The Police Commissioner appeared surprised and irritated to find us waiting outside his office.
He scrutinized my press credentials carefully before answering my questions. He denied knowledge of any Royal Lao Government plans to evacuate the town. The Pathet Lao regularly mortared the bridge across the Nam Khan river that linked the town to the airfield, and the month before, Pathet Lao commandos raided the airport and destroyed three planes on the tarmac. But his town was secure, as we had seen for ourselves. Outside the town was a different story, he warned. Guerilla units operated within ten kilometers of the city. A USAID worker was caught on the road just outside Luang Prabang, hacked to death, and the pieces left on the hood of his Jeep by the Pathet Lao.
“Please stay in the town,” he advised. “If you go outside and get in trouble, we will not come help you.”
We took a pedicab over to the USAID compound to look for Paul White, the head of refugee operations in Luang Prabang. The dirt yard in front of the building was crammed with jeeps, trucks and vehicles of all kinds. It was July 3rd and they were getting ready for a big party the next day. An angry-looking man hurried by, spotted us, and charged over.
“Who are you guys,” he demanded, “and what are you doing here?”
“We’re from the Bangkok World, and we’re looking for Paul White.”
"Nobody told me about any reporters coming here,” he growled. “Wait here,” he ordered, and strode off.
As we stood there, four T-28s loaded with bombs under their wings roared over us, heading out for a sortie in the hills. A minute later, a Laotian Air Force helicopter whump-whumped by at tree-top level. A jeep came flying into the compound and slammed on its brakes, scattering rocks and dust.
It was Paul, wearing a University of Hawaii T-shirt and looking tired. We introduced ourselves. On our way to the briefing room, he told us he spent four years living with the Meo, teaching himself their language. He fled Sam Thong the day before the communists overran the town and the rest of the Plaine des Jarres. He was responsible for refugee ops. I liked the guy immediately. He reminded me of a Peace Corps Volunteer.
Paul unfolded a large topo map and spread it out on the table. I didn’t see any roads, just the concentric circles denoting increasingly steeper mountains. The refugee situation in the province had stabilized for the moment, he explained – maybe a thousand new refugees so far to feed and take care of. They were scattered all over the province, many holding out on mountaintops in little villages of a dozen or so thatched huts. They could only be resupplied by air. Outside of Luang Prabang itself, it was either Pathet Lao-controlled or no-man’s land except for a few small areas controlled by Vang Pao’s troops. In some of those areas, the government had cleared short, unpaved “Lima” airstrips where a small plane could touch down. But most of the time, supplies were dropped from a moving plane. I told Paul about the Police Commissioner’s warning to stay in town.
“Is it really that bad,” I smiled, “or is he just having some fun with us?”
“He’s serious,” Paul replied. He put his finger on Luang Prabang, lying in a small valley surrounded by mountains, then ran it down the map to a little dot labeled Xieng Nuen. Distance, 20 kilometers – 12 miles. “That’s it for going south.”Bill and I bent down for a closer look. Paul returned his finger to Luang Prabang then traced the Mekong River north to a town called Pak Ou, another little black dot on the map. Distance, again around 20-25 klicks. West? Plus or minus 10 kilometers, a little over six miles. East? His finger stopped on a line of mountains just outside Luang Prabang, where the T-28s were heading that morning.
He looked at us. “Still want to go on that rice drop?”
“Yeah, sign us up,” I said, with more confidence than I felt.
5: 30 AM, Independence Day, July 4th. We woke up, Bill filled his knapsack with cameras, lenses and cartridges of film, and I checked out my Sony tape recorder. Outside the hotel, a light drizzle fell. A soldier walked by, clothes sopping wet, carrying two brown chickens upside down by their feet, eating a banana. When we reached the USAID compound, Paul informed us the flight had been scrubbed. Poor visibility. You didn’t fly around in thick rain clouds in mountains if it wasn’t absolutely necessary. That’s the way you lose guys. Paul knew we were disappointed.
“It might clear up yet,” he said cheerfully. “Come back at 3 PM.”
We retreated to a café to stare at the sky, cross our fingers and kill six hours. Somewhere in America I imagined Nixon was giving a speech. “My fellow Americans… today, in the jungles of Southeast Asia… for freedom…if we don’t …falling dominoes …thank you.” By noon, the rain had stopped. We were on again.
Paul drove us out to the airport and dumped us on the tarmac at the commercial end of the airfield. He’d send the plane over. Cameras weren’t allowed near the Air America terminal.“They don’t trust you guys.”
The feeling was mutual. I knew the CIA created and owned Air America. It hired the carrier’s “civilian” pilots, U.S. military guys whose service records conveniently vanished when they were reassigned to fly for the CIA. Air America was doing more than running humanitarian rice drops to Meo refugees for USAID; it was also hauling “hard rice” – troops, ammunition and fuel for Gen. Vang Pao, and even doing night recon missions over the Ho Chi Minh trail.
A small, white plane not much bigger than a Piper Cub taxied down the runway toward us. Paul had raved to us about the Pilatus Porter, a STOL (short take off and landing) craft built by the Swiss and used in the Alps for rescue work. It had a 550 horsepower engine and on stormy days, when its oversize wings caught a strong updraft or downdraft, you expected the wings to tear off. But it was perfectly suited for Laos where it landed on perilously short airstrips planted 4,000 feet up a mountainside.
“Get your asses in,” the pilot shouted out the window.
The engine noise in the cramped cabin was deafening. I climbed into the front seat next the pilot, a beefy man dressed in civilian khakis sporting a Salvador Dali moustache. Bill climbed into the back where four 40-kilo sacks of rice sat in a small bay on top of two drop doors in the floor. Four additional bags crowded his feet.
The radio squawked a clearance and we swung onto the runway. He pushed the throttle and seconds later we were airborne. We banked over the Mekong and slowly climbed to our cruising altitude, heading west. Scattered grey clouds were spiked to the tops of the mountains like dirty washrags. Bill had his camera out, snapping away through his side window. We tracked the river for several minutes before banking again towards a line of steep, jungle-covered mountains. The ride got bumpier. We ran through rain squalls and patches of mist and fog with mountain walls suddenly appearing and disappearing right next to my window. Between clouds, I couldn’t spot anything below but green jungled mountains – no trucks, no roads, no power lines, no sign of civilization. We droned on for about 15 minutes before the pilot leaned over and shouted in my ear.
“Down there.” He pointed out the window.
Through a break in the rain clouds I saw a mountaintop with a narrow clearing slashed like a scar into the jungle. A half dozen stick huts lined the edge. He banked our plane low over the village and I spied a white letter “H” laid out on the ground. That was it. The drop zone. He passed over fast, banked hard again, and circled around. Paul had explained the drill. The pilot would be looking for people, animals, children, everything in its place. Hilltops sometimes got overrun by the Pathet Lao who would set a trap, luring the plane in and ambushing it with automatic weapons. Satisfied with his inspection, he dropped and flew flat and straight over the DZ at maybe 100 feet, low enough to keep the triple-bagged sacks from bursting when they hit the ground.
“Here we go,” he yelled.
He reached over to his left and yanked the drop-door release handle. The doors split open with a tremendous whoosh and four rice bags tumbled into space. Looking back through the doors, I could see them strike the ground no more than 15 feet from the “H.” Bill leaned into the gaping hole, shooting furiously. I flashed the pilot a big thumbs up. He grinned. Bill put his camera down and shoved the remaining rice bags onto the trap door.
On pass number two, he hotdogged it even lower. Now I could see a dirty-faced little girl, standing just inside the doorway of one of the huts, looking up at us.
“That’s the shot!” I shouted to Bill.
But head-down, his lens locked on the drop doors, he couldn’t hear me. Another roar of air and the last four sacks of rice fell out, twirling through the air. One second they’re floating down like feathers in the breeze then all of a sudden they’re just brown burlap sacks in the dirt. And just as sudden, it was over. No hostile fire from the Pathet Lao, no wild acrobatics in the air, no engine trouble. Mission complete. I had hoped for something more dramatic.
Bill poked me in the back and pointed out the window. The little girl had ventured outside. Holding the edge of a rice bag with one hand, she smiled up at us, waving. I pressed my nose to the cockpit window and waved back.
Like the Rolling Stones sang, you can’t always get what you want, but her wave would do.