Burr Smith and One Raven-One of Many Stories

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

Burr was the master of unconventional creativity. One day he asked me to land at Xieng Lom (LS 69) for a special mission. From Luang Prabang, the flight took about one hour in a U-17. I landed on the short, dirt strip where a Thai mercenary working for the CIA picked me up in a jeep. I eye-balled an empty Air America Twin Otter sitting on the end of the short runway as we sped past. We drove about one mile to the village that was Burr’s staging headquarters. The unspoiled beauty of the place belied the violence plotted within the walls of Burr’s house. (I possess a videotape of Burr greeting me on one such visit. I shared the tape with staff of the Wings channel. You can view that footage in the hour-long documentary, Birds of a Feather.)
The road into Xieng Lom was lined with 20 foot tall palm trees and multi-colored flowers, the same sort of view one might encounter driving up to the Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Once in the village the conflicting smells of dust, jasmine and garlic teased your senses—always made me hungry.
Burr stretched as he started down the steps of his hooch. “Got a good one for us today, Brad. We’ll have a touch of breakfast and then put the ball game together.” Burr hired a number of wives and girlfriends of his Thai mercenaries to cook and clean. They smiled and bashfully giggled as we entered the front room, which doubled as a conference area when we planned missions. Eating and briefing always kicked off the day’s work.
The girls brought out a pile of spring rolls and fruit. I never failed to notice how the taste of Lao melons, berries, bananas and plums were so scrumptious compared to fruit grown in the United States. Possibly starting with Luther Burbank in Santa Rosa, California, some 50 years ago, Americans managed to corral nature at the cellular level. Pesticides and chemical fertilizers subsequently went a long way toward washing-out the flavors of our fruits and vegetables. In contrast, Xieng Lom’s table fare gushed with tastiness and volume. When we got to the spring rolls, however, you had to be careful of the garlic. Burr had cast-iron bowels from years of living in the “bush,” but I was suffering from tropical sprue and often had to find a hole somewhere before I could fly.
He pushed back from the table and whispered under his breath, “Let’s hit it. This is going to be a long day.”
I was curious to see what he had in mind.
We bent over a 1:50,000 scale map covering the area between the end of the Chinese Road and Xieng Lom. Burr’s pencil circled a hilltop about ten kilometers south of Pak Beng. He growled in that scratchy voice of his, “We’re going to put about thirty SGs on that knob.” This meant thirty Thai mercenaries, or special guerillas in a unit called an SGU, that was trained by CIA case officers, probably Burr. “Their mission is to hole up there and patrol to the north, setting up a couple of road-watch teams. Of course, they’ll report on Chinese patrols and probes toward Xieng Lom, but we’re mainly interested in what’s happening at Pak Beng. I’d like you to recce (reconnoiter) the hill real well without tipping our hand that we plan to insert the unit at that location. If you feel comfortable, transmit this go-code blindly on the radio, and we’ll load the SGUs onto the choppers.”
He pushed a card at me with the word, BINGO, written on it. “If you don’t like what you see, I want you to transmit, DARK.” He turned over the card to show me that word. “The choppers will need you to escort them in, once you get a couple of Mustang T-28s to join us from Luang Prabang. When the fighters are on station, transmit SUPER, and we’ll launch the choppers. You pick the approach line and bring them in. Remember this—if anything looks funny, you have full authority to abort the mission and drop ordnance all over the hill. Blast it to smithereens. Got it?”
I got it. Without saying so, Burr knew I would rendezvous with the AT-28s at least five minutes flying time from the target hill. The element of surprise made a big difference in situations like this, which could be dicey if the bad guys figured out the scenario before we inserted the friendlies.
He also assumed I would fly a daisy chain pattern below the lead helicopter as it began its descent onto the hill. My airplane would be harder to hit if the enemy were there first, and an Air America helicopter full of valuable SGs would be spared. FACs called this tactic “trolling.”
I thanked the Thai girls and jumped into the jeep. This insertion shouldn’t be too difficult. A lot better than doing a deep insertion into southern China.
Good thing I wasn’t clairvoyant. Someone knew we were coming.
The oversize engine in my U-17 roared to life. The Twin Otter still sat with no one around it. Wonder what he’s doing here? I got airborne and turned lazily to the north.
Five Air America double-crewed UH-1 helicopters coming in to land from the south flew into the corner of my eye. Likely originating from Udorn Royal Thai Air Base or perhaps Cheng Mai, double-crewed helicopters meant 30 caliber machine guns in both doors. The CIA used these aircraft for insertions and extractions of combat teams. One of these choppers pulled me out of a very hostile area when I went down near Long Tieng months before. These American civilian pilots had thousands of hours of military flying time and were fearless. They also got paid handsomely. The average new Air America chopper pilot would throw the traditional $100,000 party when he could prove with his deposit statement that he had $100,000 in the bank.
At one of those gatherings, I once heard an Air America pilot exclaim, “If they paid you Ravens $100,000 a month, it wouldn’t be enough.” Well, nothing’s too good for our boys in the military, as candidates for the U.S. Congress used to say.
Burr didn’t make much, either.
I contacted Mustang 01 Flight immediately. These two AT-28s were about thirty minutes east, and the Lao pilots were raring to go. They hauled two 250 pound general-purpose bombs apiece, two LAU-3 19-shot rocket pods and about 300 rounds of 50 caliber machine-gun ammunition.
We picked a beautiful day for an airstrike, but the wind was starting to whip up.
The top of the target hill was covered by kneehigh saw grass. Trees that looked like a tight mix of tall bamboo and banana palms surrounded the bald area. I flew loose circles at about 1,500 feet in the general area, screening the insertion point with high-powered binoculars. Everything looked quiet ...suspiciously still. I occasionally flew close enough to the hilltop to draw fire. If a North Vietnamese unit had been nearby, it would have sprayed the air behind me with AK-47 fire. Ho Chi Minh’s troops weren’t good at drawing lead on a moving target—must have been terrible duck hunters.
Yet, the Chinese order of battle was different. Chinese infantry seemed smarter than the North Vietnamese. They would lie in wait for you, even if you flew enticingly low and had shot a white phosphorus rocket into the ground not far from their position. If they believed they had not yet been spotted by a FAC, they would exercise impressive discipline and remain hidden. We read intelligence reports that the Chinese empowered squad leaders to shoot subordinates who fired their weapons at inappropriate times or bolted from their hiding places in fear.
I couldn’t see signs of foot traffic through the saw grass, nor were cut marks or trails evident in the trees. Turbulence from the increasing wind felt as though it could become a problem. Still, the sky was clear of clouds, and I did not see any unusual activity in the direction of Pak Beng. My engine was purring. I keyed the microphone and transmitted, “BINGO.”
A few minutes later two AT-28s showed up.
I once again hit the transmitter button and announced “SUPER” to the listening world. The three of us held a few kilometers southeast of the target area until the choppers appeared on the southern horizon. I then established a course to intercept them halfway to the hilltop.
The experienced Mustang pilots knew the drill without instruction from me. Radio silence was the way of true professionals and the key to living another day. Flying much faster aircraft, they maneuvered in hot and cold elongated circles over the lead helicopter, where one AT-28 always flew in a position to employ ordnance if a ground threat appeared.
Two kilometers from the insertion point, I shoved the throttle forward and dipped below the lead UH-1. I dove to fifty feet from the top of the target hill and pulled up sharply. Hitting apogee, I pulled the nose down for another run at the treetops. Back in pilot training, we used to call this pattern a “cloverleaf.” Never realized then it would have useful application in combat. The idea was to get the enemy to fire at me. I easily could have heard even so much as a pistol shot, but things were deceptively peaceful. The only problem was the ever-increasing wind.
Turbulence never was fun for a FAC, for it ruined your concentration, blew away your marking smoke and made a rocket-firing solution difficult. But, for the Air America pilots, translating quickly to a hover over the hill, touching down in saw grass where they would have little perception of depth, disgorging heavily laden SGs, and then departing, all within thirty seconds, would demand the most from them—never mind the prospect of eating enemy fire. The helicopter pilot’s worst nightmare is being shot at in a hover where you are as helpless as a newborn baby. Three choppers would go in at a time.
Convinced the target area was safe, I set up in a circle over the hilltop. This signaled the lead Air America aircraft commander to begin the insertion.
He ran hard at the target zone directly upwind, pulled his nose up steeply to halt forward motion, stabilized in a hover for three seconds and plunked down into the saw grass. Six SGs piled out, disappearing into the foliage. Only five seconds behind and bracketing the lead aircraft on both sides came two other choppers. Just as they reached hover, our world changed dramatically.
The surrounding trees exploded with muzzle blasts and mortar launches.
All three helicopters instantly sustained major battle damage. The two door gunners in each chopper desperately returned fire as their pilots did what they could to gain enough altitude to stagger off of the hilltop. The radios reflected pure chaos. “Taking hits/taking hits.” “Get out of here.” “Abort...ABORT.”
SGs spilled out of the two helicopters caught in a hover and fell about 15 feet. At this point we had 18 personnel on the ground. The remaining three Air America birds broke away from their final approach and departed to the south, gaining altitude in a wide formation to provide assistance for the three distressed helicopters. Incredibly, all of them made it.
I wanted to fire a white phosphorus rocket into the firefight on the hilltop, but couldn’t for fear of hitting our SGs. We had to hold high and dry until things sorted themselves out a little more clearly. Most important, I needed to establish radio contact with the SGU. I made blind calls on the frequency Burr gave me.
I dove repeatedly at the trees, trying to intimidate the enemy into withdrawing from the insertion zone. A North Vietnamese unit would have done just that at the sight of a Raven. Once a Raven and his flight of fighters discovered you, your remaining time on this planet usually was measured in minutes. As I passed within meters of the bad guys, I fired my AR-15 out of the window hoping to add to their pucker factor. But these were Chinese troops.
While one group of Chinese narrowed the gap to the SGU, another group concentrated on shooting at airplanes. A third group manned mortar tubes, and a fourth remained patiently in reserve. What a classic order of battle. We Americans were not used to seeing such field discipline in enemy units, especially when they logically could expect to be bombed at any moment. I was impressed but also concerned for the SGs. Subsequent intelligence reports indicated we had encountered a company of regular Chinese infantry that possessed advance notice of Burr’s insertion plan. He was furious at hearing that news.
The battle continued for thirty minutes without any communication from the ground team.
Mustang Flight called, “...short on fuel.” The turbulence banged me around like a pinball. When I saw the Chinese advancing, I took the bull by the horns. “Arm up,” I advised the AT-28 pilots. I pointed my nose at the nearest line of Chinese and said a prayer that the SGs would find a depression deep enough to avoid the red- hot bomb fragments. Thank heaven the CIA gave them training on exigencies such as this.
Blam! One of my eight 2.75-inch white phosphorous rockets left its launching tube and splashed nasty chemistry all over several Chinese. Before I could recover from my dive, two enemy rounds hit my airplane—one in a propeller blade and the other in the leading edge of my left wing.
Instead of climbing up to control the fighters, as an experienced Communist infantryman might expect, I rolled inverted and pulled down toward the valley below the hill. I shouted, “Ying sai smoke cong coi,” on the radio. This was Lao for “hit my smoke.”
Appreciative of the close fighting on the ground, these fighter pilots literally scraped their bombs off of their airplanes. They attacked so low they were surgically precise. Both received damage to their undercarriages from their own bomb fragments, a forgivable transgression under the circumstances. I should make a point of expressing my appreciation to the Mustang Squadron Commander.
I now had more than the Chinese to fight. My engine was running roughly due to the mutilated and imbalanced propeller. I thought I had taken a hit in the engine. Worse was the specter of burning to death from the high-octane aviation gasoline now leaking from my wing. Still, I could not leave our team in the lurch. Something good had to happen, soon.
As I clawed for altitude away from the fire-fight, I cleared the AT-28 pilots to reattack as long as they could keep their ordnance away from the very top of the hill.
They did a terrific job, but the Chinese relentlessly pressed their objective, the SGU.
I moved the fuel feed switch to the right wing. My engine felt like it was coming apart.
Suddenly, I saw the Air America Twin Otter headed for our hilltop. He was flying level at 6,000 feet above the ground—way up there. I nervously changed frequencies to our emergency channel and directed, “Air America aircraft at 6,000 feet, this is Raven One One, immediately depart the area to the south! I repeat, change course now!”
Burr’s unmistakable voice came on the air. “Move away from the site, Brad.”
I said, “Burr, is that you? What’s going on? I hope you’re not trying to re-supply the team. This is not a good time for that kind of thing. They’re fighting for their lives down there, and, besides, with this strong wind you’d never get the pallet near the top of the hill.”
With a calm tone, Burr once again ordered, “Brad, move away from the hill.” Actually, I was starting to look for a bamboo forest where I successfully could crash land. We didn’t wear parachutes.
To my astonishment the Twin Otter flew directly over the besieged SGU position, and a very large pallet stacked high with supplies slid out of the cargo door. Covered and bound tightly by a canvas tarpaulin, the pallet stabilized below two large parachutes. On cue, the wind blew the gently swinging contrivance off course. The package disappeared into dense trees well down the hill, probably 1,000 meters away from the hill-top and the SGU.
I flew closer to the mêlée. The Chinese changed their focus from the SGU to the supplies. No doubt the predictable Americans would be delivering more ammunition, food, water and heavy weapons to the survivors on the hill. About ten minutes elapsed as the enemy force descended upon the pallet.
KABOOM! A shock wave expanded from the location of the deflated parachutes. A red fire-ball rose into the afternoon sky. The detonation looked like a 10,000 pound bomb going off. From one mile away the blast made my little airplane dance. What a show!
In one nanosecond the bomb vaporized the majority of the Chinese contingent.
The SGs, who had been in contact with Burr Smith the whole time—on a “secret, CIA frequency, if you must know”—ran down the opposite side of the hill and escaped into the evening. Unfortunately five were killed in action during the initial assault.
Burr’s voice returned, “Let’s go home, Brad.”
The AT-28s headed back to Luang Prabang amidst a rush of Lao chatter I couldn’t understand, yet could imagine.
I was left to the task of saving myself. Thank goodness the trip back to Xieng Lom was short. When my tires grabbed dirt, I shut that engine down. It never ran again.
The Air Attaché to Laos nominated me for a Silver Star, behind which I’m sure one could find Burr Smith. Pacific Air Forces Headquarters downgraded it to a Distinguished Flying Cross. I never lost sleep over decorations, but rear-echelon staff types downgrading award nominations from senior officers in the field really burned me. I wondered who did anything for Burr for
saving 13 lives.
An epilogue at this juncture would bring out the points that (a) the U.S. Air Force and the CIA collaborated effectively in Project 404; (b) CIA case officers and Ravens were made of the same stuff, although we routinely took their girlfriends away from them; (c) the program largely was personality dependent in the sense that Burr Smith and a few paramilitary types like him made or broke the day; (d) much truth has yet to be revealed about our Laos operations, some of it profound; and (e) Burr Smith was my hero.