The Ravens

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

Never More

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 Vietnam 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 Vietnam. 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 Vietnam.
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. The following stories submitted by Raven FACs will give you some idea of how they operated.