Talking Proud Archives --- Military

A look at the the Ban Laboy Ford, Laos, and Hwy 912, why did we spend so much on them?

July 4, 2011

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Jimmie Butler, an acquaintance of mine, a widely known writer and well known USAF Forward Air Controller (FAC), introduced me a few years ago to a place called Ban Laboy (also spelled Loboy) Ford, which during the Indochina War was on Hwy 912 in Laos. He like so many others who flew over it and around it came to see this location as the most bombed out area of the Indochina War. Jimmie pointed out at the time that in November 1967, Ban Laboy Ford would become one of the most intense air-ground battles of the war in an effort to rescue Lt. Lance Sijan, USAF, an F4C pilot shown here, and Lt. Col. John Armstrong, his pilot for this mission. The rescue attempt, involving some 108 aircraft all together, failed. Col. Armstrong was killed in the crash. Lt. Sijan was badly injured but was ripe for rescue. Just as a rescue helicopter thought he had Sijan close to his penetrator for pick up, the hostile fire became so intense the helo had to pull back, indeed at Sijan’s urging. Sijan was captured, put up a valiant fight in POW camp, died there as the result of incredible North Vietnamese torture and depravation, and received the Medal of Honor (posthumous) for his heroic service and sacrifice.

The Ban Laboy Ford and the immediate region around it were targets of unparalleled interest and action for the roles they played as part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. US air forces sustained heavy casualties attacking this area, and they caused enormous disruption to the flow of enemy men and supplies, and massive enemy losses. My purpose here is to try to understand why this location was so important.

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The Ban Laboy Ford is roughly marked in pale blue on this map.

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BanLaboyFullResMap

These two maps identify its location precisely. Ray Smith, an Indochina War veteran with the 1-69th Armor, 173rd Airborne Brigade, 4th Infantry Division prepared these and many more informative maps. I commend them to you. Ray has been kind enough to grant me permission to use them for this story.

These maps contain a lot of information important to our story. Hwy 912 crossed the Nam Ta Le River in Laos at this point. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) would later build a spur off 912 to the east and set up an alternate crossing. The village of Ban Laboy was upstream a few miles. The terrain was most difficult, plenty of karsts and more important, plenty of caves and heavy foliage.


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Another aerial shot of the ford area.

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Ban Laboy Ford today. Photo by Nat Stone. Presented by Mekong Express, March 2007 edition.


So what is a “Ford?” It is a shallow place in a river or stream allowing one to walk or drive across. The Ban Laboy Ford was a place where NVA men and material could easily cross on Route 912 to the rest of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, to a place called Tchepone, Laos and to a place known to the US as NVA Base Area (BA) 604 near Tchepone. I will talk to these more later.

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Volumes have been written about the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It is an amazing study. To conquer the Republic of Vietnam (RVN), the NVA had to devise a very long logistics tail, all the way into and through Cambodia to the southernmost tip of the RVN and, of course, to Saigon, its capital. For reasons we will address at a top level, the North Vietnamese (NVN) had no choice but to go through Laos, an internationally agreed neutral nation. You will learn that the US authorities made this option a most desirable one for the enemy on many occasions. You will also learn that, because of history, the NVN had absolutely no problem rationalizing going through Laos.

There is a lot here to highlight. I will do this report in sections:

History, geography, the impact of French colonization

The Ho Chi Minh Trail

Ban Laboy Ford, how it fit

The interdiction campaign against the Ban Laboy Ford Complex