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Flying for Vang Pao By Darrel Whitcomb, Raven 25 1972-1973 Photo by John Dominis / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images Earlier this year (2011), General Van Pao died. His

passing triggered a powerful memory buried in my personal past. During the long war in Southeast Asia – vice Vietnam, he was a key leader of the Hmong tribes, strongly anti-communist forces in northern Laos, a theater of operations little known or appreciated in the larger story of that war. As a young Air Force forward air controller (FAC), I served with the general and his troops – then covertly – and provided direct air support as his forces fought the invading North Vietnamese and their Laotian allies. Our all-volunteer program was called Project 404, and we were known as the Raven FACs.

After six months as an OV-10 FAC in Thailand, I applied

for and was selected for the program. I went up to the Ravens in September 1972, and became Raven 25 – a moniker I still proudly carry. After quickly qualifying to fly the smaller O-1 aircraft, I flew all of my missions over the Plain Des Jarres or PDJ as we called it, and its environs. Most were either direct support missions with ground forces in contact with enemy elements, or interdiction sorties where we intercepted and destroyed enemy forces infiltrating from North Vietnam.

While I was a Raven, John Carroll, Hal Mischler, and Skip

Jackson were shot down and killed. Several more of us were also shot down and/or wounded. It was an incredibly violent time as American blood was shed to support those who so wanted to remain free of the heavy yoke of communism.

I directly worked with Vang Pao several times. Most

occasions were at operational briefings or meetings. He especially thanked me for finding and killing several 130 mm long-range artillery guns which were bombarding his forces and villages. The day I was shot down he also came out and welcomed me back. He was a tough field general and aggressively fought the invading North Vietnamese and their Laotian allies. In January 1973, the general took a bunch of us up to Boum Long, one of his northern-most outposts - a fortress really - to celebrate their successful defense against numerous enemy attempts to overrun it. While there, he took us on a long tour of the outer defenses. He specifically pointed out the bodies of several North Vietnamese soldiers who had been caught in the barbed wire and killed by our air strikes. He

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honored us Ravens for putting in those strikes. Such was war in Northern Laos - no quarter given nor asked. This part of the war rarely made the national news.

My last sortie was on 22 February 1973, when we were

ordered to stop flying because of the overall conflict cease-fire. As we were returning from that last sortie, the ground teams were in heavy enemy contact and calling for “Any Raven” for immediate air strike support. We could no longer help them – those radio calls linger as bitter memories for us Ravens. Vang Pao and his forces fought on without us until they were overwhelmed by the unrestrained forces of North Vietnam.

Several years after returning from the war, I traveled to

Santa Ana, California, to visit with Vang Pao. He was there with several thousand of his countrymen who fled in 1975, when Laos was given up to the communists. We had a nice talk and he shared several memories of the Ravens with me. I apologized to him for the fact that in their hour of greatest need our country abandoned him and his people and all of the others with whom we had stood and fought in all of the countries of Southeast Asia. I asked him about the impact of the “Yellow Rain,” the chemical mycotoxants which had recently been used against his people. His light-hearted demeanor changed to sorrow. He cupped his hands and said in his choppy English, “I had the Yellow Rain in my hands. I took it to the people in your Congress. They laughed at me.”

That is a hard memory to carry, but one that lingers from

my youth. I would bet that all Air Commandos have memories like this in some form. ‘Tis the nature of the business.

Publishers note: I was in Laos in late 1966 when the Raven

program was conceived. Air Commandos manned this unique operation until the US withdrew from the war in SE Asia in 1973. Col Whitcomb has captured a sense of the poignancy we all felt for our comrades, the Hmong and Gen Vang Pao. - General Secord

About the Author: Darrel Whitcomb is the author of: The Rescue of Bat 21 (1998), Combat Search and Rescue in Desert Storm (2006), Call Sign - DUSTOFF: A History of US Army Aeromedical Evacuation from Conception to Hurricane Katrina (2011), and On a Steel Horse I Ride: A History of the MH-53 Pave Low Helicopters in War and Peace (2011).

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