Thursday, September 20, 2012

Ravens Over Laos: Inside the Legendary Steve Canyon Program

(pulp hero and professional adventurer Steve Canyon was the subject of a long-running comic strip)
As the war dragged in, so the myth grew. It started in the mid-1960s as a mix of gossip and bar talk among a battle-hardened elite who told stories that seemed fantastic to everyone who heard them. Apparently, there was another war even nastier than the one in Vietnam, and so secret that the location of the country in which it was being fought was classified. The cognoscenti simply referred to it as "the Other Theater." The men who chose to fight in it were handpicked volunteers, and anyone accepted for a tour seemed to disappear as if from the face of the earth. 

The pilots in the Other Theater were military men, but flew into battle in civilian clothes---denim cutoffs, T-shirts, cowboy hats, and dark glasses, so people said. They fought with obsolete propeller aircraft, the discarded junk of an earlier era, and suffered the highest casualty rate of the Indochinese War---as high as 50 percent, so the story went. Every man had a price put on his head by the enemy and was protected by his own personal bodyguard. Each pilot was obliged to carry a small pill of lethal shellfish toxin, especially created by the CIA, which he had sworn to take if he ever fell into the hands of the enemy. The job was to fly as the winged artillery of some fearsome warlord, who led an army of stone-age mercenaries in the pay of the CIA, and they operated out of a secret city hidden in the mountains of a jungle kingdom on the Red Chinese border.

 It certainly sounded farfetched, yet the talk emanated from people who commanded respect. Men like the Special Forces soldiers who fought behind enemy lines, CIA case officers who lived in the field year after year, and the fighter pilots who flew over North Vietnam. The pilots spoke of colleagues who had vanished into a highly classified operation code-named the Steve Canyon Program. 

When such men reappeared they had gone through a startling metamorphosis. In the military world of spit, polish, and crew-cuts, they stood apart: some sported long-hair and mutton-chop whiskers or curling, waxed mustachios, and many wore heavy gold bracelets and GMT Master Rolex watches with wide gold bands. If they happened to be on the edge of a combat zone they carried a 9mm pistol (Browning Hi-Power) in a shoulder holster, the preferred weapon of the professional soldier of fortune. And, like a caste mark, each wore a 22-carat gold ring that had an oriental royal crest set into a red cloisonne top, with a roughly cut piece of locally procured diamond at its center. 

The greatest change of all was not in their appearance, but in their manner. Self-confident to the point of arrogance and disdainful of anyone outside their own group, they had the distant air of people inducted into a powerful and mystical secret society. Insiders who worked with them knew these pilots as the Ravens. It was only natural that such a romantic group should generate talk. That almost all of it was true, in one form or another, was never established at the time. The secrecy of their activities, and the very fact of their actual existence, was guarded throughout the war. Even the Air Force colonels whose job it was to interview new pilots for the program had no clear idea of what the mission involved. ...

The passage above reads like something out of a Lustbader novel, but it actually is taken from "The Ravens: The True Story of a Secret War", a remarkable book of military history by Christopher Robbins.  Robbins, who has also chronicled Air America, the Central Intelligence Agency's airline, captures the outlaw character of these independent, heroic pilots in a number of vignettes and descriptions. 

 The Steve Canyon Program

The Raven pilots were indoctrinated into the secret war in Laos via a classified USAF program that was code-named "Steve Canyon."  Canyon was a comic-strip flyboy hero created by Milton Caniff and syndicated to several hundred newspapers in the United States.  He was portrayed as a square-jawed, blond All-American type and came into being in 1947 ("significantly, the same year that the Air Force and Central Intelligence Agency were created").  His background legend had him as a former Ohio State football player who flew combat missions in World War II and then returned home to set up a private pilot service, Horizons Unlimited, that specialized in difficult, exotic jobs.

Canyon was "dedicated to bachelorhood, with a girl in every airport."  He later moved full-time to the Orient and began running military operations again.

As Robbins notes, "The Air Force wag who gave the (Raven) program its name could not have dreamed how accurately he had described the sort of man the mission needed, or how many potential Canyons there would be willing to join it."

Becoming a Raven

The men who would eventually fly secret missions in Laos started as FAC---Forward Air Controller---pilots over Vietnam.  FACs had an inherently dangerous job:  they flew slow, unarmored Cessna "Bird Dog" prop planes at low altitudes in order to draw enemy fire and provide situational awareness/control functions for "fast-movers" (bombers), helicopters inserting and extracting ground troops, and so on.

A good FAC needed a fighter pilot's mentality but was obliged to operate at the pace of a World War I biplane.  Until as late as 1971 the FACs flew Cessna 0-1 Bird Dogs, fore-and-aft two-seater, high-wing monoplanes, most of which had been built for the Army in the 1950s, although production continued until 1961.  The Air Force felt that it was inadequate for its task in Vietnam.  It had no armor, lacked self-sealing tanks, its range was only 530 miles, it carried too few marking rockets, and its maximum speed was 115 mph...

...The FAC was essential to every aspect of the military operation in Vietnam.  It was his job to find the target, order up the fighter-bombers from a circling airborne command-and-control center or ground-based direct air support center, mark the target accurately with white phosphorous smoke rockets, and control the operation throughout the time the planes remained on station.  And after the fighters had departed, the FAC stayed over the target to make a bomb damage assessment, which he relayed to the fighters and airborne command. 

 The most aggressive, combat-obsessed FACs called themselves "the Shooters" and felt that every day that did not involve battlefield flying was a waste of time.  They were told of an extremely high-risk, secretive program that allowed for much greater autonomy than would be possible under a conventional military bureaucracy.

 Those who volunteered for the program would then be "sheep-dipped" into what we today would call a "compartmentalized black SOF" project---their military identification was replaced by Laotian driver's licenses and embassy cards claiming that they were firefighters attached to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID; the development economics agency of the federal government).  From then on, no one was referred to by rank, and most men were known only by their nicknames. 

After a day of in-processing, the new Raven was then customarily treated to an exciting night of drinking and debauchery:

 The new man was taken out on the town in a tradition known as 'nubie night.' This was an extended period of debauchery which included heavy drinking at the Purple Porpoise, an Air America (CIA air operation) hangout run by a genial Australian alcoholic named Monty Banks; more drinking at the White Rose, a favorite girlie bar; and a final round of drinking at the Les Rendezvous des Amis, an establishment specializing in warm beer and oral sex, and presided over by the distinguished Madame Lulu, famous throughout the Far East.

Nubie night was followed by the trip to Long Tieng:

The new Raven's unknown destination was the secret city of Long Tieng.  This was the hub and nerve center of the clandestine war in the Other Theater.  It appeared on no maps but had grown to be the largest city in the country after the capital.  Insiders never referred to it by name, but further shrouded the town in mystery by calling it Alternate...Outsiders who had never visited Long Tieng but had heard of its existence called it Spook Heaven because of the number of CIA operators who lived there.  For a period in history it was the most secret spot on earth. 

"Let Me Tell You of the Days of High Adventure..." 

"The Ravens" is a truly delightful book. The reader is taken to a lost jungle world of two-fisted high adventure and enchanted by tales of swashbuckling heroics and an array of colorful, larger-than-life characters. One section describes a field amputation that a pilot had to carry out on a Meo tribesman flying as his backseater---using his Randall knife, no less---after their FAC plane was lit up by 14.5mm antiaircraft fire. The pilot managed to conduct the amputation and apply a tourniquet while flying the plane with his feet .

Another chapter describes a shadow warrior called BLACK LION:  

The troops were commanded by Black Lion, the code name of Will Green, a black CIA paramilitary officer who had become a legend throughout Laos. He was a tall, wiry, quiet-spoken man who might have been a college professor, and he had earned the respect and admiration of everyone who came in contact with him. He was a former Special Forces counterinsurgency expert, a professional soldier, and an inspirational leader.

A near-mythical operator, Raven Sam Deichelmann is physically described as "the surfer version of a Greek god...deeply tanned, with a shock of blond hair bleached white by the sun and tied at the back into a nineteenth-century sailor's pigtail." He showed up on his first day wearing a Waikiki Beach surf shop t-shirt, faded jeans, and sandals. Deichelmann's path to the covert war was just as unconventional: prior to joining the Air Force, he had lived a backpacking vagabond life in Cuba, worked through a passage on a schooner bound for the South Pacific, learned to surf in Hawaii, where he also took a degree in philosophy, and then had a period of mountain trekking in New Zealand.

Deichelmann disappeared one day over Laos and was never seen again.

The Most Interesting Men in the World 


The Ravens would frequently fly out and direct air strikes for several hours during the day, going until they ran out of marking rockets or gas and then returning to swap airplanes and immediately return to the fray.  Casualty rates were high among pilots, CIA paramilitary officers (many of them former members of elite military units), and the Meo tribesmen who formed the bulk of the CIA's secret army in Laos.

The following account is typical of the routine:

Mansur was flying six to eight missions a day.  "My all time record for being in the air in one day was eleven hours and forty-five minutes.  That's a long time in an 0-1."  ...a Raven spent almost all of the time he was airborne over the target area, constantly exposed to ground fire.  "You get to the point where you are flying that much that it's no longer like flying an airplane but just an extension of your body.  You never look at the airspeed indicator, but judge the speed by the sound of the wind in the wires."

As is common practice among troops deployed to combat zones for extended periods of time, the Ravens often adopted local animals as pets and lavished attention on them. One man adopted a Himalayan black bear cub and would take the bear on flying missions (the bear apparently enjoyed the experience). When the bear was unfortunately killed by local dogs, children brought the Raven a tiger cub:  

Platt adopted him and put the cat in a cage next to the kitchen. Efforts to tame him, so that he too could fly in combat, proved futile. Platt was attacked again and again, and scratched from head to foot. "I figured that any animal who wanted his freedom that much didn't deserve to be in a cage. I took him in a jeep out in the jungle and let him go.

Members of the CIA---known by the euphemism of "Controlled American Sources" (CAS)at the time---adopted a full-sized (7') Himalayan brown bear adult male and a smaller female, and kept the animals in a cage near their bar. The Himalayan browns apparently developed an intense fondness for beer, and the operators would take turns leaving the bar to share beverages with their beloved animal friends.

 In one fiasco, a visiting USAF general's aide was thrown through a window and into the bear's cage. The general came back from his fact-finding trip to the secret war's mountain base and composed a blistering indictment of the entire CIA-Raven outfit:

General Petit returned to Udorn with a nightmare version of the Air Force operation up at Long Tieng.  The Ravens were undisciplined, ill-dressed, and insubordinate, lived like animals in filthy quarters, and spent their time in drunken native revels.  His aid had been brutalized by drink-crazed CIA men who had jammed him into a cage with two savage drunken bears. The general himself had been similarly insulted by a filthy, drunken CIA mechanic.  "The Raven FACs at Long Tieng are nothing but a ragged band of Mexican bandits."

The Ravens illustrate a romantic side of modern conflict in which it is still possible for the maverick, the barely-controllable attack dog, to find a place in which he can fit into a larger, organized campaign.  I'd certainly recommend this book for anyone interested in a unique, elite organization's role in the Vietnam conflict.  The story is comparable to those of the MACV-SOG recon teams that performed extraordinary ground missions into Laos, Cambodia, North Vietnam, and perhaps even China. 


  1. Hi,

    I migrated over from Susan's, and I must say, that you offer a very unique and informative perspective as a "militarized white collar criminal." Quite funny, that description!

    You should write more often!

    I can't say I know much military history; I remember reading an essay once that military history has not been a field which has garnered much support in the academy in the last number of decades. The baby boomers who run the academy have the taste of Viet Nam in their memories...I don't see that changing anytime soon!

    But there is certainly an audience for this kind of work, in light of the books you describe and the fair number of television specials I see on occasion that discuss military matters.

    This is a sub-field of American history I imagine should become more and more significant in light of the recent wars. The problem, however, is that the traditional emphasis in political history might follow, with the corresponding ignorance of the military aspects. At least, that is how I learned about Viet Nam.


  2. Excellent posting as always Seb!