CROSS, JAMES EMORY
Name: James Emory Cross
Rank/Branch: O3/US Air Force
Unit: 56th Special Operations Wing, Udorn AF TH (RAVENS)
Date of Birth: 22 June 1944
Home City of Record: Warren OH
Date of Loss: 24 April 1970
Country of Loss: Laos
Loss Coordinates: 193458N 1033059E (UG444658)
Status (in 1973): Killed/Body Not Recovered
Other Personnel in Incident: Gomer D. Reese III (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". This book contains the
following account of the loss of Captains James E. Cross and Gomer D. Reese
"Volunteer Ravens presented a problem opposite that facing most military
commanders--they needed to be held back, not egged on. It was the Head
Raven's job to spot the signs of combat exhaustion among his men before it
"One of the Ravens [the Head Raven] felt needed to be watched was Jim Cross.
[The Head Raven] ordered Cross to stay out of the combat zone and restricted
his flying to checking out new pilots. Cross moved down to Vientiane and
busied himself buying stereo gear and bamboo furniture to ship back to the
"One of the newcomers Cross was supposed to check out was Dave Reese, an
amiable young man distinguished by a scar across his nose. Cross had been
instructed to check out the new Raven in the Vientiane area and then fly on
up to Alternate [Long Tieng]. On the way Cross thought he would take Reese
out onto the Plain of Jars, as they were flying in the long-range U-17, and
keep on going until they reached the Ban Ban valley.
"Mark Diebolt was out on the Plain of Jars in a T-28 when he heard Cross's
Mayday distress signal. Unknown to the pilot, the NVA had moved a mobile
37mm antiaircraft gun into the Ban Ban valley--always a potential flak trap
because of the number of guns positioned there--and the U-17 had taken three
hits. One shell had blown a massive hole in the wing. 'I've got full
trim--everything's jettisoned,' Cross said over the radio. Moments later he
made his final transmission: 'I can't hold it--it's going down.'
"The plane had lost all power, glided into some trees, and exploded. Diebolt
flew over the wreckage and saw the great gaping hole in the right wing made
by the shell. It had been yet another of those deadly Old Head-FNG checkout
rides, where the combination of over-confidence and inexperience had proved
Cross and Reese are among nearly 600 Americans lost in Laos. Even though the
Pathet Lao stated publicly that they held "tens of tens" of these men as
prisoners, not one American held in Laos was ever released -- or negotiated
Since U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War ended, nearly 10,000 reports have
been received by the U.S. Government relating to Americans missing in
Southeast Asia. Many authorities have reluctantly concluded that hundreds
are still alive in captivity today.
The Ravens were extremely dedicated to the freedom-loving people of Laos and
put their very lives on the line for them. They believed in America and the
job it was trying to do in Southeast Asia. They were also quite insistent
that each of their own were accounted for, dead or alive. While Cross and
Reese may not be among those thought to be still alive, one can be certain
that they would be among the first to volunteer, in the Raven spirit, to
assist them to freedom.
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))