Operation Pony Express

The Pony Express was the covert transportation of, and the provision of aerial support for, indigenous soldiers and material operating across the Laotian and North Vietnamese borders during the Vietnam War.[1][2] It was provided by Sikorsky CH-3C helicopters of the US 20th Helicopter Squadron, the only USAF combat helicopter squadron in Vietnam,[3] which had been transferred there in 1965 and was known as the "Pony Express".[4]


The 20th Helicopter Squadron was formed at Eglin AFB, Florida in November 1965 under the command of Lt. Col Lawrence Cummings. Training was provided by the 4401st Helicopter Squadron, under the "PONY EXPRESS" Project. The pilots selected were the most experienced CH-3B/C pilots in the Air Force at the time since the CH-3B/C had been operational with the USAF for a very short period of time. After a month of training and checkout, the Squadron was deployed to South Vietnam in November 1965. The Squadron initially was stationed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon. The CH-3C helicopters, which had been disassembled and flown to Viet Nam in C-133 aircraft, were then assembled and readied for duty. The Squadron was split into three flights; one stayed at Tan Son Nhut under the command of Major Richard Burdett. Another flight was sent to Danang Air Base under the command of Major Herbert Zehnder with six CH-3C aircraft. The third flight was assigned to Cam Ranh Bay.


The flight at Da Nang performed several missions in the six months they were located there. One of the missions was to support the Forward Air Controller units at the Kham Duc and Khe Sahn Green Beret bases, which involved carrying 500 gallon fuel cells and Conex boxes of supplies on the cargo sling. The flight performed many general support missions such as retrieving downed Marine H-34 and Huey helicopters from remote sites, slinging fully equipped radio jeeps to hilltop reconnaissance sites; and ferrying wounded soldiers to the hospital at Da Nang or to the Hospital Ship USS Repose which was stationed off the coast of Da Nang. One major mission was to work with the Marines to support Operation Double Eagle by emplacing 105 mm Howitzers at forward firing positions by carrying them on the cargo sling under the aircraft and placing them in position at the forward firing site. One of the Pony pilots was awarded the Silver Star when he was diverted on the way back from Dong Ha to evacuate wounded soldiers from the A Shau Valley which was under attack by heavy mortar and machine gun fire. He escaped ground fire after takeoff by immediately pulling up into the low-lying clouds.

In late spring of 1966, the flights at Cam Ranh Bay and Da Nang were reassigned to Udorn RTAFB in Thailand under headquarters 14th Command Support Group, Nha Trang, South Vietnam. The designated radio call sign was "Pony Express". There they again performed a number of missions including support of anti-terrorist operations of the Thai Army. During the monsoon season the CH-3C helicopters were used to fly critical supplies and medical personnel to outlying villages which were cut off from road supply by the muddy roads. The Ponies also had the mission of engaging in classified Counterinsurgency flights into Laos and North Vietnam. In 1968 the unit was PCS to Udorn.


The Ho Chi Minh trail, the logistical system that supplied the manpower and materiel for the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam and the People's Army of Vietnam, ran not only through the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the Republic of Vietnam, but also through the neighbouring countries of Laos and Cambodia. Via the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam Studies and Observations Group, the US military aimed to work outside of Vietnam and General Westmoreland's jurisdiction:

to execute an intensified program of harassment, diversion, political pressure, capture of prisoners, physical destruction, acquisition of intelligence, generation of propaganda, and diversion of resources, against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.[5]

On 21 September 1965 the JCS authorized MACV-SOG to begin cross-border operations within Laos in areas contiguous to the South Vietnam's western border.[6]

Typically the 20th SOS carried unconventional forces across the border for secret missions into North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, such as the special operations group inserted by CH-3C/E helicopter across the Vietnamese border on June 30, 1968.[3] Most of these SOG recon teams were made up of personnel indigenous to the population, reducing American combat casualties.[1]


Symbol of the Pony Express at the 20th HES, Udorn RTAFB, Thailand

The 20th Helicopter Squadron "Pony Express" was one of the most extraordinary and outstanding combat units in Southeast Asia. The Pony Express' primary highly classified mission was counterinsurgency. They flew their unarmed helicopters from Thailand to various friendly airstrips in Laos where they could refuel and await to launch their missions. They would fly indigenous troops into unprepared sites in Laos and North Vietnam to gather intelligence on troop/truck movements, etc. This information would in turn be forwarded to the appropriate Military agencies to select targets for air strike missions.

The unit aircraft were basic CH-3C Sikorsky helicopters models. No armor was deemed necessary at this time since the mission was to be clandestine and the power/weight ratio was considered more important. Even then, with the equipped engines, power was sometimes very marginal. In early 1968, the engines were upgraded from the 1300 hp model to the 1500 hp models which was a vast improvement in the high temperature/humidity environment. With the upgrading of the engines, armor was installed on the engine cowling doors, the transmission doors, and around the tail rotor gearbox. Designation was changed from CH-3C to CH-3E.

Due to the classified nature of their mission, the 20th CH-3's did not display any U.S. markings or insignia. They were equipped with slotted hangers to insert the USAF insignia when flying "in country". The pilots had no insignia on their flight suits. The helicopters were painted the standard camouflage pattern, except one. CH-3C #63-09676 was painted flat black to determine the color feasibility for our mission. It soon was given the nickname of "Black Mariah". (It was the only black H-3 to serve in SEA and is now on display at the USAF Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB, Dayton, Ohio.)

The infil/exfil site would be selected and studied. Previous to the flight an airborne "recon" of the site would be made, often using CAS Beech Baron or Air America Pilatus Porter aircraft. Since the Air America aircraft were constantly flying over the country, they would hardly be noticed. The mission tactics would usually include two helicopters. One would be the "high bird" and would orbit at a discreet distance to distract the enemy and to act as a rescue aircraft if needed. The "low bird" would fly in at low altitude to the selected site to offload the troops. This was usually accomplished at dusk to give the ground troops a chance to disperse if enemy forces were encountered. If any enemy ground fire was encountered on the "infil" approach, the mission would be aborted and the troops not put at undue risk.

As previously stated, the helicopters were not equipped with armor. The crew would wear the "flak vest" and place another flack vest under the pilot seats to provide personal protection. Their only weapons were the crewmember's personal weapons, an M-16 rifle and a .38 caliber revolver. The infil portion of the mission required secrecy and not a firefight. The "exfil" though might another matter. Sometimes the ground troops would encounter enemy forces and would require extraction while under enemy fire. The "Ponies" depended on "top cover" usually supplied by A-1 Skyraider fighter aircraft, call sign depended on where they were stationed and could be "Sandy", Hobo" or "Firefly", to provide close air support with their guns and bombs, if needed. In the early days at Udorn, the Ponies were sometimes accompanied by World War II twin engine B-26 Invader aircraft callsign "Nimrod".

The Pony Express other mission was in support of TACAN navigational sites in Laos. These sites were important in guiding fighter and bomber aircraft on strike missions into North Vietnam. The helicopters would deliver personnel and needed supplies, such as power generators and diesel fuel, to the remotely located sites. One of the most important of these sites was at Lima Site 85 on top of a 5800' karst mountain, 19 km south of the Laotian/North Vietnam border and 125 miles southwest of Hanoi. LS85 also was supplied with super secret equipment used to direct strike missions around Hanoi.

In the spring of 1968, some pilots and CH-3s of the 20th HES were transferred to Nakhon Phanom RTAFB (NKP) to form the 21st Helicopter Squadron.

In July 1968, four UH-1F's and 10 pilots from the 20th Helicopter Squadron, "E" Flight, "Green Hornets," arrived from Nha Trang. The "new" Pony Express Hueys flew virtually all the same missions as the H-3's. There were a few of the H-3 missions in Northern Laos that the Hueys were not involved in due to the extreme distance and limited range of the UH-1. On occasion, the Huey would carry a 55-gallon barrel of fuel in the cabin. If the Huey required the extra fuel, the crewchief would hook up his safety strap, step out onto the chopper's skid and hold the refueling hose as the other crewman pumped the fuel into the Huey's fuel tank. This was done at cruising altitude.

In August 1968 the 20th Helicopter Squadron was redesignated the 20th Special Operations Squadron (SOS). The Pony Express continued to fly many missions in support of DOSA (Director of Operations for Special Activities) through 1968 and into 1969. The Ponies flew 75% of their flying time as combat time and over 75% of their time flying their primary DOSA missions. The Pony Express always had two large and important missions, TACAN support and DOSA missions fragged by 7/13th AF in support of the secret war in Laos. The Ponies did not have sufficient helicopters and pilots to accomplish every mission adequately. Some of their large missions required the use of up to 20 CH-3E helicopters and they only had nine CH-3's and four UH-1's assigned. On many occasions the Pony Express called upon the 21st SOS at NKP to help with these large missions. Many times they were assisted by helicopters from Air America.

As early as June 1968, higher Headquarters began talk of merging the 20th and 21st began which would allow them to work more closely together and utilize the 21st flying time more for combat missions. The Pony Express would remain at Udorn as a Forward Operating Location (FOL) with basically the same people, aircraft and mission. Little did anyone know of the problems to follow. Apparently the ego and petty jealousy of the Wing Commander at NKP who insisted that all assets be transferred to NKP created a severe demoralizing effect on all concerned. The Ponies crews still accomplished their mission in an excellent manner despite the difficulties.

On 5 Sep 1969, the 20th SOS CH-3E aircraft and personnel at Udorn were reassigned to the 21st SOS at NKP. The FOL at Udorn lost three helicopters to NKP and many pilot spaces which amounted to one third of its capability, yet the FOL still flew 63% of the DOSA missions and 60% of the TACAN and an amazing 53.8% of the overall mission of the entire newly formed 21st SOS headquartered at NKP with the FOL stationed at Udorn RTAFB, Thailand.

When the 20th SOS CH-3E's were transferred to the 21st SOS, without ceremony or fanfare, the "Pony Express" part of the 20th Special Operations Squadron ceased to exist.

Emblem of the 20th SOS, the Pony Express
A USAF CH-3E downed in a rice paddy after having taken off with too many members of a Thai Artillery team on board, June 1969.[7]


  1. ^ a b Rosenau p. 18
  2. ^ Dorr p. 54
  3. ^ a b Dunstan p. 169
  4. ^ Global Security's 20th Special Operations Squadron (20th SOS) retrieved June 6, 2007
  5. ^ Annex A to MACV Command History, 1964, p. A-1.
  6. ^ MACV Command History 1965, Annex N, N-VIII-4
  7. ^ Kirkpatrick, Matthew D. Special Operations Squadron: Pony Express from Air War Vietnam retrieved June 6, 2007


Printed sources:

  • Dorr, Robert F. Air War Hanoi, 1988 ISBN 0-7137-1783-1
  • Dunstan, Simon Vietnam Choppers: helicopters in battle 1950-75, 2003 ISBN 1-84176-796-4
  • Rosenau, William Special Operations Forces and Elusive Enemy Ground Targets, 2001 ISBN 0-8330-3071-X


  • USAFHPA (http://www.usafhpa.org/20poniesnew/20ponies.html) Text written by Historian, USAF Helicopter Pilot Association founded 1987. Most pictures taken by said Historian in Southeast Asia as pilot in 20th Helicopter Squadron/Special Operation Squadron in 1967-68. Other pictures and information donated by other squadron pilots. Website established in 2005. Much of the information shown in this article taken from USAFHPA website.
  • Global Security's 20th Special Operations Squadron (20th SOS) retrieved June 6, 2007
  • Kirkpatrick, Matthew D. Special Operations Squadron: Pony Express from Air War Vietnam retrieved June 6, 2007

External links

20th Special Operations Squadron

The 20th Special Operations Squadron is part of the 27th Special Operations Wing at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico. It operates Bell Boeing CV-22 Ospreys on special operations missions. It traces its history back to the activation of the 20th Observation Squadron (Light) at Savannah, Georgia, in March 1942.

The squadron conducts day or night low-level penetration into hostile enemy territory, to accomplish clandestine infiltration and exfiltration, aerial gunnery support and resupply of special operations forces throughout the world.

9th Infantry Division (Thailand)

The 9th Infantry Divistion (Thai: กองพลทหารราบที่ 9) (พล.ร.๙.) also known as Black Panthers Division (Thai: กองพลเสือดำ) is an infantry division of the Royal Thai Army, it is currently a part of the First Army Area The unit is composed of the 9th Infantry Regiment,19th Infantry Regiment and 29th Infantry Regiment.

Battle of Lima Site 85

The Battle of Lima Site 85, also called Battle of Phou Pha Thi, was fought as part of a military campaign waged during the Vietnam War and Laotian Civil War by the North Vietnamese army and the Pathet Lao, against airmen of the United States Air Force's 1st Combat Evaluation Group, elements of the Royal Lao Army, Royal Thai Border Patrol Police, and the Central Intelligence Agency-led Hmong Clandestine Army. The battle was fought on Phou Pha Thi mountain in Houaphanh Province, Laos, on 10 March 1968, and derives its name from the mountaintop where it was fought or from the designation of a 700 feet (210 m) landing strip in the valley below, and was the largest single ground combat loss of United States Air Force members during the Vietnam War.

During the Vietnam War and the Laotian Civil War, Phou Pha Thi mountain was an important strategic outpost which had served both sides at various stages of the conflict. In 1966, the United States Ambassador to Laos approved a plan by the United States Air Force (USAF) to construct a TACAN site on top of Phou Pha Thi, as at the time they lacked a navigation site with sufficient range to guide U.S. bomber aircraft towards their targets in North Vietnam. In 1967 the site was upgraded with the air-transportable all-weather AN/TSQ-81 radar bombing control system. This enabled American aircraft to bomb North Vietnam and Laos at night and in all types of weather, an operation code-named Commando Club. Despite U.S. efforts to maintain the secrecy of the installation, which included the "sheep-dipping" of the airmen involved, U.S. operations at the facility did not escape the attention of the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao forces.

Towards the end of 1967, North Vietnamese units increased the tempo of their operations around Phou Pha Thi, and by 1968 several attacks were launched against Lima Site 85. In the final assault on 10 March 1968, elements of the VPA 41st Special Forces Battalion attacked the facility, with support from the VPA 766th Regiment and one Pathet Lao battalion. The Hmong and Thai forces that were defending the facility were overwhelmed by the combined North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao forces.

John Gouriet

Major John Prendergast Gouriet (1 June 1935 – 4 September 2010) was a British Army officer, company director and political activist. He was best known as a founder of the National Association for Freedom (now known as The Freedom Association), and for pioneering the use of legal action to oppose actions of trade unions and campaigning groups which he believed interfered with personal liberty, during three years as the Association's director.

List of U.S. Department of Defense code names

This is an incomplete list of U.S. Department of Defense code names primarily the two-word series variety. Officially, Arkin (2005) says that there are three types of code name:

Nicknames - a combination of two separate unassociated and unclassified words (e.g. Polo and Step) assigned to represent a specific program, special access program, exercise, or activity.

Code words - a single classified word (e.g. BYEMAN) which identifies a specific special access program or portion. A list of several such code words can be seen at Byeman Control System.

Exercise terms - a combination of two words, normally unclassified, used exclusively to designate an exercise or testIn 1975, the Joint Chiefs of Staff introduced the Code Word, Nickname, and Exercise Term System (NICKA) which automated the assignment of names. NICKA gives each DOD organisation a series of two-letter alphabetic sequences, requiring each 'first word' or a nickname to begin with a letter pair. For example, AG through AL was assigned to United States Joint Forces Command.

Operation Hardnose

Operation Hardnose was a Central Intelligence Agency-run espionage operation spying upon the Ho Chi Minh trail that began during the Laotian Civil War. Started in Summer 1963, it soon attracted the attention of the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara. By December 1963, he was calling for its expansion. Operation Hardnose expanded and continued to report on the Ho Chi Minh trail even as American military intelligence activities mounted against the communist supply artery. In an attempt to adapt technology for use by illiterate Lao Theung, some of the U.S. Air Force's survival radios were modified by the CIA for use by their spies.

By 1968, Operation Hardnose was being marginalized by use of other intelligence systems, such as air- and ground-based electronic sensors. Also, with the advent of the AC-130 Spectre gunship, which both generated its own targets as well as struck them, there was little use for Hardnose spotting enemy vehicles. Hardnose faded into insignificance after that.

Operation Star (Laos)

Operation Star was a highly classified military intelligence gathering program set up in late 1965 by the Royal Thai Government during the Vietnam War. It was co-located with the American Central Intelligence Agency's Operation Hardnose at Camp Siberia 26 kilometers northeast of Savannakhet, Laos. The operation was founded although American intelligence sources in the area already shared their results with the Thais. Royal Thai Special Forces assigned as instructors to Operation Hardnose were utilized as reconnaissance teams. In early 1967, the CIA eventually severed the Thai intelligence operation from the instructional duties for Lao irregular military troops.

Outline of the Vietnam War

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to the Vietnam War:

Vietnam War – Cold War-era proxy war that occurred in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from 1 November 1955 to the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975. This war followed the First Indochina War (1946–54) and was fought between North Vietnam—supported by the Soviet Union, China and other communist allies—and the government of South Vietnam—supported by the United States, Philippines and other anti-communist allies. The Viet Cong (also known as the National Liberation Front, or NLF), a South Vietnamese communist common front aided by the North, fought a guerrilla war against anti-communist forces in the region. The People's Army of Vietnam, also known as the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), engaged in a more conventional war, at times committing large units to battle.

The Freedom Association

The Freedom Association (TFA) is a pressure group in the United Kingdom that describes itself as non-partisan, centre-right and libertarian, which has links to the Conservative Party and UK Independence Party (UKIP). TFA was founded in 1975 as the National Association for Freedom (NAFF) and gained public prominence through its anti-trade union campaigns. Its popularity grew after campaigning against perceived abuses to individual freedom including big business, big government, organised labour and Irish terrorist activities. By the end of the 1970s the organisation had around 20,000 members.In the 1980s, TFA campaigned against sporting sanctions imposed on apartheid-era South Africa – earning a judicial rebuke after taking unsuccessful legal action to overturn the International Cricket Council ban on touring teams, which it saw as an imposition on cricketers' freedom. TFA has also campaigned against the UK's membership of the European Union and against perceived partiality at the BBC, having in the past exerted pressure to secure an "impartiality clause" in the Broadcasting Act 1990. The Association's honorary President is Christopher Gill. The current Chief Executive of The Freedom Association is Simon Richards.

USS Windham County (LST-1170)

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Military engagements of the Laotian Civil War

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