Helen Murphy © 2009-2016 All Rights Reserved
Pakse, Laos 1969-70 Project 404 by Don Harp, Ret. USAF
Approximately 440 miles south of Vientiane Laos lies the quiet and peaceful city of Pakse, provincial capital of Champasak. Situated on the banks of the Mekong and Xe don Rivers, a city of 70,000 people was known as the boring part of Laos when compared to Louang Phabang and Vientiane. I arrived in Pakse in April 1969 and instantly realized how welcomed I was and very happy to be here. I moved in to the AIRA house, a mansion situated among the loosely boarded
houses, on stilts with corrugated tin roofs that our neighbors lived in. I got situated in my room, met the house girls, Hoa and Si, who did an excellent job to keep the house clean and meals served. I can't remember the name of the cook but he was full of personality and made a lot of jokes and laughed at them more than we did. I met the rest of the crew at dinner and had a feeling I was with
a great bunch of men. The boss (Bender) had a f__k you Snoopy Flag in one hand and a bottle of Crown Royal in the other, a sign this was a close knitted group with a colorful persona and meaningful mission.
I went to the flightline the next day and met the RLAF T-28 Pilots, base Commander, Col. Khoung, and the maintenance personnel. As I met more and more of the Laotian people I knew I had been given a good assignment, to help these wonderful people in their struggle for what they believed in. I counted eleven T-28 aircraft, two O-1's, and one Cessna Skymaster. At that time I never realized how much work these planes would make for us. The RLAF personnel were mission dedicated, honorable and patriotic with an eagerness to defend his country equal to any Air Force in the world. We never had to look for pilots as they were there every day ready to rock and roll. The maintenance personnel, watched over by Gene Wallace, John Tolley and Van, maintained the fleet of aircraft at 100% in commission rate on a daily basis. I made sure the munitions were ordered in and assembled for loading on the aircraft. I soon learned that each pilot liked a certain type of munition and I would give them what they wanted as long as it fit the target requirements. I also worked on the T-28's with Gene and loaded bombs with Mike.
Our T-28's flown by the RLAF pilots (who never referred to them as trainers) and the O-1's flown by the Ravens searched out and destroyed targets in all the southern part of Laos, mainly on the Bolovens Plateau over to Attapeu and Saravane and the Ho Chi Min Trail. The pilots were good and hit the target most of the time and were brave on the run in on target to get low enough to see, Judge, and destroy it. In the fourteen months I was there we lost two O-1's, one flown by Jay Puckett, went down on the way back to base after a day of putting in air strikes, one flown by Ken Thompson crashed at Attapeu with a blocked fuel line, one O-1 was seriously damaged by ground fire, two T-28's were lost, one of which took the life of pilot Dara at Saravane, two T-28's were damaged - one ran off the runway at Pakse, one suffered explosion and fragmentation damage from a near miss by a Russian 140 mm Rocket. We could have suffered from sabotage when someone wired the landing gear with arming wire so it would rip out the fuel lines when the landing gear was raised after takeoff. The routine morning inspection of the aircraft discovered this and prevented a disaster, the culprit was never caught.
The T-28 pilots would bring back the empty CBU Dispensers so they could sell them as scrap metal. One day we nearly suffered a disaster when a T-28 landed with four CBU Dispensers, one of which failed to dispense all the BLU-3B Bomblets. When the T-28 touched down the jarring effect caused the bomblets to fall out all over the runway. Now we had fifteen armed and very dangerous
fragmentation bomblets lying on the runway, T-28's in the air low on gas and wanting to land, one Lao Airlines Turbo Prop in the landing pattern. The Boss (Bender) asked me if I was brave and crazy enough to go out and move the bomblets off the runway so the aircraft could land. I did this and I can say this had me scared and wrecked my nerves. Normal EOD would have safed the
bomblets but I had no way to do that so had to handle them fully armed and ready to function if the striker plate was tapped even slightly. I brought them back to the T-28 ramp, locked them in a storage building and took them out and destroyed them a week later. The aircraft landed safely and the pilots bought me beer that night at the Mekong Bar. The rocket attacks we got on average of three or four a month were nothing compared to this! I was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal for this action.
In June 1970, with a heavy heart, I had to leave Pakse and return to the USA for a follow-on assignment to Lakenheath England. The pilots gave me a "RLAF AFB PAKSE" silver and gold bracelet with my name on it as a going away and thank you gift. This meant so much to me that today, thirty-nine years later, it still is out on display beside a model of a T-28 with a Cobra
painted on the Oil Cooler Door. I have never worked with a better bunch of men, Laotian and American, in all my twenty-four years in the U. S. Air Force. The Laotian people are most wonderful and gracious with an unmatched willingness to share and welcome you in to their lives and homes. I felt like family and I think of them often. My pride is high when I remember all those smiling faces
getting in to their T-28 Fighter Bombers, the sound of the engine starting and the roar as it goes down the runway taking off fully loaded with munitions. I hope all of them are alive and happy, if any of them read this I say "Hi my friend, thanks for giving me the privilege of knowing you".
Don Harp, Pakse Lima-11, 69-70