When tule fog hangs high in the trees in Auburn, Air Force Maj. Tom Palmer sees the silky mists cloaking Long Chieng, Gen. Vang Pao's secret headquarters in northern Laos.
Palmer's pale blue eyes mist over as he recalls the reconnaissance missions he and 200 other Ravens flew with the Hmong during the Vietnam War, calling in air strikes on North Vietnamese targets.
About a third of the Ravens – an elite air corps whose members had a price on their heads offered by the communists – were killed. Palmer said he and other Ravens got out of Laos alive because Vang's Hmong guerrillas successfully identified and ambushed communist Pathet Lao and other North Vietnamese and rescued downed U.S. airmen.
"The Hmong were ferocious warriors and put their hearts into that war," said Palmer, 76.
Vang died Jan. 6 of heart failure at a Clovis hospital. His six-day funeral, which begins Friday at the Fresno Convention Center, is expected to draw 40,000 mourners. Palmer and hundreds of other Vietnam veterans will be among them.
"The bonds between the U.S. pilots and their Hmong observers became very strong – we had to trust each other with our lives," said Palmer, who's been asked to share his tales of Hmong heroism with Vang's many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
"They have a lot of reasons to be very proud of their grandfather and what he did for both his people and the American people," said Palmer. "We supported him then and support him and the Hmong people now."
Palmer and other Ravens fund annual scholarships ranging from $500 to $1,000 for college-bound Hmong American youth.
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