The New York Times recently published an article entitled Sunisa Lee Seizes the Moment and Captures Gold. It describes the path from her ethnic Hmong tribal roots in Laos to become the fifth consecutive American woman to win the best all-around gymnast in the world. Her parents, John Lee and Yeev Thoj, fled Laos in 1975 as children when the communist Pathet Lao forces seized control. Their families were actively recruited by the CIA to fight on the side of the U.S. in the illegal and unrecognized war in Laos. I was directly involved in some of those events from 1968 to 1970 and again from 1973 to 1975.
Moreover, I have friends who helped in the refugee camps in Thailand where they were initially placed and with the agencies that subsequently relocated them to homes in the U.S. Some 80,000 Hmong live in the St. Paul, Minnesota area which has always amazed me that a winter climate would be a place for these mountainous people from Southeast Asia. Nonetheless, there are few merit badges for the U.S. in the Hmong escape from Laos as hundreds of thousands of them were left behind to be captured and executed by the other side. However, once they crossed the Mekong into Thailand, they were well received. For a few of us gringos in that era, crossing the Mekong into Thailand by boat or whatever was the “safe passage home.”
Sunisa’s strength, courage and determination reflect that of her ancestors. Below a frame-by- frame image captures the progression of her floor exercise. Not only was her performance extraordinary but being able to see it unfold in one image is amazing. Obviously, the genetics that kept her ancestors going in a harsh and dangerous world during the war in Laos have been passed on to this remarkable young lady who overcame injuries and challenges to be the first Hmong American to capture an Olympic Gold Medal.
So, who are the Hmong people of Laos? They generally lived in the mountains of northern Laos. In times gone by, the ladies wore their wealth around their necks with their large silver necklaces, as shown below. Their clothing was hand woven indigo dyed cotton with embroidered decorations. Their faces always seemed to be adorned with smiles from ear to ear which has never changed.
In the early 1960s, the CIA selected the Hmong people to form a mercenary army to combat the Pathet Lao in Laos as the Geneva Convention precluded any U.S. involvement. My involvement was through Esso as we provided the logistical and fuel support for the Hmong fighters. Therefore, we operated secret fueling stations in the mountains to fuel T-28 aircraft flown by Hmong pilots to bomb and strafe Pathet Lao troops. We also fueled the CIA-backed Air America aircraft as well as the Corsican aviation companies that were flying civilians and opium which was the currency of the war. Shown below is Colonel Vang Pao, leader of the Hmong troops, with a CIA operative. Our major base was on the outskirts of the provincial residence of the King of Laos in Luang Prabang. On occasion, it would get a bit sporty but it was definitely a beautiful setting. Therefore, the Hmong people were hired mercenaries but in a sense all of us who were involved fell into that category as there were no official U.S. military boots on the ground.
Today, Luang Prabang is one of our favorite destinations and the Hmong people who are the principal residents there contribute to that appeal. The two young ladies, shown below, operate a shop in Luang Prabang which highlights the craftmanship of their embroidery as well as their endearing personalities.
The strength and motivation of Vang Pao was a major force in the war in Laos. On the other hand, the superior number of Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese troops and tanks were impossible to overcome. I recall when Vang Pao’s base was overrun near our airstrip outside Luang Prabang and spending some time with the small handful of mercenary expats around the outdoor bar speculating whether the Vietnamese tanks would come visit us. I eventually left on a Corsican DC-3 several days later since the Air America planes were flying casualties out of Vang Pao’s headquarters. Keeping everything in character, the plane flew to Ban Houei Sai and took on an extensive load of opium bales. We flew to the capital of Vientiane, Laos where I eventually crossed the Mekong to Thailand. Vang Pao settled in California where later in life some brilliant U.S. government folks trapped him in a weapons sting operation based on his desire to return to Laos and upset the Pathet Lao government. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and Vang Pao was able to live out the remainder of his life in peace.
Sunisa Lee, all of us from that era are very proud of you to be the first Hmong American to represent us in your Olympic success. May you continue to achieve new heights as your ancestors are smiling at your accomplishments.