Photo courtesy of Lt/Col Jeannie Schiff USAF
202642N 1034305E (UH65496355)
Phou Pha Thi, Laos
In the later half of 1966,
the idea was conceived to install a Radar Bombing Control System (MSQ-77) at TACAN
Channel 97 (Site 85) in Laos. The
MSQ-77 is a sophisticated piece of electronic equipment to direct air
strikes without the pilot actually seeing his target. The advantages being 1) that the aircraft can fly at an altitude
reachable only by Surface to Air Missiles (SAM) and 2) bombing can be accomplished
in all types of weather day or night. The advantages were obvious, but the political
obstacles were going to be difficult. Laos was a neutral country.
Placing this equipment in northern Laos would imply that Laos was allowing
another country to use their country to mount an attack on a neighbor, which had
recognized their neutrality. But this neighboring country, North Vietnam, was
using their soil to transport men, equipment and supplies through the Laos
panhandle into Cambodia and South Vietnam (Ho Chi Min Trail).
March 11, 1968, Site 85 was overrun by PAVN commandos. Eleven of the
nineteen brave men on Phou Pha Thi (site85) were KIA/BNR or POW/MIA,
no bodies or remains
have ever been found. This was the largest single
ground combat loss of USAF personnel during the Vietnam war.
A series of Telegrams and Memorandums are used to
develop the story of the unnecessary Tragedy at Site 85.
Below is a
telegram from CINCPAC to the Chairman JCS. Dated February
278. Telegram From the Commander in Chief, Pacific (Sharp) to the Chairman of the
Joint Chiefs of Staff (Wheeler)/1/ Honolulu, February 25, 1967, 0152Z.
/1/Source: Center of Military History, Westmoreland
Papers, Message Files, COMUSMACV, 1 Jan-31 Mar 1967. Top Secret. Repeated to
Westmoreland and General John D. Ryan, Commander in Chief, Pacific Air Force.
250152Z. Installation of MSQ 77 in northern Laos (S). A. CINCPAC 282347Z
Nov 66 (Genser). B. OUSAIRA Vientiane AIRA/EMB 01834/291055Z Nov 66 (Genser)./2/
/2/Neither reference has been found, but they are summarized in the text below.
1. A front channel message which I have just released provides the military
rationale and the necessity of installing an MSQ-77 at Site 85 in Laos.
2. In November CINCPACAF requested authorization to develop a concept and
plan for installation of an MSQ-77 in northern Laos and authorization to discuss
this matter with Ambassador Sullivan. Ref A authorized CINCPACAF to proceed with
plans as requested and directed that AmEmb Vientiane be provided with detailed
requirements. Ref A further urged the Ambassador's concurrence in this proposal
and assistance in selection of a suitable site. Ref B stated that Ambassador
Sullivan's view of installation of MSQ on Lao territory was decidedly negative,
but would authorize his representatives to discuss proposal with PACAF
representatives. He further doubted that RLG would be willing to accept such a
major installation for which they would consequently feel security obligations
beyond their means.
3. In early December Gen Harris/3/ sent a
message to Ambassador Sullivan stating that due to the urgency of this proposal
and potential impact on the success of our air operations in RT and BR he
welcomed the opportunity to provide a briefing to him at Udorn on 10 December
1966. His response again restated his grave doubts that RLG would be willing to
permit installation of MSQ-77 in Lao territory and that he had even graver
doubts that Washington would even authorize him to propose such an installation
to the RLG. Nevertheless, the Ambassador agreed to meet PACAF representatives at
Udorn and attend briefing.
/3/General Hunter Harris, then the Commander of the
Pacific Air Force.
4. At the briefing Ambassador expressed keen interest in the tactical merits
of an MSQ in northern Laos but again stated that he had misgivings about its
political acceptability. He expressed concern that the RLG would most likely
term such an installation as an indication that they would in fact be proving
direct support to offensive operations against NVN rather than maintaining a
neutral position and taking defensive action only. No commitment was made by
Ambassador that he would provide further support to this proposal.
5. I discussed the subject with him during his visit en route to Washington.
He again emphasized his previous views. It appears that he did not intend to
give his full support to this proposal at State level. Due to the significant
increase in air operations capability which this MSQ will provide, I believe we
must attempt to obtain approval.
6. The information contained in my Genser message is a condensed version of
PACAF briefing and plan for implementation. It has been concluded that we can
support this plan. I understand that HQ USAF has already taken action to
repackage MSQ-77 equipment for this type development and if not used as
proposed, it will still be valuable for contingency purposes. If go ahead is
received, we can have this MSQ in operation in 30-45 days.
7. In summary, from a military viewpoint an MSQ located in northern Laos
would greatly enhance our air campaign against the enemy. This is no cure-all by
any means, but we must do more now to increase the effectiveness of our air
operations in the northern area. The Ambassador's original objection was based
on doubts about the security of site which we have overcome to some degree as
expressed in other message. However, his later objections, which shifted to the
political angle, may or may not be completely valid. This is something that will
have to be flushed out at other levels.
The dialog continued and plans were being developed. Then on May
1, 1967 the following memorandum from the Laotian Ambassador (Sullivan)
was sent to the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs
283. Memorandum From the Ambassador to Laos (Sullivan) to the Assistant Secretary
of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (Bundy)/1/
Washington, May 1, 1967.
/1/Source: Library of
Congress Manuscript Division, Harriman Papers, Kennedy and Johnson
Administrations, Far East, General. Top Secret.
Limitations on Military Actions in Laos
1. You asked me to set out in a paper my estimate of the limitations which face
us with respect to extending military actions, both ground and air, in Laos. I
will list by subheading those various items which have been proposed or
contemplated, and give you my current best judgment with respect to each.
3. Air Action
A. Overflights. Despite the Soviet protest and the probable ICC action on US
overflights of Laos, I think Souvanna will hold the line and permit these to
continue. The one exception to this would be B-52 overflights. For some reason
which is hard to define (perhaps the nuclear capability) overflights by B-52's
carry much more propaganda wallop than overflights by fighter bombers. The
political and propaganda repercussions of such overflights are in my judgment
far greater than the limited marginal operational gain. In short, the 20 minutes
to an hour which we would save by overflying Laos rather than going south of
Cambodia are just not worth the consequences. Therefore, I believe we should
hold the line in running our B-52's from Utapao south of Cambodia.
The B-52's which come from Guam will continue to execute the bulk of the raids
in Laos in any event. I am not convinced that there is such a crying need for
flexibility that we must change this pattern. Consequently, we must avoid public
acknowledgment of B-52 activity in Laos and we must guarantee no slippage by
preventing B-52 overflights from Utapao.
B. Air Seeding. As I indicated above, air seeding can be done provided we
characterize it as a continuing part of our interdiction campaign and don't
label it a barrier. As a matter of fact we have already done some air seeding in
Laos and I have Souvanna's concurrence in it. Therefore, if we handle this one
correctly it presents no problems. If we get the issues all tangled up with
barriers it could cause many great difficulties in attempting to obtain
C. MSQ-77. Air Forces wishes to install MSQ-77 at site 85. I am having
further discussions with Air Force Secretary Brown and Chief of Staff McConnell
today. In general, I think Souvanna would reject this if it were put to him
honestly. He has agreed to the installation of the navigational devices in Laos
and we have installed TACAN's on Lao soil. However, the TACAN is a passive
device. The MSQ-77 is a command radar which takes positive control of air
strikes in North Vietnamese territory. Moreover, it involves several buildings
and about 40 men. It would be very conspicuous. I wonder if it is worth it.
Site 85's location in northern Laos was roughly 120 Miles from Hanoi, or the
distance between San Diego and Los Angeles, CA. The existence and location of Site 85
was declassified in 1983.
A little over a month later, June 3, 1967, a
Telegram was received at the Embassy in Laos from The Department of State.
It looked like the political problems could be worked out to everyone's
290. Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in Laos/1/
Washington, June 3, 1967, 12:15 a.m.
/1/Source: Department of State, Central Files, DEF 15 LAOS-US. Top Secret;
Priority; Exdis. Drafted by Hamilton; cleared by Aldrich, Habib, and Steadman;
and approved by Kohler. Repeated to JCS, CINCPAC, and COMUSMACV.
207815. Subject: MSQ-77. For Ambassador from Kohler.
1. We have carefully reviewed JCS request for MSQ-77 installation at Phu Thi
(Site 85),/2/ in light your
judgment of political risks and liabilities for us and Souvanna, expressed in
previous correspondence and during your consultations, and of renewed DOD
affirmation of need and urgency to achieve maximum effectiveness in air
operations over North Vietnam.
/2/As reported in telegram 194052 to Vientiane, May 13. (Ibid., POL 27 LAOS)
2. Unless you perceive new factors not previously taken into account, I
would like you to discuss this matter with Souvanna at earliest time you judge
opportune. To minimize possibility of damage to our essential relationship with
him, you should present proposal as an idea we are considering--with view to
obtaining his acquiescence but short of making direct request for authority. You
should note that basic function of this installation--like others on SEA
mainland--would be precise navigational control of aircraft; that MSQ-77 is a
quantum jump beyond TACAN facilities already emplaced within Laos; and that USAF
has necessary equipment and personnel for immediate installation. Such a
facility may have appeal to Souvanna with respect to US operations in Laos
(though we are aware that you believe tactical changes would in fact be minimal
at least initially). You will, of course, have to acknowledge capability of
system to direct air strikes against North Vietnam. In other words, you should
avoid both exclusive concentration on offensive use against North Vietnam of
ground installation in Laos and dissimulation that would jeopardize our
relationship of candor and trust in event we decide to approve emplacement and
installation should ultimately be exposed./3/
/3/In telegram 7712 from Vientiane,
14, Sullivan reported he had
discussed hypothetically the question of MSQ-77 with Souvanna the morning of
June 14. Souvanna's reaction was "cautious, but generally positive."
If the unit were to be installed, Souvanna suggested that it must be done
without his knowledge. Technicians servicing the site would have to be civilians
or military personnel with civilian documentation. The site would need to be
camouflaged both physically and electronically, and would need demolition units
attached for emergency use.
(Ibid., DEF 15 LAOS-US)
3. If Souvanna does not object and you can now agree to positioning of MSQ-77
at Site 85, you may wish to provide your judgment as to whether USAF personnel
need be under shallow cover and on any necessary restriction on pattern of crew
rotation by helo.
4. I plan to review this proposal with the Secretary on basis of your report.
The Telegram from Ambassador Sullivan to The Department of State on June
14, 1967 indicated that Souvanna would cautiously go along with the
installation of an MSQ-77 at Site 85. A Telegram from The Department of
State on June 29, 1967 to the Embassy in Laos gives
the go ahead for the installation if new objections are not brought forth by
294. Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in Laos/1/
Washington, June 29, 1967, 4:43 p.m.
/1/Source: Department of State, Central Files, DEF 17 LAOS-US. Top Secret;
Exdis. Drafted by Hamilton; cleared with Habib, Rear Admiral Lemos of DOD/ISA,
Arzac, Salans, and Brigadier General Dobson of the Joint Staff, J-3; and
approved by Kohler. Repeated to JCS, CINCPAC, and COMUSMACV.
218801. MSQ-77. Refs: A. State 207815./2/
B. Vientiane 7712./3/ Joint
/3/See footnote 3, Document 290.
Part One: For Vientiane
1. We are pleased that Souvanna reflects a generally positive attitude about
MSQ-77 installation in Laos. His concerns are fully understood and, except with
respect to location, those mentioned in Ref. B can be allayed:
a. Souvanna's position that he would wish to be able to deny knowledge of
installation is understandable. If facility were to be exposed, we would propose
to acknowledge presence of navigational aid in area where such facility woefully
deficient. In such circumstance, is it likely that Souvanna would be willing to
acknowledge in general that US has provided navigational aids to RLG, so that
question in fact directed toward MSQ-77 might be dealt with by allusion to
TACANS which we understand Souvanna has approved for use in Laos? We hope in any
event that Souvanna would hold in abeyance any comment on "violation"
until nature of disclosure precisely known and could be discussed.
b. USAF personnel will operate facility, [less than 1 line of source text
c. Equipment would be prepared for emergency destruction at time of
installation. In event of communist attack, we will wish to count on Vang Pao
for vigorous defense long enough to evacuate personnel but not, if pressure
heavy, for defense of equipment.
d. Previous communications should provide basis for assurances that every
feasible measure will be taken for physical and electronic camouflage.
2. Taking into account technical requirements (primarily line-of- sight
feature and range of system) and security and low visibility requirements, it
remains Washington judgment that Site 85 is not only best but only feasible
location. We have understood your analysis supported this judgment. Unless you
have alternate proposal we could quickly review, believe justification for this
selection must stand.
3. Secretary Rusk has determined that military requirement justifies
accepting potential political liabilities and we are hopeful Souvanna will
understand basis on which this difficult decision made. In light contradiction
(Ref B) between Souvanna's desire for reassurances on specific points and his
wish not to know what we are doing, will have to leave to your judgment how best
to bring him to awareness that we have taken his concerns (which we share) fully
into account in reaching decision to proceed. Advise action taken to square your
account with him.
Part Two: For JCS
4. Unless report requested from Vientiane in para 3 above indicates new
objection, you may proceed installation of MSQ-77 at Site 85, subject to
coordination of arrangements for installation and continuing support with US
Ambassador Vientiane by appropriate USAF authority.