Finally, Public Honors for a Long-Secret Victory
On Jan. 12, 1968, as helicopter pilot Ted Moore watched in amazement, a formation of North Vietnamese air force AN-2 Colt biplanes attacked a secret U.S. Air Force radar base on a mountaintop in Laos.
Two Russian-built biplanes dropped mortars, fired rockets and strafed the field with machine-gun fire, seeking to destroy a critical outpost in the U.S. air war against North Vietnam.
To Moore, who was in the air flying an Air America Bell helicopter -- a civilian version of the UH-1 Huey -- the scene was reminiscent of a different time and place.
"It really did look like World War I," Moore, 68, recently recalled. "It was a Red Baron type of attack."
The remarkable aerial fight that ensued has been memorialized in a new painting by artist Keith Woodcock. Next week, Moore and other veterans of Air America will attend the work's unveiling in the new Intelligence Art Gallery at CIA headquarters in Langley.
Moore was an Army helicopter pilot who had been recruited to fly for Air America, a CIA-owned and -operated proprietary that supported intelligence agents and military personnel in Asia for more than 30 years during the Cold War.
Site 85, a secret radar station 15 miles from the North Vietnamese border atop one of the highest mountains in Laos, gave American bombers the ability to attack in all weather, a critical capability during the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign. Moore and his flight mechanic, Glenn Woods, were on a mission delivering artillery ammunition in the area when they spotted the drab-green biplanes attacking the base. Moore radioed a warning to agents on the ground, but the attack killed several Hmong guerrillas defending the base.
Moore's helicopter was supposed to be unarmed, but Woods had packed a piece of contraband -- an AK-47. "When Glenn told me he had an AK-47 with him, I decided we'd make chase," Moore recalled.
Moore said he never had a chance to ask Woods why he was carrying the assault rifle, though it was not a huge surprise. "If you go down and don't have a weapon, you're toast," Moore said. "Some of the crew chiefs packed heavy."
The Colts -- versatile, Russian-built biplanes first flown in 1947 -- were faster than the helicopter, Moore said, but he gained on the planes when they flew low and then tried to climb in the mountainous terrain.
"I closed on them and made a dive," Moore recalled. "I knew I had one chance to get them, and if I missed, I was a goner."
Woods fired the AK-47 from the door of the Huey. One of the planes immediately crashed and burned, while a second plane, also hit, flew on for several miles, then crashed into a ridge.