In order to understand why everything happened the way it did, you should take a look at what the situation was like in the countries bordering Vietnam.
At the time of the victory of the Vietnamese over the French, neighboring countries (except China) were monarchies. This applied to both Laos and Cambodia. And if the Cambodian authorities were "maneuvering" between the parties to the conflict, leaning toward the transition to the side of Vietnam and the USSR, then in Laos, the royal power unequivocally sided with the Americans.
Laos. Battle for Nam Buck
In Laos, from 1955 onwards, the sluggish first war resumed, then an increasingly brutal civil war between the royalist government supporting the United States and the rebel militias that the Americans formed from the Hmong minority on the one hand, and the Pathet Lao left-wing national liberation movement that enjoyed the support of Vietnam and the USSR on the other hand. Periodically, from the year 1959, the Vietnamese People’s Army entered Laos and openly intervened in hostilities, causing, as a rule, crushing military defeats to royalist troops. For the time being, Patat Lao did not have to lose and retain those areas of Laos in which the VNA 559 transport group began to create a logistics route for the future (future at the time) of liberation of South Vietnam.
Fighters and commanders of "Pathet Lao" during the civil war in Laos. Form start 70's
The Americans planned the destruction of these communications from the beginning of the 60s, for which the CIA formed the ethnic rebel groups (mostly from the Hmong), and for that they tried to train the royal troops in Laos, but the Americans didn’t qualify for any large-scale operations. It should be noted that the royalist troops of the Kingdom of Laos were poorly trained and motivated. Even the irregular parts of the Hmong partisans looked better, and sometimes even achieved the best results. The latter was explained by motivation: the Hmong hoped that the US victory, for which they in fact worked for the whole nation, would help them get their own state, where they would not be an ethnic minority. The Hmong were inspired by their leader, a royalist general, Wang Pao, a Hmong by nationality.
Hmong and CIA operative
At a certain point, after the US openly entered the war in Vietnam, the war in Laos became part of it. There the Lao fighters themselves fought, and their fighting was largely conducted around Vietnamese communications and for control over them. The United States CIA fought, with its militias, Air America, mercenaries and military instructors from the Green Berets, in an effort that is now known as the “Secret War”. The USAF fought, dropping the largest number of bombs in Laos stories. The Vietnamese fought, for whom the retention of areas through which the Vietcong was supplied was a matter of life and death. Since 1964, a significant proportion of all operations in the Laotian civil war have “twisted” around whether Americans, royalists and American mercenaries from the local population (mostly Hmong) can push Pathet Lao back to Vietnam and cut off Vietnamese communications. Even before this, the Hmongs tried to conduct subversive actions against the Vietnamese in the areas of the “path”, but these were “pin shots”. And after the start of open American participation in Vietnam, everything began to turn seriously in Laos.
In the 1964 year, starting from 19 in May, the United States Air Force conducted a series of reconnaissance flights over Laos, possibly specifying information about Pathet Lao and Vietnamese communications. The operation was named "Yankee team". In the summer, the royalist army, led by American officers, launched an offensive and knocked out the "Pathet Lao" forces from the road between Vientiane and the royal capital Luang Prabang. This operation from the Americans was called "Triangle".
And in December, the royalists entered Valley of Jarsousting Pathet Lao there too. The presence of royalists in the Valley of Pitchers posed a serious threat to the “Path” - along the Valley it was possible to reach the Annamsky Range and cut the “path”. But then, at the end of 1964, the royalists did not have enough resources to continue the offensive, and Pathet Lao had nothing to counterattack. For a while, the parties switched to defense on this site. The similar passivity of both Americans and their proxy troops was explained by the fact that before the Tet the significance of the “path” by Americans was underestimated. Throughout 1965, the Vietnamese were engaged in strengthening the defense of the "trail." The royalists did not advance further into the Valley of Pitchers, providing an opportunity to work as an American aviation.
Valley of Jars - one of the mysteries of mankind and the object of world cultural heritage. American mercenaries turned it into a battlefield for many years, and the US Air Force bombed so that most of it is still closed to tourists because of unexploded bombs and cluster sub-munitions. There are still millions of them
The latter did not disappoint. When “Patet Lao” launched its counteroffensive at the end of 1965, it quickly exhaled due to the fact that the American bombing system destroyed the supply system - warehouses with weapons, ammunition and food. By 1966, the bombing of Laos, as they say, “gained momentum,” and the royalists increased their pressure.
In July, the 1966 royalist army occupied the Nam Bak Valley, around the city of the same name. The Nam Buck Valley also made it possible to reach Vietnamese communications. It was an elongated strip of relatively flat land between the mountains. Immediately after the success in Nam Buck, the royalists again increased the pressure in the Valley of Jars. The Pathet Lao forces, exhausted by the bombing, retreated, and by the end of August 1966 remained for royalists to go to the Vietnam border 72 kilometer. The “path” would have been cut.
Nam Buck and the Valley
These two events together threatened disaster.
Fortunately, the royalists turned defensively - they simply did not have enough strength to continue the offensive, and they needed a pause in both directions.
This took advantage of the Vietnamese. Seeing that “Patet Lao” cannot keep these areas, the Vietnamese began to transfer regular military units of the VNA to the Nam Buk valley. Vietnamese soldiers seeped through the overgrown cliffs and mountains, occupied the heights around the royalist troops. The Vietnamese quickly dug in and started firing at the royalists, where it was possible. Thus began the "siege of Nam Buck."
Going into the valley, the royalists were not in the most convenient situation. Yes, they controlled the defensive objects. But there were almost no roads in this zone - all the supply of troops in the Nam Buck Valley was carried out by air with the delivery of goods to a single airfield, which very quickly found itself in the zone of actual heavy weapon fire of the Vietnamese. There were no roads allowing royalists to supply their grouping in the Nam Buck Valley.
C-123 Provider "Airline" Air America. Such aircraft were used to supply troops in the Nam Buck valley, both by landing method and for parachute dropping.
The Vietnamese situation was much better - one of the important Lao roads, the so-called “19 Route”, which the Vietnamese included in their communications as part of the “Trail” passed right through their positions, and they could even throw reinforcements on cars. Yes, and to the border with Vietnam was closer than even to Luang Prabang. Here are just American aircraft already with might and main lyutovala over the roads, and there were no free forces for the time being.
From the beginning of 1967, the royalists began to move new battalions into the Nam Buck valley and expand their control zone. Now these units stumbled not on “Pathet Lao”, but on the Vietnamese units, although they were small and poorly armed, but very well trained and motivated to fight. The promotion of the royalists at this stage began to slip, and in some places it stopped altogether. Closer to the summer, the Vietnamese began to put on small counterattacks, and a little later their scale grew. Thus, at the end of July, a one-time surprise attack by small VNA units led to the defeat of the 26 Infantry Battalion of Laotian royalists.
There was another flaw in the royalist defense - an extremely limited ability to provide air support to ground forces. During the sluggish battles on the borders of the royalist control zone, an incident occurred - the T-28 Troyan light attack aircraft, piloted by Thai mercenaries, mistakenly attacked their own - the royalist battalion. The royalists, unable to withstand psychologically this blow, withdrew from their positions. As a result, the royalist command recalled the Thais from the front, and the entire burden of air support fell on the shoulders of freshly trained Lao pilots, of whom there were very few and who, with rare exceptions, had insufficient training.
This greatly facilitated the Vietnamese combat tasks.
Trojans of the Royal Air Force of Laos
By the fall of 1967, the Vietnamese were finally able to drag artillery into the valley. Despite the relief, suitable for climbing competitions rather than for maneuvering troops, despite the rainy seasons, despite the horrendous effects of US air strikes on the 19 Route. It was, frankly, not easy.
But the enemy also increased. In September, two royalist parachute battalions were deployed into the valley by 1967, one of which, the 55 parachute battalion, had some combat experience, and the second, the 1 parachute battalion, had just completed the American-trained. 3000 Hmong partisans sent there by their commander, General Wang Pao, were transferred to the valley. In general, by the end of September, the royalists had 7500 people in the valley, against roughly 4100 Vietnamese. However, they had enormous problems with the supply, carried out through the only airfield by mercenary forces from Air America. Also, these troops suffered from a lack of artillery. Nevertheless, these forces achieved some success - so the Hmongs managed to seize the airfield near Muang Sai, to the north-west from the main battle zone. But they did not have time to start using it.
In December, the Vietnamese reached the vulnerable point of the royalists - to the Nam Buck airfield. Having dragged a sufficient amount of ammunition around the mountains, they began shelling the runway with 82-mm mortar shells, and the airfield itself and its surroundings - from heavy machine guns. This dramatically worsened the situation for the royalists. Attempts to destroy the Vietnamese firing points on the hills with air strikes were not successful. The Americans had to stop landing on the airfield, and begin to drop supplies for their allies on parachute platforms. Perhaps the royalists somehow planned to solve the supply problem, but they were not given.
January 11 Vietnamese went on the offensive.
Those forces that they had in the area quickly regrouped, having gathered in several shock groups. The first were attacked by fighters from the 41 battalion of special forces, a unit passing under American documents as 41 Đặc công battalionwho conducted an extremely successful and very professionally executed raid right on Luang Prabang. Bypassing all the lines of defense of the royalists, they struck deep in the rear, around the city where the rear of the royalist groups and all their aircraft were based. This raid caused a panic in the royalist headquarters, which, in turn, did not allow them to properly assess the situation later.
On the same day, the main forces of the VNA in the valley launched an offensive. Royalists were attacked at several sites. The main part of the Vietnamese troops were part of the 316 Infantry Division, and the 355 Infantry Regiment. The 148 th regiment of the 316 th PD successfully attacked royalist positions in the valley from the north, while one of the battalions of the 355 th regiment struck a chilling blow from the west. The commander of the royalists threw the 99 th parachute battalion to meet the advancing Vietnamese, and withdrew his command post and its two 105-mm howitzers from the village itself. Us Buck and the airfield on one of the hills. This did not help, January 13 The 148 th BHA regiment dispersed all units covering the command post of the commander and began preparations for the final attack. In such circumstances, the commander of the royalists, General Savatphayphane Bounchanh (translate yourself) decided that the valley was lost and ran with the headquarters.
The royalist troops were left without control, their morale was undermined first by a Vietnamese raid on their rear base, and then by command flight. At the same time, they still twice exceeded the Vietnamese in number. But it did not matter.
The Vietnamese blow cut the royalist defense into pieces. Having no instructions, the 11, 12, and 25 regiments of the royal army made a withdrawal from positions that almost immediately turned into an unorganized flight. Only the 15 th regiment and the 99 th parachute battalion remained in front of the Vietnamese.
Then came a hard and short fight, during which these units were utterly defeated.
The Vietnamese, having entered combat contact with the 15 th regiment, literally flooded it with “rain” of 122-mm missiles that they fired from Grad-P portable missile launchers. After a few hours, a handful of surviving 15 regiments were already trying to crawl through the jungle to avoid finishing off or being captured. Only half of those who were attacked at the beginning of the battle managed to survive.
The 99 Parachute Battalion expected an even more tragic fate. He found himself in a situation where withdrawal was impossible due to the terrain conditions and the location of the battalion relative to the enemy. In the course of the melee that had begun with the VNA units, the personnel of the battalion were almost completely destroyed and partially captured. Only 13 people could break away from the enemy - the rest died or were captured.
By the end of January 14, the disorganized Laoist royalists were almost completely killed or captured. Several thousand people ran under the covering maneuver of the 174 infantry regiment of the 316 division and mostly surrendered. In contrast, the Vietnamese infantry could quickly maneuver over the heavy rocky terrain overgrown with jungle without losing control and "breaking" the battle formations, fired well and was not afraid of anything. Sentimentality towards the fleeing enemy, these people also did not suffer. The Vietnamese were superior to the enemy both in preparation (infinitely) and in morale, and could fight well at night.
By the night of January 15, it was all over, the battle for Nam Buck was won by VNA “clean” - with the enemy's double superiority in numbers and his absolute air supremacy. All that remained for the royalists was to ask the Americans to save at least someone. The Americans actually took by helicopters a number of surviving royalists who fled through the jungle.
The Battle for Nam Buck was a military disaster for the royal government in Laos. Of the more than 7300 people who were sent for this operation, only 1400 returned. The luckiest units — the 15 and 11 regiments — lost half of the personnel, the 12, which lost three quarters. 25-th almost all. In general, the battle cost the royal army half of all available troops. The Vietnamese prisoners alone captured almost two and a half thousand people. They got 7 howitzer with ammunition, 49 recoilless guns, 52 mortar, troop stocks that royalists did not manage to destroy or carry out, all the supplies dropped by American aircraft after January 11, and, as the Americans point out, “countless” small arms .
Nam Buck Valley Area
Among the Americans who controlled the course of the operation and helped the royalists in its conduct, a conflict broke out between the CIA, the embassy, and local agents. Agents blamed the CIA residency in Laos, Ted Sheckley. The latter was hiding behind his own report, directed “up on command,” in which even before the attack on Nam Buck indicated that the Vietnamese could not be provoked to actively intervene. Sheckley blamed the failure of the office of the US military attache in Laos, who in his opinion did not cope with the management and incorrectly assessed the situation. Has got also to the ambassador of the USA to Sullivan, de facto commanding this war. Although he himself was against the attack on Nam Buck, and during the operation he was not in the country at all, but he distributed weapons and ammunition in Laos, and was quite able to block the operation, about which he himself said that "it will be a fiasco" . But nothing was done.
One way or another, the threat to the “trail” in the north of Laos was removed, and in half a month the “Tet offensive” of the Vietnamese began in South Vietnam.
This of course did not mean the end of the struggle for the “Trail”.
Operation Tollroad and Defense of the Valley of Jugs
Although the occupation of the territory of Laos was forbidden to American troops, this prohibition did not apply to reconnaissance actions. And if MARV-SOG conducted reconnaissance and sabotage on the “Tropez” throughout the war, after the Tet offensive the Americans decided to do something else. At the end of 1968, they carried out a successful operation “Tollroad”, which was carried out by units of the 4 Infantry Division operating in South Vietnam. Taking advantage of the fact that the Vietnamese cannot ensure the full defense of the entire “Trail”, and the constraint of their troops with the battles in Laos, the Americans launched a raid aimed at destroying Vietnamese communications in the territories of Cambodia and Laos adjacent to South Vietnam.
The engineering divisions of the 4 pd were able to find the road that vehicles could pass, as was written in the reports “no more than 2,5 tons of total weight”, and on foot porters. First, the Americans went to this route in Cambodia, destroying a number of Vietnamese caches and roadbeds there, moved to Laos, where they did the same. There were no clashes with the Vietnamese units, as well as losses. December 1 1968, the American soldiers were taken out by helicopters. This operation had no serious effect, as well as a number of subsequent raids of small scale, which the Americans did conduct against the Laotian part of the “path”. But all these were "pin shots."
The real problem was the invasion of the Hmongs who had recovered from Nam Bak with the American air support to the Valley of Jars.
Location Valley Jugs. It’s easy to get to Vietnam, but you don’t have to reach it to cut the path
By November, the Hmong leader 1968, Wang Pao, was able to train eight battalions of his fellow tribesmen, as well as train Hmong pilots to participate in the planned attack in the Valley of Jars. The main factor that gave Wang Pao hope for success was the number of combat missions of fighter-bombers agreed with the Americans to support the Hmong attacks - it was planned that there would be at least 100 per day. Also on the help of Wang Pao were promised combat flights of "Skyraders" from the 56 air wing of special operations, based in Thailand.
The offensive was supposed to lead to the capture of the Phm Phu Thi mountain by the Hmongs, and the American radar observation station Lima 85, which had been repulsed by the Vietnamese earlier, during a series of battles for the key base in the region, Na Hang. The mountain was considered sacred by the Hmongs and Wang Pao believed that its capture would inspire his people. Next, Wang Pao planned to continue the attack on the Valley of Jars to the Vietnamese border. If he had succeeded then the “path” would have been cut.
The delivery of Hmong shock troops to the area of concentration before the attack was to be carried out by American helicopters. The operation received the code name "Pigfat" - "lard". After a series of delays, 6 December 1968, the Hmongs attacked with a monstrous glow of US air support. Looking ahead, we say that the positions of one of the VNA battalions defending against the Hmongs were bombarded with napalm for three days.
Sometimes it was enough to have a few shots from the Vietnamese 82-mm mortar, so that American planes immediately appeared and began to drop incendiary bombs in tons of positions to the Vietnamese. The actions of the Vietnamese were complicated by the fact that part of the vegetation in the area was destroyed by defoliants at the beginning of the year, and the Vietnamese could not always use the vegetation as a cover for maneuver.
At first, the Hmongs did it, the American air support did its work, although the Americans paid their price for it - so, on December 8, they lost three planes right away - one F-105 and two Skyraders. But the Vietnamese losses were enormous, reaching up to half the personnel in some battalions.
But something went wrong. First, the Americans were able to provide only half of the promised number of sorties. The lack of coordination between the CIA, responsible for the war in Laos, and the US Air Force, who fought against the “trail” during the Vietnam War, led to the fact that shortly after the start of the operation, a significant part of the aircraft was withdrawn from the hunt for trucks Air Force Operations Commando Hunt. A little later it put the Hmong in a difficult position.
The Vietnamese resisted fiercely, and, as a rule, retreated only after heavy losses. The Hmongs in this operation for the first time withdrew from the partisan methods and acted "head on", which also cost them dearly. They had never suffered such losses before, and this was a serious demoralizing factor.
However, by mid-December, the position of the Vietnamese was already desperate - the losses were enormous, and the command of the Vietnamese troops doubted whether they could manage to resist. However, the Vietnamese knew that the 148 th regiment who had distinguished themselves earlier in Nam goes to help them; they had to win quite a bit of time.
And they won it.
The Vietnamese were able to establish the location of the ammunition station, through which the Hmong units received ammunition for the offensive. On the night of December 21, the Vietnamese conducted a successful raid against this point, destroying it, and at the same time destroying one of the 105-mm howitzers, which the enemy had already had a few. This forced the Hmong to stop, and on December 25, the 148 th regiment turned around and launched an offensive. He had a few days left for him to enter the military contact with the forces of Wang Pao. The latter, realizing that he was shining his troops, if these soldiers got to them, undertook a series of propaganda actions aimed at undermining the Vietnamese morals. So, 26 and 27 December to the Vietnamese troops broadcast records in which the Vietnamese prisoners persuaded them not to participate in hostilities. Wang Pao hoped that this would cause desertion in the ranks of the VNA. In parallel, mercenaries-pilots from Thailand were brought back to the area of hostilities, and the Hmong support base in Muang Sui received an additional batch of ammunition.
None of this helped. On the night of January 1, 1969, the Vietnamese leaked through the Hmong defensive orders, cutting out along the way eleven local fighters and one American adviser. The appearance of the first units of the Vietnamese already behind the line of defense caused panic and the troops of Wang Pao ran in this area. A week later, Wang Pao announced a general retreat. The Pigfat operation is over.
But for the Vietnamese nothing ended. They used the Hmong withdrawal to break into Na Hang, for which they fought with 1966 of the year. However, this did not have much to do with the “path”.
For several months, the threat of cutting off Vietnamese communications was removed.
It must be said that the goals of both the operation in Nam Bak and the invasion of the Valley of Jars were not limited to interrupting the “trail”. Eo were the operations of the civil war in Laos, aimed at the capture of areas controlled by the Communists. However, the loss of these areas would lead to the cutting of the “path” and would call the continuation of the war in the South into question.
The Vietnamese did not allow this.
For the Hmongs, failure in the Valley of Jars was a very painful experience. Of the 1800 fighters who went on the 6 December 1968 offensive, 700 was killed and missing by the middle of January, 500 were injured. They had no such losses even in Nam Buck. The Vietnamese definitely won this battle, but for them the price was very high, their losses were calculated in even greater numbers.
The Hmongs were seriously frightened by what it all ended with - at the end of the battles, parts of the VNA found themselves in a few kilometers from their areas of residence and they were afraid of revenge. From the frontline villages, women and children ran, all men capable of holding weapons were ready to fight for their villages and villages. But the Vietnamese did not come, focusing on the progress achieved.
Despite these results, the Hmong still trusted their leader, Wang Pao. And Wang Pao planned to fight further, relying on American support.
Valley of Jars for a long time to be a battlefield. But while critical areas important for work were kept by the Vietnamese, they were not going to retreat and also planned to fight further.
Division VNA on the march, on the "path". Photo: LE MINH TRUONG. This is 1966, but in such conditions they acted throughout the war.
To be continued ...