Laos still suffering from US bombs

By Parvathi Menon in India:

Laos still grappling with war legacy

Thirty-five years after the end of U.S. military intervention in Indo-China and the establishment of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, the country still grapples with the terrible and continuing legacy of the war. It has the unwanted status of being the most bombed nation in the world, and one that is most affected by cluster munitions and Unexploded Ordnance (UXO). Large swathes of the country – over 87,000 sqare miles spread over 15 provinces – still contain the deadly remnants of UXO contamination that continues to maim and kill people.

The so-called ‘Secret War’ in Laos, a war the U.S. administration denied existed, was one of the more sordid chapters of U.S. military intervention in Indo-China. Between 1963 and 1974, the U.S. subjected Laos, through which passed the supply line for North Vietnamese troops called the Ho Chi Minh trail, to a relentless bombing campaign.

More bombs were dropped on Laos than what the U.S. dropped in Japan and Germany during World War II, according to the Lao UXO Programme. Over two million tonnes of explosives were dropped on the country, with more than half a million U.S. bombing missions carried out between these years. This included more than 266 million anti-personal submunitions, called “bombies” – the small deadly bombs released from cluster bombs. It is estimated that 30 per cent of ordnance dropped on Laos remained unexploded.

“The UXOs are concentrated in nine provinces of Laos, in remote forests and agricultural fields,” said Alexang Hongkeo, an official in the administrative unit of the Laos National UXO Programmes headquartered in Vientiane.

The Lao UXO Programme, set up in February 1996, has a mandate to reduce the number of casualties caused by UXO through risk education, and to increase the amount of land available for food production and other socio-economic development activities through UXO clearance activity. This is an integral part of the country’s poverty eradication programme as the communities affected by UXO contamination are among the poorest in the country.

“Thanks to our efforts, adults now know about the dangers of UXO. Children however don’t, and often think that a bombie they find is a ball to play with,” said Mr. Hongkeo.

The Lao UXO Programme estimates that 50,000 people have been killed or injured from UXO accidents between 1968 and 2008. But the numbers are steadily falling. In 2009, for example, there was a total of 50 such accidents reported from the nine most affected provinces. And since 1996, UXO Laos has made 17,800 hectares available for agriculture and related activities by its clean up programme.

The high costs that Laos has had to bear from a grim history of U.S. aggression explains the active role the country has assumed in the Cluster Munitions Convention that came into force on August 1, 2010. The treaty has been ratified by 37 of the 107 countries that signed it. In November this year, Laos will host the first meeting of State parties to the Cluster Munitions Convention and assume the presidency of the Convention for a year.

10 thoughts on “Laos still suffering from US bombs

  1. Sep 22, 2010

    CIA skips on its Air America bills

    By John McBeth

    JAKARTA – In May 1964, five Air America pilots were called into the clandestine airline’s Vientiane station manager’s office and asked if they would fly interdiction missions against communist Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces east of the Plain of Jars in northeast Laos.

    Also present at the meeting was a “Mr Jones”, an operative of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which had financed Air America from its inception as Civil Air Transport (CAT) in 1950 and would continue to do so until its closure following the evacuation of Saigon in 1975.

    “We were recruited based on our previous experience, apparently because the local pilots were not then up to the task,” said John Wiren, one of the recruits. “This was an urgent request because a large concentration of NVA were massing for a pre-monsoon advance into Laos.”

    Because of the potential fallout if they were shot down or captured, the five were asked to submit written resignations to protect the Laotian and US governments as signatories of the 1961 Geneva Peace Accords, which supposedly guaranteed Laos’ neutrality.

    Flying Thailand-based T-28 bombers with Laotian markings, Air America fliers continued in that role for four more years and were subsequently also responsible for the rescue of numerous US pilots downed over Laos, including three officers who were later to become admirals.

    Thirty-six years later, now newly-retired from his post-war job with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Wiren applied for additional civil service
    retirement benefits based on his record of flying those combat missions for the CIA and the US embassy in Laos.

    After Wiren had spent almost a year answering correspondence and filling in voluminous forms, a lower court judge finally informed him that his request was denied because he had been a soldier of fortune working for the Laotian government.

    Wiren’s experience is no different from that of a dwindling band of fellow Air America survivors who have fought for two decades to secure benefits that have been legally denied them and the widows of dead colleagues because, by the nature of their secret work, none had held a formal government position.

    Just as the CIA walked away from the thousands of Hmong tribesmen who made up its irregular army in Laos in 1975, so it is now dragging its feet over helping the civilian fliers who provided the agency with invaluable air support in some of the world’s most difficult terrain.

    A graphic reminder of that will come at a ceremony on Tuesday at the White House in which US President Barack Obama will award a posthumous Medal of Honor to US Air Force Chief Master Sergeant Richard Etchberger for his actions in the March 11, 1968, battle for Phou Pha Thi.

    Better known as Lima Site 85, the 1,900-meter-high limestone massif was the home of a clandestine radar site, buried deep inside enemy territory in northeast Laos and which the Americans were using to direct the bombing campaign over North Vietnam.

    It was here in Military Region II, only 30 kilometers south of the Pathet Lao’s Sam Neua headquarters, that the North Vietnamese were infiltrating men and supplies into Laos as part of the effort to protect its supply lines into South Vietnam.

    In January 1968, about 18 months after the rader site was installed, sappers scaling the precipitous northeast face spearheaded an all-out attack on Phou Pha Thi by up to 19 battalions of Vietnamese and Pathet Lao troops.

    Despite having only elementary combat training, Etchberger held off the lead elements of the assault force with an M-16 assault rifle while directing air strikes onto the slopes of the mountain.

    Later, he exposed himself to heavy fire to help three wounded colleagues into slings hanging from an Air America rescue helicopter before climbing into one himself. He was killed when a bullet tore through the floor of the chopper after he was hauled aboard.

    “He should have a 55-gallon drum full of medals,” says retired Technical Sergeant John Daniel, 71, one of the men he rescued in the operation, the details of which remained secret for years. “I wouldn’t be alive without him.”

    He also wouldn’t be alive without what are expected to be two of the invitees at the White House ceremony – Ken Wood and Rusty Irons, the pilot and crew chief of the same Air America chopper. But they won’t receive anything, not even proper recognition, for their heroism on that day.

    Clandestine paper trail

    Even in its official history, the CIA documents the repeated efforts by Air America helicopter crews to get into the site because US Air Force Jolly Green Giants from Thailand’s Nakhon Phanom airbase were late in arriving.

    Only two months before, in one of the more bizarre incidents of the war, an Air America Bell-205 helicopter fought off a raid on Phou Pha Thi by three ancient North Vietnamese A-2 biplanes using machine-guns, 57mm rockets and air-dropped 120mm mortar bombs.

    Because the helicopter was faster, pilot Terry Moore flew alongside one of the slow-moving A-2s while crewman Glen Woods strapped himself to the doorpost and fired at it with an AK-47 rifle, eventually bringing it down.

    Another plane, heavily damaged by ground-fire, crashed on a hillside. Interestingly, the Vietnamese Air Force’s official account of the raid matches Air America’s after-action reports and adds that the third plane failed to make it home as well.

    Sketchy media reports at the time talked only about an “unidentified” plane shooting down the AN-2 and former colleagues say it was made clear to Moore at a “heavy” debriefing session that he should never mention the incident.

    Woods later died when his helicopter lost a rotor, one of more than 240 pilots and crew members who were killed during the lifetime of CAT and Air America, most of them as a result of hostile fire and many during the so-called “secret war” in Laos.

    “The CIA would just as soon not have anyone know we were alive,” said one veteran pilot, who along with other former airline employees has been campaigning for decades to secure benefits for about 400 survivors and widows.

    Although a retirement plan was introduced to the airline in 1963, the families of 47 dead employees received no compensation at all and those of another 39 received payments ranging from US$10,782 to a paltry $13.40.

    When the courts in the late 1980s ruled against the survivors receiving federal retirement benefits, a group led by the airline’s one-time legal counsel, William Merrigan, took their case to the US Congress.

    In 2003, Democrat Senator Harry Reid introduced an Air America retirement bill, but standalone legislation is rarely successful so it was decided to try and slip the issue into annual Pentagon spending allocations.

    Last October, a provision was included in the 2009-2010 Defense Appropriations Bill, giving the director of national intelligence 180 days to submit a report on the advisability of providing the benefits.

    The deadline passed last April with the report still unfinished and the CIA saying it needed another year to pore through 318 boxes containing the personal records of 2,429 former employees.

    While the CIA claims there are holes in its records, Merrigan says he has voluminous easily authenticated documents that would short-cut the whole process.

    “I hope you will urge CIA personnel to treat these people, and congress, in a respectful manner and get to work?” he urged then-director of national intelligence Admiral Denis Blair in a May 10 letter.

    Merrigan is at a loss to explain the CIA’s delaying tactics and says the report will have to be completed in the next fortnight if it is to be inserted in the 2010-2011 Defense Authorizations Bill, where it properly belongs.

    Time is a major issue for another reason. In the seven years it took to get this far, 21 of the 39 survivors who flew with the airline for two decades or more have died, as have a significant number of the 466 crewmen with five to 20 years of experience.

    Seven of those still alive were awarded the French government’s Legion of Honor for resupplying the defenders of the doomed base at Dien Ben Phu in northern Vietnam and one was imprisoned after being shot down on a CIA mission over Indonesia.

    But perhaps more galling for the Air America men who risked their lives is the fact that benefits have already been granted to other CIA-funded proprietary corporations, including Radio Free Asia, Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe.

    Why not Air America? asked Merrigan, “These people provided valuable and dangerous service to our country, and it is unpleasant to see government agencies treat their sacrifices in a leisurely and unsympathetic manner.”

    John McBeth is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review. He is currently a Jakarta-based columnist for the Straits Times of Singapore.

    (Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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