Personal Memories of Operation White Star in Laos, 1961 by Colonel Alfred H. Paddock, Jr., US Army (Retired).
Operation White Star was a program, started in 1959, in which deployed US Army Special Forces detachments advised Royal Laotian government forces in their operations against the Pathet Lao communist insurgency. Later the program evolved to include training of Kha and Meo (Mhong) hill tribal groups in guerilla warfare against the Pathet Lao. Most of the Special Forces detachments advised Royal Laotian Army units, while a few others organized hill tribes under the direction of the CIA. In 1961 our A-detachment from the 77th Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg, NC, worked with both programs. I will share some of my memories of this unique experience in this essay.
Our Special Forces A-detachment consisted of Captain Jim Ipsen, commander, me as a lieutenant executive officer, and 10 NCOs with medical, weapons, communications, demolitions, intelligence, and operations specialties. The team was so configured that it could be split and still retain these basic specialties. Because of the classified nature of White Star at that time, we deployed wearing civilian clothes and carrying DOD civil service ID cards. I’m sure that we fooled few.
The Royal Laotian Army unit (GM 16) to which we were initially assigned was a regiment of 4 infantry battalions and supporting units, to include artillery, for a total of 1300-1400 soldiers. Located in an area called Kiou Ca Cham in the mountains southwest of Luang Prabang in northern Laos, it faced a Pathet Lao force of approximately equal size, although we never had more accurate figures because of GM 16’s poor intelligence collecting and inadequate patrolling. The Pathet Lao also had a few artillery pieces, which we soon discovered, necessitating an immediate priority for us to build a bunker. The enemy fired their artillery at us in a sporadic fashion, from 5-6 rounds to as many as 1,000 rounds in a day. Both GM 16 and the Pathet Lao occupied opposing entrenchments, a rather strange disposition for the latter’s supposedly insurgent status. Our detachment occupied an empty schoolhouse with a tin roof and dirt floor as our “team” house and medical dispensary.
It soon became clear that GM 16’s posture represented a significant challenge for us. It had poor leadership, particularly among senior officers. Its commander, a colonel, drank too much and, while inebriated, often displayed irrational behavior--like throwing grenades and firing a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) down a slope from his bunker, with no enemy in sight. Front-line units had poor sectors of fire and inadequate communication. Too many individual weapons were dirty, missing parts, and inoperable. The command conducted few patrols, a serious discrepancy while occupying a defensive position. As a result, we spent a great deal of our time repairing and replacing weapons, teaching patrolling and basic infantry tactics, and installing demolitions to aid in unit defenses. Also, GM 16 suffered an astonishing 15 soldiers killed by their own mines during our stay. I spent a lot of time trying to convince commanders that this was the result of poor discipline within their battalions.
During our stay with GM 16, the Pathet Lao overran another Royal Lao Army unit advised by Captain Walt Moon’s Special Forces A detachment. Two of Moon’s NCOs were killed in the action, and Moon himself captured. Later, the Pathet Lao executed Moon, who was a friend of mine. Unfortunately, the overrunning of Royal Lao Army units was not an uncommon occurrence. I believed that a determined attack by the enemy would result in a similar fate for GM 16.
Not long after our arrival at Kiou Ca Cham, Jim Ipsen and half our team deployed to another area to organize and train a Meo force. CIA case officers from Luang Prabang directed and supplied Ipsen’s effort. I stayed behind with the rest of our team to continue advising GM 16. Before long, however, my team deployed deeper into the mountains to develop another Meo force—again, under the direction of the CIA. An imaginative radio operator in the capital, Vientiane, dubbed our two camps “Ipsenville” and “Paddockville.” These labels stuck during the period of our tour in Laos.
I remember thinking as CIA-sponsored Air America aircraft of WWII vintage (C-46s and C-47s) dropped one-hundred-men weapons packs (again, WWII vintage) and supplies with incredible accuracy on our small drop zone that we were literally stepping back in time.
This was a completely different situation from that we experienced with GM 16. Concurrent with building a camp of thatch roof huts, we began recruiting, organizing, and training Meos for a company of 95 men (our CIA case officer limited us to one unit of this size). We structured the company into a headquarters group, three rifle platoons and a weapons platoon. We envisaged using this unit as a mobile guerrilla force that in turn would also train home defense units totaling 360 personnel for the protection of Meo villages. The latter often voiced their concern, fearing that we would leave them to retaliation by the Pathet Lao. As it turned out, this was a valid concern.
We began training the Meo on weapons firing, patrolling, ambushes and raids. Our soldiers were particularly adept in tasks that required them to use their hands, like disassembly and assembly of weapons. To assist us in dealing with the language problem, in time-honored Special Forces fashion we developed a cadre of the best soldiers. We found that the most effective method of teaching was by demonstration of basic tasks with a minimum of oral instructions. Our medic selected soldiers who could read and write to train as medics.
After learning of the Pathet Lao’s attempts to influence villages in the area with propaganda leaflets, I arranged for the USOM representative in Luang Prabang to prepare leaflets with an anti-communist message for dissemination in the same villages. This was particularly important because these were villages we depended upon for recruits and intelligence about enemy activity.
To be sure, our efforts did not progress without some growing pains. Jealously over leadership positions and soldiers wanting to go home frequently was an annoyance. And here’s a passage from my journal on August 4, 1961, that illustrated our challenge: “From our experience today and before, it seems that one of the biggest faults the Meo have is an inability to organize. It is very difficult for them to have more than one job or activity going at the same time. Regardless of previous orders and instructions, the leaders have a habit of all concentrating on the same activity, instead of delegation of responsibilities. This is where we have to make our greatest effort—organizing and directing.”
To address this and other subjects, I had many talks with leaders in the evenings on pride, discipline, and individual responsibilities. All of them pledged their support toward accomplishing the mission, and that they would stick together until the end. I’ve often thought of that pledge when considering the final result. I grew to greatly admire these courageous and hardy young men and their love of freedom.
Lieutenant Colonel (later a GO) Vang Pao, the Meo military leader, visited us not long after we set up our camp. I liked him. As he spoke to our troops arrayed in formation, it was clear from the rapt expressions on their faces that they held him in great respect. He expressed compliments and surprise that we had set up a camp and begun training our troops in such a short period of time. He told me that we should work together, not get discouraged, and forget petty problems and misunderstandings in a common cause to defeat communists. It was a wise counsel that reminded me of the primary challenge Special Forces personnel face when attempting to organize and influence men from a different culture.
Alfred H. Paddock, Jr., was on active duty in the U.S. Army, 1957-1988, and served three combat tours in Laos and Vietnam with Special Forces. He also commanded psychological operations units at the battalion and group level and was the Director for Psychological Operations, Office of the Secretary of Defense, retiring as a colonel. He holds M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in history from Duke University, and is the author of U.S. Army Special Warfare: Its Origins.