Burr Smith and One Raven-Be Glad You Weren't There

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

To a young military officer’s eyes, the undeclared war in Southeast Asia from 1962 to 1974 was complicated. Some USAF pilots stationed in South Vietnam lived in foxholes. Others lucky enough to operate from air bases in Thailand slept in air- conditioned quarters. Playing a vigorous game of tennis, having a milkshake after a soothing shower and flying your airplane into hell a few hours later seemed surreal. Things were not as they seemed. Wars boiled within wars. Few truths and lots of untruths proliferated in every dimension. Fairness was irrelevant. Politicians behind mahogany desks in Washington, D.C. tied warriors’ hands on an increasing basis. More than a few senior officers lacked the courage to say what they meant—rampant careerism discouraged those of us who came to fight. Soldiers barely out of their teens became confused by reality and turned to drugs. Lots of folks back home took out their frustrations on returning Veterans. The whole thing lacked substance.
The United States still has not recovered from the division caused by this war. However, a place west of Vietnam made more sense in its fascinating mélange of peace and violence. The people inhabiting this country obviously reflected Indian roots rather than the Mongolian ancestry of the Vietnamese. Buddha’s inner strength wafted across the lush fields and forests, and local people respected each other. Children frolicked near their humble huts. Love persistently tried to emerge in spite of the evil winds of Communism. Insightfully termed the “valley of the moon,” I discovered the Kingdom of Laos.
I served three official combat tours in Southeast Asia. The first, I Corps of South Vietnam with a call sign of Barky 16. The second, Military Region II of Laos as Raven 28, and the third, Military Region I as Raven 11. I learned from many outstanding Ravens, the tallest among them being Sandy Sanborn, our Senior Raven at LS 20A. Sandy was our flying boss at the “secret CIA base” south of the Plain of Jars named for a nearby village called Long Tieng. If you asked him how difficult it was to supervise a bunch of pirates in a sea full of Spanish galleons, he would say he only started each day with a plan. Each Raven evolved into a distinctive unconventional military strategist and on-scene commander in his own right, and the combat dynamics in the Plain of Jars would take different shapes on an hourly basis.
I tried to stay somewhere in the middle of the food chain throughout this period of time, a feat not so easy for an aggressive young pilot when you think about SEA Theater politics between 1970 and 1972. The politics within often were more dangerous than the enemy without. Reminded me of a mouse trying to cross an occupied eagle’s nest.
I flew 576 combat missions and logged 1063 combat hours before returning home for Christmas in 1971. The protestors outside Travis Air Force Base on Christmas Eve chanted “war criminals” as I slipped out the back gate with my parents.
Burr Smith, aka Mr. Clean, lived a cloaked life in Laos for a very long time. His CIA-related memories died with him.