Ravens of Long Tieng

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

During the Vietnam War the air base at Long Tieng was a hub of Air America, Air commando, and Raven forard air control operations. (University of Texas-Dallas History of Aviation Collection)
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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.


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