I volunteered for a secret mission in the mountains of Northern Laos. I arrived at Long Tieng in early December 1969 after six months and 500 hours of combat flying with the 5th Special Forces Montagnard Mike Force in South Vietnam. The Cessna O 1 Bird dog was my first combat aircraft. She was slow and underpowered but visibility from her cockpit was exceptional. Her open windows and unrestricted view was the key to effective Forward Air Control operations.
Ravens in MR II were airborne over the battlefield eight to ten hours a day defending villages and fortified hilltop positions from merciless NVA assault. Our mission was to fly and fight in support of the charismatic Hmong Warlord, General Vang Pao. He loved his fighters as sons. We were proud to call him our General. He led from the front and we all honored and respected his cunning fatherly leadership. The US embassy, CIA operatives and their contract airlines Air America, and Continental Air Service gave Master Vang their total support. He ran the show his way and was able to neutralize a far superior military force with quick reaction helicopter assault maneuver tactics and US air power as artillery.
In late February, 1970, I began flying the North American AT-28D. I loved her performance and ordinance that allowed me to take the fight to the invading enemy forces without bureaucratic or operational delays. Jerry Rhien, my leader and one of the greatest fighter pilots ever, gave me a T-28 flight manual, and checklist. Learn these by Wednesday, he said. You have earned the right to fight with better equipment. I thanked him with a grin.
I checked out in the T-28D-5 at Udorn, RAFB Thailand. My instructor was a crusty special operator who had been training allied pilots to fly this trainer fighter. I remember thinking that his job was probably more dangerous than mine. Maybe the military assistance program was in my future. I liked the idea. Seven patterns and landings, and 3 GCA’s under the hood later, I was ready for a very high key, power off, full flap approach to a full stop and turn off at the 1000 foot marker event. The crosswind was twenty two knots. Piece of cake. The next day we went to the range for guns and rocket training. I liked it. After a heavy emergency procedure and flight manual oral grilling my instructor signed my T-28D5 qualification. I flew back to the Laotian frontier in my flashy attack fighter singing songs along the way. I did some max performance maneuvers of my own design, willerdillia maxim us.
In the air, over Phou Bia mountain, I named my powerful new chariot “Tanga Nomad“. From then on, I spoke to her as a new adoring lover. She could purr or roar, and I caressed her throttle as she did. I recognized her high angle of attack stall vibration warning and respected her quick pivot reversals. With opposite rudder lead in, her snap roll rate was exceptional. At full power, close to the ground, nearing the stall, flaps ten, she would turn like a purple martin and power to the climb without a whimper or shudder. Wow, what a leap in ability this aluminum lovely gave me. Her feel and response was tight and very similar to the T-37 primary jet trainer I had flown in pilot training just last year. She had duel 50 cal machine guns in her shoulders, six hard points below her wings holding 2.75 in rocket pods. Tanga’s legs were three hours long providing us with plenty of endurance to stay in the fight to the end. Tanga stabled more than 1400 horses under her cowl to roar on the wings of the wind.
Tanga's low wing obstructed lateral visibility of ground events. She required we fly inverted and back again regularly to maintain visual contact with targets, friendlies, and ordinance impact. When right side up, visual contact with striking fighters was excellent. We usually carried 28 rockets, a mix of white phosphorous, high explosive and flechettes. Tanga was an accurate dive bomber, strafe and rocket delivery platform. Her climb rate, armament and Yankee extraction
seat compensated for her restricted visibility and occasional stubborn attitude. Her acceleration, dive, strike, and zoom escape capability were life preserving. “Tanga” was a tough lady with a large three bladed prop up front to absorb flack and projectiles before reaching me. She just kept clanking all the way home after serious battle damage.
I found boyish satisfaction in her guns while strafing trucks, bulldozers, and the occasional disabled PT 76 tank carcass. This endeavor was adrenaline candy? This was war by malicious deception. No rules at the forward edge of the battle. No quarter given or expected; no military ID or Geneva convention card here. Fly and fight every day; sleep with one eye open. We can discuss the morality of war when this is all over. To many, we never did. They died for a cause greater than themselves; another man's freedom.
Phou Nok Kok mountain, which overlooked the Ban Ban valley, was VP’s Eastern most outpost. Surrounded, bombarded, overwhelmed with great loss, she fell to continuous night time mortar attacks, sniper fire, sapper penetrations and siege. Next, Lima Lima, our on the PDJ runway strong hold fell to similar sapper attack, accurate artillery fire and relentless pressure of a brutally overwhelming enemy army. Site 32 North of the PDJ was evacuated before complete annihilation, and Muong Soui on the western PDJ became a no-mans land. The forward edge of the battle was now the first ridgeline south of the PDJ. B-52 Archlight bombing began with earnest. By the end of March 1970, sappers were raiding the Long Tieng valley facilities by night and 122mm rockets impacted near the runway destroying aircraft. We could be over run any time. In a firefight for our lives, our nasty unkindness of Ravens would have persevered. We wanted to remain at Long Tieng as a vow of solidarity with the Hmong fighters who would stay there until the very end.
The Embassy decision was for the Raven FAC’s and our aircraft to skedaddle to Vientiane and operate from there until the NVA were driven back to the PDJ. The weather closed in for a week or more giving the NVA time to position, dig in and conceal their location without discovery. The stage was set for ambush and the NVA seemed to have new directions. Shoot every aircraft within range immediately. Take no prisoners.
Raven 41 was a very experienced Raven, soon to rotate stateside. He was an O 1 tactics instructor and T-28 driver with nerve and skills. When the rain stopped, he squeezed into the back seat of an O 1 with the a brand new Raven and all of their gear for an orientation flight. They took off heavy weight toward 20A, just 55 miles North. The weather that morning was marginal in the mountains. They were not to be heard from again. We searched everywhere, flew up every gorge and mountain stream bed. We scanned every ridge and karsts for signs of wreckage or survival. No joy, No signs, Nothing. For a short moment we were blistered psychologically. War was now Hell, not an adventure, no good times sings at the bar. Shock and anger took over some of us. Losing friends without a trace made us sleepless, sad and very mad.
Then less than a month later, we lost two more, new pilots on their first trip to 20A from Vientiane. It started out as a positioning Flight to 20A, Both men died in a 37mm shoot down of their U-17B near the Ban Ban valley western wall. That was their first and last combat mission in northern Laos. Why they ventured near the deadly Ban Ban, 40 miles east north east of 20A, I could not imagine and do not speculate. They were novices to the area and it's hidden AAA batteries. I am sure that decisions made were well intended and seemed appropriate to them. It is not productive or necessary to second guess dead men and senior warriors. We just accepted that everyone did the best they could at the time. Then you try to move on with the mission without dwelling sadly on the possible causes of the tragedy. The lesson learned; Big Guns bite hard. Beware! Take care!
What battle is next for the Ravens? Please read (the soon to be published) books “Low and Slow” and “Raven Chronicles“.
Helen Murphy © 2009-2017 All Rights Reserved
CHAPAKAO TANGO Ban Ban Valley, Laos 1970 Photo courtesy Raven William E. Platt Collection
CHAPAKAO TANGO BY WILLIAM E. PLATT
Most of the heroic Hmong fighter pilots, call sign "Chapakao", grew up in remote mountain villages near the Plaines des Jarres, Kingdom of Laos. Chosen specifically for courage and aptitude, they quickly became USAF, Special Operations trained, T-28D, Combat Pilots. The war came to them and their people through no fault of their own. All they wanted was to be left alone and free. "All gave some, Some gave all" In total, there were 35 "Chapakao" during the intense war years. 17 died in combat defending their family, homes and sacred mountains. Their bravery and tenacity will always be remembered by the Ravens who daily witnessed their very low altitude heroism, devastating accuracy, and superior grit in the face of very big guns. We were brothers in arms, fighting a common enemy, flying the great T-28D fighter bomber. This image was captured on January 23rd, 1970. The Ban Ban Valley was filled with 37mm, 23mm, 14.5mm guns and flack traps protecting route 7 truck park complexes. Command Bunkers were the target of this three ship, air strike by Chapakao Tangos. They delivered their weapons on target and returned to Lima site 20A. In January and February 1970, Yang Xion, Vang Xeur, and Vang Cheng were the only flight of Chapakao. Each pilot flew 3 or more sorties per day; too often, until they died in combat. Other brave men then filled the gap and flew with honor.
Will Platt interview conducted by Maikou Xiong.
Hmong TV, Mitch Lee Executive Producer
August 28, 2015 Minneapolis, MN
Forward Air Controller Monument at Hurlburt Field
click on photo for more information
Photograph courtesy Raven William E. Platt Collection
TANGA NOMAD by William E. Platt
My call sign was Raven 43. I was a Forward Air Controller trained to find enemy targets and destroy them by directing fighter aircraft weapons on their location.