CIA Operations in Laos. A Case Officer remembers 1970s Vientiane and Leaving Long Tieng.
Above Photo: Long Tieng, Hmong walk on runway (aircommandoman.tripod.com)
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.
PL. before we start, what can you tell me about the above photograph?
JJ. It was taken in northern Laos in 1970, and it’s actually on the ramp not at Long Tieng itself, but up a few klicks at Sam Thong (LS-20 — the original LS-20 to which Long Tieng, “LS20-Alternate”, was the “alternate” of). In it I somehow manage to look like a doofus Buddy Holly, and for security reasons I’ve had to crop myself out of the rest of the picture, but it’s the only other picture of me up in northern Laos that I still have.
It was just another day waiting around on the ramp for the Air America taxi — the technical term for how we occupied ourselves at such moments is “smoking and joking”.
Looking at it I’m reminded that about 99% of pictures of Agency case officers taken in northern Laos (not that there were than many to begin with) were taken while waiting around on landing strip ramps. This is for the fairly obvious reason that it was there, hanging around waiting for our AA “rides”, so to speak, that we had such “down” time as we had while at the same time having our cameras handy, (which we pretty much all had as part of our operational equipment — cameras of one kind or another being practically part of an intelligence officer’s genetic makeup.)
PL. What did you do with the rest of your photos? Were they taken as part of the job and sent back?
JJ. Well, although we all had cameras and carried them as a matter of course, we didn’t exactly use them for taking “holiday snaps”. In fact, we didn’t use them all that much at all – it was mostly for operational purposes: when we needed pictures of enemy damage caused; enemy KIAs; in some cases friendly WIAs; captured enemy vehicles and equipment; local conditions on landing sites and such; photos of local people for ID purposes; pictures of prospective spots of interest (extraction points, future alternative landing sites), stuff like that — the Agency maintained a dark-room in its Udorn base, and we’d all been trained to develop our own film. Black and white, of course.
But in any case, as I say, we didn’t take all that many pictures, and “unofficial” photography, while not exactly prohibited, was certainly not encouraged. I mean, we were, after all, meant to be a top-secret operation. In fact, we weren’t even supposed to exist in the first place — we were Orwellian “un-people” — so photographic evidence of our presence was not exactly the flavor of the month.
PL. When you were stationed at Long Tieng, did you travel much to Vientiane?
JJ. No, I didn’t spend much time in Vientiane, and such infrequent business as I had there was almost all with the CIA Station at the Embassy – certainly I had tgo there upon my arrival to and my leaving Laos. Incidentally, whenever I was in town, so to speak, I crashed in an Agency safe-house which was fairly pristine and well-kept and, except for me, empty whenever I was there. I particularly remember that its otherwise empty fridge was always mysteriously and, indeed, magically kept stocked up with Lucky Lager beer. So hats off to the Agency’s discreet, anonymous housekeepers….
Other than my business at the Embassy, I occasionally had to consult in Vientiane with the departing case officer Bob W.,the conceiver of the Rascal Program, whose American wife also worked for the Agency and who had a villa there
He and I once went to a Chinese restaurant, where I was astounded by how the waiters cordoned us off from the other diners – who were themselves also similarly cordoned off – with high screens. When I asked Bob “what the hell?” he told me rather airily that it was “the custom in restaurants here”. Me, I found it claustrophobic, anti-social and definitely off-putting.
PL. Why did they do it? For security reasons or just privacy?
JJ. At the time I thought it must have been the owners’ idea of “cosmopolitan chic”, but looking back on it, and bearing in mind that back then Vientiane, being at the same time a mini-hub in both a hot war and the “Cold War”, was quite a center of international intrigue and skullduggery, I’m sure most of the patrons would have appreciated the privacy.
PL. Were there ever terrorist attacks and assassinations in Vientiane similar to those in Saigon?
JJ. You know, I was an up-country paramilitary officer and “my people” were the Hmong, so I didn’t really concern myself with the no-doubt labyrinthine political machinations of Vientiane lard-butts. Having said that, I’m sure there must have been some of both – terrorist attacks and political assassinations — but certainly fewer than Saigon.
The fact is that those two cities were quite different: Saigon was really, for all intents and purposes, an American-controlled city; (I hesitate to use the word “occupied”, because there were large areas of that vast city where there was no American presence at all, but still, it was an “Americanized” place).
Which was not at all the case with Vientiane, which, because of its weird (considering that its government was at war with the commies) “neutral” status, which had been arrived at through tortuous negotiations during the Kennedy Administration, remained throughout the whole Southeast Asian conflict an almost surreally “international” city. It was an other-worldly, make-believe, look-the-other-way “demilitarized zone” sort of a place, where hostilities were artificially suspended for the greater, if temporary, good of some kind of over-arching international hypocrisy. So as a result, Vientiane in those strange days definitely had an Alice-through-the-looking-glass feel to it.
PL. Can you give an example of the differences between Saigon and Vientiane back then?
JJ. Probably the thing that most struck me during my visits to Vientiane in 1970 was occasionally seeing uniformed North Vietnamese soldiers (they appeared to be officers, but with those guys it wasn’t always obvious), wandering around downtown Vientiane, in broad daylight, around its version of the Arc de Triomphe, and going in and out of the relatively grand and snooty “Lane Xang Hotel”, whose bar I’d occasionally stop at.
These bastards would scuttle about in little groups of 3 and 4, without so much as a by-your-leave, officious little shits even wearing their side-arms, and sometimes even accompanied by Russians in civvies.
I was utterly gob-smacked – these were the bloody swine that I/we had just been shooting at – and getting shot at in return – just yesterday! And just a coupla hundred klicks away! And would be again tomorrow! I couldn’t believe it – I was utterly scandalized. (At one point I asked Bob W. about this extraordinary state of affairs, and he rolled his eyes and said “Just for fuck’s sakes don’t get into a firefight here in Vientiane – we have enough trouble with the Ambassador as it is….”)
Tell you the truth, I still can’t believe it, to this day.
PL. Were you ever able to sample the legendary Vientiane nightlife of the time?
JJ. Heh. You bet. My “off” time was spent either at the “White Rose”, which was of course, the Agency/AA “local”, or at the justly world-renowned and, er, notoriously, shall we say exotic “Lulu’s” (coyly known as “Le Rendez-Vous Des Amis”, and where I actually spoke French – not that it got me any noticeable discount — with the ancient Madame Lulu herself).
PL.Could briefly describe those famous establishments?
JJ. Well, There’s been a lot of water under many bridges since then, and one doesn’t want to be gratuitously lurid, but suffice it to say that both those establishments, while each distinctive in its own way, were amongst the most extraordinary and enjoyable dens of so-called iniquity I’ve ever encountered anywhere in the world – and that’s saying something, trust me.
The White Rose was from the outside just another seedy, ramshackle bar on a muddy street in an unfashionable part of town. And inside it was scarcely any more salubrious — a large, dark, smoky, noisy, smelly bedlam and a locus of what my late brother Alan used to like to call “death, piss and corruption.” It was, essentially, an Agency/Air America version of a “biker bar”, populated and plied by dozens of enthusiastically “hard-working” Lao “hostesses”, many of whom participated in an intermittent “floor show” of often, shall we say, astonishing… inventiveness and dexterity.
And of course, the establishment had its own convenient “cubby holes” upstairs and “in the back” for further “business” to be conducted. Even during relatively slow times, like, say, in the mornings, the place had an excellent juke box and all in all, it was, day or night, the social epicenter for Agency paramilitary case officers and Air America jocks in Vientiane. “Catch you at the Whisky Romeo” was our ubiquitous sign-off back then. (In fact, whenever I hear those deathless Warren Zevon lyrics “Send lawyers, guns and money – the shit has hit the fan!” I’m mentally transported back to our good old White Rose….)
PL. How about Lulu’s?
JJ. Now, “Lulu’s”—“Le Rendez-Vous Des Amis” — was something of a different kettle of fish. Basically, it was an attempt at a “high class” bordello – it was housed in a discreet but remarkably plush 3-floor house in one of Vientiane’s quiet and leafy residential avenues — but which for some reason chose to limit its scope of activity to “la spécialité de la maison”, which was, not to put too fine a point on it, exclusively oral – but with “optional frills”, as it were.
Lulu herself had been a French “camp follower” who’d come out in the early 50s to service, so to speak, the French troops at the time, and had hung on since. She’d become, by 1970, something of an eccentric old battle-axe, but she was delighted that I was able to speak native Frogue with her. One could tell that she found the Americans a bit of a chore compared to her late compatriots, but she bravely soldiered on — she and her girls were all business, that’s for sure. (Man, talk about your efficient, well-oiled enterprise….)
PL. Did the flight from Long Tieng to Vientiane take you over enemy-held territory, or was it all held by ‘friendly’ forces?
JJ. Funny you should mention this. It’s true that the area between Vientiane and Long Tieng was not normally an AO for regular NVA units, but there was some Pathet Lao activity in the villages there, as well as by the odd NVA political detachment. So we did consider it to be “intermittently hostile” territory.
So anyway, once on an AA Huey going on a routine flight from Alternate to Vientiane. we got involved in an extraordinary rescue mission: Usually, unless there was a more senior Agency body on board with me, I’d sit next to the pilot, but I remember that day I was particularly sleep-deprived and wanted to stretch out on the cargo floor for a bit of zonk. So I was dozing off back there when I was roused by a flurry of radio activity involving the pilot and the kicker. It seemed that another AA Huey in the area had been hit by ground fire to the engine and was losing oil/power – and perforce altitude — pretty alarmingly, and all this was, ipso facto, (since he’d been hit by ground fire), taking place over Injun Country —
PL. Can you say roughly where or what kind of terrain?
JJ. Not exactly, but we were more than halfway to Vientiane, and the terrain was flat, jungle – no karst or anything like that.
Anyway, so our bird hurried over to where the stricken one was sputtering along, and rather than allowing the other guy to go down and then try to bring in a dicey and dangerous rescue mission, our pilot had a bright idea and he proceeded to have a further, intense radio exchange with the other pilot. And they decided to try something apparently rather novel.
Our bird proceeded to maneuver quickly but carefully under, and to the side of the other one, and our kicker – the Air America kickers were almost all Filipinos, back then, and excellent dudes they were, too — unwound a cable that we carried (and which, I must confess, I’d never noticed on board Hueys before), and swung it back and forth, under our Huey, each time gaining a bit more distance and height, until he eventually got the kicker on the other bird to reach out and grab the end of it.
The second kicker then attached it to his main rotor pillar and our Huey proceeded to tow the other one over to safe haven in Vientiane, always being careful not to pull the cable too taught so as to get caught up in the second guy’s main rotor, but nevertheless applying enough extra heft to help keep the thing airborne long enough to make it to safety. It was a truly extraordinary feat of wizard helicopter acrobatics.
I swear, those AA pilots and their kickers were magicians. I’m 99% certain the pilot on my bird that day was the late, legendary Jim Rhyne, who was, at the time I was there, the most senior and probably the most respected of all the AA pilots in northern Laos. Which, again, was saying something, rather.
PL. When your tour in-country was up, did Vang Pao throw you one of his celebrated parties, known as Ba-ci s?
JJ. He did, but to be perfectly honest, it wasn’t my own, personal, ba-ci, but one which I shared with two other chaps — one AA pilot and a senior commander of the 1,000-man Thai contingent of “volunteer” special forces-types who were up there with us, and of whom not enough has been said, either in these interviews or in general — so let me just say here that those Thais were pretty damn useful as operational support to the beleaguered Hmong battalions. I hope those guys at least got paid decently, because they never, so far as I could see, ever got any other recognition and they were a pretty stalwart bunch of lads, and took not inconsiderable casualties.
Anyway, all three of us, me, the AA jock and the Thai officer were rotating back to our home bases at about the same time, so our “ba-ci” was “bundled” together — Vang Pao’s usual procedure for departing foreigners he approved of — which, to be fair, was pretty much all of us.
PL. How did it go?
JJ.It was a pretty festive and jolly occasion, held in the Hmong “communal house” — I guess what you could call Long Tieng’s “city hall”, except, being Hmong, it was less a civic hall than a vaguely mystic “Masonic Lodge” sort of place — a large wooden house which normally I would not enter. (It was rare indeed for most of us Agency case officers to visit with the Hmong in their actual homes — I only ever spent any appreciable amount of time in one when I’d be invited into the rather comfortable teak villa of my friend Major Hang Sao, Vang Pao’s S-2 (Intelligence), the deceptively cherubic-looking and urbane wily old operator who, with his plump and ever-smiling wife, used to invite me around to discuss, would you believe, philosophy in French, over tea and rice cakes – rice cakes rather than crumpets.)
Anyway, the ba-ci itself was just a large gathering of Vang Pao and all his top muckers and as many of the Hmong officer corps as happened to be around at the time, their wives, plus a contingent of rather lovely Hmong maidens who sang a couple of folklorique and, presumably, inspirational songs for us and also served the drinks and food; plus, of course, all the SKY/CAS mob except for the guys who were manning the radios and on “night watch” duty, and whatever AA and Raven personnel as happened to be overnighting at Long Tieng.
PL. What did Vang Pao serve as food and drink?
JJ.The food consisted of platters of stringy and spicy chicken, served with great pyramids of the ubiquitous balled-up sticky rice, all of which was washed down by veritable rivers of White Horse scotch, Lucky Lager beer, and the inevitable lao lao “rice whisky” concoction which could just as easily double as paint remover.
(I should mention, en passant, that while in my memory the booze indelibly linked to my time in Vietnam was Johnnie Walker Red scotch and “33” beer, for some reason, in Laos, everyone, from Vang Pao on down to the most junior aircraft mechanic, operated on White Horse scotch and Lucky Lager beer, a little-known brand which in those days emanated from San Francisco — how the hell it made its exclusive way to the mountains of northern Laos is not the least of that war’s abiding mysteries.)
PL. I have read that for some ba-ci recipients, there were gifts. Did you get one?
JJ. Yes, for each of us three “honorees” at the ba-ci that night, a few kind words were said by their Hmong “counterparts” — in my case, it was again Maj. Hang Sao who did the honors. The AA pilot had one of the senior Hmong T-28 pilots speak for him, and the departing Thai had some words said about him by a Hmong colonel who I didn’t know.
Then Vang Pao gave us each a multicolored silver Hmong ring and intoned some words which apparently welcomed each of us as an “Honorary Hmong”, and then each of us had to say a few words. All I remember saying, in my considerable inebriation, was that I was — genuinely — sorry to be leaving, and, (hazily recalling a phrase from previous Vietnam leave-takings), that in my absence they should not neglect to continue to “fuck the Cong”. Not exactly Churchillian, to be sure, but then again there were mercifully no reporters present to preserve my eloquence for posterity and nobody gave a damn anyway. Certainly a good time was had by all.
PL. What are your thoughts now, when you look back on your tour with the CIA in Long Tieng?
JJ. It was, in the best possible sense, a complete “free-for-all” up there, and, contrary to what one might have feared, in that seemingly-anarchic situation, it was one that, in fact and rather counter-intuitively, brought out the best in the men involved. The more “authority” was loose, the more people took responsibility. It was truly a wondrous operation to behold — a “Boys Own” fantasy come true, complete with plenty of booze and even pretty Lao and Thai ladies.
I was 24 years old at the time, and my near-year with the Agency fighting the NVA alongside the amazing Hmong people certainly ranks as one of the most vivid and worthwhile experiences in my longish and not-entirely-unmovemented life.
PL. Any regrets?
JJ. My only regret is that, as a result of the treachery of the 1974 Democrat “Watergate Congress”, the whole show came crashing to an ignominious and inglorious end, and that the Hmong were added to the long and shameful list of people we’d betrayed.
My final thought on the whole adventure was that it was a pretty noble American effort, as these things go, carried out by a remarkably small – remember, we were never more than 55 Agency case officers up there — bunch of resourceful, selfless, brave and dedicated professionals, and one which would have ultimately proved, I believe, to have had a lasting, if limited, success — if it had not been disgracefully sold out at the 11th hour, just when military victory was at hand.
Next Instalment – Covert Operations in Vietnam
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
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