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Smokejumpers to the Ravens (Part One)

by Gene Hamner (Missoula '67) |

"As the war dragged on, so the myth grew. Apparently, there was another war even nastier than the one in Vietnam. The men who chose to fight in it were handpicked volunteers, and anyone accepted for a tour seemed to disappear as if from the face of the earth.

"The pilots were military men, but flew into battle in civilian clothes. They fought with obsolete propeller aircraft and suffered the highest casualty rate of the Indochinese War—as high as 50 percent. Their job was to fly as the winged artillery of an army of Stone Age mercenaries in the pay of the CIA (Hmong), and they operated out of a secret city hidden in the mountains on the Red Chinese border. The pilots spoke of colleagues who had vanished into the highly classified operation codenamed the 'Steve Canyon Program.'

"Insiders who worked with them knew these pilots as the Ravens. The legend has become hazy, a half-remembered war story known only to a few veterans of Vietnam. 'The Steve Canyon Program? The Ravens—a weird bunch of guys who lived and fought out there in the jungle in the Other Theater somewhere. Hell, what was the name of the country?'"

— Excerpted from The Ravens: The Men Who Flew in America's Secret War in Laos, by Christopher Robbins.


It was December 1969, and both the war in Vietnam and the antiwar effort in the United States were in full swing. It certainly wasn't a great time to be in the military. Cries of "baby-killer!" and other terms, not to mention one-finger salutes, greeted just about anyone in uniform on the streets of American cities.

What was I doing at this time? I was enrolled in an Air Force pilot-training program, having volunteered for an assignment to Vietnam. December was when we put in our "dream sheets"—that is, when we requested assignments, including base and aircraft. We still had three months to go before graduation, but graduation was within our sights.

Asking for an assignment to Vietnam was crazy enough, but asking for a frontline flying assignment was just plain nuts, especially when there were relatively safe "trash-hauling" (cargo aircraft) assignments available, as well as super-safe instructor-pilot slots. But that wasn't in my blood. In any case, no matter what assignment one chose, sooner or later Vietnam was going to be any pilot's future. I wasn't married and figured it would be better to go now rather than later. The three months passed more quickly than I expected, and one day in March 1970, we assembled in the gym and were told that the assignments had been sent down.

Apprehension was thick in the air. As our names were called and the aircraft and base assignments given, shouts of joy and moans of disgust were heard. My assignment was an O-2 Skymaster to Vietnam. It wasn't a fighter, but it was one of my choices, so I couldn't complain. Orders to report to Cam Rahn Bay came down, along with additional orders to report first to Fairchild Air Force Base (AFB) near Spokane, Washington, for mountain-survival school, then to Eglin AFB in Florida for O-2 upgrade training. Following that, I would fly to Clark AFB in the Philippines for jungle-survival training.

After six summers with the U.S. Forest Service, including two summers of smokejumping, I was more than ready for any survival training the Air Force could give me. Many times on the fire line I had asked some of the ex-Special Forces and ex-Force recon guys about their survival training, and as a result, I was familiar with many edible forest delicacies.

As it happened, I aced my preliminary training. In the Philippines, I made my instructor teach me all that he could—what was edible and what to avoid. I ate whatever the guide gave me to eat. Most was not bad; I just had to get past any food prejudices. I wanted to put everything I could in my favor to survive. That included running barefoot a couple miles each day. I learned that the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) stripped captured soldiers of their boots, knowing that U.S. soldiers typically have tender feet and would therefore be more easily captured.

In August 1970, the DC-8 landed in Cam Rahn Bay, and I stepped out to take my first look at the country I thought was going to be my home for the next 53 weeks. I now know that I experienced what all those before me had experienced in those first few seconds: apprehension, fear, anxiety, and exhilaration. I think everybody at that moment believes they have titanium skin, and knows that whatever bad happens will happen to someone else.

The week of orientation passed quickly, with lectures about the war in South Vietnam, the country, and its people. Toward the end of the week, we were given a slide presentation about the various bases and told what to expect at each. High on the list of the most hazardous assignments was an assignment to the 23rd Tactical Air Support Squadron (23rd TASS) at Nakhon Phanom (NKP), Thailand. You virtually had no choice from this base but to direct your craft either east to the heavily defended Ho Chi Minh Trail (HCMT) or north to the beginning of the HCMT and a place up there called the "PDJ" (which stands for "Plaines des Jars"). All those places were defended with who-knows-how-many antiaircraft (AAA) guns. The most common guns along the trail were the quad-barrel 23-mm and the 37-mm AAA guns. An equally dangerous assignment was an assignment to Danang or Pleiku, where activity focused in the southern part of Laos. Least hazardous among the assignments were those close to the coast or down in the Mekong Delta.

"If You're Going To Go To War, Go Fight It"

There were a few of us who asked for NKP first and Danang second. I always say if you're going to go to war, go to fight it. After all the assignments were given out, a major came into the room and said there was one last thing to be included in our briefing. He mentioned there was an assignment to a classified location that took only the most motivated, most talented of the forward air controllers (FACs). The unclassified name was the "Steve Canyon Program." In order to qualify for this assignment, we had to meet certain requirements. We each needed a specified number of hours of actual FAC flying time in the next six months, as well as recommendations from everyone in our chain of command. Also, the applicant had to pass muster on each of several interviews. Not much else was said, and not many people even gave it a second thought. I was caught hook, line, and sinker.

Once again I volunteered for an exceptionally dangerous assignment, and for whatever reason, I was given the assignment to NKP over several of the other pilots. I was driven to my room to gather my belongings and taken to Base Ops, where I was put on the next airplane to Bangkok. Six hours later, I was sitting on a barstool down in the Patpong district of Bangkok. This was my idea of fighting a war. From there it was on to NKP.

NKP was both a Special Operations base and home to many very secret projects, such as the "Igloo White" program, which monitored movement along the HCMT. We arrived and got a ride to the 23rd TASS headquarters and signed in. Our call signs began with the word "Nail," and we were each given a number to complete the call sign. Mine was "Nail 68."

On September 6, 1971, I experienced the first of the 565 combat missions I would eventually fly. It lasted nearly an hour, before engine problems brought us home. That mission represented a fraction of the 1,396 combat hours that I would log over the next two years. Twenty-five days later, I had my combat checkout, and I was fully qualified.

Let me make it clear that nighttime FACing is no picnic. It's nice that the enemy can't see the aircraft and has to shoot at you by sound, but that didn't always make it hard for the gunners to be accurate. Like us, they got better as the dry season progressed. Sometimes the fighters as they checked in at night asked us to go "bright-flash." That is, they wanted us to turn on all the plane's lights and then quickly turn them off. If the fighters were looking in the right place, they could pick us up and get oriented. Of course, the enemy gunners could also get oriented. Nothing like seeing a clip of 23- or 37-mm fire coming up at you to make you want a cold can of beer to put the moisture back in your mouth. After some time in the night sky, we'd get used to the AAA coming up and could judge what AAA presented a hazard and required some maneuvering to avoid and what AAA was a clean miss. The real danger lay with the AAA that we couldn't see.

On some of these nights, when I was getting "hosed" by the AAA for my entire station time of three hours, I thought of that quiet assignment in some sleepy delta outpost in South Vietnam that I could have had. But whenever I had those thoughts, I would think of the briefing back in Cam Rahn Bay and what the major had said about the Steve Canyon Program. I would think about the hours that I had to acquire in the first six months if I wanted to apply for that next assignment. That would make me ask for more flying time. If I had time off, I would jump in the backseat of an OV-10 and get more hours.

Dry season in Laos lasts from October through February. During these months, North Vietnam was sending trucks down the HCMT in huge numbers. Finding them at night wasn't difficult. Getting fighters with the right kind of ordnance was the main problem. Avoiding all the ground fire was the second-biggest problem. On a typical mission, once the trucks were spotted, the gunners would begin shooting. By eavesdropping on our transmissions, they'd know that the trucks in their area had been spotted. From then until we left the area, it was a case of constant radio transmissions and a sky filled with fighters and AAA. It's hard to imagine now what it felt like sitting for three hours in a plane while airbursts of 23- and 37-mm shells were going off around. Sometimes the explosions were so close, I could see the glowing shrapnel passing over or near my plane. All the while I was talking to the fighters, giving briefings about a target, telling them where the safe bail-out areas were, or giving them corrections based on the previous bomb explosions. Sometimes, while one strike was in progress, a second or third set of fighters would check in, interrupting the flow of transmissions and causing momentary confusion. As a FAC, I had to handle it all. On top of that, I also had to fly the airplane so the navigator sitting to my right could stay oriented with the target, manage the fuel, and handle any problems in the aircraft. The exhilaration and adrenaline flow were so intense, time passed in a flash.

Staying Focused

When things were going smoothly, the whole thing seemed choreographed like some kind of bizarre ballet. Problem is, things seldom went smoothly. We would let our auxiliary fuel tanks run dry, causing the affected engine to quit momentarily. It seemed as if this only happened when we were the busiest. Such was a typical dry-season night in the life of a FAC flying over Uncle Ho's trail. The major's words that only the most motivated and qualified FACs would be considered for the Steve Canyon Program were all that kept me there, willing to sit in all that AAA and deal with all that stress.

During the dry season of 1971, the U.S. thought a South Vietnamese invasion of Laos to interdict the HCMT would be a strategic thing to do. The basic plan was fairly simple and straightforward. With the support of U.S. Army helicopters and bombers, South Vietnamese soldiers would be inserted into Laos on the top of mountains at locations known as "hard sites." From these positions, they would strike NVA trucks and troops. The invasion commenced on February 5, 1971. All went well for the first couple days before NVA resistance stiffened. In spite of U.S. projections, the South Vietnamese were not up to the task of fighting the NVA on their own turf.

I arrived at Quang-Tri on February 22, 1971, just as the situation for the South Vietnamese was getting desperate. Several of the forward operating bases in Laos were in danger of being overrun by the NVA. On my first mission, I arrived at one of the hard sites just as it was being overrun. I called for an AC-130 gunship (call sign, "Spectre") while directing several sets of F-4s in bombing runs on the NVA columns moving toward the site. Radio transmissions from the site were panicky, and I couldn't get specific target locations from the commander. Soon the calls were just screams, and the radio went silent.

Another night, I flew cover for a helicopter crew that had been shot down several days earlier. When I arrived, they reported they'd been out of food and water for a couple of days, and attempts to get supplies to them were hampered by the proximity of NVA troops. As we talked, the downed helicopter pilot reported that the NVA was closing in on his position. I called for a Spectre AC-130 gunship. After that request, AAA began lighting up the sky. It was some of the most intense AAA that I'd seen. As the fighters checked in, the intensity of the ground fire increased. I wanted to get all the fighters on- and off-target before the gunship arrived, because the two types of ordnance couldn't work together. It took all the months of experience my right-seater and I had to keep everything coordinated and moving smoothly. I hadn't worked in such close proximity to American soldiers before and certainly didn't want any ordnance to hit them. The next day, Roger Carter ("Nail 21") earned the Air Force Cross for his work in the successful rescue of the helicopter crew.

Reaching For The Brass Ring

February was the first month that I was qualified to submit a letter of application for the Steve Canyon Program, and I did. I talked to my squadron commander to be sure I would receive the support I'd need to begin the process. He was willing to help, but he cautioned me not to be overly optimistic. Many applicants were flatly rejected, he said, and many were selected and put through the training process only to be fired shortly thereafter. There weren't many who made the final cut. Because of our work in the airspace over Laos and exposure to the AAA, and because of the number of air strikes we directed, Nails were given priority consideration over in-country FACs.

I may not have been so optimistic had I known that only 21 Ravens served at any one time in Laos, and FACs were accepted only when a Raven was lost, or when someone was going home. (During the course of the war there were only about 160 Ravens in total.) I know all this now. Then I was just a wide-eyed (wild-eyed?) first lieutenant with a desire to do something I knew very little about.

The application was submitted, and I sat and waited. Weeks went by, then a month. Then I was notified that I would have an interview with someone at the Royal Thai AFB in Northern Thailand. I was to go with another Nail, named Randy, in the backseat of his OV-10 on an early-morning mission, and then we would rest at Udorn and prepare for the interview. The mission would be flown in the northern part of Laos, near the little town of Ban Ban, situated at the trailhead of the HCMT.

Exuberance was high, ignorance was higher, and luck would nearly run its course on this flight. We arrived over the area as trucks still in high-gear headed down the trail. Randy called for Tactical Air Command (TAC) and got it almost immediately. AAA was heavy and accurate. As we were rolling in for a rocket pass to mark the target, a 37-mm projectile exploded nearby and sent shrapnel into the right engine. As the OV-10 pulled off the target, the engine started giving Randy fits. We left the area, and Randy assessed the damage. He shut the engine down, and we limped back home on the remaining engine. No interview that day, just lots of beer and war stories.

Several days later, we flew to Udorn for the first of several interviews. This first one was just so that people in the Steve Canyon Program could get first impressions of us and gather some personal information. About a month later, a major came up to NKP to give me a check ride and to fly a combat mission. He may have been an excellent O-2 pilot, but he hadn't had much combat experience and certainly none over the trail. We flew the check ride in the late afternoon, switched aircraft to one set up for a night mission, and then took off. The major was calm and enjoyed the scenic flight over Western Laos. I checked into my working area, and right away we picked up some "movers" (trucks). The fighters checked in, and the guns began to shoot. It was a typical night for me, and the gunners didn't seem to be any more accurate than at any other time, so I probably appeared nonchalant about all the fireworks going off around us. The major had an entirely different perspective on this "suicide" mission. After a few minutes of observing the airbursts, he became very agitated, sweaty, and nervous. A few minutes more, and he yelled into the intercom for me to end the air-strike and return to NKP. He'd had enough. I faked engine problems and headed back to base. Once there, the major disappeared into the men's latrine as I went into the intel shop for the debrief. I never saw the major again, but my squadron commander did want to know "what the hell" I did on the mission that had the major so upset.

On July 1, 1971, I received official notification that I had been accepted into the Steve Canyon Program. Smokejumpers to the Ravens

Part Two—April Issue

See Smokejumpers to the Ravens (Part Two)