Feature: Road Watch Teams

21 May 2005

Harve Saal

The CIA in Southeast Asia was tasked to recruit indigenous forces to watch and report on the North Vietnamese army as they moved along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos.

To attempt this colossal feat, the surveillance of the Ho Chi Minh Trail was a combined effort of the CIA’s Chief’s of Station (COS) in Vientiane, Bangkok and Saigon. While the CIA in Laos was controlled by COS Theodore Shackley, under a unique directive of the U.S. President, the CIA in South Vietnam was assigned to the U. S. Army’s Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV)-initially to the U.S. Army Special Forces (USSF) Vietnam (Provisional), under the command of USSF Colonel Aito Keravuori, then subsequently to MACV, Studies and Observations Group (SOG), commanded by USSF Colonel Clyde Russell.

Beginning in mid-1966, monitoring the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos eventually became a joint venture of the CIA in Laos and MACV-SOG in Vietnam. With the U.S. military strictly forbidden from conducting “ground combat operations” in central and northern Laos, the recruited men were indigenous Laotians. Originally identified as “Trail” and “Path” watchers, the terms “Trail” and “Path” were not monumental enough for the U.S. Air Force, so it was re-designated as a “ ROAD WATCH” program. Each RWT was formed with six to twelve men.

As an exception to the ban on “American ground combat forces in Laos”, U.S. led reconnaissance (recon) teams from SOG’s Operation 35 (Ground Studies Group) were allowed, by Presidential Order, to reconnoitre in Laos (area code named “Prairie Fire”), from the demilitarised zone (DMZ) to the northern Cambodian border at a penetration depth of twenty kilometres from the South Vietnamese border.

While the CIA’s Chief of Base (COB) in Thailand, William Lair, was responsible for RWT operations in northern Laos, COB Lair’s deputy, Pat Landry, was responsible for the Laotian Panhandle. For planning purposes, Laos included five military regions, with each having an organization of Meo tribesmen led by a CIA operative; Chief of Unit (COU).

The air operations of the 603rd Air Commando Squadron with SOG’s 32/75 (Air Studies Branch/Group) at Nakhon Phanom Royal Air Force Base (NKP, RAFB), Thailand, included monitoring the RWTs in Laos where they gathered intelligence and harassed enemy forces. Teams were inserted in to areas, sometimes overland by foot, but usually by helicopter, including those from Air America. About twenty helicopters were on hand for RWT insertions and extractions. As a recovery precaution, each RWT was assigned a Laotian army, or Air Force officer or sergeant. Each team’s Laotian military member was essential for overall team recognition, and the individual identification of each man during helicopter recovery.

With the ultimate objective to “cut the enemy’s supply lines”, a team’s primary mission was not to fight, but to conduct surveillance of, and to report on North Vietnamese Army (NVA) activities. Their operational area began at China’s southern boundary and extended below the 17th Parallel, the DMZ, down to the northern Cambodian border.

With both RWT and U.S. led recon teams operating below the DMZ in Laos, to avoid the possibility of any accidental meetings between the teams on the ground, the RWTs operated beyond the U.S. led teams’ (“Prairie Fire”) twenty kilometre penetration depth.

After watching NVA movements, the RWT reported, via radio transmission, the observed activities to U.S. aircraft that flew designated orbits over Laos, 24 hours a day. Late in 1967, radios used by the teams included the “Hark-1”. Nicknamed the “Hark Box”, it was the size of a brick with a keypad that included the symbols of NVA items most commonly observed; artillery guns, troops, trucks and tanks. Other numeric keys were used to indicate, “by tens”, the amount of men or vehicles, for example, could be reported by pressing the corresponding keys on the transmitter. When specific buttons were pressed, they transmitted discerning radio waves that identified distinct teams, or functions. The “Hark Box” was such that it “compressed” the radio’s transmission in to shortened burst of electronic energy that, when received, could be “expanded” and decoded.

The reported time of an enemy sighting, the location, approximate speed, and direction of movement could be calculated and the enemy vehicles could be bombed at future designated locations. One encountered problem included the “Dr. Pepper” air strikes sent by the 7th Air Force in Saigon. When asked for air support, bombing missions were dispatched at 10.00, 14.00 and 16.00 hours. These daily time periods were the greatest times of inactivity by the NVA; when they ate, and then enjoyed a leisurely afternoon siesta (“Pock Time”). The air strike policy was rationalized under the guise of “aircraft maintenance”. Fortunately, other air strike assets were available for RWT program.

Perched at high observation sites, teams looked down on winding roads that weaved through rugged mountain passes leading from North Vietnam in to central Laos. From their vantage points, they reported on lucrative supply convoys to be bombed. An RWT could be removed from the dangers of an impending air strike.

The targets in Laos were called “RLAT” (pronounced “ar-lat”), an acronym for “Royal Laotian Targets”. Whenever possible, after a 24 hour delay, bombed areas were flown-over again to assess the damage caused by air strikes. To assist with a bomb damage assessment (BDA), RWTs had improvised “arrow” shaped structures to which they affixed flashlights. Prior to the evening’s fly-over, the arrow was pivoted toward the BDA area, the flashlights were turned-on, and the passing pilot could visually determine the direction for the next day’s BDA.

RWTs, too, were instrumental in assisting SOG’s Operation 33 (Psychological Studies Branch) with propaganda leaflet airdrops over Laos.

In the end, rather than having created a jealous rivalry between the USAF, USSF, and the CIA, the RWT project became a program of adept cooperation and unconventional professionalism.

This article was originally published in Behind The Lines magazine. VietnamGear.com has reproduced this article with the kind permission of Gary Linderer.

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