A time of service in a secret war
According to the Pentagon Papers, the lodestar of United States policy during the Vietnam War was 'Domino Theory' — the belief that if one state fell to communist control, all surrounding governments would follow suit.
The U.S. was never formally at war with Laos. Under international law, the small country remained neutral during the conflict in southeast Asia. However, the Laotian government was sympathetic to communist ideology and aided the transportation of equipment and manpower to North Vietnamese forces via the Ho Chi Minh trail — a network of military supply lines in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
In response, the U.S. launched covert operations in Laos in 1964 that persisted for nine years, according to a 2016 press release from the Obama administration.
The government has remained largely silent about the inner workings of their attacks on Laos, and in doing so ignored the history of the men who put everything on the line.
Walter W. Want, now 78 years old, served as a pilot in the Air Force from 1964-69. He estimates upwards of 85% of his missions were conducted in Laotian airspace. He was granted permission by the government to speak about his tour of duty in 2010, but is still apprehensive sharing about his experiences.
"I liked being a pilot, but I don't like being the target," he said.
Want spent his childhood in Anthony, New Mexico, with his mother and three siblings. He was an active boy and gained notoriety for his work in the Future Farmers of America. His love for the outdoors was also unwavering — he became an Eagle Scout, the highest rank in the Boy Scouts of America.
He stayed close to home after high school and enrolled at New Mexico State University in 1960. He proved to be a prototypical candidate for the university's Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program and joined at the prospect of a leadership position and earning $65 a month.
"You have to remember, that was a lot of money back then. A six-pack of beer was only a dollar," he said.
Finances were tight, so he drove delivery trucks across the southwestern U.S. to provide his family with extra funds before enlisting in the Air Force in 1964 upon completion of his undergraduate degree in agricultural economics.
He met the love of his life, Julie, at a bar in 1965. The couple wed the following year and raised two children. They are happily married to this day.
Want trained extensively in the states before being deployed overseas. He wanted to fly a fighter jet but spent most of his time in the cockpit of a Boeing B52 Stratofortress, America's premiere long-range strategic bomber at the time. He darted across the country for training: undergraduate pilot school in Arizona, nuclear school in Texas, B-52 school in California and survival training in the mountains of Idaho. In 1968, he said goodbye to his wife and firstborn and shipped off to the Philippines for more preparation. He was deployed as part of the 23rd Tactical Air Support Squadron (TASS).
The squadron belonged to the Forward Air Controllers (FAC), a unit that conducted reconnaissance, rescue and bombing operations in southeastern Asia under the command of the Air Force.
Want's flight time prior to deployment was logged in the B-52, but the Air Force needed pilots with experience for reconnaissance and rescue.
He was flown to Saigon, then capital of the Republic of Vietnam, after a brief period of familiarization with the jungle in the Philippines. While in southern Vietnam, he trained in the cockpit of a Cessna 337 Skymaster. He adjusted to the new aircraft quickly, passed his final evaluations with ease and became a member of what he describes as a "clandestine" group.
"I was a 'spook pilot,' so I was issued a civilian passport and hopped on a domestic flight to Bangkok," he said.
He landed and immediately called his squadron. The man on the phone told him to enjoy Thailand and report whenever ready.
He explored Bangkok for three days and attempted to relax, but the knowledge of what was to come became agonizing.
"You drink a few beers, watch a few shows and buy some jewelry for your family, but at the end of the day, you know where you're going," he said.
He reported for duty and was escorted to a dingy base in the jungle of Thailand. The runway was rugged and the planes old.
"This was a base that was not recognized. Totally secret — no jets at all, mostly WWII planes, all of them were (propeller driven)," he said. "I couldn't believe it."
He rose to the position of captain, piloting hundreds of missions for the FAC in his one-year of deployment. He flew a Cessna for the entirety of his time in southeast Asia, exclusively conducting reconnaissance and rescue.
Want is a storyteller kept busy by his wealth of experience. He remembers tuning in to a radio broadcast of the moon landing while performing reconnaissance. He was mistakenly held as a prisoner of war by Marines, piloted an experimental stealth plane, rescued CIA operatives and spent far too much time maneuvering around flak.
He characterized himself as a solid airman and, for the enemy, a sought-after target.
"If you spent any time over there, you knew that information could be sold. I know good and well that Hanoi knew my boot size and the fact that I had three Ws etched into the heel of my boot," he said.
He had his own call-signs, used alterative radio frequencies and his daily briefings were shrouded in secrecy, but he followed orders like any airman does.
The sacrifices of Want and his cohorts in the FAC have never been fully recognized by the U.S. government — military operations in Laos violated international law and were not protected by Geneva Convention Articles.
The shelves in his office in Newberg are lined with books, three of which are written by Want and a group of fellow members of the FAC — they took it upon themselves to chronicle their own history. He opened one and displayed an extensive list of men who died in the war.
"I was never there, according to the government," he said. "Neither were they."
President Nixon continually reaffirmed to the public that there were no boots on the ground in Laos — a technicality that frustrated FAC service members. When Want returned home from active duty, the records of his deployment disappeared.
"Anything that revealed where I had been or what I had done was gone. There's no record. They did it to honor the rules of engagement," he said. "It makes you feel naked."
Want is quick to acknowledge that war is hell. Even so, he is grateful for the time he spent in the military. It gave him direction, kick-started a successful civilian career and instilled in him the understanding that if you want something done, you must do it yourself.
"I'm looking back over my life, noting things that my wife and I have done — I was blessed with a military career," he said. "We've lived a good life."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.