Photoreconnaissance over Laos was a little known but highly significant chapter of the Vietnam War. Throughout the conflict, American pilots took great risks to gather vital intelligence on North Vietnamese efforts to use the Ho Chi Minh trail system in Laos to supply insurgents in South Vietnam. Flying unarmed aircraft in areas heavily defended by antiaircraft weapons, these pilots faced the risk of shoot-down on every mission.
As the commander of a detachment of reconnaissance pilots on Kitty Hawk in 1964, Lieutenant Commander Benjamin Cloud was one of the first African Americans to achieve a command position in Naval Aviation. The son of a police officer from San Diego, Cloud entered the Naval Aviation Cadet program in 1952 to avoid the Korean War draft but soon discovered an inner talent for flying and a strong love for the Navy despite experiencing prejudice at some points in his career.
In training at Pensacola, he told this author, “I could not go into certain areas of the Navy exchange and, say, get a haircut. I could not use certain bathrooms and bathing facilities.” He also recalls having to ride in the back of a bus from an induction center in San Diego to Pensacola. However, he was deeply touched when two white cadets showed solidarity by joining him in the “colored” section of the vehicle.
In the Navy, Cloud discovered opportunities unavailable to a black man elsewhere in American society. The Navy allowed him to fly fast jets, complete his college degree, and rise in rank.
By 1964, he found himself in charge of an elite unit destined to fight a secret war in Laos on one of the Navy’s hottest aircraft, the RF-8—a plane capable of speeds in excess of 1,000 mph! During that year, Laos authorized the United States to conduct reconnaissance flights over the country after Communist forces in the Plain of Jars had stepped up their attacks on government forces. Cloud’s detachment of Light Photographic Squadron 63 flew the first Navy mission of the Vietnam War, and one of Cloud’s pilots, Lieutenant Charles Klusmann, became the first naval aviator shot down. All told, between 21 May 1964 and 8 June, Navy “Yankee Team” aircraft conducted 130 low-level flights over the country, providing U.S. policymakers with proof of North Vietnamese military activity in southern Laos. Cloud personally flew 12 of these missions and received hostile fire every time.
Later in his career, Cloud worked in the White House as an aide to President Johnson, became one of the first African Americans to command a squadron, and served as the Executive Officer of the carrier Kitty Hawk in 1972. During his tour with that carrier, it launched some of the final air strikes of the Vietnam War. The ship also experienced the worst race riot in modern naval history—a conflagration that Commander Cloud proved instrumental in defusing. Cloud eventually retired from the Navy as a captain (O-6).