In the early 1960s the United States Army Special Forces was engaged in a secretive mission in the remote country of Laos in Southeast Asia. During this time we were in the midst of a Cold War with the Soviet Union, Red China, and other communist bloc nations. The perception (and reality) was that slowly but surely through communist revolutionary movements the countries of Southeast Asia (South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand) would fall to communism. Many referred to this as the ‘domino theory’. Operation White Star was a counterinsurgency effort to stem the growth of communism in Laos.

General Pao with an American advisor, H34 Sikorsky (background)
General Pao with an American advisor, in front of an H34 Sikorsky

Special Forces teams, detachments of 10-15 men, were deployed to Laos to train and advise Lao military units and indigenous forces to resist communist infiltration and Lao communist guerrilla forces. [1] The detachments deployed for varying periods of time – usually six months. The initial force, numbering over 100 men, deployed in 1959 to conduct a counterinsurgency mission. At the time the U.S. military was not authorized by international conventions to be in Laos so the deployment was secret. The name of the mission was codenamed Operation Hotfoot. Later, the mission’s name was changed to Operation White Star in early 1961. Operation Hotfoot was a secret mission while Operation White Star was not.

The White Star plan was for a Special Forces detachment (SFODA) to train and advise battalions of the Royal Laotian Army. [2] Subsequent to the initial deployment, the some of the Special Forces detachments moved into the mountains, linked up with indigenous hill tribes, and formed units that could confront the Pathet Lao in their sanctuary areas and provide local security for the tribes. [3] This fight would later involve combat with North Vietnamese conventional army units that used Laos as a transit path [4], training area, and sanctuary. By 1962 the number of Special Forces Soldiers in Laos would number over 600. [5]

Operation White Star, having begun in 1959, would end in 1962 as a result of the Geneva Accords that established Laotian neutrality. The counterinsurgency effort was passed to the Central Intelligence Agency (utilizing many former and ‘on loan’) Special Forces Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs). The CIA was instrumental in the support of General Vang Pao’s clandestine army. CIA continued its paramilitary program until the collapse of the Laotian government. Operation White Star was an early (and successful) example of small Special Forces teams entering a semi-permissive operational area and forming, training, equipping, and leading indigenous forces in a counterinsurgency environment.

General Vang Pao, his staff, and American advisors
General Vang Pao (center, camouflage utilites), his staff, and American advisors, Laos 1969.

Footnotes:

[1] The indigenous communists of Laos were called the ‘Pathet Lao’. The Special Forces Soldiers working with the tribesmen were under the direction of the Central Intelligence Agency.
[2] See Special Forces Missions: A Return to the Roots for a Vision of the Future, by David S. Maxwell, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 1995.
www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a299300.pdf
[3] There are several tribes in Laos; some that the Special Forces worked with included the Hmong and Yao tribesmen.
[4] The Ho Chi Minh Trail started in North Vietnam, transited the length of Laos into Cambodia, and had many ‘off-ramps’ extending into South Vietnamese territory. The trail was instrumental for the flow of weapons and equipment from North Vietnam to the battlefields of South Vietnam.
[5] Some sources say the program ended with over 400 Special Forces personnel assigned.

Soviet 'military experts': The Bigfoot sightings of the Vietnam War

Read Next: Soviet 'military experts': The Bigfoot sightings of the Vietnam War

References:

Friedman, SGM Herbert A., PSYOP in Laos. This extensive webpage has an abundance of information on the White Star Operation. www.psywarrior.com/LaosPSYOP.html
Miller, Kenn, “Special Forces Before Vietnam: Operation White Star”, SOFREP. The author provides some background on Operation White Star and reviews a book by Richard O. Sutton. Sutton was a Special Forces veteran of White Star.
https://sofrep.com/42740/special-forces-before-vietnam-operation-white-star/
Paddock, Colonel Alfred H., “Personal Memories of Operation White Star in Laos, 1961”, Small Wars Journal, April 10, 2013.
http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/personal-memories-of-operation-white-star-in-laos-1961

Photo of General Pao and advisor courtesy of http://nickihawj.blogspot.com/
Photo of General Pao and staff courtesy of www.modernforces.com
Featured image courtesy of Shadow Spear