Burr Smith and One Raven-A Long Way from Viet Nam

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

In January 1971 I met my incomparable friend, Mr. Clean, at Long Tieng, Laos (Lima Site 20A). I was the new Raven 28, fresh from a combat tour in South Vietnam flying OV-10A aircraft out of Quang Tri near the Provisional Military Demarcation Line (PMDL) that separated North and South Vietnam. A USAF Forward Air Controller (FAC), callsign Barky 16, I had accumulated 165 combat missions controlling U.S. and Allied fighter aircraft against Communist assets; employing my own forward-firing ordnance; adjusting artillery fires from land and sea-based sites; inserting and extracting ground teams in the tri-border area of North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and Laos called Delta 38; and serving as a search and rescue commander in the increasingly repetitive scenario of trying to return downed airmen to their families.
We got to “mix it up” almost every day in a threatening combat arena. We lost airplanes, otherwise accumulated holes in our aircraft, and generally had a ball as the North Vietnamese moved their forces in a three-pronged strategy south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, down Route 1 from North Vietnam directly into South Vietnam, and around the PMDL via naval transportation. In other words, Barky FACs earned their living the hard way, not unlike other USAF FACs in the Vietnam Conflict.
Project 404 was a well-kept secret throughout Southeast Asia. Every now and then, a tantalizing word would slip out of an inebriated Jolly Green HH-53 pilot’s mouth, or a fighter pilot who had been shot down in Laos might say he saw a cou- ple of long-haired, gold-festooned pilots in civilian clothes that flew unmarked FAC airplanes.
Each of us who ended up in the program has his own story on how he was selected to be a Raven. Common observations by supervisors were “no wife,” “independent spirit,” “creative war fighter,” “very aggressive,” “a bit too daring for his own good,” “a great pilot,” “stretches the rules of engagement,” “thinks he’s invincible,” “has a sixth sense about how to find the enemy,” “needs a bigger challenge,” “likes to take charge over difficult situations,” “doesn’t always respect authority,” and, my favorite, “he always seems to push the envelope.”
I think Burr had these same characteristics.