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Operation Commando Lava
Operation Commando Lava II / Seventh Air Force OPLAN 500-67

Operation Commando Lava was one of a number of attempts to interdict truck and personnel traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail by making it difficult or impossible to safely travel on the roads and other pathways built by the Peoples Army of Vietnam (PAVN). In Operation Commando Lava and the follow-on Commando Lava II, C-130 aircraft dropped paper sacks filled with a powdered chemical compound developed by the Dow Chemical Corporation, in cooperation with the US Army, over areas of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. The chemical compound was various referred to as "soap" or "detergent," but was in fact a mixture of Trisodium Nitrilo-triacedic acid and Sodium Tripolyphosphate. The chemical was developed to destabilize soil to artificially create mud, which was seen as having a debilitating effect on traffic on the Trail during the monsoon season. In concept, the chemical would allow US forces to indefinitely extend the monsoon season artificially.

The Commando Lava operations were shrouded in secrecy. Official documentation, classified "Top Secret," described Commando Lava as an "exercise," rather than an operation. Little of the classified documentation reported on the nature of the chemical payload dropped at all. The word "chemical" was to be omitted from any reference to the compound, ostensibly to remove any confusion with chemical warfare agents. Words such as "compound, solution, or material" were to be used instead. All aircrews for the initial Commando Lava missions were required to have at least a secret clearance. Aircraft deployed to Thailand for the missions made use of the Air America/Continental Air Services ramp at Ubon Royal Thai Air Base, separating them from regular US Air Force units at the base.

On 10 May 1967, the 374th Troop Carrier Wing was directed to supply three C-130 aircraft and crews for "exercise" Commando Lava, to be held between 14 and 17 May 1967. The Wing was informed that the aircraft and crews would be participating in a test involving the airdropping of highly sensitive palletized loads on pre-selected targets in Laos, North Vietnam, and South Vietnam. Lieutenant Colonel W.J. Flaugher, the operations officer of the 41st Troop Carrier Squadron, was named as the project officer. The 41st Troop Carrier Squadron subsequently provided the requisite aircraft and crews. The aircraft used during were required to have skate wheels covering approximately 60 percent of the cargo floor space and cargo nets for 3 normal pallets of cargo. Staged out of Udon RTAB, the 3 aircraft conduct tests over sections of road in Laos as planned.

The results of Commando Lava were deemed successful enough to warrant a follow-on test, expected to take place in July 1967. On 15 June 1967, Seventh Air Force published Operation Plan (OPLAN) 500-67, Commando Lava II. The OPLAN called for 10 aircraft to strike targets for 10 days, flying 2 sorties per day. Each aircraft would carry 44 25-pound or 22 50-pound bags of the "chelating compound," loaded on 12 wooden pallets. The targets consisted of 39 in South Vietnam and 20 in Laos. The targets in South Vietnam were along Route 548 in the A Shau Valley. The targets in Laos were along Route 922 and Route Package 1 in the south. Targets in Barrel Roll area of operations were subsequently added following a request by the US Ambassador to Laos, made on 19 June 1967. Drops on targets in Laos could still not be made without prior approval the US Embassy and the Royal Lao Government.

With 120 tons of compound available, it was expected that 6 of the locations could be covered by 3 aircraft loads (or 19.5 tons) each. Deviations in weather (increased rainfall) were noted to potentially allow for application of agent on 10 targets. Though the compound was to be dispersed again by C-130, it was expected in OPLAN that following Commando Lava II, a method for application by high speed fighter aircraft would be developed. Issues of the compound's transportability, packaging, and storage were also to be evaluated during the test.

Aircraft and crews for Commando Lava II were supplied by the Seventh Air Force's 315th Air Division, through what had been redesignated as the 374th Tactical Airlift Wing. Lieutenant Colonel Flaugher, still operations officer of the redesignated 41st Tactical Airlift Squadron, was again designated as the project officer and mission commander. The first Commando Lava II mission was flown on 20 July 1967. The 3 aircraft approached the target in an in-trail formation, as per the OPLAN. The first aircraft successfully dropped its payload on the target and escaped enemy fire. The second aircraft aborted its drop after experiencing a ramp door malfunction and took 3 small arms hits. The third aircraft successfully conducted its drop, but received 4 small arms hits. On the second mission on 21 July 1967, the first and third aircraft dropped their payloads successfully without taking enemy fire. The second ship received 5 hits from an automatic weapon during its successful drop, causing a fire in the left wing. The aircraft made an emergency landing at Chu Lai in South Vietnam, where the fire was extinguished.

On 22 July 1967, the operation was suspended to examine whether a change in tactics should be made. The decision was subsequently made at a conference held at the Seventh Air Force Headquarters to conduct missions with only one aircraft to try and maximize surprise and reduce the chance of receiving ground fire. This followed Lieutenant Colonel Flaugher recommendation, which was based on the belief that the majority of missions canceled because of marginal weather could have been completed by a single aircraft. Two separate missions would be required, however, when flying single ships, to cover the target with the specified 19.5 tons of compound. Lieutenant Colonel Flaugher also noted that regardless of improvements in tactics, the mission still posed a significant challenge and warned of the potential for loss of aircraft. Seventh Air Force also suggested possibly using the C-123K aircraft instead of C-130 types, because of a safety advantage in its jettisonable self-sealing nacelle fuel tanks over the C-130's wet-wing.

While Seventh Air Force reviewed the tactics for Commando Lava II, it was reported that after treatment of target areas PAVN teams had rushed to targets to remove the compound to prevent it from being activated by rain as intended. However, it was reported following visual reconnaissance conducted on 26 July 1967 of the target areas seeded in the first 2 missions that most of the compound had not dissolved in the rain and no clear effort had been made to remove it. The agent, which did not appear to have resulted in the desired effect, did not appear to have had any significant effect on road traffic. The state of the roads was reported to be expected as a result of normal, naturally occurring rainfall. Further visual reconnaissance suggested that gravel or other aggregate might have been spread in affected areas, but overall it was unclear what effect the compound was having.

After operations resumed, between 25 and 29 July 1967 inclement weather still prevented the third mission from being conducted. The third mission was finally flown on 30 July 1967, with the aircraft successfully dropping its payload on target. However, it still received a single small arms hit. Following the third mission, a fourth was planned for 31 July 1967 and it was expected that by 1 August 1967, 2 single ship missions could be flown each day to allow completion of all planned Commando Lava II drops by 4 August 1967. Escort had been and continued to be provided to suppress enemy air defenses as well.

The fifth and sixth missions were flown on 4 August 1967, with no aircraft damaged. The seventh mission was flown on 5 August 1967, and the payload impacted 400 yards short of the intended impact point, with only 5 percent of the compound dropped believed to have landed on target. The eighth mission was also flown on 5 August 1967. The ninth mission, conducted by 2 aircraft, was flown on 7 August 1967. Weather prevented photographic reconnaissance of affected areas until later on 7 August 1967. Photographs of the target area from the sixth mission showed that the compound had either dispersed quickly in the rain or had been removed. The targeted roadway was seen as being soft and deeply rutted despite no significant rainfall since the mission had been flown. However, it had not stopped road traffic or forced attempts to by-pass the area. Observation of the results was to continue until 4 September 1967, at which time a final report on the results was to be published by Seventh Air Force.

After publishing their findings, it became unclear to Seventh Air Force whether or not the Commando Lava mission had ended. In December 1967, Seventh Air Force said it appeared "Commando Lava has been laid to rest." However, it was added that it could not be determined at their level "whether the concept itself is really a dead issue," and Seventh Air Force requested Pacific Air Forces make a final determination on the project.

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Page last modified: 13-03-2012 16:36:20 ZULU