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November/December 2019

Sniff Them Out, Bite Them Hard: Project Tiger Hound

Ken Welch wanted to get away from Saigon. The U.S. headquarters there, Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), was growing by leaps and bounds. Welch was an NCO in a small intelligence section who returned from temporary assignment—to establish a forward echelon of the unit at Da Nang—to discover his section had become a cog in a much larger wheel. Sgt. Welch spent weeks filing documents, then volunteered for a new, top-secret task force, one that would get him out of the office to do some of the most important work in the war. The task force, a unique interservice cooperative unit, was called Tiger Hound.

Among the most serious challenges for Americans during this early phase of the Vietnam War in 1965 was to try and isolate the battlefield, preventing North Vietnam from getting new troops and supplies into the South. Finding those targets proved difficult. MACV tried everything. One of the first long-range patrol projects of MACV’s 5th Special Forces Group, Operation Leaping Lena, attempted to investigate North Vietnamese activities in a small sector inside Laos, without much success.

Later, Gen. William C. Westmoreland, the MACV commander, handed this mission over to Special Forces Detachment B-52 DELTA, then to the Studies and Observation Group with the codename Shining Brass. Inside Laos, the CIA operated small surveillance teams at fixed observation points under its Project Hardnose. The long-range patrols were intermittent and the road-watch teams inherently limited.

In April 1965, when the United States began regular bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the need to spy on the enemy became even more acute. In Operation Steel Tiger, nearly 90 percent of the attack planes were sent on “armed reconnaissance”: They had no specific targets, but were ordered to follow the roads and strike anything that looked like one.

That was not enough for Westmoreland. The general wanted aerial observation. Airplanes could survey the Ho Chi Minh Trail for long distances every day. They could direct strike aircraft to directly observed targets, melding the Army’s tradition of artillery spotting with the Air Force’s reconnaissance role.

Admiral U.S.G. SharpWestmoreland did not get his way automatically. Leadership of the air war rested in the hands of the Pacific Theater commander, Adm. U.S.G. Sharp, at Pearl Harbor. Sharp, at least alert to the need for information, solicited ideas for scouting and offered RF-101 Voodoo jets to act as search aircraft. MACV rejected that option. Jets gobbled fuel and could not stay long in the air. Their speed was also a detriment, making it more difficult to spot targets. Westmoreland wanted light, propeller-driven aircraft that offered considerable loiter time and better opportunities to watch the ground. Adm. Sharp accepted that argument, but Westmoreland then ran into trouble from Laos.

The Southeast Asian war theater, bigger than Vietnam alone, involved activities in Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia. American authorities regulated strategies for the war with a Southeast Asia Coordinating Committee (SEACOORD) that met periodically and brought together diplomats, military commanders, and intelligence and special operations chiefs. At its July 23-24, 1965, meeting, Westmoreland proposed to utilize Army aircraft (the L-19, a Cessna-type light plane, which the Air Force called the O-1E). The Air Force would fly the planes, and because that service lacked any slow-mover scouts, the Army’s contribution proved crucial. The Army also volunteered OV-1 Mohawks, which had side-looking radar and infrared detectors to find the enemy at night.

The cross-border world of Laos was the province of its U.S. ambassador. Within weeks, Amb. William H. Sullivan’s diplomats reported a new obstacle: the Royal Laotian Air Force. Gen. Thao Ma, its commander, argued that American pilots would see little and Laotians were better suited to spot the enemy amid dense jungle, and even that his own air force already had the area well covered.

At Udorn, Thailand, in September, the Laotians accepted a formula under which Lao airmen would take rear seats in O-1s and verify the spotted targets. This scheme evolved to one in which Laotians would help crew much larger, multi-engine “airborne battle control and coordination” planes, leaving the Americans to their own devices in the Cessnas. An attaché at the Vientiane embassy would recruit the Lao airmen.

In communications with National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, Sullivan went so far as to claim that Tiger Hound had been created at his suggestion. Westmoreland, rather more ascerbic, wrote in his memoir that some called the Ho Chi Minh Trail the William Sullivan Memorial Highway.

Ambasador SullivanAmb. Sullivan still had responsibility for approving specific targets in Laos, with the 2nd Air Division (soon to become Seventh Air Force) nominating them. On important ones he consulted with the Laotian government. Approvals could take from ten days to a month and a half. This was clearly unsatisfactory for a fast-moving interdiction campaign.

The compromise followed the pattern set by the Shining Brass cross-border patrols: A zone of Laotian territory along its border with Vietnam was opened to Tiger Hound freelancing. B-52 strikes still would require explicit permission. Sullivan conceded the zone was a narrow one, but in a January 3, 1966, cable, he noted: “Until there is evidence that our people are really doing their job well in this given area, I see no benefit to the home team in giving them more to try to digest.”

The Great Hunter

Westmoreland chose the word “hound” to suggest his scouts could find the enemy wherever they hid. “Tiger” evoked the power of the great hunter.

Setting up the task force became the first challenge. In Saigon, Col. John F. Groom was deputy chief of the Tactical Air Control Center for the nascent Seventh Air Force. The unit, staffed jointly with South Vietnamese, directed all air strikes in South Vietnam and wrote the operations orders (commonly called “frags”). The 47-year-old Groom had flown in World War II and Korea. He felt frustrated flying a desk.

One day in the fall of 1965 Gen. George B. Simler, chief of staff for operations, called Groom into his office. Simler told Groom that Westmoreland wanted to duplicate the kind of air control the center had been operating, but extending it to Laos and doing it from the field and in the air. The MACV commander also wanted this new unit to be a joint project among U.S. armed services and, of course, he was getting the Army—his service—to provide aircraft for the mission.

Col. Groom began serious planning for a task force. Tiger Hound headquarters would be in Da Nang. Groom brought in forward air control pilots to pick locations for flying detachments. To cover the band of Laotian territory that Sullivan permitted them, they decided the best locations would be Kontum, Kham Duc, and Khe Sanh. Dong Ha would be added to augment the others and cover North Vietnam above the Demilitarized Zone. There would be ten O-1E Bird Dogs and thirteen OV-1 Mohawks flying from those bases but maintained at Tan Son Nhut.

Part way through the planning, a friend, Col. James P. Hagerstrom, who headed air traffic control at Udorn in Thailand, told Groom he was looking for missions for underutilized EC-130 planes. Tiger Hound air operations officer Marine Col. Edwin A. Harper and Groom realized the 130s could serve as command posts to summon flights of strike aircraft, platforms for Laotian officers to obtain approvals, and long-endurance radio repeaters. The planes would fly from Da Nang, Udorn, and Tan Son Nhut.

“Groomsey,” as he was nicknamed, assembled a briefing for the senior commanders. For its cover, staff appropriated the Peanuts cartoon character “Snoopy,” who often appeared as a World War I flying ace. Here they drew him next to a palm tree. Gen. Simler loved the picture but wanted Groom to have Snoopy wear tiger stripes. That became the Tiger Hound icon. On December 5, 1965, Westmoreland approved Project Tiger Hound as a highly classified secret operation.

At Da Nang headquarters a pair of trailers was separated from the base. In two days the communications specialists had them wired and connected with every unit in I Corps. Westmoreland had specified that the intelligence section should be headed by an Army officer. Lt. Col. Harold Wichmann did well in that job. He had four Army subordinates and another from the Air Force. Ed Harper led an equal mix of Air Force and Army personnel on operations. A Marine captain was Tiger Hound’s liaison.

Air Force Lt. Col. Rex Poutre had overall command of the forward operating bases, the biggest of which was at Dong Ha, but with strong detachments at Khe Sanh and Kham Duc and a small one at Kontum. Lt. Col. R.Z. Garrett, called “Steamboat,” piloted the EC-130 battle control plane, soon nicknamed “Hillsboro,” with its Laotian counterparts. On a good day the Laotians could get a confirmation from one of their operations centers in just a few minutes.

Off and Running

Tiger Hound began flying early in December. During the first couple of weeks the weather closed in. The pilots also had to familiarize themselves with the land that they were expected to cover daily. Toward the end of the month one hound spotted a big dust cloud and called in a strike, which uncovered a North Vietnamese truck park and led to many secondary explosions. The hounds were running.

The very day Amb. Sullivan cabled Washington to claim his due, Tiger Hound suffered its first serious setback. It happened at Khe Sanh. Sgt. Welch arrived there that day as the intelligence cell leader for Tiger Hound Team C. The first two O-1E aircraft flew in. The South Vietnamese Special Forces leader, the nominal camp commander, liked to call formation in the evening. As the men lined up, several 120mm mortar rounds hit. One set the team house on fire. More shells struck communications bunkers, the Bird Dogs, and the runway.

Ken Welch marveled at the intel the enemy had, but the next day patrols outside the camp captured a North Vietnamese soldier who had observed the bombardment and corrected the enemy’s aim. Plus, the bombing of Laos was no secret to the North Vietnamese. Even Americans found out: On December 14 the New York Daily News reported that U.S. bombing in Laos had increased by 50 percent. Two weeks later The Washington Post revealed strikes by B-52s had begun. In any case, Team C went back to Da Nang to re-equip.

One of Westmoreland’s aides called Col. Groom to meet the general at Da Nang. He went to the field on January 5 to find Westmoreland already there, sheltering under the wing of a plane to lessen the heat. Westmoreland, Groom, and a SOG officer climbed into a T-39 and flew to Udorn to meet with Sullivan, who wanted to avoid the attention Westmoreland would have garnered in Vientiane.

© Xande Anderer
Westmoreland said the pre-approved targets the embassy had been giving MACV were no good. The band of Laotian territory cleared for Tiger Hound and for Shining Brass was too narrow. He needed more battle space. He also wanted to install a new air navigation aid in Laos.

Sullivan refused to widen the Tiger Hound zone and added that Shining Brass was Washington’s call, not his. He worried that the bombing issue in Laos would move to the United Nations. As for targets, Sullivan agreed to get more Laotian officers as authenticators on the Hillsboro planes. Westmoreland countered that the U.S. was already bombing all over Laos, and ended by saying the ambassador was “fiddling while Rome burned.”

Sullivan retorted: “I just can’t argue with a man who’s been put on the cover of Time as ‘Man of the Year.’ ” Nevertheless, he refused to widen the Tiger Hound zone. A few weeks later at a regular SEACOORD session in Bangkok, a MACV intelligence official presented Sullivan a giftwrapped package. It contained a toy rifle. The ambassador seemed to take it in good grace.

Col. Groom came away very impressed with Westmoreland. On the tarmac at Da Nang, he apologized for having arrived early rather than chewing Groom out for merely arriving on time. Not only had Westmoreland used pull to get Tiger Hound the right aircraft, he had given an impromptu talk to Groom’s men, telling them how important their mission was and how he supported them. Westmoreland asked what they needed. Night scopes? Tiger Hound got them. Replace losses? Sure. No senior Air Force officer had ever visited Tiger Hound, much less encouraged the troops.

The dangers were real. At least three of the OV-1 Mohawks were lost, with only one flight crew recovered. In February, Capt. John Lafayette—among the few Army pilots—survived the loss of his O-1E and was in sight. An HH-3 “Jolly Green Giant” even got over him, but before the search and rescue craft could get a ladder down through the jungle canopy, the North Vietnamese got Lafayette.

Col. Groom especially mourned the loss of Capt. Dan Packard, one of his operations staff. Packard had had the experience in World War II of being a flight instructor desperate to get to the front, and he was an instructor again. Groom had been an instructor of F-4C pilots before Vietnam and he sympathized, but still told Packard “no.” Then the operations staffer got one of the pilots at Khe Sanh to agree to switch places. Groom reluctantly approved. On a visit to Khe Sanh the boss saw some bullet holes in Packard’s Bird Dog and admonished him against taking chances. Groom was in Japan when he learned Packard had been lost.

With Team C, Capt. David Holmes was caught in a flak trap on March 15. Hillsboro called in a truck sighting near the Laotian town of Tchepone. Holmes took off immediately, even though the area lay outside the Tiger Hound battle zone. Sgt. Welch had been scheduled for that flight too, but stayed behind to go with team leader Capt. Farrow. They encountered the North Vietnamese flak guns and vectored strike aircraft onto them. Then they went after Holmes’ Bird Dog, which they found a few miles away, the pilot seemingly slumped in the seat.

A search and rescue mission became a nightmare. Tchepone lay in Sullivan’s territory. The HH-3 helicopters came from Thailand, so the U.S. ambassador there had to approve. The ambassador in Saigon also needed to be in the loop since Tiger Hound launched from South Vietnam. The Special Forces unit at Khe Sanh volunteered to make a parachute drop and had an Air America plane to carry them, but higher command nixed that plan. The mission was held back to the next day. By then, Capt. Holmes was gone, presumably killed. Packard and Holmes were both listed as MIA.

By now the operation had hit its stride, directing 70 percent of all strike sorties in south Laos. Tiger Hound was credited with the destruction of 344 trucks in March 1966 and 673 in April. It also was coordinating air support for Shining Brass patrols. When John Groom went home that summer, Tiger Hound had become a routine part of the war machine. It had pioneered the techniques used by the tactical air support squadrons that became a feature of military operations.

Tiger Hound would be folded into the SLAM technique (Seek, Locate, Annihilate, Monitor) that the military adopted late in 1966. Westmoreland initiated SLAM because he did not see much concrete impact from Tiger Hound. The Tiger Hound battle zone would exist until subsumed by operation Commando Hunt in 1968.





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