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

Battle for Skyline Ridge by James E. Parker, Jr.

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James Parker was a participant, from the Central Intelligence Agency side, in the so-called “secret war” in Laos. In Battle for Skyline Ridge: The CIA Secret War in Laos (Casemate, 288 pp., $32.95) he tells a very well-researched and annotated story of the history and development of the American attempt to fight the communist Pathet Lao during the Vietnam War—an attempt that failed as Laos (along with Cambodia) became one of the dominoes that fell following the end of the American war in Vietnam.

Parker served a 1965-66 tour of duty as an Army infantry platoon leader in the Vietnam War. He later joined the CIA in 1970 and served in Laos and Vietnam, helping evacuate Vietnamese CIA agents from Saigon in the chaotic last days of the war in April 1975. He has written a Vietnam War memoir—Last Man Out: A Personal Account of the Vietnam War (1996)—as well as two previous books on the same subject as his new one: Codename Mule: Fighting the Secret War in Laos for the CIA (1995), and Covert Ops: The CIA’s Secret War in Laos (1997).

In his new  book, Parker includes conversations and operational decisions made by the CIA about the Vietnam War. Being on the ground, and in the thick of it, he offers a unique—and a few times, overly detailed—view of the whole battlefield. He also tells lots of small stories that humanize the narrative and the participants without becoming unnecessarily chatty. His wide use of acronyms at times sent this reader scurrying back a few pages to identify things.

After telling us of a defeat of Lao forces by North Vietnamese troops on the Plain of Jars, his main story is the tale of a hundred-day battle (the longest in the Vietnam War) between North Vietnamese troops and a combined force of regular Lao troops, Thai mercenaries, indigenous Laotian Hmong, and Mountanard tribes, U.S. airp power, Air America aerial operations, and CIA case officers, operatives, and advisers—what became known as the Battle for Skyline Ridge.

This force of fewer than 6,000 fighters, led by the famed Hmong war lord, Vang Pao (right), was ultimately successful in repulsing and defeating an NVA force of more than 27,000 troops. Remarkably, anecdotes about bravery, cunning, co-operation, and support abound throughout the book. The colorfully famous CIA, and the Air America, “can do” attitude, seemed to have permeated into the assembled forces, resulting in the NVA abandoning its battle plan in what could have been a version of Dien Bien Phu.

This is a very readable account, although a lot of what Parker covers has been written about in other books about the secret war in Laos.

–Tom Werzyn

The Green Berets in the Land of a Million Elephants by Joseph D. Celeski

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Joseph D. Celeski’s The Green Berets in the Land of a Million Elephants: U.S. Army Special Warfare and the Secret War in Laos, 1959-74 (Casemate, 400 pp., $32.95, hardcover; $19.95, Kindle) deals with a subject that the average reader will find to be an interesting, albeit potentially plodding, read. Many of us who served in country during the Vietnam War heard about  the “secret war” in Laos, but didn’t know much about it.

Celeski’s deeply, meticulously researched book shows how the U.S. tried to prop up a continuously faltering Lao central government in a desperate—and ultimately unsuccessful—fourteen-year effort to prevent this Southeast Asian “domino” from falling to communism.

The U.S. Army Special Forces, the Green Berets, was an offshoot of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) under Maj. Gen. “Wild Bill” Donovan. In the early 1950s President Eisenhower envisioned a force that could be used for limited deployments as a politically savvy and civic-action-capable unit able to spread the U.S “word.” It also would contain a training component for local combatants and guerrilla-type fighters. It would be called upon for missions in which a conventional military force would be neither appropriate nor operationally prudent.

The CIA also played a major role in the Laotian theater, providing technical, continuous, and tactical air operations through its Air America arm, as well as operational support through a few of its other proprietary operations.

Special Forces personnel participating in these operations were well segregated and hidden from visible Army operations and units. Many of the men served multiple deployments in Laos, as well as assignments in Vietnam.

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Col. Celeski—who had a thirty-year Army career, including twenty three in Special Forces—includes short, multi-paragraph bios of a good number of the recurring players in Laos. The reader is sometimes chronologically see-sawed as these men are introduced, along with lots of acronyms. This is not necessarily a negative, especially if you’ve been exposed to the military penchant for these things. But this reader found himself often paging back and forth between the narrative, the glossary, the index, and the endnotes.

Ultimately, this is a good read about a little-told part of a story that paralleled other American military actions in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. It sheds light on the operations of the Army Special Forces in that piece of geography, and on their continued world mission.

—Tom Werzyn

CIA Super Pilot Spills the Beans by Bill Collier

 

In 2015, Bill Collier wrote a memoir, The Adventures of a Helicopter Pilot: Flying the H-34 Helicopter in Vietnam for the United States Marine Corps. Earlier year he published CIA Super Pilot Spills the Beans: Flying Helicopters in Laos for Air America (Wandering Star, 349 pp. $20, paper; $4.99, Kindle).

In reviewing his earlier book, I said, “Apparently written mainly from memory, the book is jumpy at times, skipping from topic to topic like conversation in a bar. Nevertheless, its many stories are highly readable.” Collier’s new book has similar qualities: It kept me continuously entertained. Just about anywhere readers open the book, they will find an outrageous story filled with chills and thrills, laughs, or romance.

CIA Super Pilot Spills the Beans has two main stories lines.

The first deals with Air America and, of course, the “secret” war in Laos. Collier flew there from mid-1970 to the end of 1972. Chapters such as “Sleeping in the Cockpit While Flying” left me nodding and smiling. Despite the book’s title, Collier tells interesting stories without giving away secrets about war-time air operations.

His flying stories do not reach the emotional intensity of his experiences as a rookie Marine pilot. Back then, when he proudly attained aircraft commander status, he wrote timeless lines such as, “I could now live or die by my own bad decisions.”

The second story line deals with the playboy activities of the well-paid Air America pilots. The men enjoyed long annual leaves and traveled internationally: Athens, Madrid, Lisbon, London, Miami, San Francisco, and San Diego once were stops on the same vacation. For shorter leaves, Collier and the other pilots stayed closer to home at Udorn, Thailand, as well  Bangkok, Hong Kong, India (visiting the Taj Mahal), Katmandu, and Sydney.

They did well with many of the women they encountered. Collier is man enough, though, to confess to times when he struck out. Primarily, the pilots shared mutual admiration, understanding, and satisfaction of physical needs with airline stewardesses.

Collier summarizes one vacation by quoting W.C. Fields. To wit: “I spent my money on whiskey and women. The rest of it I wasted.”

He validates his memory with three lengthy appendices: “The History of Air America: CIA Air Operations in Laos 1955-1974” by William M. Leary; Anne Darling’s “CIA Super Pilot Spills the Beans” from the 1972 premier issue of Oui magazine; and “Life and Death among the Hill Tribes” by Peter Aiken from a 1972 Lookeast magazine.

To wrap, Collier cites Anne Darling on the security of the Air America/CIA programs. She quotes a pilot who said, “The North Vietnamese know everything we’re doing. They’re not the problem. The security Air America is concerned about is being secure from the scrutiny of the American people.”

Even today, Bill Collier pretty much treats security in the same manner. Yet he still tells great stories about a war that never was.

—Henry Zeybel

Tears Across the Mekong by Marc Phillip Yablonka

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In 1983, former Green Beret Jim Morris (four Bronze Stars and four Purple Hearts) wrote a book called War Story. In it he wrote about fighting alongside Montagnards in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Morris convincingly made the point that the “Yards” were fighters unto themselves and never received the recognition they deserved.

In Tears Across the Mekong (Figueroa Press, 280 pp. $25, paper), Marc Phillip Yablonka does an excellent job claiming that the same holds true for Hmong warriors from the highlands of Laos. Yablonka tells the Hmong story through interviews with those who escaped from Laos after the Pathet Lao communists took control of the nation in 1975.

A large majority of the interviewees were soldiers who fought for the CIA and the Royal Lao Government against the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese Army during the so-called secret war in Laos. The men fought primarily in Northern Laos, but they also worked along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, conducted raids into North Vietnam, and in at least one instance engaged Chinese infantrymen. Other interviewees had been schoolteachers and administrators—intellectuals the communists did not trust.

Hmong soldiers normally entered the army in their late teens and many fought for a decade or more. Hmong KIA numbered between 25,000 and 35,000. Misled by a false promise to build a free and democratic nation, 100,000 Hmong chose not to leave the country following the war’s end. They ended up in Pathet Lao re-education “seminars” that, for some, lasted more than ten years.

Life in the prison-like seminars consisted of hard labor and indoctrination lectures amid inadequate living conditions and occasional torture. Those who fell sick were allowed to die of “natural causes.” Little wonder that imprisoned Hmong fled at the first opportunity.

Escaping from the seminars and evading pirates when crossing the Mekong River into Thailand was merely half of the journey to freedom. Living conditions were only slightly better in Thailand where government officials stole from refugees, abused them verbally, and herded them into camps with minimal accommodations. Some Hmong spent years getting visas and resettlement agreements. All of the people interviewed by Yablonka reached the United States.

For students of the evolution of governments in what once was French Indochina, Yablonka’s interviews show that the communist tactics in Laos were comparable to those in Vietnam, but far less severe than those of the Cambodian Killing Fields.

Nevertheless, Hmong people who have found freedom still worry about relatives and friends remaining in Laos. They believe that the CIA and the U.S. government have forgotten their contribution to the war. Few have returned to Laos or want to do so. Yablonka echoes Hmong sentiments about the war and calls for worldwide programs to help them.

Interviews with two Air America helicopter pilots—Dick Casterlin and Allen Cates—provide histories of their unit’s organization and background of the secret war. The brief histories are valuable reading because, as Yablonka reminds us, Laos was the “most under-reported and least visited” theater of the Vietnam War era.

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Marc Phillip Yablonka

The two pilots emphasize that Air America worked for the government and not the Central Intelligence Agency, one of its “customers.” Both men flew in Laos during the 1960s. Their favorite memories are of search-and0-rescue missions.

Yablonka is a journalist whose articles have appeared in many military magazines. He served for eight years in the California State Military Reserve, a support brigade of the California National Guard and the U.S. Army Reserves, and did two tours with the Israeli Defense Force. Tears Across the Mekong evolved from his master’s thesis. He was in college and had a high lottery number and did not participate in the Vietnam War, but he did tour Laos in 1990.

Because the interviewees share similar experiences, their individual stories contain repetitions that tighter editing could have eliminated. Furthermore, although biographies of the two helicopter pilots, of an Air America fixed-wing pilot, and of two foreign war correspondents are interesting, they say little about the continuing plight of the Hmong.

A reminder: Read Jim Morris’ War Story. It’s an honest-to-goodness prizewinner—and it complements Yablonka’s perspective on Southeast Asian tribal warriors.

The author’s website is navigator-books.com/marcpyablonka

—Henry Zeybel

 

Secrets Brought Home by James Milton Smith


James Milton Smith, the author of Secrets Brought Home (Amazon Digital Services, 425 pp., $14.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle), is a former Marine and a graduate of CalPoly.

His novel is about Owen O’Brien, a newly minted Marine Corps lieutenant. O’Brien calls attention to himself at a Marine Corps function by dancing inappropriately with a major’s wife. The major takes exception to the manner of dancing, and O’Brien knocks him to the floor. This event results in O’Brien being “sheep dipped”—removed from the officer corps with his records expunged.

He’s given the pseudo-option of becoming a part of America’s secret war in Laos, being paid at the rate of a Marine Corps captain, but not wearing a uniform. He agrees, and serves as a “paramilitary Case Officer during the years leading up to the Vietnam War.”

Mostly he conducts long range reconnaissance patrols behind enemy lines in the jungles of Laos during the early sixties. The comment, “The jungle was not some romantic place with Martin Denny music playing to jungle sounds in the background,” is typical of the dry wit in this book.

O’Brien conducted patrols with teams of three or four men, “two PARU special guerrilla soldiers and two Hmong soldiers.” They interdict the enemy and observe his strengths, locations and directions of advancement. This activity is like being “stuck to a tar baby Jungian bad dream,” Smith writes. The “secret war in Laos had become a tapeworm in Owen’s gut.”

Owen O’Brien runs these missions in the Golden Triangle for about six months before being badly wounded. President Kennedy was assassinated during his time in Laos when O’Brien becomes “a soldier and a citizen of the world.”

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The reader discovers Owen O’Brien’s exploits in Southeast Asia and his boyhood as a foster child in California during extended sessions with his therapist. Owen undergoes therapy in the hope that he get a clean bill of health and leave his PTSD behind—or at least be able to cope with it better.

There is much in this novel about the CIA and the connection to the opium trade. John Wayne is mentioned more than once, and we are given an explanation for the expression “to have seen the elephant,” which is often used in Vietnam War books.  It comes, Smith says, from Hannibal, who was given credit for startling the Romans when his elephants crossed the Alps. Action junkies will appreciate that Owen O’Brien sees plenty of the elephant in this book.

This is an erudite book, and is well edited and well written. It is not for the lazy reader. But anyone interested in the secret war in Laos should consider starting with this book. It is written by a man who knows war from the ground level and does not mince words about it.

The author’s website is www.jamesmiltonsmith.com

—David Willson

 

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.

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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