Burr Smith and One Raven-A Puzzle of Many Pieces

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

King Sri Souvang Vatthana lived in picturesque Luang Prabang (MR I), the royal capitol of Laos— perhaps the spiritual capitol as well. The Royal Lao Air Base there appeared as Lima Site 54 on maps. Prince Souvanna Phouma tried to run the country from Vientianne, a grand Paris-like city in Military Region V, where he could rally support from the right wing and neutral factions. Prince Souvanna Vong commanded the Communist Pathet Lao from a small stronghold in Military Region II northeast of the Plain of Jars.
While the King stayed out of Lao politics, he remained the spiritual father of all Lao people, meaning all residents of Laos. Major General Vang Pao certainly was considered the informal king of all Hmong wherever they were located, including China. Sadly, the Lao and other cultures in Laos looked down upon the Hmong. Hmong people oftentimes were called “the Meo,” a denigrating term used by their enemies and various uninformed authors. For centuries they suffered all manner of atrocities at the hands of their neighbors, and, in the face of such pressures, trickled out of China, south to the Plain of Jars. MR II thus became their final sanctuary under the brilliant leadership of Major General Vang Pao. They quickly gained a fearsome reputation for determination on the battlefield.
Yet, overwhelmed by the massive force North Vietnam could muster in the late 1960s, the Hmong had to resort to American assistance to preserve their new home in Laos. While Project 404 brought with it a serious U.S. conviction to buffer the probabilities of President Eisenhower’s “Domino Theory,” the war in MR II was distinctly all about the Hmong. Aside from its other activities in Laos, the CIA poured over $1 million a day into its operation at Long Tieng.
The USAF followed with its own covert commitment to the Hmong in special operations support personnel for the Long Tieng operation, small-base resources, nine Raven FACs and six unmarked O-1 aircraft that were maintained by Air America. Detachment 1 of the 56th Special Operations Wing at Udorn Royal Thai Air Base secretly trained the Hmong fighter squadron and its replacements when pilots were lost. The USAF furnished the AT-28s, and Air America maintained them in impressive condition. One of those AT-28s was bailed to the Air Operations Commander (AOC), a field-grade special operations pilot who regularly flew it for administrative purposes. But, he was not permitted to fly in combat. Nearly all of the AOCs in Laos broke that rule within days of their arrival.
The relationship between the Ravens and the AOCs in each Military Region usually was tight. For instance, I felt privileged to be a member of Rooster’s Raiders, which coalesced when Major Rostermundt served as the AOC. He was a natural leader—the kind of guy we all admired. That six months was an attention getter, mainly due to the tragic losses of three Ravens and the gravity of the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. The Massacre in fact marked a turning point in the CIA’s capabilities at Long Tieng when LS 20A decayed from a model, 24-hour-per-day base installation to a rough staging field limited to daylight operations. After the war I proudly wore a Rooster’s Raiders patch on my party suit. “Rooster” and Burr Smith were close friends. It still hurts to recall that the former committed suicide sometime after leaving Laos.
With the impunity so characteristic of General Ho Chi Minh, the Communist North Vietnamese boldly established the Ho Chi Minh Trail system that emerged from several valleys on the western border of North Vietnam to run parallel to the western border of South Vietnam, south through Laos and ultimately into Cambodia. Although hundreds of thousands of North Vietnamese lives were lost to American airpower, Communist history remembers the overall effort as being triumphant. Indeed, the Trail supplied Communist forces operating in Southern Laos (Steel Tiger), eastern Cambodia and South Vietnam with shocking effectiveness. U.S. and Allied military tacticians, even conservative American historians to date, ultimately came to respect what the North Vietnamese accomplished with the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
The Colorado-size area defined by Lao Military Regions I and II were code-named the Barrel Roll. This interesting region featured its own highway of invasive drama, called the Chinese Road, and the heart-shaped Plain of Jars, where the tribal Hmong settled after they were pushed decades before out of China. The Plain of Jars turned into a microcosm of vicious conflict that ebbed and flowed, respectively, with the wet and dry seasons. The defenders were the Hmong, and the aggressors were the Communist Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese.
When the Hmong burned their fields in preparation for planting, thick smoke extended across hundreds of square miles. Reduced visibility created extremely dangerous flying conditions for the Ravens and the fighter aircraft they con- trolled, especially when coupled with anti-aircraft fire from enemy ground forces.
Russian-built MiG fighters would visit the northern airspace of Military Region II infrequently in the hope of catching a Raven by surprise. The less-reserved Chinese MiG pilots routinely patrolled the northern reaches of Military Region I. Both Communist nations often supplied their troops in the Barrel Roll by air.
I have a picture of an American-made, Russian C-47 shot down by RLAF T-28s in Military Region I. This cargo airplane and thousands like it had been given to the Russians at the end of World War II, and some of them found their way into Chinese hands. What an entertaining irony it must have been for the Communists to use our own aircraft against us.
The United States wanted to preserve the King in this maelstrom of ideologies and strategic agendas. Despite his adamant refusal to show favoritism for any particular side, a necessary evil to survive as King, Sri Souvang Vatthana knew the fate of South Vietnam would define his personal future and whether or not Laos would remain a free nation. Continued U.S. presence in Laos, albeit covert under the aegis of Project 404 was vital in order to keep North Vietnam from taking political control of the entire theater.
The CIA became responsible for all five military regions of the spooky little battleground, called Laos. The USAF supported the CIA via conventional tactical fighter air strikes, strategic bombing by B-52s and other aircraft, dedicated AC-130, AC-119, and AC-47 operations, a host of reconnaissance and Command & Control aircraft, and other less visible resources, but none of these assets were allowed to operate from Laos. The covert Steve Canyon program stood at the hub of this support wheel, for only 28 Raven FACs controlled the bulk of the U.S. tactical air strikes and a lesser volume of RLAF/Hmong AT-28 air strikes from day to day.
We Ravens lived in Laos with our CIA counterparts and operated in mufti with no apparent connection at all to U.S. military forces. The 1962 Geneva Accords prohibited any nation from inserting military personnel into neutral Laos, which ostensibly stood between the Communist and Free Worlds as a pork-chop-shaped buffer zone. Thus, we operated autonomously from USAF command and control systems, but we had priority access to U.S. fighter and bomber sorties stationed in Thailand and in the Tonkin Gulf. In short, we had our cake and got to eat it, too. Ravens amassed several times the bomb damage assessment of all of the military units in South Vietnam summed together.
Long Tieng received top priority from the USAF in tactical assets. Six to eight Ravens typically controlled 300 to 400 fighter sorties per day. Flying from sun-up to sundown, each of us logged four to five combat missions in a given daylight period. Any Raven could handle a two-ship fighter sortie every 15 minutes—sometimes more than that. Standard daily production was 40 to 50 fighter sorties per Raven.
The CIA brought its own formidable resources to bear, including Air America, Continental Air Service, and paramilitary case officers advising the conduct of the war at the field level. In my opinion, Burr Smith was the best of the case officers.