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Col. Darrell Whitcomb: The Raven Pilots in Laos Part I

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Col. Darrell Whitcomb: The Raven Pilots in Laos Part I

Col. Darrell Whitcomb served in the United States Air Force as an OV-10 Forward Air Controller. He joined the classified Steve Canyon Program (Project 404), also known as The Ravens, which operated in secret in Laos. He flew missions over South and North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

As a Forward Air Controller, it was his job to coordinate airstrikes, and ensure that no friendly troops were hit.

In the first part of his interview, Whitcomb discusses aircrafts, airstrikes, and joining The Raven program.

Whitcomb is also the author of The Rescue of Bat 21.

Ken Harbaugh:

I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.

Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.

Today, in the first of a two-part episode, we’ll hear from Col. Darrell Whitcomb. Whitcomb served in the United States Air Force as an OV-10 Forward Air Controller. He joined the classified Steve Canyon Program (Project 404), also known as The Ravens, which operated in secret in Laos. He flew missions over South and North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

Col. Darrell Whitcomb:

Well, I had flown a previous tour in South Vietnam with a cargo pilot, and at the end of that tour, I requested reassignment back to the war as an OV-10 forward air controller.

The OV-10 was a lot like flying a fighter, but you did more than just that type of work. You also worked directly with what was going on on the ground. You had a much larger knowledge about what aerial war was all about in that you had to have a good feeling for what was going on in the ground.

In 1972, when I arrived at NKP, Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, with at 23rd task, our area of operation was the Ho Chi Minh trail and the North Vietnamese by that point had developed an extensive aerial defense system along the trail. They called it their meat grinder. By that stage of the war, they had everything from guys with rifles all the way up to SA2 surface to air missiles, integrated, coordinated. There were whole areas of the Ho Chi Minh trail where we could not even fly because of the threat. On my first mission up along the Ho Chi Minh trail, we went up to the Ban Karai Pass and I had a radar controlled 85 millimeter gun, which is a very big gun, shoot at me. In my second mission, I was hit by a 23 millimeter anti-aircraft gun, so I figured it was going to be a long tour.

The OV-10 was very vulnerable to these types of air defenses because they're just very large caliber guns firing very explosive shells. Even the smaller guns, the 12.7 millimeter and the 14.5 millimeter threw up so many shells that they could hit you with more than one shell and they could very severely damage your aircraft. So it was a very serious threat.

It would probably blow a hole in the airplane ... oh, I'd say three or four feet across. I saw this happen to a number of guys and you were literally dependent on where it hit the aircraft. One guy that I know of, Jack Butcher, took around right in the nose of the aircraft and it basically destroyed the machine. I had another buddy who took a round right on the wingtip and it blew off about four feet of his wing, but he was able to fly home.

Well we worried about the enemy air defenses quite a bit. In fact, before I got over there on that tour, we had some intelligence preparation at our training base at Hurlbert, and then of course you just heard the stories, things that you would hear over the years about what was going on over there. So yes, we were very concerned about the threat. Of course, when we got there and started training into the theater, we focused on that quite a bit. So it was always in the back of our mind.

We FACs up in Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, little different than the FACs that were in country. Our area of operation was the Ho Chi Minh trail, so our mission, if you will, was interdiction, going against enemy supplies coming down the trail. We had some guys who worked up in Northern Laos with the various ground teams in the Hmong fighters, but that was a small operation. Our mission was interdiction. We would go out, use intelligence, get constant updates and go out and look for enemy targets along the Ho Chi Minh trail, truck parks, convoys of trucks, storage supply areas, and things like that. We also had an organization at NKP called Taskforce Alpha, which listened to all of the sensors that had been placed along the Ho Chi Minh trail. When they would hear specific things going on, they would call us and tell us, "Hey, we have enemy activity at these coordinates," and we'd go over and attack that.

We did not have any artillery that was available to us along the Ho Chi Minh trail with very, very rare exceptions. Up until about 1971, we had army and Marine fire bases right up along the border that could sometimes fire over into the trail complex, but about the only artillery type that we could get would be the gunships, the specter gunships, the stinger gun ships, who could come over and work with us.

When you're working over a target and you've got a fighter aircraft inbound to you or maybe a gunship inbound to you, you get extremely busy, you got a lot to do. You got to set up the target, you got to do your coordinating, you got to do your deconfliction so that you and the fighters are not trying to occupy the same airspace. That's always a problem. Make sure that you stay out of their way. They stay out of your way. Setting up for the target, making sure that the fighters have the information that they needed to know to properly set their arming of their weapons and their gun sites so they can properly deliver their ordinance. you always have to plan on what if. If something goes wrong, you have to make sure that they understand what the enemy threat is in that area. You have to be able to tell them where to go if they could hit immediately and they have to eject. What's the immediate safe area to fly into for your ejection so we can come and rescue you?

Then when all that is set up, then you're going to roll in, point your aircraft at the target, and fire off a smoke rocket, which is going to hit the ground and bloom into white smoke, and then you'll talk them into the target from there. Of course, as you're doing all that, you have to do a certain amount of housekeeping too, because you have to keep records of everything that you do, so you'll be constantly jotting down notes. What we used to do is we used to use the windscreen as our writing board. In fact, I always carried a number of grease pencils and I would pull one out and just start writing airstrikes on the side of the canopy as I was going along.

Putting an airstrike together like that, initially it can be very confusing and it's something that you have to be framed to do, but once you get into it, once you learn the skill, it's like a dance, it's like conducting an orchestra in that you have these various instruments that can play for you. I want some of this now, I want some of that now. I've had airstrikes where I was working F4 fast movers, if you will, with gun ships, even coordinating that with Laotian and, some cases, Thai T28s, the small fighter bombers, all doing their thing at the same time. You have to deconflict those and make sure they're all hitting the targets that you want to. It's like conducting music sometimes and once you get into it, there's a real high there. There's a real emotional charge. Sometimes there's a real beauty to war. It's kind of a left-handed way of saying it, but there's things about it that are really very stimulating.

You always have in the back of your mind the fact that the enemy's trying to blow you away, especially when you've got anti-aircraft fire coming up or if you've got surface to air missiles in the area. Now, the enemy had two types. He had the SA2, which was radar guided, and we had a radar warning device, or a Fuzzbuster if you will, in the airplane that would alert us that these missile souls were locking onto us. But the greater danger that developed really in 1972 were the heat seeking missiles that the enemy started getting from the Russians, the Soviets. A lot of times you did not know those were coming and they were very effective against the OV-10. But I think one of the primordial fears of a lot of guys when you were rookie is not so much that you're going to get shot down, but that you're going to screw up because you've got all these airplanes around you working very hard in a very dangerous situation, and you're calling the shots and you want to get it right. You want to get everybody in and out and do some damage to the enemy and then get them all home safely. I would guess my greatest fear would've been having somebody shot down. I watched a lot of guys coming down the barrel, take a lot of rounds of AAA up against them, and I've had some guys hit, but I never lost one over the target and I'm kind of proud of that.

One of the key things that I put a lot of emphasis on, and I think we all did too, and something that I passed along to the new guys when I trained them, was really pay a lot of attention to deconfliction of aircraft. When you're over a target, everybody will put their attention on that target and that can be dangerous because you're all flying through the same airspace. So we would really stress to guys and practice deconfliction. A lot of different ways to do that. You can do it by altitude. "Hey, you guys stay above 10,000 feet. I'll be below 10,000 feet." Sometimes you could use it using geographical references. "Hey, the roads running east west, I'll stay north, you stay south." The greatest danger that a FAC always faced when he had fighters working with him was to be at the fighters 12 o'clock when he's pulling off the target, because invariably when he's pulling off the target, he's not looking at you. He's looking back to see where his bombs hit.

I almost had a midair one day with a guy who was coming off the target. I told him to turn one way, he turned the other and just about plowed into my airplane and it was very close.

I had one buddy when I was with the Ravens, his name was Rich Herald was run over by an A7 and was killed. This was a real problem and I've had many airplanes come fly right down right in front of me, very close. So it was something we really had to worry about.

The NVA I think had a very keen appreciation for the role that the forward air controllers play. I've listened to some of the North Vietnamese talks since the war. I've read some of their papers and their histories and they knew what we were out there for, they knew what we were doing and they liked to capture us when we got shot down. Generally when we came into an area, they would not shoot at us. They'd leave us alone unless we started getting into something pretty serious and then they'd do everything they could to shoot us down.

If we were ever shot down, we forward air controllers expected to be very roughly treated. I had one friend, a guy by the name of Jack Butcher that I've met over the years, who was shot down and captured on the Ho Chi Minh trail. In fact, he escaped for a few days and was running free down there and when they finally captured him, they told him in no uncertain terms, "If you do this again, we'll kill you on the spot." So we expected rough treatment from those guys because quite frankly, we were hurting them and this was war for keeps. We expected that if we were shot down and captured, making it to Hanoi, we would be lucky.

I would say some were lost to the guns, always guns everywhere. Guns was always the biggest threat. Some to the SA7. Steve Bennett, Covey 87, Medal of Honor winner was shot or was hit by a guy with an SA7, which basically caused him to have to ditch his aircraft. Of course, there were other minor things. You had to be careful when you were working around artillery. You had to deconflict with the artillery. You had to deconflict with the other airplanes that you're working with, the fighters and the gunships. That was pretty much it for the OV-10. It was a pretty solid, reliable airplane.

Steve Bennett was the second forward air controller to be awarded the Medal of Honor for his duty in Southeast Asia, OV-10 pilot, the only one. In late June, I think it was the 29th or 30th of 1972, I was working a mission in the Northern part of South Vietnam, up around north of Dong Ha, and on the way home, another FAC was working south of me, Covey 87 was his call sign, and he needed to have some tactical support at that time. There were no fighters available so I offered up what I had left, which was basically just the 30 caliber rounds from my machine guns. He asked me to come over and strafe with him against some enemy targets because he had a ground commander who was in trouble and he needed some support. We weren't normally supposed to strafe on OV-10s because it made us go down too low and made us vulnerable for the heats seeking missiles.

But in a case like that, when you had an emergency, you could do it. So I rendezvoused with Bennett and we started making runs using our machine guns against these enemy targets. On one of the pull offs, he had told me we were going to run from the east to the west. He wanted me to pull off to the north and he was going to pull off to the south. As I made my run, he told me to turn south and he pulled off to the north for, again, deconfliction between the aircraft. As I came around to the south, I looked up to the north and I saw an explosion. I called him on the radio and he did not respond. I switched over to another radio and I heard, "Somebody's going to go feet wet out over the water to eject." So I said, "Well, who's that?" and they said, "Well, it's Covey 87."

Well, that was the guy I was working with, and I looked off to the east and sure enough, I could see him and his aircraft was on fire. So I flew up next to him in formation and the missile, an SA7 missile, had come up and hit his left engine, which sits down in the left wing, just below the left wing, then had basically blown out the engine and his left gear was hanging down and there was some flames burning back there. I came up on his wing and he was trying to get back down to home station. Initially he was trying to get out of the water to eject, but then he said, "We can't eject because my backseater's parachute has been destroyed by missile blast." Well, there was an airfield about 30 miles away from us and I could, in fact, see it, Hue Phu Bai, and I told him to go there.

Somebody else came up on the radio and said, "Hey, Covey, you better ditch your airplane." Now, I remember this because about a year prior we'd had an OV-10 ditch down in a place called Chu Lai and the airplane is not that strongly built and in the ditching, the pilot was very severely wounded and subsequently died in the water. So I reached down to switch my radio back to call him and tell him not to ditch and somebody called me on the radio and started asking me questions about how the rescue was going. So I'm following along behind him and all of a sudden I look down and he's touching down in the water a couple hundred feet below me. So I immediately pulled up, started to circle around him and at the time we didn't know … He was about maybe a quarter mile off shore. We didn't know if the shoreline was friendly or not, so I immediately set up to start attacking targets along the shoreline there, if there's any bad guys. Turns out that they were friendly so we did not bomb. But another OV-10 rendezvoused with me and a boat started coming out from the shoreline. We weren't that sure that they were friendly so we strafed in front of the boat. Didn't hit them, just in front of them and basically to tell them to leave us alone and they pulled off and they went back to the shore. In the interim, I looked down and I saw one guy floating in the water, and we got a helicopter in from one of the Navy ships and they rescued his backseater, who was a Marine officer artillery spotter, and Steve Bennett never came up and we lost him there.

It's one of those split second, spur of the moment decisions. He was trying to save his backseater because his backseater told him that when the missile hit the aircraft and exploded, it destroyed his parachute. In the OV-10, the parachutes are built into the ejection seat and since he had no parachute, he would not have survived an ejection. So to save his life, Steve Bennett made the decision to ditch that aircraft and in the process of ditching the aircraft, he gave up his own life and his backseater was saved.

We were able to get in, pick him up and then take him back to Da Nang. Then the next day we got a recovery team in to the OV-10 which sank in about 30 feet of water and they were able to recover Steve Bennett's body, and then he received the Medal of Honor. Or his wife and daughter received the Medal of Honor about a year and a half later.

It makes you realize that this really is serious business that you're about, but I never hesitated to step back on the cockpit when one of my buddies was lost. You take a moment to remember those guys, but you press on because you have a job to do.

Fear is a serious thing. Everybody handles fear differently. Most guys, though, I would say they trained to handle fear and the training that we had was very good. When you're out there and the enemy's shooting at you and things are going on, you react to it the way you've been trained to react. Okay, you jink, you're maneuvering, you go higher, you go lower. If it's really that bad, you pull out of the area and you learn to handle that kind of fear. But there's another kind of fear that's a lot tougher to handle. That's the kind of fear that hits you about three o'clock in the morning when you're laying in your bed all by yourself and all of a sudden you wake up and think about that last mission, or maybe that mission you're going to fly tomorrow. That's the kind of fear that's very, very hard to handle.

There was more than once when I had to get up and just walk around, take a walk outside and just kind of shake it out to try to handle that kind of fear, because that's the kind of fear that hits you when you're all alone.

When I was going through the training at Hurlburt, actually before that, I had heard stories about this program up in Laos. While I was going through my OV-10 training at Hurlburt, I talked to a couple of guys who had been in the Raven program in Laos earlier on. So when I got over to Southeast Asia in the OV-1Os, I decided that I'd give it some thought, the Raven or what they call Project 404 Steve Canyon program was a pure volunteer program for guys who were assigned in Laos in a temporary duty situation, working directly for the ambassador as forward air controllers working directly with various ground units. We had Ravens throughout Laos and in the summer of 1972 I had a fortuitous meeting. A good buddy of mine and I, a guy by the name of [H. Oanbee], were flying OV-1Os at the time and we ran into a guy that we knew at the Air Force Academy by the name of [Jocko Hayden]. Jocko Hayden was a year ahead of us there, but he was working down in Saigon on a FAC tour and he was doing the assignments for the Raven program. So we just happened to run into him and we asked him, "What are you doing?" And he said, "Well, I'm handling assignments for the Raven program." He said, "Are you guys interested?" We said, "Yeah. In fact, we were thinking about applying," and he said, "Well, send in your paperwork. I got a couple slots coming up here next month and I'll send you on up." So we did and he did, and in September we went up to the Raven program and went from the world of the OV-10 to all the way back down to fly in Taildragger 01s.

The OV-10 was a twin engine, double seat, high wing, fairly good performing aircraft. The 01, though, we were going back about two generations in aircraft. The 01 is a small, high wing, a taildragger, a single engine reciprocating, and whereas in the OV-10 you'd move around about 140, 150 knots, in the O-1 we'd be lucky to get 100 knots out of the airplane and it was a lot less airplane. On the other hand, it was very well designed for what we were doing, which was to work specifically with ground units, forward teams, indigenous teams out in the bush. And I actually came to prefer the O-1 for that type of FACing for the very simple reason that I was going slower, I could maintain better presence over an area and, most importantly, I can open up the windows of the airplane and I could hear the battle.

In many cases in the OV-10, well, you never could hear it in the OV-10 because you were always inside of this bubble canopy, so you would lose that element of sense, if you will. But in the O-1 a lot of times I just opened up the windows and I could hear. I could hear them shooting at me. I could hear the rounds going by. I could hear the artillery crunching on the ground. I could hear the volume of fire being directed either by the friendlies or the enemy and it just gave me a better situational awareness.

The Raven program was a classified program and it was classified for a very simple reason. In 1962, our country signed the Geneva Accords, which basically declared Laos as a neutral country. Well, the North Vietnamese never observed the neutrality of Laos, hence, the Ho Chi Minh trail. But we did play with this fiction and we realized, when we finally realized, that we needed to have Forward Air Controllers working with friendly ground units in Laos, the decision was made to create an organization, Detachment 1, of this 56 special operation wing, which was the wing at NKP, Detachment 1 over at another air base called Udorn. And when we went into the Raven program, we were assigned to that, to Detachment 1 at Udorn but then we were authorized TDY to various locations. That's the way our orders read. And then we would get to Udorn and we would be sent up the country into Laos to various locations. But since there was no U.S. military assigned in Laos, we had to go in there in civilian clothes, so that's what we did. We were told to maintain a relatively low profile. So when we flew, we flew in blue jeans and camouflage, form shirts or whatever you wanted to wear, but you didn't fly in uniform and you didn't salute. You didn't do military kind of things because you were on this special tour. In fact, I think we were considered to be assigned to the ambassador in Laos, working directly with him. We took many briefings from the guys at the embassy before we'd go out and fly our missions.

We were not involved with the CIA directly. Now, we would work with them, they were there. They provided what we called the case officers up in the various Laotian and Mong and Thai battalions that were up doing the battles. Each one of those battalions would have a case officer and they had various call signs; Mule, Lumberjack, Kayak are some of the guys that I worked with. And normally when we would call these units on the radio, that's who we'd be talking to and they were basically advisors, if you will, to them.

I don't know where the Raven call sign came from. It goes back well into the lore of the program. Just something- we started calling ourselves Ravens and, in fact, it caused a little bit of a stink because every Navy fighter unit has their own call sign and that it was a Navy unit that used the call sign Raven and, by agreement, they changed their call sign to Raven Jet and we were the Ravens. In fact, it's a proud call sign that we hang on to this day.

The guys that became Ravens I would say, in general, were mavericks. Guys who didn't put a lot of stock in military rigamarole. Who marched to a different drummer, if you will. Every guy that I flew with in the Ravens, very much unique in his own way, very much an individual. Some partied hardy, some were wild and crazy, some of them chased girls pretty hard. But all of them, when it was time to go out and fly and be serious in a cockpit, they were very serious in a cockpit. I would say probably about the best FACs that I knew with some exceptions.

The guys that we worked with, the fighter squadron guys who put in the ordinance for us, I would say had a very healthy respect for the Ravens because they knew, they saw what we were working with and working against. They saw the threats that we were fighting against and the risks that we took and they respected us a great deal.

The so-called REMFs, the rear echelon guys, the staff guys, I think that they would resent us because a lot of times we'd come roaring into these Air Force bases and we'd be wearing civilian clothes and we didn't have to get haircuts and all that Mickey Mouse stuff. We'd go sliding into the bar and having a good time and ripping, tearing and it led to some friction on more than one occasion.

Well, of course, we all used our call signs. You never wanted to use names on the radio because we knew that the enemy was listening to us. But, quite honestly, Raven 25, they probably had some kind of a profile on me and they would've been very happy to have seen me on the ground there and would've treated me very harshly and we accepted that. But when I flew, that was the only call sign I ever used, was my assigned call sign at that time.

But we were very conscious of security because we lived in Vientiane, which is in Laos. And we had been told that there were enemy agents and Russian agents, too, there in Vientiane that would've occasionally watched us. So we had to be, we had to maintain a lower profile and watch what we were doing. But I never felt any physical danger, per se. I never carried a weapon while I was in town. I was well armed when I flew. But occasionally we would be told there in Vientiane, "Hey, don't go here for these few days. Just stay low, just stay in the house."

When I was flying the Raven, the threat was somewhat different because we flew a lot lower and there, we literally had to worry about the guys with the rifles because everybody had one. I was shot up numerous times by guys with AK-47s. We also worried about the larger guns, but rarely did we get up into areas where they had the larger guns. Although I have seen my share of 23 millimeter and 37 millimeter fire in the 0-1. But I was shot down once by a guy standing out in front of me with an AK-47 rifle that put two bullets through my oil pan and all my oil leaked out and my engine quit. That's what got me, so that was the big threat down there, down low. It was the guys with the small arms.

We had to worry about the guys with the rifles because everybody had one. They're all out there. They're mixed in with lots of machine guns and I worried about it a great deal, especially on those days when the weather was low and I had to stay down even lower to the ground. Those were the times, generally, when you'd get hit by guys with rifles because they were everywhere.

A Golden BB is just the classic idea that there's some bullet out there with your name on it. You had to watch for triple-A at all times. And especially you had to teach yourself to look back at your six o'clock position because the enemies loved to tailshoot you.

They figured, well, you're not looking back there. So a lot of times they would wait till you flew by or your tail was to them and then they'd start shooting you from the rear, figuring that you're not going to see what they are.

Generally, when somebody would shoot at us, if we could, we would retaliate with some type of fire. If it was an anti-aircraft gun, we'd try to bomb it. If it was guys with the rifles, we'd try to at least fire a rocket at them or call for some artillery or something. But you tried to return fire on fire as much as you could and so they'd try to shoot you when you weren't looking.

We all feared this, the Golden BB, that one that was out there that had our name on it and guys handled it differently. What I would do, I just found that the way not to think about that, would just focus on my work. And I would go over to the intelligence section or talk to... Get out with the ground troops, talk to those guys and just try to be more and more effective.

I found that by focusing on what I was doing, that was the way I would work through it. I was very fortunate to have some very good commanders, I think, who could read me well enough to know when it was time for me to have some time off and say, "Okay, Darrell, you got the next four days off." And it just, I'm very lucky in that vein.

I’m told, I've never verified this, but I'm told, that the Ravens had one of the highest Air Force casualty rates in the war in Southeast Asia and probably the highest FAC casualty rate. I would believe that for a number of reasons, primarily because we flew smaller aircraft, less powerful, less protected. Secondly, because we flew lower altitudes working specifically in very hot areas. And, thirdly, because the guys who went up there wanted to be there, so they were the kind of guys who would ride to the sound of the guns, if you will, to use an old metaphor and who would look for and get into the action. I think that's why we had a lot of guys get bagged.

We have a thing called CTO program, combat time off, in the OV-10 squadrons, which were more formal normal squadrons, if you will. We could take R&R in mid tour and then occasionally we would arrange guys to have a few days off. And being there in Thailand, you could run down to Bangkok or maybe go to Chiang Mai or something like that and relax a little bit more.

In the Raven program, we tried to formalize it a little bit more because when we flew hard, we played... We flew hard, we worked hard. But when it was time to be off, we tried to give our guys the opportunity to get out and just truly relax, so we had airplanes constantly going to and from Bangkok. And so if a guy got three or four days off, they'd let him jump in an airplane and go down to Bangkok and just really blow off some steam down there. It did help.

One of the things that I really enjoyed about the Raven program, as opposed to being a regular FAC, was when I was flying the OV-10, I never really got to know those people down there on the ground. They were pretty much anonymous to me. I would talk to them on the radio, but rarely did I ever have the chance to go out and meet with him and get to know these commanders. But when I was up as a Raven in Military Region 2 in the Plain of Jars in Northern Laos working for General Vang Pao, he was my general, if you will. He was my war lord. And his people were the Hmong people of Northern Laos. And they were fighting a very personal war, a war to the death, against the North Vietnamese who were trying to take away their homelands. This was a very personal thing for them. When we got out there, we got to know these people. We got to relate with them on a daily basis. I spent nights out there in the field with them and got to know these people. Their war, in many cases, became our war, our war. A very personal thing. I just, I really enjoyed getting to know those people and I have a tremendous amount of empathy for them and the suffering that they went through.

I think that there were times, well, I know there were times, when I really hung it out because those guys were out there. They were in a very bad fight. They were getting cut up and butchered or whatever. And I did my damnedest to try to help them get out of it.

I respected the Hmong. I found them to be very, very tough fighters. Physically they're much smaller than we are yet they're extremely rugged. It was not unusual to see them out there walking through the jungle barefoot. That's the way they lived. They were tremendous guerilla fighters. They were tremendous behind enemy lines. They were, in many cases, fearless. I just, I have the highest respect for them to this day.

On numerous missions, I would have a Hmong back seater who would ride along with me. We called them Robins, that was their call sign, and they would interpret for us. Many times we would spot a target and the back seater would call back to headquarters and talk to the Hmong there to find out if what we were looking at was, in fact, enemy.

There were times when I would not bomb because they would say, "Oh, no, no. Those are some of our people but they're trapped behind enemy lines. They're just trying to live. Just leave them alone." And many times we would be out, we would find a road watch team or something that needed help and the only way that I could work with these people was through my back seater who would interpret for me.

Well when I was working with the Ravens, I had all kinds of assets available to me. And, if I could, I would work the Laotian or the Hmong T-28s, because we wanted to give them that sense of satisfaction. We wanted to give them the opportunity to develop their skills because we knew that someday we were going to be gone. So they had T-28s. They could drop bombs. They could shoot rockets with those. They had some AC-47 gunships that they could use. I could call upon those guys. I had, coming to me every day, a certain number of strike sorties from the United States Air Force, United States Marines and the United States Navy.

On any typical day, I might work Marine F-4S, Air Force F-11s, Air Force A-7s, Navy A-7s, Navy A-4s, I mean, whatever's available. Sometimes, occasionally, I would get a gunship, an AC-130 gunship, very, very powerful weapons. If I found a target that was big enough and bad enough and really needed a heavy punch, I could call in the coordinates and we'd bring in B-52s and bomb it.

When I went up to the Ravens, we realized that we were going into this black hole, if you will, of war. It was still considered to be secret. So there was a certain amount, there had to be a certain amount of personal satisfaction in what was going on because most people then, most people to this day, don't realize how, what we were doing there fit into the larger puzzle, if you will, of the entire war in Southeast Asia. But I never had any trouble rationalizing all that because I could see the importance of what we were doing to support these people in their part of the war.

In any combat unit that's facing a tough mission and facing adversity and flying hard, a very, very strong bond will develop. Good commanders, and you can sort them out for the bad commanders very easily. The good commanders will always foster and stimulate that bond. And some of the closest friendships that I have in my life to this day go back to guys that I flew combat with in Southeast Asia. Now, when I went into the Raven though, the Raven program, it was a little bit different because when I was with the Nails, I had over 50 guys in my squadron and they were all my brothers, but some not as close as others.

But when I got up to the Ravens, I knew every guy up there in our detachment of five out of 10 for the entire country and we were very, very close. We worked together on a daily basis. We partied together. We occasionally bloodied each other's nose and, to this day, those guys are my brothers.

That bond between us was very strong and when we would have somebody go down, it was like losing a family member. In fact, that's what it was. So it was understood, in those late days in the war when not a lot of things made sense, if one of your buddies went down, the priority mission became getting him out, just about priority over everything else. We would spare no expense to try to make that happen. Some of the most intense, wildest battles that we fought were rescue operations to get our buddies out of there.

The success of any rescue operation varied greatly on a number of variables; where you are, what kind of shape the individual is when he gets on the ground, what the enemy reaction is, how close your rescue forces are and can get in.

Every CSAR would become a battle in its own way, and it would become an ad hoc, impromptu battle that you'd have to put together very quickly. I've seen successful ones and I've seen unsuccessful ones.

We lost our head Raven, John Carroll, in November of 1972 when he was shot down and landed in the PDJ. He didn't have a parachute so he had to land his airplane. And within a few moments on the ground, he was killed but we didn't know that, and we continued to mount this rescue operation for him. In fact, we got a couple helicopters in to try to pick him up.

They could not because by the time they got to him, he was literally shot to pieces. The helicopters themselves were so badly damaged that we almost lost a couple of them. And in his case, the next morning, the first FAC up was myself. And as I came over the mountain, I saw his airplane. And by this time, intelligence had told us that he was dead and I saw his airplane. I saw the enemy picking over his wreckage and everything. And so I put a 2,000 pound laser guided bomb on top of that and blew them all apart.

I put that 2,000 pound bomb on there in part to keep them from picking through the wreckage and gleaning some value, if you will, from all that. But perhaps it was probably just an act of retribution. I don't know, that's war.

When I got to the Ravens, I think we all pretty well reconciled ourselves to the fact that if we went down in enemy territory and were not rescued, we probably were not coming home. And I know of no Raven who was captured that was ever released. And to try to preclude that, when we flew, we were always very heavily armed. I used to carry two pistols, an AR-15 with a couple 100 rounds and a bag full of hand grenades.

I was going to fight to the death.

I take a tremendous amount of pride in what I did as a Forward Air Controller in Southeast Asia from 1972 to 1974. In the fact that I did what my country asked me to do, and I did it as best as I could. I went over there and I accepted those tours and I performed those tours because I felt that what we were fighting for was worth it. And I like to point out to people that we were winning when I left (as was the case with most guys), and that I'm of the opinion that our sacrifices were only in vain, because it was after the war, after we had accomplished our mission, that our politicians gave up the war and the South Vietnamese were defeated.

Ken Harbaugh:

That was Col. Darrell Whitcomb. To hear him recount the rescue of BAT 21, listen to the second part of his interview, releasing on May 26th.

Thanks for listening to Warriors In Their Own Words. If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected]. We’re always looking to improve the show.

For updates and more, follow us on twitter at Team_Harbaugh.

And if you enjoyed this episode, don’t forget to rate and review.

Warriors In Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, in partnership with The Honor Project.

Our producer is Declan Rohrs. Brigid Coyne is our production director, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our Audio Engineer.

Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.

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