Ralph “Scott” Camburn died in March 2013. His soul may have crossed the rainbow
bridge, but we, as a nation, should mourn the loss of yet another veteran who spent his life in service to the country he loved. Lt. Col. (Ret) Camburn’s 91 year old weathered, tired body housed memories of flying a B-24 Liberator on 35 bombing missions over Germany with the 8th U.S. Air Corps during WWII and memories of conflicts in Korea, Laos and Vietnam. When he retired his uniform in 1965, service was in his DNA and he kept on serving with Air America where he was assigned to Binh Thuy Air Force Base, IV Corps Tactical Zone of South Vietnam, as an ’AA’ Flight coordinator. And yet, I cannot find a single obituary for this soldier. Is there no one to weep for him save a single friend and comrade?
The B-24 Liberators were the key to achieving the third objective of the war against Germany. That objective was to conduct an intensive strategic bombardment of Germany in order to destroy its military, industrial, and economic system. Bomb they did and Scott was in the thick of it with his 35 missions between August 1944 and March 1945. “The B-24 Liberators flew 400 bombing missions over Europe during WWII, losing some 10,000 airmen and 1,000 aircraft between 1942 and 1945.”
The average life expectancy of Eighth Air Force crews’ mission completion rate in
1943/1944, was only 11 missions, so Scott beat the averages. Why was the life expectancy so very low? The B-24 Liberator was not as able to take as much punishment as the B-17 because its complex construction, in particular, the wing, was relatively weak. If the wing was hit just right it gave way completely. Photographic records of WW II show B-24’s plummeting from the sky with two wings folded upward like those of a butterfly. In contrast, the sturdiness of the B-17 was almost unbelievable, sometimes returning to base with major components, tail-sections, engines, even wings, very badly damaged, and even on occasion partly missing. The Liberator became the bomber of choice because it could deliver a larger payload.
Scott’s number did not come up in WWII and he survived the Korean conflict as well, although he had a close call. He was a member of the Crew 66 of the “Boxcars”. While it was never clear exactly what that reference meant, a troll through newspapers turned up an August 11, 1955 Ocala Star Banner Article, about the crash of two Flying Boxcars, C-119, into the Black Forest; 66 soldiers were killed. Nine Flying Boxcars took off in formation, two collided. The survivors formed Crew 66.
The Flying Boxcar is one of those aircraft that owes its success to its ability to do a lot of different jobs. It was purpose built as a military freighter, yet it could take as many as seventy five passengers in a seated arrangement, on litters or as paratroopers according to John Refett. It was built with the ability to deliver over ten metric tons of freight to very short airstrips designed for small aircraft but also had the range and equipment to fly to anyplace in the world on its own. In the Korean War, the C-119 was important in transport and airdrop roles; dropping both supplies and airborne troops. During the Vietnam war C-119s were used as third generation “gunships” (these are sideways firing ground attack airplanes that orbit a target). They are workhorses! The military operated them with a maximum takeoff weight up to 100.000 pounds for as long as the engines held together.
As Korea drew to close, Laos and Vietnam
were hotting up. Scott, not one to cover his Alpha Sierra Sierra, headed out to help and ended up in the thick of it once again. The Vietnam war in 1964 was the backdrop of Scott’s last tour of duty in uniform. Following his retirement in 1965, Scott joined the Air America team in Viet Nam and was assigned to Binh Thuy Air Force Base, IV Corps Tactical Zone of South Vietnam, as an ’AA’ Flight coordinator.
What Scott did in Laos is not clear. The Cold War was filled with secrets and this is one of them. Connecting the dots, however, perhaps he was involved with the CIA and the Secret War.
The largest paramilitary operations ever undertaken by the CIA took place in
the small Southeast Asian Kingdom of Laos. For more than 13 years, the Agency directed native forces that fought major North Vietnamese units to a standstill. Although the country eventually fell to the Communists, the CIA remained proud of its accomplishments in Laos. As Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) Richard Helms later observed: “This was a major operation for the Agency. . . . It took manpower; it took specially qualified manpower; it was dangerous; it was difficult.” The CIA, he contended, did “a superb job.”
Air America, an airline secretly owned by the CIA, was a vital component in the Agency’s operations in Laos. By the summer of 1970, the airline had some two dozen twin-engine transports, another two dozen short-takeoff-and-landing (STOL) aircraft, and some 30 helicopters dedicated to operations in Laos. There were more than 300 pilots, copilots, flight mechanics, and air-freight specialists flying out of Laos and Thailand. During 1970, Air America airdropped or landed 46 million pounds of foodstuffs–mainly rice–in Laos. Helicopter flight time reached more than 4,000 hours a month in the same year. Air America crews transported tens of thousands of troops and refugees, flew emergency medevac missions and rescued downed airmen throughout Laos, inserted and extracted road-watch teams, flew nighttime airdrop missions over the Ho Chi Minh Trail, monitored sensors along infiltration routes, conducted a highly successful photoreconnaissance program, and engaged in numerous clandestine missions using night-vision glasses and state-of-the-art electronic equipment. Without Air America’s presence, the CIA’s effort in Laos could not have been sustained.
We do know that Scott was an active member in the Gray House. The original Gray House was an Air America-run BOQ-like facility established at Vientiane, Laos in 1962. When most US activities ended in Laos in August 1973, the Gray House relocated to a former BOQ on Cong Ly street in Saigon. Membership was not open-ended. An associated membership required sponsorship by an “Air America” employee. Anyway, Scott sponsored John Malch. You will note the low number, 0332, on his ID card. At that time, in 1973, there was an American presence of over 10,000 people-Embassy, DAO, USAID, USIS, Contractors/Vendors, and Commercial Businessmen-in Saigon. One might say the Gray House was definitely an exclusive club.
Like many in the CIA, there was no love lost for the job Hollywood did on Air America. Scott did not agree with either the storyline or the punchline. Instead he preferred the more humble and honorable history of Air America through its predecessor Civil Air Transport, CAT.
The story of the real Air America begins in 1950, when the CIA decided that it required an air transport capability to conduct covert operations in Asia in support of US policy objectives. In August 1950, the Agency secretly purchased the assets of Civil Air Transport (CAT), an airline that had been started in China after World War II by Gen. Claire L. Chennault and Whiting Willauer. CAT would continue to fly commercial routes throughout Asia, acting in every way as a privately owned commercial airline. At the same time, under the corporate guise of CAT Incorporated, it provided airplanes and crews for secret intelligence operations. 
In the 1950s, the CIA’s air proprietary, as it was known in the lexicon of intelligence, was used for a variety of covert missions. During the Korean war, for example, it made more than 100 hazardous overflights of mainland China, airdropping agents and supplies.
At the conclusion of his time with Air America, Scott retired to the Big Island of Hawaii
where he sold real estate and then onto North Las Vegas, Nevada from where his soul took flight over a year ago in March 2013. He chose to live a hard and dangerous life, but he lived it well. Rest in Peace Warrior. We wished we’d known you better. Your nation salutes you with thanks.
From day one we set sail on our mysterious course. Our destination truly unknown. With smiles and ambition not yet knowing we must face this voyage alone. New sites, just out of sight and horizon’s to chase. Finding our new home, where we were once out of place. It’s not really earth or the sea’s we navigate, but decisions and values of our own inner trait. Explore life as it comes except be wary at times, days can be blessed with amazement or have your spirit to grind. Trudging forward with hopes of wind to our sails. Results, purely random as we all drink from a fair well. It is the mistaken, who merely refer to this life as some trip? There can be no easy passage on the deck of hard ship.- Hard ship written by John Flam
 Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine, Liberators Over Europe, http://www.airspacemag.com/videos/category/history-of-flight/liberators-over-europe/
 Ocala Star Banner, August 11, 1955, Two U.S. Flying Boxcar planes crash, 66 Dead, http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1356&dat=19550811&id=jHtPAAAAIBAJ&sjid=uwQEAAAAIBAJ&pg=6844,1421175
 Ted Gittinger, interview with Richard Helms, 16 September 1981, Oral History Program, Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library, Austin, TX. For recent studies of the war in Laos, see Timothy N. Castle, At War in the Shadow of Vietnam: U.S. Military Aid to the Royal Lao Government (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993); Jan Hamilton-Merritt, Tragic Mountains: The Hmong, The Americans, and Secret Wars for Laos, 1942-1992 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993); Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison, Shadow War: The CIA’s Secret War in Laos (Boulder, CO: Paladin Press, 1995); and Roger Warner, Shooting at the Moon: The Story of America’s Clandestine War in Laos (South Royalton, VT: Steerforth Press, 1996), which is the revised edition of Back Fire: The CIA’s Secret War in Laos and Its Links to the War in Vietnam (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995).
 CIA Library, William M. Leary, CIA Air Operations in Laos, 1955-1974, Supporting the “Secret War”, https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/winter99-00/art7.html#rft1
 For a detailed account of CAT, see Perilous Missions: Civil Air Transport and CIA Covert Operations in Asia (University of Alabama Press, 1984).
 See Footnote 4