They never existed …

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They never existed at an air base that never was and fought a war that never happened. These were the “Ravens” that participated in the secret war in Laos. Their story was told at the March 9 meeting of the Pattaya City Expats Club by club member Mike Cavanaugh. He mentioned that, “Our mission was so top secret that we flew without uniforms or identification of any kind.”

Mike was a Raven Forward Air Controller in Laos in 1969 and is now a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, having left the air force in 1987. His decorations include the Silver Star, five Distinguished Flying Crosses, Bronze Star, 28 Air Medals, and the Vietnam Combat Ribbon.

Mike and his family gathered with Chairman Pat for a group picture following the talk.Mike and his family gathered with Chairman Pat for a group picture following the talk.

He explained that the Ravens were a group of fighter pilots known as Forward Air Controllers (FACs) who flew small, propeller-driven airplanes during the Vietnam War in an effort to disrupt the North Vietnamese supply lines along a portion of the Ho Chi Minh trail that ran through Laos. The fighting in Laos involved the North Vietnamese Army and U.S., Lao, Thai, and South Vietnamese forces directly and indirectly.  The reason the mission of the Ravens was so secret was that the U.S. had agreed at the 1962 Geneva Conference to keep Laos neutral.

PCEC member Mike Cavanaugh was a Raven Forward Air Controller in Laos in 1969. “They never existed, at an air base that never was, and fought a war that never happened.” PCEC member Mike Cavanaugh was a Raven Forward Air Controller in Laos in 1969. “They never existed, at an air base that never was, and fought a war that never happened.”

At the time he was accepted, he knew he was volunteering for something; but did not know what. He turned in his AF Uniform and ID information, was sent to a base in Laos where they wore civilian clothing and when flying, black jump suits with no identifying insignia. He even lost his name, being identified as Raven 48 throughout his time there.

When Mike was flying his missions in 1969, near Long Thien in Laos, there were only eight ravens there at the time. In all, there were about 150 Ravens. One-third were killed in battle; another third have since died. Of the 50 or so Ravens still alive, Mike is the only one living in Southeast Asia. About 35 Ravens attend a reunion that is held each year. No Raven was ever captured.

Mike said that he was the first one to fly the T-28 aircraft, which the Ravens used on their missions. The pilots flew very close to the ground. Mike said that he considered anyone who flew above him to be an astronaut, and anyone who flew below him to be suicidal.  Further, on a typical day, he would get up before dawn, eat, fly a combat mission at dawn for three hours in his armed T-28, come back for lunch, fly out again for four hours as a FAC in the O-1 Bird Dog, come back for a one-hour break, and then fly again for three more hours – a total of 10 hours of flying in a day.  Mike said that he flew more combat hours in one week than he had done in a month when he was on tour in Viet Nam. (Mike volunteered for four tours of duty in Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.)

Chairman Pat Koester presents Mike with a Certificate of Appreciation for one of the most interesting talks PCEC has had in its long history.Chairman Pat Koester presents Mike with a Certificate of Appreciation for one of the most interesting talks PCEC has had in its long history.

The Ravens’ mission was so hush-hush that even the U.S. Air Force did not know of their existence. During one testy conversation Mike had with someone from the Air Force, the person said, “I am going to talk to your commander” – to which Mike replied, “Good! Let me know who he is!”

Mike said that the Ravens had to cook for themselves. But they got tired of this, so when visiting Udon Royal Thai AFB, they “kidnapped” a cook of Mexican extraction and brought him back to do the cooking which improved morale and pleased the cook, who enjoyed the lack of military officiousness.  Mike recounted that one morning the cook didn’t feel like making breakfast for him at the early hour he wanted it prior to his morning mission. So Mike took him along in the cockpit of his plane when he went on that morning’s mission bringing back a much shaken individual. The next morning, the cook woke him with the question “how do you want your eggs?”

The mission of the Ravens was to support indigenous forces in Laos in their fight against invading forces from North Vietnam. In that context, Mike met and worked closely with General Vang Pao, the leader of the Hmong forces in Laos that fought alongside the Royal Lao government against the communist Pathet Lao in what historians call the Laotian “civil war.” Lasting from 1953 to 1975, it is also known as the “secret war.”

The story of the Ravens was told in a book by Christopher Robbins, “The Ravens: The Men Who Flew in America’s Secret War in Laos.” The author has since died, as have five of the eight Ravens profiled in the book. Mike is one of the remaining three. Mike mentioned that the book is now out of print.

Mike said he was an unorthodox officer who liked to do things his own way. He violated all the rules. “There were rules we were supposed to follow, but no one checked, so in practice there were no rules. It was heaven!”

Wikipedia notes that: “The screening system tended to select experienced Forward Air Controllers who were the most aggressive available pilots for directing close air support, as well the least amenable to being restricted by regulation.”  For more of their history, visit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raven_Forward_Air_Controllers. Visit the Raven’s organization website where they officially call themselves the Edgar Allan Poe Literary Society, Inc. at: http://www.ravens.org. Visit https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=OEqqB_4vH8E for a video of a T-28 in action over Laos.

After Mike answered many questions, Master of Ceremonies Richard Silverberg brought everyone up to date on upcoming events and called on Roy Albiston to conduct the always informative Open Forum where questions are asked and answered about Expat living in Thailand, especially Pattaya.

For more information about the Pattaya City Expats Club’s activities, visit www.pcecclub.org. (Photos by Urasin Khantaraphan)