Skip to comments.'Secret war' echoes (Long Cheng, Laos)
Posted on 05/15/2005 6:20:24 AM PDT by wallcrawlr
In May 1975, the U.S. evacuated Hmong leaders from Laos as the Vietnam era climaxed. That exodus 30 years ago changed a people and a faraway city.
America's secret war was finally ending in chaos, and in private.
Tens of thousands of Hmong fighters and their families waited on a mountain airstrip in northern Laos. Gun-toting men, aged parents and mothers nursing babies, their belongings stuffed into bamboo boxes and overflowing suitcases, all sat on the airfield in the tropical heat.
They scanned the clouds nestled against the hills, waiting for a miracle from above. They were hoping to be rescued by the United States government, which had surreptitiously armed and directed them since the early 1960s to hold back the communist tide in Laos.
The airstrip was as secret as the war itself a remote U.S. base not found on any map, in a picturesque town named Long Cheng, where the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency was known as "Sky." Communist forces, bragging they would wipe out their Hmong enemies, had Long Cheng surrounded.
It was May 14, 1975 30 years ago this weekend and Sky was falling.
By day's end, the last U.S. airplane would lift off to safety in nearby Thailand, carrying a few hundred lucky refugees who had fought their way onboard. A helicopter carrying Gen. Vang Pao, the revered Hmong military leader, also departed, climaxing a five-day airlift of about 2,500 military officials, soldiers and their families.
Most of those waiting on the airstrip would have to leave on foot.
Neither the Hmong, nor an unlikely group of strangers 8,000 miles away, could have grasped the magnitude of the day. The distant and mysterious war that would forever change the Hmong, and St. Paul, was finally over.
Back in St. Paul, the drama of Long Cheng was not news. The Pioneer Press carried stories about the confusing turmoil in the Lao capital of Vientiane, a short chopper ride away, and of U.S. efforts to recover the Mayaguez, a ship seized by Cambodia a few days earlier.
A million anglers were expected for the upcoming fishing opener. The Legislature was finishing work on a $5 billion biennial budget. St. Paul was 95 percent white, and Asian immigrants were a novelty. No one knew much about the secret war in Laos. "Hmong" was not a word the city was familiar with.
The airlift would eventually put an estimated 130,000 Hmong refugees in motion, filling up refugee centers in Thailand and resettling primarily in three immigrant-friendly states California, Wisconsin and Minnesota. No one could have imagined that 30 years later, the largest urban concentration of Hmong refugees and their Hmong-American children would be in the St. Paul area.
No one leaving Long Cheng would have thought to say, "See you in St. Paul!"
The arduous trek to a new home was just beginning.
"THEY WERE THE WAR IN LAOS"
A generation of war was behind those crowds on the airstrip fighting Japanese invaders during World War II, helping the French against insurgents in the 1950s and joining in the U.S.-led "secret war'' against communists in the 1960s and '70s. Their role as guerrillas and "irregular'' forces meant few people outside of Southeast Asia knew who they were.
"They were the war in Laos,'' said Harry Aderholt, a retired Air Force brigadier general who helped direct air support for Hmong fighters and was involved with the Long Cheng airlift. "There wouldn't have been a war in Laos if they hadn't been in it.''
Americans know that U.S. soldiers fought a long, unpopular and unsuccessful war in Vietnam from 1961 to 1973. They have touched the names of U.S. dead etched on the memorial wall in Washington, D.C., and remember the famous photo of the chopper leaving a rooftop during the frenzied, ignominious evacuation of Saigon.
Laos was the war next door, the "other theater,'' an off-the-books conflict involving thousands of indigenous fighters who were supplied and directed by the CIA. Its dead are not memorialized because, legally speaking, there was no war; there is no news photograph of the frenzied pullout, because Long Cheng was secret, and journalists were kept away.
The Hmong people are an ethnic minority in Laos who settled the highlands in the northern half of the country. Their homeland was central to the war, and critical to America's fight against communism.
The coastal strip of North and South Vietnam was where the United States sent its own troops. Laos, around which the two Vietnams were wrapped, was "neutral" by treaty but well-traveled by troops, tanks and weaponry bound for Vietnam.
The North Vietnamese were in Laos in force, treaties be damned, moving men and material along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and challenging Lao and Hmong fighters for control of the north. The United States decided it could not send in troops, but neither could it ignore Laos.
Imagine Minnesota at war with Missouri and agreeing never to set foot in Iowa.
"WE ARE ALLIES OF THE U.S."
Enter the Hmong.
The Hmong fight for you! Your government,'' says Choua Thao, a Hmong nurse throughout the war who now works with refugees in the Twin Cities. "Your husband, your son, can stay here, and not die. But my people, they're all dead over there.''
Recognizing their reputation as fierce, independent warriors with a track record of fighting the communists, the United States and the Hmong formed a secret alliance, beginning in the late 1950s and coming to full fruition in the early 1960s.
"They were our freedom fighters, if you will, in Laos,'' said Paul Hillmer, head of the history department at Concordia University in St. Paul and director of the university's Hmong Oral History Project.
Yang Dao, a Hmong scholar who served in the Lao government at the end of the war and now lives in Brooklyn Park, said it was a mutually beneficial relationship in which the Hmong were fighting to protect their homeland from communist takeover.
"We are not mercenaries of the CIA,'' he said. "But we are allies of the U.S.''
Other Lao groups joined in the war, but the Hmong, led by Gen. Vang Pao, were most closely allied with the U.S. effort, and stood to suffer the most from defeat. They were a guerrilla force that conducted hit-and-run strikes on convoys and garrisons, supported by American air power, tying up enemy armies that would otherwise be able to focus their attention on Vietnam.
"They put the pressure on Laos to such an extent that the North Vietnamese had to withdraw or withhold troops from Vietnam,'' Aderholt said. "Some 10 or 15 divisions were employed in Laos against the Hmong, who would have otherwise been down in the (Vietnamese) delta, killing Americans.''
It became an off-and-on war of guerrilla forays against the relentless North Vietnamese Army, an air show of choppers, single-engine spotter planes, screaming jets and pummeling bombers; of low-level searches for downed U.S. pilots, where Hmong fighters often assisted; of terrifying nighttime bombardments, food drops from friendly American pilots and endless treks by Hmong refugees hoping to find safer ground.
When Secretary of State Henry Kissinger negotiated a U.S. pullout from Southeast Asia in January 1973, Vang Pao's forces lost all hope of winning. By 1975, the outmanned Hmong were pushed down from their mountain homes and into U.S.-run outposts like Long Cheng.
By most estimates, the toll had been great. Yang Dao estimates that 15,000 to 20,000 Hmong soldiers died in more than a decade of fighting, and that total Hmong deaths, including civilians, were 30,000 to 40,000. With a population estimated at 300,000 to 400,000 at the time, that would mean one of every 10 Hmong was killed during the war.
To put that number in context, consider that some 58,000 Americans were killed or listed as missing in action during the Vietnam War. Had the United States suffered casualties at the same rate as the Hmong, the American death toll would have exceeded 20 million.
And in those last days, it seemed likely the Hmong death toll would continue to mount. Tanks of the communist Pathet Lao waited at the entrance to the Long Cheng valley.
"YOU COULD FEEL THE ABANDONMENT"
On April 17, 1975, Cambodia fell to the communist Khmer Rouge and the murderous Pol Pot. Saigon fell the the North Vietnamese on April 30.
"In Laos, the Politburo of the Communist Party changed the political tactics,'' said Yang Dao, the Hmong scholar who was a member of the coalition government at the time. "They said, 'It's time for us to take over.'''
They got rid of non-communists in the government and moved quickly, Yang Dao said. "They took control all over the country, except Long Cheng."
Long Cheng, once the bustling frontier town of swaggering pilots, discrete CIA men, lifelong Hmong fighters and all manner of airborne weaponry, was the last holdout. Panic traveled through the air with the rumor that Vang Pao would be airlifted out.
The normal operations of the town ceased while all eyes scanned the skies.
Lee Pao Xiong was there in the final days, a young boy whose father was a Hmong artillery officer determined to push his family through the mobs and onto a U.S. transport.
"It was like a deserted town," said Lee Pao Xiong, now director of the Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University. "You could feel the tension. You could feel the abandonment."
There was no formal announcement of an airlift.
"You have no idea whether it's going to happen or not,'' Lee Pao Xiong said. "You just hear this rumor there may be an airlift over there, so you just blindly go over there by yourself, just be ready.''
"ONE DAY, WE'LL SEE YOU"
Hmong who were elsewhere in Laos remember the day, because once their leaders' planes cleared the jagged peaks protecting the base, their hopes, and their country, were gone.
Long Yang, a radioman and spy for the Hmong forces, gathered extended family members around a table in his house to help him decide whether to join the exodus.
"They said, 'We don't want to see you die.' And the other thing, 'We're going to miss you,'" recalled Long Yang, who now lives in Cottage Grove. "I say, 'Either way, you're going to miss me which way you want?'
"They told me, 'OK, if you die, we will never see you. But if you leave, you move, and you're alive, one day, we'll see you.'"
Plane space was supposed to go primarily to military leaders and their families those believed to be most at risk once Laos fell. But there were too many people on the runways to enforce that rule.
An estimated 2,500 would crowd onto the planes. According to Gayle L. Morrison, whose oral history, "Sky Is Falling,'' is the best description of the airlift, there may have been as many as 50,000 people moving in and out of the base during the airlift. Most would have to find their own way out of Laos.
For five days, from May 10 until May 14, U.S. planes made the trip from Long Cheng across the Mekong River to U.S. bases in Thailand, according to Morrison. Once Vang Pao agreed to leave, the flights ended.
Pilots of camouflage-colored C-130s and World War II-era C-46s were surrounded before they taxied to a halt. Crowds pushed their way into the tail ramps while the planes were still moving. Families pushed children ahead and aged parents fell in the crush. Guns were everywhere. Baggage "kickers" shut the ramps against the masses, overloaded planes lumbered to clear the rocky monolith at the end of the runway, and those left behind scanned the skies for the next plane.
Lee Pao Xiong still is angry that the airlift was focused on top military leaders.
"Their leaders left them, abandoned them, and they were there to fend for themselves,'' Lee Pao Xiong said of those left behind.
But Morrison believes the airlift was a success and a turning point in Hmong history a foot in the door for refugees who would follow their leaders to Thailand and to the United States. The airlift established Thailand as a refugee center and avoided a final spasm of violence. A porous border allowed thousands to follow immediately after the airlift.
"I STILL RUN INTO PEOPLE WHO ARE RESENTFUL"
Within two days, the communist Pathet Lao took over Long Cheng without a fight. They found detailed military records that would help track down their Hmong enemies. Most of those remaining on the runway had to flee for their lives.
Ahead of the refugees across the ridges above Long Cheng, across the broad, muddy Mekong separating Laos from Thailand, across the Pacific to the well-meaning church congregations, resettlement programs, public housing complexes and English-language night schools in the nation of their patron lay the future.
Part of that future was Mee Moua, child of a medic in northern Laos, who would find her way across the Mekong to the refugee camps in Thailand, to St. Paul, to the University of Minnesota law school and a seat in the Minnesota Senate the first Hmong refugee elected to a state legislature.
Today, Moua says, Minnesotans are still amazed to learn the details of the Hmong role in the war, and the direct link between that role and their presence in Minnesota.
"I still run into people who are resentful their perception is that the Hmong came here illegally,'' she said.
She said she believes the historic secrecy of the war in Laos, and of the Hmong role, makes it harder to be accepted as U.S. veterans. She sees one of her roles as telling the odd, amazing, heroic and terrifying stories of her parents' generation.
Those stories, with bursts of nervous laughter replacing gunfire, remind listeners that the United States chose the Hmong not the other way around. Today, we would do well to remember the debt owed the Hmong people, and how a distant war changed us forever.
From what I remember of the Hmong they were fierce warriors. Wonder if they have any significant presence in today's US military?
I know these people. They were were among the bravest and fiercest allies we've ever had. They are magnificent people who stuck with us even after so many of them, like the Montagnards in Vietnam, were left behind. It never ceases to amaze me how some people in this country don't know of their heroism and seem to think that their presence here is as a result of some misguided, PC multi culturalism instead of a downpayment on a debt of honor.
This is a Thailand/SEA related ping list. If you want on it or off it, let me know.
I know a few of the Raven pilots who flew out of Long Tieng and also know some of the guys who were on the ground in the PDJ area. They all have nothing but good things to say about the Hmong.
You said it well.
The Royal Laos and Hmongs were granted US veterans benefits about ten years ago, I think. Too bad the Americans who flew the airplanes (without benefit of a military uniform) in this part of the world did not receive the same.
Much of the teak forest is gone now and in areas it looks like the back side of the moon. Its astonishing to see what has happened from the air. The prince you remember may have been Souvanaphouma, not exactly a favorite with the surviving royals, or perhaps the late Crown Prince Vong Savang whom the communists murdered at around the same time they killed the old King and Queen in 1980+/-.
I think "vang" was the brother of "phouma." Both names were familiar to 1990 Laos in St. Paul when we lived in the Twin Cities.
You may be right. I think I actually met the man (Souvanaphouma's brother) in DC some years back, but I can't say as I remember much about him.
Our half measures in the war against Communism in SEA were among our biggest geopolitical mistakes. From 1955 on, it should have been total war, with occupation ala Europe 1945, clear up to the PRC border. N. Vietnam, Laos, Burma - all of them should have been occupied and given a Marshal Plan lite. Then, perhaps, on to Beijing.
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