Sunday, September 05, 2010

A Hero Emerges

Later this month, President Obama will remedy a long-standing military slight when he awards the Congressional Medal of Honor to Air Force Chief Master Sergeant Richard Etchberger.

Unfortunately, Chief Etchberger won't be present for the White House Ceremony. He died 42 years ago in Laos, during the evacuation of suriving Air Force and CIA personnel from a secret radar bombing site. In the fact, the site (and its mission) were so classified that Etchberger's young sons were told he died in a helicopter crash. Chief Etchberger's wife was told the truth, but sworn to secrecy.

And the cover-up was sustained at the highest levels of government. President Lyndon Johnson quickly rejected Etchberger's nomination for the Medal of Honor, to help disguise the fact that U.S. military personnel were operating in Laos, then (technically) a neutral country.

Instead, CMSgt Etchberger received the Air Force Cross, the service's second-highest decoration for valor, and his exploits were soon forgotten. Indeed, few outside the world of covert ops and CIA paramilitary units were even aware of Lima Site 85, the secret site where Etchberger and his colleagues worked.

Perched atop a steep, 5,000-foot peak, the site directed all-weather bombing missions against North Vietnam, allowing Air Force and Navy aircraft to continue operations through the clouds and monsoon rains that covered enemy targets during much of the year. By early 1968, the facility was directing more than half of all "Rolling Thunder" missions against North Vietnam.

CMSgt Etchberger was part of the original contingent of Lima Site 85. A former commander described him as "one of the finest men I ever knew," an individual tabbed as a future leader from the earliest days of Etchberger's military career. Before deploying to the site, Etchberger, his colleagues (and their wives) were flown to Washington, D.C., where they were briefed on the mission and given new paperwork, identifying them as employees of Lockheed Aircraft Services, helping provide cover for their covert mission.

The site began operating in November 1967. Over the next four months, it directed more than a quarter of all U.S. bombing raids in North Vietnam. As American jets delivered accurate attacks through heavy cloud cover, Hanoi realized that a radar post must be nearby. It didn't take them long to pin-point Lima Site 85, located only 20 miles from the North Vietnamese border.

Hanoi mounted its first attempt to neutralize the radar site on 13 January 1968, dispatching four, ancient AN-2 "Colt" biplanes to bomb and strafe the base. They inflicted minor damage and managed to kill a few local tribesmen, employed by the CIA to help protect the facility.

But the Colts didn't get away unscathed. An Air America helicopter, scrambled to avoid destruction on the ground, gave chase. A CIA paramilitary officer on the chopper fired at the AN-2s with an AK-47 rifle. Two of the Colts went down as the Air America chopper pursued them. Members of an agency covert operations team later found bullet holes in the wreckage, and the helicopter crew received "credit" for two air-to-air kills.

Less than two months later, North Vietnamese forces attacked Lima Site 85, this time on the ground. On the night of March 10, 1968, dozens of enemy troops scaled the cliffs around the radar facility, while other units staged a diversionary attack on the slopes leading to the site and sealed off potential escape routes.

Despite repeated air strikes by F-4 Phantoms and A-26 bombers, North Vietnamese sappers managed to reach the radar post in the pre-dawn hours. Air Force personnel, led by CMSgt Etchberger, fought a desperate rear-guard action as CIA aircrews conducted evacuation operations. Of the 19 Americans at the site, only seven (five USAF, two CIA) survived. Survivors said Chief Etchberger personally saved three wounded men, loading them onto rescue helicopters before climbing aboard himself. Seconds later, he was hit by an armor-piercing round and died en route to a U.S. base in Thailand.

For his actions, CMSgt Etchberger received the Air Force Cross at a secret Pentagon ceremony. The U.S. never acknowledged the fall of Lima Site 85 until the early 1980s, and many details of the operation weren't divulged until Air Force historian Timothy Castle published One Day Too Long, his definitive study of the battle, just 10 years ago.

As Dr. Castle discovered during his research, American military commanders were also responsible for the debacle on that mountain top in Laos. They had decided to shut down the radar post before the final North Vietnamese attack, but waited too long to carry out their plans. As a result, Chief Etchberger and ten other airmen died. It was the heaviest loss of Air Force personnel in ground combat during the Vietnam War.

And the death toll would have been even higher, save the gallantry of Richard Etchberger. With this month's presentation ceremony, an American hero will finally emerge from the shadows of a long-secret battle, fought decades ago in the jungles of Laos.

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