DETOUR TO BURMA - Air America - Ben A. Van Etten
In November of 1970 I made a quick trip to the States to bring back Linda and the kids. Chris had been born in August. When I got back to Udorn I checked the flight schedule. Fly H-62 (an H-34) and work at L-25 the next day, not much of a rest from the trip across the pond.
L-25 was actually Ban Houi Sai, a town located in the Northwest corner of Laos on the Mekong River. Normally a good location to work since there wasn't a great deal of enemy activity. In fact, as in my case, only one pilot would be required. Duel crews were the norm for more hazardous areas like Pakse or Luang Prabang.
When I arrived at L-25 for duty I was told to fly across the river (to Thailand T-603) and pick up a load. It was food to be delivered to a team located about 50 miles north. Their encampment would be near the Mekong River where the borders of Laos, China, and Burma came together. The infamous “Golden Trangle”.
The aircraft was topped off with fuel and loaded with 2200 pounds of canned meat. I was briefed on the coordinates and signal to expect. There hadn't been any reported enemy activity in the area. We were under way in less than fifteen minutes.
My flight mechanic was Manu Latloi. He was a Thai new hire and this would be his first trip up-country as a fully qualified crewmember. An adventure neither of us would soon forget.
As the chopper climbed to my planned cruising altitude of 2500 feet a great deal of power was required from the Wright nine cylinder, radial engine to maintain a decent rate of climb. The 1820 cubic inch, supercharged engine originally designed for the B-17 bomber was utilized in several fixed wing aircraft and two helicopters, the H-34 and H-21.
The weather in the area was a broken sky condition with some scattered showers. The visibility outside the showers was about ten miles. Surface winds were westerly at about ten knots. There was no weather forecast available for my destination.
About ten minutes after take-off it was necessary to cross a well traveled road. According to the FIC (flight information center) the road was occasionally used by the Chinese Communists and also opium runners headed to Burma. I did not want to cross that point less than 3000 feet; out of small arms range. I began a climb through the broken clouds, planning to let back down on the other side. When I finally broke clear on top I was at 8500 feet! 8500 over a solid overcast.
I decided to continue on for a while hoping for a break in the overcast to let down through. After twenty minutes, if there was no clear place to let down, I'd simply abort the mission, do a 180 and return back to where I'd started.
After more than twenty minutes "on top" I began to earnestly look for a hole to let down through. I noticed a "crease" in the cloud layer and began a slow descent. I broke clear, underneath the overcast, and didn't recognize the area under me. Not good. One of the requirements (and claims to fame) of the Air America pilots operating in Laos was that we knew the country like the back of our hands. Flying unarmed helicopters over and around hostile territory obviously required the pilots to know where they were at all times. That's probably the main reason we had so few aircraft shot down.
Since I didn't know where I was and there was a fairly large village under me, I figured that strong winds aloft had blown east of course over Moung Sing, also known as Lima Site 100, a Pathet Lao/NVA area. I quickly increased power and raised the nose to ascend back into the clouds and away from the expected anti aircraft fire. I held my breath. Apparently I hadn't been spotted.
I headed west, figuring I'd break out over the Mekong River near my intended destination.
Of course, as I found out later, I was already "west" and was only getting deeper into the Northern Shan State of Burma. The solid cloud cover underneath me was beginning to show some openings, so I let down and continued to fly in a westerly direction.
I was able to tune a strong AM radio signal on the ADF receiver and Manu confirmed that it was Ching Mai. Ching Mai's a large city in northern Thailand and since I still wasn't sure of my location, I'd head in that direction and at least end up in northern Thailand.
The visibility under the clouds was at least ten miles and I caught a glimpse of a medium size fixed wing aircraft at my twelve o'clock. It had two engines, its gear was down to land, and I thought that it must be Thai Airways (hopefully in the traffic pattern at Ching Mai).
I attempted to call Ching Mai tower on the published frequency. No answer. Finally I could see an airport control tower in the distance and headed for it. At about two miles out, a green flare was shot from the tower. I knew at that point I was not in Thailand. The Thais would not have shot off a flare, they were not that formal.
By now my low fuel warning light had been on too long for any option but to land. I approached and landed at the base of the tower.
Within a few minutes a dozen soldiers, all with their weapons pointed at me, surrounded my aircraft. An
officer walked up to my cockpit window and shouted, "Captain, shut it down and get out".
Which, of course, I did.
After the engine was shut off and the blades stopped turning, I got out and, putting on my happy face, shock hands with the officer. I explained that I'd become a bit disoriented and if he would tell me where I was, I'd like to buy some gas and be on my way. I realized within a few minutes that it definitely wasn't going to be that simple.
The officer that spoke English took me to a small building and starting asking questions such as, "Did we have any guns or cameras?" to which I answered "No". He said that it was a good thing that I didn't try to fly out of there because their radar controlled guns would have shot us down. As primitive as the equipment that I could see was, I doubted that he was telling the truth. I don't know why he would lie, unless he was simply trying to impress me.
He was convinced that we were US Air Force and that we were on some kind of a spy mission! I tried to explain that we were civilians flying food to villagers in Northern Laos. He wasn't buying that and kept insisting that we were Air Force. He had a book that listed Air Force aircraft and of course, the H-34 was not listed under US Air Force. The H-43 was listed however, so he insisted that our helicopter was not a H-34, but a H-43. Finally, after about fifteen minutes of contending that we were flying a H-43, I agreed that it was an H-43!
The aircraft was equipped with a HF radio that could have reached Air America operations in Vientiane, Laos or Udorn, Thailand. All I wanted to do was give a call that we were OK, so that the company wouldn't launch a search and rescue (SAR) mission. They refused to let me near the aircraft.
After about two hours of questioning I told the officer that I needed to take a leak. He pointed to some trees out behind the building and sent me out there with a guard. The soldier carried a carbine and kept it pointed at me like he was guarding Charles Manson! Needless to say, with a shaky young trooper pointing his gun at me I didn't really have to pee after all.
All the while I was being questioned, Manu was being questioned at the aircraft while it was being unloaded. Of course they found our UZI's, pulled them out of their cases, and stacked the sixty rounds of 9mm ammo we each carried, in a neat row. They then had us kneel behind our weapons while they took our pictures. I don't think they realized that we weren't going to wage much of an invasion with two weapons and six magazines of ammo.
They also refused to interrogate Manu in Thai, only English, which he didn't speak very well. When they asked him why we carried the two UZI's, he wanted to say for survival purposes, which was the truth. But he said, "To kill rabbits" (survival). They made a big deal out of that statement by the implication that Americans (and Thais) use machine guns to kill rabbits.
Evening was approaching and I got the impression that they believed that our intention was not to invade their country, we really were lost. The officer said he was going to have us driven in a truck to the BOQ and we would probably be released in the morning. Sounded good to me.
As we were walking to the truck, which had armed soldiers in the back, Manu got me aside. He looked very shook up as he told me that we needed to escape because they were getting ready to kill us. I tried to convince him (and myself) that he must be mistaken because we would have been tied up in the back of the truck, not riding up front. He said that last week he had seen a movie in Udorn where the Germans had killed their prisoners in a similar manner. I think I convinced him to relax and be cool; we were going to be O.K.
We rode in the truck for about an hour. The dirt road took us through thick forests and up into mountainous terrain. Finally, long after dark we arrived at a military encampment. We were taken to a small, one room building, that contained two beds and a bathroom. We were told to wait, and were left by our selves.
The acting camp commander arrived and welcomed us to his compound. He spoke some English and seemed like an all right guy. He was a Captain and probably in his mid forties. His name was Dauwing. We were given some rice and vegetables along with a bottle of local orange soda pop. He said to get to sleep and we would talk in the morning. Latloi and I were left alone and the outside door was unlocked. There was a guard outside.
The camp was a typical military out-post. The fortified perimeter encircled the compound and seemed to be lightly defended. There were also family quarters for the officers and senior NCO's. There was a recreation hall located near us that contained a billiard table.
The interrogation began the next morning in a room located in the recreation center. The chief interrogator was an older officer named Lt. Ali King. I called him Ali. Hollywood could not have done better in type casting the interrogator. Chinese, round face, thick glasses, bad teeth and spoke perfect "King's English". He had a notebook and I was also given permission to take notes.
After a few minutes of small talk he offered me some tea, which I accepted, and then begin the questioning in earnest. He insisted that I was military and must have been on some kind of a clandestine mission. I think he looked upon me as his big break. I was Frances Gary Powers and he was about to unravel one of the aviation crimes of the century. Big time spy in an H-34!
The questioning went on for a couple of hours and he seemed to be most interested on U.S. military (aviation) equipment. I really didn't know much (especially about the current situation in Vietnam), but told him what ever I thought he wanted to hear. I was interested in to whom or where he was passing his information. If the Chinese or Russians were involved with these people, I certainly didn't want to be turned over to the Commies. I tried my best to convince him that I was not an important military capture, but only a civilian pilot that got lost. I saw Lt. Ali King for several hours for the next two days.
When Ali was not with me, Captain Dauwing would visit. They played the "good guy" "bad guy" routine just like cops. In fact Captain Dauwing brought me a small bottle of homemade brandy every other day.
Day four during the daily interview, I decided to rattle Ali King's chain. In a matter of fact tone of voice I told Ali that there was a small radio transmitter that they had not found. All I needed to do was press a button and with-in one hour there would be an F-4 strike here!
When I said that, it was as if someone had called "Attention". Ali jumped up, walked around our table once, twice, then out the door. I set there alone for about twenty minutes, knowing something was brewing. At least, for better or worse, I just broke the monotony.
Finally, Captain Dauwing came in alone. He placed his hand on my shoulder and in a very serious sounding voice said, "Ben, what you told Ali King, would you really do that?"
I told him, "No, that I was just bull shitting Ali King, but I didn't like Ali King and would prefer not to see him again". It worked! He said "O.K." and I never did see him again. Small victory.
As the days dragged on Captain Dauwing continued to insist that soon we would be released. After the ninth day I was beginning to wonder if he knew what he was talking about. Finally the big day of our departure had arrived.
We drove down the mountain to the airport where a drum of fuel had arrived from Thailand. We pumped in fifty-five gallons of 115-145 aviation gas and inspected the aircraft. Everything that the soldiers removed had been replaced.
Before we could leave however, we had one more get together. Some Burmese brass had arrived and wanted me to sign a statement. Basically it thanked them for their hospitality and promised that I would not violate Burmese airspace again. I signed away.
Among the guests was the control tower operator. He gave me a slip of paper with both the ground and tower frequencies. They probably only got two or three flights a day in there, but he was serious about giving me taxi and take-off instructions. Or maybe he just wanted to practice his English.
About thirty minutes after take-off we were over Thailand. We landed at a small border airport and topped off with fuel for the flight back to Udorn. I phoned the chief pilot, helicopters (CPH) that was Phil Goddard at the time, and told him I was on the way. He passed on the info to the appropriate need to know folks, including Linda.