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Vietnam History: Book Reviews: Covert Ops & Tragic Mountain
Two books centred on the “Secret War” in Laos from 1942-1992



I have been reading some books centred on the so-called “Secret War” in Laos (pronounced with a silent “S” not like Chaos as President Kennedy once said) this was prompted by the operations of SOG across the fence in Laos. The Kingdom of Laos was a covert theatre of operations for the other belligerents during the Vietnam War mainly centred on trying to disrupt forces entering South Vietnam via the Ho Chi Minh trail as well as diverting the PAVN and thus freeing up forces in South Vietnam. The Franco-Lao Treaty of 1953 gave Laos full independence but the following years were marked by a rivalry between the neutralists under Prince Souvanna Phouma, the right wing under Prince Boun Oum of Champassak, and the left-wing, Lao Patriotic Front under Prince Souphanouvong and future Prime Minister Kaysone Phomvihane. During this period a number of unsuccessful attempts were made to establish viable coalition governments, and a "tri-coalition" government was seated in Vientiane.

The fighting in Laos included significant participation by North Vietnamese, American, and South Vietnamese military forces—fighting directly and through irregular proxies such as the Hmong (known wrongly as Meo by the Americans and pronounced with a silent “H”)) for control over the Laotian Panhandle, which the North Vietnamese Army occupied to use as a supply corridor and staging area for offensives into the South. The North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao emerged victorious in 1975, along with the general communist victory in Indochina that year.

Covert Ops: The CIA's Secret War in Laos
James E., Jr. Parker

The first book I read was written by a CIA advisor, or SKY Soldier, as they were known by the Hmong. The book starts with a tour of Vietnam in 1966 as a Second Lieutenant where he was injured. Upon return to the States he was recruited by the CIA as a Field Officer, we follow him through training and eventual deployment to Laos. One of the interesting contrasts with your usual Vietnam War memoirs was the fact the Mule (as he became to be known) went to Laos with his wife, she stayed with him during the full tour and they even adopted 2 Laotian children, this in itself quite a moving story. Mule would then fly out each day to visit Hmong tribesmen and advise on battles with the PAVN and Pathat Lao.

The other thing that stands out is the very different and somehow disjointed approach to the wars in South East Asia. In Vietnam we have up to 500,000 conventional troops fighting a supposed “irregular” enemy, though post 1968 mainly composed of PAVN regular forces. And in Laos you have irregular forces advised by a handful of CIA personnel fighting a very blatant and conventional PAVN force (of up to 80,000 troops). There are accounts of PAVN forces regularly using helicopters, using Soviet supply planes and large use of tanks. The main reason behind this was the US sticking to the neutrality of Laos based on the Geneva Convention agreement, even thought the North Vietnamese didn’t stick to the agreement.

It also makes you think a more joined up approach might have ended in a different outcome as numerous North Vietnamese sources have said that if the Ho Chi Minh trail was cut they wouldn’t have been able to win the war.

Tragic Mountains: The Hmong, the Americans, and the Secret Wars for Laos, 1942-1992
By Jane Hamilton-Merritt

This book is much wider in scope and is a detailed and well researched history of the role the Hmong people have had in the wars in Laos, and there ongoing struggle for recognition of their plight. The author has spent time reporting in South East Asia since the mid 1960’s and has been nominated for a Nobel peace Prize for her work on the Hmong cause and a Pulitzer Price for her reporting in Vietnam during 1969. The terms Hmog and Mong refer to an Asian ethnic group in the mountainous regions of southeast Asia. Hmong are also one of the largest sub-groups in the Miao minzu populated in southern China. Beginning in the 18th century, Hmong groups began a gradual southward migration due to political unrest and to find more arable land. As a result, Hmong currently also live in several countries in Southeast Asia, including northern Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar-Burma. In Laos, a significant number of Hmong/Mong people fought against the communist-nationalist Pathet Lao during the Secret War.

When the Pathet Lao took over the government in 1975, Hmong/Mong people were singled out for retribution, and tens of thousands fled to Thailand for political asylum. Since the late 1970s, thousands of these refugees have resettled in Western countries, including the United States, Australia, France, French Guiana, and Canada. Others have been returned to Laos under United Nations-sponsored repatriation programs, many against their will. Around 8,000 Hmong/Mong refugees remain in Thailand. The book covers the period form 1942 when the Hmong fought with French against the Japanese and then the Viet Minh, follows their long relationship with the US and then their flight from persecution when Laos fell to the communists in 1975.

In the early 1960s, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) began to recruit the indigenous Hmong people in Laos to join fighting the Vietnam War, named as a Special Guerrilla Unit led by General Vang Pao. About 60% of the Hmong men in Laos were supported by the CIA to join fighting for the "Secret War" in Laos, me such as Mule the author of the book above. The CIA used the Special Guerrilla Unit as the counter attack unit to block the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the main military supply route from the north to the south. Hmong soldiers put their lives at risk in the frontline fighting for the United States to block the supply line and to rescue downed American pilots. As a result, the Hmong suffered a very high casualty rate; more than 40,000 Hmong were killed in the frontline, countless men were missing in action, thousands more were injured and disabled. General Vang Pao led the Region II (MR2) defense against NVA incursion from his headquarters in Long Cheng, also known as Lima Site 20 Alternate (LS 20A). At the height of its activity, Long Cheng became the second largest city in Laos. Long Cheng was a micro-nation operational site with its own bank, airport, school system, officials, and many other facilities and services in addition to its military units. Before the end of the Secret War, Long Cheng would fall in and out of General Vang Pao's control.

The Secret War began around the time that the U.S. became officially involved in the Vietnam War. Following the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975, the Lao kingdom was overthrown by the communists and the Hmong people became targets of retaliation and persecution. While some Hmong people returned to their villages and attempted to resume life under the new regime, thousands more made the trek to and across the Mekong River into Thailand, often under attack. This marked the beginning of a mass exodus of Hmong people from Laos. Those who did make it to Thailand generally were held in squalid United Nations refugee camps. Nearly 20 years later, in the 1990s, a major international debate ensued over whether the Hmong should be returned to Laos, where opponents of their return argued they were being subjected to persecution, or afforded the right to immigrate to the U.S. and other Western nations.

The second half of the book focuses on the allegations that the Laotian Government supported by Vietnam (with Soviet technology) has led a campaign of extermination of the Hmong using banned chemical weapons, such as Nerve Agents and Mycotoxins or bleeding agents. Its pretty harrowing stuff but the main feature is the lack of support by the US Government in recognising the support of the Hmong during its war with Vietnam. This was given in 1997 when in a total reversal of U.S. policy, the U.S. government acknowledged that it had supported a prolonged air and ground campaign against the NVA and VietCong. It simultaneously dedicated the Laos Memorial on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery in honour of the Hmong and other combat veterans from the Secret War.

Though the story ends their in the book it has taken a darker turn since the book was written with the arrest of Vang Pao and nine others for plotting to overthrow the government of Laos in violation of the federal Neutrality Acts and for multiple weapons charges. The federal charges allege that members of the group inspected weapons, including AK-47s, smoke grenades, and Stinger missiles, with the intent of purchasing them and smuggling them into Thailand in June 2007 where they were intended to be used by Hmong resistance forces in Laos. The one non-Hmong person of the nine arrested, Harrison Jack, a 1968 West Point graduate and retired Army infantry officer, allegedly attempted to recruit Special Operations veterans to act as mercenaries.

This book is not easy reading but one that I feel is essential for the student of wars in South East Asia.

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