A Reporter Looks Back: The Laos Invasion of 1971

Dan Southerland, who reported on the war in Laos, remembers four colleagues lost on Feb. 10, 1971 when their helicopter was shot down by North Vietnamese forces.
A commentary by Dan Southerland
2021-02-17
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A Reporter Looks Back: The Laos Invasion of 1971 A destroyed tank sits in overgrown woods along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos in a file photo.
AFP

In early 1971 President Richard Nixon thought that he’d found a way out of the Vietnam War.

High-level U.S. and Vietnamese military officers proposed invading Laos to cut off North Vietnam’s main supply routes into South Vietnam, known to many as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Despite a congressional ban on cross-border operations, the U.S. and South Vietnam planned to send into Laos a Vietnamese military force supported by U.S. air strikes.

If the invasion worked, Nixon reckoned that it would lead to lower U.S. casualties in Vietnam and thereby improve his chances of being reelected in 1972.

But a new book written by Michael Putzel titled Rogue Soldier describes how the allies underestimated both the strength of the North Vietnamese forces and the anti-aircraft fire that they would encounter.

Putzel’s book tells the story Ed Keith, a bright young Army sergeant with thick glasses who became an expert at pinpointing North Vietnamese positions. He did it through the use of gear that he helped to develop to monitor, copy, and distribute coded North Vietnamese messages.

Through no fault of Keith’s own, some of the messages never got to the people who could have best used them.

In December 1970, Keith’s colleague Douglas W. Bonnot’s radio monitoring began picking up clues that the North Vietnamese were moving large numbers of troops into Laos near the border with South Vietnam.

According to Putzel, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) was “actually reacting to an intelligence coup of its own.”

The NVA had learned of the allied invasion plan on its supply depots and trails.

“It was setting a trap of its own.”

Personal story

I covered the Laos invasion for The Christian Science Monitor.

I still have vivid memories of tracer rounds and a few missiles whizzing past a helicopter that I was in as we headed out to bring ammunition and supplies to a fire-support base.

I can still see that fire-support base down below, as if watching it in a movie, as we dropped down for a very short stay. It was barely enough time to gather a few quotes from the South Vietnamese manning the base.

Sitting next to me on the chopper was an old friend and colleague who worked for The New York Daily News.

We were both based in Saigon at the time, and I sometimes kidded my friend about his rarely leaving the South Vietnamese capital to go into the field.

In fairness to my friend, he did make some trips but mainly short ones to interview U.S. soldiers from New York.

But it turned out that when the tracer rounds whizzed past us, he was the calmest guy on that helicopter. So much for my making judgments about people based on little evidence!

One of my most vivid memories was of walking along a road where South Vietnamese armored vehicles had come out of Laos. I was trying to get some quotes from survivors of the invasion. 

I met a young Vietnamese man who asked if I could help him find his father, who had gone in on an armored vehicle with the invasion forces.

I didn't know what to say. Finally, I told him to wait because not everyone would come out at once. I just hope that he found his father. It was enough to make me cry.

Lost over Laos

On Feb. 10, 1971, four top combat photographers crowded into a South Vietnamese helicopter to fly over the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

They were Larry Burrows, 44, of Life Magazine, Henri Huet, 43, of the Associated Press, Kent Potter, 23, of United Press International, and Keisaburo Shimamoto, 34, a freelancer working for Newsweek.

I knew Henri Huet and Kent Potter and had briefly met Burrows once or twice. I’d never met Shimamoto. Burrows carried a Leica, a camera preferred by many combat photographers.

 According to Richard Pyle, the former Associated Press bureau chief in Saigon,

 Kent Potter had an interesting background. Born into a Quaker family in Philadelphia, he started as a teenager who worked his way into a staff job at United Press International (UPI) by showing an instinct for photography.

Friends said that he had “an almost obsessive desire to get to Vietnam, and one that went against his family’s pacifist grain.”

 In 1989, Richard Pyle, the former Associated Press bureau chief in Saigon, and former AP photo chief Horst Faas, investigated what had happened to the four over Laos. They found that the helicopter carrying the four was shot down by a North Vietnamese 37-mm anti-aircraft gun.

Three South Vietnamese soldiers and the four-man flight crew on the helicopter also perished.

Pyle and Faas co-authored a book titled Lost over Laos: A True Story of Tragedy, Mystery, and Friendship.

Pyle, who passed away on Sept. 28, 2017, once wrote in an article for the magazine Vanity Fair in which he said that many considered London-born Larry Burrows to be “the finest combat photographer who ever lived.”

Henry Huet, who was born in Vietnam to a French engineer and Vietnamese mother had joined a French reconnaissance unit in Vietnam, where he leaned aerial photography, years before American soldiers ever arrived. He eventually landed a job with UPI but was eventually lured to join UPI’s main rival, the Associated Press.

Regarding the deaths of the four photographers, Pyle noted that “it wasn’t the first multiple loss for the Saigon press corps, but the deaths at one time of four photographers so well-known and respected was a staggering blow.”

To those correspondents who covered the Vietnam War and the Laos invasion, he said, “February 10, 1971 was perhaps the most tragic day of the Vietnam War—the day when four of its own, four of the best, went down…”

The list of the dead and missing-in-action Vietnam War correspondents eventually reached 74 at the war’s end in the spring of 1975, according to a count compiled by Pyle.

Dan Southerland is RFA's founding Executive Editor.

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