The Thai Police Aerial Reinforcement Unit (PARU) 1954 – 1974

The Thai Police Aerial Reinforcement Unit (PARU) 1954 – 1974. Despite it’s innocuous sounding name, the unit was an extremely well trained special operations unit that was raised by the CIA and served with distinction during the ‘Secret War’ in Laos during the Vietnam conflict.

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For the special operations insignia collector, Thailand’s myriad of airborne and special warfare units presents a seemingly endless variety of badges to collect. A trip to the military and police regalia suppliers clustered around the Thithong Road area in Bangkok can be overwhelming as each shop appears to offer their own unique variations of the official parachutist wing patterns. It will be an impossible task to try to collect all the Thai jump-wing insignia and I gave up many years ago as I began to narrow my focus to specific conflicts or units.

I am still chasing some of the older Thai wings, including the rarely found first pattern Army wing that was awarded in the 1950’s and early 60’s, but it remains a ‘holy grail’ insignia for me and is rarely seen in the marketplace.

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Early ARMY pattern Thai parachutist wings. These wings appear to be hand made by a silversmith and appear to be issued until sometime in the early 1960’s. They are sometimes seen on the dress uniforms of early American advisors to the Royal Thai Army. I am still trying to find an example of this badge for my collection. If you can help, please contact me.

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The Police Aerial Resupply Unit (PARU) of the Royal Thai Police is the one Thai unit that still remains within my collecting focus, although I do restrict myself to insignia from its formation up until 1974. Its innocuous sounding name was a deliberate act to disguise the role and function of this elite special operations unit that was in fact sponsored by the CIA and was one of the first clandestine groups deployed into Laos, way back in 1960.

After Mao’s victory in China in 1949, the USA became increasingly concerned about the spread of communism in South East Asia. In response to fears that the Chinese could invade Thailand, the CIA set up a station in Bangkok and in August 1950 arranged to train selected members of the Royal Thai Police, who were seen as more reliable than the army, in counter-insurgency tactics.

In March 1951, James William “Bill” Lair, a CIA paramilitary officer arrived in Thailand for this, his first assignment. With the assistance of the Agency’s front organisation, Southeast Asia Supply Company (SEA Supply) which would later be operating out of an office on the infamous Patpong Road, Lair identified an old Japanese camp at Lopburi to be used as the training camp. The course was designed to run for 8 weeks and included unconventional warfare and parachute training. The initial cadre of 50 volunteers came from the police but later recruits came from all branches of the Thai military as well as the police. The graduating groups were initially called the Territorial Defence Police, but these later became known as the Border Patrol Police.

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James William “Bill” Lair, CIA Special Activities Division officer and founder of the Royal Thai Police force’s Police Aerial Resupply Unit (PARU) wearing his uniform that denotes his rank as a Lt. Col. in the Royal Thai Police. Note the PARU First Class parachutist qualification on his chest.

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As the threat of Chinese communist invasion subsided the program was threatened with cancellation which concerned Lair as the ‘knowledge base’ which had been developed would be diluted if the units were broken up and the men dispersed across the country. Pressure was also being exerted to turn the base, named Camp Erawan, at Lopburi over to the Royal Thai Army. In response Lair managed to convince the US Embassy and the Director-General of the Thai National Police Department, General Phao Siyanon to turn the force into an elite special operations unit. General Phao eagerly accepted the proposal as it would provide him with a militarised force that could counter the other two strongmen in the Government at that time, Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram and General Sarit Thanarat. Phao’s only condition was that Lair be a serving Police officer and after permission was granted by the US Government, Lair was appointed a Captain in the Royal Thai Police.

Lair then selected 100 personnel from the previous 2000 course graduates to undertake advanced instruction at their new base, next to King Bhumibol’s  Summer Palace at Hua Hin on the coast. This was then followed by a further 8 months of  training including offensive, defensive and cross-border operations, before some of these volunteers in turn became the cadre responsible for training new recruits. On 27 April 1954, King Bhumibol attended the official opening ceremony of their base, Khai Naresuan at Hua Hin and that date subsequently became recognised as the unit birthday.

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His Majesty King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit at the shooting range during one of their many visits to Border Patrol Police compound at Khai Naresuan. Photo: Border Police Collection, courtesy the late Professor Des Ball AO.

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By 1957, the unit which consisted of two rifle companies and a pathfinder company, commanded by Captain Lair himself, was called Royal Guards. However, in September of that year a coup was mounted by Army General Sarit Thanarat and Police General Phao was sent into exile. Lair’s unit which was seen as being loyal to Phao faced being disbanded but managed to survive due to perceived support from the King and in early 1958 was rebranded as the Police Aerial Reinforcement Unit (PARU). The intention was to eventually integrate the PARU into the Royal Thai Army and their headquarters was moved to Phitsamulok in Northern Thailand, although they still maintained their Hua Hin base, Camp Naresuan, as well.

It was also at this time that the unit became more closely involved with the CIA’s international operations, rigging parachutes for weapons drops to insurgents in Indonesia, and pallets of weapons for delivery to the anti-Chinese resistance in Tibet. Then, early in 1960, PARU’s pathfinder company was sent to the Thai-Lao border to gather intelligence from the ethnic minority groups straddling the border region.

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1960’s era Royal Thai Police parachutist qualification wings. These are the ‘downswept’ wing type which bears some similarity in overall shape to Royal Thai Army wings, but with significant differences to the RTA wings. Top: Third Class (6 to 29 static line jumps). Bottom left: Second Class (30 to 64 static line jumps). Bottom right: First Class (65 or more static line jumps). Note that in subsequent years other classes of parachutist wings have been added, notably a freefall wing featuring two stars on the wings and a ‘Tower jump’ wing which is for (non-PARU) police officers who complete jump tower training but do not undertake any descents from an aircraft. Variations of these qualifications exist in both metal and cloth embroidery. Collection: Julian Tennant
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Two 1960’s era variations of the Royal Thai Police Parachutist wing, Third Class. Collection: Julian Tennant

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In August 1960, Laotian paratroop officer, Kong Le led his unit on a coup which overthrew the Royal Lao Government. Many of Lair’s PARU troops were Thai citizens, but of Lao origin and could seamlessly blend into the Lao population, so permission was given for Lair and five teams of PARU to join the ousted Lao head of state (and General Sarit’s first cousin), Phoumi Nosavan, to prepare for a counter coup. The five man PARU teams spread throughout Phoumi’s forces providing a radio network able to communicate with Lair who was headquartered in Savannakhet and these were instrumental in the successful counter-coup of 14 December 1960. Lair then moved to Vientiene and the PARU’s long involvement in the ‘Secret War’ in Laos followed.

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“Upcountry Meeting”, a painting by Dru Blair from the CIA’s Art Collection which shows a meeting somewhere in remote northeastern Laos between Bill Lair and Hmong commander Vang Pao. Image courtesy of CIA.gov

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In January 1961, Bill Lair made contact with Hmong hill-tribe commander, Lt. Col. Vang Pao and three groups of five PARU commandos were inserted around the Plain of Jars to train his forces. By the middle of the year of the 550 strong PARU unit, 99 of its commandos were operating in northern Laos and Hmong special operations teams were being trained by the PARU back in Hua Hin. Funding for this was provided by the Programs Evaluation Office of the CIA under the code name Operation Momentum and eventually resulted in a clandestine army of 30,000 Hmong under Vang Pao’s command which included the battalion sized Hmong Special Guerrilla Unit and also a 30 man cadre from the Laotian paramilitary Directorate of National Co-ordination (DNC).   

In 1963 the PARU was coming under pressure from the army controlled government who had allowed the unit to continue to exist on the premise that it would be integrated into the Royal Thai Army. A joint Police-Army Special Battalion was to be stationed at the PARU camp in Phitsanulok, with the commander being Army Special Forces and two deputy commanders, one from PARU and one from Army Special Forces. The intention was to eventually integrate the entire PARU into the battalion, but the PARU resisted integration and kept the bulk of its manpower at Hua Hin.

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PARU Instructor Cadre at Hua Hin, circa 1962-3. Photo: J. Vinton “Vint” Lawrence
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Vietnam War period, Police Aerial Reinforcement Unit patches. Collection: Julian Tennant
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CIA Special Activities Division paramilitary officer “Vint” Lawrence in Laos circa 1964. Note the metal PARU wings worn on the beret. Photo: J. Vinton “Vint” Lawrence

In 1964 it began training Cambodian and Laotian troops in commando and guerrilla warfare techniques at Hua Hin. The PARU also remained active in Laos and its training mission was expanding both in Thailand and also in northern Laos. It was also conducting reconnaissance and raiding operations along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Inevitably, the tempo of operations began to take its toll on the unit and towards the end of the decade, a retraining programme needed to be implemented to rebuild the unit into a 700 man battalion composed of ten detachments. In addition, by 1969, the unit had developed air and sea rescue sections as part of its role. The former providing a capability similar to that of the USAF Pararescue, locating and picking up downed aircrew within Laos.     

PARU certificate and wing
Vietnam war period Thai PARU Parachutist certificate and wing. The First Class parachutist badge is awarded after the completion of 65 static line jumps.
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Vietnam War period Police Parachutist First Class variations in bullion and cloth embroidery. Collection: Julian Tennant

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By the early 1970’s Thailand’s attention had begun to shift to the threat posed by the Khmer Rouge insurgency on the Cambodian border and PARU teams conducted several reconnaissance missions into the Khmer Republic. In 1973, thirteen years after first deploying to Laos the last PARU teams departed that nation. Then as Thailand started to grapple with its own communist insurgency it began conducting operations with the Border Patrol Police to combat insurgents in the south of the country, an area where it is still active today. Since 1974 much has changed for the PARU, including the establishment of the Royal Thai Police Special Operations Unit “Naraesuan 261” under its auspices in 1983. This specialist counter terrorist unit has been involved in several hostage release operations since its formation and is also responsible for providing specialist executive protection teams for the Thai Royal family and visiting dignitaries. However, as my focus is related to the PARU’s activities up until the mid-1970’s I will save the post-1974 years for a future article.  

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Embroidered variations of the Royal Thai Police parachutist wings including the ‘Special Class’ freefall qualification (with the two stars on the wings) at the bottom of the picture. I suspect that these insignia may date from the 1980’s. There are literally dozens and possibly over one hundred manufacturer variations of Thai parachutist insignia as military and government regalia suppliers is a thriving cottage industry.  For the Vietnam War period collector the challenge is always trying to ascertain which insignia is wartime period and what has been produced in subsequent years, particularly as the materials used in their manufacture has a tendency to tarnish or fade quite quickly if not stored appropriately and as a result often looking older than they actually may be. Provenance is the key for original Vietnam War period items.

 

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His Majesty, King Bhumibol during a visit to the BPP in the 1960’s. Note that the Royal Thai Police First Class parachutist badge on his chest does not appear to have the star in the wreath. Photo: Border Police Collection, courtesy the late Professor Des Ball AO.

 

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African Special Operations Insignia #1 – The Namibian Police Special Reserve Force

African Special Operations Insignia #1 – The Namibian Police Special Reserve Force is s the first in a series of articles looking at the insignia worn by various African nation’s airborne and special operations units,

This is the first in a series of articles looking at the insignia worn by various African nation’s airborne and special operations units. Please like and follow the page to be kept updated of future installments.

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The Special Reserve Force (SRF) is a specialist SWAT type unit within the Namibian Police Force (Nampol), tasked with responding to high risk operations that cannot be handled by conventional police units. It is based on the South African Police Service Special Task Force (which will be the subject of a future article). The SRF were initially designated the title Special Task Force when first raised as an adjunct to the Namibian Police Special Field Force, a somewhat notorious paramilitary police unit, that at the time was comprised largely of ex combatants from the former People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN), the military wing of SWAPO and former South West African Territorial Force (SWATF) personnel. In 1996 the Nampol Special Task Force was disbanded but then reformed in the late 1990’s, early 2000 and renamed the Special Reserve Force. The unit, which is also sometimes referred to as the Special Reserve Force Division (SRFD) operates out of the National Police Headquarters at Windhoek and is believed to number around 300 personnel. Working alongside other agencies, their role includes crowd control, VIP protection, hostage resolution, counter terrorism plus search and rescue operations.

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Nambian Police Special Reserve Force Division members showing the various tasks undertaken by the SRF during a visit to the Groot Aub Junior Secondary School south of Windhoek in March 2017. Note the ‘interesting’ contraband items on display. Photo: Dirk Heinrich

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Members of the Namibian Police Special Reserve Force Division deployed to regain control in the town of Okakarara after a group of residents stormed the police station on 12 August 2018. Photo: Namibian Broadcasting Corporation News

Service with the Special Reserve Force Division is open to both male and female police officers who have to complete selection and a six week training cycle, which is held at Khan Mine, a disused copper mine about four hours’ drive east of the capital Windhoek. The training programme includes marksmanship, hostage negotiation, tactical roping, CQB skills and riot control. Upon successful completion the new members are permitted to wear a black beret, SRF qualification badge and a distinctive camouflage uniform, which according to the dress regulations on the Namibian Police Force website, may only be worn by members of the SRFD. Qualified operators can also volunteer to undertake diver and parachute training, with the latter being permitted to wear a special variation of the SRF badge to identify them as being para qualified.

Nampol Dress Regulations for Special Reserve Force members work dress.
Nampol Dress Regulations for Special Reserve Force members work dress showing their distinctive camouflage uniform and black beret.

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Namibia Police Special Reserve Force qualification badge (top) and SRF parachute qualified (bottom). These insignia are worn on the SRF uniform no.6: Work Dress. Photo: Julian Tennant

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Nampol Special Reserve Force policeman receiving shooting instructions from a member of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) during a United Nations deployment. Note the Namibia Police ‘tupperware’ insignia on his left shoulder.

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American murder suspect, Marcus Thomas being escorted by members of the Special Reserve Force after a failed prison escape attempt in 2014. The SRF qualification patch and ‘tupperware’ Nampol shoulder insignia can be seen on the policeman pushing the wheelchair.

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Nampol Special Reserve Force Division riot squad confront protesters against gender based violence at confront protesters trying to deliver a petition against gender based violence at the national Parliament building in Windhoek on 08 October 2020. The SRF qualification patch can be seen being worn on the black body armour of the officer in the top left corner. Photo: Namibian Broadcast Corporation News

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Namibian police including members of the SRFD march through the streets of Ondangwa in preparation for a graduation parade from the Danger Ashipala Training Police Centre. 30 October 2020.

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If you like what you see here, please FOLLOW this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right.  I try to post NEW content as often as possible and knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to set aside time to go through my archives and collection in order to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook  and Instagram pages

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