by William M. Leary-University of Georgia
Submitted by Daryl Heusinkveld
Edited by Dick Martin
Between December 1971 and May 1972, one of the great battles of the Vietnam War took place in northern Laos when over 20 battalions of the North Vietnamese army assaulted positions held by some 10,000 Lao, Thai, and Hmong defenders. Yet few people ever have heard of the Battle for Skyline Ridge. Press coverage of the engagement was slight, and public interest - at least in the United States - was minimal. Historians of the Vietnam War also have ignored this major battle, perhaps because it had limited impact on the outcome of the war. Still, the Battle for Skyline Ridge deserves to be remembered.
By 1971, the no-longer-secret war in Laos had been going on for more than a decade. The Geneva Agreements, which called for the removal of all foreign military personnel from Laos, resulted in the United States withdrawing 666 individuals.
When fighting broke out again in Laos in 1963 and 1964, officials in Washington considered reintroducing a sizable number of U.S. military personnel into the country to train and advise the Royal Lao Army. However, Leonard Unger, the American ambassador in Vientiane, opposed the idea. Acting upon Unger's recommendation, Washington decided to maintain the thin fiction of the Geneva Agreements - which the Communist Pathet Lao and their North Vietnamese backers had ignored but never formally repudiated. The ineffective Royal Lao Army would be given a minimum of support. At the same time, the Central Intelligence Agency was assigned responsibility to train, advise, and support Hmong forces in northern Laos, and to recruit, train, advise, and support volunteer Lao troops in the southern part of the country. The CIA presence in Laos was to remain small. Consequently, only a small portion of it was actually present in Laos, and all its supporting elements were housed in Thailand, under a secret agreement with the Thais.
Between 1964 and 1967, the CIA-supported Hmong army in northern Laos, the main area of conflict, fought a highly successful guerrilla war against a mixed force of Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese troops. The high point of this phase of the war came in the summer of 1967. Royal Lao Army and Hmong units had blunted the enemy's dry season offensive of winter-spring 1966-67, causing local CIA officials to issue an optimistic appraisal of the situation in Laos. Hmong forces, a CIA Intelligence Information Cable argued, had gained the upper hand in the war. Unfortunately, the North Vietnamese recognized the danger. Beginning in January 1968, Hanoi introduced major new forces into Laos and relegated the Pathet Lao to a support role for the remainder of the war. By March, the CIA estimated that there were 35,000 North Vietnamese regular troops in Laos - and the number would continue to grow. The fighting in Laos took on a more conventional character, characterized by engagements between large units. This type of warfare took a heavy toll on the Hmong. In the first five months of 1968, the Hmong lost over 1,000 men, including many top commanders. A recruiting drive turned up only 300 replacements, and most of these were under the age of 14 or over 35. The situation only grew worse. By April 1970, the CIA acknowledged that Hmong losses had crippled the effectiveness of the tribal forces. The Hmong had fought well, a CIA estimate observed, but "they are battle weary and their losses over the past year or so have exceeded their capability to replace them."
On the eve of the Battle for Skyline Ridge, 1971-72, the CIA's presence had grown far beyond Ambassador Unger's minimalist objectives due to the expanding nature of the war, but it still remained small, especially inside Laos. The United States in 1971 was in the process of withdrawing from Vietnam. President Richard M. Nixon had proclaimed in 1969 that Asia boys should fight Asian wars. By the end of 1970, U.S. troop strength was down to 280,000 and declining rapidly. With regard to Laos - where Asia boys were fighting Asian wars - the Nixon administration adopted a defensive posture. Like Kennedy before him, Nixon wanted a neutral Laos that would serve as a buffer between pro-Western Thailand and the aggressive intentions of North Vietnam and China. However, it was clear by 1971 that Laotian neutrality would have to be achieved without a major commitment of U.S. power.
Early in 1971, the Royal Lao government ordered General Vang Pao to seize as much territory as possible, before Congressional restraints reduced available U.S. air sorties to 32 per day after July first. Vang Pao launched a major offensive in June. Effectively using his air mobility and tactical air resources, the Hmong leader captured the Plaine des Jarres (PDJ), a strategic area that had changed hands several times in the past. In order to blunt the anticipated enemy dry season offensive, which usually began in December or January, it was decided to establish five major artillery strong points on the PDJ. Manned and defended by Thai troops, these mutually supporting bases were intended to attract the enemy's attention. The NVA would assault these fixed positions - and be destroyed by artillery fire and tactical air power.
As the time neared for the expected enemy offensive, intelligence reports coming into the CIA operations center at Udorn grew ominous. Hanoi, it had learned, had appointed one of their senior army commanders, General Le Truong Tan, to direct the year's dry season offensive. Overhead photography revealed a growing number of troops and supplies moving along Route 6 toward the PDJ, including large covered trailers. Although B-52s and ''fast movers" were targeted against the road, the traffic continued.
Nonetheless, there was a general feeling of confidence that the enemy offensive could be stopped. The firebases, with·their 105mm and 155mm guns, were placed so that each base could be protected by artillery fire from two or three adjacent positions. Tactical air support was on call. December 15 and 16 saw only light ground activity on the PDJ. On December 17, smoke enveloped the area during the daylight hours, cutting short resupply flights to the Thai strong points. At 1835 hours that evening, all hell broke loose. Using, for the first time in Laos, Soviet-made long-range 130mm guns that far outranged the Thai artillery (16 miles versus 9 miles}, the NVA hit all Thai positions simultaneously. Tank-supported infantry then broke through the defensive rings around the bases. By the next morning, the northern-most position had fallen, and the other bases were under heavy pressure.
As the enemy attack continued during December 18 and 19, tactical air support - upon which the entire defensive scheme had been premised - was noticeable by its absence. With Vang Pao and the Thais screaming for air support, the CIA urged 7/13 Air Force at Udorn to supply the desperately needed sorties - all to no avail. Finally, Ambassador Godley contacted 7th Air Force headquarters in Saigon. He was told that all available U.S. aircraft were involved in search-and-rescue operations. Time ran out for the Thai defenders. By the morning of December 20, all artillery strong points had fallen. The surviving Thai troops headed south in disarray, pursued by the NVA. Continental Air Services pilot Edward Dearborn, who had been airdropping supplies to the Thai positions, reported the scene: "By 1300 local, our efforts were confined to picking up the wounded and survivors of the fire bases, a pitiful sight from two weeks before. The majority were shell shocked and most were suffering from wounds, exposure, or shock in one form or another."
The North Vietnamese pushed into the mountainous terrain south of the PDJ and headed toward Long Tieng, the last bastion between the enemy and the Mekong River. While Hmong and Thai defenders strengthened their positions along Skyline Ridge, the key terrain feature that overlooked the Long Tieng valley, tactical airstrikes, once again available, slowed but could not stop the enemy advance. At 1530 hours on December 31, 1971, North Vietnamese gunners opened fire on Long Tieng. The shelling, which included rounds from the dreaded 130mm guns, continued intermittently throughout the night, causing heavy damage to installations in the valley. The ground assault against Skyline began a few days later. An estimated 19,000 North Vietnamese troops were thrown into the battle. They were opposed by a mixed force of some 10,000 Hmong, Thai, and Lao defenders.
The NVA offensive went well at first. In hard fighting, the enemy captured several key positions along Skyline Ridge and took control of Sam Thong, the former headquarters of the USAID mission in northern Laos, which was linked to Long Tieng by a mountainous road. The CIA brought in Thai reinforcements, together with several 1,200-man units of irregular troops from southern Laos, considered to be the government's elite force.
By late January, the CIA-led Lao troops, in bitter - often hand-to-hand - fighting, had retaken Skyline Ridge from the North Vietnamese, at a cost of one-third to one-half of their effective strength. Thanks to their efforts, Long Tiena was placed at least temporarily out of the danger – if not out of range of the 130mm guns. While the Air Force hunted the well camouflaged artillery pieces and found several, the defenders of Long Tieng dug in deeper and waited for the next assault. It took nearly two months for the North Vietnamese - their supply lines harassed by B-52e, tactical air strikes, and Hmong ambushes - to bring up sufficient material to stage the offensive. Heavy fighting along Skyline Ridge continued into the last days of April, with key positions changing hands several times. Unable to obtain their objective, the NVA finally removed a division from the area and sent it to support the Easter offensive against South Vietnam. The CIA-led forces had scored an impressive victory over a capable and determined enemy.
For a time, U.S. officials believed that this military success might contribute to the creation of a neutral Laos. Unfortunately, the coalition government proved only a brief interlude. The Communists soon took control of the country. The CIA, nonetheless, remained proud of its efforts in Laos. It took manpower, it took specially-qualified manpower, it was dangerous, it was difficult. The CIA did a superb job. The Hmong suffered most, both during and after the war. In any event, the anti-communist forces in Laos won the Battle for Skyline Ridge. However, as in Vietnam, victory on the battlefield did not mean much in the end. It merely delayed the final outcome of the war,