Kickers by Patrick Lee

The cover of Patrick Lee’s Kickers: A Novel of the Secret War (CreateSpace, 380 pp., $13.95, paper) depicts an airdrop In Laos. It shows a package, probably rice, dropping after having been booted out of a low and slow-moving airplane. This novel is about the recruitment of young smoke jumpers by the CIA  to do this job, known as kicking. Patrick Lee interviewed smoke jumpers fifty years ago, and uses those characters and their stories as the material of this novel.

Lee, who practiced law in Washington, D.C., for forty-five years and now lives in Idaho, is a former smoke jumper himself. He made twenty-five parachute jumps into the Idaho Primitive Area fighting forest fires.

The novel starts in 1954 with a CIA agent and twenty French soldiers jumping into Dien Bien Phu as replacements for the dead. After the men land, they find themselves walking on the rotting corpses of those they are there to replace. Lee sets this scene of the French losing at Dien Bien Phu as well as any of the many authors I have read who have dealt with that subject.

The novel presents us with alternating chapters that go back and forth in time. One of the smoke jumpers ends up as a captive and we get details about how he is treated by his captors. Suffice it to say they do not treat him kindly. We also get a lot on the back stories of the main characters going back to childhood. We know them, and when awful things happen to them, we miss them.

The reader learns a lot about how the CIA chose, recruited, and trained the smoke jumpers to become surrogate warriors. They were taught to how to eat snakes, what to do when they ran out of water, how to behave when captured, and how to endure lectures from brainwashing captors.

Patrick Lee

We follow them to Saigon, to Tu Do Street, and into bars where they do what young men do in such circumstances. We follow them from the early years of the war to 1968 when LBJ announces his resignation from the presidency.

Lee is a good storyteller. He keeps the reader involved in the tales of these young men who were hired to kick thousands of pounds of rice out of airplanes to feed the Hmong fighters on the ground in Laos while they fought communists.

The rice was dropped in half-full sacks so they would not explode upon impact with the ground. One of the kickers comments that he hopes he will not be killed “in a dumbass war nobody knows about.”

If you are looking for a novel about the not-so secret CIA war in Laos and the involvement of the smoke jumpers this book is for you.

The book’s website is www.kickersthenovel.com

—David Willson

Hog’s Exit by Gayle L. Morrison

“Hog” was the call sign of CIA operative Jerry Daniels, portrayed as a beloved, though rather mysterious, hero by Gayle L. Morrison in her able oral history, Hog’s Exit: Jerry Daniels, the Hmong, and the CIA (Texas Tech University Press, 496 pp, $85, hardcover; $39.95 paper). “Exit” turns out to a key word because of the strange events surrounding Daniels’ death.

Jerry Daniels was an adventurous young man from Missoula, Montana, a country boy who loved to hunt and fish. He became a smoke jumper, and that skill in particular interested the CIA. Through their clandestine airline, Air America, the CIA ran the secret war in Laos from the late 1960s through the early 1970s, training and providing logistical support for Hmong tribesman against the Pathet Lao and the NVA. Operatives were called “cargo kickers” because they pushed cargo out of C-130s. But they also were experts at rigging the cargo for parachutes.

Daniels operated with the Hmong tribes directly, at a place called Lima Site 36 and later at a headquarters operation, Long Cheng, the “secret city” that turned out to be the last stand for the CIA and General Vang Pao’s Hmong. Daniels learned the Hmong language and lived among them as a supply liaison. And before it was over, he directed combat operations as well.

Jerry Daniels, left, with two Hmong colonels

He became the general’s favorite, and was beloved among the Hmong fighters as an American who always told the truth. When the U.S. operation in Laos finally went down, Daniels was the key man in evacuating the decimated Hmong to Bangkok, and then, with many of them, to his home town of Missoula. The Hmong, a mountain people, were superstitious about living at any elevation below 3,000 feet, so Missoula had some appeal.

As if what Daniels did for a living wasn’t mysterious enough, the circumstances of his death spawned a conspiracy theory among Daniels’ friends and cohorts—American and Hmong alike. Daniels came home to Missoula in a sealed casket. Official accounts had it that he was found in his Bangkok apartment, three days after last being seen, with his body so black and bloated that it could only be identified through forensic means.

The official cause of death was asphyxiation from a faulty water heater. The apartment’s two air conditioners, which might have sucked out the bad air, were off. Daniels was a heavy drinker. He very well could have passed out, and then succumbed. But were three days long enough for such deterioration?

Adding to the strange circumstances, a young Thai man was found in an adjoining room, barely alive, also the victim of carbon monoxide poisoning. His account accompanied the police report, but later he couldn’t be found. One speculation, heartily discounted by Daniels’ friends, was that the young man was a lover. In any case, how did the young man survive, when Daniels didn’t?

Daniels being a CIA spook, perhaps his was an appropriate exit. Morrison’s many contributors speculate, however, whether Daniels’ remains are even in the casket.

All that aside, Morrison, who has worked many years among the Hmong, has put together quite a documentary. The oral history format is repetitive, but the many voices are well-edited, with individual styles left intact. Photographs from personal collections add a great deal.

Morrison has given us a lively look back at a secret war—and a mystery as well.

—John Mort