Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Valentine's Day, 1971 in Laos

40 years ago in 1971, the secret airbase of Long Tieng in Laos was attacked on Valentine's Day. Christopher Robbins' wrote about the incident in his 1987 book The Ravens, Chapter 10, "Valentine". Here is an excerpt that illustrates many of the lingering issues we've been discussing over the years:

"The F-4 went in, but instead of returning to make multiple passes the pilot took the lazy course and pickled off his entire load of six CBU [Cluster Bomb Unit] canisters at once. Shep, his leg hastily bandaged, was outside with Burr Smith and a platoon of Meo [sic] guerrillas when the plane screamed over. Shep looked up and saw the CBU pods come off the aircraft and then watched in horrified fascination as the clamshells flew apart and the bomblets were spewed out. He yelled to his companions and hit the gorund. When he raised his head, after the CBU had passed beyond him, Burr Smith, himself, and a single Meo survived.

The exploding CBU tore through the village like a hurricane. Huts, trees, and telephone poles disintegrated before the Ravens' eyes. "You're dropping on the friendlies! Swedberg yelled into his radio. "You're dropping on the friendlies!"

A wall of destructive flame raced toward the Raven hootch. "You sorry-assed son of a bitch," Duehring shouted, and dived for the floor.

It was even worse than Swedberg feared. The pilot had misunderstood his instructions regarding the tracer and exactly reversed them-he had not dropped the deadly load where the tracers were ricocheting, but on the friendly machine gun itself.

Those in the hootch had hit the floor and were squirming on their bellies to get under the bed or behind some sort of cover. The CBU broke over building, peeling back the roof. It set the operations shack on fire, along with the Company sleeping quarters, the Air America hostel, and the Raven dining room, blasting the pool table into fragments. The CIA bar took a direct hit and burned to the ground. But the wily bears survived the holocaust by pressing themselves against the rock wall at the rear of their cage, which was built out from a cave.

It was obvious that the F-4 had dropped CBU, and from a great enough height for it to have a large pattern, (Clamshell CBU explodes in a doughnut patter, creating a circle of fire around a hollow. What looked to the Ravens like a solid wall of fire approaching them was actually a circle surrounding them-and the .50 caliber machine gun was directly in the center of it.)

With the building burning down around their ears, the Americans prepared to move back to the bunker, where a series of sporadic explosions made them think they were under renewed attack. It then dawned on them that the continuing explosions were their own ordnance. "Christ," somebody groaned, "some of that shit is time delayed."

"Confirm CBU-24," Swedberg radioed Cricket. 

"CBU-24 confirmed," Cricket responded. There was a pause. "Also CBU-49 mixed in there."

CBU-49 was a canister of time-delayed, baseball-sized bomblets that, according to the book, went off randomly over a thirty minute period, each one blasting out 250 white-hot ball bearings. In reality, they often continued to explode for as long as two hours, and now they were littered throughout the compound."

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