Operation White Star: prelude to Vietnam

June, 2002
by Kenn Dr. Finlayson


Prior to the Vietnam War, United States Army Special Forces soldiers conducted three years of intensive operations in Laos. From July 1959 to October 1962, SF soldiers rotated through the country as mobile training teams, or MTTs, in support of the Royal Laotian government's operations against the Pathet Lao communist insurgency. The mission, Operation White Star, formally ended with the declaration of Laotian neutrality in July 1962. It proved to be a foreshadowing of the wider use of SF in Vietnam.

Operation White Star introduced the SF soldiers to the classic foreign internal defense, or FID, mission. Initially, the MTTs and units of the French army shared the responsibility for improving the combat capabilities of the Laotians, whose army was plagued with dissension and low morale.

The first rotation of Americans arrived in Laos in July 1959. Called "Hotfoot," and led by Lieutenant Colonel Arthur D. "Bull" Simons, the contingent consisted of 107 SF soldiers from the 77th SF Group. (1) Wearing civilian dress and theoretically operating in a clandestine fashion, Simons' men trained members of the Royal Laotian army in counterinsurgency tactics. Hotfoot was subsequently renamed White Star; the SF soldiers began wearing military garb; and the number of SF soldiers gradually increased to a peak of 433 by July 1962. (2)

Simons based his training teams in the military districts established by the Royal Laotian army. The northern district was headquartered in Luang Prabang; the central district operated around the capital of Vientiane; the lower central district centered on Savannakhet; and the southern district was headquartered near Pahkse. (3) Simons later increased the number of training teams to accommodate a fifth district that was located in the Plain of Jars area, west of Ban Man. (4)

Simons' men began training the Laotians on Sept. 1, 1959, with an initial class of 1,138. (5) Simons later returned with the sixth White Star rotation in November 1961. By that time, the mission had expanded to include training for Laos' Meo and Kha tribes as well.

From the outset, the SF soldiers found themselves trying to overcome two fundamental hurdles: the French and the Laotians. Of the two, the French proved to be a short-term problem, because the French advisory element, the Mission Militaire Francaise d'Instruction pres le Gouvernement Royal du Laos, withdrew from the country Dec. 17, 1960. (6)

The French, entrenched in Laos since the formation of the Royal Laotian army in 1954, grudgingly acceded to the Americans the authority to teach military skills and techniques, but they retained the right to teach the tactical employment of weapons.

Sergeant Roy Mathews worked with the French Royal Marines in the southern Laotian town of Pakse. "At that time we were not allowed to teach any tactics whatsoever," he said. "We were strictly technical advisers. ... We could not say This is the way it is deployed.' The French Royal Marines stepped in and taught the combat part of it." (7)

The Laotians soon came to prefer the Americans to the French. Simons explained why that occurred: "I think that the French have had beat into their skulls for many, many years the colonial attitude as well as the big-brother attitude and the idea that these people will look up to them because they are French and because they are white. Nothing could be further from the truth." Eventually the Laotians eased the French out and turned all of the tactical training over to the Americans.

The second hurdle confronting the Americans lay with the Laotian people themselves. In the late 1950s, Laos had only recently become a sovereign nation, and the new state presented a cultural and political conundrum for the 'White Star personnel. The majority of the Laotian trainees were recruited from small villages and hamlets around the country. In most instances, the only requirement for military service was that the trainee be tall enough to reach a certain mark on a bamboo stalk. (8) Most of the trainees were illiterate, and many did not know that Laos was an independent nation or that it possessed a standing army. Their allegiance remained in their village or their tribe, and they were not particularly motivated to fight or even to learn to fight. Compounding these problems was the general cultural make-up of the Laotian people:

They are dreamy, gentle, bucolic, nonaggressive people ... who live in bamboo-and-thatch houses on stilts, wading tranquilly in their marshy paddies, fishing in the lazy rivers, and worshipping in the curly-roofed pagoda. They are content. They live in a subsistence economy, and generally there is enough rice to go around. The Lao gentleness traditionally has enchanted the foreign visitor, particularly the one not trying to go anywhere or do anything in a hurry. (9)

The White Star advisers faced an almost insurmountable task in trying to instill a sense of urgency and purpose in the Laotian soldiers, to implement rigid training schedules and to inculcate an aggressive attitude toward the Pathet Lao, who were attempting to take over the country. All the while, the SF soldiers had to communicate through interpreters and share training time with the French army. With the physical and cultural difficulties inherent in the mission, the Americans often fell victim to unrealistic expectations and the ensuing frustration at their inability to achieve progress in the training of their Laotian counterparts. As one member recounted in an interview in 1962:

We weren't ready for [the situation that] we walked into. We weren't mentally prepared, and all the new teams were given the same idea. The team that replaced me came in there so full of go, go, go that they couldn't hold it. ... That was the biggest problem we had -- no true picture of what the situation was. I went over there with such an ... illusion. (10)

The White Star teams generally operated in a decentralized manner, often as half-teams of six or seven men. The prevailing philosophy -- that the team on the ground could best assess the requirements of the units being trained -- gave the teams considerable freedom to conduct the training as they saw fit. The higher echelons provided supplies for the teams and took care of personnel and administration problems, but they rarely conveyed to the teams any guidance on training or advising.

As one veteran of White Star described the situation: "We were teaching too many subordinates over there when we should have been teaching the superiors. Why teach the lower-grade people when higher-ups don't know how to utilize [the skills taught]? It's a waste of time." (11)

The Laotian culture figured prominently in the effectiveness of the Americans' style of teaching. Laotian officers and NCOs were reticent about risking any loss of prestige by placing themselves in positions where they might be seen as deficient in a particular skill. Providing the Laotians with face-saving alternatives, such as working after hours with the officers, proved difficult and doubled the workload of the SF team. In addition, the status-conscious Laotian officers, particularly those of field-grade rank, made the advisory role frustrating for the American officers. In attempting to advise a Laotian battalion commander, an American captain or lieutenant often found it necessary to tender his advice in such a manner as to allow the commander to arrive at the appropriate decision on his own, and at his own pace. As one adviser remarked:

He was a colonel and I was a captain. And he didn't expect me to tell him anything, but I [learned] to make suggestions or comments, [then] not to say a thing about it for 24 or even maybe 48 hours. Then he would come up with the same thing as his own idea and [he] would be just as happy as a little child would. ... So I would say, "Fine Colonel, wonderful idea, that is really thinking," and everybody was happy. (12)

The presence of the Americans did bring enhanced prestige, along with the added bonus of improved equipment and an occasional helicopter flight, to the Laotian units and their commanders. In this sense, the Americans were welcome. However, in a larger context, a profound sensitivity to their recent past precluded many Laotians from wholeheartedly embracing the American advisers. One veteran of White Star felt that the Laotians were reluctant to take advice from the Americans because of their recent experience with the French:

"They said, well, if we do what they suggest or tell us, [Laosl will eventually end up like it was before '54, except the U.S. will be running [the country] instead of the French. So actually I think we were more or less liaison personnel rather than advisers." (13)

Working with the Royal Laotian army posed a complex set of problems for the White Star teams. Following the initial rotation, the mission expanded to incorporate the Kau and Meo hill tribes. The expansion introduced further complexity.

The training of the hill tribes most closely mirrored the pure SF unconventional-warfare mission. The SF teams trained companies of 100 men for a counterinsurgency mission. In January 1960, SF began training the Kau, who were previously known as the Maquis companies, after the French resistance movement of World War II. The Kau proved to be adept fighters, and they quickly drew the admiration of the American advisers. Captain Newlin Harpersett noted, "The leaders are intelligent, hard-working and quick to learn. They are a terrific guerrilla potential in the mountains of this particular region. They respect us and thank us for all we have taught them." (14)

The Meo tribesmen proved to be equally keen pupils, and under the American tutelage, both tribes developed into effective counterinsurgency forces. The American relationship with the tribes continued throughout the war in Indochina, as SF MTTs visited Laos after the close of the White Star mission. (15) If anything, the SF advisers proved to be more successful at working with the hill tribes than they were at working with the Royal Laotian army.

In many ways, the White Star operation represents the quintessential SF mission. Virtually identical to the World War II mission in which the Office of Strategic Services' Detachment 101 trained the Kachin hill tribes in Burma, White Star proved to be a training ground for the SF soldiers, and the experience paid many dividends during the Vietnam War.

On many levels -- technical, tactical, cultural and political -- an analysis of the White Star operation reveals the requirements and the pitfalls inherent in both FID and counterinsurgency missions. In having to deal with a culture radically different from that of the U.S., the White Star soldiers learned valuable lessons. Close association with the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Department of State were also hallmarks of the White Star mission. The mission underwent various permutations, going from a supposedly clandestine operation conducted by military personnel in civilian clothes to a major commitment for SF in the years leading up to the Vietnam War.

The list of White Star veterans contains many of the most notable figures in the history of SF, including Bull Simons, **** Meadows, Charlie Beckwith and Elliot Sydnor. Many of those who served with the White Star teams went on to play prominent roles in the SF operations in Vietnam and in various operations years afterward. The lessons gained from White Star are valid in today's SF environment, and they reinforce Brigadier General William B. Rosson's observation:

"An individual or a unit may be extremely well-trained for counterinsurgency in terms of tactical and technical proficiency, yet be of little value for want of ability to communicate with the friendly forces we seek to assist and for want of understanding of the problems and attitudes of the country concerned." (16)

Notes:

(1.) Stephen Sherman, Who's Who from White Star (Houston, Texas: Radix Press, 1994), 1-4.

(2.) Ibid., II.

(3.) Arthur D. Simons, text of briefing, October 1959. Contained in the collected papers of Brigadier General Donald Blackburn, ARSOF Archives, USAJFKSWCS, Fort Bragg, N.C., 2.

(4.) Ibid.

(5.) Ibid., 8.

(6.) Sherman, III.

(7.) Interview with Roy Mathews, conducted by Dr. Stanley Sandler, USAJFKSWCS historian, in 1989.

(8.) Alfred J. Kraemer and Edward C. Stewart, Cross-Cultural Problems of US. Army Personnel in Laos and Their Implications for Area Training, The George Washington University Human Resources Research Office, September 1964, 5.

(9.) Oden Meeker, The Little World of Laos (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1959), 23.

(10.) Kraemer and Stewart, 5.

(11.) Ibid., 6.

(12.) Ibid., 13.

(13.) Ibid.

(14.) Newlin R. Harpersett, "Maquis Report," 26 January 1960, ARSOF Archives, USAJFKSWCS, Fort Bragg, N.C., 3.

(15.) James K. Bruton, letter written to Dr. Stanley Sandler, 30 August 1990, ARSOF Archives, USAJFKSWCS, Fort Bragg, N.C.

(16.) Brigadier General William B. Rosson, "Accent on Cold War Capabilities," Army Information Digest (May 1962), 5.

Dr. Kenn Finlayson is the command historian for the JFK Special Warfare Center and School.