ELZINGA, RICHARD GENE
Remains Returned announced 07/07/2011
Name: Richard Gene Elzinga
Rank/Branch: O3/US Air Force
Unit: 56th Special Operations Wing, Udorn AF TH (RAVENS)
Date of Birth: 13 August 1942
Home City of Record: Shedd OR
Date of Loss: 26 March 1970
Country of Loss: Laos
Loss Coordinates: 175900N 1023400E (TF543931)
Status (in 1973): Missing in Action
Other Personnel in Incident: Henry L. Allen (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 an
account of the loss of 1Lt. Henry L. Allen and Capt. Richard G. Elzinga:
The post at Long Tieng had been under seige, and it became necessary for
Ravens to live in Vietntiane in new quarters nicknamed Silver City, but they
continued to stage out of Long Tieng. "They called the daily flight there
and back...the 'commute.'
"Hank Allen, an exceptional pilot with eyes like a hawk, took off with Dick
Elzinga in the front seat of his O-1. Allen was 'short', soon to return home
after a tour in which he had notched up four hundred combat missions, and he
planned to return directly to the States and marry his fiancee within a
fortnight. Elzinga had only just arrived in Laos, and it was his first trip
up to the secret city. Allen intended to use the 'commute' as a checkout
ride. It was a cloudy day. He took off and reported over the radio...that
the O-1 was airborne. It was the last thing ever heard from them. Neither of
the pilots, nor the plane, was ever seen again.
"They had disappeared. Each of the Ravens spent at least two hours, on top
of their usual day's flying, searching for the wreckage. No Mayday call had
been heard, nor had a beeper signal been picked up from the survival radio,
and no clue to the airplane's whereabouts was discovered. The disappearance
was a complete mystery."
The official point of loss was noted as 20 miles northeast of Vientiane,
Laos. Both men were classified Missing in Action.
Three years later, on March 10, 1973, a Pathet Lao agent was captured
carrying three of Elzinga's traveler's checks and money of three countries.
Elzinga had not been in Vientiane long enough to get a locker for his
billfold. According to a 1974 list compiled by the National League of
POW/MIA Families, Elzinga, at least, survived the loss of the O1 plane.
Elzinga and Allen are among 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
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. We, as a nation, owe these men our best
effort to find them and bring them home. Until the fates of the men like
Elzinga and Allen are known, their families will wonder if they are dead or
alive .. and why they were abandoned.
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))
Air Force Pilot Missing from Vietnam War Identified
The Department of Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) announced today that the remains of a serviceman, missing in action from the Vietnam War, have been identified and returned to his family for burial with full military honors.
Air Force Maj. Richard G. Elzinga of Shedd, Ore., will be buried on July 8 in Arlington National Cemetery. On March 26, 1970, Elzinga and his co-pilot went missing when their O-1G Birddog aircraft failed to return to base from a familiarization flight over Laos. Fifteen minutes after the last radio contact, a communication and visual search showed no sign of the men or their aircraft. Search and rescue missions continued for two days with no results.
Between 1994 and 2009, joint U.S.-Lao People's Democratic Republic teams led by Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, analyzed leads, interviewed villagers and surveyed possible crash site locations. During several joint field surveys, teams recovered human remains, aircraft wreckage, and crew-related equipment.
Among other forensic identification tools and circumstantial evidence, scientists from the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory also used mitochondrial DNA -- which matched that of his aunt and cousin -- in the identification of Elzinga's remains.
For additional information on the Defense Department's mission to account for missing Americans, visit the DPMO website at http://www.dtic.mil/dpmo or call 703-699-1169.