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The Start of the Fall of Long Tieng

by Ed Dearborn |

Editor’s note: Edwin (Ed) Dearborn never was a smokejumper, but fought his first blaze – the Snake River Fire – as a 16-year-old Forest Service employee (though claiming to be 20) in 1949. He joined the Marines in 1950 and used that as a springboard for a long career in flying, including stints with Air America and Continental Air Services in Southeast Asia.

This story begins Dec. 17, 1971, when the North Vietnamese Army launched a full-scale attack on the Plaines des Jarres (PDJ) against all the firebases. Thai artillery units manned most of these bases.

Two of Continental Air Services Twin Otters were ordered Dec. 18 to Long Tieng (LS-21) to load with ammunition and supplies for the Thai firebases on the PDJ. The two Otters assigned this task made numerous trips for the airdrop of supplies.

They made these runs through heavy AAA fire, and both aircraft took some hits, resulting in some damage.

I flew one of the Twin Otters on another resupply mission for the firebases out of Long Tieng Dec. 19. I was briefed by the “customer” on the mission and had a chance to talk with Jerry Daniels (MSO-58) about the present situation on the PDJ.

Jerry – whose nickname was “Hog” – was very hesitant to give me much information, as most of what he had was not confirmed. So I had very little to pass on to the flight crews, other than all the firebases and DZs were hot.

Continental Air Services continued to fly the resupply mission along with Air America right up to the last day. Some of the missions were successful, but most were not due to heavy AAA fire. The job was finished Dec. 20 as the PDJ was, for the most part, in NVA hands.

I spent Dec. 20-21 picking up survivors of the PDJ collapse. They were in terrible shape. I took the ones who were not badly wounded to Long Tieng; the others I took to hospitals in Thailand. I’d see Jerry on occasion, and the talk was always about whether or not Long Tieng could hold out against the NVA and its tanks. Jerry would be in his bunker most of the time.

I headed to California Dec. 23 to spend Christmas with my family. I would be there only a few days before I had to return to Laos, traveling to Vientiane Dec. 29. I learned on arrival that the NVA had taken Skyline Drive overlooking Long Tieng.

Everyone, including the ambassador, believed Long Tieng could fall to the NVA at any time.

It was decided that a rescue “cover and protection” – CAP – by Continental Air Services would be on station each night to keep track of the agency personnel in the event they had to move out of the area quickly. We were to keep a continuous radio watch with “Hog” and “Bamboo” from dusk until dawn.

It was to be our job to keep track of the agency people, should Long Tieng be overrun, and to keep track of their escape route. We’d also send in vector choppers – at the appropriate time – to pick them up.

I loaded up a Twin Otter at 7 p.m., New Year’s Eve with my emergency bag, a Thompson, coffee and a leather jacket. It was going to be a cold night flying CAP over Long Tieng. I had a very good co-pilot with me in Capt. Dan Cloud.

We took off from Vientiane for the 40-minute flight to Long Tieng, arriving over the base about 7:40, and setting up for orbit. I contacted Hog on a frequency the local forces and agency people used.

Daniels came up on the channel and said that, so far, all was quiet. I could hear other units on the selected frequency, Alley Cat – the C-130 night watch, and local small units checking in.

Not long after our arrival over the airport, word came in from the local troops that the NVA was on the move on the western side of Long Tieng’s runway.

I called Hog and asked him what was going on. He said he didn’t have all the information and was sure the bad guys were tuned into this channel. His last remark was, “We’re about to have a New Year’s Eve party down here, soon!”

I told him I’d find a hole in the overcast and try to get down to where I could see the runway and take a look for him.

Jerry said, “Negative! The ceiling is too low, and the NVA gunners could get a good shot at you.”

We maintained our altitude at about 5,000 feet. This afforded us clearance over some of the hills around Long Tieng. Still, it was barely enough as the airport runway’s elevation was 3,100 feet.

Hog and I kept the conversation going as much as possible, talking about some of the great parties we survived. One in particular was when Hog came down to Vientiane and spent four days with me, bunking in my place at the Continental Air Services compound. I reminded him of the time in Tucson, Ariz., when I watched him and Toby Scott (MYC-57) give a bad impression of rodeo cowboys riding saddle broncs. I told Jerry that I still thought it was meant to impress all the young girls hanging on the fence.

I’d been up flying since 7 a.m. that day and was really beat. I told Cloud that I wanted to get about an hour’s worth of sleep and asked him to take over. I wanted him to keep the aircraft in this same orbit, and stay in contact with Hog and the crew on the deck.

I went to the back of the aircraft and lay on the cold deck. We were not to be relieved for another two hours – at midnight – by another CAS Twin Otter.

Not long after I closed my eyes, word came to us that the NVA was on the runway. There was a tremendous explosion shortly thereafter. This woke me up, and Cloud shouted that the NVA was hitting Long Tieng.

I got back in the seat and took over the controls. Cloud had already started us down through the overcast; we broke through right over the runway. While we descended, Cloud called Hog on the radio, but there was no answer.

Below the clouds, the ceiling was about 1,000 feet. We could see the ammunition dump and the storage area burning, and in the fire’s glow we could make out some dark figures moving down the runway. I stayed inside the bowl surrounding the runway for 10-15 minutes trying to see what was happening, and whether the base was being overrun. Still no call from Hog.

There were people standing outside what I thought was Hog’s bunker, and I’m sure they could see the Otter. I learned later they thought it was an NVA aircraft, and then they believed it was a U.S. forward air control (FAC). For whatever reason, no one to my knowledge took a shot at us. Lucky!

Finally, Hog came up on the radio and said he’d seen our aircraft. He gave us as much information as he could on the bombing of the ammunition dump. It was done by NVA sappers who were then caught. They admitted setting the charges in the ammunition boxes and the 500-pound bombs.

I took the Otter back up to a secure altitude and told Hog we were going to head back to Vientiane, as we were getting low on fuel and our relief was due soon.

Hog said all was quiet and he didn’t expect any more trouble that night, and that they’d be able to hold out until morning. When we left for Vientiane after the other Otter came on station, I called Hog one more time and said, “Don’t get your butt shot off, partner, and have a happy New Year.”

I would not see Jerry again or talk to him until mid-March 1972. We still owned the southern half of Long Tieng and some of Skyline Drive, the northern portion of Long Tieng.

I went to Long Tieng to spend a few days with Jerry and to check on the airdrops by the CAS pilots on Skyline, north of the runway. I choppered in, landing on the south side of Long Tieng as the runway was still under heavy and constant artillery attack. A customer picked me up and drove me to Jerry’s bunker.

I was shocked when I saw Jerry. He was unshaven, wearing old clothes and looking as though he hadn’t had a good shower in a couple of weeks. He was sullen and not the good ol’ Jerry I knew. He was tired and ready to get out.

The bunker looked just like a wartime bunker, with cans and bottles everywhere and weapons stacked against the wall.

Jerry was sure they couldn’t hold out there much longer. He was sure things would get much worse.

He said, “We aren’t making it here. I don’t think we can hold out much longer. If it goes bad, I’m going to have to walk out of here.”

Jerry “Hog” Daniels did not have to walk out. Gen. Vang Pao got his troops moving, and they pushed the NVA back out of Long Tieng and off Skyline Drive.

I would never see Jerry again.

Ed Dearborn received three Purple Hearts for wounds he suffered in the Korean War in 1952. It wasn’t the last time he’d find himself in hostile territory.

Things were peaceful as he began his flying career with Aloha Airlines as a DC-3 pilot in 1959, where he stayed until joining Air America. Dearborn began flying Helio Couriers and Caribou for Air America, becoming chief pilot for the STOL program in 1962. He flew the first Caribou into Vietnam to support Special Forces in 1963.

Dearborn was assigned to the Central Intelligence Agency in July 1963 as air operations officer for the Congolese Air Force. He took over the program in the Belgian Congo and ran that for a year, then returned to Air America and the Caribou program.

He helped form Continental Air Services, a subsidiary of Continental Airlines, in June 1965 and was chief pilot and director of operations. In the parallel program to Air America, Dearborn flew the C-130, Twin Otter Pilatus Porter and the Sky Van.

After leaving Southeast Asia in 1972, Dearborn had stints with Trans International Airlines and MGM Grand Air. He wrapped up his career with Boeing and Flight Safety as a program manager, then as an instructor on the Gulfstream G1V.