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Smokejumpers to the Ravens (Part Two)

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.


In the January issue, Gene Hamner (MSO-67) recounted his approach to combat. See Smokejumpers to the Ravens (Part One). A newly minted Air Force pilot in the spring of 1970, Hamner requested this dangerous assignment. His philosophy: "If you're going to go to war, go fight it." After a year over Laos, he learned he'd been accepted into what was known as "the Steve Canyon Program," a redoubtably elite unit created by the CIA to help carry out its so-called "secret war" in Laos. Hamner thus embarked on his career as a "Raven"

"Elation" doesn't nearly describe how I felt. On August 15, 1971, I was standing in front of the commander getting a quick briefing of what he expected from me. He told me this was the last time I would wear an Air Force uniform until I left the program and arrived back in the States. I was to send anything military home, and my military ID would be taken from me when I reached the embassy in Vientiane, Laos. He also asked that I not do like all the Ravens before me and let all this "I'm civilian, so you can't touch me" stuff go to my head. Of course I said "Yes sir," not even beginning to comprehend what he was saying. By the time I left the Ravens, I knew.

The people in the Steve Canyon Program wanted to do more than just spend a year in Vietnam, throw some rockets and bombs around the jungles, and go home. We actually wanted to fight the war. When we volunteered for the program, few of us knew what we were actually volunteering for. We signed out of the Air Force and became civilians. Most of us were in our mid-twenties when we gave up our uniforms and were given airplanes, told what the objective was, and then turned loose with very little supervision.

We spent months as Ravens, finding targets, supplies, enemy troops, and boats; seeing fellow Ravens get killed because they went beyond the reasonable limits; and working with CIA people who passed targets on to us over beers at night. The list goes on and on. We volunteered to help the Laotians, Hmong, and other ethnic groups, because they were helping the U.S. That is a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of a few guys in their twenties.

We often experienced problems when we encountered uniformed people. They took umbrage at the fact that we fought the war in Levis and t-shirts. They didn't like our hair, which we'd let grow way beyond military standards. Many didn't like the fact that we answered only to the embassy in Laos. In my opinion, the military hates people in the Special Ops world whom they can't control. The pressure got to all the Ravens, who flew daily on the edge. Many typically drank hard at night. Doing so in Vientiane with Air America pilots and other civilians was fine, but kicking back in Udorn or Bangkok only added to the image others had of us as wild renegades. Several times toward the end of my tour with the Ravens, I reflected on what the colonel had said to me in that initial briefing, and I realized that I had changed like all the others before me.

As soon as I left the colonel's office, I was given an operating manual for the O-1. I was scheduled to start the checkout beginning the next day. I flew twice a day, and the checkout in the O-1 Birddog was completed quickly. Afterwards, I was issued a CAR-15 rifle. Then I walked over to Air America's ops office to arrange for a ride to Vientiane, Laos.

After a 30-minute trip, the helicopter landed near the embassy. As I deplaned, I noticed some unknown person taking my picture from a distance. One of the crewmen on the helicopter said the man was a French communist photographer, and my picture would shortly be on file with the KGB, the NVA, the PL (Pathet Lao, the Laotian version of the Viet Cong), and the Chinese. I got a ride to the embassy, where I was issued an embassy card. They took my military ID and locked it in a safe. I was made to sign a letter stating that my cover while in Laos was that I worked for the Laotian Forest Service. As I was probably the only Raven who held a degree in forest management, I knew I'd be more than able to spout that cover story with a straight face.

I was given a short tour of the embassy and then taken to the Raven "safe house" near downtown Vientiane. I picked a bunk, threw my things on it, and went outside to look around. It was late afternoon, and Ravens working the area around Vientiane later showed up. After brief introductions, we hopped in their jeep and headed downtown for initiation.

The next day, I left Vientiane on a C-123 and flew up to my area of operations at Luang Prabang (LP). As I stepped off of the C-123, I thought about the day that I'd stepped off the DC-8 at Cam Rahn Bay. That was a thousand miles away and an eon ago. The person who stepped off that DC-8 no longer existed. This day, I had no idea what the future would hold.

The Future Is Now

I met the AOC commander and the Laotian ground crew. We drove into LP, where our compound was located. After settling in, I had to prepare my maps of the area, load many clips of M-16 ammo, and pack a personal "survival" bag consisting of more ammo, extra water, grenades, flares, and CBU bomblets (which we tossed down at enemy soldiers when we caught them in the open). What a bizarre experience. The next day, I flew with the departing Raven, whose spot I was taking. He took me on a tour of the various airstrips we used (also called "Lima Sites"), and we met the CIA case officers who ran them. Two days later, after putting in several flights of T-28 aircraft on targets, I was checked out. Initially, I flew the area close to LP. As that area became familiar, I moved farther north.

One day, I was operating not far from Dien Bien Phu and found some camouflaged supplies. I requested several flights of T-28s from LP. The first T-28 dropped two 500-pound bombs that set off a secondary explosion and sent a fireball more than 1,500 feet in the air. The concussion from that explosion sent the T-28 nearly out of control. As I worked the other planes, there were more explosions, some even more violent than the first. Some bombs weren't on-target, and as foliage blew off trees and the ground, more supplies were exposed. I was running short on fuel and had a long flight back to LP, so I returned to base and that night passed the target on to another Raven, named Brad.

The next morning, I flew the O-1 to Udorn to get another Birddog. I was gone three days. When I returned, I asked Brad about the supplies. He replied he hadn't been up there. I couldn't believe that he would leave such a target alone for so long, so the next morning I went straight up to that location. Most of the remaining supplies were gone. I couldn't see how they all could have been moved in such a short period of time.

As I pondered the mystery, I called on my experience as a forestry major designing logging roads and surveying forests in the redwood forests of Northern California. I also summoned my experience as a smokejumper traversing the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. These 5-foot-two, 120-pound men could only do so much in order to get the supplies on boats and move them downriver, I reasoned. There had to be an endpoint where they could unload the boats and move the supplies. They didn't have any roads, only trails, so I concluded that water buffalo would be the likely means of transportation. I only needed to look for large herds of the animals and a place with access to the river. As I flew downriver, I saw that they had sunk the boats and hid them under the grass. Nearby, I found trails running up the creek beds and under the jungle canopy. As I followed the trails, I came to a valley with many caves. Everything was well-hidden and well-camouflaged.

I sat on the target for a couple days, not getting too close and not flying by too often. As I watched from a distance, I saw that a buffalo herd began to build in numbers. I knew that most of the supplies had been brought in now, and the PL was getting ready to move them from the river and caves. I put a request in to the embassy for what we called Papa Whiskeys (early versions of the smart, laser-guided bombs) for the caves. The F-4s arrived on time, early in the morning. I got a good mark in the mouth of the largest cave and backed off to let them set up. The laser-guided bomb hit in the mouth of the cave, setting off both a series of secondary explosions and a rockslide that covered the mouth. Shortly afterward, a huge explosion blew the rocks away, exposing the mouth again. Many secondary explosions continued for a long time after the initial explosion. Even the F-4 pilots were excited about the extent of the bomb damage. There was a notable lack of enemy activity along the river and the area north of LP for many weeks after those strikes.

"We Considered The Mission A Complete Success"

As we discussed the number of boats the enemy used to move supplies, we formulated a plan to take advantage of the low stratus clouds that covered the Nam Ou river in the early-morning hours. It was decided that one of us would take an O-1 up the river at first light, flying under the stratus. The pilot would look for the boats, counting on total surprise to catch them on the river. As soon as they were sighted, the O-1 pilot would fire a rocket at or near the boats to get the people to jump overboard. As soon as the stratus burned off, the T-28s would come up and destroy the boats.

We were on the flight-line well before first light. My colleague Doc was going to lead the strike flight of T-28s when the clouds cleared sufficiently. When I could see well enough to fly under the stratus, my Laotian interpreter climbed in the backseat, and we took off. As I approached the Nam Ou, I dropped down to about 50 feet, well under the clouds, and turned up the river. Surprise was everything. If they had time to get to shore and get ready for me, I was going to be a sitting duck as I flew by them at 80 knots.

I was literally on the edge of my seat peering into the dim light ahead of me. I made a wide turn around one bend and spotted many boats ahead. Slamming the throttle full forward to give me all the speed my bucket of bolts would allow, I fired the first rocket, then jinked hard left and right so I would be a difficult target to hit. The second rocket hit much closer to the boats than the first, and it produced the results we had expected. The people in the boats jumped in the water, and now the boats were freewheeling down the river and jamming up on the rocks. Suddenly, I heard automatic weapons fire, and I banked hard, waiting to hear the bullets hitting our aircraft. Nothing happened. Turning around, I saw that Seo (my backseat interpreter) had unstrapped himself and had taken my CAR-15, stuck it out the window, and was firing at the people along the bank and in the water. Maybe he had seen too many John Wayne movies at night at the Raven hootch. I was praying once again, but this time I was praying that he didn't hit the wing strut, the landing gear, or the tail while he was shooting. I called Doc and gave him a brief rundown of the situation. He brought in the strike flight of T-28s. We considered the mission a complete success, and we eagerly planned the next.

Causing "A Stir"

Another "boat kill" mission had some interesting international implications. A CIA agent named Chip asked to go along with us this day. We paralleled the Nam Ou river, and I saw about five or six boats in the river just ahead of me. I fired in a spray pattern, forcing people to bail out of the boats. Chip was not prepared for my action and seemed agitated. I knew why: Directives from the agency specifically prohibited any employee from flying combat missions unless approved by the CIA's station chief prior to the flight. When Chip asked to come along, I told him that we were just going to recon a suspected POW camp and the river. I didn't say anything about engaging in low-level strafing runs just 10-15 miles from Dien Bien Phu. Chip asked that I leave his name off of any report.

We landed, and he jumped out of the plane. I took off and headed back to the target. Upon returning, I taxied into the parking area, and there was Chip pacing the tarmac. Even before I shut the engine down, he was on the wing asking questions about the boats, the coordinates, and what else I saw. He didn't give me any explanation. After dinner that night, he took me into the agency's intel room and grilled me some more. Now I was nervous.

The next day, the embassy wanted me to go to the CIA intel bunker again and answer more questions. I was asked only about the Chinese. Later I found out why. It turned out that the convoy of boats was loaded with Chinese officers and dignitaries, as well as with high-ranking NVA people. Few knew then that President Nixon was planning his trip to China (which took place in February of 1972). My strike had caused some kind of a stir between the two governments. Even though the targets were in a combat zone, some higher-up was evidently very unhappy about what had happened. Shortly after the strike, we received a message that we were to stay away from anything Chinese. The question was: How would we know that until after the fact? But I did stop lobbing rockets at the storage area at Pakbeng, the village on the Mekong at the end of the Chinese road. The Chinese communists didn't stop shooting at me when I flew past the village, though.

Becoming Seasoned

December 1971 was memorable for more than one reason. December was at the heart of the dry season, and activity was hot and heavy—way too much for only two Ravens to handle, but no one else was available to come up to LP. Several other Ravens at various locations had been killed or seriously injured during the first part of the month, and there weren't enough FACs in the pipeline to fill all the demand. We were working from dawn to dark every day, and ground commanders all over my region were screaming for help. There just weren't enough hours in the day, days in the month, or Ravens in Southeast Asia to handle the demand.

There was also the arrival of an NBC film crew, which had shown up to shoot a documentary about the secret war. The program was to get some airtime with the approval of the embassy. Some filming took place in the southern part of Laos, but the primary emphasis of the documentary was the war as it was being fought in the north. When the crewmembers arrived at Long Tieng, they filmed Air America operations and the ground war involving the Hmong and Thai "volunteers." They then came to LP and set up to film Raven and T-28 air operations. I flew the camera crew in the backseat of my O-1 in an area where it would be relatively quiet and safe. On the first trip out, I found many piles of supplies that the NVA had moved downriver and left unhidden (most likely thinking that since we seldom worked that area, the materiel would be safe). The crew filmed while we struck the area. That night I was interviewed, and my comments, along with the air strikes, made it on the televised documentary. Called "Inside the Secret War in Laos," it aired on NBC in March 1972.

The Chinese built a road from Dien Bien Phu so that insurgents and supplies could more easily be sent into northern Thailand. It was lined with radar-controlled anti-aircraft artillery, and the road was a dangerous and deadly place to work. Proof of the danger came on December 27, 1971, when an Air America C-123 ventured too close to the road and was shot down. I spent two days involved with the unsuccessful search and rescue of the crew. [Ed Weissenback (CJ-64) was a kicker on that mission. — Editor.]

A Tough Operation

I was called off search and rescue and joined an operation that involved the insertion and extraction of Lao personnel on hard sites and along infiltration routes across Laos to Thailand. Although this was probably a violation of the embassy-imposed rule to avoid any Chinese, no one squawked. I think it was probably because the CIA set up the insertions, and my services were needed to provide air cover for the friendlies.

I attended a briefing with the CIA case officer and the Air America helicopter and Porter pilots who would transport and supply the Lao troops. My initial job would be to reconnoiter the area surrounding the hard sites and put in air strikes as necessary. Then, when I deemed the area safe, I would escort the helicopters to the landing zones. All the T-28s would be stationed at Ban Houai Sai, so I would have a flight of four overhead at all times.

Off I went. The travel time was only about 20 minutes to the first site. We were far enough away that AAA did not present a major threat, but close enough that it made the T-28 pilots very nervous and somewhat inaccurate with their bombing. The felling of the C-123 was fresh on everyone's mind. I entered the area and immediately dropped down to treetop level. I had one window of the O-1 opened, and I had pulled a pin on a smoke grenade and was holding it out the window. If I heard someone shooting at me, I would drop the grenade and use the smoke to mark the spot where the ground fire came from. This maneuver, called "trolling," was common practice among the Ravens.

I was jinking around the hard site at treetop level, listening for ground fire. Nothing. I put in an air strike at a couple locations, hoping to make the PL think that I had them spotted so that they would shoot. Still nothing. I reported what was happening. We agreed that I would proceed back to the area, and if I didn't hear any ground fire, the helicopters would bring in the troops. Still no ground fire, and I called and said the area appeared safe. The first helicopter landed and dropped off the troops. The second helicopter was committed to landing, when all hell broke loose. The PL started shooting with mortars and heavy small-arms fire. Both helicopters were hit. One went down, and the other limped partway back to base. I spent the rest of that day and the next five days covering medivac flights that were recovering dead and wounded people. So much for interdicting the insurgents.

Two weeks after this operation, a Volpar aircraft carrying crewman Robert Herald (MSO-55) was hit by ground fire while distributing leaflets close to the Chinese road. One round exploded close to the plane, sending fragments into the aircraft. Jim Rhyne, who was in the back throwing leaflets with Herald, was hit and badly hurt. The plane was able to fly back to Udorn, and Rhyne, who lost part of his left leg, survived. I had heard the radio calls from Herald but wasn't close enough to offer any assistance.

Flash forward to the Air America reunion in Las Vegas 2001, where I and several other smokejumpers had our pictures taken together after the dinner. One of those smokejumpers was Robert Herald. As we chatted about flying in Laos in 1971-72, Herald mentioned he was on that Volpar. I recounted my experience, and we worked to merge our collective memories of that incident. Thirty years had passed, and our paths crossed again. What a coincidence that he too had been a jumper.

Final Days

January 1972 was decision-time for me. Should I ask for another tour in the Ravens, or go on to another assignment in the Air Force? In all honesty, two years of FAC flying was eating on me. I had been luckier than many, seldom catching a hit, doing some amazing things, and getting out unscathed. Many friends had been killed. Over on the PDJ, several Ravens had been killed in just the last month. All of Laos was heating up in favor of the NVA, and U.S. involvement was diminishing. General Westmoreland's favorite statement—"there is a light at the end of the tunnel"—indicated to me that there was a freight train coming. It was time to pull the plug and go home.

Then came the most dangerous time statistically for combat personnel: the last three months of duty. The first three months are bad in that people are unfamiliar with their assignments and are extremely cautious as they take time to learn the ropes. After they have the hang of it, soldiers can exercise good judgment and take more risks. Barring a "golden BB" (a fluky, lucky shot by the enemy), a soldier's chances of going home are very good. The last three months are something else. As soon as we arrived, we were briefed that the final three months are when many people are killed, because they now know all the rules, have been lucky, and want to show everyone how good they are. In short, they get careless at a time when the bad guys are getting better. I should know; it happened to me. In order to locate the enemy, it was common practice for us to fly at treetop level and to troll for ground fire. I thought that the golden BB wouldn't catch me, and I had no fear of a 12.7-mm gun. What was I thinking? I beat the odds and made it, though. Just the dumb luck of a kid.

I asked for an assignment to fly C-141s at McChord AFB in Washington state and got it. I broke the news to the Lao pilots, who were there for the duration. They were excited for me. The Filipinos who worked for Air America and who were my crew chiefs began planning an "end-of-tour" party for me. They killed a pig and buried it in the ground for a slow, steamy roast. They bought some Lao-Lao and rice wine and cooked all the usual local foods, including sticky rice to be eaten with either a hot sauce or a fish sauce. We took an afternoon off and sat down to eat all this food. I tried virtually anything and everything they offered me to eat. This meal remains one of the best I ever had.

Back To The States

It all came to an end around the middle of March, when I finally climbed aboard a C-130 to fly down to Bangkok. I was on 30 days' leave, still in civilian clothes, packing an embassy card instead of a military ID. As I out-processed, I felt remorse and emptiness when I thought of leaving the Tango pilots and the people of Laos behind. At that time, I truly regretted having to come home. Now I know that I was "going native." It was best that I came home when I did. One more tour, and I doubt that I would have left. The realization that the war was over didn't hit until I got off the C-141 at Travis AFB in California and was greeted by my brother, Earl.

Once I was back in the States and at home, I bought a Toyota station wagon and drove up to McChord AFB. As soon as I arrived, I checked into the squadron. The scheduler claimed that no one had notified him that I was coming, and so they hadn't called for a slot at Altus AFB in Oklahoma for my upgrade training. No one was greeting me with open arms. I had forgotten what squadron life was like.

They asked if I wanted to take a ride. I jumped at the chance to get familiarized with the C-141. I had just come from a small, single-engine, tandem-seated, propeller-driven plane that wouldn't do 100 knots if you pointed it straight at the ground. Now I was going to fly a four-engine jet that took off at a max gross weight of 323,000 pounds. Sure, I would take the opportunity to get a ride in it.

The trip, which lasted about 10 days, was an eye-opener. My uniformed Air Force life to date had been limited to Webb AFB at Big Spring, Texas, where I went to pilot-training; the bases where I had survival training; and Hurlburt Air Base in Florida, where I upgraded in the Oscar Deuce. Nakhon Phanom was a "secret" combat base, and most rules there were fairly lax, so it didn't really count. Now I was flying around the world (or so it seemed) in this aluminum overcast. The best part of all was the end-leg each day, when we headed to the officers' club for the mandatory gallon or so of beer and war stories. Life was good.

Once the beer started flowing, it was interesting to hear the war stories as told by the first lieutenants who had never strapped on anything more than C-141s. They were willing to tell anyone who would listen how they had cheated death when they landed at some base in Vietnam that had been under attack several days prior to their landing. Their courage was reassuring.

One thing I learned during these story-telling sessions: Without proof, there's no point in telling even a perfectly unembellished war story. At that time the Steve Canyon Program was still top-secret, and I had signed a paper at the embassy swearing silence about my time and duties in Laos. Consequently, some of my stories sounded like so much b.s. Still it was fun, especially being able to converse with people in normal English.

One person who had trouble believing much of what I could discuss was the aircraft commander. He was a young captain whose name I can no longer remember. His eye-opener came when we landed at Udorn, and he saw me talking to some Air America pilots. To Air Force pilots, Air America pilots were close to gods. They flew super-dangerous, super-secret missions for the CIA, worked in the CIA heaven of Laos, and made untold sums of money. Here I was talking and laughing with one as if I actually knew him. We checked into the Bachelor Officers' Quarters and planned the night's activities. Because I'd supposedly been stationed here before, it was suggested I guide these guys around. They winked at one another as they asked for the cook's tour of Udorn. Knowing mostly the spooks' havens, I took them to places that weren't the G.I. hangouts they were expecting. Where we went, the men had long hair or long sideburns, then the style of Air America pilots. Talk about being out of your element. I recognized one guy and went over to talk to him, and that broke the ice. After hearing us tell some "real" war stories, my crew had a new respect for me.

An Unexpected Encounter

Back at McChord, I got a flight to Altus AFB to settle in for three months of upgrade training. Being a captain, I had a chance to get a room by myself. I wanted the solitude, because I had the fear of God in me. This was a complex aircraft, and learning the systems was going to take some real concentration. So what happens? I meet my wife-to-be.

I was sitting in the stag bar one night talking to a guy who had worked in the embassy in Vientiane, when 2nd Lt. Rebecca Walden walked in wearing a beret. Coming into a stag bar with a hat on was, at that time, grounds for buying everyone at the bar a round of drinks. My friend told her as much. The conversation between them was short and to the point, and let's just say the lieutenant did not buy any drinks. I liked her style. "Easy," I warned myself, "no long-distance romances, and don't get involved with anyone here." We got married June 30, 1973, in the chapel at Altus AFB.

Learning to fly the C-141 was much easier than I had anticipated. Hitting the books hard made many things easier. By the end of the written phase, I was second in the class standings. Now I feared the instrument phase of the training; I didn't do any instrument flying while in Laos. But all the time I spent running air strikes, handling my own emergencies, and flying in low visibility just made it easier to handle the airplane while taking care of all the "emergencies" the instructor threw at me. My biggest problem was delegating—telling the copilot to do things and not doing them myself. After taking the final check-ride in the plane, I was still number two in the standings, and I finished as a distinguished graduate of C-141 Upgrade School.

I was put on a fast track to upgrade to aircraft commander because of my total flying time but was taken out of the upgrade program when the war ended in February 1973. This was because back then, the Air Force had more pilots than it needed. I put in a date of separation, hoping to get out of the Air Force and go with one of the major air carriers. The big glitch in my plan was that the Arabs had closed the spigot on the oil, and the airlines were laying off pilots—not hiring them. After adding an Airline Transport Pilot rating to my pilot's license, I flew charters for a year, hoping that the economy would improve and the airlines would begin hiring, but the oil embargo put the economy in a tailspin. Discouraged by the prospect of flying for the airlines, I talked to an aerial applicator in Tracy, California, about working for him as a crop-duster. He hired me in July 1975, and I started my career as a duster pilot. I am currently in my 32st season as an aerial applicator.

When I look back on the old days, I'm proud of my achievements. I even have a few souvenirs. I received four Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) awards and earned 21 air medals for the number of missions I flew, which included two authorized missions into North Vietnam in support of search-and-rescue operations of downed pilots. I was also given an award not many other pilots in Southeast Asia received. It was the "Order of the Able Aeronaut" award, given to a pilot who recovered an aircraft that was battle-damaged or was on the verge of being lost due to equipment malfunctions. It was one of only 120 given out during the decade of war in Southeast Asia.