CIA Operations in Laos: Life At Long Tieng.
Above Photo: An Air America Huey being repaired at Long Tieng (Daniel L Williams/Texas Tech University)
Jack Jolis served as a case officer in the CIA, operating the Rascal program out of Lima Site-20 Alternate, or Long Tieng, throughout much of 1970. These are his recollections, in an interview with Peter Alan Lloyd as part of his research for BACK (see: http://peteralanlloyd.com/back-part-2/backpackers-meet-the-vietnam-war-back-screenplay-finally-finished/)
PAL: I don’t think any CIA Case Officers have talked in detail about life in Long Tieng, so, continuing our series of Exclusive interviews, could you tell us something of your daily routine when you were on the base?
JJ: Well, there was hardly any 9-5 routine, or anything — this was, after all, an operational combat headquarters; kind of the Agency’s version of something between a Special Forces “B” and “C” detachment, if you will — but the way things more or less worked was: those case officers who were at Long Tieng at any given time (as opposed to those on extended ops in one of the outlying Landing Sites or even those few special cases who had more or less established themselves in those sites), would, between 1800-2000H, check in either individually, or with others, as required, with the C.O. (Commanding Officer) or the X.O. (Executive Officer), and coordinate the next day’s activity.
Sometimes, when a particularly big or special op was underway, the C.O. or X.O. would call an operational meeting of all the case officers who were involved as well as any others who were available. So, one way or the other, all the intra-Agency planning was done the previous evening.
Then, the next morning, at first light, there’d be meetings between the Agency case officers (the “customer”) and the head of AA (Air America) ops and the individual AA pilots. This would take place in the AA ops center which was a separate little hooch between the “tower” (really not much of a tower at all, but rather a lone AA air traffic coordinator in his little antennaed hut) and the communal mess hall, all of which were located off the main apron adjacent to the lone runway. At these meetings, the case officers would get paired off with the pilots for that day’s operations.
And then, finally, the AA pilots would have their own co-ordinations and meetings with the Air Force Ravens.
We case officers rarely had any direct dealings with the Ravens — we were not fliers, after all, and theirs is a whole different world with a whole different jargon. Air America and the Ravens dealt with the flying — and we Agency guys dealt with the Hmong… who in turn dealt with the NVA. I’ve gotta say, if anything was ever Kept Simple, Stupid, this set-up of ours was it.
PAL: What was the Agency’s mess hall like?
JJ: It was pretty rudimentary – a large oblong clapboard shack with screened windows which was run by a single aubergine-shaped and snaggle-toothed USAF retired mess sergeant, who bore an uncanny resemblance to “Cookie” in the Beetle Bailey comic strip and who we called, of course, Cookie. He was great, and made tolerable and plentiful chow from uncertain and sketchy supplies, and using truly amateur Hmong help in the kitchen. And he kept that mess hall operational 24/7, even if it was only for coffee and donuts during the off-hours…
Nothing to do with the mess hall, but another extra-curricular activity up there at which we spent at least as much time as eating was participating in the continual poker game which was always going on in a little “common” room in the barracks hooch. The ring-leader of this virtually non-stop poker performance was Bob Gallardo, who was our other WWII vet (along with Clean, aka Burr Smith). Bob was a real sweetheart – he and I got along quite well and he taught me the niceties of poker– “Texas Hold-‘em”, “Hi-Chi”, all that crap — quick-time. He also had a perpetual cigar in his mush and was a hell of a case officer.
I actually kept a tally of my progress at that poker table, and on my return flight to The World on Pan Am 002 I calculated it all up and discovered that in all my hours of playing I’d broken exactly even.
Time well spent, I’d say.
PAL: Do you remember much about the CIA bar at Long Tieng?
JJ: Well, yes and no. I certainly remember spending quite a lot of time in there, but on the other hand, most of the details are pretty hazy. For starters, in keeping with the Agency’s ethos of anonymity, it had no name. It was just “the bar” and it was a particularly modest affair — really nothing more than a wooden box which I’d estimate to be about 15 square feet, with one door and two windows, and a narrow exterior staircase/ladder leading up to it.
It was like a particularly large tree house, except that it wasn’t in a tree, but sat on top of a large Karst boulder, which had some time earlier been hollowed out by case officers “grenading” it, the resulting hole having then been gated and inside it lived a big old black Himalayan mountain bear that we called Floyd, and which had been a gift of the King, who maintained a “holiday residence” on a hill behind Long Tieng — on the opposite side of Skyline Ridge — although needless to say, he hadn’t actually been seen in the AO for quite a while by the time I got there.
PAL: Any other memories of the bear?
JJ: He was a source of much ribaldry and rough affection, and sometimes dangerous interaction.
We had a rubber tube that went from the bar to inside his cage, and from time to time we’d give Floyd some Lucky Lager to cheer him up. There were even stories of case officers who, themselves pissed out of their brains, had entered Floyd’s cage to commiserate with him or even, in extreme cases, to pass out with him — although I personally never witnessed any of that. In any case, Floyd always looked an unpleasant piece of work, to me…..
PAL: Could anyone use the bar or was it CIA operatives only?
JJ: Although any American at Long Tieng was welcome to use the bar, it was, in practice, pretty much an Agency venue — as the AA jocks and the Ravens mostly either drank amongst themselves in their hooches, or back at their bases in Vientiane and Udorn.
When not in use, the door to the bar was locked and the key was held in the office of the Agency boss, in the tac-ops hqs. There were no official bar hours, and anybody could open it — all you had to do was sign out for the key from the ops guy in charge at any given time.
Because no- one actually tended bar, you just helped yourself, and there was an honor system for payment.
It was, in truth, less a “bar” qua “bar” than a sort of collective Agency “lounge.”
PAL: A lounge? Sounds nice.
JJ: Heh, not really I seem to remember there were about a half dozen stools by the small bar, but I don’t remember any tables or chairs — although there must have been some, even if rudimentary. What I mainly remember is standing at, or behind the small bar, or leaning against the walls, contributing to the well-oiled chatter.
There was also a dart board, but I don’t remember anybody ever playing. Or even, come to that, there being any darts. (No doubt one of my predecessors had found a creative use for them. Maybe Floyd’s ass.)
PL: Was serious Agency business discussed in there, or was it more a place to unwind?
JJ: Conversation was usually just an increasingly alcoholically-enhanced extension of the normal shop talk and banter that went on throughout the day, and, often, the previous night. Not much different than what went on in any officers’ or NCO’s club, however humble and jerry-built, that existed in great profusion in those Southeast Asian US combat headquarters areas in those days.
I remember a lot of laughter emanating from the seriously dark and cynical humor which is endemic to those milieus, mixed with a certain amount of operational worry and angst. By the same token, I don’t remember a single episode of personal animosity or aggression – in fact, now that I think back on it, it was just about the only bar I ever frequented with any regularity in my whole life in which I never witnessed a bar fight.
PAL: If there were no fights, what kind of entertainment was there?
JJ: Such entertainment as there was was provided by a large and dusty Akai reel-to-reel tape deck, and when I got there, all the tapes were of old country and western music.
One of the first things I did after I got there and had had a chance to make a quick return trip back down to the PX at Udorn was to buy, out of my own pocket, 4 rock music tapes, which were much appreciated by almost all of us – although not, I remember, Burr “Clean” Smith, and the introduction of these new tapes was one of the reasons for his giving me my “Hippie” radio call sign.
PAL: Can you remember the tapes you bought?
JJ: The Steve Miller Band “Number 5”, Creedence Clearwater Revival “Cosmo’s Factory”, Steppenwolf “The Second”, the band’s second album, and Blood, Sweat and Tears’ first album. I bequeathed them to the bar when I left, though by then they’d just about been played to shreds.
PAL: Maybe as the second-senior CIA officer, Mr Clean took particular umbrage to the tracks “Industrial Military Complex Hex” and “Jackson-Kent Blues” on the Steve Miller Band album? Although “Run Through the Jungle” on Credence’s album might have sat better with him?
JJ: Naa, Clean would never have gone to such lengths as listening to any lyrics – if it didn’t have a banjo and the guys on the cover weren’t wearing cowboy hats it was hippie music. And you know what? He wasn’t wrong. But that was alright — Clean was Clean and we knew when to pay attention to his grumbling and when it was safe to discount it, and anyway, none of us gave a damn about the lyrics – most of us liked the sound and anyway by 1970 the whole Southeast Asian conflict had long since become “The Rock and Roll War”.
PAL: Were there any women of the night plying their trade in the CIA bar or elsewhere in Long Tieng?
JJ: No. Never. In fact, Long Tieng was a remarkably chaste — indeed virtually monastic — sort of place, and that situation was made all the more remarkable when you consider the sort of international roués and generally louche characters that made up our Yank contingent of Agency paramilitary case officers, AA jocks and Air Force Ravens.
But the stark fact was that it was streng verboten to mess with the local Hmong women. It was pretty much Unwritten Rule Number Two (with Unwritten Rule Number One being “don’t get captured”.) The Hmong treated their women very much in an Asian version of the medieval Sicilian code, and any foreign round-eye messed with that whole potentially lethal bucket of worms at his utmost peril. So it was strictly “Hands of the local Hmong talent”.
And in any case, every one of us knew perfectly well that we could — and did — find all the female “companionship” that any of us could conceivably want a mere AA-hop away in Vientiane, where there was the notorious “White Rose” bar and “Lulu’s” legendary pipe (as they were known in this French colonial relic) emporium, not to mention the many hard-working ladies in any number of bars that you could spirit away to one of our Agency safe-house villas; or Udorn, where just immediately beyond the base gates there was a bar scene as vast and garishly flourishing as anything that could be found in Bangkok’s “New Petchbury Road” or Saigon’s “Tu-Do Street”.
PAL: Did any of the CIA guys take local wives?
JJ: Some of our more “permanent” case officers — Tony Poe being the most notorious example, but by no means the only one — went a little “native” and in a couple of instances actually took up residence in some of the more far-flung villages/landing sites, and sort of adopted one or another of the Hmong sub-clans/battalions, in which case they would take a “Hmong wife” — usually a great honor, supposedly for all involved, presented to him by the local sub-clan chieftain/battalion commander — but all that was semi-serious Lord Jim stuff, and was the exception rather than the rule — and most of the rest of us looked upon such behavior as rather exotically aberrant and in any case, few of us happy bachelors envied any of those guys.)
PAL: Can you say something about the above photograph?
JJ: It was taken during a training exercise with one of my Rascal teams, during which I would have been trying to explain to them what might make for a suitable extraction point, and it can only have been taken by that joker Vang Kou, the Hmong corporal who was my gofer/assistant/interpreter. He was always after my crappy little Instamatic camera which I think I ended up leaving with him.
Actually, what’s much more embarrassing about that picture than the beer drinking is the fact that I appear not to have any of my gear with me. Big no-no.
PAL: Gear? Please expound a bit:
JJ: Usually I never went anywhere without my M-16, my 9mm Browning, and as many grenades and as much ammo as I felt like humping at any given moment. This was pretty much SOP with all the Agency case officers, as we were expected to have our stuff with us and be ready to roll at all times. Because you really never knew from one moment to the next if you might be needed to jump on a plane or chopper and go somewhere to help somebody out, or some other “emergency”. Such as incoming, say. When shit hit the fan, you didn’t have time to run back to the hooch to get your rifle.
I also always carried an HT-2 radio, avec battery — we actually humped a lot of shit, but thankfully, it was AA that did most of the humping, although, while I’m on this subject, I should say something about grenades.
Grenades posed a problem, because most of the AA jocks refused to let anyone, including us case officers, come on board with “loose” grenades festooned upon our bodies, or even in our pockets — they obviously didn’t want them to accidentally fall or be pulled off. Not, I hasten to add, that we did either…..
So we had to have secured our grenades in individual boxes when we brought them on board an AA craft, which was a pain and the result was that I/we quite often didn’t bother — and brought an extra M-79 grenade launcher, with bandoleer, instead, if we thought we might be needing a little “heavy artillery”. It wasn’t just Clean who had a thing for the M-79 – most of us paramilitary case officers were extremely fond of it and came to almost look upon it as a kind of favorite toy.
For a modern-day take on the Vietnam War, POWs/MIAs and Adventure Backpackers trekking into the war-ravaged jungles of Asia, see: http://peteralanlloyd.com/back-part-2/backpackers-meet-the-vietnam-war-back-screenplay-finally-finished/
For POWs left behind in Laos, see also:
Under the pseudonym of P.N. Gwynne Jack wrote two well-received comic adventure/espionage novels, “Firmly By The Tail” and “Pushkin Shove”, the former taking place in Africa and the latter in Europe. He also self-published a fictionalized version of his Vietnam and Laos wartime experiences called “Imperialist Warmonger Pig”. Although now out of print, second-hand copies of the first two can be found online, and reprinted copies of all three can be obtained through direct arrangements with the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
© Peter Alan Lloyd
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