The flight of four fighters screamed over the mountain peaks toward their intended target, shadows streaking across the intervening valleys. One of the pilots, Lieutenant Ed Rasimus, knew troops were in trouble because his flight—call sign Whiplash Bravo—had been scrambled to provide close air support to a forward air control Combat Controller. From his cockpit, Ed could tell it was going to be a tough airstrike. Whiplash Bravo was flying deep into “Indian territory” and knew it. Below him, the local religion was not Islam but animism with a strong dose of the Buddha. It was the summer of 1966 and all Ed could see was the lush jungle of Laos in every direction, the oppressive heat and humidity creating their own clouds,clinging to the landscape like gray quilts and further masking terrain and potential enemy antiaircraft positions. It was not a good place to be. One of Ed’s wingmen tried the Controller (call sign Butterfly-44), a disembodied voice that would direct their airstrikes. Nothing. They were closing in fast, just forty miles from the contact point, when a weak and out-of-breath transmission floated across the airwaves: “Hello, Whiplash. This is Butterfly Forty-Four, do you copy?” Finally. “Roger, Butterfly. We’ve got four nickels [F-105s] for you with twenty-four cans of nape and twenty mike-mike [20mm cannons]. We’ll play for about twenty minutes and we’re now about forty miles out.” Combat Controller Jim Stanford, Butterfly-44, wasn’t airborne. The twenty-nine-year-old eleven-year Air Force veteran continued breathlessly, “Thanks, Whiplash, copy your numbers. I’m on the ground now refueling. I’m standing on the wing pumping gas in the airplane, but I should be airborne in about three more minutes. The target isn’t very far away.” In his F-105 cockpit, Ed had to process this information. Butterfly-44 is on the ground? Refueling his own airplane? In enemy territory? While out of breath, the disembodied voice didn’t sound overly concerned. The 105s established an orbit and awaited instructions. “Whiplash, Butterfly Forty-Four’s on the roll. Be with you in a minute. Are you ready for a briefing?” asked Stanford as his tiny unarmed and unarmored Pilatus Porter single-engine airplane took off from the dirt strip where he and his pilot had been forced to land alone and refuel their plane. It was a little after 1600 hours, and for Jim and his pilot, a CIA employee flying under the cover of Air America, landing on a short dirt space in the jungle was just another day in America’s secret and illegal war in Laos, across the Mekong River from Thailand. And these were not even their first strikes of the day. “Roger, Butterfly, go ahead.” Ed, who had assumed the Controller would have come from Thailand like himself by sneaking across the border, assessed the man behind the voice. If I’m stealing hubcaps by sneaking into Laos illegally, he thought, this guy is a full-fledged car thief. It was going to be a difficult strike with the thick puffy clouds obscuring much of the ground. “Okay, Whiplash. We’ve got a valley three miles north of my [location] with an estimated fifteen hundred Pathet Lao regulars [Laotians fighting against South Vietnam and the US]. I’ve got about two hundred Royal Laotians on the hilltops to the south. I need you to put your napalm in the valley and we’ll try and spread it around. Can you give me multiple passes dropping [in] pairs?” “We’ll be happy to do that, Butterfly.” Ed revised his estimate of Butterfly-44. He’s not stealing cars or hubcaps. He’s apparently running an entire mafia. “Whiplash, Butterfly Forty-Four has you in sight. If you check your ten o’clock low, you should be able to pick me up. I’ve got a white Pilatus Porter, and I’m level at six thousand feet in a left-hand orbit. Defenses in this area are small arms and automatic weapons with reported twenty-three and thirty-seven millimeter coming out of the valley earlier today. I’d like you to work the valley from east to west and come off south. The friendlies are on the hilltops to the south. Call visual on me.” “Okay, Butterfly. Whiplash lead has you in sight.” “Whiplash, I’m afraid I can’t mark for you. The ROEs [rules of engagement] don’t allow me to carry ordnance. But if you’ve got me in sight, I’ll point out the target area with my left wingtip.” Ed Rasimus watched from 14,000 feet as the tiny white plane, so obvious and exposed against the green jungle, dipped its wingtip to indicate an area of trees. The lead F-105 confirmed the target and called, “In from the east.” “Cleared hot, Whiplash. I’m holding off to the north.” Rasimus recalled the lead aircraft clearly. “I can see the shiny aluminum napalm cans leave his airplane. The fins keep them aerodynamically straight so they don’t tumble and smear, but the fireball in the jungle is still impressive.” From his slow-moving, glaring target of an airplane, Stanford called, “Nice hit, lead. Two, put yours just west of lead’s smoke. Three, step it further west, and four, finish off the end of the valley. Two’s cleared hot.” The F-105s continued to napalm the Pathet Lao until they ran out of “nape,” then requested permission to conduct gun runs with their 20mm cannons. When the fighters finally went “bingo”—out of fuel—and departed the little valley near the Plaine des Jarres, Stanford sent them off with gratitude. “Thanks a lot, guys. I’ll forward some BDA [battle damage assessment] when our guys walk through there tomorrow, but right now all I can say is thank you. You’ve saved the fort again for another night.” As Rasimus headed for the border and safety of Thailand, he thought, I can’t imagine his situation. I can’t conceive being in the jungle with a tiny airplane and a hugely outnumbered ground force. I can’t believe that he lives there and controls an air war in which he isn’t allowed to shoot back. As I cruise back to my safe airbase with my air-conditioned room, white sheets, hot shower, and a cold beer at the officers’ club, I wonder what kind of man is this. I hope Butterfly-44 has a good night. I hope he has many good nights. He earns them. Stanford and his pilot also turned for home: the most secret airbase in the world, known as Lima Site 36 alternate. Referred to by them simply as “Alternate,” it’s a dirt airstrip built and operated by the CIA in the middle of the jungle. For Jim, most days ended around 1730 after a full day of airstrikes, rescue coordination, and other support to the Lao indigenous forces commanded by the legendary General Vang Pao. “When the sun went down, our day in the air was done. We would meet with General Vang Pao and then go up to the Air America porch, sit around and talk, have a few drinks, play with the dogs or the caged bears.” The talk usually focused on which Air America pilots would fly the Combat Controller the next day, a nightly decision with potentially grave consequences. Two CCT had already been shot down with their pilots and, though both men were designated as missing in action, were presumed dead. Never more than four in-country at a time, the CCT in Laos of 1965–67 ran the entire air war’s targeting, and no one had ever even heard of them.
* * *
As Stanford enjoyed his well-deserved beer in Laos, on the far side of the globe in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, and a world away from America’s latest war, Gene and Terry Chapman were busy rearing their third child, John Allan Chapman, born 14 July 1965. The town itself is something of a Norman Rockwell throwback, stereotypically New England. Mature hardwood trees—elm, oak, and maple—thrive along its narrow streets, offering shade on hot summer days and creating canopies bursting with the colors of fire when the brisk days of fall arrive. Windsor Locks was a community where you really did ask your neighbor for a cup of sugar, the neighborhood kids played outside together, and adults looked out for all kids, not just their own. John came from humble beginnings, and it was an ideal world for the newest family member. As John explored Windsor Locks through the eyes of childhood and his youth, no one in the Chapman home could possibly imagine the direct line that would lead from America’s secret war in Laos to their son becoming one of the most elite warriors in history. * * * Before Vietnam became a household word in the American lexicon, Combat Control Teams had existed for over a decade, and to fully understand them it’s necessary to return to the global inferno of World War II, where they were originally formed to spearhead invasions on the heels of the disasters that marked the early attempts at airborne operations. The first real use of American paratroopers was during Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily in July of 1943. The ill-planned and poorly executed operation saw some forces dropped as much as fifty miles from their objectives. Paranoid naval forces and conventional army troops landing on the beaches considered anything in the air to be hostile so, of the 144 transport planes slated to drop paratroopers, 23 were destroyed and 37 badly damaged by friendly fire. One pilot summed up the mission thusly: “Evidently, the safest place for us tonight while over Sicily would have been over enemy territory.” Yet the major failure remained guiding Allied aircraft to the appropriate release point and marking them for drops. For the D-Day invasion of June 1944, the US and the British had formed pathfinder teams to address those challenges, though they delivered limited success, as airborne troops were still scattered across the Norman countryside. Yet at least one unintended benefit resulted—numerous reports of such wide dispersal of Allied troops left the Germans unsure of where to rush their panzer divisions and reserve SS troops. On 24 March 1945, the US and the British conducted Operation Varsity, an Allied assault across the Rhine and the last major airborne operation of the war. In a final attempt to stave off initial assault confusion, the plan included two “Troop Carrier Glider Combat Control Teams” equipped with the latest in navigational beacons. The operation’s eight five-man teams were the first use of the term “Combat Controller.” Each team was to insert by glider, mark the approach and departure end of landing zones (LZs), and then control air traffic over the two-day period of major force insertion. Although their equipment and tactics were only partially successful, this still represented a step forward. However, with the end of the war only months away, the capability and the requirement receded in priority, until, after the war, it was forgotten completely. The creation of a separate Air Force (along with a newly minted and independently funded Central Intelligence Agency) by the National Security Act of 1947 resurrected the necessity of drop-zone and landing-zone operations and spawned an interservice rivalry between the Army and USAF over whose mission it was. The Army argued that troops going into combat required Army control to ensure best placement. The Air Force, recalling the low priority afforded its pilots and aircraft during such operations as Husky, argued that control belonged with them until the Army forces were introduced into battle. By 1953, the Air Force had won the fight by refusing to drop anything for Army pathfinder teams without the presence of a Combat Control Team, the first of which had formed that very year. Much of the Air Force’s stance in establishing CCT, however, was its belief that navigational aids and capabilities would eventually eliminate Combat Control Teams entirely. The Air Force was a reluctant mission partner and didn’t prioritize recruiting, equipping, and training its Controllers any more than the Army did, perhaps even less so. Given that attitude, the teams, all of them stuffed into Air Force aerial port squadrons (whose responsibilities were to marshal and move materials), were ill-equipped and often poorly led. The interservice competition and Air Force’s low prioritization of the mission would have far-reaching consequences as America approached the end of the twentieth century. Despite the neglect, in the years following the wars in Laos and Vietnam, Combat Control continued to transform. A series of operations and the creation of tailored organizations, better suited to fight America’s new limited conflicts and counter the rise of modern terrorism, would shape the force. Five years after the conflict in Southeast Asia ended, the biggest change to hit CCT took place in an unlikely alliance between an overlooked Air Force major and a colorful Army colonel with a storied career in the recent war. In the late summer of 1979, Combat Controller Mike Lampe and his Vietnamese wife, Thuy, were stationed in the Philippines, when chance introduced him to a twice-passed-over Air Force major named John Carney—known simply as “Coach” or sometimes “the Coach” from his time coaching the Air Force Academy’s football program.He was looking for standout Combat Controllers for an initiative known as Project Requisition. The effort began in 1978, at the same time that Army colonel Charlie Beckwith was standing up what would eventually become the greatest counterterrorist unit in the world—Delta Force. Coach was building a bullpen of exceptionally talented and hard-core men to support Beckwith as he began conducting “Blue Light” operations, the precursor to Delta. “Coach wanted to tighten his shot group,” says Lampe of the time, “to put teams together to support Beckwith’s nascent force.” Lampe encountered Coach when he and a few other combat scuba-dive certified members of the Philippines team put Coach and a handful of his preselected men through scuba training in Key Largo, Florida. The Coach was impressed by Lampe’s professionalism and asked him to join the team, which at the time worked out of the back of a hangar at Charleston Air Force Base, South Carolina. Lampe, who’d survived multiple tours in Laos and Southeast Asia, had finally settled into a happy domestic and postwar work life and was preparing for another move with his young family. As he recalls, “I told the Coach thanks, but I’ve got orders for Rhein-Main Air Base in Germany to support the Seventh Special Forces Group. Maybe next time.” As fall approached, Mike, Thuy, and their young son were preparing for their move to Germany, a well-deserved and intriguing new adventure. They had already checked out of their quarters on Clark Air Base and were residing in temporary lodging. “We were literally getting ready for our flight when CBPO [the base personnel office] called me and said, ‘You better come down here.’ “When I showed up and asked, ‘What’s up?’ they said, ‘Your orders have been changed.’ To which I replied, ‘That’s not possible. I’ve got my orders to Germany right here.’ ‘Do you know a Major Carney at Twenty-First Air Force? He’s had your orders changed to the Four-Thirty-Seventh Military Airlift Wing in Charleston.’” The order left no doubt: Charleston was in and Germany was out.
Lampe’s forced assignment to the 437th Military Airlift Wing was used as a cover by Coach to hide the team’s activities as they supported the newly formed Delta Force. Lacking a formal name and hiding behind the 437th, the men called themselves (for lack of more imaginative alternatives) “Brand X.” The existing CCT at the 437th had a legitimate mission to run airdrop and austere airfield training missions for the wing’s cargo haulers. On paper, Coach was the officer in charge, responsible for the training mission, but in practice he completely neglected the conventional operations, focusing on Beckwith and Delta and leaving training to one of his noncommissioned officers (NCOs). Mike Lampe reported to Charleston on 1 November 1979. On 4 November, the US Embassy in Tehran fell to the Iranian Revolution and fifty-two Americans were taken hostage—an event that sent relations between the two countries into a spiral from which they’ve never recovered. Lampe was trying to settle his pregnant wife and young son into a house in Charleston when the cataclysmic event unfolded, setting in motion the subsequent actions and tragedies that would create the world’s largest special operations command. But neither Lampe nor Coach’s Combat Controllers could possibly have predicted it at the time. “I don’t remember if I was home for Thanksgiving or not. It was all a blur. The handful of us, maybe six or seven guys at the time, were scattered to all points of the compass.” There were four units involved in potential rescue planning by that time: Delta, as the lead; C Company, 1st Battalion of the 75th Ranger Regiment, who were tasked with supporting Delta with security and a rapid response of firepower; the 1st Special Operations Wing from the Air Force at Hurlburt Field, Florida, owners of the MC-130 “Combat Talons,” the only special operations insertion C-130s in the world; and finally, Coach Carney’s handful of Controllers, who weren’t even a real unit yet.
* * *
By 1979, and six states north, John Chapman had established himself as a young man possessed of an innate ability to tune into the feelings of others that transcended the attitudes of the times and ran counter to the instincts of most teenagers. Some of his unconventional friendships in high school weren’t looked upon with approval by other members of John’s “jock squad,” the student athletes and cool kids. As a standout athlete, he blended easily with the “in” crowd; however, accepting those with disabilities was not part of their social program. Those with special needs were put into separate classes and shunned and harassed in the hallways, as often happens with teens. Cara was one such girl who knew John because he always took the time to say hello and ask how she was doing. One day, kids jostling her in the hall gave her a particularly cruel hazing. She escaped around a corner as John was approaching from the other direction. When he saw her, he gave his usual jovial “Hi!” She was so rattled by the bullying that she lashed out, “Fuck you, Johnny Chapman! Fuck you!” and stormed down the corridor. In the hallway, kids laughed or looked away in embarrassment, but John pursued her, matching her almost-run. She tried to make him go away, but he wouldn’t. Instead, he calmed and comforted the distraught girl, sitting with her till after the bell rang and her tormentors had gone. John’s high school friend Lynn Noyes has never forgotten his actions. “We didn’t do such a good job of tolerating and promoting others who were different. I wasn’t mean, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to do something nice for someone everyone else shunned. But that’s the way John was. He was just so…out of a different time in the way he could rough it up on the soccer field but have the gentlest heart of anybody, not caring who saw.” Lynn ended with, “I haven’t been back to a reunion, because the only reason I would go back would be to see John and he’s not going to be there, so…”
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