Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Southeast Michigan Hmong-American veterans who fought in Laos during the Vietnam War are planning a visit to the Air Force Museum at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, on Saturday.
In honor of Asian Heritage Month this month, friends and family members of the veterans also plan to attend.
A museum display of special interest to the veterans is the venerable Cessna O1-E “Bird Dog,” the aircraft of choice for the Ravens Forward Air Controllers. The Ravens were an all-volunteer group of United States Air Force pilots who spotted and marked enemy targets in Laos for air strikes by Air Force fighter-bombers flying out of Thailand, and Hmong and Lao pilots flying from Laotian bases.
Hmong observers, called “backseaters,” often flew with the Ravens to assist in locating North Vietnamese soldiers, equipment and supplies coming down the Ho Chi Minh trail and destined for South Vietnam, or North Vietnamese divisions that were attacking the Hmong and Royal Laotian forces who opposed the North Vietnamese invasion of their country.
Oakland County connection
Joua B Cheng, who lives in Pontiac, was one of many veterans honored during a 1997 congressional ceremony. In addition, he was also a recipient of The Defenders of Freedom Citation, awarded on July 22, 1995, and the Commendation and Citation for Vietnam War Service in Laos, awarded on May 14, 1998. He served as a major in the Hmong army and fought every day during the “Secret War” from 1961-1975.
He was severely wounded three times and returned to combat all three times after he was well enough to resume command of his battalion. After the war, he and his wife, Palee, escaped with their children across the Mekong River to the safety of a refugee camp in Thailand. A church in Petoskey sponsored their emigration to Michigan and they settled first in Petoskey in April 1978 before moving to Saginaw in 1981, and then in 2000 to Pontiac.
One of Joua B and Palee’s sons, Cha Cheng, serves as vice president of the Great Lakes Hmong Association (GLHA), a mutual assistance association dedicated to furthering the well-being of Hmong-Americans via social gatherings, holiday celebrations, English language skills development, and field trips such as the planned visit to the National Air Force Museum.
Cheng leads the committee that is planning the tour for the veterans, their spouses, families and friends.
“The Hmong-Americans will charter the bus trip to Dayton, and GLHA a registered Michigan nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization welcomes donations to help cover the veterans’ travel and any overnight food and lodging expenses,” Cheng said. “Our donors will have the satisfaction of knowing they’ve helped some of America’s bravest and most faithful allies learn more about their still-new American heritage at the National Air Force Museum.”
Remembering the ‘Secret War’
The Laotian war against the Communists lasted for more than 15 years. It was considered a covert war because the Geneva Conventions prohibited the presence of foreign forces on Lao soil, however, according to former CIA Director William Colby, the North Vietnamese Army fielded up to 70,000 soldiers in Laos, including several of North Vietnam’s best divisions.
To help the Hmong and Royal Lao forces in their unequal battle against the NVA, the United States deployed CIA, Special Forces and Air Force personnel for classified missions, training of the Hmong and Royal Lao forces, as well as equipment, supplies and logistical support.
On May 15, 1997, Hmong- and Laotian-Americans who fought in the war were recognized by Congress and honored with a living memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. By preventing NVA divisions, equipment and supplies from reaching the fighting in Vietnam, the Hmong and Lao forces saved thousands of American lives.
Michigan has a unique connection with the Hmong-Americans who now make their homes in the state. Many now live in Oakland and Macomb counties. These residents escaped to America after the war, when the communists took over Laos.
Acts of valiance
The story of a Raven who was a Michigan native, USAF Major and Raven 20 Richard “Dick” DeFer, who was born in Traverse City, and his Hmong backseater “Scar” — the Ravens’ nickname for Vang Ger Cheng, who had a huge scar on his neck from a previous action — is an example of the Michigan-Hmong connection. Cheng is the uncle of Joua B Cheng.
On October 19, 1971, the day before he was scheduled to leave Laos and rotate home, Raven 20 DeFer took his last flight over Plain of Jars with Scar. Swooping low over the plain in their Bird Dog to confirm the presence of a suspected NVA supply dump, they flew into a sheet of NVA gunfire. DeFer was severely wounded and could no longer fly the aircraft, so Scar took over the controls and landed the aircraft from his back seat position. The landing was hard and fractured his leg. A CIA rescue helicopter was called in by a fellow Raven who had arrived on the scene after hearing DeFer’s “Mayday” calls for help. The helicopter took DeFer and Scar back to their home base at Long Tieng (pronounced “Long Cheng”), but by the time they arrived, DeFer was dead. Scar survived his injury, and died in the early 1980s while hiding from the Communists in the jungles of Laos.
Major DeFer flew more than 1,000 combat missions during his year-long tour of duty in Laos and was awarded the Silver Star, three Bronze Stars, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Purple Heart and numerous Air Medals.
Prior to his service with the Ravens, he served a year’s tour of duty as a forward air controller in Vietnam, flying in support of the Republic of Korea’s Tiger Division troops. A year’s service as a FAC in Vietnam was a requirement to join the Ravens.
Donations are tax-deductible. Checks should be made payable to Great Lakes Hmong Association (www.glhainc.org) and sent to: GLHA Re: WPAFB, P.O. Box 210781, Auburn Hills, MI 48321. Visit www.ravens.org.