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
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.
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."
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.
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.
Lemon and his fellow Ravens also flew from other Lima Sites, especially LS-36, some 50 miles to the north of Long Tieng. Lemon flew frequently with Hmong Major U Va Lee. "His nickname was 'the Indian' because he looked more like a native of North America than an Asian," Lemon says. "He had one word of English, 'enemies,' and I only had a few words of French, Lao, and Hmong, but it was enough to get the job done."
Increasingly, the Ravens began to embrace the outrageous style they were becoming famous for, especially after a visiting Air Force general disgustedly branded them "Mexican banditos."
Wearing a decidedly unmilitary mustache, a Bowie knife on one leg, and a gold bar strapped to the other (to buy his way out of trouble), Fred Platt epitomized the type of pilot who signed up to be a Raven. He quickly gained a reputation among the Lao backseaters for his extraordinary daring. One of them, Vang Chieu, got his hand shot off flying with Platt. Another Platt backseater got his leg shattered by a round that came through the airplane's floorboard.
Platt would eventually crash 11 airplanes. He earned the nickname "Magnet Ass" for the amount of gunfire he attracted. When it came to accompanying Platt, "No fly, no die" became an unwritten motto among the Hmong. When the backseaters refused to go with him, Platt got approval to fly alone. But Platt liked company, so he began taking along a tame bear cub and at other times a pet anteater. "The anteater would just wrap himself around my arm as I flew," Platt says. "The bear sat wherever he wanted."
Some missions required human companions, however, and Platt sometimes had to search for a Hmong backseater to fly with. "They were just scared to death," former Raven Mike Cavanaugh remembers. "The backseaters hid behind the couch in their hooch when they saw Platt coming." Once Platt grabbed the couch and turned it over. "Two of them were hiding there," Platt says. "I hauled one of those guys out to go fly."
With a brand-new backseater, Platt found a cache of oil drums. Instead of waiting for fighters, he began shooting his marking rockets into them. Tracers streamed up from a 12.7-mm anti-aircraft gun. The airplane shuddered. Oil began to spew from the cowling. "Heavy fire, black smoke--shutting down the engine now," Platt radioed to Cricket. Platt flew toward a karst ridge, barely making it as an updraft lifted his O-1 at the last moment. In front of him was a wide valley with dikes and paddies. As he flared to land in a paddy, Platt noticed camouflage ahead, covering a sunken road that crossed his path. He tried to zoom over the depression but the airplane stalled, and its underbelly hit the far lip. Platt's harness snapped. He was hurled forward into a cockpit crossbar while his knees smashed into the instrument panel. The prop dug in, flipping the plane on its back. The two men hung upside down. When Platt came to, he unstrapped and fell onto a bed of broken plexiglass. Then he released the harness of his dazed backseater. The man fell on his head and began to moan.
Platt saw Pathet Lao troops coming over a hill, a half-mile away. When his backseater refused to move, Platt slung him over his shoulder and carried him, along with a machine gun, radio, map case, M-79 grenade launcher, and a bandolier of shells, as he dashed behind an earthen bank nearby.
While a full-scale search-and-rescue operation was being organized, Dave Anckleberg, the pilot of an Air America helicopter, heard what was going on and rushed to the scene. Platt had been on the ground for 30 minutes using his grenade launcher to keep the enemy at bay when he heard rotors. He saw Anckleberg's chopper settling down just behind his position. Platt dragged the backseater to the helo, giving him a boost into the cargo bay, then hopped aboard with some help from the crew chief.
Platt's nose was broken, his knees were badly bruised, and he had a spinal compression and a broken neck with seven hairline fractures. Back at Long Tieng that same night, he partied hard, then woke the next morning paralyzed. Raven Mike Byers folded Platt into the back seat of an O-1 and flew him to Udorn Air Base in Thailand. Thus began years of slow recuperation to regain the use of his arms and legs. To this day, he walks gingerly and is never without pain. His Lao backseater never flew again, preferring to return to the infantry.
By March 1969, another backseater, Moua Fong, had flown hundreds of missions with both Ravens and Lao T-28 pilots. While over the target area one day, the O-1 he was riding in came under heavy attack from ground fire. "The plane got shot through many times," he recalls. "I took a round in the right leg, below the knee." The pilot trimmed the plane, then helped stem the loss of blood. The O-1 began leaking fuel and the plane turned toward Sam Thong, Laos. On final approach, the engine quit. "The pilot dead-sticked the plane to a hard landing, and I was taken to the hospital."
Mike Cavanaugh flew with a favorite backseater the pilots named Scar, a second lieutenant about fifty years old. "He was very good on the radio. Scar would talk something like this: 'Many, many enemy to the north, many, many enemy to the south.' He wouldn't show you on a map; he would point. I couldn't see a damn thing; I knew he couldn't either, but he was convinced the enemy was there. I got to [where I] believed Scar. Many times he hit the jackpot and we did kill 'many, many enemy.' "
As each rainy season cleared, the Pathet Lao gained strength. Between 1967 and 1973, the United States became more willing to attack Laos in a decidedly uncovert manner, including B-52 raids. The amount of ordnance dropped on Laos surpassed the tonnage the Allies dropped in Europe during World War II. Conventional bombs equivalent to the destructive power of 20 Hiroshima-type weapons fell on tiny Laos each year. And still the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao poured south.
Raven John Wisniewski arrived in Long Tieng in late 1971. On his first flight in Laos he was struck by the rugged beauty of the mountains. As his O-1 approached the fabled Plain of Jars, he expected a breathtaking view. Instead, he came upon a moonscape. "Everything was bombed out," he says. "Everything was worked over with bombs."
The North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao continued to advance, and by late 1972 the Ravens were directing air support for three separate areas in the Laotian panhandle alone, not to mention for the continuing fight in the north, in the Plain of Jars, and all along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Hal Mischler, who was finishing his tour and had already shipped his effects home, was moved to Pakse in the south. A massive air campaign had begun against North Vietnam--Nixon's Christmas bombing--so no fighter-bombers were available for Laos.
On the morning of December 23, the town of Saravane near Pakse was under siege. Mischler took to the air in an O-1 with a backseater to help defend the town by himself. He dipped low trying to draw ground fire to locate the enemy position--"trolling for guns," as the ground commander would describe it later--when the O-1 was hit by flak. Flames licked their way into the cockpit. The backseater escaped the inferno by jumping from the plane, only to be cut in half on a brick wall. Mischler rode the plane in. His body was recovered by the friendlies at Saravane and flown back to Pakse. The next day, an A-7 clipped a wing strut on a Raven O-1. The pilot, Paul V. "Skip" Jackson, spun to his death, becoming the last Raven to make the supreme sacrifice.
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.