February 18, 1977 Plain of Jars

A map of the world is dotted with ancient stone megaliths, from Easter Island in the South Pacific to the Carnac Stones of France, and the stone spheres of Costa Rica. Among all of them, there is no story more mysterious, or more tragic, than the Plain of Jars.


Yonaguni Island, the westernmost inhabited island of the Japanese archipelago, lies about 60 miles across the straits of Taiwan.  The place is a popular dive destination, due to (or possibly despite) a large population of hammerhead sharks.

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In 1987, divers discovered an enormous stone formation, with angles and straight lines seemingly too perfect to have been formed by nature.   If this “Yonaguni Monument” is in fact a prehistoric stone megalith, it would have to have been carved 8,000 to 10,000 years ago when the area was last dry,  radically changing current ideas about prehistoric construction.

A map of the world is dotted with such ancient stone megaliths, from Easter Island in the South Pacific to the Carnac Stones of France, and the stone spheres of Costa Rica.  Among all of them, there is no story more mysterious, or more tragic, than the Plain of Jars.

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Deep in the heart of the Indochinese peninsula of mainland Southeast Asia lies the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, (LPDR), informally known as Muang Lao or just Laos.  To the north of the country lies the Xiangkhouang Plateau, known in French as Plateau du Tran-Ninh, situated between the Luang Prabang mountain range separating Laos from Thailand, and the Annamite Range along the Vietnamese border.

Fifteen-hundred to twenty-five hundred years ago, a now-vanished race of bronze and iron age craftsmen carved stone jars out of solid rock, ranging in size from 3 to 9-feet or more.  There are thousands of these jars, located at 90 separate sites containing just a single to four hundred apiece.

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Most of these jars have carved rims but few have lids, leading researchers to speculate that lids were formed from organic material such as wood or leather.

Lao legend has it that the jars belonged to a race of giants, who chiseled them out of sandstone, granite, conglomerate, limestone and breccia to hold “lau hai”, or rice beer.  More likely they were part of some ancient funerary rite, where the dead and the about-to-die were inserted along with personal goods and ornaments such as beads made of glass and carnelian, cowrie shells and bronze bracelets and bells.  There the deceased were “distilled” in a sitting position, later to be removed and cremated with remains then going through a secondary burial.

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Map of Laos showing Xieng Khouang province, location of the Plain of Jars

These “Plain of Jars” sites might be some of the oldest burial grounds in the world, but be careful if you go there.  It’s the most dangerous archaeological site on earth.

With the final French stand at Dien Bien Phu a short five months in the future, France signed the Franco–Lao Treaty of Amity and Association in 1953, establishing Laos as an independent member of the French Union. The Laotian Civil War broke out that same year between the Communist Pathet Lao and the Royal Lao Government, becoming a “proxy war” where both sides received heavy support from the global Cold War superpowers.

Concerned about a “domino effect” in Southeast Asia, US direct foreign aid to Laos began as early as 1950.  Five years later the country suffered a catastrophic failure of the rice crop.  The CIA-operated Civil Air Transport (CAT) flew over 200 missions to 25 drop zones, delivering 1,000 tons of emergency food.  By 1959, the CIA “air proprietary” was operating fixed and rotary wing aircraft in Laos, under the renamed “Air America”.

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The Geneva Convention of 1954 partitioned Vietnam at the 17th parallel, and guaranteed Laotian neutrality.  North Vietnamese communists had no intention of withdrawing from the country or abandoning Laotian communist allies, any more than they were going to abandon the drive for military reunification, with the south.

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke warned the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “If we lose Laos, we will probably lose Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia. We will have demonstrated to the world that we cannot or will not stand when challenged”.

As the American war ramped up in Vietnam, the CIA fought a “Secret War” in Laos, in support of a growing force of Laotian highland tribesmen called the Hmong, fighting the leftist Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese communists.

Primitive footpaths had existed for centuries along the Laotian border with Vietnam, facilitating trade and travel.  In 1959, Hanoi established the 559th Transportation Group under Colonel Võ Bẩm, improving these trails into a logistical system connecting the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north, to the Republic of Vietnam in the south.  At first just a means of infiltrating manpower, this “Hồ Chí Minh trail” through Laos and Cambodia soon morphed into a major logistical supply line.

In the last months of his life, President John F. Kennedy authorized the CIA to increase the size of the Hmong army.  As many as 20,000 Highlanders took arms against far larger communist forces, acting as guerrillas, blowing up NVA supply depots, ambushing trucks and mining roads.  The response was genocidal.  As many as 18,000 – 20,000 Hmong tribesman were hunted down and murdered by Vietnamese and Laotian communists.

Air America helicopter pilot Dick Casterlin wrote to his parents that November, “The war is going great guns now. Don’t be misled [by reports] that I am only carrying rice on my missions as wars aren’t won by rice.”

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The proxy war in Laos reached a new high in 1964, in what the agency itself calls “the largest paramilitary operations ever undertaken by the CIA.”  In the period 1964-’73, the US flew some 580,344 bombing missions over the Hồ Chí Minh trail and Plain of Jars, dropping an estimated 262 million bomb.  Two million tons, equivalent to a B-52 bomber full of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years.  More bombs than US Army Air Forces dropped in all of WW2, making Laos the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history.

Most were “cluster munitions”, bomb shells designed to open in flight, showering the earth with hundreds of “bomblets” intended to kill people and destroy vehicles.  It’s been estimated that 30% of these munitions failed to explode, 80 million of them, (the locals call them “bombies”), set to go off with the weight of a foot, or a wheel, or the touch of a garden hoe.

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Unexploded cluster sub-munition, probably a BLU-26 type. Plain of Jars, Laos

Since the end of the war, some 20,000 civilians have been killed or maimed by unexploded ordnance, called “UXO”.  Four in ten of those, are children.

Removal of such vast quantities of UXO is an effort requiring considerable time and money and no small amount of personal risk.  The American Mennonite community became pioneers in the effort in the years following the war, one of the few international Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) trusted by the habitually suspicious communist leadership of the LPDR.

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On February 18, 1977, Murray Hiebert, now senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.  summed up the situation in a letter to the Mennonite Central Committee, US:  “…a formerly prosperous people still stunned and demoralized by the destruction of their villages, the annihilation of their livestock, the cratering of their fields, and the realization that every stroke of their hoes is potentially fatal.

Years later, Unesco archaeologists worked to unlock the secrets of the Plain of Jars, working side by side with ordnance removal teams.

In 1996, United States Special Forces began a “train the trainer” program in UXO removal, at the invitation of the LPDR government. Even so, Western Embassy officials in the Laotian capitol of Vientiane believed that, at the current pace, total removal will take “several hundred years”.

In 2004, bomb metal fetched 7.5 Pence Sterling, per kilogram.  That’s eleven cents, for just over two pounds.  Unexploded ordnance brought in 50 Pence per kilogram in the communist state, inviting young and old alike to attempt the dismantling of an endless supply of BLU-26 cluster bomblets.  For seventy cents apiece.

February 17, 1915 American Volunteers in WW1

“When men who have no obligation to fight, who could not possibly be criticized if they did not fight, yet nevertheless decide, upon their own individual initiative, to risk their lives in defense of a cause that they hold to be dear, then we are in the presence of true heroism” – General Henri Gouraud

German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck once said the next European war would begin with “some damn fool thing in the Balkans”. Bismarck got his damn fool thing in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. We all know the story. The diplomatic visit of an heir presumptive. The open car. The wrong turn. The assassin.

There followed a series of diplomatic stumbles, military mobilizations and counter-mobilizations called the “July Crisis of 1914″. By August, there was no turning back. There would be no “Phony War” this time, no “Sitzkreig”, as wags were wont to call the early days of World War 2. The coming storm crashed across the continent like a clap of thunder.

Britain went to war with a professional army of 750,000 men, small by European standards. 8 million men were conscripted or recruited over the next four years, nearly half coming from outside the UK. They came from all over the British empire and beyond. Over 300 Americans volunteered with the Royal Flying Corps in WW1 as did Jamaican William Robinson Clarke, the first black pilot to fly for Britain, but no power so enjoyed the support of foreign volunteers, as France.

Foreign mercenary soldiers have a long history with the French military. Philip VI led 15,000 Italian soldiers against Edward III, in 1346. Napoleon had 60,000 Swiss Guard under contract of the Schweizergarten, in Vienna. King Louis Philippe formed the French Foreign Legion on March 9, 1831.

“American volunteers in the French Foreign Legion cross the Place de L’Opera Paris on August 25, 1914, headed for Rouen” H/T americansatwarinforeignforces.com

The United States was still neutral in the beginning, over two years away from joining the fray. The influx of American volunteers, began almost immediately. They came to join the French Foreign Legion, to drive for the ambulance corps and, later, to fly.

Interestingly, the central powers made limited use of foreign conscripts or recruits. There was the occasional foreign colonial in German units, soldiers of Chinese or African descent. Several Americans volunteered to fly for the Imperial German Flying Corps. Though nominally allied with czarist Russia, longstanding animosities led some Fins to volunteer with the Imperial German army. Irish Republicans took opportunity to attempt an independent Irish Republic and Germany was happy to assist but it was der Löwe von Afrika (Lion of Africa) General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck who famously led 11,000 to 12,000 African Askari troops in the only successful invasion into a part of the British empire of all of WW1.

With only a handful of generations come and gone between our time and that of the Great War, WW1 holds a prominent place in modern conceptions of “recent” history. Similarly, the WW1 generation held the Revolution in close regard, the events of the last century and one-half foundational to their own time. Americans were keenly aware in 1914 of the pivotal role played by France, in American independence. Kiffin and Paul Rockwell are but two examples of Americans who left comfortable lives to serve “over there” as a debt of gratitude, to the likes of the Count of Rochambeau and the Marquis de Lafayette.

General John “Black Jack” Pershing famously quipped on arriving on French soil, “Lafayette, we are here”.

The French Foreign Legion operated two regiments at this time comprised of six battalions of 1,000 men each and headquartered in north Africa. The need for manpower was acute. Two-thirds were of German or Austrian background and therefore of suspect loyalty.

Thousands of Americans volunteered for WW1 service in the Legion, notables among their number including composer and songwriter Cole porter, Eugene Jacques Bullard, who would go on to become the first black American fighter pilot in history, William Wellman, director of the 1927 film Wings and winner of the Best Picture award at the first Academy Awards ceremony and poet Alan Seeger (left), author of “I have a rendezvous with death” and uncle of the folk artist and social activist, Pete Seeger.

William Moll served his five years with the Foreign Legion and returned home to Chicago. He became filthy rich and died, in 1937. Imagine the reading of that will. All those eager relatives and the man left every dime of it, to the French Foreign Legion.

Some Foreign Legion units experienced close to 100% casualties.

Alan Seeger met his rendezvous with death at the Somme, in 1916. Fellow Legion soldier Rif Baer described his last moments: “His tall silhouette stood out on the green of the cornfield. He was the tallest man in his section. His head erect, and pride in his eye, I saw him running forward, with bayonet fixed. Soon he disappeared and that was the last time I saw my friend.” Even then, lying mortally wounded in no man’s land Seeger cheered on his passing comrades as the life ebbed out of him.

Not legally “Americans” at this time but members of their own sovereign nations, no fewer than 4,000 Indians enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, in 1914. Some 15,000 native Americans from many tribal affiliations enlisted with the American Expeditionary Force where members of the Choctaw, Cherokee and Cree nations learned to talk in code, early forerunners of the famous Navajo code talkers, of WW2.

The Battle of the Frontiers, a series of clashes between August 7 and September 6, 1914 brought no fewer than 2.7 million combatants together producing casualties on both sides, of some 664,000. The motor inventory of entire nations public and private, seemed inadequate to transport the cataract of wounded to places of medical care.

Members of expatriate American business community and embassy employees rushed in to assist in early association with the American Hospital at Neuilly-sur-Seine, in Paris.

US Ambassador Myron Herrick and his wife Carolyn (“Kitty”) were instrumental in the early stages of the war as were wealthy donors such as the Vanderbilts, in early association with the American Hospital, founded four years earlier. As German armies crashed through Belgium and raced to capture Paris, the government fled for Bordeaux. Herrick stayed defiantly in Paris. “Paris belongs not only to France,” he said, “it belongs to the world!”

Three distinct ambulance corps would evolve over time involving no fewer than 3,500 American volunteers. Notable among ther number include the authors Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos and Dashiell Hammett who all but invented the hard-boiled crime novel.

Edward “Eddie” Mandell Stone lived in France when the war broke out and enlisted, with Foreign Legion, 2nd Regiment, Battalion C.

A member of a machine-gun section, Eddie (right) was mortally wounded on February 17, 1915 and taken to the Military Hospital at Romilly. He died of his wounds on February 27 becoming the first American combatant to die, in the ‘War to end all wars”.

After 1915, American pilots volunteered for multiple “Escadrille” – flight squadrons of the French Air Service, the Aéronautique Militaire.

The March 7, 1918 Harvard Alumni Bulletin would give Norman Prince full credit for persuading the French government to form all-American flying squadrons. He wouldn’t live to see the article in print.

Sergeant Norman Prince caught a landing wheel on a telegraph wire after a bombing run on October 12, 1916, sustaining massive injuries when his plane flipped over and crashed. He was promoted to sous (2nd) lieutenant on his death bed and awarded the Legion of Honor. He died three days later, at the age of 29.

Gervais Raoul Victor Lufbery (left) flew for both the Aéronautique Militaire and for the US Army Air Service and is sometimes listed as an Ace, in both. All but 1 of Lufbery’s 17 victories came as a French pilot. Raoul Lufbery was thrown from his aircraft and killed on May 19, 1918.

William Thaw II of Pittsburgh was the first pilot to fly up New York’s East River under all four bridges, the first American engaged in aerial combat in the war.

Authorized on March 21, 1916 as the Escadrille Américaine (Escadrille N.124), American pilots wore French uniforms and flew French aircraft.   Germany expressed dismay over the very existence of such a unit, complaining that the neutral United States appeared to be aligning with France.

Escadrille N.124 changed its name in December 1916, adopting that of a French hero of the American Revolution.  Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette.

Five French officers commanded a core of 38 American volunteers in the beginning, supported by all-French mechanics and ground crew.  Rounding out the Escadrille were two unit mascots, the African lions Whiskey and Soda.

William Thaw with unit mascot mascots, Whiskey and Soda. ca 1916

The Lafayette Escadrille is often confused with the much larger Lafayette Flying Corps, and the movie “Flyboys” adds to the confusion.  The Flying Corps was different from the Escadrille, the former coming about as the result of widespread interest in the exploits of the latter.  American volunteers were assigned individually or in groups of two or three to fly in various French Aviation units, but, prior to US entry into the war.  The Lafayette Escadrille was the only one to serve as a single organization.

All told, 267 American volunteers applied to serve in the Lafayette Flying Corps, credited with downing 199 German planes at the cost of 19 wounded, 15 captured, 11 dead of illness or accident, and 51 killed in action.

William Graves Sharp took office in December 1914 and served as Ambassador the remainder of the war, but never seemed to get out from under the shadow of his predecessor, Myron Herrick. Ambassador Herrick returned to Paris in 1921 and remained, until 1929. Herrick greeted Richard Lindberg in 1927 and stood throughout the long funeral ceremonies, for Ferdinand Foch.

It is there the ambassador was believed to have contracted the illness, that would take his life. Now forgotten in his home country, Myron Herrick is well remembered in his adopted nation of France.

Today you can walk through the gardens of Paris’ Place des États-Unis, down the slope from Bartholdi’s sculpture where Lafayette forever shakes hands, with Washington. Up from the monument for American Volunteers in the Great War is the bust of Myron Herrick.

The once governor of Ohio and forgotten diplomat who refused to be moved when everyone around him, ran.