In 1968, Lima Site 85 in Laos didn’t exist beyond the classified knowledge of the CIA, a small number of commanders and 16 Air Force men in the 1043rd Radar Evaluation Squadron, including Chief Master Sgt. Richard Loy “Dick” Etchberger, who were given cover as civilian Lockheed Corp. employees. They were directed by two on-site CIA operatives. Also there was a “forward air controller,” who assisted in directing airstrikes.
Laos was a neutral country under a 1962 international treaty, but North Vietnam sent soldiers and supplies down the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and supported the communist Pathet Lao guerrillas trying to overthrow the Laotian government. The U.S. was not permitted to have military facilities in Laos but conducted a “secret war” of covert operations that included bombings and training anti-communist fighters.
Laos’ mile-high “Sacred Mountain” (Phou Pha Thi), less than 150 miles from Hanoi, was a perfect place to direct U.S. bombers, even during cloudy weather. Operating there at Lima Site 85 from November 1967 to March 1968, the 16 “Lockheed employees” and the forward air controller in a mission code-named “Heavy Green” directed more than a quarter of the bombing strikes over North Vietnam.
The airmen, experts in radar, had limited combat training and normally weren’t issued personal weapons. Before the men were lifted to the top of the mountain to build the Site 85 compound, an Air Force officer ordered 40 M16 rifles, Browning automatic pistols and cases of hand grenades.
Two months after the site became operational, North Vietnamese Antonov An-2 biplanes bombed it. They were pursued by a CIA-operated Air America helicopter, and flight mechanic Glenn Woods downed one when he fired an AK-47 rifle at them.
The isolated outpost was in terrain controlled by the North Vietnamese Army, but there were no plans to reinforce or evacuate it. On the night of March 10-11, 1968, Lima Site 85 received heavy mortar, artillery and rocket fire.
Within hours much of the compound was destroyed, and 33 NVA commandos scaled the west side of the mountain under cover of darkness. Manning one of the defensive positions was Etchberger, who six days earlier had celebrated his 35th birthday. A native of Hamburg, Pennsylvania, the father of three sons had 17 years in the Air Force.
“Despite having received little or no combat training,” read a subsequent citation, “Chief Etchberger single-handedly held off the enemy with an M-16, while simultaneously directing air strikes into the area and calling for air rescue.” When the rescue helicopter arrived, only three of the men in Etchberger’s position were alive, and they were wounded.
As the helicopter lowered a sling for hoisting the wounded, Etchberger fought off the attackers, manned his radio and exposed himself to enemy fire to hook wounded men into the sling. Once they were aboard, he slipped into the sling. Enemy fire killed him after he was being raised into the chopper. The sergeant was one of 12 airmen killed in the single-deadliest day of the war for the U.S. Air Force in ground operations.
Etchberger was nominated for the Medal of Honor. However, because Lima Site 85 was classified, his family was told he had been killed in a “helicopter accident.” Etchberger was buried in his hometown and awarded the Air Force Cross in December 1968.
Details of Lima Site 85 were declassified in 1985, but much of Heavy Green remained shrouded in secrecy for another 10 years. When the full picture became clear, Etchberger’s Air Force comrades began a crusade to get his medal upgraded. On Sept. 21, 2010, Echberger’s three sons saw President Barack Obama award their father the Medal of Honor for actions 42 years earlier, on a secret mission at a place that didn’t exist.
Doug Sterner, an Army veteran who served two tours in Vietnam, is curator of the Military Times Hall of Valor, the largest database of U.S. military valor awards.