Palace Dog/Project 404 Begins Officially, Despite Having Already Been in Operation

When the Butterfly program was canceled, it was replaced by the Raven FACs. With the upgrade in personnel to using qualified fighter pilots with their own aircraft to mark targets, it became obvious that support personnel were needed within Laos.

Palace Dog was established, containing two components: Raven FACs and Project 404. Project 404 was the program that supplied the support personnel for the fighter pilots who flew under the Raven call sign. Its stated objective was "to maintain the RLAF (Royal Laotian Air Force) Air Operations Center in fighting condition for the defense of Laos".

Beginning unofficially in 1966 at the cessation of the Butterfly program, and officially in October, 1968, United States Air Force Special Operating Force staffed Project 404 by forwarding "sheepdipped" specialists to the United States Embassy in Laos. There they worked for the Air Attaché; he in turn worked directly for the American ambassador in Vientiane, Laos. The specialists escaped the scrutiny of permanent change of station orders by being assigned on 179 day Temporary Duty assignments. Specialties assigned were Air Operations Commander, Line Chief, and Medical and Communications Specialists. There was also a single doctor assigned to the program.

Four Air Operations Centers were established, one at each of the RLAF's airfields, which in turn were located one in each military region of Laos. The AOCs were located and designated respectively at Vientiane's Wattay Field (Lima 08), Pakse (Lima 11), Savannakhet (Lima 39), and Luang Prabang (Lima 54). Approximately June, 1969, a fifth AOC located at Long Tieng (Lima 20A) was added. An advisor to the RLAF AC47 gunship program was added in October, 1970. This latter location supported the Hmong Clandestine Army of General Vang Pao. The Clandestine Army would grow into the largest covert operation in history.

All of these locations except Vientiane were completely surrounded by both the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao enemies of the Royal Laotian Government.

As Palace Dog grew to about 120 men stationed in Laos, with a maximum of 22 being Ravens, there were about 100 engaged in Project 404. Official documents account for only 21 of that count (see above). It stands to reason there was also a headquarters section of some sort. There were also additional specialists unlisted in official documents but verified by participants. Even though the T-28 Trojan trainers used as strike aircraft by the RLAF were low-tech, they still required engine, airframe, and avionics maintenance, as well as ordnance support. Additional specialists at the AOCs included a crew chief, an engine man, and a weapons/ordnance man.

An Air Operations Center, then, consisted of a commanding officer, Raven FACs, a line chief, a crew chief, an engine man, a weapons/ordnance man, a medic, and a communication specialist (radio man).

The end result of Palace Dog was a unique chapter in warfare, in which a guerrilla force was supported by an air force stationed largely behind enemy lines.

Palace Dog ended with the ceasefire ending the fighting in Laos, which took effect 22 February 1973.

Project 404 was the code name for a covert United States military advisory mission to Laos during the later years of the Second Indochina War, which would eventually become known in the United States as the Vietnam War. The purpose was to train the Royal Laotian Army as well as indigenous Hmong, and Yao tribesmen to fight the Pathet Lao communist insurgency. This was extended to include combat against the North Vietnamese Army, which was occupying large portions of Laos as a staging, transit and resupply area for its operations in South Vietnam.

Project 404 began sometime after the completion of Operation White Star, and was smaller in scope. "White Star" began in 1959 as "Operation Hotfoot" with the deployment of 107 United States Army Special Forces soldiers (Green Berets) of the 77th Special Forces Group —later named the 7th SFG in May 1960—under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Arthur D. "Bull" Simons. Because Laos was ostensibly a neutral party to the conflict between the United States and North Vietnam, the soldiers did not wear United States Army uniforms.

In 1961, however, the United States lent full and open support to the Vientiane government and the program was renamed "Operation White Star" with U.S. soldiers openly wearing their uniforms. Operation White Star formally ended in July 1962 when Laotian neutrality was officially established. Counterinsurgency efforts were then managed covertly by the Central Intelligence Agency with direct oversight by William H. Sullivan the U.S. Ambassador to Laos.

Photos of my time in Project 404 at Pakse Laos, L-11, 69-70

Don Harp