CHESTNUT, JOSEPH LYONS
Remains Returned/Identified 7/25/95
Name: Joseph Lyons Chestnut
Rank/Branch: O4/US Air Force
Unit: 56th Special Operations Wing, Udorn AF TH (RAVENS)
Date of Birth: 15 July 1934
Home City of Record: Murfeesboro TN
Date of Loss: 13 October 1970
Country of Loss: Laos
Loss Coordinates: 195659N 1022546E (TH310078)
Status (in 1973): Missing in Action
Other Personnel in Incident: (none missing)
Source: Compiled by Homecoming II Project 15 March 1990 with the assistance
of one or more of the following: raw data from U.S. Government agency
sources, correspondence with POW/MIA families, published sources,
interviews. Updated by the P.O.W. NETWORK 2020.
SYNOPSIS: The Steve Canyon program was a highly classified FAC (forward air
control) operation covering the military regions of Laos. U.S. military
operations in Laos were severely restricted during the Vietnam War era
because Laos had been declared neutral by the Geneva Accords.
The non-communist forces in Laos, however, had a critical need for military
support in order to defend territory used by Lao and North Vietnamese
communist forces. The U.S., in conjunction with non-communist forces in
Laos, devised a system whereby U.S. military personnel could be "in the
black" or "sheep-dipped" (clandestine; mustered out of the military to
perform military duties as a civilian) to operate in Laos under supervision
of the U.S. Ambassador to Laos.
RAVEN was the radio call sign which identified the flyers of the Steve
Canyon Program. Men recruited for the program were rated Air Force officers
with at least six months experience in Vietnam. They tended to be the very
best of pilots, but by definition, this meant that they were also mavericks,
and considered a bit wild by the mainstream military establishment.
The Ravens came under the formal command of CINCPAC and the 7/13th Air Force
56th Special Operations Wing at Nakhon Phanom, but their pay records were
maintained at Udorn with Detachment 1. Officially, they were on loan to the
U.S. Air Attache at Vientiane. Unofficially, they were sent to outposts like
Long Tieng, where their field commanders were the CIA, the Meo Generals, and
the U.S. Ambassador. Once on duty, they flew FAC missions which controlled
all U.S. air strikes over Laos.
All tactical strike aircraft had to be under the control of a FAC, who was
intimately familiar with the locale, the populous, and the tactical
situation. The FAC would find the target, order up U.S. fighter/bombers from
an airborne command and control center, mark the target accurately with
white phosphorus (Willy Pete) rockets, and control the operation throughout
the time the planes remained on station. After the fighters had departed,
the FAC stayed over the target to make a bomb damage assessment (BDA).
The FAC also had to ensure that there were no attacks on civilians, a
complex problem in a war where there were no front lines and any hamlet
could suddenly become part of the combat zone. A FAC needed a fighter
pilot's mentality, but but was obliged to fly slow and low in such unarmed
and vulnerable aircraft as the Cessna O1 Bird Dog, and the Cessna O2.
Consequently, aircraft used by the Ravens were continually peppered with
ground fire. A strong fabric tape was simply slapped over the bullet holes
until the aircraft could no longer fly.
Ravens were hopelessly overworked by the war. The need for secrecy kept
their numbers low (never more than 22 at one time), and the critical need of
the Meo sometimes demanded each pilot fly 10 and 12 hour days. Some Ravens
completed their tour of approximately 6 months with a total of over 500
The Ravens in at Long Tieng in Military Region II, had, for several years,
the most difficult area in Laos. The base, just on the southern edge of the
Plain of Jars, was also the headquarters for the CIA-funded Meo army
commanded by General Vang Pao. An interesting account of this group can be
read in Christopher Robbins' book, "The Ravens".
Major Joseph L. Chestnut was a Raven pilot operating in Military Region I,
Laos on October 13, 1970. On that day, he was flying a T28 Nomad
counter-insurgency aircraft, which Ravens were strictly forbidden to fly in
combat. The precise nature of Maj. Chestnut's mission is unknown, and it
could have been non-combat, or he may have been conducting a strike against
regulations. In dealings with the Royal Lao Air Force, Ravens found that
they occasionally located a target only to have the Lao refuse to hit it.
Ravens had been known to have taken Lao bombers and flown out themselves to
bomb their targets.
Maj. Chestnut was last known to be about 12 miles northwest of the city of
Louangphrabang in the province of the same name. He was listed Missing in
Action, and the U.S. Government has confirmed information that the enemy
knows his fate -- alive or dead.
Chestnut is one of nearly 600 Americans lost in Laos. Even though the Pathet
Lao stated publicly that they held "tens of tens" of American prisoners, not
one American held in Laos was ever released -- or negotiated for.
From - Mon Apr 10 13:05:06 2000
From: "Lee, Thomas E. - SAIC" <TLee@NSES.com>
Subject: Information correction
First I would like to establish my credentials with you, before I point
out errors in the descriptive write-ups on approximately 20 entries in
your data base.
I am a retired US Air Force Colonel who served in Laos covertly as part
of DoD Project 404 from June 1968-June 1969. I was the intelligence
officer in Savannakhet operating in "civilian" status working for the US
Embassy. I carried civilian documentation for presentation but also
possessed my military ID card. We wore civilian clothes. One of my roles
was to support the Raven forward air controllers (FAC), the US FACs
operating from "in-country" bases in Laos. See my website at
The following is a paragraph from your description of the "Raven"
Forward Air Controllers operating in Laos.
We lost 21 of them from 1966-1973.
"The non-communist forces in Laos, however, had a critical need for
military support in order to defend territory used by Lao and North
Vietnamese communist forces. The U.S., in conjunction with non-communist
forces in Laos, devised a system whereby U.S. military personnel could
be "in the black" or "sheep-dipped" (clandestine; mustered out of the
military to perform military duties as a civilian) to operate in Laos
under supervision of the U.S. Ambassador to Laos."
An error in the above description is that most of the US military
personnel operating in Laos were NOT "sheep-dipped" as you described. We
were in the "Black" in that we were technically not there, we were
assigned to out of country units and our in-country existence was
generally classified for part of the 1964-1973 period. (The existence of
these operations was revealed during Congressional Hearings in late 1969
or 1970). The Raven Program and the complementary DoD Project 404 both
began in 1966. However, there was no mustering out of the service for
the Ravens or the Project 404 personnel. To my knowledge the only
program that was "sheep dipped" as you described was Project Heavy Green
(the Air Force troops supporting Site 85 and the TACAN site support).
That accounted for under 100 people. (13 were lost) There were military
personnel operating within the Air America and CIA (CAS) operations that
may have operated under different rules.
Critically speaking the US devised the sheep dipping process. It was
used across the US intelligence community. The non-communist forces had
virtually nothing to do with that process. They did play a role in
accepting the US military members in "civilian" status by accepting our
presence and not "spilling the beans". We were not deceiving the
opposition because they knew we were military. Our deception was aimed
at the World scene and the US population regarding our activities in
contravention of the 1962 Geneva Accords.
This was a very unique period and very misunderstood period in our
military history due to its classified nature. Fortunately, we are able
to tell our story now. Those of us that served in Laos are trying to
correct this mis-information and myth that has grown up around these
activities so they are better understood in their real context.
(Thomas E. Lee, Colonel USAF (Ret))
From: "G. J. Dorner" <email@example.com>
Subject: Joseph Chestnut, MIA
Date: Tue, 06 Jun 2006 00:09:04 -0700
I wish to add to your bio on Joe Chestnut.
I was the intel man with the Air Operations Center at Luang Prabang. I was
on duty the day Joe Chestnut crashed. I debriefed his wingman, a Lao pilot
named Chao Vant, an extremely reliable man.
Joe Chestnut had been honing his skills with a T28 over a several week
period. On one occasion, the line crew had to replace a wing tip after he
flew into his own bomb fragments.
On the day he crashed, Chao Vant reported, Chestnut flew into his own bomb
fragments again. His T28 wobbled as though under total control. He pulled
up, and was hit by ground fire from a nearby village. He then curved
upwards, but did not quite clear a ridge. The 250 mph impact sprayed wing
panels and other aluminum pieces throughout the treetops on top of the ridge
as the T28 disintegrated.
Chao Vant tried to call for help, but his radio didn't work. We could see
him speeding back from the crash site, which was within sight of the
airstrip. In fact, we could watch the swarm of directionless aircraft over
the site. If another Raven had been available to direct them, the SAR might
have been successful.
The crash time was late afternoon. The attempted SAR was a race against
darkness. At the last minute, the Embassy called off the Air America chopper
that was headed out to the crash site.
The following morning, there was no sign of the T28 except the engine, which
was embedded in the hillside. There were hoofprints all over the ridge; some
of the locals did use Mongolian ponies.
If you wish more info, contact me. I'll try to dig the answers to your
questions out of memory.
Sincerely, George J. Dorner