.  To the best of my knowledge, there had never been any Site 85 plans developed to guard against such an attack. In fact, I thought a full scale attack would not be necessary.  With an infiltration attack by sappers there would be no warning and thus no chance for escape or rescue.  I told Blanton that I thought the attack would come at night against the main radar van with collateral fire on the men in the living quarters.  I emphasized the fact that during the construction phase we were continually visited by indigenous personnel among whom there must have been numerous unfriendlies.  There was no way we could keep everyone off the construction site much less the mountain.  It is my firm belief that the full scale assault launched against the site was for political and propaganda reasons as well as site elimination.

     I advised Bill to brief the men on an alternate pickup site in the area of the range marker.  And to practice how to get there, individually and in the dark.  However, this would be a long shot as I didn't think many men would survive a sapper attack.

     We also discussed the ridge line.  I told Blanton I had walked the ridge line for a short distance and thought it passable.  I also told him I had forwarded my findings to 7/13 AF but never received any acknowledgement.  I did not follow the ridge line to its end since it was one of those risky trails which are easier to climb than to descend.  I felt that in following the ridge line too far I might get into a position which would require calling for outside help.  This I did not want to risk for obvious reasons.  I might add, I also investigated the ridges on the other side of the site and found a line which might have been useful.  Again, I did not investigate it fully for obvious reasons.  Blanton and I discussed hanging ropes over the side of the cliff as an escape possibility.  However, we ruled this out since it would have revealed the escapees location."  
{Source: ltr Lt/Col Farnsworth to Dr. Timothy Castle 28 August 2000}


Recce Photo taken 16 March 1968
Photo courtesy of Ken Molly Lt. Col. USAF (Ret)

RF4c Commander: Lt. Col. Alexander (Al) Milligan IV
RF4c WSO: Lt. Col. Ken Molly

Picture taken on Ken's 30th Birthday.  By coincidence, Al and Ken were both from Pittsburgh, PA, both were stationed together at RAF Alconbury and Udorn RTAFB.  Ken retired. Al later made Full Col. and was assigned to Peterson Field, CO.  Al was on an inspection team visiting AF bases in Turkey in 1982 when the C-130 they were on crashed, killing everyone on board

A flight of F-4's from the 555th TFS were sent to destroy the Radar equipment and other facilities, they were not effective.  Finally, Bill Palank and his team of A-1E Skyraiders accomplished the objective. 


This does not end the story of Phou Pha Thi (Lima Site 85).  There are on going efforts to account for the KIA/BNR, POW/MIA's.  Ann Holland, wife of TSgt Melvin Holland, is continuing to dig deeper into documents, interviews and wherever else she can find any information.  On June 19, 1996 Ann Holland testified before Congress.  HERE is her testimony.  Several documentaries are being developed to be aired late 1999 or early 2000.  This is also grist for Hollywood.


The eleven missing men - KIA/BNR or POW/MIA - Damn it we just don't know!
We miss them, we pray for them!   May God's hand be upon them wherever they are.

LtCol. Clarence Finlay Blanton
MSGT. James Henry Calfee
SSGT. James Woodrow Davis
SSGT. Henry Gerald Gish
TSGT Willis Rozelle Hall
TSGT Melvin Arnold Holland
TSGT Herbert Arthur Kirk
SGT David Stanley Price
TSGT Patrick Lee Shannon
TSGT Donald Kenneth Springsteadah
SSGT Don Franklin Worley


Image courtesy of Keith Hammerbeck

The twelfth missing man is Capt. Donald Elliot Westbrook
whose A1E aircraft was shot down while searching for survivors.


For statements made by the survivors Click on their names: John Daniels, Stan Sliz, Jack Starling


Recovery Efforts on Phou Pha Thi

CLICK HERE for recovery efforts December 1994

CLICK HERE for recovery efforts March 2003



CMSgt Richard L. Etchberger received the Air Force Cross
posthumously.
click here to read his Citation.
There were 20 Air Force Cross's awarded to
enlisted personnel during the Vietnam War


Click for pictures of Building and Museum dedications to CMSGT Richard L. Etchberger:


Shepard AFB, Texas


 

Sampson AFB Museum, New York


2007 Air America Reunion


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