Vang’s War

How the fighting in Southeast Asia transformed a curious young man into a fiercely dedicated pilot.

Air & Space Magazine

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When the next wave of tribesmen were sent to Thailand for flight training, Vang Bee finally got his chance. Meanwhile, Ly Lue, in constant demand by ground commanders, was becoming a hero to his people. A CIA case officer, known as “Linus,” with the tribal program remembers, “The Hmong loved to have aircraft working around them. But when a Hmong T-28 arrived on the scene, the excitement was electric. Those T-28 pilots did more to raise the fighting morale of the Hmong than all of the other factors combined. We could have American fast movers [jets] working around our positions and there were oohs and aahs, but when a couple of Hmong T-28s showed up on the scene, the Hmong ground-pounders could hardly contain themselves.”

Like many of the tribal pilots who followed him, Ly Lue became exceptionally skilled at delivering ordnance. He flew missions every day, and he dropped his bombs from treetop level, a practice that, while increasing his accuracy, allowed the underside of his airplane to be damaged by shrapnel from his own bombs. Legends of his feats, some unlikely, abounded. One story says that a North Vietnamese PT-76 tank once drove onto open ground on the Plain of Jars and that Ly Lue dropped a single bomb through the tank’s open turret.

Most sorties from Long Tieng took an hour or less, and then Ly Lue would land at Long Tieng, re-arm, and go up again. Other pilots averaged three to five short missions a day, but Ly Lue flew five to eight, and occasionally 10.

It was a rate that couldn’t be sustained. On July 11, 1969, with 720 missions in his logbook, Ly Lue was working a target at low altitude when a 12.7-mm anti-aircraft gun stayed on him all the way into the ground. During the funeral ceremony at Long Tieng, Vang Pao wept and U.S. officers paid respect to the pilot many considered the best in Southeast Asia. A new unofficial motto for the Hmong pilots began to circulate: Fly until you die.

In Udorn Thani, meanwhile, Vang Bee was learning the principles of aviation in the classroom. (Years later, he provides a succinct summary of what he learned about the creation of lift: “The wind heavier than the airplane.”) The U.S. instructors with the Water Pump program were never quite sure how aeronautical science blended with spiritual beliefs in their students’ minds. The call sign for all the Laotian T-28 pilots, ethnic Lao as well as Hmong, was “Chaophakhao,” meaning Lord White Buddha, a reference to a mystical sect of monks who wore white rather than the traditional saffron or brown robes. At his graduation, the Thai instructor pilots followed Buddhist tradition and doused Vang Bee with a pail of water to cleanse his soul. Back in Long Tieng, his parents followed Hmong religious traditions, lighting incense and praying to the spirits for his safety every morning when he left the house.

Vang Bee began flying out of Long Tieng in the dry season toward the end of 1970, after the Hmong had captured the Plain of Jars, the largest piece of non-mountainous real estate for miles around. In the rainy season the communists took the Plain of Jars back, and in the following dry season the Hmong would retake it. As a wingman, Vang Bee armed his T-28 with whatever ordnance his flight leader thought was needed: 500-pound bombs for enemy bunkers; bombs with fuze extenders to create air bursts near troops in the open, napalm for deep bunkers or caves, white-phosphorous marking rockets, and .50-caliber machine gun ammunition. After his first few hundred missions, he helped develop new tactics, such as using two-airplane teams for taking out enemy machine gun positions. Coordinating by radio, he and another pilot would come in from opposite directions, the first marking the site with rockets, the second hitting it seconds later with bombs. The teams flew during daylight hours, with little or no navigation equipment.

At night Vang Bee lived well by Hmong standards. His official salary, plus a dollar-a-mission bonus from the CIA, plus unofficial payments from Vang Pao, added up to about $200 a month, and that, along with the status that came with being a pilot, made him a catch to the women of his tribe. “The life of the fighter pilot very good for the single man,” he recalls with a laugh. “More money, eat enough, play enough, die no matter.”

Some Hmong tribesmen flew with U.S. forward air controllers in unarmed Cessna O-1 spotter airplanes, serving as observers—“backseaters”—or as liaisons and translators. The FACs, known as Ravens because of their radio call sign, coordinated with a U.S. airborne command center and directed tactical strikes flown by U.S. jets based in Thailand and on aircraft carriers (see “Ravens of Long Tieng,” Oct./Nov. 1998). By this point in the war, the North Vietnamese had abandoned guerrilla tactics and instead were installing large, fixed troop concentrations in Laos. The U.S. Air Force bombed the troops with B-52s. If the giant bombers were at one end of the Vietnam War air-power spectrum, the Hmong air force of six to 10 little T-28s was at the other. The Hmong pilots flew local missions under the direct command of Vang Pao, who often radioed orders to his pilots from an unarmed aircraft high above the battlefield. The T-28s, it was said, were Vang Pao’s artillery.

But the North Vietnamese had real artillery to use in Laos, along with two army divisions. As dusk fell on December 31, 1971, North Vietnamese troops opened up on Vang Pao’s positions with a tremendous barrage around the Plain of Jars and followed it up with assaults by waves of ground troops. The shells came from Soviet-made 130-mm long-range artillery, and they caught the Hmong-Thai-U.S. alliance by surprise. After the North Vietnamese captured the Plain of Jars yet again, they began an artillery assault on Long Tieng. The T-28s were evacuated, and although they eventually returned, the maintenance facilities that serviced them were permanently withdrawn to safer territory. After that, Long Tieng lost its importance as a base. AC-47 gunships, B-52s, and other formidable aircraft kept the air war going, but Hmong morale sank. The tribesmen didn’t feel in charge of their own war anymore.

Vang Bee says he and the other Hmong pilots knew the war was lost when President Richard Nixon visited China in 1972. The fighting in Laos dragged on, though, and when a Hmong T-28 flight leader was shot down and killed, Vang Bee replaced him. Fly until you die. The signing of the Paris Peace Accords by the United States and both North and South Vietnam in January 1973 resulted in a cease-fire, and the U.S. Air Force stopped flying combat missions. Local skirmishing continued, though, and during one engagement, Vang Bee was shot down near the North Vietnamese border, not far from the village where he had been born. Unhurt, he was picked up by an Air America helicopter. After that, he did most of his flying at the controls of Vang Pao’s personal aircraft, a twin-engine Beech Baron. By then, 36 tribesmen had gone through the T-28 program, and about half had survived. They even began to diversify, a few becoming C-47 co-pilots, a few others copiloting H-34 helicopters.

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