William E Platt, Raven 43 "Low and Slow"
General Vang Pao's airborne scouts adopted the radio call sign “Robin”. These men were often veteran Special Guerilla Unit (SGU) soldiers with a thorough knowledge of the Hmong Landing Site defenses, tactics, and unit locations. They were VP’s eyes and ears above the battle area. They would relay VP’s specific instructions to SGU commanders. Robins were given the authority to validate targets for air strikes. They represented VP. Together we shared the responsibility not to drop bombs on civilians or the friendlies.
The O-1 Birddog was our light, tandem two-seat, 213hp single engine, observation and strike control aircraft made by Cessna. We carried a Forward Air Guide, call sign Robin, who translated for us and coordinated with our special guerrilla unit ground forces. As a group, the Robins were courageous and well skilled at finding targets. This was their homeland, and they knew the territory by landmarks and canyon walls. They were skilled and motivated in finding the way home to Long Tieng when smoky haze, fog, or storm restricted visibility to a few miles. They studied us and reported our skills, aggressiveness, and judgment directly to General Vang Pao.
One Robin died in a Raven backseat, shot by enemy gunners. Many Hmong Robins were wounded while flying with Ravens. One flew the aircraft home and landed when the Raven was severely wounded. These men like Yia Kha, Francis Vang, Yang Bee, Moua Ly, Wa Ger Cheng (Scar), Yia Kha, and Moonface were men I flew with often. Working closely with these young Hmong men was an honor and an exercise in mutual trust. They were motivated warriors fighting for the safety of their families, clan, leaders, and country. Wa Ger Cheng died in Laos when the Vietnamese attacked his village, and he flew to the rescue of his Uncle fighting there.
Some encouraged us to fly and fight Low and Slow for the best visual acuity. Yia Kha, Moua Ly, and Fong Vang were selected to train and fly the T28 fighter aircraft of the RLAF in 1971. Now, pilots, they joined the ranks of other Hmong Cha Pao Khao heroes. We respected them and took their advice. We learned the Hmong tactics that made us a powerful synergistic force against a much larger enemy unit. Other brave Robins were Wa Lee Moua who died when F4 pilot dropped CBU by mistake in Long Tieng.TouHoua Xiong was shot down with Raven 23 on the PDJ. His remains have never been recovered. An enemy rocket in Long Tieng killed Bee Vang. Kia Tou Thao, Yee Yang, and Ly Seng were outstanding fighters and interpreters. Teng Ly was shot and killed by the enemy while in the back seat of a Raven aircraft. They were an amazing group of young men who served their people and freedom cause with distinction. For me, they epitomized the best of Hmong virtues.
Robins were a comfort in many ways. If forced to walk, rather than fly home, they could lead us back, through enemy controlled territory to friendly settlements or outposts. On the other hand, Robins were an added responsibility. Their lives depended on our sound flight skills and wise risk assessments.
I would take more risks and flew with a more aggression when alone. A concern for my passenger’s safety was a priority responsibility. The additional 150 lbs of man and equipment compromised the O1’s already underpowered performance.
Robin scout translators worked with Raven Forward Air Controllers in O1, T-28, and U-17 aircraft. They spoke many Lao minority dialects, Hmong, Thai, and English to convey the needs of the ground commanders to the Forward air controller who in turn would brief and direct the US fighter pilots for weapons delivery. They had the eyes of eagles and knew the NVA routines, ploys, and traditional hiding places. We trusted each other with our lives and quickly became partners and brothers in arms.
They endured our gyrating combat maneuvers all day long. On the way back to Long Tieng, we encouraged them to fly the aircraft. The scenario of a wounded, unconscious Raven being flown home safely encouraged us to give them flying time on return flights to L20A.
The Robins would fly every day. Often they would team up with one Raven for consecutive missions. Most seemed to enjoy the happy mystery of flight and became accustomed to the jinking and jiving ride of combat.
Upon the mountaintop redoubts, and down on the Laotian Plain of Jars, Special Guerrilla Units (SGU’s) of General Vang Pao’s Hmong Army fought off the advancing NVA with light arms, mortars, and recoilless rifles. The NVA had large mortars, cannons, and rockets that could bombard the primitive trench and bunker outposts of the Hmong Fighters from a concealed, out of range, distance.
The Forward Air Guides (FAGs) on the ground with the SGU battalions could often locate or relay the positions of the enemy. They had individual call signs like Rainbow, Swamp Rat, Black Lion, or Showboat. Often there was an American CAS advisor there but most of the communication on the VHF radio was between the FAG (Forward Air guides) and the Robin scout translators. The CAS officers encouraged, trained, and advised this vital radio operator cadre.
The Robin knew the lay of the land, where the friendly patrols were, and the enemy locations. They knew where they wanted the ordinance to impact and the type of anti-aircraft fire anticipated. Then the Robin had to communicate that information to the Raven Pilot, confirm the understanding between them using a pointed finger over the shoulder and Hmong-English-French, thumbs up.
Then the Raven would figure the exact coordinates from his map and communicate the critical information to the Fighters and ABCCC ensuring that they knew exactly where the friendly troops were positioned. The Raven would fire a white prosperous rocket to mark the first target, clear the fighters Hot, meaning cleared to release their ordinance on the target. The Air Guides would continue to request tactical air support on specific locations until the heavy ordinance was expended on the targets. The Raven and Robin would then glass, (use binoculars) in the strike zone and descend to provide a Bomb damage assessment as the smoke cleared. The Fighter-bombers would save some of their 20mm in case the Raven experienced ground-fire. Often the SGU would send out a team to complete a more extensive BDA. The teamwork of the Hmong Air Guides, Robins and Raven pilots enabled the outnumbered and outgunned SGU’s to eliminate threats that were out of their weapons range or hidden close to the SGU perimeter.
"Low and Slow" Raven 43, William Platt
Our Hmong back-seater, Yang Bee,
had the eyes of an eagle to see,
His enemies run before his gun,
VP's chief "Robin" was he.
40 year Reunion
William E Platt and Yang Bee:
Flying with Yang Bee was always eventful. He had a reputation for aggressive behavior from our O-1 our rear seat. Shooting out the window to announce his presence was a gantlet thrown by a bad, mad Hmong.
At first light, Yang Bee was waiting for me. He nodded, and I gave him a salute and thumbs up. While I pre-flighted the O-1, he opened the rear seat side windows and prepared his AK 47 assault rifle and ammunition magazines for combat. He wedged the weapon in beside his seat. I had flown with him on several previous occasions. I knew him to be fearless, and he expected me to follow his instructions without hesitation. He barked over the intercom, “Raven 43, “go to the Low”, which, from experience, I knew he meant to hug the terrain and prepare to fight, and, maybe die.
Bee Yang was a legendary figure and a fierce warrior who was a trusted confidant of General Vang Pao. His appearance and demeanor reminded me of a veteran drill instructor. He was a coiled and tempered spring ready to attack. This mission would be another test of survivability. We would fly and fight Low and Slow until we found the hidden NVA artillery spotter.
My chief crew, Glen held up a sign that read “No Fly, No die”; morbid humor, he said, wards off the superstitious jinx.
Within minutes after takeoff, we were in a hard left bank turn around the jagged karsts and grassy knolls that formed the eastern edge of Skyline Ridge. Level with the ridge and flying 200 feet laterally, we followed the contour up and focused on specific locations with a concealed view of the Long Tieng valley to the west. Just below us was a nearly vertical ridge falling 1500 feet down a canyon wall. Suddenly, we both saw three olive-drab enemy artillery spotters, scurrying into their spider holes. Swinging their assault rifles toward us, Vang Bee opened up with full automatic fire out his rear left side window. I hoped he would not sever our left wing strut. Our O1 was still climbing at 70 KIAs toward an overcast layer a few hundred feet above us. Time stopped, I held my breath. Knowing that there were rocks in those clouds ahead, I pulled a hard right 270 with a hard-left 90 turn back east alongside the ridge. By the time I rolled out, Vang Bee was firing out the right rear window at the burrowing bad guys. My ears were ringing near pain inside my ballistic helmet as VB discharged his third complete magazine volley at the enemy. The ceiling was too low to work fighters, so we popped the ridge and entered final approach for 32 at L 20A. VB briefed VP by radio on the exact location of the NVA artillery spotters. We landed and within minutes, a truck full of Hmong fighters was dispatched to the eastern ridge to clear the remaining spotters from their lair. This was just another exciting flight with Master Warrior scout Yang Bee.
Vang Pao’s counter-offensive was able to drive back the invaders and to re-claim Sam Tong by the end of March 1970.
William E Platt, Raven 43, December 1969 thru June 1970
Yang Bee - Robin 01 (LS-20A 1967-1973) Lead Forward Air Guide
I was privileged to fly my first Raven operational sortie late July 1969 with Yang Bee in my backseat. It was a memorable mission for me and it may be memorable for Yang Bee as well. As a new Raven, Yang Bee was assigned to fly with me because he was very experienced and had excellent eyesight. I was told he was also very cautious and so he would keep me out of trouble. It turned out this was not correct! When Yang Bee met me at the Bird Dog, I was surprised how much he reminded me of the photos I had seen of the famous leader of the Vietnamese Air Force and new RVN Prime Minister, Nguyen Cao Ky.
We took off and flew around the north side of Plaine des Jarres (PDJ) looking for enemy activity. We were at a moderate altitude of about 3,000 ft above ground level. Yang Bee then pulled on the back of my shoulder harness to get my attention and said, "Laven 42 – you fly to the low!" I looked back and saw him looking out the left side. I began to reduce the altitude curious about what he was seeing. Keep in mind I expected him to be "cautious" so I was not worried about danger. He signaled me to fly lower and turn back toward a road that ran along the north side of the PDJ. As I settled down fairly low beside the road, Yang Bee took my .30 caliber carbine from behind my seat and began to fire from his window at something on the ground. I was surprised at this but still could not see what he was shooting at. He asked me to turn back and make another pass by the location and, "fly to the low!" Finally, I saw that he was firing at a tank! It was parked under the trees beside the road pointing toward us and I was close enough to clearly see the machine gunner in the turret firing at us. I began to move the airplane wildly around the sky while trying to get some distance from the tank. This took a very long time. I was sure we had received battle damage but when we got back to base we found not a scratch. It was a miracle we did not get hit. I am sure I said some very unkind things to Yang Bee as we headed south to our base at 20 Alternate. I was thinking to myself that it could be a long 6 months if every Raven sortie was like this one. And so much for the "cautious" Yang Bee!
I have since learned that Yang Bee went on to be the brave leader of the FAGs in General Vang Pao's Army. I regret I was unable to meet with him after he settled in America after the war. But it is safe to say I will never forget him and the mission we flew together. Dedicated to Yang Bee on the occasion of his daughter's wedding on 21 April 2018.
All Best Wishes,
Smoky Greene, Raven 42 LS-20A Jul 1969-Feb
Steve Wilson and Yang Bee 1972
Steve Wilson and Yang Bee:
A Vietnam Story with a happy reunion after 44 years
by Steve Wilson Lieutenant Colonel, USAF(Ret)
I spoke loudly into the emergency radio: “Mayday, mayday, mayday. This is Raven 27 and I’m hit and going down.” I was ten miles behind enemy lines with no parachute and the engine had quit. And there were 25,000 North Vietnamese Regulars below…not the Viet Cong farmers that were part-time soldiers but battle hardened, well trained, highly motivated, and very capable NVA regulars. But let’s back up to the beginning to set the stage. I arrived in Pleiku, Vietnam in June 1971. My job was called a Forward Air Controller or FAC. I flew the O-2A, a twin-engine lightly armed spotter plane. My job was to locate targets, mark them with a smoke rocket, and direct fighter-bombers onto the target. But there was very little going on at Pleiku and I became bored. There was a mysterious one-page letter in the operations room ask- ing for volunteers for Project Steve Canyon. The letter didn’t even say where the assignment was or even what you would do. But previous pilots that served in this assignment had gotten the word back that this assignment was about becoming a Raven across the “fence” (border) in Laos. I didn’t have any of the qualifications, but volunteered anyway. I was accepted after a few weeks. I found out later there had been lots of pilots killed and they needed to fill cockpits. I guess I didn’t get the memo about not volunteering in the military. I arrived in northern Thailand in early January 1972 after two weeks leave in the states with my new wife of less than a year. I in-processed and was given temporary duty orders. I departed at 4PM that same day on a CIA transport for Vientiane, Laos. All of my military uniforms were placed in a locked metal container. I had been “sheep-dipped” into clandestine duty. I was now part of “The Secret War in Laos.” I learned how to fly a new airplane in just a few days and studied the rules of engagement. In under a week I was flying combat missions in a very hostile environment. There were ten pilots most of whom were lieutenants like myself and a major in charge of us. I was assigned the call. sign Raven 27. We lived in a hotel. Normally we would live at a CIA base in central Laos. But once the NVA got too close to that base just prior to my arrival, flying operations were moved to a safer venue. I flew the first day with an instructor, then it was baptism under fire… literally. There was more action that first day than my previous six months in Vietnam. Maybe a slight exaggeration, but not too far off. I had definitely achieved my goal of avoiding boredom. This was an intense battle going on. My second day I flew with Yang Bee. He was a captain in the Laotian Army and about ten years older than me. He wanted to see if I had what it takes before he would allow his Laotian observers to fly in my back seat. Yang Bee is the bravest person I have ever worked with. Bullets could be flying all over the sky, but he was steady as she goes. He talked on the radio with the troops on the ground and helped us form a plan to safely attack the enemy. The troops on the ground were usually a mixed group. The bulk of the friendly fighters were Laotian Army of the Hmong ethnic group. There were also mercenaries from Thailand paid by the CIA. And finally there was a CIA case officer working as an advisor. The NVA started a major offensive just prior to my arrival. They had 25,000 troops supported by artillery, anti-aircraft guns, surface to air missiles and even air support on one occasion. We only had 2,000 troops to oppose them. But we had some advantages the NVA did not: we held the high ground; Air America transports and helicopters; tactical airpower; CIA support; and the Ravens. There was an NVA anti-aircraft gunner that was deadly for us. This gun shot down two of our aircraft. I was part of a two-plane reconnaissance mission to locate this gun. I would fly low to draw fire while the other Raven flew high to watch for the gun firing. The plan worked well…too well. The gun fired and I got hit. The incendiary round exploded upon contact with the propeller sending smoke, flame and shrapnel on both sides of the aircraft. I turned toward “friendlies” in case the engine quit. But it didn’t quit amazingly enough. Yang Bee was in the back seat. When I looked back at him, he gave a thumbs up. We landed safely and the plane was quickly repaired. One week later, we decided to try again to locate this gun. By a quirk of fate I was in the same plane with Yang Bee and flying the low position close to the action. And yet again I was hit by the gunner. This time the round that got us was an armour-piercing round and it hit the engine on the left side. The engine did not stop, but there was very little power. We did not carry parachutes, so we were going to make a crash landing. I had a choice of where to head. One field had a couple of CIA guys in a hill overlooking the airstrip. And the airstrip was under almost continuous siege. The other option was the big CIA base I would normally have been living at with the rest of the Ravens. The only problem with this second option was a 5,000 foot mountain range between me and the base. I thought this was a better option since we could crash into the mountains and scramble to safety with the friendlies on the top of the ridge. Not a good option but the best one at the time. We cleared the mountain ridge with maybe a hundred feet to spare. It was easy to land at the CIA base. The runway was long and concrete… both rare in Laos. We practiced landing without power. It is an emergency procedure we know well, and even something we expect in a single-engine plane in combat. I looked back at Yang Bee and he had this confident look on his face. It was kinda like “Been there done it!” and it usually turns out OK. After we touched down, the tower controller was screaming at us to push the plane off the runway. Air America had troops and supplies to deliver and our crippled plane had stopped operations. After we got the plane off the runway, a CIA officer greeted us with a warm beer. Best beer I ever had. In jest I looked over at Yang Bee and asked him if he was ready to go back and fly today. He said, “Yes. Our Buddha is strong today. We will not die today.” I told him our day was over and we were taking Air America home. Combat in the Air Force is much more impersonal since we are so far away from the enemy. On my flight to home base on an Air America transport after being shot down, there was a seriously injured Hmong soldier as well as two body bags. Fighting is very personal for the Army guys at the “point of the sword”. The next day I had several revelations. First, I had come very close to death on my first wedding anniversary. Not the exact same day, but very close. Second, the intelligence officer showed me a typed message. It was a translation of the NVA anti-aircraft regiment radio call to their headquarters reporting the incident of the previous day. It had been intercepted. The intelligence officer forgot to stamp it classified and I forgot to return it. It has been authenticated as genuine. Lastly, the bullet that gets you is the so-called “golden BB”…the one you never see. Your head is constantly moving and looking for the ground fire. But the “golden BB” is the one you miss. Several months later I completed my Raven tour of duty and returned home to my wife. I said my goodbyes to the other Ravens, and Yang Bee. We had defeated the NVA on this most recent dry season offensive. We were out numbered ten to one but had decisively defeated a formidable enemy. Many deaths on both sides. I had come out of this tour in pretty good shape. I had only been hit twice. One of our ten pilots was killed while I was still there. A few months after I departed Laos, the pilot that took my call sign was killed as well as another Raven. Over a five-year period 165 pilots were Ravens. Twenty-two were killed in action. This was dangerous work for sure. I was lucky. Fast forward to the present. I stayed in touch with some of the Ravens I flew with through the Facebook page “Callsign Raven”. A year or so ago I posted a photo of me and Yang Bee. To my surprise, Yang Bee and his family escaped Laos to Thailand after the communist took over Laos. Then he moved to the US as a refugee. Gau Nu, Yang Bee’s daughter, and many other relatives asked to be my Facebook friend. Gau Nu contacted me via FaceBook to say she was bringing Yang Bee to North Carolina to visit his other daughter in Concord. They travelled to Raleigh to spend the afternoon and re-live our experiences from over 40 years ago. What a joyous occasion for an old guy (me) to get to re-unite with his even older brother in arms (Yang Bee) after so long. I brought out a few maps and other items left over from the war. Yang Bee was having an absolute great time reflecting on the past. His English is poor, but we could tell that his daughters were really enjoying him re-living the past. It is funny how a small detail from the past can trigger a forgotten memory. There was more than one forgotten memory. I told the group about Yang Bee’s lunch during breaks from combat missions: a small wicker basket (smaller than a large can of beans) filled with cooked rice and topped with a very small quantity of fish (maybe two tablespoons). I re-lived a memorable mission with the group. Yang Bee and I had flown deep into enemy controlled territory very close to the border with North Vietnam. By the time we turned towards friendly territory, the weather had turned much worse. We looked for a way home but the clouds were touching the mountain tops. The only way home was to climb into the clouds…an emergency procedure in this plane. So we located a saddle. This is a place where a gap in the ridge is located. The mountain ridge rises on two sides of the gap and the terrain drops off on the other two sides of the saddle. So we climbed into the clouds for maybe thirty seconds or so. Then I pushed the stick forward hoping to break out of the clouds before we hit the tree tops. It worked. Yang Bee told his daughters he was not sure we would safely recover from that mission. Then my wife asks Yang Bee how many close calls he experienced during many years of combat missions. He said there were too many to recall. This was true irony to me. I spent six months flying this dangerous mission and had only a few really dangerous missions where I doubted whether I would live to tell about them. But Yang Bee had flown this mission since it started in the mid-1960’s! Clearly Yang Bee and his fellow Hmong warriors had much more “skin in the game” than any of the Americans. Our most fun was viewing my slides from my tour in Laos. And Yang Bee thoroughly enjoyed the show. On one slide, he pointed out to his daughters the burial site for his grandmother. He was so animated it was truly an honor to serve with this brave man and his fellow Hmong.
Steve Wilson, Raven 27
Yang Bee - Robin 01
Yia Kha, Yang Bee, Moua Ly