Thursday, August 17, 2017  

Where Only Ravens Dared to Fly


It was a warm, sunny day in the little farming town of Mankato, Minnesota, in the mid-1950s. A young 12 year-old boy, Craig Duehring, found himself at the local airport, drawn by the sound of airplane engines and the sight of small aircraft circling overhead. It was the day of the annual March of Dimes fundraiser and he had saved the money he had earned while mowing his grandfather’s lawn for this very occasion. He stood in line with the others who were there, waiting his turn to step onto a small bathroom scale. When he did, his 120 pounds meant that he must pay $1.20 for the privilege of flying one time around the airport. A maroon Stinson Voyager pulled forward, and he ducked into the back seat with 3 total strangers and began his most exciting adventure. Soon, the pilot added power, and he watched with profound fascination as the ground began to get smaller and smaller. In that one ride, Craig knew that his destiny was to become a pilot. From that day onward, the question was never “what” but “how”.
The Jesuit High School he attended was a challenge academically, but it provided him with the opportunity to join the Loyola Cadet Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol (CAP). The CAP, which was formed only 8 days before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, had become the premier search and rescue program in the country, as well as an excellent youth leadership development program. Craig developed a knack for leadership and eventually became the senior ranking cadet in the state of Minnesota.
Never a good student, he struggled through the rigorous, pre-college academic program and, after graduation, began studying at the local Mankato State College. His poor studying habits coupled with the fact that he had to work every day to pay his way through the school, resulted in a string of substandard grades which eventually resulted in his dismissal from the school. This was a dangerous situation because of the ever-hungry draft program that funneled young men into the Army and on to Vietnam. The thought of combat was something he welcomed but the loss of his one chance to fly in the U. S. Air Force was devastating. He was granted readmission, only to fail a second and even third time. But, each time, he convinced the leadership at the school that he had finally become a student with great potential. His tenacity paid off and he graduated – barely, but he made it!
Craig was sworn into the Air Force just before New Year’s in 1967 and, on January 4, 1968, he began Officer Training School – the same day that the draft notice arrived at his parent’s home. Craig moved onto pilot training at Craig Air Force Base, near Selma, Alabama, and immersed himself in his beloved task. Ever the late bloomer, he again struggled to master the basic jet trainer, the T-37, but came into his own in the supersonic T-38 Talon.
His assignment out of flight school was to become a forward air controller (FAC), a pilot that normally lives with the soldiers he supports and flies over the battlefield in a small aircraft searching for the enemy and responding by directing fighter aircraft who attack the targets he gives them. It was the most exciting and dangerous mission available, and he couldn’t wait to get to Vietnam. But, first, he completed additional training at the Special Operations wing at Hurlburt Field, Florida, where he gained proficiency in the O-1 Birddog, a single-engine Cessna. Two “survival” schools, one in the mountains of eastern Washington State and one in the Philippine Islands, were completed, and the young lieutenant found himself stepping off a plane at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Vietnam, in August of 1969.
Within a few days, he arrived at his final assignment with the 25th Vietnamese Army Division at Duc Hoa, located about half way between Saigon and the Cambodian border. He lived in a compound built by the Army and began his daily duty of flying for the Vietnamese soldiers and the American Special Forces who operated on what was called “Plain of Reeds”. In this immense, grassy area which is cut by meandering rivers, enemy activity which normally came across the nearby border at night time, was very difficult to detect. Yet, there were many occasions where Craig found himself the target of enemy guns of all sizes and he even earned his first Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for preventing an ambush on a South Vietnamese Army unit that was patrolling the area. The fighters he directed on the scene effectively broke up the attack before it could begin.
Still, Craig felt that something was “missing”. The famous Tet Offensive of the year before had caused the enemy activity to subside noticeably, and he wanted more action before his tour ended. Added to this was the arrival of an extremely ineffective and disruptive leader as his boss, and Craig decided to take the next route to adventure.
As luck would have it, a chance encounter with a “captain” wearing civilian clothes and sporting the greatest lamb-chop sideburns in existence, led Craig to a successful interview for a dangerous, clandestine program “somewhere out of Vietnam”. After a fortuitous false start, he arrived at Udorn Air Base, Thailand and was immediately told to change into civilian clothes.
His arrival in Vientiane, Laos, was equivalent to what Alice felt when she walked through the looking glass. Unlike war-torn Saigon, Vientiane looked like a European city with an Asian mystique. In the early 1960s, the CIA had approached the government of Laos to see if they would accept U.S. assistance in fighting the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) which was rapidly taking over the country. The government accepted, and the CIA effectively ran the war in Laos until 1975. Air America was contracted to support them and became the largest airline in the world.
While much of the country fought intermittently, the bulk of the action took place on or near the famous Plaine des Jarres (Plain of Jars) where the iconic Hmong leader, Major General Vang Pao led his guerrilla army against the foreign invaders. A decision to add fighter strikes in Laos to help our allies brought about the formation of a FAC program whose pilots, flying unmarked O-1’s and AT-28’s while in civilian clothes, used the legendary call sign “Raven”. Craig, much to his delight, was assigned to the mountain home of General Vang Pao at Long Tieng. This classified airfield was, at that time, the busiest airfield in the world.
Craig learned that his delay in coming to Laos caused another FAC to be assigned in his place. This pilot and anther pilot were subsequently lost on their first flight. Thus, Craig was sent to replace the pilot who had replaced him – the first of many “close calls”. On his very first solo flight near the end of his own first day of flying in Laos, Craig was frantically summoned to defend an outpost that was under vicious attack by the NVA. He responded by directing a series of fourteen fighter aircraft against the enemy positions causing hundreds of enemy casualties and earning for Craig his second DFC.
From that eventful day, Craig went on to fly hundreds of sorties throughout northern Laos during one of the most dangerous years in the history of the Raven program. In the six years of its existence, fewer than 200 pilots flew with the Raven call sign yet more bombs (tonnage) were dropped on Laos during the War in Southeast Asia (SEA) than were dropped on Germany in WW II. His tenure at Long Tieng was longer than any other Raven and some fifteen Hmong, Laotian and fellow Raven pilots were killed around him. His own exploits earned him the Silver Star, the nation’s 3rd highest award for valor, the above mentioned DFC and an amazing twenty seven Air Medals.
At one point, the base they were living at, Long Tieng, was attacked by a strong force of NVA troops who fired light artillery at them. The base, which was defended by CIA manned machine guns and airstrikes directed out of a bedroom window, was eventually hit by a “short round” consisting of cluster bomb units (CBU’s) dropped by an American F-4. While it caused great damage and loss of allied life, it actually broke the attack.
Craig went on to complete a successful career as a fighter pilot flying the A-10 Warthog. He was awarded the Lance P. Sijan Award as the top leader in the entire USAF in the senior officer category for 1988. In civilian life, he became the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs, followed by a two year tour as the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Manpower and Reserve Affairs. In 2014, he was inducted into the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame.
In December of 2004, now retired Colonel Craig W. Duehring and his wife chose to purchase a home in Westmoreland County, Virginia, which most nearly replicated the friendly, agricultural-based environment that shaped his youth. In 2014, he published a book that covered his war time experiences in detail, entitled The Lair of Raven. In it, he describes the environment he and his friends flew in and the dangers that they encountered on a daily basis. The book is intended to not only present the unique history of this aspect of the SEA war, but to serve as an source of inspiration for young folks who are struggling to overcome their own obstacles in order to achieve their dream. 

The Lair of Raven is available on 
Amazon.com or from the author.