James Morrison on Khao’s Story
I first met (then Captain) Khao Insixiengmay in March, 1971 while attending the nine month long Infantry Officer Advanced Course at the U.S. Army Infantry Schoo, Ft. Benning, Georgia. He was among a group of our Captains from the Royal Lao Army who were in attendance. Khao and I were in one of the twenty-four man student groups, thereby quickly becoming close while working daily on a personal basis. Khao had already experienced nine years of combat at that point, fighting Communist forces within his country. He had twice been seriously wounded and had been a prisoner-of-war for three months before managing to escape. His personality could be categorized as open, honest and relaxed while always exuberant for the task at hand.
During this time, the U.S. military was succumbing to increasing public and political pressure to disengage from our commitment to the Second Indo-China War. Despite this, Captain James. K Bruton and myself were among a handful of officers voluntarily returned to duty in South East Asia. We were assigned to the U.S. Army Special Forces unit in Thailand, a country neighboring Laos, and where our paths and that of Khao’s, would again cross.
The major focus of the Special Forces effort in Thailand was in direct support of the little known war in Laos. Organizational, training, support and advisory assistance was rendered to both regular and irregular Lao Army formations along with the development of Thai volunteers who were introduced to Laos to bolster a precarious military situation. I was appointed overall chief of operations and training for this consolidated project. This gave me detailed knowledge and information pertaining to personalities, training programs, unit capabilities, deployments and combat effectiveness, encompassing the whole Laotian conflict. Additionally, Captain Bruton was given command of a detachment tasked with training and advisory duties and actually forward positioned in Champassak, Laos near the principal city of sourther Laos, Pakse.
Upon completion of the Advanced Course and return to his home town of Savannakhet, in January, 1972, Khao resumed his duties as an employee of the U.S. Government when assigned as deputy commander/executive officer of Groupment Mobile 33 (GM 33 – comparable in size and structure to a 1,400 man light infantry regiment). He had been working directly for the U.S. since 1968, when he joined the then named, Savannakhet Special Guerrilla Unit Program. These programs consisted entirely of irregular forces, equipped and paid through U.S. Government channels, who were responsive exclusively to U.S. control and direction. Khao was promoted to Major and received full command of GM 33 in March, 1972. He proceeded to reorganize and retrain the unit until July when they were thrust into action during the retaking of Khong Sedone from the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). Khong Sedone was a large population center in southern Laos and after nearly a month of combat GM33, along with a sister regiment GM 32, reclaimed the town while destroying nearly half of the NVA 39th Regiment and a significant part of the NVA 19th Regiment — including its commander. Following the battle, Khao and Bruton had an extended reunion in Pakse, where GM 33 had arrived prior to returning to their base near Savannakhet.
Based on this exceptional performance, GM 33 was personally chosen in October 1972, by the commander of forces for southern Laos, Brigadier General Soutchay Vongsavanh, to conduct a heliborne assault into Ban Lao Ngam, a a village at the geographic center of terrain long held by the enemy and used as their major logistical support hub. Government units had not re-entered the area in force since February, 1968. Shortly following insertion, the GM destroyed five and crippled three enemy tanks. This was accomplished through an ingenious ambush, devised by Khao, using a mix of land mines and both direct and remotely fired anti-tank weapons. This action represented the single most successful Lao operation against enemy armor during the entire war. Armed with the element of surprise, the GM inflicted heavy casualties on the NVA although attacked repeatedly by superior enemy forces from all directions. They captured extensive weapons and ammunition depots, along with fully loaded trucks in convoy and complete anti-aircraft gun complexes.
GM 33 was to remain in souther Laos for four months during which time they were engaged in nearly continuous combat. The pace and intensity of NVA initiated action had multiplied, reflecting feverish enemy attempts at amassing large tracts of land prior to a projected cease-fire deadline in early 1973.
Field reports returning to project headquarters in Thailand from their U.S. advisor were singularly positive in assessing the morale and tenacity displayed by the “King Cobra” unit; which was both Khao’s code name and the official unit emblem adopted by GM 33. The senior U.S. Government advisor to the region had correctly connected the GM’s pre-eminent success with the commander’s dynamism and personal style of leadership.
Following the events at Ban Lao Ngam, GM 33 was to spearhead the assault to retake Paksong, a politically important agricultural district town in the center of the strategic Bolovens Plateau. The recapture of Paksong was to be one of two nationally directed, major government advances to seize and hold lost areas before the cessation of hostilities which had by then formulated to take effect on February 22, 1973. This battle commenced in mid-January and saw eleven days of incessant action before the town was taken. GM 33 sustained heavy casualties but held this objective right up to the cease-fire date. On that day, an NVA regiment, fully aware that U.S. air support would be withdrawn by mid-morning, attacked Paksong with massive artillery and armor support. Although firmly dug-in, the GM had taken over 100 casualties within six hours of the intense onslaught and their withdrawal was ordered at 12:30 a.m. to avert certain destruction. These casualties were in addition to the estimated 650 previous losses inflicted on the GM over their fourth month sojourn in souther Laos. Khao brought GM 33 home to Savannahkhet at about half strength. He had developed and proven them to be the premier expeditionary force in Laos, a fact corroborated at the national command level and by the King of Laos. The GM went on to halt numerous enemy cease-fire violations within their home military region during the remainder of 1973.