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May 16, 1961 – Commentary on upcoming Geneva Meeting regarding Laos – NBC Radio – Gordon Skene Sound Collection –
May 16, 1961 – As the sixties got underway and with a new President taking office in Washington, places we knew very little about, or only heard about in the context of Geography class were figuring prominently in our day-to-day conversation. One of those places was Laos, a small country tucked in between Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.
As the sixties progressed we became familiar with new names – names like Prince Souvana Phouma, Plain of Jars and Pathet Lao. And because we were almost daily reminded of The Communist Threat, Southeast Asia had become something of a hotspot, along with Berlin and Cuba, as places hosting conflicts and dramatic upheavals in this new decade.
On this day it was reported a United Nations Conference to be held in Geneva to discuss the situation in Laos and ways to implement a ceasefire between rebels (the Pathet Lao) and the government of Prince Souvana Phouma.
Here is a brief rundown chronology of events, beginning on 1 January 1961, the Pathet Lao drove 9,000 Royal Lao Army troops from the Plain of Jars.
On 3 January, the Royal Laotian Air Force (RLAF) received its first counter-insurgency aircraft, American-built T-6 Texans, via the Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF). These four reconfigured trainers were armed with two .30 caliber machine guns and five-inch rockets, and could carry 100-pound bombs. Four previously trained Lao pilots undertook transition training in Thailand; on 9 January, the pilots flew the new RLAF fighter-bombers to Vientiane. Two days later, they flew their first combat sorties, against PAVN and Pathet Lao covering Kong Le’s retreat into the Plain of Jars.
Russian Soviet air supply continued, bringing in heavy weapons to supplement the light arms previously delivered. On 7 January, the North Vietnamese presence was escalated by an additional four battalions; two of the battalions immediately moved to the point of conflict, on Route 7, which connected to Vientiane. A third PAVN battalion moved into action at Tha Thom, south of the Plain of Jars. On 15 January, the entire 925th Independent Brigade of the PAVN had crossed into Laos to reinforce the Pathet Lao/Neutralist coalition.
The U.S. decided to counter-escalate by airdropping arms to a force of 7,000 Hmong guerrillas later in the month. The U.S. Navy transferred four H-34 helicopters to CIA front organization Air America.
By the beginning of February 1961, the first four Thai pilots arrived to fly four more T-6s supplied to the Royal Laotian Air Force (RLAF). The Thai pilots had been officially discharged from the Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) and held no official position in the RLAF. The growth of the RLAF would be nullified by its casualties, as five of the T-6s were lost in action by the end of March.
An inter-agency task force set up by the incoming Kennedy administration in early February undertook a two-month study of possible American responses to the Laotian civil war. Even as the French ended their training mission, American training efforts were ramped up: Sixteen H-34 helicopters were transferred from the U.S. Marine Corps to Air America; maintenance facilities were established at Udorn in northern Thailand, about 85 kilometres south of Vientiane. The most drastic alternative the task force envisioned was a 60,000 man commitment of American ground troops in southern Laos, with a possible use of nuclear weapons. These latter options were not elected.
On 9 March, the communists captured the only road junction between Luang Prabang and Vientiane. When RLA troops were ordered to counterattack and retake the junction, they dropped their weapons and ran. Special Forces Team Moon was assigned as advisers to the RLA unit. On 22 April 1961, Team Moon was overrun. Two sergeants were killed, and team leader Captain Walter H. Moon was captured; he was later executed while trying to escape captivity. Another sergeant was released sixteen months later.
A ceasefire was sought and a truce supposedly went into effect the first week of May, but was repeatedly breached by the communists. With the Royal Lao Army ineffective, the Hmong guerrillas were left as the only opposition to the communists.
Here is a brief commentary on the upcoming conference as it was reported by NBC Radio on May 16, 1961.