Zhang Yulin discusses his experience participating in an ambush mission while deployed in Laos in 1970.
Zhang Yulin was deployed to Laos in early 1970, just two months after he had enlisted in the People’s Liberation Army. Zhang’s platoon was stationed at the 86th kilometre of the New West Line. The main duties of his platoon involved protecting the Chinese road construction teams and units in Laos.
In April 1970, the PLA received intelligence that the Americans were planning to air-drop reconnaissance troops into Laos. His platoon was therefore ordered to march towards the Luang Prabang mountains, where the intel indicated that the enemy might be sending its troops into. Zhang recalled that each soldier in his platoon carried about sixty to seventy kilograms of load in their field packs. Once they reached the designated area, they set up their gear in the grass and laid in wait. For three days Zhang and his platoon mates encountered only animals and insects. He recalled that the mosquitoes in Laos were so big that they had nicknamed the mosquitoes “B52 bombers”. The grasshoppers in Laos were also able to bite them all over their bodies, whether they had any covering or not. Enemy planes approached the area that Zhang was waiting at on the fourth and fifth days and even dropped a few illumination flares, but ultimately did not offload any troops or cargo. On the sixth day, Zhang’s platoon received orders to retreat from the area and return to their base. That was the only combat operation Zhang had participated in while in Laos.
Life in Laos was arduous. Frequent bombings by American forces in the region, as well as various hostile saboteurs in the area, disrupted progress. Wang recalled an incident when he was almost struck by two shells that had detonated near his bulldozer. The two explosions from the shells were so powerful that it almost deafened him. The weather was so hot that the sun was out even when it was raining. The soldiers were made to live in makeshift bamboo shelters that kept neither the weather nor the bugs out. Difficulties in communications and the maintenance of supply lines meant that many soldiers there suffered from malnutrition.
Interviewee: Zhang Yulin (pseudonym)
Interviewer and writer: CUI FENG
Location: Wuhan, Hubei province, China
Date: October 9, 2021
Language: Chinese (Translated by CUI FENG)
Interview with Zhang Yulin
In early 1970, about two months after joining the People's Liberation Army (PLA), I was deployed to Laos. We were then known as internationalist fighters that were helping the Laotian people resist American imperialist aggression. At that time, my platoon was stationed on a hill slope at the 86th kilometer of the New West Line. Around April, intelligence indicated that American planes might be planning to airdrop spies on an open space near the Luang Prabang mountains. My platoon was ordered to set up an ambush to intercept those spies.
Each of us carried a load of about sixty to seventy kilograms on the march towards the ambush area. Our field packs included four hand grenades, ninety (90) rounds of ammunition, a submachine gun, a machete, and dry rations, among other things. We arrived at the designated area in the middle of the night. The eleven soldiers in my squad quickly spread out with a distance of 20 meters between each of us, and laid in the grass. The insects in Laos were terrifying: especially the mosquitoes which were unusually large. We described the mosquitoes as "B52" bombers because they would swarm towards us in groups at night. Fortunately, we had mosquito repellent. During the night mission, we could also hear the sounds of elephants, wild buffalo, and goats, all which added to our trepidation. There were many grasshoppers and they often crawled on our necks, backs, or thighs. Despite wearing leggings, we still couldn't avoid getting bitten by grasshoppers.
However, after laying in wait in the area for three days, we did not find any enemy soldiers. It wasn't until the fourth night when we heard the roar of an aircraft. At that time, we didn't have air superiority, and the enemy's plane flew very low, seemingly only a few hundred meters above the ground. But the plane quickly flew away. On the fifth day, four planes arrived: two reconnaissance aircraft and two helicopters. However, after dropping a few illumination flares, the enemy planes flew away without conducting any paratrooping or air drops. On the sixth morning, we received orders from the command headquarters to withdraw to our base, and so we retreated accordingly. That was the only combat mission I participated in during my time in Laos.
We didn't directly participate in the civil war in Laos. Our main task was to protect the Chinese road construction team and ensure the security of the PLA road construction units. The combat missions primarily focused on air defense operations, defending against American planes conducting bombing operations or right-wing government agents conducting reconnaissance.
Interviewer: Cui Feng
Interviewee: Zhang Yulin
How did you think Zhang’s experience of being dispatched overseas shaped the way he understood the Cold War in Asia?