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During the course of American history, there have been many covert military operations. None, however, reached the scope or intensity of the war in Laos during the Viet Nam era. The backbone of this war were the Ravens-Forward Air Controllers (FACs) who flew small, slow propeller driven airplanes. The mission of the Ravens was to support indigenous forces in Laos in their fight against invading forces from North Vietnam.
The Ravens were all volunteers who had previous experience as FACs in South Viet Nam. Due to international treaties, the Ravens were "divorced" from the USAF. They wore only civilian clothes, and operated out of generally small fields at different sites in the Kingdom of Laos. They had cover stories to explain their presence in Laos, but I don't think anyone believed the stories other than USAF headquarters types. Most Ravens knew little or nothing about what they were volunteering for, other than it was classified, exciting, and was far removed from the bureaucratic battles and political rules of engagement in South Viet Nam.
The Ravens used three different airplanes to accomplish their mission: the small, light O-1 observation aircraft, armed only with white phosphorous smoke rockets; the heavier, slightly faster U-17 (Cessna 185), with the same armament, but longer range and loiter time. Some Ravens got to check out in the "Cadillac"-the T-28. This was heaven for a Raven-bombs, napalm, high explosive rockets, and 50 caliber machine guns for strafe. Now, you didn't have to wait for jets when you had a fast-moving target. The common denominator was that they all flew low, slow, and were highly vulnerable to ground fire.
The missions were as varied as the personalities of the Ravens. Some carried a "backseater"-a local who translated, talked to ground troops, and helped locate targets. Others were essentially deep interdiction missions-aimed at stemming the flow of troops and supplies into this neutral country. Some were basic visual reconnaissance looking for targets. Many were "troops in contact"-providing life-saving tactical air strikes in support of ground troops being fired upon.
Much has been written about the Ravens. The definitive work is probably "The Ravens" by Christopher Robbins, which is described later. After years of interviews and studies, he has painted a fairly accurate picture of one part of the Raven story. Some other comments are listed below. For a detailed story of the Ravens
Comments on the Ravens:
The Ravens were a group of elite pilots who flew the Cessna O-1 Bird Dogs in Laos during the Southeast Asian Conflict. In slow, low flying aircraft the Ravens' job was to find the target, order up fighter-bombers, mark the target accurately with smoke rockets, control the operation and stay over the target to make a bomb damage assessment. The name Ravens became a symbol of intelligence gathering and aerial control of ground combat. (Half-time announcement Raven presentation at USAF Academy, Nov. 4, 1989)
They went to war in blue jeans, T-shirts, and sometimes cowboy hats. It was a symbol of their disdain for the conventional, "bureaucratic" military. They were the Ravens, fighting a secret air war in the jungles of Laos, almost forgotten by everyone... (San Antonio Light, Oct., 1987)
The pilots, known as Ravens, are unique because they were among some 130 Air Force pilots who volunteered to risk their lives to fly highly dangerous covert missions in unarmed single engine Cessna O-1s. They were part of what was known as the Steve Canyon program, which was created in 1966... Their job as FACs was to locate and call in airstrikes against the North Vietnamese during its occupation of Laos... They (the enemy) knew that if they shot down a fighter there would be more fighters coming. So, they shot down the air controllers. It was dangerous because you were flying a prop airplane, low over the jungle, looking for the enemy. And if you found him and they didn't shoot you down, then they were going to get blown away. Christopher Robbins said some 30% of the unit died from combat injuries. (San Antonio Express-News, Oct. 26, 1987)
Locked away in classified archives until now... They...suffered the highest casualty rate in the Indochina war. Their deeds were the stuff of whispered legends. The pilots who flew the fighter-bombers to enemy targets knew them as the Ravens. (Crown Publishers, press release)
On occasion they went trolling; skimming the treetops above enemy positions in the hopes of drawing fire... The elite group of men, part adventurers/ part patriots, who flew some of the most bizarre missions of the Viet Nam war. They were a small group (their ranks were never more than 22 at any one time) performing a hazardous mission. (Military Book Club review, Jan., 1988)
The best and the brightest, the craziest and the bravest Americans served in Laos, none braver than the men who flew in Combat as FACs known as Ravens...braving bad weather, tricky terrain, combat fatigue, poor maintenance, and occasional assassination teams to get the job done... To give you some sense of the size of the war in Laos, the United States dropped 1.6 million tons of bombs there- more than the 1.36 million tons it dropped on Germany during World War II. (Book review, Asa Baber, Chicago Sun-Times, Nov. 22, 1987)
From the book "Covert Ops" by a James E Parker, Jr.
The Ravens were a breed apart in MR II. To the people who worked up-country Laos, the Ravens were always respectfully described the same way: “They got balls.” They were there day after day in those tiny unprotected planes—leading the T-28’s into dead-end valleys; looking for enemy positions; spotting for sleek, fast, U.S. Air Force attack planes. The Ravens reminded me of Civil War flagbearers, who ran onto the field of battle, with their flags streaming, headlong into the fire of the enemy. They were utterly fearless. Because they were assigned to MR II for only short periods of time, six months or so, we rarely got to know them very well. We never doubted, however, that they were all of the same breed, confident and courageous with nerves of steel.
Something about their eyes stopped people cold when they first saw the Ravens. They told people to be careful—The Ravens were different from everyone else. They looked preppy, but they didn’t bluff. They weren’t angry, but they were here to hunt and kill the North Vietnamese. That was their job. They killed people. Everyone knew that the Ravens were fit, alert, ready, and lethal. Their eyes told us—unblinking eyes, the whites whiter than anyone else’s.
Sky officers were often confused about why these promising young men were so willing to get in harm’s way, so willing to die, but we all considered them one of the most dependable and courageous elements in the Lao program—the American equal to the Hmong T-28 pilots.