VAN STOCKUM: Col. Loren Haffner, USMC: Cartoonist, infantry commander, and his hazardous solo reconnaissance in Laos

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Eye to Eye with a King Cobra

By Ron Van Stockum



Following Britain’s entry into the war in September 1939, mobilization of our armed forces picked up momentum, even though the mood of the country favored neutrality.

At that time I was serving in Company D, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment (called 6th Marines) at the Marine Corps Base, San Diego. Company D was an infantry heavy weapons company consisting of three machine gun platoons and an 81mm mortar platoon.

Marine reserves measure up

One of the first Marine reserve officers to join me in the company was 2nd Lt. William K. (Bill) Jones.

The 6th Marines, a famed regiment, had won the French Croix de Guerre three times: for its actions at Belleau Wood, Soissons, and Blanc Mont in World War I. As a result, all personnel, while serving in the regiment, were authorized to wear on the left shoulder a braided cord, representing the fourragère of the Croix de Guerre. Those Marines who had actually participated with the 6th Marines in those campaigns were authorized to wear it wherever they served.

As a regular officer, I considered myself superior to the reserve officers, who had not undergone the demanding year of training that we regulars had. It did not take long, however, for me to realize that this was a significant misimpression.

Bill Jones remained with the 1st Battalion to add to its luster, becoming eventually its commanding officer and winning the Navy Cross in the invasion of Saipan in 1944. Years after his retirement in the rank of Lt. General, his nephew, James L Jones, became a four-star general as Commandant of the Marine Corps (1999-2003).

Loren Haffner

Another recently mobilized officer who joined the 1st Battalion, Sixth Marines was 2nd Lt. Loren Haffner. Easy going, with a keen sense of humor, he was very popular among his colleagues. He also possessed considerable talent in drawing cartoons, spoofing his fellow officers or expressing the frustrations of the times. Several of his cartoons came into my hands, one being a spoof of me as a mortar platoon commander. They are now part of my Military collection at the Filson Historical Society in Louisville

Haffner remained in the 1st Battalion, serving with distinction in the Pacific campaigns under the command of his good friend, Bill Jones. However, his greatest contribution to Corps and Country may have been a special mission to Laos.

Strict instructions from a hard-bitten Marine

In November 1959, Gen. David M. Shoup, winner of the Medal of Honor on bloody Tarawa, already appointed to the office of Commandant of the Marine Corp to be effective on the following January 1, personally instructed Colonel Haffner:

“Haf, I want you to go into that goddamn country [Laos]. I want you to crawl on your belly, walk over mountains, wade through swamps, and tell me what operational conditions would be on the field-boot level. I don’t want you to come back and report on the cultural attributes of the country, crap that I can read in Life, Time, and Newsweek.”

33 years later Haffner published a gripping article, entitled “Reconnaissance in Laos” in the Marine Corps Gazette, of February 1992. I have permission from the Editor of the Gazette to quote extensively from this article. In his introduction to the 1992 article, the Editor of the Gazette at that time wrote:

“While many remarkable exploits of individual Marines have been well chronicled throughout the Corps’ history, an equal number have never been recounted beyond the immediate circle of those involved. This is such a story.”

I shall mention only a few of the many highlights of Haffner’s Reconnaissance.

In Bangkok, he left his entourage and proceeded alone to a small town on the Laos border:

“My disguise was quite simple. Since 1959 was a geophysical year and scientists were running all over the world investigating such things as the puckering of the earth under the influence of the moon and other such stuff, having had a college course in geography, I decided to pose as a scientist.

“I was also some sort of an artist and in my pack I had some art gear stowed, which I could pull out and give inquisitors the art angle if cornered. Of course, if I did get cornered by real scientists, I was going to feign ‘no speaka the language’ or something because I really did not have a scientist’s knowledge of geography.”

Before leaving Thailand, Haffner received the necessary inoculations given by a nurse who probably had no more than six weeks training. In a single shot she gave him inoculations for diphtheria, tetanus and typhoid. “I nearly died with convulsions and fever. I was laid up for four days in the hospital.”

Avoiding prowling tigers

“If no village could be found, I’d climb a tree at dusk, string my rope hammock between two limbs, rub myself with bug repellent, and hope the 10 feet or so between me and the ground would put me beyond the reach of any tigers that might happen to be on the prowl that evening. Nevertheless, even with bug repellent, leaches got to be real bad.”

Looking a King Cobra in the eye

After five days on the road, he finally reached the village of Sam Neua. Here he encountered a priest driving a steamroller to flatten the ground in front of his mission. The priest was jumping up and down, and screaming in French. The roller had caught the tail of an 8 or 10 foot King Cobra, which was swinging itself wildly in an arc, striking anything within range. Haffner shot at it with his pistol and missed.

“Suddenly there was a loud shot. The snake’s head popped open. Whirling around I saw a little teenage soldier grinning from ear to ear. He was cradling an M1 rifle almost as long as he was tall.”

[A King Cobra, the longest of all venomous snakes, can literally “stand up” and look a full-grown person in the eye.]

Uncomfortable ride on an elephant

“By the time I realized I was going in the wrong direction, a group of five elephants happened to come by…. I took out a 500 Kip note, pointed to it, then pointed to an elephant. The guy nodded, got his elephant down, and I got on its back.

“It’s not so bad riding on the head of an elephant, however, I was in the middle of his back with my legs spread out. It was one of the worst rides I have ever taken in my life. The elephant’s bristly hair went through my trousers and rubbed my legs raw.”

Finally, believing that he had gathered enough information to satisfy even Gen. Shoup, he caught a ride on the air attaché’s plane back to Bangkok, the starting point of his solo reconnaissance. He then returned to the United States by way Okinawa and Pearl Harbor, briefing Marine and Navy commanders on the way. His last stop was at Headquarters, US Marine Corps, where he delivered his final report.

Haffner had accomplished his mission, gathering information that would not have been available had he identified himself as a Marine Colonel.

After almost two months on the road, he finally returned to his home base, the 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton.

Following his retirement from the Marine Corps in 1962, Col. Haffner spent the better part of six years back in Laos, initially as a forward area programmer and later, as director of field operations for the whole country.

In addition to his numerous columns and magazine articles, Brig. Gen. Ron Van Stockum has published six books: Kentucky and the Bourbons: The Story of Allen Dale Farm, Squire Boone and Nicholas Meriwether: Kentucky Pioneers, Remem-brances of World Wars, Coming to Kentucky: Heaven is a Kentucky of a Place, My Father: British Sergeant Reginald Bareham (1894-1916) and the Battle of the Somme, and his latest La Maison de Charette de la Contrie. Copies can be obtained at Amazon.com by searching RON VAN STOCKUM, at Terhune’s Style Shop in Village Plaza, or by contacting him at ronvanstockum@mac.com.