June 9, 1964: The day the first US bombs fell on Laos

Fifty years ago today, on June 9, 1964, the first American bombs fell on Laos, in what would become the largest bombing campaign in history.

The Unites States had been flying reconnaissance missions across Northern Laos in support of Royalist Lao forces fighting a communist insurgency backed by North Vietnam. On June 8th, anti-aircraft batteries near the Plain of Jars shot down an American reconnaissance plane. On June 9th, eight F-100 fighters dropped bombs on those positions, on the orders of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Those were the first of millions of bombs to be dropped over the next nine years.

There is no day of remembrance in Laos for June 9. It is mentioned only in passing in The United States Air Force In Southeast Asia 1961-1973, published by the Office of Air Force History (page 122). But the legacy of that day will be felt in Laos for decades to come.

Below, an excerpt from Eternal Harvest.

 

A boy digs for ant larvae to use in soup on a hillside overlooking the Plain of Jars.
A boy digs for ant larvae to use in soup on a hillside overlooking the Plain of Jars.

A boy stands on a barren hillside, his body a silhouette against blue sky. He’s poised at an angle, aligned with the slope of the hill. He has a shovel and a basket—his tools—as he stabs the earth, looking for ant eggs to use as fishing bait. He lifts the shovel and drives it into the soil. The boy knows about UXO. He knows the ground could explode beneath him. He knows this land is contaminated with bombs that were dropped before he was born. But still, he pumps his shovel.

We meet this boy while hiking with our guide, Manophet, between sites along the Plain of Jars. The young boy keeps flinging dirt. Manophet goes to him and demonstrates a safer way to dig, slowly and softly. He instructs the boy to stop if he hits something hard.

But the boy shrugs off the advice. “I’ve done it many times,” he says. And he goes on digging.

We continue on. Manophet looks weary. He talks of the years he spent working for MAG, looking for UXO. He’s lost friends and neighbors to accidents. He has seen human bodies torn to shreds. Digging for any reason exacerbates the risk of an accident, yet people do it. It’s not because they don’t understand the dangers. It’s because the dangers never go away.

Bombs are a natural part of life in much of Laos, and risk has become routine. Fifty years after the first bombs fell, many Laotians realize they may always have to live on contaminated land. When a hazard is so pervasive for so long, its presence enters the subconscious. It’s impossible to live for decades in active, constant fear. “In daily life, you just have to go on,” says a Xieng Khouang man named Phou Vieng who lost a leg and an arm while digging in the floor of his house. Of course he knew the risks, he says. “Some days we just forgot it could happen.”

People adapt—they must. And people take chances—sometimes by choice, sometimes necessity. There are prospects in the ground. All across Laos, locals turn bits and bobs of old U.S. bombs into useful everyday tools: pails and lanterns, barns and huts, ashtrays and homes. Bomb canisters are stacked into fences and formed into feed troughs. Bomb scrap is melted down and shaped into bowls and spoons. Hunks of high-grade steel are molded into knives and machetes. Lightweight aluminum tubes that once held dozens of bombies now form the legs of sturdy ladders. Defused bomblets serve as lamps, and buckets bear labels naming the precise U.S. armory location and date on which they began life as flare canisters. On some rivers, fishermen float in boats made from the fuel tanks dropped by American pilots. And around many rural homes, vegetables grow in bomb casings.

A woman waters her herb garden, planted in a cluster bomb casing and raised on stilts in Boualapha town, Khammouane Province.
A woman waters her herb garden, planted in a cluster bomb casing and raised on stilts in Boualapha town, Khammouane Province.

We meet a woman on the roadside in Khammouane province as she waters a thick clump of scallions growing in a bomb canister propped up on a couple of old, dead tree trunks. “Oh, this came from the airplane,” she says. “My parents had this a long time.” It works much better than wood. “This is the best planter.”

One small Xieng Khouang community called Ban Naphia, near the Plain of Jars, has made an industry out of scrap. Every day, locals forge hundreds of spoons from the detritus of war. Earthen ovens sit behind many of the homes. Villagers fire them hot and strong, powerful enough to turn an aluminum section of flare canister—with U.S. label still attached—into a dribble of shimmering liquid. It is poured into spoon-shaped molds encased in wood. The liquid cools, and in just a few minutes, a spoon emerges.

Spoons
A young woman makes spoons from aluminum war scrap in a shop behind her home in Ban Naphia, Xieng Khouang Province.

Ban Naphia produces about 150,000 spoons each year, using aluminum from flares, fuses, bomb fins, and fighter jet parts. It is an inherently risky enterprise, and MAG is working with villagers to make their jobs safer. According to MAG documents, “Several people from Ban Naphia have been injured by UXO over recent years.”

Still, the drive to dig is often stronger than the will to resist potential income. In the city, Laotians earn on average a few dollars a day. In the countryside, incomes lag far behind. By trading in scrap, farmers can reap a different type of harvest. The price goes up and down, and it varies depending on location, quality of metal, and a person’s position in the scrap trade. Many villagers quote a price near seven cents a pound—plenty good enough for them to hit the fields with shovels, spades, or detectors….

Laos Can Be a Dangerous Tourist Destination – Terry Ambrose

By Terry Ambrose
Nov. 15, 2013
Terry Ambrose Mysteries with Character

EH book coverIt has been 40 years since the U.S. military dropped the last bomb on Laos, yet the effects of unexploded ordnance (UXO) are being felt today. Jerry Redfern is an award-winning photojournalist who moved to Cambodia with his wife, Karen Coates, in 1998. Both are senior fellows at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. It was an anniversary trip that later kindled a passion in the two about this little-known legacy of war, and encouraged a renewed commitment to redressing historical injustices and building positive peace.

Redfern said, “I thought it would be cool to go to the Plain of Jars. We were living in Cambodia and were there and heard about the bombs. We decided to take an  anniversary trip to the Plain of Jars.” READ MORE.

Q&A with author Karen Coates and photographer Jerry Redfern – Haunting Legacy

By Deborah Kalb
Oct. 5, 2013
Haunting Legacy

REDCOATES ParisWriter Karen Coates and her husband, photographer Jerry Redfern, have collaborated on the forthcoming book Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos. Their other work together includes the book This Way More Better: Stories and Photos from Asia’s Back Roads. They are based in New Mexico and travel frequently to Asia. Many of their projects have focused on the issues of food and the environment.

Q: How did the two of you end up working on Eternal Harvest?

A: This grew out of a story on the archaeological work around the Plain of Jars that we did in 2005 for Archaeology Magazine. We had traveled to Laos before and knew the general history of the bombings, but it wasn’t until that reporting trip that we saw first-hand just how devastating the effects remain today. READ MORE

How I Got That Story – CJR

Explosive situation

By The Editors
Jan. 2, 2013
Columbia Journalism Review

Redfern_Gastronomica_UXO_03In 2005, Jerry Redfern and Karen Coates were in Laos reporting a story on the Plain of Jars region for Archaeology magazine, and they kept meeting people who had a “bomb problem.” The husband-and-wife team—he’s a photographer, she’s a writer—had lived in Southeast Asia for a number of years, and they were not unfamiliar with the problem of unexploded ordnance leftover from US bombing during the Vietnam War. But until this trip, they hadn’t fully understood, as they put it, “the daily deadliness” of it. They decided it was a story they needed to pursue. Using old US Air Force maps to guide them to areas that were heavily bombed, they spent the next several years talking to the farmers and scrap-metal hunters for whom the risk of death or serious injury is a daily reality. READ MORE

Mystery Plain – Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia

There’s little known about the origins of the stone jars strewn across the bucolic landscape of northeastern Laos—aside from the fact that they are under threat from unexploded ordnance.

By Karen J. Coates / Photo by Jerry Redfern
October 2010
Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia

T+L AsiaMy introduction to the jars began in the back of an old black Russian sedan, careening across the mud-slick tracks of northeastern Laos. It was the middle of monsoon season. The rain came down, the mud came up and I couldn’t see a thing through spattered windows. After more than an hour slipping and sliding through the countryside, we parked in a gaping puddle. My guide, a young man named Bounnyot, led me up a steep path to a vista overlooking green peaks and valleys, and dozens of enormous stone vessels taller than many a local. The jars marched straight across my line of sight. Up close, I saw tadpoles swimming in the pools of rainwater collected inside. Spiders stretched their webs across the stone. My guidebook had prepared me for an amazing sight but nothing this vast, serene or sublime. Then Bounnyot told me he learned from his grandfather that the jars were gigantic tuns, built to hold lao lao, the local mind-bending hooch.

Really? Did Bounnyot believe that?

“No,” he chuckled. “Well, maybe.”

It’s a familiar tale to Julie Van Den Bergh, an archaeologist now based in Hong Kong who spent several years working for unesco and is currently preparing the Plain of Jars for status as a World Heritage Site. In fact, she hears this story
all the time: an ancient king named Khun Cheung, victorious in battle, built these jars to hold his celebratory elixir. “I don’t have a problem with lao lao,” Van Den Bergh said. But science tells her these jars had greater purpose—as the funerary urns of an unknown ancient civilization. READ MORE (PDF)

Plain of Jars – Archaeology

The explosive implications of archaeology at Laos’ most puzzling site.

By Karen J. Coates / Photo by Jerry Redfern
July/August 2005
Archaeology

POJ ArchaeologyI’m following Belgian archaeologist Julie Van Den Bergh around Laos’ remote Xieng Khouang Province. We’re inspecting giant ancient vessels, which are scattered through rice paddies, forests, and hilltops at more than 60 sites across what is known as the Plain of Jars. Archaeologists think the jars were mortuary containers, perhaps 2,000 years old. But no one knows for sure their precise age, who built them, or why. They are swathed in mystery and surrounded by unexploded bombs.

Xieng Khouang Province is one of the most heavily bombed places on earth. Between 1964 and 1973, the United States dumped four billion pounds of bombs on the country in a “secret war” against Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese communists. Up to a third of them never exploded, and they litter the land today. While generally safe to tread upon, buried UXO (unexploded ordnance) can detonate when an erratic fuse is inadvertently triggered. The earth around here is dangerous to farmers plowing fields, children staking buffalo out to graze–and to archaeologists. READ MORE