THE SECRET WAR



THE SECRET WAR  NO ONE TALKED ABOUT

Throughout recorded history, the Hmong have remained identifiable as Hmong because they have maintained their own language, customs, and ways of life while adopting the ways of the country in which they live.   In the 1960s and 1970s many Hmong were secretly recruited by the American CIA to fight against communism during the Vietnam War and fought valiantly against the Viet Cong.  This is the beginning of their story, and their resettlement in the US.

In his book, this is one you must read,  “ A GREAT PLACE TO HAVE A WAR ” Joshua Kurlantzick really explains in detail the establishment of the CIA and the real story behind the incredible “ Operation Momentum”, President Eisenhower’s last major movement in the White House.  

It was Eisenhower’s fear if LAO fell to the Communists, then Thailand, Viet Nam, Taiwan,  would fall too and then the Philippines.  The so-called “ Domino effect".  It would, as explained, open the door to India.  And the information in the book is very descriptive and almost 50 pages of acknowledgements verify the information given.

At a time and place when both Congress and the American people knew little of the largest paramilitary operation by the CIA and kept under wrap till recently.  It was President Kennedy who carried forth President Eisenhower’s beliefs and Laos received more attention than Viet Nam.  It wasn’t till 2000 and 2010 till the real stories of the Secret War came to the surface. The LAO government repressed journalism and even for the press visiting parts of LAO and talking to anyone about the war.

TV ON DEMAND
If you watched Anthony Bordains visit to LAO on his award winning CNN show,a LAO journalist is hesitant to speak about things while sharing a meal and a few drinks (his trademark, as it is with many high end chefs, alcohol is part of cooking) and starting his tenth season, he does know what he is talking about. I am a fan of his, his combination of exploration, unique cooking, story telling and a cold beer (spend your life in a hot kitchen, a cold beer is a treasure) suits my palate.  

In another scene when you see the color of the MeKong River you readily understand the safest thing to drink is the following.  LAO beer, French wine, anything alcohol in the 93% range, I do not recommend any water not bottled or sealed and rinse the bottle off before you drink or open it.  Make sure the seal is not broken.

THE SECRET WAR PLAYERS
Many names have come forth during the Bush administration and many things remain confidential, with the release of data about the CIA and the operation.  But the stories about Vang Pao, one tough cookiethe Hmong General who fought and led the troops, Bill Lair,  the originator of the Operation Momentum, Tony  Poe, the trainer and superb street fighter and Bill Sullivan the CIA lifer who ran things can be readily found today. 

These are four of the many other people who made the HMONG into a 30,000 man guerrilla army who fought brilliantly, with courage and paid the ultimate price and sacrifice.  They made life on the Ho Chi Mien Trail miserable for the enemy.  

And at the end of the war many found themselves left to fend for themselves with no way out provided by the US.  It took a dramatic rescue to save many lives.

IN 1961 Tony Poe arrived in LAO.  He preferred working with the Hmong, they were great fighters and independent thinkers, it was his call to work with the mountain tribes rather than with the Low-land LAO,  “ Who were full of veiled threats and incomprehensible politics, smiled even when angry,  laughing at serious things”.  It was his decision, he wrote the Hmong were more direct and specific.  Throughout the book, the references lean a lot toward the heroics of the Hmong tribes against superior forces of the Viet Cong, and their support by China and some from Russia which is still kept under wraps.

Literally,  the other half of the war was fought in the South by the Royal LAO Armed Forces and that is explained in the section called the WAR CHRONICLES.  It was supported by the US in a proxy war.  China on one side , the US on another. Nobody won, many died. 


THE LOW-LANDERS  AND THE HMONG - A DELICATE SUBJECT FOR SOME
LAO before the war was a country whose demographics were representative of the people.  The southern part is low-land, in places water logged, perfect for growing rice which requires flooded acreage and at one time LAO was the world leader in rice production. The folks who settled there were called low-landers. This might be the only country in the world “ Where and  who you are known as is based on how high you live above sea level”.

The Plain of Jars or the middle of LAO was home to the LAO Middle people and the slight elevation up to 1200 feet was theirs and the area received the highest accumulation of ordinance ever by the US. It was a dumping ground for unused ordnance.

The area of mountains from 1200 feet and above belonged to the Hmong and related tribes. These were tough mountain people, fighters and knew every square inch of their land and how to fight on it.  It was closer to the Ho Che Minh trail and that meant the Hmong tribes had the advantage and training began, then the Secret War.

As the war developed there was a definite separation between the Low-Landers and the Hmong.  Really two different personalities,  exacerbated, by the terrain and the empirical dynastic governments, which effected the relationship. 

I best explain it that they were on the same side, sometimes, not on the same page, dis-in-franchised, individualistic, stubborn at times, but with many differences in culture, depending on where, when, who,  and why. 

•  The Low-landers believed the Hmong to be a lesser race.

•  The Hmong thought little of the Low-landers as lazy and indifferent.  

Simply put a clash of warriors and farmers.  In some places today this attitude is not spoken of as courtesy,  but I have heard it expressed by some old timers, still fighting wars in their minds after a few beers and usually some unwilling listeners. 

For this reason the  “SECRET” part of the war effort was concentrated with the mountain-trained Hmong as it provided the better fighters, but almost 30,000 of them were killed with the Chinese supplying the North Vietnamese Regulars and Viet Cong simply were too much as the LAO country collapsed even with the US and allies supplying the southern command. 

In the photo, the North Vietnamese engineers widened and improved the Ho Chi Minh trails using nothing but manpower and those trails were built at the rate of one mile per day including de-forestation and bridge building.

The Helios Courier, an incredible short takeoff and landing (STOL) aircraft was the taxicab into the mountainous retreats of the Hmong forces.   Bill Lair used it to work with Vang Pao, the Hmong leader.

Capable of taking off inside of 500 feet and landing at 30 miles per hour, its performance could only be exceeded by a helicopter. At it other end it could also cruise at 180 MPH, quite a unique combination.  They are still popular today as bush planes in all climates.

FLASH TO TODAY
In LAO today Route 13, is the most important highway in the country of Laos. It begins at Boten in the North of Laos at the Chinese border. It connects the city of Vientiane to Luang Prabang in the north and roughly follows the line of the Mekong River down to the border with Cambodia.   Route 13 passes through the cities of Vientiane, Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. 

The road is mostly paved, though the pavement is in poor condition at places. It is also relatively narrow, with sharp curves. There are no markings or lighting on the road. Several daily buses run from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, taking 8-10 hours. This is the great advancement, 40 years in the making.  

PERCEPTION AND INSIGHT
Working with these local LAO Low landers and the Mountain people for a brief while,my goals were two-fold.  Advanced education, through scholarships, mentoring and peer groups, and putting pressure on the Congress for recognition of the part the LAO soldiers regardless of who and how the Low - Med - High played in the Secret War. 

There is a cultural difference between the Low-Landers and the Hmong. I felt this difference, I  saw some of this tendency to act oblivious, reluctance to change, a language problem, to pressures of those I had work with,  to ignore things, some lacking passion, not very good planners,  and  I wrote once the LAO wristwatch must have 36 hours on it since they had no concept of timing. 

One of the advisors, said, the Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow, and the LAO listen to it.  Understandable, rice growing knows no politics, only water and hand labor.  The Low-lander’s, were rice farmers in a landlocked agrarian country, and content to live without politics and just be self sufficient and farm.  Happiness would be if they were just left alone. 

But they weren’t ever left alone...I refer to it as “ Small farmer thinking”, only being in your food source, and missing the big picture. In my metaphoric mind, they missed the big picture because there was no screen, no projector, no TV, no education and no jobs, or other means of survival.
 

GENOCIDE EQUALS MOTIVATION
When the Khmer Rouge genocide in 1975 took place and 1.3 million people were killed in Cambodia, the thinking changed somewhat in LAO and the egress began, knowing it was a matter of time before the Pathet LAO would take the Khmer playbook and possibly run with it.  Those in LAO ran or swam for their lives crossing the MeKong to Thailand.  The lucky ones made it to the US after detainment in Thailand. 

Faced with a changing culture, you can see subtle demeanor and differences in the LAO low-land refugees, and Hmong refugees through their second generations born in the US and the third generation of America children.  

Being they are American born both the Low-landers and the Hmong children, they do assimilate going to American schools, cell-phones, drivers courses, sports  and many excelled, some at the tops of their class and some of the HS students graduating early doing college work. They enjoy the benefits of citizenship.

With some of the second generation, seriousness is treated with a smile and a laugh, it’s the Lowland LAO way.  The kids are more American and the elders wish for them to retain the honesty and virtues of the LAO culture but kids who are being educated in American schools, for some of the kids they are the first to attend any school in their family tree. These kids will become more independent thinkers.

As the children mitigate into US society and education, the challenges in this world are more competitive and some of their youth who are very competitive have risen to the occasion and are excellent students and coming into acceptance in the professional society. Those are the ones I want to see rise to the occasion.  Those that need mentoring in some subjects should get it.

THE AFTERMATH
After American armed forces pulled out of Vietnam, a communist regime took over in Viet Nam, Cambodia and Laos, and ordered the prosecution and re-education of all those who had fought against its cause during the war.   While many Hmong are still left in Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, and China (which houses one of the biggest Hmong populations in the world, 5 million), since 1975 many Hmong have fled Laos in fear of persecution. 

Housed in Thai refugee camps during the 1980s, many have resettled in countries such as the United States, French Guiana, Australia, France, Germany, as well as some who have chosen to stay in Thailand in hope of returning to their own land. 

In the United States, new generations of Hmong are gradually assimilating into American society while being taught Hmong culture and history by their elders.  Again, many elders fear that as the older generations pass on, the knowledge of the Hmong among Hmong-Americans will die as well.  Education is the future for the Hmong and the Low-landers.

EVACUATION OF THE HMONG - TRUTH BE TOLD
A dramatic event during the takeover of Laos by the communists was the evacuation of Vang Pao and other Hmong leaders by air from Long Tieng. The end came for Vang Pao on 5 May 1975 when he was called before Souvanna Phouma, the Prime Minister of Laos, and ordered to cooperate with the communist Pathet Lao. Vang Pao took the general's stars off his collar, threw them on the desk of Souvanna Phouma, and stalked out of the room. Four days later the official Pathet Lao newspaper warned that the Hmong people would be exterminated “to the last root."

Jerry Daniels, Vang Pao's CIA case officer, was the only American remaining in Long Tieng and he began to plan an evacuation of the Hmong. However, he had only one airplane to evacuate the 3,500 Hmong leaders and families he judged to be at risk of execution by the Pathet Lao then advancing on Long Tieng. 

Brigadier General Heinie Aderholt in Bangkok helped to find additional planes and sent three pilots flying two C-46 and one C-130 transport aircraft to Long Tieng. The planes were "sheep-dipped" to remove any US markings as the operation was carried out in secret. The pilots were American civilians: Les Strouse, Matt Hoff, and Al Rich.

With the three American planes, the evacuation began in earnest on 13 May with each transport aircraft making four flights each that day from Long Tieng to Udorn, Thailand and transporting more than 65 people per airplane on each trip – far more than the 35 maximum passengers dictated by safety conditions at mountain-ringed Long Tieng. Thousands of Hmong clustered around the airstrip at Long Tieng awaiting evacuation and the situation became increasingly ugly. On 14 May, Vang Pao and Jerry Daniels were evacuated secretly by helicopter to Thailand and the air evacuation came to an end. 

The next day the Pathet Lao marched into Long Tieng unopposed. Daniels accompanied Vang Pao to exile in Montana and then returned to Thailand to help the Hmong refugees there. What nobody had anticipated was the tens of thousands of Hmong left behind in Long Tieng and Laos would follow Vang Pao and other Hmong leaders to Thailand. 

By the end of 1975 about 40,000 Hmong had succeeded to reaching Thailand, traveling on foot through the mountains and floating across the Mekong River.   How many died or were killed in the attempt to escape Laos is not known, but the flight of Hmong and other Laotian highland peoples into Thailand would continue for many more years. They faced repression at home from the communist government as the price of their collaboration with the Americans. 

Most of the Hmong in Thailand would eventually be resettled in the United States and other countries. Between 1975 and 1982, 53,700 Hmong and other highland Laotian refugees were resettled in the United States and thousands more in other countries.

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