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Ravens of Long Tieng

In the remote highlands of Laos, U.S. Air Force pilots fought a secret war.

It all shows in the grainy photograph--the short landing strip, the limestone karst jutting up at one end, the mountains and ridges rimming the base, and the shacks and buildings scattered along both sides of the runway. One of those shacks is the hooch where the forward air controllers known as Ravens drank every night. One is the home and headquarters of the Laotian Hmong leader, General Vang Pao. Another is the CIA operations shack that burned in 1971 when a U.S. Air Force F-4D dropped cluster bombs on the base by mistake.

From This Story

During my first tour, I was at Ubon, Thailand, flying combat missions in F-4 Phantoms. From August 1966 to February 1967, I must have flown over the base at Long Tieng a hundred times without ever seeing it. Long Tieng is in the north central highlands of Laos, a remote, ominous territory, where the tribal Hmong scrape a living from the steep slopes and jungle ravines. A tiny settlement, it became, in the 1970s, the mountain stronghold of the Hmong, their CIA bosses, and the Ravens. Nowadays, the CIA and the Ravens are long gone, but the Hmong are still there.

During the Vietnam War, operations in Laos were a rumor, a legend. For us, the country was a bomb dump, a place to go when the weather was too bad for attacks over North Vietnam. Soon, however, word began to filter out to pilots in Vietnam and Thailand that there was "another theater," one where there was no higher echelon, no rank, and few rules. We heard about other pilots flying Cessna O-1s and North American T-28s out of places with exotic names like Luang Prabang, Xieng Khouang, Pakse, and Long Tieng. Fighter pilots are by nature independent and aggressive, and those mysterious bases had an allure for those who liked the idea of fighting a high-risk, no-bullshit war.

As my first tour was finishing, the war in Laos--and Long Tieng's role in it--began to mushroom. By the time I flew overhead again in 1970, flying A-7 Corsairs while on exchange duty with the Navy, the base was running full bore and 40,000 people lived there. Our missions in the A-7 were to interdict roads, bridges, and truck parks in an attempt to stop the flow of men and arms coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which snaked through Laos and Cambodia and into South Vietnam. We'd launch from the USS America, fly across South Vietnam, then enter Laos and contact the Ravens, who, while flying circles in slow O-1 Bird Dogs, would mark our targets with smoke from white phosphorous rockets. We would roll in and unleash our stick of 500- or 1,000-pound bombs, then watch as the O-1 dipped low to check our accuracy. After the pilot radioed his report, the O-1 would vanish into the gray-green backdrop of Laos, toward a rugged area of craggy peaks and deep valleys.

Even after two combat tours in Vietnam and a year flying from Thailand, I've never seen the base they returned to. I tried this year, but was prevented by the Lao government--members of a tour group had been ambushed recently, some of them murdered, and there had been reports of isolated fire fights in the vicinity between the Hmong and government forces.

My wife Carol, who had assisted Laotian refugees settling in the United States, eventually introduced me to Gayle Morrison, a historian who has studied the Hmong since 1977. The secret, ramshackle base is there in Morrison's collection of photographs, proof--to me, anyway--that the hair-raising combat accounts and often touching stories I've heard about Long Tieng really happened.

The war in Laos was the biggest clandestine operation ever run by the CIA. Most Americans first began to hear about Laos in 1961, at a time when that country's neighbor to the east, Vietnam, was equally unknown. U.S. aid had been flowing into Laos since 1954, the year French forces fell at Dien Bien Phu. That defeat resulted in the Geneva accord that divided Vietnam, giving all territory above the 17th parallel to the communist Viet Minh. One intent of the settlement was to assure that Laos, at the time ruled by a king whose bloodline was centuries old, remained an independent country. But the Laotian border with North Vietnam, the scene of conflict for centuries, continued to prove porous to incursions and influence. Communist-aligned Pathet Lao guerrillas within Laos became even more emboldened by the victory of their longtime Viet Minh sponsors across the border in North Vietnam.

Much of the U.S. aid money infusing the Royalist government was siphoned off by corrupt military officials. Angered by this graft, a relatively low-level officer in the army, Kong Le--a paratroop battalion commander--staged a coup and took over the capital city, Vientiane. Within days, Laos became a fragile coalition of murky allegiances and factions. The Pathet Lao took advantage of the confusion and expanded their influence and territory, and North Vietnamese operatives infiltrated the loose government Kong Le had cobbled together. Military analysts in the Pentagon openly discussed an invasion to restore stability to the small nation, which now threatened to become a cold war flashpoint--the Pathet Lao and Viet Minh were supported heavily by the Soviet Union. However, over the next year, during which an ongoing Geneva conference attempted to restore peace in Laos, and the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba ended disastrously, the focus began to shift to Vietnam, which, to U.S. strategists, had become the more logical place to mount resistance to communist expansion in southeast Asia. In November 1961, U.S. advisors and troops were sent to South Vietnam, shortly after a formal agreement was reached in Geneva designed to keep Laos neutral. By October 1962, all U.S. and Soviet advisors and troops had left Laos--except for those who went underground.

Covert operations in Laos included the CIA's Air America helicopter and fixed-wing cargo programs, and came to include a new initiative that was named the Steve Canyon Program, after the legendary comic strip aviator. Steve Canyon began at the behest of the U.S. ambassador to Laos, William Sullivan, who wanted to hold off the North Vietnamese army as it continued to develop the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Pilots selected for the assignment--who would soon get the radio callsign Ravens--were to be excellent forward air controllers, or FACs, with combat experience. The first of these were two clean-cut and eager Air Force fliers stationed at Nakhom Phanom (NKP) Air Base in Thailand but assigned to temporary duty at Khe Sahn in South Vietnam. First Lieutenants Jim F. Lemon and Truman "T.R." Young flew O-1 Bird Dogs along the demilitarized zone between South and North Vietnam, providing forward air control for strikes by fast-moving jets. They also flew missions inserting and extracting U.S. special forces teams into Laos. Operating mostly on their own, they led a maverick existence during the day and a reveler's at night.

For Lemon and Young, the new assignment began when their commander called them into his office after they returned to NKP in 1967. "He started by congratulating us on the good results we'd obtained at Khe Sahn and telling us the report from the major at Khe Sahn about our rat-racing [unauthorized acrobatics] in the Bird Dog would not be included in our records," says Lemon, who today works for the defense contractor Raytheon. "Also, the business about the broken furniture during our homecoming party wouldn't leave NKP. He said all that hadn't bothered him because he liked our spirit."

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