For those who haven’t had the pleasure… Fred Platt, also known as Magnet Ass, was a USAF Forward Air Controller (fighter pilots used to spot enemy targets) in Laos. He was Raven 47 and was shot down, or crashed, 13 times in the combat zone. I did not serve at the same time with Fred and was not with him during any of those 13 crashes, but the legend of Fred Platt lives on in the heart of everyone who fought in that “Secret War” of Laos.
Capt Fred and Mule
He and I, friends for 20 years, went to Thailand in 2012 to attend the reunion of the Thai irregulars who fought so tenaciously against advancing North Vietnamese invaders in Laos 1971 through 1973.
We had some time to call our own at night in Bangkok and started, of course, at the Izzy Freeman watering hole, the Crown Royal on Pat Pong # 2. There Fred stashed a quart of Chevas for our emergency use in the “special customer” boxes behind the bar. That was the first time I remember one of the girls smiling big and addressing my buddy as “Captain Fred,” as in “Captain Fred where you been so long?” I don’t know who gave him that rank or how he came to know this Pat Pong lovely. I’m absolutely sure he didn’t really know her from Nancy Pelosi but you’d never have known it from the way they hugged and sparked.
We went on to other bars both low class and high-brow, from Soi Cowboy, to the Nana, to other places, and it was amazing how often Fred was recognized. “Captain Fred” was yelled a bunch of times as I drug his drunk ass around town.
Along the way we picked up, no Fred picked up, this American hoity totty lawyer who was a Thai resident of choice getting rich playing the international currency market. One night we were to meet at some exclusive bar this lawyer belonged to… members had to make reservations for non-members to get in the door… and inside money didn’t exchange hands. A tab was run on the member’s acc’t for him and his guest, which he paid monthly. Located in a high rise district down Silom away from the American Embassy, my taxi driver had never heard of the place. We found the entrance to be a nondescript, unadvertised or otherwise identified doorway near a side entrance to a 40 story building.
I went in and told the goon standing near the elevators that I was with the whatever that lawyer’s name was and was allowed to pass into the elevator that only went to the 6th floor. When the doors opened, it was all teak and marble and green plants and soft music and accent lights and plush carpet. An absolutely world class beautiful Thai girl came up and waied low and gestured towards what turned out to be the “smoking room.” She opened the door and offered me a smoking jacket, and I ain’t shitting you either. A smoking jacket. I said no, and she offered me a selection of maybe 50, I don’t know, 100 cigars. In humidors under a low light. I said no again thinking I might have to pay for them, or someone would and my guess, if the décor was any indication, those stogies were going be a couple hundred dollars each.
I went into the lush belly of this smoking room, and there was old richly-patinaed colonial motif every-fucking-where… and the balcony overlooked a river and rich jungle smells and river boat noises drifted up… and we’re talking the middle of town. ‘Bout as high class and exotic as something like this can be in Bangkok city. In the world.
I was back inside the smoking room sipping the cognac that that beautiful Thai lady had brought - at her suggestion – and was standing near some plants looking at books and shit on this shelf, when this tall, blond-headed east European woman can swishing into the room with this enormous smile on her face. She didn’t see me at first, went out to the patio and then back. She walked, more slowly now, like an ice princess to my direct front, looking me up and down as she approached and her smiled faded… fell off her face in fact…. and she said in her heavy east European accent, “You are not Captain Fred!”
Now this is what I want to know. What was she told about “Captain Fred” that seeing me instead was such a big disappointment? What?
So, anyway, I don’t know who sets the standards on this legend thing. But I’ll tell you this, for about one week in the spring of ’12 in Bangkok, Thailand, “Captain Fred” ruled the night.
We sat, Fred and I, many nights during that Bangkok trip, drinking and talking about the Secret War in Laos we had fought.
We said there was “glamor” to our work out of Long Tieng, I said especially during the Battle for Skyline Ridge. We searched for some other word than “glamor,” but none seemed as right. It’s an Alan Dawson word. Before Laos in Vietnam, combat was a mother fucker. Holding a man from your platoon after a fire fight, as he lay dying, turning the ground black with his blood, ripped at your guts. But most everyone in Laos had already had that initiation. We weren’t immune to grief, but we could handle it, keep it at a distance. There was great drama in fighting the Secret War. Danger, fear, laughs, camaraderie. Your emotions soar up and down in the course of a day and night on the battlefield around the PDJ. It greatly expanded the human experience. Few people in our generation knew life and death combat, day after day. In Long Tieng that was our business, it was our fight. We knew the enemy, we knew our forces. There were the Thai irregulars and mountain guerrillas, Fred’s Ravens and Air America and USAID and Sky. We were all handpicked. Not a single American was drafted to work Long Tieng. Every round eye, every Thai and Lao and Hmong commander had depth of character. A substantive, distinctive personality. Wore the strings around their wrist with great pride and respect. Everyone had volunteered to be there, hell, in some instances fought, pleaded to be there. In the CIA we had no-nonsense leaders; Hog, Dick Johnson, Stick, Glerum, Tovar, Godley. At home we had Bill Lair. We were not hog-tied to bureaucracy. Our times-off were great, whether we were married or single… great like no soldiers I know from SEA ever had. Working Long Tieng, Laos, was an opportunity only a few had… but for us who were there, it was one hell’va work force, doing powerfully exciting warring with stout Asian allies… one hell’va glamorous time.
And there was almost no phoniness to the business of our work in the Secret War. That’s one of the most significant differences between war fighting now and back then, there. 2010 and 2011 I worked Afghanistan. Fighting there was tentative, political, risk-averse. On the north slope of Skyline, during the ’72 battle, the North Vietnamese died by the hundreds. Our guerrillas threw grenades until their arms were sore. The fighting at times was hand to hand. Some of our replacement irregulars would come up in the morning and go back home that same night in body bags.
In our normal everyday civilian existence today, there is just so much fluff and political correctness. Perception is more important than reality. People, young and old are tied to their TVs, computers and tablets and iPhones, where fantasy rules. Sports is make believe war. Movies are make believe adventure. Video games are make believe challenges. Kids have to wear silly helmets to ride bikes, making the cheer leading team is enormously serious for some girls. People take mind-dulling Prozac like my parents took aspirin. There are hand wipes everywhere to keep dirt out of our lives. Break the law, kill someone, you go to jail where you get 3 squares a day and plenty of sleep. No one you meet has callous on his hands. Few people you meet have ever gone fishing or spent a night in the woods. Life’s insulated, and often lacks purpose.
We said all this.
In Long Tieng, life was real. The Hmong people we lived with and fought with, had no pretensions. They faced a hard life every day. In the CIA army, there was no posturing for promotions. There were no Hqs or Pentagon clowns in the valley that only knew office politics. Well there was once, but he didn’t stay long. Every morning the CIA case officer would go to the ramp to get a helicopter for a ride out to his troops, or to do other business. Took talking with ass kicking Air America pilots about the work at hand. Bull shit didn’t fly. Any small hint of faking something, was detected. And subterfuge with those guys would be soon found out.
And with the Ravens, who had to endure pompous, big Air Force close at hand in Vientiane, flying out of the valley – day after day after day after day – to support our troops on top of that ridgeline was a very simple life and death thing. Find the enemy and kill him… before he kills you. Eat supper at Vang Pao’s headquarters with the fearless Hmong T-28 pilots most every night. Plan with the scuffy CIA on how to hold off and attack the vastly superior force of enemy just over the ridgeline. Nothing fluffy or make believe about that. Get shot down, get your ass up, dust yourself off, get another plane and get back looking for the enemy to kill.
Same with the T-28 pilots, who would “fly until they die.”
For a significant time in our lives Fred and I worked Long Tieng. We know what it is like to operate in an environment where what you can do is what’s important, rather than who’s good at make believe. Where reality meant everything. Perception and bull shit meant nothing.
There was a certain mainly beauty to our fight there out of that little Long Tieng valley in landlocked Laos where the Hmong and Thai’s great desire to keep their freedom from the communist prevailed. Where Air America and USAID… the Ravens and the CIA kicked ass. At least until the “peace makers” and politicians arrived. Before that though, there was no fluff or fanfare or pretensions. It was just God damned glamorous war fighting. Getting on to 50 years ago.
That’s some of what we said… as we slurred our thoughts and words just among our two selves… but we never went long before someone, out of the swirling glitzy loud Bangkok night, would yell out… “Captain Fred. God damn. Look athere next to that white haired fucker. It’s Captain Fred….”