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The Ravens and the Secret Air War in Laos


Two wars were being waged in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and early 1970s. One was the “public war” in Vietnam. Highly publicized and highly controlled from Washington, it had all the media trappings associated with major military operations. The other was a “secret war” in Laos. Waged under the tightest of security, little oversight, and with minimal assets compared to the conflict in Vietnam, its objective was to interdict and destroy the flow of men, equipment, and supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail from North Vietnam to South Vietnam. Responsibility for conducting day-to-day air operations, in what one pilot called a “high risk, no-bullshit war,” was assigned to volunteers operating under the call sign “Ravens,” a small group of unconventional and incredibly fearless forward air controllers thinly disguised as civilian operatives.

The reason the campaign in Laos had to be waged in secret was because the terms of the Geneva Accords signed between the United States and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) on July 23, 1962, guaranteed the neutrality of the Kingdom of Laos, a land-locked nation abutting Vietnam’s western border. One of the provisions in the accords was the requirement that all foreign military forces had to leave Laos. Though the United States complied, North Vietnam ignored it.

Laotian Prime Minister Prince Souvanna Phoumo’s request for American military aid against North Vietnam’s violation presented President John F. Kennedy’s administration with a quandary: how to comply with the prince’s request without violating the accords. Another concern was that official American military involvement might inspire a tit-for-tat response by China and the Soviet Union that risked escalating hostilities, touching off World War III.

Butterfly PC-6 takeoff

A Butterfly Pilatus PC-6 Turbo Porter demonstrates its STOL capabilities from a dirt airstrip. Photo courtesy AFSOC History Office

But Laos’ strategic location, along with the fear that doing nothing would cause the country to go communist, caused Kennedy to direct the Air Force to formulate a plan to assist Laos. Working in partnership with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the result was a covert operation placed under the command of America’s ambassador to Laos, William Sullivan, and later his successor, G. McMurtrie Godley, who closely controlled all American activities there. Air Force Attaché Col. Gus Sonnenburg and his successors directed air operations. The covert air program began modestly with the deployment in 1963 of four combat control team sergeants, call sign “Butterfly.”

“They called it the Steve Canyon Program at the time. There were about 25 Ravens in country, mostly lieutenants and some captains. They were doing all kinds of crazy stuff – young guys with airplanes and rockets and guns. We used to say they were like Pancho Villa’s raiders but not quite as disciplined.”

To get around the Geneva Accords restrictions, the Air Force Butterfly non-commissioned officers (NCOs) (and all subsequent volunteers) were scrubbed of their military identity and given a new civilian cover for the duration of their deployment in Laos, a process colorfully referred to as “sheep dipping.” Sitting in the co-pilot’s seat of the spotter aircraft, flown by Air America pilots, Butterflies would issue targeting instructions to Thai, Laotian, and later Hmong pilots trained through Project Water Pump. Originally created to teach indigenous and Thai pilots how to conduct search and rescue missions from forward bases along the Laotian border with Vietnam, Water Pump was soon expanded to train pilots for combat roles.

The Butterfly program came to an abrupt end in April 1966 when Gen. William Momyer, the 7th Air Force commander, learned that the Butterflies were NCOs and not jet fighter pilots, per doctrine. The following month, on May 5, 1966, Air Force 1st Lts. Jim F. Lemon and Truman “T.R.” Young, upon returning to Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base after directing air strikes at the demilitarized zone separating North and South Vietnam, were presented with an offer they couldn’t refuse by their commanding officer: Volunteer for a secret program, and a variety of minor disciplinary breaches including “rat-racing” (unauthorized acrobatics in O-1 Bird Dogs) and furniture broken during an excessive outburst of enthusiasm at a recent party would not appear in their personnel files. The lieutenants volunteered and the Raven program was launched.

The Ravens were part of a new air campaign in Laos begun in 1967 under the code name Palace Dog/Project 404, intended to aid the Laotians and especially the Hmong in their fight against the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese. Forward Air Controllers (FACs) for the program included pilots trained by Col. Henry “Heinie” Aderholt following his tour of duty as commander of the 56th Air Commando Wing at Nakhon Phanom. After that deployment, he was assigned deputy chief of staff for operations at the Special Air Warfare Center (now U.S. Air Force Special Operations School) at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. After completion of their training and upon arriving for duty in Vietnam, the FACs were informed that after six months, they could volunteer for special duty through the Steve Canyon Program. After being successfully vetted and screened, the volunteers were sent to the American Embassy at the Laotian capital of Vientiane, where they were sheep-dipped and assigned.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...