The Plight of “Elephant” :
and the first Use of Armor in the
@ 2002 by Peter Brush
This area of
BV-33 increasingly found itself sitting on an island in the
middle of hostile, NVA-controlled territory. From 1961-65 the garrison was
supplied from the west by Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) contract airplanes.
By 1966 this became too risky as the North Vietnamese moved more antiaircraft
Always the war went on. All sides increased their forces on
the battlefields in the South. By the beginning of 1968,
For many years the Americans also monitored traffic on the
Ho Chi Minh Trail. In 1962 a U. S.
Army Special Forces “A” Team drove up from
In mid-1967, Communist leaders in Hanoi gave their approval for a plan to launch a general offensive-general uprising. In October they decided to launch during the 1968 Tet holiday. In December the central military commission established a military command for the Route 9-Tri Thien Front, which included the area around Khe Sanh. The goal of the Route 9 Front during Tet was to destroy American forces and give support to the attack on Hue. NVA military strength was substantial and included four infantry divisions, one independent infantry regiment, five artillery regiments, three anti-aircraft regiments, four battalions of tanks, one battalion of engineers, and a number of local troops. Success of the plan depended on secrecy.
Both sides considered the Laotian forces of BV-33 at Ban Houei Sane an important part of the allied intelligence gathering effort. In the summer of 1967 U.S. commanders planned to deploy long-range 175mm guns at Khe Sanh. The purpose of these guns included firing support for U.S. reconnaissance teams operating in Laos and for the support of BV-33. In the fall the South Vietnamese Strategic Technical Directorate made plans to send ARVN commandos to the area around Ban Houei Sane. Neither plan came to fruition. On January 21, 1968, the North Vietnamese Army began their attacks on Khe Sanh. As part of this effort, General Tran Qui Hai, the NVA commander of the at Khe Sanh Front, decided to put BV-33 out of the trail watching business. During the night of January 23, three battalions of the 24th Regiment, 304th NVA Division (veterans of Dien Bien Phu), backed by tanks, struck Ban Houei Sane.
The U.S. 7th Air Force Tactical Air Control Center in Saigon was responsible for aerial monitoring of the Khe Sanh area battlefield. In support of this mission, Forward Air Controllers (FACs) flew out of Da Nang and Ubon Air Bases to report on “all routes and trails leading into the Khe Sanh area.” FAC pilots were familiar with BV-33. They often landed at the camp’s small airstrip in order to visit with RLG Lieutenant Colonel Soulang Phetsampou, BV-33 commander, and his people. The FAC radio call sign for BV-33 was “Elephant” (some writers refer to BV-33 incorrectly as the “Royal Laotian Elephant Battalion”). Details of the NVA attack on BV-33 are sketchy. The best descriptions are provided by USAF Capt. Charles Rushford and other FACs who did their best to provide close air support to the Laotians under attack. 
For the NVA, bad weather was a good time to launch an attack; it restricted the ability of the Americans to provide air support. The weather at Ban Houei Sane during the early morning of January 24 was low overcast up to around 2,000 or 3,000 feet. A flareship tried to light up the battlefield as seven North Vietnamese tanks plus infantry forced their way through minefields surrounding BV-33’s position. LtCol. Soulang (“Elephant”) contacted the FAC circling overhead, shouted the NVA had breached the outer base perimeter and requested air strikes on the attacking enemy. The FAC was unable to coordinate strikes visually. All strikes had to be directed by the Marine radar bombing system located at Khe Sanh Combat Base. The FAC received coordinates from Elephant and relayed them to the Airborne Command and Control Center (ABCCC) orbiting the battlefield area at a higher elevation. The ABCCC relayed the data to Khe Sanh. This system proved too cumbersome to be effective. The NVA were moving too rapidly to be targeted accurately by Khe Sanh radar. The FACs controlled two B-57 loaded with napalm. The bombers were unable to drop because ground targets could not be identified.
“We just had to sit up there, rather frustrated, and TPQ [Khe Sanh ground directed radar] to help them out. Just before dawn, Elephant reported that they were being overrun. I could hear the machine guns and mortars in the background as he talked rather sadly over the radio . . . .” 
After three hours of fighting, the BV-33 commander informed the Americans the enemy had overwhelmed his position. He decided to abandon his command post. Elephant contacted the Special Forces camp at Lang Vei by radio and requested helicopters be sent to evacuate his people. Helicopters were unavailable. The Laotians decided to move eastward down Route 9 in an attempt to reach Lang Vei, just over the border in South Vietnam. With the dawn the Laotians set out on foot. The group included 276 soldiers of BV-33, about 200 Meo troops, and 2,300 civilian refugees, some of whom were wives and children of the Laotian soldiers. At least 46 Laotians were taken prisoner by the NVA. Halfway to Lang Vei Elephant again requested helicopter support. An affirmative reply was given but no helicopters came. The column continued walking on Route 9. The weather cleared enough for the FACs to see the battle area. U.S. attack aircraft hit the abandoned command post in order to destroy any Communist forces loitering at Ban Houei Sane. Another FAC followed the progress of the Laotians on the ground, calling in strikes on a bridge after they had crossed in order to discourage NVA pursuit. The BV-33 airfield was struck hard. The Air Force decided it should be kept knocked out in order to ensure the North Vietnamese did not use if to launch air attacks against Khe Sanh.
The ragged band crossed the
border into South Vietnam and proceed another mile to Lang Vei. Special Forces
Lieutenant Paul Longgear spotted the lead elements and greeted the Lao officer
who appeared to be in charge. The Laotian wore tiger-striped trousers, a
camouflaged shirt with American airborne wings with ranger tab, and carried a
Soviet AK-47 rifle. “Who are you?” asked Longgear.
Although allies, the Americans did not fully trust the soldiers of BV-33. In
fact, one Special Forces soldier, Sergeant Bill Steptoe, felt BV-33 troops were
playing both sides of the fence. In 1966, Steptoe’s troops spotted what
they thought were Russians, Chinese, and North Vietnamese right around BV-33
Against the pleas of the Laotian lieutenant, Montagnard mercenaries working for the Green Berets disarmed the soldiers from Elephant as they arrived (the weapons were later returned). LtCol. Soulang described how his unit had been overrun in a battle with the North Vietnamese less than ten miles away. Soulang’s claim that tanks led the attack was met with disbelief by the Americans, who wondered why the Laotians’ weapons were so clean if they had fought the NVA. The FACs had made no mention of tanks, and tanks had never been used previously by the NVA.
The radio call sign for the Lang Vei Special Forces Camp was “Spunky Hanson.” Shortly after midnight on February 7, Lang Vei reported it was under attack from “a large enemy force supported by tanks and flame throwers.” Again, the weather was bad. Spunky Hanson spoke to the FAC flying overhead:
We have tanks in the area! We have tanks in the area! I have one tank on top of my TOC at this time, there’s another tank trying to enter the gate, coming into the compound, and I think there’s another one coming down the road. Forget about the one on top of the TOC, but see if you can hit the one coming through the gate, and the one coming down the road! 
That was the last contact between the FAC and Spunky Hanson. By dawn the enemy had overrun the camp, trapping the Special Forces in their command bunker. A Special Forces NCO assigned to BV-33, Sergeant First Class Eugene Ashley, urged the Laotians to attempt a rescue, but they were pinned down by NVA machine gun fire. LtCol. Soulang initially refused to become involved but finally relented under Ashley’s insistence. Two platoons were assigned to assist the Americans. The BV-33 soldiers were reluctant to advance against the NVA; after closing in, they broke and ran. Sgt. Ashley claimed he practically had to threaten the Laotians with his weapon in order to get them to rally. Five times this force tried to make its way into the camp at Lang Vei. On the fifth try Ashley was killed (he was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor). 
The next day LtCol. Soulang and 113 of his men were flown to Da Nang aboard a C-130. Again they were disarmed by the Americans, but this time they were given food and clothing by Air Force personnel. From Da Nang Soulang and some of his officers flew to Saigon. At the Laotian embassy arrangements were made for repatriation to Laos. On February 15 the remaining men of BV-33 flew to Savannakhet via Royal Laotian Air Force C-47 transport. 
For additional reading, see
Warren A. Trest, Khe Sanh (Operation Niagra) 22 January – 31 March (Christiansburg, VA : Dalley Book Service, 1997).
John Prados and Ray Stubbe,
Valley of Decision (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.
 Ken Conboy with James Morrison, Shadow War (Boulder, CO: Paladin Press, 1995), pp. 115-116.
 Oudone Sananikone, The Royal Lao Army and U.S. Army Advice and Support (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1981), p. 129.
 Vongsavanh, RLG Military Operations and Activities in the Laotian Panhandle (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1981), p. 35.
 Conboy, Ibid.
 Conboy, p. 187.
 Michael Clodfelter, Vietnam in Military Statistics, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland), 1995), p. 121.
 Warren A. Trest, Khe Sanh (Operation Niagra) 22 January – 31 March (Christiansburg, VA : Dalley Book Service, 1997), p. 3. Originally published as a classified report by HQ PACAF, Directorate, Tactical Evaluation, CHECO Division, ca 1968.
 John Prados and Ray Stubbe, Valley of Decision (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991), p. 18.
 Ibid., pp. 13-15, 53, 55.
 Ang Cheng Guan, “Khe Sanh – from the Perspective of the North Vietnamese Communists” in War in History, Vol. 8, No. 1, 2001, pp. 90-92.
 John Prados, The Blood Road : the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the Vietnam War (NY: Wiley, 1999), pp. 245-246.
 Trest, pp. 9, 15-24, 32-24, 39-41.
 Trest, pp. 15-16. This section is based on interviews with FACs who witnessed the battle area from above.
 Trest, pp. 23-24.
 David B. Stockwell, Tanks in the Wire (NY: Jove Books, 1990), pp. 3-4.
 Prados and Stubbe, p. 55.
 Ibid., pp. 272-273. Trest, p. 17.
 Ray Stubbe, Khe Sanh (unpublished manuscript, 1989), p. 399. Valley of Decision (see note 8) is based largely on information in this manuscript, given to me by Ray Stubbe.
 Stockwell, pp. 6-9.
 Trest, pp. 30-31.
 Stockwell, p. 107. Trest, 33. Prados and Stubbe, p. 334.
 Prados and Stubbe, pp. 336-339. Trest, p. 41.
 Trest, p. 40.