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Ravens of Long Tieng

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

On January 27, 1973, the Paris Agreement on Vietnam was signed. U.S. military involvement in North and South Vietnam ceased. The prisoners of war started coming home, but the fighting in Laos didn't stop. The last outpost defending Long Tieng fell on February 22, 1975. An impromptu evacuation was masterminded by General Heinie Aderholt, who arranged for a motley fleet of aircraft including a C-130, C-46, and Pilatus Porter. He sent a helicopter to retrieve Vang Pao. Long Tieng was mobbed by villagers trying to get out--only a lucky few would leave. It would take two more years before all Hmong resistance would collapse.

That collapse was devastating to the Hmong--tens of thousands were killed by the communists during the next 10 years, and today, the Hmong who survived are on the bottom economic rung of a profoundly impoverished country. Many Hmong fled to refugee camps in Thailand. Many of those were eventually repatriated against their will, and others disappeared into Thailand as illegal immigrants. Some of the Hmong who escaped Laos came to the United States, but only a handful of backseaters who flew with the Ravens survived. One of them, Moua Fong, lives in Orange County, California. After the fall of Laos in 1975, he travelled on foot from Long Tieng through enemy lines, then swam the Mekong and spent four years in a Thai refugee camp.

The Hmong leader, Vang Pao, escaped and lives in exile in California. He still vows to return. The surviving Ravens meet for a yearly reunion at a hotel outside Randolph Air Force Base in Texas.

Laos today is a mix of old struggles and new economic trends. At the Xieng Khouang airbase there are eight MiG-21s stationed now instead of O-1s, but neither collectives nor state factories exist. Americans, and the economic development they bring, are welcomed in many parts of the country. Getting a business license in Laos takes two weeks--no hassle, no under-the-table payoff. In spite of economic setbacks in Asia, capitalism is slowly taking hold.

Long Tieng appears to be largely cut off from the changing economy. It remains forbidden and remote, strictly off-limits, and visible only from the air. "When I flew over Long Tieng, my breath just stopped--I didn't think I'd ever get to see it," says Gayle Morrison, who is writing a book about the hasty 1975 evacuation. "The airstrip is still there"although you have to know exactly what you're looking for. You have to know the ridgeline, what side of the plane to sit on"otherwise you wouldn't have any idea. There's a small settlement there but it's hard to tell if it's a military outpost or if it's a small village. The buildings in the CIA compound are still there". Because [seeing the base] was the culmination of 10 years of oral history on Long Tieng, I could look down and pick out exactly which buildings still stood and which didn't, being pretty confident about what I was seeing."

There are two daily flights over Long Tieng. "In between, the airspace is wide open, and nobody's watching [Long Tieng]," Morrison says. The only access to the village itself is by a single road.

"Some buildings [at Long Tieng] are being used, but some buildings were destroyed long ago," says Mai Sayavongs of the Washington, D.C. Embassy of the Lao People's Democratic Republic. "It no longer exists as a military base." Today, the area around Long Tieng is at the center of a United Nations-sponsored program aimed at assisting the Hmong to grow crops besides opium, Sayavongs says.

"[Information about Long Tieng] was forbidden so long to the international press, the U.S. [citizens] didn't know about it, Congress only sort of had a clue, it was denied in every possible way by the U.S. side," Morrison says, "And now there's not a war going on, but [Long Tieng] is still continuing in a weird and strange way." More than 20 years after the last American left, the former mountain stronghold of Vang Pao and the Hmong has lost none of its mystery.

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