Ravens of Long Tieng
In the remote highlands of Laos, U.S. Air Force pilots fought a secret war.
- By Ralph Wetterhahn
- Air & Space magazine, November 1998
University of Texas-Dallas History of Aviation Collection
(Page 2 of 6)
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."
After 20 minutes of flattery, the commander began to describe a unique posting. "It was a FAC assignment--he'd already convinced us we were the two best FACs in the Air Force--but the rest of it was mysterious," Lemon says. "We'd be operating special airplanes and working a separate and very important part of the war. Most intriguing, we'd be the experts. We'd run our own show. All we had to do was volunteer. There was no question about it--we were eager volunteers."
Soon, the two pilots were riding in a C-123 transport over the Mekong River to Vientiane. Young and Lemon, as well-trained and experienced FACs, brought an expertise missing at Long Tieng. Air Commando pilots, U.S. Air Force holdovers from other CIA covert operations in Southeast Asia, flew Pilatus Porters and used hand-dropped smoke grenades to mark targets, attempting to thwart the movement of supplies on the trail. But "as any FAC would know," Lemon says, "without smoke rockets, they were having trouble getting the mark down without taking a lot of hits." Lemon and Young were expected to change all that. The Air Commandos provided the necessary link between air and ground operations. "There was a need to somehow mesh the U.S. Air Force, with its supersonic jets, with these Iron Age tribesmen on the ground," says Roger Warner, an author who has studied Laos and the CIA's involvement there. "The way to do it was through the Air Commandos, who had a long-standing connection to the CIA in Laos and elsewhere, so there was a need that became very apparent--How do you get everyone working together? The Ravens were absolutely"a subset of the Air Commandos."
The Ravens usually had tours of six months to a year, but the Hmong were in for the long haul. The CIA had been operating in Laos since the early 1960s, quietly arming, training, and advising the upland hill tribes in their fight against the Pathet Lao. The Hmong and the lowland Lao are ancient rivals, and because the lowlanders were largely aligned with the Pathet Lao, who were helping North Vietnam maintain the Ho Chi Minh Trail, it was the Hmong that the CIA courted. The Hmong are a slash-and-burn society, raising pigs, growing rice and poppies, and selling the latter's extract as the raw material for opium and heroin. Like frontiersmen, the Hmong are always armed. The Hmong were facing increasing threats not only from the Pathet Lao but also from the North Vietnamese, who were both gaining territory in the Plain of Jars, a vast and tactically important area to the north that over the centuries had been the scene of countless battles between Laos and Vietnam.
When Lemon and Young arrived, they put on jeans, T-shirts, and bush or cowboy hats, and turned in their I.D. cards. As far as the Air Force was concerned, they vanished from official existence. The FACs used a network of bases in the mountains called Lima Sites, many of which were remote and harsh outposts set up by the CIA. "Long Tieng was an almost uninhabited valley when the CIA established it as a headquarters for [Hmong leader] Vang Pao in 1962," Warner says.
Despite its starkness, Lemon and Young found Long Tieng well prepared for military operations, a legacy of the Air Commando and CIA operations already under way there. The pilots' most pressing needs were to get acquainted with their new aircraft, which included the U-17, a military version of the Cessna 185 taildragger. Also on hand was the short-takeoff-and-landing Helio Courier, which the Air Force had operated since the late 1950s. Ravens would eventually fly the O-1 and the T-28 in their tenure at Long Tieng. In Vietnam, the widely used O-1 was followed by the pusher-puller Cessna O-2 and the high-performance North American OV-10 Bronco, designed specifically as a counter-insurgency/FAC platform. Despite the arrival of newer aircraft in Vietnam, the O-1 would remain the staple in Laos.
Lemon and Young began to prepare for operating as FACs in a new location, although their preparation was improvised. "My checkout in the U-17 was the flight up to Long Tieng, also referred to as 'Lima Site 20 Alternate' or 'Alternate,' " Lemon says. The U-17 was almost new, with only 400 hours on it. Eight rocket tubes were mounted on the wings, and inside was a backpack radio tied into an antenna on the top of the fuselage that let the pilot talk to the fighters. The U-17 was gray with no markings. "It had metal braces to hold the insignia on the side of the fuselage and a packet of metal flags so I could be part of any air force I wanted," recalls Lemon. Ravens communicated with Cricket, a C-130 command post that would direct fighters in the area to targets the Ravens marked.