It was a bit like Bigfoot; lots of rumors and claims of sightings, but spotting a Soviet troop in Southeast Asia was a rare event. Throughout the 69-year existence of the Soviet Union (1922-1991), it was acceptable in most realms to use Russia as a synonym for the Soviet Union. Likewise, Russians for Soviets. True, the Russian republic comprised two thirds of the Soviet Union, Russian was the official language, and Russians dominated the government. But less than half of the population were actually Russian. The other 14 republics were comprised of dozens of nationalities and ethnic groups. United under totalitarian communist rule, the Soviet Union was a superpower and made no bones about its ultimate goal: to eventually spread communism throughout the world by any means possible. It was in their written doctrine, the public speeches made by their leaders, and was followed up by their actions.
Support for communist movements across the globe via political support and arms was expected and maintained. Their progress was steady. From 1922 until 1983, each and every country that fell to communist control remained within that sphere. Post-WWII, the major democracies attempted to thwart this growth in every way possible short of launching an all-out war with the Soviet Union and its allies. It was widely accepted by both sides that such a war might well begin as a conventional conflict, but as soon as one side began to lose, it would escalate to chemical warfare, then tactical nuclear weapons would be employed. Finally, inevitably, an all-out thermonuclear exchange would occur, destroying civilization as we know it. This is the mutually assured destruction (MAD) doctrine that has been in place 50+ years. The Soviets refrained from getting too aggressive but remained resolute that “world communism” would someday win out. It was an all-out game of chess with freedom and/or the survival of the world at stake. It was the Cold War era.
Regional conflicts, guerrilla wars, brush wars, and “police actions” were the name of the game as former colonies fought for their independence and dictators in Third-World countries were deposed in revolutions. It was the U.S. against Soviet-supported communists in most of these hotspots, the two forces engaged in a delicate dance. Fight hard, but not too hard. Difficult for politicians, challenging for spooks, and impossibly frustrating for warriors. Enter Southeast Asia following the exit of imperial Japan. Bordering Vietnam to the west is Laos, which fought a civil war from 1953 to 1975. It is poor, heavily forested, mountainous, and has very few roads. It’s an incredibly remote and difficult country to navigate. The U.S. supported the Laotian government while communist guerillas were supported by the Soviet Union and North Vietnam.
In 1962, a non-interference treaty was signed to keep both sides from escalating the conflict. Yet both continued—quietly. It was the “secret war” everyone knew about, but no one officially admitted. We secretly supplied weapons, training, communications, and logistical support through various means with the most famous being the CIA’s Air America. While the film of the same name was a decent comedy, it unfairly portrayed the operation and its personnel as silly, outlandish, and corrupt. In fact, some of the finest and bravest Americans ever to volunteer and serve wore the civilian uniform of Air America.
Laos was also a major component of the Vietnam War. It was a twilight zone of North Vietnamese troop and supply routes, the Ho Chi Minh trail, guerrilla bases, MACV-SOG missions, neutrals, secret mountaintop listening posts, and relay stations. Today, 41 years after the fall of South Vietnam, American MIAs in Laos include 50 SF and 260 airmen—106 of whom died while supporting SOG missions. We weren’t officially there. But we were. So too were Soviet “military experts,” as they preferred to call themselves. Some were pilots, others were communications experts and observers. The numbers are not clear, but they were not nearly as large as the U.S. presence. Again, neither side wanted an escalation, but both were determined to support their allies.
One encounter with Soviets in Laos was experienced by SOG team ST Idaho while on a recon mission near the Ho Chi Minh trail in early November, 1968. John Stryker Meyer, the team’s 1-0, explains in his book, “Across the Fence,” how, while on a jungle mountaintop in the middle of the night, as he was switching channels on their PRC-25 radio, he suddenly heard someone speaking Russian. These radios were not very powerful, so he instantly knew the source had to be relatively close. As he continued to listen, another team member witnessed the base of the westerly mountain “light up like a Christmas tree” as a secret drop zone came to life. They soon heard a plane and witnessed the Soviet aircraft release its cargo. It was the rarest of sightings, but it was real.
Many months later, a second, more dramatic encounter occurred with RT Idaho. This time, 1-0 Lynne Black and 1-1 Doug LeTourneau were on a secret mission into the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Vietnam. LeTourneau was monitoring their radio when out of the blue came “RT Idaho. Come in, RT Idaho.” Surprised, he responded. The voice then asked what they were doing. It was spoken in English, but with a heavy Russian accent recognized by Black. He went on to inform them he knew their coordinates and that they were going to be either killed or captured. This conversation lasted over 15 minutes, with startling intel coming from the Russian, including his knowing Black’s and LeTourneau’s names. He also revealed the name of another team member he knew had just gone home. The team was soon extracted under heavy enemy fire. It clearly demonstrated that MACV-SOG had a serious leak, a mole, directly in their inner circle.
Within South Vietnam, rumors persisted for years among snipers that Soviet countersnipers had infiltrated the South to personally test the then-new SVD Dragunov sniper rifles. Men with blue eyes were reportedly spotted with NVA cadre, but no firm evidence ever presented itself. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, many archives were opened and individuals felt free to begin telling their stories. During this time, it was officially acknowledged that over 3,000 Soviet soldiers served in North Vietnam during the war. They were designated as “Soviet military experts,” not soldiers, thus permitting the official claim no Soviet soldiers ever served in Vietnam. The vast majority were Ukrainian anti-aircraft artillery troops who manned the various gun and missile sites throughout the North used against American bombers. It became known following Operation Tailwind, in the Bolovens Plains in Laos, that the Soviet crews manned the rapid-fire anti-aircraft artillery used against our aircraft. In their official capacity, they were told they were fulfilling their international duty to protect communism from the “imperialists.” They operated the SA-2 missile and radar tracking stations as well as the various-size AAA guns. Many believed in their mission and are very proud of their service. Others found the mission distasteful. In their racist worldview, they did not appreciate orders to kill whites in defense of Asians, even if it was their duty.
In providing their own personnel for anti-aircraft duties, the Soviets fulfilled two purposes. First, they were able to send their latest and most sophisticated systems to protect the North without the training obligations necessary to prepare the Vietnamese. They were able to keep the systems under their direct control for security as well. While North Vietnam was a Soviet ally, it was not necessarily a trusted ally. North Vietnam was not always forthcoming with their Soviet allies in regards to sharing intelligence. It is easy to assume all the communist countries were solidly united in their goals, but this is just not the case.
During this period, China was at odds with the Soviet Union to the extent that a brief border war was fought for Zhenbao Island in the Xinjiang Region in 1969. According to numerous sources, including Henry Kissinger’s accounts, Soviet nuclear and biological weapon strikes were considered. Soviet supplies and weapons were not shipped through China to Vietnam as early efforts failed. The Chinese diverted and stole much of it. It had to be shipped by sea directly. China and Vietnam also had their differences, dating back centuries. However, China did provide North Vietnam with food, medical supplies, radios, and clothing.
The second reason for Soviet personnel in North Vietnam was self-serving: They could test and evaluate their most sophisticated radars and missiles directly against the best aircraft the Americans had to offer. It was an unparalleled proving ground. In the intelligence community, it is acknowledged that the Soviets would also have had a keen interest in exploiting any advanced U.S. equipment they could acquire. We call them foreign material exploitation (FME) personnel. For this reason, the U.S. refrained from sending certain items into the field. Some special operations historians were at first puzzled by how no decent communication encryption gear was sent along with the teams. It left the teams exposed to a degree, but the loss of such equipment to the enemy was considered a greater risk.
There was at least one significant loss during the war—that of a KW-7 cryptographic code machine. Issued at battalion level, it was lost in battle between the North and South Vietnamese forces. These machines were critical to U.S. operations all over the world and were used by all armed forces as well as the Department of State and major allies. Its acquisition by the Soviets would have been huge, especially in light of the spy John Walker, who at the time was selling U.S. Navy codes for just such a machine to the Soviets.
Beginning in 1968, the U.S. Air Force deployed the F-111A to Vietnam for the first time. This new attack bomber had many top-of-the-line advanced features including terrain-following radar (TFR), which allowed it to fly as low as possible, in all weather, to avoid enemy radar systems. It would have been the Holy Grail for Soviet FME folks. Ten aircraft were lost in North Vietnam and Laos, and circumstantial evidence indicates the enemy did indeed get their hands on at least one crash site. An F-111A escape capsule from Vietnam now sits in a Moscow museum, and evasive witnesses have been a problem for U.S. recovery teams.
The opening of Soviet archives for a period in the 1990s has not been totally conclusive on many aspects of the Vietnam War, but one major question seems clear. In spite of all the rumors and legends, no U.S. POWs were ever sent to the Soviet Union. The Vietnam War was a major battle in the Cold War, and in that context, it made a tremendous impression on Soviet thinking. They generally concluded that if the U.S., Australia, and South Korea were willing to commit such huge resources of equipment and personnel to fighting for some Asian backwater with no substantial resources or strategic value, just imagine the fight they would put up for Western Europe!
Alan R. Wise worked in the intelligence community for 10 years and has been a consultant with the U.S. Air Force. He is active in firearms and survival instruction and currently operates Arktis North America, LLC. As a writer/photographer, he was a regular contributor to Behind The Lines: The Journal of U.S. Special Operations, Armor, National Defense, and the Journal of Defense and Diplomacy magazines. He has authored five military-related books, including one novel, “Caught In The Game.”