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 3 of 6)
After a quick orientation flight, Lemon's checkout pilot left for Vientiane. Lemon found himself "alone in the Raven hooch, a new guy in a very strange world." The terrain was unlike anything he had seen in Vietnam. "At the north end, a ridge rose some 300 feet. We called that the 'vertical speedbrake' for obvious reasons," says former Raven Charles W. "Buddha" Hines. "Karst formations rose on the right at the south end, making approaches a hair-raising event, especially when the weather was bad."
The day Lemon arrived, he met the legendary General Vang Pao. At five foot five, he was tall for a Hmong. A small wart was the only distinguishing mark on his round, intense face. Vang Pao had fought with distinction alongside the French, and was lauded for his displays of leadership. He had been educated in the early 1950s at the French Police Academy in nearby Luang Prabang. Of 80 students, Vang Pao was the only Hmong. Treated badly by the lowlanders, Vang Pao got his revenge, graduating first in his class. Back among the high country tribes, Vang Pao became their Napoleon.
Vang Pao gave Lemon the first of his assignments. The enemy had been spotted cutting a road through heavy forest toward the general's outposts. The work on the road had to be stopped.
"Over the next two days, I flew five missions over that road with Thuy, a lieutenant in the Thai air force who spoke Lao," Lemon recalls. "Working under low cloud cover, using Lao T-28s, American A-1s [Skyraiders], and [U.S.] T-28 Trojans from NKP we killed three trucks and a bulldozer."
Vang Pao was quick to laud Lemon's performance on the missions. "I received a prize at dinner, a pig's ear, an honor Vang Pao reserved for the soldier who had turned in the day's best performance. I tried to be gracious, but chewing the gristly pig's ear wasn't much motivation as far as I was concerned."
This war was more intimate than the one pilots were accustomed to in Vietnam, with its bureaucratic rules. Both living with, and fighting alongside, the Hmong proved gratifying to many of the Ravens. "I think all of us very quickly developed sympathy with these people and threw a little bit more of ourselves into the war than what we were seeing perhaps in South Vietnam," Lemon says. "It only took you about a month or two to realize that this was an extraordinary mission."
The Ravens flew with Hmong observers, called backseaters, who provided the vital link with tribal ground forces operating under thick layers of jungle canopy. "You wanted to be very certain you understood precisely where the good guys and precisely where the bad guys were, particularly when the friendlies were under attack," Lemon says. "Once the [backseater] understood where he wanted the bombs, the next half of the job was conveying that to the fighter pilots who were going to drop the bombs--you did that with smoke rockets and language: 'You see the bend in the river? We want you [to drop] 200 meters directly west". Now watch my smoke.' "
Vang Pao himself flew several early flights with Lemon. Then on one mission their aircraft got shot up by small arms fire, and the CIA boss known simply as John decided Vang Pao was too valuable to risk flying more FAC sorties.