Lima Site-85

(Phou Pha Thi, Laos)

In the country of Laos, the mountain of Phou Pha Thi was considered to be a sacred place by the Meos tribesmen. But to the United States, it was just the opposite, it was of vital importance to the war effort in Vietnam. This was the "Rock".

The ROCK was a natural fortress, it had a razorback ridge and a 5.600 foot sheer cliff on one side and the Americans fortified the other. A seven hundred foot long dirt landing field had been cleared in the valley below. On all aerial maps, this location was designated "LIMA SITE-85". Site-85 was manned by 300 Thai mercenaries and Meos, as well as Americans on a clandestine posting. The Americans were from the U.S. Air Force and Lockheed Aircraft Systems, and their duty was to man the highly sophisticated navigational equipment which was used to guide American bombers to targets in Northern Laos and North Vietnam.

LIMA SITE-85 was located in northern Laos, approximately 160 miles west of Hanoi. The site was considered to be impregnable to anything with the exception of a massive aerial assault. But the site had its disadvantages; it was deep within enemy territory and the men manning the site were in a position where they couldn't possibly be rescued if the mountain was ever overrun.

In 1967, a top secret U.S. Air Force operation code named "PONY EXPRESS" was undertaken. The operation was to airlift 150 tons of equipment by helicopters to LIMA SITE-85. The equipment was to upgrade the Site's original navigation equipment with a more elaborate system using the latest radar. This equipment would enable American aircraft to bomb North Vietnam and Laos at night, and in all types of weather.

On January 12, 1968, one of the most unusual air actions took place in Northern Laos. The North Vietnamese Air Force launched an air attack on LIMA-SITE-85, using Soviet manufactured single engine biplanes (Antonov AN-2 Colts). While the planes attacked the site, the crewmen fired machine guns out the windows and dropped mortar shells as bombs. These biplanes were so vulnerable and outdated that an Air America (CIA) helicopter took them down. One of the crewmen of the CIA helicopter shot down the first aircraft by firing at the aircraft through the door. The second aircraft was forced down 18 miles north of the Site, and the third plane crashed into the mountain. The incident was released to the press, but due to the secret nature of the Site, the location was changed to Lunang Prabang.

This would not be the last time the North Vietnamese would attempt an assault on Site-85. On March 10, 1968, at 6:15 p.m., three battalions of the 766th Regiment of the North Vietnamese Regular Army (NVA) began an attack. The North Vietnamese artillery opened fire on the southeast side of the Site, sappers took the airfield in the valley below. On the peak of the mountain, the Air Force personnel (these men were technicians, not combat troops), were in the trenches as rockets landed all around them.

During the night, North Vietnamese troops launched their frontal assault, they fought their way up the slopes in bitter hand-to-hand combat. The frontal assault was actually a diversion to allow North Vietnamese commandoes time to attempt the impossible, scale the 5,600 foot cliff side of the Site, and swarm the peak. They succeeded and the Americans at the top were surprises. (Some of the Americans were able to drop down the side of the mountain into caves below)

At daybreak, Forward Air Controllers (FAC) were on station, flying over Site-85, ready to direct a combination of T-28 fighters and U.S. jet fighters against the enemy below. [But the T-28's and US jet fighters were ordered to stand down.] At the same time, Air America helicopters were in position to evacuate any and all survivors (it is reported, that the U.S. Air Force was reluctant to commit rescue helicopters to get the men out, they feared the political consequences if an American Jolly Green Giant was shot down in Laos). Several men were rescued by the CIA from the caves below the peak. For a week following the assault, U.S. planes continued to bomb the bunker on the mountain peak in an attempt to destroy the equipment [but was it?]

The whole operation of LIMA SITE-85 had been so shrouded in secrecy, that even today, the final count of American dead is uncertain. Only four U.S. Air Force personnel were rescued, this left twelve men unaccounted for. The number of CIA paramilitary officers stationed at Site-85, still remains classified. The relatives of the dead men were only told, that they had been killed in Southeast Asia.

To this day, eleven U.S. Air Force personnel are still listed as MIA/Laos. On that fatal day in March 1968; Clarence Blanton, James Calfee, James Davis, Henry Gish, Willis Hall, Melvin Holland, Herbert Kirt, David Price, Patrick Shannon, Donald Springsteadah and Don Worley, could these men possibly be the men of LIMA SITE-85. The story of LIMA SITE-85 leaves a lot of unanswered questions.

Why in an age of jet fighters and helicopters, did the North Vietnamese use such antiquated aircraft to attack a target of such important as Site-85? Why was such an elaborate plan developed to assault Site-85 [climb over 1 mile of sheer cliff] ? Was it the intent of the North Vietnamese to capture the technicians and the equipment intact?

Jerry Mooney (a cryptanalyst for the National Security Agency (NSA) during the Vietnam War), has stated that the North Vietnamese made every effort to capture (alive) certain air-crewmen [those of special talents]. If indeed this was true, then the technicians of Site-85 would have been a prize package for the Communists. There have been several accounts of the communists leading some of the Americans from Lima Site 85, byt the US Government refuse to acknowledge those accounts.

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