The book I read was titled Here There are Tigers, The Secret Air War in Laos, 1968-69. It was written by Reginald Hawthorn and is his personal experience as a Major in the Air Force. I wanted to know an Air Force pilot’s perspective since I read about so much bombing going on during the Vietnam War. He was an FAC (Forward Air Controller) and flew an O-2 single prop airplane during Vietnam from 1968-1969. Major Reginald Hathorn was an instructor at Laughlin Air Force Base when he got the call on Friday of January 1968 that he would have to leave his wife and two daughters to fight in Vietnam.
When Major Hathorn got to Vietnam, he was immediately hit by the chaos that was happening. His first night he was nearly hit by a mortar. Through the confusion he was able to make it to his duty position at Bien Hoa. He became part of the 504th Combat Support Group. Once he passed the preliminary test, he was sent as air liaison officer to the Korean element at the ROK capital, and soon Major Hathorn was looking for a new duty position. One day he ran into an old student who told him there was an announcement for an experienced pilot.
Don’t waste your time!
Order your assignment!
Little did Major Hathorn know that he stumbled onto a top secret mission, and he was just the person they were looking for. When he got to his new duty station he was shocked at the rank around the area, as there were multiple majors and other high ranking officers. It was then that someone said, “Welcome to the Nails. ” At “The Nails” he found they have entirely different operations including better equipment and better pilots. For night strikes they had A-26’s and used the call sign of Nimrods. They also used A-1’s and used the call signs: Hobos, Firefly, and Zorro.
Australian pilots also flew with Hathorn’s unit in their B-57 Canberra bombers using call sign Yellow Bird. As his peers were giving him the skinny, he was told he would be working in several areas in Laos. One of the areas was called Steel Tiger. There was also a location he would be operating in farther south, called the Tiger Hound area. The areas they were operating in were completely top secret because of the SEATO treaty. There was not supposed to be anything going on in Laos, and he found out there was also plenty they could not talk about.
He was on a need to know basis. On Major Hathorn’s first mission flying with a short timer veteran, a Captain Butts, they were scouting a sector of the Ho Chi Minh Trail when Captain Butts spotted a SAM which Hathorn had not noticed. Next to the Captain, he felt insufficient and inexperienced. Early in his time Major Hathorn was flying day missions in Cricket West, a part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. He had made a mistake earlier in his time at Laos when some F-28’s boxed him in… a sin for any pilot.
Major Hathorn worked Cricket West calling in a lot of fire missions. In the area of Cricket West there was a fierce place that the FAC pilots knew better than anyone, including what would happen if they were caught. If they were lucky they would just be shot, but you could also be tied to a tree, skinned, and have your head cut off and placed on a stick. The fast movers were not always aware of this, so Major Hathorn would always push for them to RTB if possible, even though they would bail out on the flick of a dime.
Preparing himself for any situation, Major Hathorn used survival gear which included a 9mm Browning pistol, a 9mm Swedish K sub machine gun (I had to look for this myself it has a little folding butt stock, air cooled barrel, weight 9 ? LBS), 300 rounds for each weapon, 4 plastic B compound hand grenades, 2 survival radios, blood chit package medicine maps, a compass, a commando dagger, and a large hunting knife. Major Hathorn understood that he and his fellow FAC pilots had a price tag on their heads of $10,000. Despite mission after mission, Cricket West was being lost.
New weapons were being tested in Laos, and other weapons, already in the United States’ arsenal were also being used. Land mines called Dragons Teeth would be dropped by the truck load every day on every path. Cluster bombs would be used to take out a football size field with what would look like a shotgun blast. They also had smart bombs, but they were so expensive that they had to have a good target to use them. They would also drop nausea gas, and if anyone came in contact with it, they would become deathly sick instantly.
There was also a propane bomb called the Fat Albert which was meant to get into the underground areas and then explode. They had high powered dishes setup to listen for the explosions of the land mines, and on a lot of missions, Major Hathorn was diverted when he had to check up on an explosion that would come from one of the land mine sites. One mission for the Major that was considered Top Secret was a simple pickup and deliver. The Major got his brief that he and a Laotian representative would go deep into Laos to one of the random outposts where they had captured an enemy officer. They were to deliver him to the Special Forces compound.
Hawthorn took a Laotian representative because a United States citizen alone, was not allowed to put boots on the ground. The mission got off to a good start (minus the Laotian soldier with him who was scared), and he made it to the pickup site. That’s where it got a little hairy, and he had to do some shooting from the ground in his O-2 were the quick pickup took longer then was planned. They made it in the air barely and headed to the SF compound where they were greeted by a guy in a Hawaiian shirt who yelled to him to give him the prisoner. After so much trouble with the pickup itself, Major Hathorn was not going to be a pushover.
He pulled out his Browning 9mm and stuck it in the face of the man wearing the Hawaiian shirt and said, “Show me some ID butt face. ” During Christmas time, overseas was not fun. Like every other day the war did not stop, and Major Hathorn was on a routine mission. He was working with four F-105’s, and when the fourth F-105 was finishing its last pass, it was severely damaged by anti aircraft fire, and the pilot had to bail out. Major Hathorn spotted him and got him on the radio. Hathorn promised the pilot he would be back in the morning for rescue. The next morning they sent the rescue team.
The PJ was just getting to the pilot when they found out it was a trap, and the pilot was already dead. The helicopter started taking heavy fire and had to get out of there. They went back the next day to recover the mutilated bodies of the PJ and the pilot of the bad Christmas Eve Mission. Every once in a while Major Hathorn would be thrown off when he would get to his daily briefs to find that instead if the attendance of the normal five people, the briefing room would be filled to the max. During one of those days, a mission came from some CIA guys who said they tracked down where a POW camp was.
The mission would include three birds filled with SF guys and his O-2 to fly in to this place. Everyone packed heavy, and they had to move immediately because the POW camps were moved frequently. They flew to the target village, and hit some opposition. However, they were too late. The POW camp had already been moved. In 1969 Major Hathorn was hit with a lot of bureaucracy. Officers started showing up that did not go into combat, but instead created filler positions and spent their time trying to find things to do. Major Hathorn struggled with this, especially during an evaluation by a Captain who had never been in combat.
The Captain’s evaluation was not good, and he essentially told Major Hathorn (who had been flying missions for a year) that he was not doing the right thing. Some of these officers would make a flights two times a month in order to retain their combat pay. Major Hathorn was soon in the position of training all the new pilots and was responsible for showing them the ropes in regards to the Ho Chi Minh Trail. As Major Hathorn was getting used to missions, he discovered the brutality of the war down in Laos. The fast movers would not hesitate to bail out of the plane but the FAC pilots knew that if captured, their survivability was zero.
You were to fly your plane till it crashed. In 1968 and 1969, the air war was at its pinnacle and the US had total air superiority which meant we were just bombing the hell out of them. Major Hathorn would be visited by the International Control Commission. Even though they wouldn’t fly, they had to be fools to not see the signs of warfare that had been happening there. As Major Hathorn was amassing missions, he started to prefer flying by himself, even taking out his passenger seats hoping to give him the odds of losing the extra weight.
The Major was not liked by his superiors because he was crazy on one occasion going head to head with an anti air gun. In conclusion, the war for Major Hathorn consisted of going on over 229 top secret combat missions in Laos as a forward air controller from the period of 1968 through 1969. His call sign was Nail 31, and he flew what was not supposed to be combat plane, the O-2. In his O-2 he started off conducting day missions, and he later conducted both day and night missions. He then went to all night missions, given he felt more comfortable doing those missions.
Major Hathorn used a variety of air craft in his destruction of the enemy and guided many through the thick of battle. Major Hathorn started working with the regular air force then found himself on special assignment where he worked with CIA and Special Forces in an area we were not even supposed to be in. When I started reading this book I had some doubts about the Major, given he was an officer that flew in a little dinky plane, but he was a solid guy and it changed my view of the Air Force. References Hathorn, Reginald. Here There are Tigers, The Secret Air War in Laos, 1968-1969. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2008.