Drummed out of Vietnam, misfit American pilots had a choice: Face the music of military justice or go someplace where oddballs and rule breakers were appreciated. Dubbed the Ravens, they soon learned they could fly, fight, and drink as they pleased in a CIA-sponsored secret war. There was just one catch: They answered to General Vang Pao
A hail of bullets whizzed past the cockpit. Fred Platt peered down at a blanket of farms and rice paddies where a unit of Viet Cong — VC, in the shorthand of the tiresome war — stood in open country pointing rifles at his small, slow, unarmed airplane, a two-seat Cessna better suited for short hops between cities than the rigors of battle. The Cessna’s thin aluminum skin might as well have been tin foil where bullets were concerned, but in spite of the obvious peril, Platt smiled and circled back toward the source of the firing to keep the enemy soldiers in view. As he did, he called in a request for approval to mark their location.
This was Platt’s job. He searched for enemy convoys and encampments and blasted them with special smoke-marking rockets, which told American Air Force fighter pilots where to aim when they screamed through in jets. Forward Air Controllers were like scouts, bird dogs trained to find and point out the enemy. They flew in slow unarmed planes that frequently took fire, and they had a reputation for being brave sons of bitches, or at least crazy flyboys with more than a few screws loose. After spotting the enemy and marking them with smoke, Forward Air Controllers had to stick around dodging bullets until the Air Force strike came. They had some of the highest casualty rates of any pilots in the war. Platt was good at his job, one of the bravest in the country, but dodging incoming fire was only half the battle. Everything in the military followed a protocol, and Platt was one of the last rungs in an excruciatingly long chain of command. As the VC soldiers took pot shots at his racing plane, he had to sit tight and wait for approval to mark the target.
Minutes passed in silence. Finally, the radio came alive: Request denied. As usual, no reason was given.
Platt’s first instinct was to throw all three of his radios overboard. Instead, in frustration, he pulled away and headed back to base. This was not the war he dreamed of fighting. Like so many young men born in the wake of World War II, he had heard tales of the great fighter pilots duking it out for control of the skies. Platt dreamed of joining them and earned his wings one year after graduating from college. Boisterous and blunt, his swaggering personality was the embodiment of his home state of Texas. His love of cowboy boots and ten-gallon hats was matched only by his hatred of bureaucracy and contempt for the word “no.”
He would hear that word a lot in the service. When Platt joined the Air Force in 1963, the glory days of the World War II ace — the ultimate lone wolf dogfighting in the blue yonder — were long gone. In Vietnam, a new generation of pilots was forced to toe a strict line. During training, Platt had to memorize an encyclopedia’s-worth of recently established rules-of-engagement. First conceived to prevent unintended casualties in a complex jungle war, the rules had grown increasingly Byzantine. Instead of protecting civilians and friendly troops, new rules were conceived to cover the asses of politicians and top brass. Every unintended casualty could now be explained away by those running the war as a simple breach of protocol by some bad actor, and not the inevitable consequence of a prolonged and confused aggression in some far-off land.
Pilots had a particularly tough time with the rules. Forward Air Controllers were required to fly at an elevation of at least 1500 feet, high enough to mostly stay out of range of small arms fire. It was safer up there, which meant fewer friendly casualties that upper management had to answer for, but it was also a hell of a lot harder to see anything on the ground. If a pilot wanted to get a closer look and dipped lower, he risked court-martial. If he flew too high, he risked making a bad call and killing friendlies. Pilots like Platt stayed alive by trusting their gut and making quick decisions, but in Vietnam, the rules seemed designed to thwart them. “We weren’t really fighting a war,” Platt’s roommate, Air Force pilot Ed Gunter, remembers. “We were kind of fighting with one hand behind our back.” The joke around the chow hall was more macabre: Pilots weren’t allowed to kill the enemy until they had the enemy’s permission.
Exasperated, Platt had one ray of hope. He recalled a mysterious operation one of his instructors mentioned in the final days of training. After six months of service in Vietnam, pilots could apply for something called the “Steve Canyon Program.” The name derived from a popular military comic strip about a badass soldier who took on whole platoons by himself, but the instructor never explained what, exactly, the program was … or where it was located … or who ran it. But rumors floated around Vietnam that, wherever it was, there was a lot less bullshit.
Fed up with the strictures of war, Platt began making inquiries. Everyone had a theory: It was a suicide assignment for flyboys with discipline problems, a renegade faction within the American military establishment, a myth, a red herring.
Then, one day, a nameless man in civilian clothes showed up to Platt’s base. He seemed to know all about Platt’s interest in joining the secret program, and he began lobbing questions at the pilot. The man couldn’t get into details, he explained, but Platt was just the kind of cowboy he was looking for. “We want you.”
Platt, the boisterous Texan, signed up on the spot. He didn’t know it yet, but he had just joined a CIA-sponsored shadow war in a speck of a country most Americans had never heard of.
When Dwight D. Eisenhower handed the presidential baton to John F. Kennedy in 1960, one word weighed on his mind: Laos.
“If Laos is lost to the Free World,” Eisenhower told Kennedy, “in the long run we will lose all of Southeast Asia.” The day before Kennedy’s inauguration, Ike spent hours discussing the tiny country of 2.1 million with the president-elect.
Eisenhower firmly believed in “domino theory,” the idea that if one country in Indochina fell to communism the whole area would be lost. In the minds of most westerners of the day, the battle between capitalism and communism was a proxy war in the universal fight of good against evil. Communists, led by the USSR and China, wanted to take over every region of the earth to spread their godless ways, children were taught. Southeast Asia, destabilized by the end of colonialism and searching for a new identity, was the main prize of the day, and Laos was the country most vulnerable. By 1965, when the U.S. formally joined the hostilities in Vietnam, there were already more than 15,000 communist North Vietnamese soldiers in northern Laos, and American officials feared that the domino was about to fall — that communism would take hold in Southeast Asia and spread, inevitably, westward. In their opinion, all that stood in the way was a tribe of hill people called the Hmong.
A group of animist farmers living in the shadow of the Laotian mountains, the Hmong wanted little from the outside world other than to be left alone. Lowland Laotians maligned the Hmong as ethnic yokels, but the American government believed the hill people were strategically situated to stop the encroaching communist threat from North Vietnam. In the early 1960s, the United States began training Hmong tribesmen to fight the North Vietnamese in Laos. A young Hmong named Vang Pao assumed the role as their leader. A father figure, he became akin to a mythical hero, a Laotian avenger who commanded a ruthless guerrilla army of Hmong fighters.
Only in his 30s and already the highest-ranking Hmong officer in the Royal Laotian Army, Vang Pao had been born into conflict. As a boy he worked for the occupying French army and learned the art of warfighting communists, who began invading Laos as early as 1953. One day, the North Vietnamese ambushed a garrison he was fighting with. Vang managed to escape with a band of survivors and for weeks quietly guided them through thick, hostile jungle until the unit, exhausted and starving, stumbled upon an open expanse dotted with ancient stone funeral urns — the Plain of Jars. The North Vietnamese had tracked the survivors and cornered them there and it looked like Vang was finished. Then, a miracle, a group of French jets screamed overhead. Vang Pao watched as the planes turned the garrison he’d been carefully dodging into a cloud of hot dust. The incident was a religious experience for him, one that converted him to the High Church of Airpower.
Charismatic and cunning, Vang Pao would quickly rise to the rank of general — the only Hmong tribesman to attain the position — and take on a volatile edge that could make some around him nervous. The North Vietnamese were spilling the blood of his people, and he had no problem allying with the Americans to turn battlefields red in kind. In the late 1950s, when the U.S. began looking for Laotian leaders to groom, he was the obvious choice. One official claimed he was Genghis Khan incarnate. The U.S. government threw its support behind him and helped fund his guerilla army of 10,000. According to the Geneva accords, Laos was still technically neutral, so America’s support had to be kept secret. The job fell to the CIA.
The Hmong army under Vang Pao stood no chance against the North Vietnamese without air power. To that end, the CIA provided a skeleton crew of Forward Air Controllers that flew under the call sign “Butterfly” and radioed in airstrikes from the Air Force base in Udorn, Thailand. In 1966, the Butterflies were replaced by recruits from the Steve Canyon Program, men dubbed “Ravens.” The name was apropos: Ravens are agile, clever, and fearless. They are also harbingers of death.
The Ravens used intelligence supplied by the CIA, received air support from the Air Force, and reported to the American Embassy. But, in all practicality, they belonged to General Vang Pao.
To join the Ravens, Platt had to be reborn. He flew to Thailand, where his military record was transferred to a top-secret intelligence file. He handed over every memento that indicated he was an American soldier: dog tags, uniform, even his Air Force ID card. The process — called “sheep-dipping” — effectively wiped Platt off the earth. In Thailand, he awaited a briefing from a colonel whom he hoped would shed some light on the program he was joining. As one declassified report attests, these officials knew little of the secret program. “I am supposed to be your commander…” one colonel said to a batch of recruits. “I don’t really know what the hell is going on and I don’t have control over you. Goodbye.”
Next Platt was sent to Laos. In the country’s political capital of Vientiane, he received a Laotian driver’s license, a nickname, and a cover story. (Many Ravens became “forest rangers” or “agricultural advisers” with the U.S. Agency for International Development.) Finally, Platt was sent to the beating heart of the secret war: Long Tieng.
The city was a mystical contradiction, a blend of the Stone Age and Space Age. It was the second largest town in Laos but appeared on no maps. Sophisticated CIA telecommunications antennas sprouted from the ground beside ancient thatched huts without running water or electricity. Mules loafed down dusty roads next to piles of sparkling bombs. Hmong natives were dressed in traditional outfits while CIA guys who answered to nicknames like Black Lion, Kayak, Mr. Clean, and Igor looked as if they were about to play the back nine of Augusta. Young children frolicked naked in the streets. Older kids wore combat fatigues and toted automatic weapons. The city’s runway — at the time the busiest airport in the world — was surrounded on three sides by lush jungle and the sharp, slimy karst mountains that seemed to erupt from the earth. The closest mountain, situated near the end of the runway, was nicknamed “The Vertical Speedbrake.” At the CIA bar, or hooch, a cage wedged into a corner contained the Agency’s two pet Himalayan mountain bears, Floyd and Mamma. Supplied with bottomless beer, the bears were raging alcoholics.
Platt found himself among a motley band of like-minded Air Force misfits. There was Ron Rinehart, an Ohio farm boy nicknamed “Pig Fucker” who was once shot down in enemy territory while wearing alligator shoes, sharkskin pants, and an embroidered Barong Tagalog shirt but somehow made it home in time to cook everyone supper. There was Mike Cavanaugh, a Bay-area malcontent who joined the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang at age 15 and once stole a T-28 fighter from the air base in Udorn, Thailand. (When forced to explain why he swiped the jet, Cavanaugh innocently said: “I use them like Kleenex.”) It was a rogue’s gallery, and the place also seemed to buzz with the memories of Ravens who flew too close to the edge and tumbled right over to the other side — men like Ed “Hoss” McBride, a Mississippi country boy who wore a 10-gallon hat and kept a bag of candy in his plane so he could shower friendlies with sorties of bonbons and gum. One day, McBride spotted a crowd of smiling troops near a collapsed bridge and decided to circle around and airdrop them some goodies. As he reached into his candy bag, a single .30 caliber round tore through his chest. Turned out the waving troops below were North Vietnamese, and the candy man’s plane tumbled into the river.
Like the half dozen other Ravens stationed in Long Tieng, Platt was given a slow, unmarked, single-engine Cessna that could barely top 130 miles per hour — the equivalent of driving a golf cart when a tank was called for. But in this secret war he was permitted to putter at altitudes as low or high as he pleased and call in strikes as he deemed fit. He kept a Bowie knife and a bar of gold wrapped around his ankles and carried a pill of top-secret shellfish toxin in his pocket in case he ever landed behind enemy lines and felt the need to commit suicide. The planes the Ravens flew were pocked with bullet holes, but the freedom was well worth the risk to men like Platt. He called in more air attacks on his first flight assignment than he had during any one week flying in Vietnam. The first time he flew with Gunter, his new roommate, he brought a brown paper bag on board. Once airborne, he cracked open the can of beer inside. This was his kind of war.
“He had no qualms about going outside channels to get things,” Gunter says. “He would frequently disappear for a couple of days. He came back from one of those trips and he had a whole case of flechette rocket heads” — a type of incendiary rocket that resembles a lawn dart — “and where he got them, he never would tell me.”
The unpredictable Texan’s antics made him a favorite among Long Tieng’s children, who regularly gave him gifts in the form of exotic animals. After a pet tiger cub failed to pan out, the kids one day gave Platt a Himalayan black bear cub, which he named Ho Chi Bear. He even brought it flying.
There was only one ultimate authority, whom Platt and the Ravens regarded with a mix of fear and admiration: General Vang Pao. Vang was a contradiction, gracious yet ruthless. He showered local beggars with money and wept whenever his best soldiers died, and yet he had no trouble shooting his own men if he suspected disloyalty. He once even tried to kill an American journalist who snooped his way into the secret city. Any traitor lucky enough to live through his wrath was jailed in a small ditch covered by a 55-gallon drum. He also had no problem sending underperforming Ravens back to Vietnam. It was understood among the Americans that they were in Laos at his mercy. A new Raven like Platt could be forgiven for thinking that the general didn’t always have his best interests in mind. According to Pop Buell, an American humanitarian aid worker stationed in Laos, 60 percent of Vang Pao’s “men” were actually boys between the ages of 10 and 16. The rest were over 45. “Where were the ages in between?” Buell poses. “I’ll tell you — they’re all dead.” The war with the North Vietnamese was brutal, and Vang Pao seemed to have no qualms sending the men in the best fighting shape to their deaths in support of his cause, Ravens included.
Every evening, the general conferred with his war council over dinner at his private barracks. The men sat on the floor for hours, dipping their fingers into bowls of meat and leaves, and argued over men’s fates for the following day. Aggressive and demanding, Vang’s moods often determined who would live or die. Worse for the Americans, as his army continued to shrink, the general placed a larger and larger load on the pilots. Under his command, the Ravens had one of the highest casualty rates in Indochina.
The North Vietnamese had doubled their presence in Laos and successfully pushed into the Plain of Jars. Retaking the plateau, which was just 25 miles from Long Tieng, was vital, and Vang Pao planned an air assault called Operation Nighty-Night for that purpose. The plan was to smack the enemy with airpower from two directions: the south from Long Tieng and the west from a town called Muong Suoy. Platt was assigned to fly out of the latter and mark the enemy for American Air Force pilots.
The day before the attack, Platt was sitting in Muong Souy eating dinner with a CIA officer, an American sergeant, and a Royal Lao Army Colonel. An attaché officer named Joe Bush had cooked everybody steaks. Platt and Bush had only known each other for a few weeks but were already close friends. Weeks earlier, the duo had crash-landed a plane together — it was the kind of experience that had a way of bringing two people together. As the night wore on Bush, Platt, and the rest of the group told jokes and discussed the following day’s plans.
Partway through dinner, a knock came on the door. An Air Force mechanic had just finished fixing Platt’s plane for the next day’s mission and wanted somebody to fly him to Long Tieng. Platt sighed — it was late, and he had a mission to fly the next morning — but he obliged and begrudgingly delivered the mechanic to the secret city. Tired upon arriving, he decided to stay the night in Long Tieng and fly back to Muong Souy at oh-dark-thirty.
At 2:00 a.m., Platt groggily woke to the radio buzzing: “Muong Souy is under attack.” Just hours after Platt and the mechanic took off, a shoulder-fired B-40 rocket had screamed into the barracks. Joe Bush, who was resting at the other end of the building, survived the attack and ran out the front door. At the back of the complex, he saw two skulking shadows. Bush tossed a grenade and killed the men. As bullets whirred, Bush grabbed a rifle and sprinted across the compound toward the house where the CIA officer was bunking. Before he reached the front door, an enemy AK-47 cut him down.
When Platt landed at Muong Souy, he found his bed destroyed, the camp’s stockpile of weapons ablaze, and his friends dead. He turned on the radio to hear the Pathet Lao — a faction of Laotian communists sympathetic to the North Vietnamese — broadcasting the names of the Americans they had just killed. Platt heard his own name. Clearly, the enemy knew exactly who they were hitting. Platt’s mind raced. How did they get the intel? he wondered. Remembering the Lao Army colonel he had dined with the previous evening, he concluded the man must have been a rat.
The radio announcement and the dawning certainty of a betrayal pushed him over the edge. Listening to the enemy declare him dead only made him feel more alive — and livid. Platt took to the air in his plane. Using a radio detection finder to pinpoint the signal’s location, he managed to find the antenna where the Pathet Lao announcement was being broadcast. Each Raven carried a map that designated certain structures off limits. The building Platt identified was one of them. Platt fired a rocket of white phosphorus at it anyway.
“Hit my smoke,” he called over the radio.
Moments later, two F-4 Phantoms appeared over the mountains and transformed the radio tower — and a 37mm gun emplacement hidden in its shadow — into rubble.
Platt felt some measure of justice had been served. When he returned to base, though, he stepped into a shit storm. Even though the gun emplacement belonged to the Pathet Lao, the facility he blew up had been designated off-limits by the embassy. Platt had just violated one of the few unbreakable rules. The air attaché, whom the pilots reported to in-country, launched an investigation.
Platt, no stranger to disciplinary problems, knew the hammer was about to drop. But, miraculously, it didn’t. When a representative of the air attaché descended on Long Tieng to question the Ravens and C.I.A. officials, Vang Pao stepped in. His defense of Platt was succinct but effective: “He kill many enemy,” the general said. Rather than chastise the rule-breaker, Vang Pao complained, perhaps it was time to go after the rule-maker. The general argued for the U.S. to further loosen the rules of engagement in Laos so men like Platt could do their jobs. Within weeks, he got his way.
The general, Platt realized, was a kindred spirit, a man who admired action and regarded some of his American helpers, especially those with their noses stuck in rulebooks at the embassy, as educated fools. He believed “rules of war” to be a laughable contradiction. There was no “right” or “wrong” way to kill a person, no “humane” way to fend off an enemy trying to exterminate you.
Platt went back to flying. The more he began paying attention to Vang’s motivations, the more he began sympathizing with him. For Vang and the Hmong, the war was a matter of existential survival. The Pathet Lao made no secret of the fact that they wanted all Hmong dead. A communist newspaper would later say its goal was to destroy the Hmong “to the last root.” Vang Pao and his soldiers fought ruthlessly, but they fought for a cause. Desperation and bravery were a potent combination, and the Hmong fighters, led by the fearsome general, began earning the Ravens’ admiration.
One man in particular seemed superhuman, a diminutive Hmong schoolteacher named Lee Lue, one of the secret war’s first native fighter pilots. Lee Lue was a John Wayne-like folk hero — fearless, reckless, and tireless. He was known for buzzing the enemy so low that he’d return with blood splattered on his propellers. He flew all day and was rumored to have never missed a target. There were one-week spans when he fired more missiles than an American Vietnam pilot would fire during his entire tour. By the war’s end, he had flown more missions than any pilot in world military history.
The stakes of the war, along with daring of pilots like Lee Lue, rubbed off on Ravens like Platt. Living among the Hmong — in a city with steaming noodle carts, shops openly selling bricks of opium, and kids walking to school every morning — also had a way of softening the Ravens and instilling a sense of duty and purpose they may not have felt while tangled in the bureaucracy of Vietnam. “Here we are, a small group of American volunteers fighting side by side with a bunch of oppressed hill tribesmen who have the gall to take on the might of the North Vietnamese army,” Raven Mike Byers reflects in the The Ravens, a scholarly account by academic Christopher Robbins. If the war hadn’t been a secret, Byers said, he was certain he could convince “every grandma in the world into sending me her life savings to buy ammo.”
Platt, always a risk taker, began to revere Vang, and with his newfound commitment to a cause began flying harder than ever before. When approaching a target, bullets flying toward his windshield, he would rarely change his plane’s heading, speed, or altitude — moves known as jinking. He preferred instead to barrel straight over the enemy.
“Fred would hang it out,” Gunter says. “He wasn’t one to always take the safe route or always climb to higher altitudes. He did not have as much of a sense of self-preservation as some other pilots.”
Platt brought back planes so riddled with bullet holes they looked like Swiss cheese. Over the course of one year, he crashed 11 planes. His genius for attracting enemy fire prompted the Ravens to start calling him “Magnet Ass” and made him the butt of much good-natured ribbing. But in Vang Pao’s eyes, the ever-present patches of typhoon tape on Platt’s O-1 might as well have been stripes on the pilot’s uniform.
One afternoon, flying a Cessna U-17 with a rookie Laotian in the backseat, Magnet Ass had called in nine attacks and was preparing to return to base when the plane jolted, and the young back seater started to scream. Below, a Soviet anti-aircraft gun had locked onto the plane and launched a 14.5mm round that missed Platt by inches but turned the Hmong boy’s leg into spaghetti. White shards of bone poked from the oozing mass and blood pooled on the cockpit floor.
Platt yanked the plane away from the gunfire. With one free hand, he tried applying a tourniquet around the boy’s leg, but rivers of blood continued to gush from the wound. Platt took a breath. He stared at the instrument panel and ensured he was flying at a good altitude. Then he released the steering wheel, turned toward his backseater, and started guiding the plane with his feet. Unsheathing the Bowie knife he always kept around his ankle, Platt pushed the kid deep into the seat with his free hand to immobilize him and dug the blade into the wound. Cleaving into the boy’s flesh, Platt sawed through splintered bone while the backseater screamed, his eyes rolling back into his head. Finally, the leg plopped onto the floor. Platt tied a new tourniquet above the stump, squeezed the knot, and returned his red-stained hands to the steering wheel.
They landed at the nearest hospital base, where medics took his backseater away. The boy would live. Platt was back in the air within minutes. He had an anti-aircraft gunner to mark for bombing, and he knew just where to find him.
The Ravens and the Hmong formed a mutual respect, but trouble was brewing elsewhere. Not everyone was so charmed by Platt’s heroics or wooed by Vang Pao’s noble quest. At the 7/13th Air Force based in Thailand, American officers were thirsty for more control over the rowdy Ravens.
“The 7/13th was used to being in charge of everything Air Force, and they weren’t in charge of us,” Gunter says. “We worked for the Ambassador and the air attaché, and 7/13th was cut out of that whole thing. We got to direct their fighters and their air power without their approval, or OK, or head-nod. It was an uneasy truce.”
It didn’t help that Platt loved ruffling feathers whenever he was called to check in with the 7/13th. According to Clum, one day a hungover Platt barged into a colonel’s office without pausing to give a salute and barked, “I need you to authorize a medal … Bronze star, something for bravery!” He had just come back from a mission where he had seen some barges on the Mekong River. While the rules forbade him from bombing the barges directly, he ordered multiple blasts nearby that shook them loose from their moorings. After each blast, the barges drifted away, until a single scrappy enemy soldier crawled out of a spider hole, sprinted to the river, grabbed the rope, and tugged the barge back. “I want you to authorize a medal for this guy!” Platt told the colonel. “That’s the bravest little son of a bitch I ever saw in my life!” The colonel kicked Platt out of his office.
The uneasy relationship between the Air Force and the Ravens only intensified. By mid-1969, the secret war had escalated and Vang Pao was demanding more airpower than was being used on the whole of Vietnam. Naturally, the Air Force wondered what was going on in the supposedly neutral country. Newly-minted officers began hurling orders at CIA operatives while Air Force intel pukes tried convincing the Ravens to base attacks on grainy Air Force reconnaissance photos that were worth “sour owl shit,” according to one Raven. Air Force brass also began visiting Long Tieng with the intention of putting a bridle on the Ravens.
On one winter day, Major General Robert L. Petit of the 7/13th Air Force in Udorn showed up at the secret city with his aide, a second lieutenant. The timing was ill-chosen. Vang Pao was hosting a raucous going-away party in his residence for three departing Ravens. Guests at the party drank their fill of White Horse whiskey, laulau, and French cognac. Then the party moved to the CIA hooch, the most raucous watering hole in Southeast Asia, where the Air Force general was waiting.
Dressed in a sports jacket, General Petit was unrecognizable to most of the inebriated men walking in, though it probably wouldn’t have mattered if he’d been wearing a dress uniform. “Clean” Stanley Wilson, the Raven’s trusty airplane mechanic and an over-friendly drunk, barged up to the stranger with genuine affection, grabbing his wrist and twisting his arm behind his back into a hammerlock. “How the fuck are you, you stupid old son of a bitch!?” Wilson was smiling ear to ear; the general was not. The general’s aide, meanwhile, had been cornered by a CIA paramilitary officer nicknamed Igor, a verifiable tractor of a man and by no means a friendly drunk. Taking offense to one of the aide’s questions, Igor grabbed the man by the back of the neck and threw him through a glass window looming over the bear cage. Floyd the bear (who, like everybody else, was keen for another drink) pawed at the terrified aide to the delight of the room.
The night only got messier from there. Men drunkenly walked on the corrugated roofs while CIA officers threw darts at each other. The following morning, General Petit cracked. Seeing a body bag containing the remains of an Air Force officer slumped in a corner like a sack of potatoes, he asked a Raven what an American’s remains were doing dumped against a wall like that. The pilot looked at the bag as if considering the question carefully, and then shrugged: “Not a whole goddamn lot.”
In a now declassified report from this period, an Air Force colonel called the Ravens “non-professional, immature, and inexperienced.” General Petit’s description following his trip was more colorful: “The Raven FACs at Long Tieng are nothing but a ragged band of Mexican bandits.” Catching wind of the description, the Ravens pinned posters of Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa onto the hooch’s walls. Some even donned sombreros and serapes.
The Ravens clearly didn’t care what the higher-ups thought of them. They were working 10-hour days in life-and-death conditions with no time off. Vang Pao’s increasing need for airpower had them expending marking rockets at faster rates than ever, forcing some pilots to loop back to Long Tieng every hour just to restock. If anything, their off-hour shenanigans were an antidote to burnout, but it also gave outspoken men like Platt a shorter rope to cling to. According to Gunter, the higherups frankly preferred to see the pilot disappear.
Communist troops, meanwhile, were trying their damnedest to make that happen. After months with the Ravens, Platt was attracting so much gunfire that the native Hmong backseaters who helped navigate refused to fly with him. In an interview with Air and Space magazine, Raven Mike Cavanaugh recalled, “The backseaters hid behind the couch in their hooch when they saw Platt coming.” When he couldn’t win human company, Platt took Ho Chi Bear, the bear cub the local kids had given him, into the sky and let the lumbering animal sit wherever he liked. When Ho Chi Bear was killed by one of Long Tieng’s vicious stray dogs, Platt replaced his cuddly flying buddy with a new creature he bought from some children in Long Tieng — a species of armored anteater called a pangolin. To Platt, who’d never seen such a thing, the creature might as well have been a dinosaur. He named it “Critter.”
Platt and Critter became inseparable. Silly as it seemed to outsiders, the new pet fulfilled a need for companionship. The pilot moseyed around Long Tieng with the animal clinging to his arm. Like Ho Chi Bear, Critter was unfazed by flying in combat zones and would even give Platt kisses in the heat of a bombing. But one evening in the Raven’s hooch the creature took a few licks of a spilled martini, convulsed, rolled over, and stiffened dead.
Raven Mike Byers wrote a poem in Critter’s memory:
With fixed, unblinking armored eye,
He calmly steered Fred through the sky.
The Critter flew without rebuke,
For unlike some he’d never puke.
While Navy poges may claim his doom,
The Critter shot down Colonel Tomb.
Alas the Critter had to fall,
To something that can claim us all.
T’was “Mother’s Ruin” did him in:
A tiny sip of Bombay gin.
Platt never found the poem funny. He was heartbroken. “I lived with death all the time, saw it all day long, but the death of Critter was more shocking and moving to me than the death of a strange human I didn’t know,” he’d later tell historian Christopher Robbins. He tearfully preserved his friend in an empty mayonnaise jar filled with rum, vodka, and gin.
The loss of Critter came at a particularly difficult moment. Vang Pao and the Hmong, in whom Platt had found a worthy cause to channel his warrior impulses, weren’t winning. Even with the Americans calling in an endless assault of bombs and missiles, the general’s cause was beginning to feel hopeless. As the Hmong army got younger and smaller, Vang Pao was no longer able to capitalize on gains made by the airstrikes. There simply weren’t enough friendly troops on the ground to take over the positions the Ravens helped destroy.
The low point came in July 1969 when an enemy anti-aircraft gun finally found Lee Lue, the exceptional Hmong pilot. For the next three days, all airpower was grounded as the dead Laotian received an extravagant funeral that attracted dignitaries from across the region. Considered invincible by so many after more than 5,000 missions, Lee Lue’s death shook the Ravens’ confidence, though the impact was even greater for the Hmong fighters, for whom Lue was a powerful symbol of hope. Vang Pao sobbed non-stop through the ceremony. With Lue gone, the Hmong army dwindling, and American commanders beginning to question the strategy in Laos, the tides of the war seemed to be turning inextricably against him and his men.
As for Platt, he was treading on increasingly thinner ice. His habit of routinely destroying pricey aircraft did not endear him to anybody at the embassy or Air Force office. And his default disdain for office-squatting superiors had only grown worse with his time in Laos: When Platt disagreed with a higher officer, he had no qualms looking him in the eyes and calling him a stupid motherfucker. “He was pretty ruthless,” Gunter recalls. “If somebody was not doing their job, he wasted no words.”
Usually, though, he spoke with action.
Planes were routinely grounded during storms. But on one torrential day, Platt was caught flying through a downpour when he heard a familiar brief over the radio. Enemy troops were attacking a strategic hilltop held by Vang Pao’s men. The Lao controlled dozens of redoubts, small temporary fortifications made from piled earth, on the hills surrounding the Plain of Jars, and they were routinely attacked by the North Vietnamese. Platt flew to the area and tried to drop below the cloud line, but his plane was tossed wildly by storm-winds. His Laotian backseater became hysterical and started shrieking, “We no fly!” Platt tried to steady the plane and get a look at what was happening below, but he simply couldn’t see. Then the radio buzzed again. It was the air attaché’s office: All fighter jets were grounded due to weather. Even if Platt could get a fix and fire his phosphorous rockets, the jets wouldn’t be swooping in to mop up. There would be no airstrikes today.
Platt sighed and turned his plane toward Long Tieng, resigned to playing cards. Back at the base, Platt hopped out of the plane and joined the others. They were just dealing a hand when a radio nearby crackled to life. The gathered men had to look at each other to see if they’d heard correctly. It was Vang Pao himself, and he was frantic:
“Please help. Need Raven. Need Raven now.”
The men on the hilltop were being shredded. The North Vietnamese had used the storm as cover for a full-force attack, wagering correctly that the Americans wouldn’t fly in such rotten weather. Vang Pao either didn’t know or didn’t care that all of the fighters in Laos were grounded.
There was nothing Platt or any of the other Ravens could do: The pilots could blast the site with marking rockets all day, but it wouldn’t make a difference if the Air Force didn’t send fighters to finish the attack. Even if they did have air support, the fighters wouldn’t be able to see their marks. The group lamented the rotten luck. Their inaction especially gnawed at Platt. Vang Pao had saved him on more than one occasion, stepping in front of a sure-fire court martial. The swarthy general was dedicated to his men to the last and would never have abandoned a comrade. The sting of Lee Lue’s death also came back. Lue would have flown through the storm to hurl rocks at the North Vietnamese from above, if that’s what it took. Platt and the others? They were stuck on the ground playing cards.
Quickly, the Ravens began spitballing. What if we don’t need attack planes? What if WE were the attack planes? The idea had a lunatic appeal for the men. None of the Ravens had joined the military to become Forward Air Controllers; at some point they had all dreamed of becoming fighter pilots. It seemed their chance had arrived. There were no attack planes sitting in Long Tieng, but there were plenty of grenade launchers, machine guns, and explosives for the taking.
A plan came together quickly. The group would take three planes, with a pair of Ravens per aircraft. They’d fly in formation following Platt, who was the only one who could reliably navigate the thick cloud-cover. When they reached the site, the Raven in the backseat would open the cockpit window, grab the weapon of his choice, and rain hell on the North Vietnamese. It was bonkers, everyone realized, and extremely illegal. Pilots were forbidden from taking off in such hazardous conditions. It was also illegal to fly in formation without authorization, illegal to use recon aircraft as attack planes, and illegal to use a secret stockpile of weapons without authorization. Heightening the stakes for Platt, the Air Force had been looking for any excuse to drum him out of Laos. He was a figurehead, a mascot to the Ravens, and this would be the last straw. Platt was sure to get the lion’s share of the blame, and then it was the brig and a dishonorable discharge.
It didn’t matter. Six Ravens signed on. With Fred Platt taking the lead, three O-1 Birddogs took off from Long Tieng and ascended into the cloudburst, all without so much as a word to the air attaché or the embassy. It was a cold, bumpy flight through clouds like soup, and each man had all the time he needed to confront the gravity of his decision. As they approached the battleground, Platt dropped below the weather system and looked down to find a flaming arrow on the jungle floor. In their desperate bid for air support, trusting that the Raven’s would somehow engineer a miracle, Vang Pao’s troops had doused dozens of trees with accelerant to point the pilots toward the enemy’s position, harkening back to Genghis Khan’s leather and bamboo “rockets.” Without this marker, the two sides would have been impossible to distinguish.
The Ravens followed the flames. Flying along a valley in hopes of sneaking up on the enemy, they dropped altitude and flicked the treetops. Buzzing in a chaotic swarm, they strafed the North Vietnamese with automatic machine gun fire. They chucked fragmentation grenades, which spray shrapnel as they explode, out the windows and aimed rocket launchers into the trees until the hilltop resembled the moon. In their slow planes, incoming fire was impossible to dodge. Even so, each pilot kept his altitude low to give the man in the backseat the best possible chance of hitting something.
That afternoon the Ravens turned the jungle black and orange. At the end of the improvised assault, 60 enemy troops were dead. Those still alive began to flee, and the Hmong — who minutes earlier had been camped out on the perimeter contemplating the great beyond — chased in pursuit. As he had years earlier fighting for the French, Vang Pao and his men had once again been saved by a miracle on the Plain of Jars.
With the weather the only thing left to battle, the Ravens returned home, where they drank to a job well done. They also drank to ultimate victory for their Hmong brothers.
As expected, when the air attaché office in Vientiane learned of the attack, court martial proceedings were considered. The Ravens had orchestrated an egregious offense to the rules of war and broken more laws than would fit on an official charge sheet. Platt’s derring-do was finally going to get him kicked out of Laos, and then some.
Even so, none of the men, least of all Platt, regretted his decision. They had come to the jungle to do a job. General Vang Pao had asked for help. Not offering would have been a dereliction of duty, to say nothing of honor.
Vang Pao saw it like they did, of course. As the air attaché prepared the case against the pilots involved, the general threw them a bacchanalian party. At dinner, he insisted Platt sit on one side of him. They should be giving this man the Air Force Cross! the general proclaimed, toasting Platt’s courage.
Behind the scenes, the general went to work on the Ravens’ behalf, demonstrating a political deftness that belied his ruthless fighting style. Fact was, the war in Vietnam was going poorly, and the Americans still needed Vang and his army of Hmong fighters to stem the flow of supplies to the North Vietnamese. Eventually, after much cajoling, the air attaché bended to the general’s will. Court martial proceedings were dropped. In the end, most of the Ravens involved were given medals thanks to Vang’s lobbying. Two of the pilots were awarded the Silver Star, and their three bomb-dropping, grenade throwing, machine-gun strafing assistants received the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Platt was too high on the official shit list for the Air Force to consider pinning a medal on him for what many higherups considered a reckless and illegal mission. The ringleader, therefore, received nothing. In honor of Platt’s bravery, and on behalf of all Hmong people, Vang presented Platt with a traditional musket, along with a flash pan cover made of monkey skin, in an improvised ceremony. Platt grinned ear to ear.
In January 1970, on his 745th combat mission, Platt’s luck finally ran out. He and a virgin backseater were flying an O-1 east of Long Tieng. It was overcast and they puttered over the cloud line looking for gaps in the mist below. The clouds were too thick, so Platt, who was itching to give the new guy something to do, set course to a pile of uncamouflaged oil barrels near the Plain of Jars he’d recalled seeing earlier. Rather than call in a fighter, he decided to destroy the combustible tanks himself with his phosphorous marking rockets.
As Platt dipped under the clouds, a hail of green tracer rounds pinged the aircraft, which instantly began to cough oil. Flames hugged the cockpit. Platt shut down his engine and looked for a place to bring down his flying chimney. Ahead, behind a looming karst ridge, lay a wide valley of rice paddies and a two-lane highway flanked by steep banks. Spewing a trail of black smoke, Platt dropped to an elevation of just 15 feet and aimed for one of those banks. At the last second, he lifted the nose in an attempt to initiate what’s called an Alaskan Bush Landing, a set of tactics used in the absence of runways. But the plane was moving too fast and the tail scraped across the dirt road in a shower of sparks. As the O-1’s belly smacked violently into the bank, Platt’s shoulder strap snapped, and momentum thrust his head into the cockpit’s crossbar. His face went one direction, his nose another, and the plane somersaulted onto its back.
Hanging upside-down from his waist seatbelt, Platt unclipped himself and grabbed a shoulder bag of ammo, a submachine gun, and a grenade launcher. Then he threw the dazed backseater over his shoulder. With ammo over one shoulder and a Hmong boy over the other, Platt sprinted the length of a football field to a ditch. There, he watched as enemy soldiers crowded around his smoking airplane.
Miles away, Air Force choppers had heard the Raven’s mayday call and were hovering uselessly over the airbase awaiting permission to leave. Air Force commanders were mulling whether the rescue would be too risky. Fortunately, a helicopter pilot named Dave Anckleberg heeded the call. He didn’t need anybody’s approval to take action — he was with Air America, the C.I.A’s secret cargo and passenger airline, an outfit spiritually and temperamentally aligned with the Ravens. Anckleberg chucked his cargo onto the tarmac and took off, heading toward the downed pilot. Facing heavy fire, he landed within feet of the stranded men and took them home.
The following morning, Platt couldn’t move. Doctors discovered that, along with a broken nose, Platt had shattered his spine and was paralyzed from the neck down. Somehow, riding a heavy dose of adrenaline, he had managed the dash from his airplane with 100 pounds over both shoulders and no clue he had broken his back.
Vang Pao would have to learn to fight without him. For the next three years new Ravens came and went, helping the Hmong army hold the line against the encroaching North Vietnamese. At noon on February 22, 1973, the American ceasefire forced the Ravens to power down their engines. Predictably, the North Vietnamese staged a new series of attacks in Laos, and Vang Pao’s child army was left to fight them on their own.
Two years later, as communists closed in on Long Tieng, Vang Pao begrudgingly boarded a C.I.A. chopper that lifted him to safety. Soon after, the secret city fell.
For the Ravens, news that America had abandoned the Hmong and their cause was deeply painful. The pilots, who had come to Laos to fight a war uninhibited, all left having found a much greater purpose. Not everybody who came to fight in Indochina could say that.
Many weeks after his accident, Platt was in the officer’s club in Udorn, Thailand, drinking and boisterously singing the praises of the Air America pilot who had saved him when the Air Force refused to take the risk. Surrounded in a sea of uniforms and buzzcuts, the long-haired and flamboyantly-dressed Texan stuck out. Not only was he carrying crutches and wearing a neck brace, he was speaking loud enough for all to hear.
“There’s isn’t one of them who wouldn’t fly into the most horrendous fire to pick up the guy,” Platt said of Air America’s pilots. He believed the man who rescued him should be awarded a medal.
Sitting at a table across the room, an Air Force colonel, flanked by two lieutenant colonels, scowled at the injured Raven.
“Goddamn Air America pilots — run around with all them goddamn long-haired hippies,” the colonel grumbled.
Platt overheard the colonel and smirked. The comment had been meant for him. In a voice loud enough for the whole bar to hear, Platt answered:
“There are a lot of people who get to be full colonels in the Air Force who are so full of shit that you can smell them all the way across a barroom.” The Air Force, in Platt’s opinion, hadn’t had the balls to save him.
In an instant, the colonel was standing over the pilot. Platt gave his drink some much needed attention and spoke into the bottom of the glass.
“Fuck you, colonel,” he said. “You’re so full of shit you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Suddenly, a pale blur careened toward Platt’s head. Despite his injury, Platt somehow blocked the colonel’s punch, lifted himself onto a barstool, and thrust his still-paralyzed legs upward — kicking the colonel squarely in the chin. Both men tumbled to the ground.
The following morning, everybody in Udorn was talking about the crippled CIA guy in civvy clothes who had socked a full-bird colonel in the face with his boot.
“Everybody’s looking for you,” an airman at the squadron office told Platt. “They want a piece of your ass.”