Gene Hamner, retired U.S. Air Force pilot, volunteered for Forward Air Control (FAC) assignment in Laos, currently living in Galt, CA.
Note: To listen to a specific clip, move the slider on the video to the designated clip time listed below.
00:00 – Introduction
00:44 – Clip 1
Gene recalls how he became involved in the Secret War, starting with his approaching college graduation. He enlisted in Air Force’s flight training program and actually requested a FAC (Forward Air Controller) assignment.
02:29 – Clip 2
Tells of a major coming to his training program and telling the trainees about another possible assignment: the Steve Canyon program, a tightly controlled, top secret program. The name stems from a post WWII cartoon character.
04:34 – Clip 3
Recounts that, at end of his training program, a major joined them and went out on a flight with the trainees over the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the dry season.
05:27 – Clip 4
Talks about getting a call three months later to join the Ravens. He reported to a Special Operations Wing. Commander instructed that first thing he must do is return to his room, put on civilian clothing and pack away anything military related, except his ID, and ship it back home. Next he was to head to the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane, where they would take his ID card and give him an embassy card to carry instead.
06:17 – Clip 5
Describes his background as a former smoke jumper for the U.S. Forest Service, skilled in reading topographic maps and spotting fires from a plane – exactly the skills needed for a Raven – and how, following their training, they were basically on their own. Sort of a ” Do the best job you can. Don’t call us; we’ll call you” protocol.
07:15 – Clip 6
Recalls heading to Vientiane, where you mingled with “French communist photographers,” Pathet Lao, and more, which was a surprise to him.
08:03 – Clip 7
Describes being assigned to Luong Prabang (LP), the ancient royal capital, near his “working area” of the Plain of Jars. At LP, he made a few initial flights with other pilots and was soon “a Raven ready to go,” yet he “knew nothing about anything.” Describes enemy armaments.
09:51 – Clip 8
Explains term “sheep-dipped,” a term for pilots who vanished from their former lives upon becoming Ravens, who now worked for the U.S. Embassy. Explains the chain of command, including CIA-directed operations.
10:39 – Clip 9
Talks about the common occurrence of Ravens being shot down. Moves on to a typical day, starting with a briefing on where each would fly, typically for about 3 hours.
12:37 – Clip 10
Comments on an interesting aspect of the war: You weren’t getting briefings from an intelligence officer; instead, your reliable resource was often sitting across from you in the evening having a beer. It was a “very personal war.”
13:34 – Clip 11
Reflects on dedication and talent of FACs. Challenges pilots who might listen to interview to try to imagine flying your airplane, while looking out of side window with binoculars.
14:01 – Clip 12
Describes two flight situations: flying out above trails and rivers with “Backseater” (Robins). The Robin made contact with people on the ground. Language could be a problem. Gene would then contact pilots in T28s, who typically were fairly fluent in English. Describes process of picking out targets and conveying information to T28s, flying above them. Gene would fire “smoke rockets” to help T28 pilots see the target.
18:24 – Clip 13
Explains role of TIC (Troops in Contact), where things could get “hot and heavy.” Elaborates on typical air strike, which often went on for about 3 hours.
19:33 – Clip 14
Recalls when an air strike went from smooth to bad when Mustang Blue was shot and had to bail. Gene contacted search-and-rescue forces along the Plain of Jars, requesting a helicopter to pick up Laotian pilot. A1’s arrived without “Backseaters” who could translate to English. Describes Laotian helicopter pilot who flew up the Nam Ou River and, through all the crowd fire, rescues Mustang Blue.
22:44 – Clip 15
Describes beauty of Laos.and his return trip in 2002.
23:24 – Clip 16
Discusses pluses and minuses in fighting in a “secret war,” starting with fact that 3 U.S. presidents had denied our involvement in Laos, yet we dropped more bombs in Laos than we dropped on Germany during WWII. A common thread with the Ravens was that they all wanted to fight this war.
26:58 – Clip 17
Explains the messiness of how the Hmong were drawn into the conflict, stemming from their involvement with the French during their colonial past.
30:00 – Clip 18
Ends with his identifying information and secret war assignments.
31:10 – Credits
The below photos were provided to us by Gene Hamner.