It was a bit like Bigfoot; lots of rumors and claims of sightings, but spotting a Soviet troop in Southeast Asia was a rare event. Throughout the 69-year existence of the Soviet Union (1922-1991), it was acceptable in most realms to use Russia as a synonym for the Soviet Union. Likewise, Russians for Soviets. True, the Russian republic comprised two thirds of the Soviet Union, Russian was the official language, and Russians dominated the government. But less than half of the population were actually Russian. The other 14 republics were comprised of dozens of nationalities and ethnic groups. United under totalitarian communist rule, the Soviet Union was a superpower and made no bones about its ultimate goal: to eventually spread communism throughout the world by any means possible. It was in their written doctrine, the public speeches made by their leaders, and was followed up by their actions.

Support for communist movements across the globe via political support and arms was expected and maintained. Their progress was steady. From 1922 until 1983, each and every country that fell to communist control remained within that sphere. Post-WWII, the major democracies attempted to thwart this growth in every way possible short of launching an all-out war with the Soviet Union and its allies. It was widely accepted by both sides that such a war might well begin as a conventional conflict, but as soon as one side began to lose, it would escalate to chemical warfare, then tactical nuclear weapons would be employed. Finally, inevitably, an all-out thermonuclear exchange would occur, destroying civilization as we know it. This is the mutually assured destruction (MAD) doctrine that has been in place 50+ years. The Soviets refrained from getting too aggressive but remained resolute that “world communism” would someday win out. It was an all-out game of chess with freedom and/or the survival of the world at stake. It was the Cold War era.

Regional conflicts, guerrilla wars, brush wars, and “police actions” were the name of the game as former colonies fought for their independence and dictators in Third-World countries were deposed in revolutions. It was the U.S. against Soviet-supported communists in most of these hotspots, the two forces engaged in a delicate dance. Fight hard, but not too hard. Difficult for politicians, challenging for spooks, and impossibly frustrating for warriors. Enter Southeast Asia following the exit of imperial Japan. Bordering Vietnam to the west is Laos, which fought a civil war from 1953 to 1975. It is poor, heavily forested, mountainous, and has very few roads. It’s an incredibly remote and difficult country to navigate. The U.S. supported the Laotian government while communist guerillas were supported by the Soviet Union and North Vietnam.

In 1962, a non-interference treaty was signed to keep both sides from escalating the conflict. Yet both continued—quietly. It was the “secret war” everyone knew about, but no one officially admitted. We secretly supplied weapons, training, communications, and logistical support through various means with the most famous being the CIA’s Air America. While the film of the same name was a decent comedy, it unfairly portrayed the operation and its personnel as silly, outlandish, and corrupt. In fact, some of the finest and bravest Americans ever to volunteer and serve wore the civilian uniform of Air America.

Laos was also a major component of the Vietnam War. It was a twilight zone of North Vietnamese troop and supply routes, the Ho Chi Minh trail, guerrilla bases, MACV-SOG missions, neutrals, secret mountaintop listening posts, and relay stations. Today, 41 years after the fall of South Vietnam, American MIAs in Laos include 50 SF and 260 airmen—106 of whom died while supporting SOG missions. We weren’t officially there. But we were. So too were Soviet “military experts,” as they preferred to call themselves. Some were pilots, others were communications experts and observers. The numbers are not clear, but they were not nearly as large as the U.S. presence. Again, neither side wanted an escalation, but both were determined to support their allies.

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

One encounter with Soviets in Laos was experienced by SOG team ST Idaho while on a recon mission near the Ho Chi Minh trail in early November, 1968. John Stryker Meyer, the team’s 1-0, explains in his book, “Across the Fence,” how, while on a jungle mountaintop in the middle of the night, as he was switching channels on their PRC-25 radio, he suddenly heard someone speaking Russian. These radios were not very powerful, so he instantly knew the source had to be relatively close. As he continued to listen, another team member witnessed the base of the westerly mountain “light up like a Christmas tree” as a secret drop zone came to life. They soon heard a plane and witnessed the Soviet aircraft release its cargo. It was the rarest of sightings, but it was real.

Many months later, a second, more dramatic encounter occurred with RT Idaho. This time, 1-0 Lynne Black and 1-1 Doug LeTourneau were on a secret mission into the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Vietnam. LeTourneau was monitoring their radio when out of the blue came “RT Idaho. Come in, RT Idaho.” Surprised, he responded. The voice then asked what they were doing. It was spoken in English, but with a heavy Russian accent recognized by Black. He went on to inform them he knew their coordinates and that they were going to be either killed or captured. This conversation lasted over 15 minutes, with startling intel coming from the Russian, including his knowing Black’s and LeTourneau’s names. He also revealed the name of another team member he knew had just gone home. The team was soon extracted under heavy enemy fire. It clearly demonstrated that MACV-SOG had a serious leak, a mole, directly in their inner circle.