Prisoner of Wars by Chia Youyee Vang

Learning intimate facts about how other people live is an enlightening experience. Once again, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee history professor Chia Youyee Vang fulfills that promise with Prisoner of Wars: A Hmong Fighter Pilot’s Story of Escaping Death and Confronting Life (Temple University Press, 168 pp. $74.50, hardcover; $24.95, paper and e book).

Although the book’s title highlights prison life, only one chapter is devoted to that experience. The book’s theme primarily deals with Pao Yang—who helped Professor Yang with the book—and his family’s survival under constant hardships. “A core condition among human beings across time and place is that of suffering,” Vang says.

This is her fifth book about the Hmong diaspora, preceded by Hmong in Minnesota (2008); Hmong America: Reconstructing Community in Diaspora (2010); Claiming Place: On the Agency of Hmong Women (2016); and Fly Until You Die (2019).

She excels at storytelling by incorporating pieces of interviews verbatim into her narrative, a technique that amplifies the emotional impact of the speakers. With Prisoner of Wars, she uses Pao Yang’s words to attain a new height of emotional insight. “What you will read are my truths,” Pao Yang says. Quotations tirelessly gathered by Vang from Paos Yang’s family members and friends strengthen his recollections from the past.

Capt. Pao Yang flew hundreds of close air support missions in T-28D fighter-bombers in Laos for Gen. Vang Pao. Shot down and captured in June 1972 at the age of 24, he was listed as missing in action. When he failed to return home following the signing of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, his family decided that he had been killed in action. A botched prisoner exchange allowed the Lao People’s Democratic Republic to hold Pao Yang as a slave laborer until October 1976.

Chia Youyee Vang

The decision to classify him as KIA deeply affected his family. His wife grieved, remarried, moved to the United States, and left their son in Laos.

Once he was finally released Pao Yang faced drama after drama: reuniting with his mother and son, a second marriage, a dangerous escape from Laos to Thailand, deprivation in a refugee camp, eventual entry to the United States, and a free life of hard work, low paying jobs, failed businesses, and illness in a foreign land. Sorrow accompanied the joy he found.

I have read similar tales, but none as intriguing as this one.

Many Americans might classify Prisoner of Wars as another reflection of the intricacies of America’s so-called Secret War in Laos. To me, the revelations those interviewed by Professor Vang make the book a valuable narrative about people everywhere who are dispersed worldwide because of war and other conflicts. Uncertain settlement in a foreign land and practically non-existent job opportunities often are lifelong and unwarranted hardships for such migrants.

The story of Pao Yang’s family clearly makes this point.

—Henry Zeybel

Fly Until You Die by Chia Youyee Vang

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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.

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Chia Youyee Vang

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.

—Henry Zeybel