History professor and author Chia Youyee Vang has written another chapter about the United States Secret War in Laos with Fly Until You Die: An Oral History of Hmong Pilots in the Vietnam War (Oxford University Press, 218 pp. $74, hardcover; $74, Kindle).
Professor Vang, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, takes a highly emotional look at why and how the United States trained Hmong soldiers to fly close air support in reconfigured T-28s commanded by Gen. Vang Pao in Military Region 2 of Laos. Code-named “Water Pump,” the program lasted from 1964-75 and trained thirty-eight men, some of whom flew thousands of combat missions. Eighteen were killed in action. The book accounts for all of them.
Born in Laos, Vang left the country at the age of eight in 1979. Her family eventually settled in the Minnesota as political refugees. In 2013-14, she conducted face-to-face interviews with former Hmong pilots, relatives of those killed in action or deceased, and a few American military personnel who worked with the Hmong during the Vietnam War. Forty-three people contributed reminiscences to her book.
Professor Vang excels at story telling by incorporating interviews verbatim into her narrative of the time. Her technique amplifies the emotional impact of the speakers. She recognizes failures as well as successes of the Hmong pilots.
She explains how Gen. Vang Pao and American instructors selected and qualified Hmong as pilots from a group of people who lacked formal education and had no tech skills. A few of the men had never driven an automobile, Vang says. Worst of all, their T-28s had been rejected by the Vietnamese and, due to modifications, no two airplanes were alike. Sometimes bombs failed to release and rockets did not fire.
What’s more, the primary runway at Long Tieng (Long Chieng) was too short and one end was blocked by towers, which eliminated any margin for flying errors. Accidents happened frequently. Nevertheless, the performance of the Hmong in combat was selfless. No limit existed for how many missions they flew or the number of risks they took. An American interviewee claimed that one pilot flew more than 4,000 missions.
Vang Pao paid Hmong pilots salaries (plus frequent bonuses) far higher than those that went to his regular soldiers. When a pilot was killed, however, the General usually ignored the needs of the man’s families, causing them extreme economic hardships. Similarly, at the end of the war, Vang Pao provided little, if any, assistance to the Hmong. As a result, Professor Vang writes that Hmong who once flew for and admired the General lost all respect for him.
The book follows the Hmong who left Laos after the United States departed Vietnam in 1975 and the subsequent communist takeover of both nations. Most fled to Thailand and enjoyed “a brief moment of relief” as people transitioning from fear for their lives to “the harshness of displacement,” she says. She portrays Thai refugee camps as worlds of utter abandonment; for the Hmong, life as they knew it appeared lost forever.
Eventually, the United States government gave 140,000 Hmong a second life by bringing them here. Based on their own testimony, those who moved to the U.S. have found happiness.
Professor Vang closes Fly Until You Die by reassessing the war and its legacy. She has previously examined the Hmong diaspora in Hmong America: Reconstructing Community in Diaspora (2010); Hmong in Minnesota (2008); and Claiming Place: On the Agency of Hmong Women (2016).
Her excellent appendices, notes, and bibliography, as well as ten pages of photographs, significantly strengthen the research. Above all, the revelations of the people she interviewed make this book a valuable history lesson about the intricacies of the Vietnam War.