First Person War Stories

Remarkable stories of war told by those who fought for a proud nation. Their words. Their voices. Our first episodes tell riveting stories from World War II, then we move on to the Vietnam War and other dramatic conflicts.

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

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

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 final part of his interview, Whitcomb describes 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.

Last episode, we heard from Col. Darrell Whitcomb, and today we’ll hear the rest of his story.

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

Col. Darrell Whitcomb:

The air force had forward air controllers, thousands of them during the war and the Marine Corps had forward air controllers too. The difference was relatively fundamental. The Marine Corps FACs fundamentally worked with the Marine Corps units. They were there to support their ground operations, which meant primarily visual reconnaissance, close air support, those kind of missions. We air force FACs though. We could do it all. We could do everything from working directly like the Marines with specific ground units. And many, many, many guys did that. Both with the US, with Australia, with New Zealand, with Korean, with South Vietnamese units and with the friendly units in Cambodia and Laos, or we could go out and we could perform long range, interdiction, reconnaissance, and Laos in places like that. That's the fundamental difference. Our forward air controllers were there as an extension of the theater air component commander who ran the air war in all of its dimensions. And we would go where he wanted us to go to provide that commander control link that he needed to apply air power somewhere in the theater of operations. And in fact, the air force FACs flew throughout Southeast Asia, except for the northern part of North Vietnam. The Marine guys, though, they worked almost exclusively with their Marine units. We had- at one time we had two Marine divisions there in south Vietnam, and they worked almost exclusively with those units. So that's the fundamental difference.

When I was with the Ravens, where we would be based, “based” in a particular time would change around a little bit, depending on what was going on. We had Ravens aside at one time in all of the various military regions of Laos from north to south. And a lot of times we would be forward located depending on what was going on. And sometimes the air fields will be relatively austere. In fact, I've landed the YO-1 a couple times, even on roads because the ground units that needed to get up with and talk to and coordinate with were out in the bush somewhere. And that's where I had to go. We generally lived in certain centralized locations. I lived for a little bit in Long Cheng, which was one of the Manier fields up by the plain of jars. I spent most of my time living Vientiane in the morning. Then I would go out to the various locations where I was going to work, but we saw the country up close and personal.

We always had to be concerned about- when we were in Laos, we always had to be concerned about security because there was such a strong north Vietnamese element in the country, the forces, North Vietnamese, and there were also Laotians who were very friendly to them that were our enemy. And so we had to worry about that. And the airplanes of course were very vulnerable. There was more than one occasion when our various locations were attacked by rocket fire and some of our aircraft were destroyed. And so we had to rely upon the indigenous forces, the Laotian army units, or the among field units to provide us with our ground security.

When I finished up with the Ravens, I volunteered to go back to the 23rd TAS. And re-qualify in the OV-10, that was in fact about a third tour for me going back to the squadron. And it was the same process, but in reverse, I had to step away from the O-1, doing everything in the hundred knots back into a more sophisticated aircraft, if you will. Also, I re-qualified in what we of the PAVE NAIL OV-10, which is those 15 airplanes that we had modified with the laser designators. So I went from binocular level technology, if you will, right back up to at that time, which was state-of-the-art laser technology and very sophisticated navigation and everything. And so it was, it was an interesting re qualification process.

In 1971, the air force took 15 of our OV-10 and modified them to what we call the PAVE NAIL configuration. They made basically two changes to the aircraft. First of all, they put on what we call a LORAN long-range navigational device, which gave it very, very accurate navigational capability. And secondly, they put on board a laser designator, which basically gave us the ability to guide laser guided weapons. Now let's jump forward about 20 years to desert storm, remember all the photographs that we saw of the guided weapons going and precisely hitting targets. All that began in Southeast Asia about 1970 and one of the lead squadrons that was involved in that was the 23rd TAS with the PAVE NAIL's. We had the ability to guide precisely bombs to specific targets using laser technology.

I decided at the end of the Raven program to go back to the NAIL's, because I purely enjoyed that type of flying. And I felt that's what young unmarried officers in the air force should be doing in a time of combat. Plus I felt well, I knew that the squadron, the 23rd TAS was filling up with new guys, inexperienced, and they could use my experience. So I chose to volunteer again, go back, and re qualifying the OV-10 and fly again with the 23rd TAS.

When I went back to the 23rd TAS in March 1973, the 23rd was the last FAC squadron left in Southeast Asia. And we consolidated all the guys from all the various units, and we were still flying operations over Cambodia when the treaty was signed in Laos and in south Vietnam, we stopped our military operations there, but president Nixon directed us to continue our military operations in Cambodia in support of friendly ground units. And so we flew with them until Congress cut off funding for that, which was on the 15th of August 1973.

The Forward Air Controllers, as it turned out, were a very viable part. We were that key link between the air and ground, if you will, for the air effort that we were expending in that last gas, that last chapter, if you will, on the war in Southeast Asia, we were the key link in that.

The issue of search and rescue is an issue that was very near and dear to our heart. By this last stages of the war, remember 1972 now, when I was over there, we'd been involved over there for nine years. The nation was tired of the war. We were certainly tired of the war, and none of us wanted to be the last casualty. Therefore, when one of our buddies would go down, we would stop what we were doing to mount a rescue operation. This is the way it was, it was just understood. It was the bond that existed between all of us and the most classic case I think of this bond is a huge rescue operation that took place in April 1972, when an EB-66 call sign BAT-21 was shot down at the very beginning of the Easter offensive in the Northern part of south Vietnam. When that airplane was blown out of the sky by an SA-2 missile out of that crew of six, there was only one survivor, the Bravo man, BAT 21 Bravo. He parachuted to the ground, and for the next 17 days, we mounted a huge rescue operation to get first him and then two other air force Forward Air Controllers who'd been shot down trying to get him out. We mounted this huge operation to get all three of those guys out and were successful in two of the cases, in the process though, of executing that SAR in the midst of this huge ground battle, we put in over 800 air strikes in direct support of that operation. And we had numerous helicopters shot down to include an entire Jolly Green with six were killed, an army UH-1, shot down with three killed, numerous other helicopters shot up, shot down, shot out of the area. Before this mess was finally solved by a ground team consisting of a Marine Lieutenant Colonel, a young Navy seal Lieutenant, and some Vietnamese commandos who fished two of these guys out of enemy territory

In any search and rescue operation like that, the FAC would provide a key link as what we call the on scene command, more often than not, when somebody would go down, the first people on the scene would be a Forward Air Controller. Perhaps it might be a fighter aircraft that you were working on a target that's hit. When that would happen. You would automatically, as the FAC become the on scene commander, to begin to mount that operation, to begin to make it happen, to start marshaling all the rescue forces to get that individual out of there. So the FAC was an absolutely key link in this and general, you would maintain control of the situation until the A-1 came up to take over the actual rescue operation, and then you would back off and be ready to support them anything that they needed for that operation. But the FACs were absolutely fundamental to search and rescue operations.

When somebody would go down, the FAC could do many things, it would do many things to facilitate a successful SAR. First of all, in many cases he'd locate the survivor, absolutely fundamental to running a rescue operation. You had to find out where this guy was. So you'd begin to marshal your forces and realize what kind of battle you're going to have to fight to get him out. And then the FAC would do the classic things that he's used to doing. He'd look around for enemy targets. He'd look around to see what the enemy was doing. He'd begin putting in airstrikes to beat down the enemy threat so we could develop enough situational superiority to allow those very vulnerable rescue helicopters to get in there and pluck that guy out and he'd make all that stuff happen.

During the rescue operation for BAT 21 Bravo, the FACs that were working that were up there operating in what the north Vietnamese called this air defense meat grinder that they had built over that. And in that operation, we had two FACs, NAIL-38, and Covey 282 blown out of the sky by enemy defenses. And so we were very, very much at risk and everybody that was up there fighting and flying was being shot at all the time.

Well, as the enemy offensive started, the Easter offensive, and the enemy started pushing south, they had over the top of them, a tremendous array of anti-aircraft guns and surface to air missiles. And we immediately detect that this was a new chapter in the war that these guys were coming and they were serious and they were going to defend their ground units. And everybody very rapidly developed a very healthy respect for the air defenses in the North Vietnamese.

The FACs that were covering the BAT 21 Bravo rescue operation had to deal with SA-2 sites that were acted because after all the aircraft BAT 21 had been shot down by an SA-2 site and all the associated guns that were there. Plus every enemy tank had at least two machine guns. Every enemy troop had at least an AK 47, and it was just a tremendous amount of anti-aircraft fire and missile fire directed against those aircraft. It was a very, very dangerous situation.

On the second day of the operation after BAT 21 Bravo had been on the ground about one full day. One of the facts coming on station was from my squadron NAIL-38. And he'd been on station just a few minutes. When, once again, the surface Sir Missile or SAM sites went active and began launching missiles at him. And one of the missiles came up and literally blew off the tail of his aircraft. And those two guys had to eject. And so now, instead of having one survivor on the ground, we have three. And then that night, the alpha man, the pilot captain Bill Henderson, was captured by the north Vietnamese. So it reduced the numbers, but then we still had two survivors to deal with Gene Hambleton, BAT-21 Bravo and NAIL-38 Bravo first Lieutenant Mark Clark.

Now, as this rescue developed, our commanders in Saigon of course were watching the situation very closely and they had to deal with the question of, whoa, are we paying too high a price for this? And the answer to that was that we will continue to try to get this guy out we'll we will send in more assets to try to beat down those guns, because we're not going to abandon that guy. That was this bond that existed between us. If you go down, we're going to try to get you out. Incidentally, that bond continues to this day, and it's very powerful. And we saw it just last summer in Serbia once again, that bond is still there, but we were going to try to get him out. And over a series of days, we continued to attack those enemy targets sometimes to the detriment of other things that we were trying to do in the theater, because there's only so many air stories available, but we continued to attack them and run those helicopters up there in as dangerous as was in all of this. There was never a lack of volunteers of either FACs to be over the top, A-1 guys to go up there and suppress, or Jolly Greens to go in and try to pick up that guy. That's the power of that bond.

As the BAT 21 Bravo SAR continued to develop finally on about the fourth day, we committed another Jolly Green 67 for pickup, and he was blown out of the sky and crashed and killed six guys. And it became obvious at that point that we had to come up with another avenue of approach and it was general Abrams himself. The big guy down in Saigon, it said no more helicopter rescues, but that's the way he said it. No more helicopter rescues. There's all kinds of ways to do all kinds of things. And when general Abrams said no more helicopter rescues, he did not say more rescue attempts. And so powers that be in Saigon started looking at other options. And on the next day, the 7th of April, another one of our FACs, Covey 282 from the 20th task, our sister squadron was hit by an SA-2, blown out of the sky. And the two guys in that aircraft. First Lieutenant Bruce Walker was the pilot. And in his backseat, he had a Marine, a young Marine attended by the name of Larry Fletcher Pots. It was this 25th birthday. He was an artillery observer directing artillery fire off the Naval ships off the coast. He was never heard from again, Walker got on the ground and now we had three evaders on the ground. So this huge SAR that was going on was for these three guys. It was a massive, massive operation.

The SA-2 that the North Vietnamese had at that time was a very, very dangerous missile. A weapon system for the OV-10. We had on board, a radar warning receiver, a little scope that would tell us when the missiles were going acting and firing on us. But the airplane was not that powerful, that maneuverable, and basically the best way to avoid the SA-2 was to stay out of their threat ring. Now, if you had to fly into that area where they could operate, you had to see the missiles. If you could see the missiles, generally you could dive away from them and escape them. But the problem was the SA-2 by making you break and dive to the ground would force you down into that environment where all the guns were shooting, which just made it twice as dangerous for you. And that was the great threat of SA-2. They would force you down into the guns.

Even with that threat, with the SA-2 threat as dangerous it was, the guys were still flying their missions. And we knew that it was dangerous, but the missions had to be flown.

We took the SA-2s very seriously, but again, they were only one of many threats that we had to worry about. And we, and we took solace in the fact that we had good people looking for those sites and attacking those sites and destroying those sites as, as they could find them and nobody ever flew into those SA-2 threat rings without giving good sober thought to what they were doing and assessing the fact that 'is what I need to do really worth the risk of going into that’. And, and there were times when guys would not go into a threat ring because what they were being asked to do - visual reconnaissance or something, it was not that necessarily important, but something like a SAR, when you've got a buddy down on the ground, yeah. You're going to fly up against those threats and you're going to do your damnedest to take them out, but you're still going to expose yourself to that threat because that's what you did for your buddies.

The FACs who flew in the BAT-21 Bravo, Nail-38 Bravo, Covey-282 Alpha SAR were hanging it out to the extreme, but in SAR situations, that's what you did. The guys knew what they were getting into up there. And generally the...well, without exception, the guys who flew those particular missions were the most experienced, the most savvy, the ones who had proven themselves the coolest under fire, if you will. They could get the most out of what they had to do at the minimum possible risk.

When I came into the 23rd TASS, I was immediately drawn to the old guys, if you will, the guys who really knew what they were doing now, imagine if you will, I'm all of 24 years old. And I'm talking about old guys who are 26, 27. But one of the really neat guys in our squadron was a young major by the name of Rick Atchison, okay. Rick is a back seater, he's navigator, okay. But he's an electronic warfare officer and he is probably one smartest guys, tactically, that I've ever met. And when the Pave Nail program was stood up and created, the commander did a very wise thing. He grabbed a bunch of young, smart savvy guys like Rick and said, make this system work. And they put their minds into making that system tactically viable and useful. And in fact, it was guys like him who realized that not only is it good for navigation, is it good for guiding - laser guided weapons. But it also has some applicability in the realm of SAR because we can use this to precisely locate somebody very quickly. And he, and some of the other, 'older guys' made it a very effective system in search and rescue to the point that when SAR would occur, one of the first things that the people in Saigon would do was call for the Pave Nails. And so Rick got to fly in some, probably the most dangerous, savage missions of that time period, because he was so smart. And, and there are guys that are free men today because of the efforts of guys like Rick Atchison,

The Paved Nail guys, when they would fly a specific SAR would go in and they would use the laser system to zot, if you will...hit the survivor with a laser beam. And, and then the LORAN would figure out the exact coordinates of that individual. So we knew exactly where he was, and we could do a lot of tactical planning around that. Plus having him over the top, he had all the other capabilities of a regular FAC, all the radios, the target marking capability, but he also had the ability as he saw targets appear to engage them with laser guided weapons, laser guided bombs, and very, very effective system. So it was a perfect melling if you will, of technology for a very specific SAR mission.

The BAT-21 Bravo, Nail-38 Bravo SAR continued on Covey-282 after General Abrams decided that there would be no more helicopter rescue attempts. He did not rule out allowing some type of special operations. Operation to go in there. And we had an outfitted down in Saigon called SABG - Studies and Observations Group. Within that, there was a very quiet little organization called Bright Light under the command of a Lieutenant Colonel Marine, Lieutenant Colonel by the name Andy Anderson. And he watched this mission and he watched these failed rescue attempts, and as he analyzed the mission he decided that he thought he could get a ground team in there, a small element and rescue these guys using a little river that ran through the middle of this operational area. So he pitched that plan to the decision makers there in Saigon, the Generals, and they told him to have at it. And he came up there with his team.

His lead man, if you will, was a young Navy Lieutenant by the name of Tommy Norris, a Navy SEAL and over a period of three nights was able to get in and recover BAT-21 Bravo, Lieutenant Colonel Hamilton, and 1st Lieutenant Mark Clark. He then intended to reposition and get in and pick up Covey-282 Alpha Lieutenant Walker, who was further to the north behind many more enemy troops, but in the process before he could get in and get Walker to a recovery point, Walker was discovered by enemy troops and killed in the field.

I think that in the BAT-21 Bravo rescue, I think the FACs played a very, very key role because they were that constant presence. They were our connection, if you will, to those survivors all the time. When we finally came up with a plan of sending in the small ground recovery team to get those guys out, we had to move the survivors. And the way we move those survivors was through a series of messages that was relayed to those survivors by the FACs overhead.

One of the main guys was a young Captain by the name of Harold Icke. Intelligence worked back through the backgrounds of these various survivors and was able to determine information that only they would understand. And then we passed these messages to them, they understood it, and then they were able in those two instances to move on to the recovery point.

Now the third guy, Bruce Walker, we literally dropped him a kit. What we call a 'Madden Kit' full of food and radios and water and maps in directions on where to go and that's how we were attempting to make the recovery with him.

I do not feel personally that we could have recovered BAT-21 Bravo and Nail-38 Bravo without the key role the FACs played because they were that constant presence. They were that constant contact that we maintained with those survivors to facilitate that rescue. I discussed this with the Navy SEAL, Tommy Norris, he talks about how important it was, having that FAC over him all of the time as, literally, his lifeline.

The airborne FACs go back...oh, there was probably a little bit of that going on in World War I, but really it started to get, become formalized in World War II, primarily in Europe, when we realized that with our fast moving armored formations, we wanted to be able to tie the fighter bombers the P-47s primarily with those armor units. So we started putting FACs both at the front of those columns, in Jeeps, with radios and also in small Piper Cub type airplanes to talk to the ground and also talk to the fighter bombers ahead. That was really the beginning of the formalization of this process. And then we saw it continue to develop in Korea, where we began to have squadrons of Forward Air Controllers. And they were called Mosquitoes, T-6s and we realized that we could do more with them than just tie them to ground units. We could stretch them out beyond the forward line of troops and attack enemy units behind that. And then in Southeast Asia, we took that one more iteration further. In Southeast Asia, we had FACs over the entire theater with the exception of up around in the Northern part of North Vietnam. But FACs were ubiquitous to the war from, from the absolute north to the south.

Korea was a key moment in the development of the concept of the Airborne Forward Air Controller, because we saw such a quantum leap in the performance of aircraft between World War II in that conflict. So the FAC up there, the airborne FAC, an extension of the Theater Air Force Commander, who was running the overall air war, his command and control extension, but more importantly, a link between those fast moving fighter bombers coming in with their ordinance to deliver very high speed, covering ground very quickly, very hard for them to get oriented on what was going on below them and sort it all out. Plus generally very little play time that they could stick around because they burned gas very, very rapidly. So that FAC was there to, we help them get very quickly organized, point them out to the target, tell them we're not to drop the ordinance, if there were friendlies around, tell them what the threat is, get them in and get them out and allow us to concentrate and focus our airpower very quickly to very dramatically affect a particular ground battle.

In the war in Southeast Asia there were many things that really necessitated having a very, very large FAC organization. And at one time we had a total of five squadrons organized with hundreds and hundreds of FACs. In fact, I would argue that probably the most common or most ubiquitous assignment for the air force guys throughout the war in Southeast Asia were the FAC assignments and they, and they ranged foreign wide. They were that extension of the air commander of air power in any, in any capability. And they were that command and control element that he used to apply air power anywhere in the theater.

Now, the war is sometimes- it's called the Vietnam war, but that's really a misnomer. It was a conflict throughout Southeast Asia. And the common factor that we apply throughout the theater was air power. And the FACs were the link of that force from above to down below to make it a truly three dimensional force. As a young FAC, one day I would go into Northern Laos. The next day, I'd go into the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The next day I would fly into South Vietnam and work along the DMZ. I worked everywhere from Northern Laos to Southern Cambodia, and it was basically the same mission, just slightly different variables depending on where you were working, but that was the common thread. The FACs were the common thread of air power in the war in Southeast Asia.

After the war in South East Asia, we brought some of the FAC units back to The States and they continued to operate initially with O-2s and then we got rid of those. We gave them what OV-10s we had left. And then for a while, they were flying some OA-37s and ultimately were given the A-10 of the OA-10 variant of that. But as, as we moved into The Cold War era, we did some sober analysis on our FAC requirements and realized that the way we had FAC in Southeast Asia would no longer be viable in the threat array that we expected to see in say a NATO war in Europe in the 1980s, the FACs just would not have survived. So we began to put the emphasis on, on the ground FACs and those airborne FACs that we still had- our plan was to hold them back, well, behind the line of contact, basically as facilitators, coordinators to move the air forward into the big battles.

In desert storm, the Marines deployed two squadrons of OV-10s over there. They lost two aircraft that were shot down and realized what we had realized in the 1980s, that those airplanes would be just two vulnerable in a high threat arena. The Marine Corps had decided to take several of the old air force OV-10 A models that we used to fly and upgrade them, or what they call slept them, to the D variety with some special devices on board, but their analysis post Desert Storm real... Made them realize that it was not worth it. And instead of modifying those aircraft, they just saved the money and deactivated their units, and the OV-10s went away. Now, there are still some operating, Venezuela uses them. And recently we gave some to Columbia and they're using them down there in the drug war. So they are operating, but no longer in the United States.

Desert Storm was I think a watershed, because we realize that the threat array now of masked radars, masked anti-aircraft guns is such that one can no longer loiter over the battlefield, as we did at 140 knots, modern warfare just precludes this from doing that anymore. Now there may be certain arenas, maybe in South America, places like that, where that would still be viable, but it's not, not modern. And we saw this too in the, in the Falklands war in 1980s with the British and the Argentinians, the Argies had an aircraft called a Pucará, which is similar to the OV-10. And it was effective against the British in the low arena, but they paid a high price doing it.

Ken Harbaugh:

That was Col. Darrell Whitcomb. If you’d like to know more about Col. Whitcomb, check out his book, The Rescue of Bat 21. The link is in the show description.

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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