I was sitting in the Air America bar at “Alternate” also known as Long Tieng. Long Tieng was the stronghold of General Vang Pao, leader of the Meo army in northern Laos. Long Tieng was also a secret U.S. airbase used by the ultra-secret Raven forward air controllers (FACs) and my employer at the time, Air America. I had delivered a couple of FNG’s (figure it out) to their new assignment in a Volpar Twin Beech, and I was waiting for a dispatch for the return flight. I was feeding quarters into the juke box and playing Rolling Stones tunes. I found out later that it would play whether you put money in it or not. All they had was Vietnamese beer which I hate, but beer is beer, and even Vietnamese beer is better than no beer at all.
A little kid, couldn’t have been more than 14, came into the bar. He was wearing a set of tiger stripe BDU’s, which were too big and seemed to engulf his slight frame. He was packing an M-16. “Vang Pao see you now. You come with me,” he said. You didn’t turn down an invitation from Vang Pao, and besides, the General’s headquarters was always interesting. At least I wouldn’t have to finish that wretched beer.
Vang Pao greeted me warmly, “Captain Weedon, good of you to come. Please sit down. Would you like a drink?”
“A beer would be nice.” He made a quick gesture toward one of the guards who disappeared and returned in a few minutes with two ice-cold Pearls. “General, you’re a man after my own heart.” He laughed and lit a cigarette. He took a deep drag, looked up at the ceiling and exhaled.
“Is it well with your family?” he asked.
“You know I don’t have a family, General.”
“Better than that, I’m dead.”
“You look good for a dead guy.”
“I bet you say that to all the girls.” He looked at me strangely and then he got the joke and laughed.
“You are a spirit, then? This is why you so lucky?” It was my turn to laugh.
“So, are we here to discuss my health?”
“I need favor, Captain,” he said.
“Always happy to do favors for generals, sir. What is it?”
“My nephew, Vu Li, is commander at Xieng Khouang. Base is in danger – overrun by Pathet Lao. You evacuate Vu Li. All Ravens out working.”
“No, just him,” Vang Pao said. Those words fell on my ear with a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach. Vu Li was abandoning his command. Everyone would be shooting at us on that takeoff. Without some extraordinary luck, those left behind would not be getting out. I took my leave of Vang Pao and walked back to the airfield. I found the air boss and filled him in on the deal. He told me to take the Bird Dog with the least holes in it. I found one and gassed it up. The Ravens had more planes than pilots. There was no advantage to be gained with the speed of the Volpar Beech, so it was pointless to risk the more expensive airplane. The Bird Dog would be quieter and a smaller target. In fifteen minutes I was launching and on my way to Xieng Khouang. At 10,000 feet I leveled off and cleaned up. I fiddled with the throttle and trim until I had the plane in level flight. The Bird Dogs didn’t have autopilots. You flew them by hand. I found myself thinking that what I really wanted was to be sitting in my car at an A&W drive-in with a real hamburger, fries and root beer.
Xieng Khouang was only about twenty minutes by air from Long Tieng. Soon, I was lining up for my landing. I didn’t request clearance; I didn’t want to notify anyone that I was coming in. Before I could clearly see the runway, I was already seeing little points of light that bloomed and then faded. Damn, mortars. This is going to be interesting. As I got closer, the whole place seemed to be on fire. There was a B-52, hull down off the side of the runway and burning. I came in steep and hot, applying just enough flaps to keep from going over-speed. I dived for the runway and flared only at the last second. The airframe creaked and groaned. A landing like that is hard on the plane, but it makes you a much harder target. As soon as my wheels touched the pavement, the radio crackled, “Raven, hold position.”
“Roger, tower.” Like bloody hell. I kept moving. I didn’t want someone sighting me in with a mortar. Soon, I saw a jeep racing and weaving toward the runway through the columns of smoke. I kept driving until I was near the end of the runway, and I turned the plane around. The jeep caught up with me. I stopped the plane and hopped out. All the Meo looked small in stature to me, but Vu Li looked really small. He was wearing tiger stripe BDU’s with no sign of rank, a boonie and a pair of aviator shades that were too big for him, as if this lame disguise would keep his troops from knowing he had run out on them. I really respected the Meo, but I felt nothing but contempt for this guy. The driver scurried over to the plane with a couple of small bags, but Vu Li just stood by the jeep, almost at attention. “What’s his problem?” I yelled over the noise of the engine and the incoming. Three mortar shells landed in a pattern two hundred yards up the runway.
“He wait for you salute him,” the driver said. For the love of Pete…
“I’m a civilian. I don’t salute people,” I yelled.
“He wait,” the driver shouted back. Great. I can leave without him and disappoint Vang Pao, or… oh, hell… I turned and snapped a quick salute to the little twerp. He bolted to the plane. I got him belted in and motioned for him to put on the headset. I swung myself into the seat and looked at the driver who watched us, probably spending his last hour on this earth. I pointed at the hills to the west and yelled, “Go.” Then I saluted him. He was the only guy there who really deserved it. I went to full throttle and 30 degrees of flaps. We rattled down the runway toward the thickest part of the mortar barrage. The Bird Dog climbs well and I wanted altitude. A couple of small arms rounds thunked into the fuselage, but nothing serious, nothing that couldn’t be fixed with hurricane tape. Once airborne, I banked the plane to the west, away from the barrage.
“You not say nothing about this,” he said.
“My lips are sealed.”
“Americans all lie.” I didn’t like his tone. I was really working with the plane to get altitude as quickly as I could, and get out of the range of the small arms fire and RPG’s. The air was cool and I was getting good power from the engine. As the fear of ground fire faded, my anxiety about the nervous little man in the back seat grew. Not only had he failed to defend his post, he had run out on his men. He had lost face in a big way. He probably wasn’t eager to face Vang Pao either. I climbed the plane to 10,000 feet and leveled out.
I had just turned the plane toward the southeast, toward Long Tieng, when Vu Li said, “You go China.”
“China is a terrible place,” I said. “Not enough women and the beer is awful.”
“You go China now!” he yelled into the mike.
“My orders are to bring you to Long Tieng, sir.”
“New orders. China,” he yelled.
“Did I neglect to mention how we’ll both spend the rest of our natural lives in a Chinese prison camp?” I felt something hard poking the back of my head. “You go China now. I kill you.” I assumed the hard thing was a pistol. “You have a bit of a logic problem there, cowboy.”
“No more talk. Go now,” he shouted into the microphone.
“You got it, Colonel.” I went to idle power, pulled the nose up, and as the plane went into a stall, I kicked hard right rudder, putting the plane into a shallow spin. We would do spins on long recon sorties just to break up the monotony. I knew exactly how long I could spin the plane before I had to pull out. Vu Li didn’t know this.
“You stop. You stop now,” he screamed.
“You know, you’re really loud.”
“You stop now. I shoot.”
“There’s that logic problem again. Give me the gun.”
“You fly China,” he screamed again.
I watched the altimeter – 6,000 feet, “The ground is coming up mighty fast, Colonel.” The spiral continued.
“OK, OK!” With some effort, he pushed the pistol forward against the Plexiglas of the port side window. I grabbed it with my left hand. It was a clean Browning Hi-Power, a 9mm favored by the commandos. It would bring $200 in Udorn. I kicked opposite rudder, that is, away from the spin, and pushed the nose down. The plane yawed, and then slowly straightened out into a dive. I pulled up about a thousand feet above the treetops. I think Vu Li must have fainted or something because I didn’t hear anything more from him.
Long Tieng is a natural fortress because it sits in the bottom of a bowl formed by a high valley surrounded on all sides by 7,000 foot mountains. It almost always snagged the fog making landings tricky, but today it was fairly clear. I crested the ridge and the runway looked really small down in the basin. I eased back on the throttle and began the downhill run. I keyed the mike, “Tower, this is 44 coming in.”
“44, you are cleared to land.” As usual for Long Tieng, I was coming in too fast. I went to sixty degrees of flaps which caused the plane to buck, but then it settled down and slowed. At 75 knots I went back to thirty degrees of flaps and the plane sunk gradually onto the runway. We coasted to a stop and I saw two jeeps sitting at the end of the runway. As we drew closer, I could see Vang Pao sitting in one jeep surrounded by a detail of bodyguards. He wasn’t smiling. I pulled off of the runway and the bodyguards circled the plane. A couple of them pulled Vu Li out of the plane and put him into the other jeep, the one that Vang Pao wasn’t in. The jeeps fired up and were gone, bouncing away between the buildings toward Vang Pao’s headquarters.
By the end of the week, Vu Li had defected to the Pathet Lao. Two months later, he was killed in a Raven-directed air strike. I heard back-channel that the air strike was personally ordered by Vang Pao.
[Editor’s Note: This story is fiction. While Vang Pao was a real person, Vu Li was not. To the best of my knowledge, Gen. Vang Pao never ordered an air strike on one of his own nephews.]