50 years on, impact of America's 'Secret War' lingers

From 1964 to February 1973, the US dropped 2 million tons of bombs on Laos; the equivalent of a ton for each Laotian.

50 years on, impact of America's 'Secret War' lingers

World Bulletin / News Desk

It's become a footnote in a U.S. military campaign immortalized in song, theater, and on the silver screen, but to those involved in America's "Secret War" memories still linger 50 years on.

On May 19, 1964, the U.S. military - fighting a bitter Vietnam War (or "American War" as many Southeast Asians call it) - started low-level photo reconnaissance flights over southern Laos, an act that would eventually lead to the biggest bombing campaign in history.

The objective was to disrupt the supply line of the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam guerrillas (Vietcong or "VC" to opponents) along the Ho Chi Minh trail - an around 1000 kilometer-long jungle route along the Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam borders. But today - half a century later - some U.S. veterans recognize the tragedy the operation became, and the deep impact it still has on the lives of Laotians today.

“The whole war was a disaster. Maybe, [the U.S. army commanders] thought ‘if we bomb enough we will win the war,’ but it was not effective, even if the other side only had [farmer's] carts,” Ron Cristal, a legal officer in the U.S army during the war, told the Anadolu Agency from his Bangkok home.

The bombing itself started December 12, with a highly secret operation codenamed “Barrel Roll." It was a secret war, unknown even to U.S. officers not directly engaged - "a CIA operation completely outside of the main apparatus of the air force,” Cristal said. America did not want the world to know as the neutrality of Laos was guaranteed by the 1954 Geneva peace agreement between France and Vietnam. A subsequent agreement in July 1962 confirmed Laos’s neutrality and ordered all foreign troops to leave the country by October of that year.

The U.S. was quick to utilize ally Thailand in its battle with communist forces as military dictators in the Thai capital Bangkok had agreed that their country would serve as an anti-communist bulwark in the region in exchange for massive military and financial assistance.

Utapao airport, an air force base near the Thai eastern seaboard town of Pattaya, was used by the U.S. for its raids, quickly becoming “the busiest in the world,” said Cristal - “Planes taking off every couple of minutes.”

The bombs were brought from the U.S. by large ships to the nearby port of Satthahip, then onto trucks to Utapao, as well as to Korat airport in Thailand's East where Americans worked 18 hours a day to load them onto aircraft. Planes initially flew two sorties per week, but the U.S. quickly intensified the mission with high-performance jet fighter-bombers.

From 1964 to the ceasefire of February 1973, 2 million tons of bombs were dropped on Laos; the equivalent of a planeload every eight minutes for nine years - or a ton of bombs for each Laotian. For the tranquil Buddhist nation - a patchwork of temples and paddy fields which French colonizers had nicknamed “the land of milk and honey” for its beauty and peacefulness - it was a brutal entry into history. A large part of the Kingdom was devastated by carpet bombing; towns, pagodas, stilted houses, forests and elephants reduced to a cinder, as terrified farmers grabbed their screaming children to escape the explosions as planes roared overhead.

Laos became the most bombed country per capita in history.

The bombs themselves were of various types, but the most vicious was the Cluster - casings that released hundreds of bomblets the size of a Pepsi can over wide areas, frequently missing military targets and killing civilians.

According the U.S. based NGO Legacies of War - which helps those who injured by ordnance left over from the raids - 30 percent of the 270 million bomblets never exploded, 80 million of them remaining in the ground in eastern Laos, particularly in Xiengkhouang province - home of the UNESCO heritage site the “plain of jars” - and at risk of explosion.

The memory is so omnipresent in the region that guesthouses and restaurants have adopted names derived from the "Secret War” and are decorated with defused ordnance. You can sip coffee in the town's “bombi cafeteria” or eat at the “Craters restaurant,” while limbless adults and children stagger past, the tragic effect of a war still very much alive.

On average, around 100 villagers every year - many of them children looking for scrap metal - fall victim to the remaining ordnance, losing limbs, their eye-sight or even their lives.

Since 2008, the U.S. government has donated US$2 million each year to help in the clearance of the ordnance and aid victims.

A visit by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the region in 2012 saw the U.S. announce yearly contributions would increase to US$6 million in 2014.

The bombing, however, cost the US$17 million a day in inflation-adjusted figures.

It is expected to take at least 20 years to rid eastern and southern Laos of the 80 million bomblets still lurking in the ground.

Last Mod: 24 Mayıs 2014, 16:26
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