This is Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR Radio Reader’s Book Club The book is “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” by Anne Fadiman.
In 1979, three years after a failed previous escape and three years before Lia was born to the Lees, her family was part of a group of some 400 Hmong who escaped westward to Thailand, as their Vietnamese captors pursued them, setting fires and land mines. From there they emigrated to the US. Some 150,00 Hmong overall escaped the Vietnamese occupiers and the Pathet Lao.
The Lees were caught in the aftermath of a civil war in Laos which was also a big powers proxy war. A war in which they had not taken part but for which they shared retribution simply because they were Hmong. The Lees were in the western section of Laos, west of the Mekong River, next to Thailand.
Laos is between Thailand on the west and Vietnam on the east with Cambodia to the south. It is shaped a bit like a palm tree with a large, rounded area at the north and a slanted trunk extending to the south.
The Hmong, with a long history of independence and scrappiness, fought with the Royal Lao government in the Laotian civil war from 1959 to 1975, against the Communist Pathet Lao. This was part of a proxy war, a hot war in the cold war, waged to the east of the Mekong River.
The Hmong were recruited and used by the CIA and special forces troops, to fight the Vietnamese. This was a secret war, secret to citizens of the US. And secret officially, in diplomatic agreements. But never secret to those in the fight.
In proxy wars the major powers provide hand-me-down major weapons such as repurposed piston engine training airplanes upgraded for combat and the latest close-in weapons such as assault rifles, mines, etcetera. Major powers deploy the top-line weapons themselves.
Both US and North Vietnamese forces officially didn’t exist in Laos, because of diplomatic agreements. When members of my squadron, who I would work with later when I enlisted, were assigned to survey for an upgrade of the TACAN beacon and CIA station in the far east of the country on a ridge called Phou Pha Thi in November 1967, they officially resigned from the Air Force, took on civilian IDs listing them as employees of Lockheed, did their work, then rejoined the Air Force as if nothing had happened. Officially nothing did. Officially they were never in Laos.
That location, LS-85, supposedly secret (again, only to the citizens back home), was upgraded with bombing control radar on the ridge because it was a straight shot of less than 120 miles from there to Haiphong. It was also very exposed. LS-85 on Phou Pha Thi was overrun March 10th, 1968 by North Vietnamese regulars in a major push from North Vietnam across Laos to the west.
The entire war was waged in almost total secrecy from the people in the US.
Security note: making this a top-secret operation (even the name, “Skyspot” was top-secret) protected no one. They were hardly hidden in the area and only the folks back home were in the dark. The usual claim is that classifying an operation (or anything else) saves lives who would be exposed. In this case, lives were lost because it was kept from view.
When the communist forces won in 1975, Hmong rebels kept fighting, this time fighting the new communist government comprised of the North Vietnamese and the Pathet Lao. This time the rebels received support from China as part of the conflict between China and Vietnam.
Keep track of that! There remains low-level conflict in Laos.
This is Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR Radio Readers Book Club.
Ref: Book: “One Day Too Long” The title refers to the stupidity of letting the operation go on too long when they realized they were exposed and known to the North Vietnamese. https://www.historynet.com/book-review-one-day-too-long-top-secret-site-85-and-the-bombing-of-north-vietnam-by-timothy-n-castle-vn.htm
Air Force honors 12 airmen who died defending top-secret outpost in Laos during Vietnam War March 2018 https://www.airforcetimes.com/news/your-air-force/2018/03/14/air-force-honors-12-airmen-who-died-defending-top-secret-outpost-in-laos-during-vietnam-war/