I have always been clear about my fondness and admiration of the Hmong people. Not only did the Hmong suffer great hardships under the French prior to the collapse of their colonial rule in Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam in 1954 – their role in the war against North Vietnam was repeated by the U.S. some six years later. From 1968 to 1971, I had an involvement in the fuel supplies to the Hmong mercenary soldiers under the direction of the CIA. The decimation of the Hmong took on new levels during that period and ultimately resulted in the deaths of countless Hmong people and the forced migration of those who had supported the U.S. to fight a war in absentia in Laos.
The excitement levels of fueling Hmong aircraft behind enemy lines was only trumped by the disgust of the U.S. hypocrisy of denying we were involved. It was a bit unnerving when the vintage WW II U.S. planes with Hmong pilots would only have ten-minute roundtrip flights from our airstrip to bomb Vietnamese tanks attacking a Hmong stronghold. Ultimately, the Hmong position fell and all the available Air America aircraft were committed to evacuate the wounded Hmong. After a couple of days, I hopped a Corsican drug runners commercial flight to Ban Houei Sai, where it loaded numerous bales of opium and then flew them to the Lao capital of Vientiane.
During that time, one night I was sitting in a courtyard outside of Luang Prabang having a drink with several American contractors and speculating whether the Vietnamese would attack our location. The oldest of the group was the famous Pop Buell who said it was unlikely that the Vietnamese would overrun us given our proximity to the King of Laos. I then recalled that he had been shot up very badly a few years back when his position was overrun. Yes, the daily scenario was right out of the action cartoon strip, “Terry and the Pirates” which ran from 1934 to 1973 with 34 million subscribers.
I recently stumbled on a book entitled Dreams of the Hmong Kingdom written by a Hmong lady, Mai Na M. Lee. It covers the Hmong from 1850 to 1960. There are many interesting historical bits that clarify various impressions that I have had of the Hmong. First, the Hmong territories in the highlands of Laos were governed by the strongest clans. The strength of a clan was built by the aspiring leader broadening his power base by taking multiple wives from other clans. It was almost like a power ball marriage trading market.
The commercial foundation was opium which carried over from the French colonial days, supported by the Japanese during their occupation and ultimately by the Americans in their wartime activities in Laos. Shown below is a key clan chief, Ly Foung wearing a French medal, with his companions in Saigon. He was a guest of the French to celebrate the 1936 completion of the Trans-Indochinese railway which connected Tonkin, Annam and Cochinchina. The silver necklaces were a demonstration of their wealth.
Ly Foung realized that future Hmong leaders would be recognized by the French, not based upon the genealogy of their clans, but by their language capabilities which included French and Lao as well as their level of literacy. Therefore, he strived to educate his offspring to prepare them for that role which was a dramatic change in Hmong culture. Nonetheless, the French continued to rely on the Hmong for opium to support the economy of Indochine, as well as the use of Hmong as French maquis soldiers or resistance fighters. However, the Hmong were simply mercenaries but not unlike the remainder of us who were involved in an illegal war under U.S. direction.
Touby Lyfoung followed in Ly Foung’s shoes and became a leader of the Hmong. Touby was an educated member of another Ly clan, hence the slightly different surname, with experience in lowland Laos. As the mountainous Hmong have a language unto themselves, Touby was fluent in both Lao and French which supported his move to become the successor of Ly Foung. During the Japanese occupation, a fourteen- year-old Vang Pao acted as an intelligence gatherer coming daily to Touby’s house reporting on Japanese troop movements. Shown below in the white shirt is the French officer, Jean Sassi, who commanded the maquis in Indochine. They are preparing to organize the Hmong to march on Dien Ben Phu to relieve a French Expeditionary Force under siege. Major Vang Pao marched with the troops which established him as confident military commander and leader. Unlike Touby Lyfoung, Vang Pao had only a third-grade education, but he was good in foreign languages.
Shown below is the inspection of the Dien Ben Phu relief force by Vang Pao, second from left, and Touby Lyfoung on the far right. The Vietnamese army under the command of General Giap had surrounded more than 10,000 French soldiers by moving artillery to positions in the mountains above and surrounding Dien Ben Phu. The Vietnamese began a continuous barrage of the French forces which were, for the most part, foreign mercenaries under French command. On May 7, 1954, just days before the ten thousand French-led Hmong arrived, the communist Viet Minh flag flew over the French command bunkers and the rescuers returned to Laos. Within the year, agreements were reached between Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the Viet Minh, and the French at Geneva. The French agreed to relinquish all of Indochina and create a temporary division of Vietnam at the seventh parallel until a national election could be held to consider reunification of the North with the South. The division of Vietnam led to the American entry into the fray and Laos became a critical pawn for the future.
In 1961, instability within the Laos government caused Bill Lair, the CIA operative stationed in Thailand, to take matters in his own hands and pick Vang Pao to be his leader in the defense of Laos from the communist Pathet Lao and Viet Minh. Accordingly, Vang Pao became the new Hmong leader. Touby Lyfoung faded into the woodwork but not before an alleged attempted coup attempt that caused Vang Pao to remove any Ly clan officers from his central command. William Colby, former director of the CIA, underscored their choice of Vang Pao indicating that he “Not only had the courage but also the political acumen necessary in such a conflict. He represented a new approach sharing the dangers of the front instead of sending orders from the rear…and he was dedicated to the defense of his people and their homeland…He knew how to say no as well as yes to Americans.” Vang Pao is shown below in a motivational speech which captures his leadership style.
Ultimately, the Vietnam War effort failed, the U.S. endured an ignominious defeat on April 30, 1975 with the fall of Saigon and Vang Pao was evacuated to the U.S. He and several of his wives settled in Los Angeles. The author, Mai Na M. Lee, is the second from the left surrounded by two wives of Vang Pao who is the gentleman to the right. His favorite restaurant was a “pho” or noodle soup shop near his home which is a simple but essential dish in former Indochine and daily fare for most of us to this day in Vietnam.
On June 7, 2007, Vang Pao and eleven others, including Lieutenant Colonel Jack Harrison, a West Point graduate and decorated officer of the Vietnam War, were arrested for attempting to buy weapons from an American ATF agent to take to Laos. General Vang Pao spent months in jail before he was released and placed under house arrest until all charges were dropped in 2009. It was an unnecessary and embarrassing sting operation for a U.S. allied war hero. On January 6, 2011, Vang Pao passed away as his war in Laos finally came to an end.