Picture This: A Compelling New Photo History of a “Secret War”
Former CIA officer Colin Thompson calls “Air America, Inc.” a superb account of the people, planes and places in Laos where the CIA-backed airline operated
THE FIRST THING THE READER NOTICES about the cover of Air America, Inc. is the photo of a DHC-4 Caribou cargo plane, resembling a bird of prey, talons extended, coming straight at you and looking like it’s about to snatch lunch from the ground below. The next prominent thing is the seal of the Central Intelligence Agency, under which it says, “A CIA Proprietary Airline”—which is interesting itself because for years the agency denied any connection to the firm (no matter that it was an open secret).
I spent three years with the CIA in Laos in the 1960s, working in both Vientiane and Long Tieng as an advisor to the anticommunist indigenous Hmong tribesmen. We were a constant customer of Air America in Laos, as well as in South Vietnam, with the airline ferrying war matériel and personnel in and out of the zones (plus rice and other humanitarian assistance for USAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development). By 1966 we in the CIA were handling about 90 take-offs and landings a day in Long Tieng alone.
Air America, subtitled Historical Accounts & Photographs of America's War in Southeast Asia, is a fascinating and valuable book on a subject that’s been plagued by rumors and misinformation over the decades. Almost from the day it started flying in Laos, for example, Air America was accused of knowingly transporting heroin to support CIA operations. The allegation, which had its roots in Soviet propaganda, simply was not true. Anyone who knows anything about the CIA knows that it had—and has—plenty of money and hardly needs drug profits to supplement its budgets. Opium produced in the war zone of northern Laos, furthermore, was limited in quantity and used almost exclusively as pain medicine—no corner CVS ‘s there.
Drawing heavily on articles and personal recollections, mostly from former Air America pilots and cargo “kickers” (not just Americans but Filipinos and Thais) this worthwhile book is a chronicle of airplanes and helicopters shot down and crashed, of death and survival and captivity and escape, of courage and fear, of flying, mostly in Laos— never a picnic—and just living and working there.
Its authors bring direct experience to the project. John Kirkley was a kicker for Air America in Vientiane from 1965 to 1969. He was also a smokejumper—the guys who parachute into forest fires—and today is photo editor of Smokejumper magazine. Dan Gamelin served with U.S. Army Special Forces in Okinawa before joining Air America as an air freight specialist from 1968 to1973. Stan Collins, an author and publisher, was a Smokejumper from 1967 to 1976. It’s a good team.
They’ve assembled photographs, hundreds of them, of Air America's pilots and crew members, of all their aircraft—in the air, on the ground and wrecked—and of air strips paved and not that served settlements throughout mountainous northern Laos and outposts surrounding the communist-held Plaine des Jarres; of French-inflected Vientiane and of tribal Hmong men and women and children in their rural villages. There also are pictures of others involved in Laos at the time, including some CIA officers. And a 1969 aerial view of Long Tieng, the CIA's base (and General Vang Pao's headquarters) in northern Laos, from which the "secret" war was directed. It was a place that Time magazine once dubbed as "the most secret place on earth."
And most bombed. Starting slowly in late 1964, and then increasing in intensity over the decade, U.S. Air Force B-52s and other warplanes inflicted historic-level damage on Laos but failed to stop the infiltration of North Vietnamese troops and war supplies into South Vietnam via the Ho Chi Minh Trail. To this day, parts of the Lao countryside remain seeded with unexploded ordnance.
Amid the strategic bombing runs—at times a hindrance to safe flying in the countryside—Air America had to carry out its regular resupply operations. Its pilots also flew close-support combat missions in single-prop T-28 planes under the flag of the Royal Lao Air Force and trained Hmong airmen, who in general turned out to be excellent pilots and exhibited great bravery, putting their Lao counterparts to shame. Meanwhile, Air America crews also played a significant role in rescuing—or trying to—American military personnel whose aircraft had been shot down over Laos.
Air America operated throughout Indochina mainly from about 1960 to 1975, but the book's focus is on Laos, where the bulk of the airliner’s action took place. Three articles at the end describe the last few days of the Vietnam War in Danang, locus of a major U.S. air base on the coast that served as a stopover and R & R spot for Air America planes headed to and from Taiwan for major maintenance. In April 1975, the chaos there as communist units approached the sprawling city seems to have equaled that of Saigon. Otherwise, however, the book gives little coverage to the war there. The same goes for Thailand, which hosted U.S. air bases and safe havens for Air America, and Cambodia, where the airline’s operations were few and only late in the war.
The heavy lifting was in Laos, and for good reason. Its national highway system consisted mainly of one road, mostly unpaved, that ran along the Mekong River through Pakse, Savannakhet, Vientiane (the commercial capital) and Luang Prabang (the royal capital), and another that ran from Luang Prabang east through the Plaine des Jarres into North Vietnam and, eventually, Hanoi. The latter, completely unpaved, was largely unusable during the rainy season (April through September), limiting the mobility of the North Vietnamese troops. Most travel in the Hmong area in the mountains of northern Laos was by foot until Air America came along.
One beneficiary of Air America's arrival was Father Lucien Bouchard (AKA Father Luke), an Oblate missionary who started working among the Hmong in Laos in about 1956. Riding in a Cessna-like Helio Courier from one Hmong village to another sure beat a trek on mountain trails. Father Luke, a man of unending cheerfulness and smiles, was always welcome at Long Tieng. My sole contribution to his welfare was a jar of peanut butter, a favorite of his that he had not tasted in nine years. Oddly, the book has two photos of him but he is not mentioned in the text.
The cargo aircraft in the Air America fleet consisted of C-46s, C-47s, C-123s and, in time, C-130s. For the small airstrips, hacked out of hillsides, ridge lines and the occasional flat piece of land by villagers using basic hand tools, the Helio Couriers and Pilatus Porters, both STOL (short take-off and landing) did the job. The Caribou could carry a decent amount of cargo and land on some small strips as well. The helicopter most used was the bee-like Sikorsky H-34. And early on there was an oddball plane or two.
I remember flying out of Long Tieng one afternoon in what looked like a large box with a tail, wings and an engine or two attached. A plaque on a wall behind the cockpit stated that this machine was manufactured in Ireland. Who could have guessed that?
Air America wasn't all about flying, of course. The book includes a “Letter to Employees,” dated February 1964, that closely resembled a U.S. embassy report on living conditions in Vientiane for those newly assigned there. It described housing, availability of goods and services, costs, climate, security, medical care, leisure activity and the like.
In truth, there wasn't much to like: Laos had no television at all. Its movie theaters—smoke-filled, lacking air conditioning, with rats scurrying about—were not meant for Westerners, nor were the films (mostly Thai and Indian). Even the capital center lacked an enticing restaurant (although the Tan Dao Vien served tasty Chinese food). The situation improved as Vientiane's role in the Vietnam war expanded. The letter does, though, provide a fairly detailed picture of what living in Vientiane was like, and the photos in the book give the city life. Still, it wasn't much of a place to come home to after a hard day in the air.
Early in the book there is a photo of Pat Pong Road in Bangkok, no explanation included. As some of us will remember, Pat Pong was the early center of what would become Bangkok's flourishing sex industry. Later in the book, another page contains photos of four of Vientiane's finest nighttime attractions, in the same category—again without explanation. The men from Air America know what their appeals were. So do I, but I'm not telling.
Air America was born in 1946 as Civil Air Transport, with veterans of Claire Chenneault’s World War Two-era Flying Tigers combat group ferrying food and supplies into China in support of anticommunist Gen. Chiang Kai-skek’s forces. Following the communist victory in 1949, it expanded into support for French colonial troops fighting Ho Chi Minh’s guerrillas. In late 1954, Air America crews flew over 600 belated missions to resupply French troops as they abandoned their surrounded base at Dien Bien Phu. Two crew members were killed on those missions, Air America's first casualties. Then came the long years all across Indochina. The number of men—just men—killed on duty reached 243 by the time the airline ceased operations in 1975. By contrast, in 2022 the CIA had carved 139 stars into its Memorial Wall, one for each employee killed on duty in its 75-year history. The State Department's Honor Roll numbers 250 killed during more than 200 years of operation. The dangers of working for Air America were obvious, yet the achievements and sacrifices made have received scant acknowledgement thus far.
Gamelin, Kirkley and Collins have produced a fine tribute to Air America in their book, and I, for one, thank them for it. Theirs was, I believe, a labor of love that honors all those associated with Air America and the dedication they showed in the service of their country. They even expressed some approval for the CIA. Fancy that.###
Colin Thompson is a former CIA clandestine services officer whose 28 years of duty included tours of duty in Laos and other countries, in Soviet counterintelligence and other operations in Washington, D.C.
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Brings back memories.