Laos-Cambodia loop, and final try at Lima 85

Feb 23, 2003
Ok, have fully recovered from the China trip, and have more or less caught up on everything on the home front. Time to roll baby ! This time I wanted to head over to Laos, and make one final attempt to get to the top of Lima 85. Then head to south Laos, into Cambodia,then end up in Pattaya. The big loop as we call it. My riding companion is Joe, also on an Africa Twin. We have ridden many times together. Our riding styles are pretty close, although he does seem to get up a bit earlier in the morning than me......
Decided to take my 2001 red white and blue Africa Twin. I have never taken it on a long trip before so was a bit leery of its reliability. Also this is what the bike looked like three years ago when my office flooded with 4 feet deep with silty river water for three days. Notice the high water marks on the bikes .

Did take it for a quick one day shake down ride the day before I left. I noticed it was not charging with the lights on. Back to the shop for some quick diagnosis. Found a bad connector plug from the stator to the rectifier. Think this is ongoing damage from being submerged. The wheel bearings and fuel pump were causalities last year as well.

Cut out the plug, and did a direct connection. Next day we are off !. Bike seems to be charging fine. Smooth fast trip to Chang Khong on the Mekong River where we cross over to Laos. Here is sunrise from our guest house just before we cross over.

Crossing over to the Laos side on the ferry. Cost is about 14 dollars per bike.

On the Laos side do some customs paper work, and then off. The road is about 160 kilometers to the first main town of Luang Nam Tha. Used to be all dirt. Unthinkable in wet season, and problematical in dry season. It was an all day trip to get to Luang Nam Tha. Now it is all paved with endless twisties.
Big fun ! As we seem to be blasting along, we decided that it would be possible to go from the Chang Kong border to Luang Prabang in one day. No one had done that before. Possibly because bikers before us were smarter....Ended up riding the last three hours in the dark. Sorry not many pictures as we were moving right along. When night time arrived during the ride I noticed that the bike was not charging properly again. Shit !! So took it to a local shop in Luang Prabang the next day for some more diagnosis work. Never did find anything wrong.

Relaxed a couple of days in Luang Prabang. Did not take any pictures as I have been there many many times. A pretty nice place, with just a touch of French colonialism. Becoming more touristy by the year however, with boutique hotels replacing small guest houses. So visit soon !
Early start the next day, headed over the mountains to Sam Neua. This is the jumping off spot for Lima 85. As we are motoring along a dirt road along the ridge of the mountains, there are schools full of curious kids. They were bit in awe at first, but lost their fear when I started waving and saying hello in Laos.


Oh.. my.. god.., I.. can't.. stop.. them !!!!

Finally reach Sam Neua at the end of a long day. There is not really a place to stay in the middle of the ride, so you pretty much are forced to make it all the way. Found a nice guest house in the city, with parking inside the restaurant at night.

The Lima 85 site is a fascinating aspect of the Vietnam war. Basically it was a part of the secret CIA war in Laos. The CIA decided that putting a radar targeting site at the top of a mountain only about 120 miles from Hanoi was a great idea. So they airlifted all the equipment by helicopter to the top of a very steep mountain named Phu Pa Thi. Almost impregnable from three sides, and defended on the back side by Thai troops and local Mhong villagers . A lot of the bombing runs on Hanoi were directed from this site. The Vietnamese found out about it , and attacked it from one of the impregnable sides. They succeeded , killing some of the US engineers operating the site and capturing some of the others. Once the site was captured, the US made bombing runs on the site for a week to stop any technology from being taken. More information is here...

Here is a placement map showing where the site was located.

Military photo from that time period showing the long ridge line. I believe the shot where Joe is pointing to the top is a angle from the right side, and from the back.

The actual site while it was in operation in 1967

Good photo showing the steepness of the sides. You can see why the US military thought an attack would be very difficult !!

Here is a topo map of the area we were in. Houay Ma is at the bottom of the map, and the triangle
marked with 1687 meters is the highest point along the ridge of the mountain.

Here is the Google earth view of the track up.

Here is a closer view. Here is a very close view in Google earth of the Lima 85 area. Here you can see a sort of long rectangle on the map that has been clearly altered. What should be a VERY distinctive ridge, comes out looking like a valley. Hmmmm. Altered mapping, and a large camp of soldiers to protect access to the ridge. The mind wanders....New radar site to keep an eye on China???

I had read the book " The Ravens", and was fascinated by the story of the CIA war in Laos , and Lima 85 in particular. So I decided a couple of years ago it would be a cool thing to be the first civilian to simply drive there, and then hike up the last couple of kilometers to the top. First trip there was with Joe a couple of years ago . Got there too late to be able to hike up the mountain and had to turn back before it got dark. Next year was by myself. Got an early start, but had very heavy fog and had to turn back half way up. So figured this year had to be the year !! O6:00 departure in the morning, and we are off up the mountain to Houy Ma, which is the village next to the mountain top. Distance to the village is about 70 kilometers. Very pleasant ride up, with the road being much improved since the last time we were there. Proof of our early start, and a bit of a reward, a stunning sunrise.

On the way....

Joe is pointing to the top of Phu Pa Thi where the radar site was located. There is a very distinctive almost round rock formation sticking up at the end of the ridge along the top of the mountain. This would be looking at the southern end of the ridge. Looking at my GPS we are standing about 5 kilometers as the crow flies to the top of the mountain where the site was located.

One last tricky water crossing a few kilometers from the village.

Some young boys hanging out at the same stream crossing.

Nearby a woman carrying wood back. When I got that smile from her, gave her a big
thumbs up which made here smile bigger.

Just as we get outside of Houay Ma, we notice there is a new road forking off to the right, exactly in the direction we want. I have the GPS coordinates for the ladder that is the access point for the back of the mountain. Am thinking this is great, will save us a lot of hiking. We get a couple of hundred meters, and run smack into a large military camp. About maybe 40 guys in uniform, with most carrying AK 47s. They first stare at us in astonishment, and then run up telling us to stop. We try to play dumb ,realizing that things have turned bad. We keep pointing up to the top of the mountain, indicating we simply want to hike up.......Never ever said the words Lima 85, just tried to act out the wayward tourist. Papers were demanded which we provided. They then demanded we get off the bikes and go into one of the buildings for more questioning. I ignored that, and simply kept repeating we needed to turn back so we could get off the mountain before it turned dark. They seemed to understand that , so we smiled , and turned back down to the Y intersection outside the village.
Now there was a soldier waiting there holding an AK 47 indicating we should head into the village of Houay Ma a hundred meters away. Sure! Always tend to do what guys holding guns tell me to do. Now we are on the edge of the village eating some of the snack food we brought. Suddenly about 8 guys in uniforms with guns come running up indicating we are to follow them into the village itself. One of the guys jumps on the back of my bike to make sure we do not do a runner. So up to a small wooden building where we park the bikes. We are then brought inside a small room with a dirt floor and wooden benches in it. A few guys with guns, an interpretor that spoke a bit of English, and what appeared to be the political officer in a tailored military uniform. Yes, we have now entered the detention phase of our trip. The interrogation now begins !!!
Feb 23, 2003
Joe and I are sitting on these rickety wooden benches, with all the soldiers sort of looking at us suspiciously. The first question is barked out to Joe."Can you speak Viet?" Huhhhh ? Oh, you mean can we speak Vietnamese !! Here are two all American looking guys, and we are being quizzed on our Vietnamese speaking skills.....Fighting to keep a straight face, we answer no. Many more questions followed. Why are you here ? Have you been here before? Where is your passport? Why have you come to Laos?. After a while they decide it would be a good idea to completely search our bikes. Joe goes outside first to where the bikes are sitting. They then open every single bag on his bike. They then did the same to my bike. The trick here is to stand right next to them so nobody can palm something illegal into your bike while they are searching. Another travel trick is to have copies of all your important documents. That way you simply hand them the copy, thus proving you in fact have that document. If you actually hand over your passport or other important papers to them, in essence you are putting a collar around your neck and handing them the leash. Because you are not going ANYWHERE without your passport. So in the beginning questioning I denied I had a passport, saying I had left it in the hotel room because I was afraid of getting it wet from the stream crossings. Of course it is sitting in the tank bag they were getting ready to search......:eek1 I did manage to sort of palm it off to the side as they were sort of pawing through the tank bag. Always hate to get caught in a bald faced lie !!
At different points in this episode I tried to get out my camera and document the events, just so you guys could have a good feel for what is like to be held captive in a village in the middle of nowhere. However as soon as the camera came out the soldiers would panic and start shouting no no. Sort of sad really, as there were some terrific photo opportunities. The bikes were sitting in a small fenced in area. After a while half the village was staring in at us, like the soldiers had captured some sort of wild beasts. I saw endless photos that I would have taken....
As soon as the search was over I re-entered the interrogation room. The next question to me was
" How much money do you have?". Immediately I am thinking this is the prelude to a shakedown, and get ready for my " I don't have much money on me" routine. Before I can launch it Joe says I have $ 200 on me , the same as him. When I was outside being searched they had asked him the same question. It was not a shake down at all. Our best guess is that they wanted to find out if we were transporting large amounts of cash to support Hmong rebels. ( I use the term loosely... One person's rebel is another person's freedom fighter....)
Finally the questioning draws to an end. The " interpreter" and the "officers" all leave to go back to the main camp. We are told to wait , and some mysterious person will make a decision about what to do with us. We are not really held in one spot, as we are free to wander around. However wherever we walk there are always about 4 or 5 guys with AK-47s that wander along with us........ After about an hour of waiting around I get bored and indicate to Joe that we should just take off down the mountain. He points to the guns, and opines that it would be a better idea to just wait and see what happens. I am pretty sure the soldiers would not shoot us off the bikes if we tried to leave, but you never know.........Finally after three hours of waiting the " interpreter" shows up, hands back our paperwork, and says we are free to go. I am a little concerned about a change of heart, so we pack up our things and head out like lightning down the mountain. Free again !!!

Some of the road back down. Here the road does double duty as a stream bed.

And here is a jungle section.

What the military camp was doing there I have no idea. There is no military importance to that area that I can figure out. The Lima 85 site at this point in time would consist of some foundation ruins and not much else. It is a fascinating relic of the Vietnam war, but do not think it would justify having a large camp to guard it from tourists. Maybe they were hunting down Hmong, or protecting illegal smuggling. There could be endless reasons, so I guess I will never know. So we head back down to Sam Nuea, pick up our luggage from the hotel, and head back whimpering in defeat on the VERY long winding road back to Phonsavan. This is the city next to the famous Plain of Jars. While having dinner there Joe says "Hey let's head into the former secret CIA air base of Long Tieng". Of course to me that is like offering crack to a crackhead. Good idea ! Let's go ! This will be sort of like a consolation prize after our total defeat at the hands of the Laos Army at Lima 85. To the best of my knowledge no motorcycle adventurer has ever gone in from the north.

The next morning we are off with an early start. About 15 kilometers south of Phonsavan is a small town on the way to the Plain of Jars site #2. This is where the turnoff is to the dirt road that leads the northern entrance to Long Tieng. There is a raised bar across the road that turns off, and an empty guard shack. Perfect ! Just as we are passing under it a Laos guy comes running out saying stop! stop!. I of course give him a friendly wave with my left hand, and roll on the throttle with my right hand....and away we go.


Mar 5, 2006
Evidently the LPA have not been schooled in the old B&W films where the interrogator shouts in a german accent "Vee ave vays of making zee talk!"

But I see Jowe has learnt from an old Callard & Bowser ad where the one man coming back after interrogation entions to comrade when asked how it went:
"Fine actually Fanshaw.
I just happened to mention hat you might know something."
Cut to Heikel being dragged off ...

Good stuff & great writing.
Looking orward to the Stung Treng aquatic obstacle course....
Feb 23, 2003
I think the distance from the turn off near Phonsavan to the air base itself is about 70 kilometers. The base is another interesting part of the secret CIA war is Laos. This base at one time had 40,000 people there, with endless air traffic coming in and out. This was the main staging area for all air operaations in Laos at the time. The road is quite scenic, meandering through valleys and across small ridges. Here is Joe crossing a stream.

Also a few gates to restrict the movement of cattle.

The pleasant flowery part of the road.....

The ugly muddy section where you wish you were on any bike EXCEPT a giant tour bike with panniers. Joe plows on through.

About 40 kilometers into the road we come into a small town with another camp of soldiers in the middle of it.
Guys come running out indicating for us to stop. This is looking a lot more serious, so decide not to do the friendly wave and keep rolling trick. They request all my paperwork, and take it off somewhere to log it in. They are very curious about the bikes, and seem quite amiable. One guy jumps on the bike, and looked like he wanted to take it for a test ride. A pretty funny guy, I found out a few minutes later he was the doctor for the camp. I then told the camp commander I felt sorry for his troops if their medical care was under the guidance of such a crazy man.:rofl They all got a big laugh out of that. They then told us we could not go on as it was dangerous, and the road was bad. I told him we liked danger, and our motorcycles liked bad roads. Not sure if they were amused by us, or thought we were out of our minds. In any event , to our amazement they handed the papers back to me, and indicated it was ok for us to continue driving to Long Tieng .
Feb 23, 2003
As we keep driving along the road, it turns pretty steep , with loose rocks covering the road. At one point my front tire hit a big rock, stopping me completely. Had to side stand it, get off the bike, and then put a rock behind the rear wheel. Now was able to slip the clutch a lot, and barely get it going again. So don't stop giant tour bikes on steep rocky hills.... Finally we top the ridge , and looking down there is the base !!!!! Yipppeeee !!

Another view that is a bit clearer. Those two sort of small pointed mountains on the left side of the picture were referred to as the " vertical speed brakes" by the pilots that flew in there. They are just hiding the end of the runway from where I took the picture.

Here is an old picture of the base in operation. You can see the two mountains from the other side here. So the previous picture I took would have have been from the ridge behind the two mounds and to the right a bit.

Here is the Google Earth view of the track from Phonsavan to the base. You can clearly see the distinctive Plain of Jars which was endlessly fought over and relentlessly bombed by the US.
Feb 23, 2003
So now headed down the ridge to the flat valley where the base is. Soon we come up to a pretty sleepy check point with a bamboo pole across the road. We are now essentially at the base itself but cannot see much from this check point. There is a young guy in uniform with an AK-47 at the gate who stares at us in astonishment. He recovers his wits and quickly calls for an officer to show up. He clearly indicates for us to wait. OK. He has this bad habit of letting the barrel of his gun drop down until it was pointing straight at me. I kept hand motioning to him that was the wrong way to control a gun, that it should point at the ground instead of me.....He did seem to pick up on that after a while. About 15 minutes goes by, and then a sort of bedraggled looking officer shows up, and politely indicates for us to follow him up the the small barracks looking building. Half of me is thinking shit, we are now about to move into detainment session number two. The other half is thinking hey they did not immediately tell us to go back, maybe they will let us in !!!
We enter what looks like a small classroom filled with long benches, with a big desk in the front of the room. They asked a few questions, it seemed they were mostly interested in taking all of our paperwork and carefully entering it into some sort of log book. Am still thinking maybe we have a chance to get in. It is only three kilometers across the base, and then you are back on a public road that is not restricted. So close !!!! The two officers seemed to confer for a while, and then tell us we must go back the way we came. I tell them that the road back was very bad, and it would be much better for us to simply cross the base and head direct to Vientiane. That fell on deaf ears. I then pulled out the final effort. I said I would be more than glad to pay for an escort across the base. Sort of a semi bribe......That fell on deaf ears as well, so now it time to walk back to the bikes and turn around. There was a circa 1960s American cement mixed in front of the barracks that looked like war booty. Once again I tried to take some pictures of the bikes in front of the bamboo gate stopping us, but once again they VERY clearly indicated that no pictures were to be taken. So jump on the bikes and back track to Phonsavan. Defeated again !!!! Oh well it was fun trying.

Here is some kind of rice operation along the way back.

Soldiers unloading cattle from a military truck.

Hill top village along the way.


Jun 28, 2007
Don't worry Robert, read it already more than once !! Really a great effort & trip, amazing pictures !!! (Da kommt ein bischen Neid auf......)Would like to do such a trip myself but have to wait for another minimum of 20 years to my pension time........


Dec 18, 2007
Always read your trip reports.
Never quite sure what's gonna happen on your trips; whether we should prepare to send fruit and flowers to the hospital or food boxes to the local jail!!
Great stuff. Keep going. Waiting for next installment.
Feb 23, 2003
So back to Phonsavan for the night. Then up early to head to Vientiane, about a 6 hour trip. Here is some of the road along the way. Really like the sort of lost world look to the mountains in this area.

Lots of free range cattle to keep you on your toes. :rofl

Then on to Vientiane. Took the bike to a small shop that discovered that the output side of the rectifier also had a bad connector plug. Fixed that , and now finally the bike is charging perfectly. Pick up a Cambodia visa, relax for a couple of days, then head south towards the Cambodia border. But just before crossing the border, time to check out the Mekong falls. To give you a better idea of how large they are, look at the tiny people on the rocks on the right side !!!

The falls off to the left side. These falls are the only ones blocking the river up to the Chinese border. There is some talk of blowing them up to allow ship access from the ocean all the way up to China.

So onto the border between Laos and Cambodia. Here is the high powered immigration complex. They wanted two dollars to process each passport. A tiny shake down as once you have your visa no money is ever paid at a border. I just smile and pay, sometimes you just have to pick your battles..

The road south from the border used to look like this.....

And now with boatloads of Chinese money looks like this....This is almost exactly the same section of road as the previous picture.

About 60 kilometers south from the border is the town of Strung Teng. There is a large river to cross over to the town side. This river then feeds into the Mekong.
The Chinese have built a bridge across the river but it is not open yet. Either waiting for some grand opening, or the guys operating the ferry boats that will be completely out of business the second the bridge is open had paid someone off to keep the bridge locked up.
Here is the northern end of the bridge.

The little bikes show us how they go under the barrier.

Joe looks over the the side, and says " Hey we can just go outside along the guard rail ! " Great idea, never mind the steep drop off on the right side.....

Now on the bridge. China seems to go around the world giving aid in the form of projects like this one, and America seems to keep going around wanting to convert everyone to democracy....

Amazingly enough, at the other end of the bridge is the exactly same barrier...Hmmm, to lazy to turn around and go back. Hey wait a minute I think the bikes will slide under. First a quick height check.
Yep !! No problem ..

Joe's bike goes through first. We dragged it through on the tin roofing panel, so no problem as far as damage to the bike.

Next up is my mint condition bike...Am a bit reluctant to be dragging it anywhere, but with Joe's bike already on the other side of the barrier, too late to puss out..

It goes through a bit easier with the boxes removed. The Cambodia guys are laughing so hard they can hardly help us. Am sure they were chuckling over beers that night, talking about the nutty foreigners.

Yippee !! We just saved two dollars that would have been spent on the ferry crossing!
Now have lunch in Strung Treng with a bunch of backpackers surrounding us, and then south to Krati.
A pleasant little town on right on the Mekong river. Here some local guys are showing us their version of mass transit.

My 12 $ room filled with solid teak woodwork.

Finally wrap up another brutal day touring in Asia with beers on the Mekong .

Breakfast the next day in town next to the busy market.

And cheerful gas station attendants.
Feb 23, 2003
So now headed to Phnom Penh . A short way into the ride we come upon a horrific accident. Driving in Cambodia is on the right side. Going into the outskirts of village I notice there is large bus stopped directly in my lane with the front of it pointing directly at me. Remember thinking, that's odd. As I get closer I see there is small step through bike literately buried into the front bumper of the bus. I pass around slowly to the left side, and see the driver just getting out of the bus with a shocked look on his face. Driving past, there is one body on the ground behind the bus not moving, and the other person is trying to crawl on the ground screaming at the same time. Looked to me like the bus did a bad pass, and simply did a head on into the bike which was in the correct lane. Also believe both people went under the bus as they were directly behind it on the ground. I did not stop....I have no medical training whatsoever so could not really render aid. Also these can be very emotional scenes ( severe understatement...) with enraged local villagers who do not hesitate to take justice into their own hands. So any kind of misunderstanding can turn bad very quickly. Generally in these types of accidents in Asia, the driver of the bus will flee the scene immediately to avoid being beaten or killed on the spot. This is a fixture of Asia newspapers , drivers doing a runner. I felt really bad the rest of the day , seeing such a senseless loss of life. No pictures................
I always love to see the amazing variety of stuff that people will carry on a step through bike. Here is a fairly mundane loading of some pigs on the way to market.

Living room set.

My personal favorite, clearly taking the crown as the volume leader of goods being moved by a 100 CC motor. There is a trailer in there somewhere.

Local guy on a bike you would swear would never run.
He walks up to it, fires it up with one kick, and gives me a smile as he goes by.
Feb 23, 2003
Finished up the day with our arrival at Phnom Penh. A couple days of dissipation there, sorry no pictures.:evil Then head south to the beach resort area of Sihanoukville . Now time to log some beach time !! If there is snow outside your window right now, may be best for you to skip the next part of the report. Looking in at our daytime beach spot...

Looking out to sea...Grab a beer and have a seat !!

And the view down the almost deserted beach.

Hmmm wonder how the Africa Twin does riding around on the beach sand. Not too bad actually.

No protective gear needed here. :clap

A local fishing village along the coast .

Their boats waiting to head out.

Remember what I said earlier about no protective gear needed ??? :evil Well, I was wrong as a small incident came up. In the late afternoon we are headed back along the beach. We both rode along the shore for a while, then I cut over to the road that parallels the beach. Ahead of me I see a few cattle, but do not give them a second thought. All the cattle are quite docile, you only want to be sure not to spook them with a loud exhaust. As I ride along the dirt road, I see a sort of small ditch across the road. Just as I am about to pick my path across it I see Joe out of the corner of my eye cutting across towards me at a 45 degree angle, and then he sort of cuts right in front of me upsetting the path I wanted to take across the ditch. My first thought was that a bit of rude riding. My next thought was why am I hearing thundering hooves ??? As I glance to the side I see a large steer with horns in full charge right behind me.:eek1 :eek1 :eek1 Turns out the steer decided he did not like Joe's bike riding near him so he charged Joe first. As Joe is riding fast to avoid being hit,
that is when he came across in front of me to evade the steer. Now I become steer target number two as Joe rockets down the road in front of me. I actually had to give a fair amount of throttle to avoid his early charge. This graphic intensive diagram should make the situation perfectly clear.

This is a hotel / bar near the beach that Keith a friend of mine just finished. Did a very nice job.

And the pool area. Last time I was there it was a big hole in the ground.

Enjoy a bit of the throbbing night life on the town, and then the next day head towards the Thailand border. Here is a newly built casino at the border on the Cambodia side. Gambling is illegal in Thailand. So wealthy Thai political figures fund the casinos in partnership with Cambodia political figures, and then split the profits from all the Thai gamblers that go to these border areas for the express purpose of gambling. The Thai solution to laws prohibiting gambling in Thailand......

Overall an interesting trip. Would have been nice to make it to the top of Lima 85, but I still enjoyed the attempt. Long Tieng air base was a bit of a bonus, was astounded we made it as far as we did.
Hmmmmm now where to next ??


Jan 1, 2004
Great report, thanks! I have been in Laos with my bike in January 2007 and tried to reach Long Tieng alone (from the northern side too). I passed the village with the military camp, though a guy in civil clothes wanted to stop the boomgate almost at the airstrip of Long Tieng was deadend for me too. But the ,,real adventure'' I had, when I was riding back: About 5k's north of the military camp, in the meanwhile there was a mobile checkpoint with soldiers. Their boss spoke as much english as I can speak Lao - none. But one thing was clear: He did not allow me to go back to Phonsavan....
In the end a soldier was sitting with his AK-47 on my backseat and together we drove back to the military camp. There, only one guy was speaking some words english. And what he said sounded terrible to me ,,you stay here''. Oooops. A woman asked me for my passport and wrote down really every letter and digit she could find. Then she went away. After about one hour she came back with a small sheet of paper, which seemed to be the permission for the mobile checkpoit to let the go through. When I reached this point, the checkpoint wan't there anymore and my way to Phonsavan was open.
I forgot to mention, I was asking in the camp why they held me back and the soldier answered ,,danger''. I asked back ,,Hmong?'' and he said yes.
I'm not sure, who is a bigger danger - Hmong or Lao army. I've also been reading ,,The Ravens'' + many reports about the genocide the Lao government is committing to the Hmong people. Another, very sad story.



Staff member
Jan 16, 2003
Chiang Khong

See the 1st attempt from Robert here: holidays-in-laos-lima-85-t1132.htmPart1


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.


Staff member
Jan 16, 2003
Chiang Khong
Bringing an old thread back because Ive been reading a book on the subject of LS85.

The Book: One Day Too Long
The Author: Timothy N Castle.
Publisher: Columbia University Press. 1999.

Towards the end of the book the author mentions a mock up of the LS85 in the Hanoi War Museum, so off I went exploring








nothing too exciting I thought & NO Phou Pha Thi LS85 display that I could find or see.

Now back home & several chapters later I read that the Phou Pha Thi LS85 display is in the air force war museum. Oh trip. :eek: