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Dagger Point: Retired Lt. Col. Jerry Klingaman discusses operations in Laos

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Kelly Ogden
  • 16th Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
(Dagger Point is a multi-part series focusing in Air Commando history.)

Lt. Col. Jerome "Jerry" Klingaman, 6th Special Operations Squadron director of strategy and plans, was the air operations center commander and air combat advisor during two consecutive deployments to Laos. During his first deployment to Vientianne, Laos, Colonel Klingaman led a third-country mercenary air attack unit, which was a combined effort with the Central Intelligence Agency in Laos from Aug. 1966 - March 1967. His second deployment was to Pakse, Laos, where he led Royal Lao Air Force AT-28 strike operations supporting the Royal Laotion Army and special agency programs from Sept. 1968 - April 1969.

Commando: What was your part in both of these operations?

Klingaman: In Vientianne, I was responsible for generating sorties, responding to targets that were provided to me by intelligence sources up north and employing a third-county mercenary strike force. Down in Pakse, I was responsible for all U.S. air actions in military region four (outside the trail network) and outside the designated strike zones.

Commando: What is a third-country mercenary?

Klingaman: It means that we were from neither Laos nor the United States. The conditions of our operations were a little bit extraordinary; it was a covert operation. I crossed the river into Laos wearing jeans and a jean jacket. I had no uniform, no ID and no Geneva Conventions card.

Commando: Why was the mission carried out in this way?

Klingaman: We operated that way in Laos because of sensitivities over the presence of foreign forces, but the North Vietnamese had at least two divisions on the ground, and this air effort was an attempt to counter enemy incursions into the interior of Laos. We actually prevented the North Vietnamese from making major incursions into the interior of Laos.

Commando: Were you a volunteer for both missions?

Klingaman: Oh yes, these all had to be on a voluntary basis. You cannot command somebody to give up all of their personal identification and their Geneva Conventions card. That's one of the reasons that you have special operations forces, because we do things that push the envelope.

Commando: Was it difficult for you to be attached to the Royal Laos strike unit since they were not part of the U.S. military?

Klingaman: No, it wasn't at all. It was for some people, but that is why they used Air Commandos, because we do that. There are certain aspects of the military and the mission that people do out of a sense of adventure and not a sense of careerism. Project 404 at Laos was tailor-made for people with a sense of adventure. So, I had no problem flying. It's a very different kind of life, you sit down to eat a bowl of food with chopsticks, and pick out the flies and maggots out of your dish. Then you line them up on the edge of the plate and don't think anything about it. I absolutely loved living with those guys, flying with them and being one of them as much as I could.

Commando: What kind of survival gear were you given for these covert missions?

Klingaman: When we went across the border into Laos, we weren't given anything except $100 to have flight suits made. You were told to see an older woman in the Chinese section of town and she would tailor-make your flying suits. A week later, you would have them. That's all you got, you received no weapon, no survival kit, nothing. You had to get everything on your own.

Commando: How did you get your weapon?

Klingaman: Well, your weapon was willed to you by the guy that you were replacing. The weapons were either purchased or they were battlefield finds. However, I wanted a small hand-gun. So, my wife sent me a Derringer pistol through the mail. It came in a coffee can full of chocolate chip cookies. I remember thinking that those cans were very heavy. I opened them up and there were a bunch of desiccated chocolate-chip cookies. I hunted down through the cans, and sure enough, one of them had a 22-caliber Derringer. The other had two boxes of ammunition. Later, I asked her where she bought the gun at and she said the jewelry shop, women did not go into gun shops then. She bought the Derringer because it had the most power.

Commando: Some people say the U.S. advisory team that was put together was a mess? Why?

Klingaman: In the 1st Air Commando Wing, we did not have an organization that was specifically organized, trained and equipped to do training and advising of foreign forces. The problem with that was teams were put together from organizations all over the base. No one was specifically trained to do this. We were not language trained and we did not have advanced weapons training or integrated skills training.

Commando: Does the mission you took part of in Laos have any similarities to what the 6th SOS does now?

Klingaman: Back in those days, we had no operating instructions; we made it up. You invented yourself every morning when you woke up and we operated within certain rules of engagement, which were all politically based. But other than that, we made it up as we went. While operating with the Ravens (a group of forward air controllers), a third of my group was killed. Of the Royal Laos group that I was with at Pakse, only two of us survived. The rest were killed, it was pretty wild. The operations that take place today are an entire universe apart from what they were back then. We have operating instructions and we have a concept of operations for every mission that defines precisely what the limits of that deployment are.

Commando: What event left the biggest impact on your life?

Klingaman: It would have to be the commitment that I had to make to my Royal Laos strike unit. I flew with them, socialized with them, fought with them and was prepared to die with them. They have to know that you are committed to keeping them alive for as long as possible; otherwise you are not effective.