Burr Smith and One Raven-Prologue

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

“You don’t want to know how he’s going to die,” Burr Smith whispered. “Just smile at him and keep your mouth shut. Go find a mountain of Chinese weapons and blow them off the map.” Map, indeed. On this crisp morning we met at the edge of uncharted wilderness sandwiched between Communist China and Burma. Burr and a Lao Army colonel pushed a man of about 35 years into the back seat of my gray, unmarked U-17 (a supercharged Cessna 185). This North Vietnamese lieutenant colonel wore black pajamas. He seemed quite happy—no doubt believing we Americans would spare his life for directing me to a large cache of enemy mortars, grenades and ammunition. Every time I looked into his face, he smiled, showing a silver front tooth. The image of a Hanoi dentist bending over a privileged Army officer drifted through my mind. Two young Lao officers crawled in behind him. One holding a .45 caliber pistol in his lap sat next to the apparently willing prisoner, and the interpreter rolled into my right seat. As we taxied for takeoff, Burr waved to me from the safety of his jeep with a big grin on his face. The Lao colonel leaned against Burr’s hood, more assured now that his quarry was in my hands. This mission meant around 600 Lao villagers would have a rough day, many of which unfortunately would become innocent casualties of war. War is the pits.
The story you are about to read cannot be duplicated in another age or geography. Warriors appear throughout history whenever people elect to kill each other in pursuit of causes their leaders believe to be righteous. Some fight in the light of conventional battle, like Union and Confederate soldiers squaring off in the cornfields of Gettysburg. The nations they represent herald the most courageous of them as war heroes. In America, we honor them with decorations and granite monuments. Their families burst with pride for generations.
Yet, the dark side is a necessity in human conflict. The United States Government chooses a few trusted men and women to operate in mufti, meaning not in military uniform. They live undercover in absolute secrecy, having accumulated all manner of unconventional skills. Their children don’t know what their warrior fathers do when they are away at work or deployed to another part of the world. Their parent organizations cannot openly honor the heroes among them for bravery or even outstanding administrative performance. These agents are trained to function from day to day without headquarters supervision in dangerous contexts often demanding the utmost in flexibility and creativity.
The military services of the United States select personnel with independent flairs for special operations duty. U.S. Army Special Forces, Air Force Commandos and Navy Seals can be found all over the world at times, but to the uninformed eye they may look like park rangers or insurance salespeople instead of finely cut soldiers. Most are warriors of the highest order. They live without expectation, fight hard and are buried in silence by their bewildered families.
Raven FACs were true air commandos in the loose tradition of Steve Canyon, the comic book character of the 1950s and the unclassified code name for the USAF’s covert Raven Program in the Kingdom of Laos.
The world doesn’t know much about the Central Intelligence Agency. The master of the dark side is the CIA’s Deputy Director for Operations. In total secrecy, he employs a relatively small number of paramilitary officers, many who have military backgrounds, to work intimately with foreign military and intelligence-gathering units abroad. Sometimes they unilaterally perform direct paramilitary actions in locales where it is not politically salient or lawful to do so. The paramilitary calling excites the imaginations of hormone-rich teenage boys, much as do the exploits of James Bond. Paramilitary is the stuff of adventure novels and profitable movies. Too bad that continuing debate in the U.S. Congress questions whether or not this service is vital to the national security interests of the United States. As one who knows the right answer from personal experience, I respect the unselfish service rendered by the CIA’s paramilitary staff and its contractors. The handful of CIA officers’ names mentioned herein stand alone even today because of their remarkable backgrounds and the unconventional setting in Laos that brought them together.
Partially a tardy eulogy for a prominent CIA paramilitary officer, this record seeks to touch upon the connection between covert USAF officers and the CIA in a slice of time that may be too difficult to explain. The participants have not reached a consensus on explanation. Stereotypes did not exist in either the Raven Program or the CIA’s paramilitary force in Laos, which has confounded several attempts at analysis. The players were quite different from each other in personality and training. Furthermore, certain details are still deeply classified. This story, then, is little more than a snapshot of a special relationship between two people in a politically sensitive war zone shrouded in secrecy—one unremarkable Raven FAC and the best of the CIA, Burr Smith.
For aviation aficionados, Jim Roper’s excellent book, “Quoth the Raven”, comes the closest to presenting what it was like to be a FAC. He ought to know; he was a great one.