A Missoula Smokejumper - by Fred Donner                          


A Missoula Smokejumper Won the Second, Third & Fourth Highest Medals of the CIA

By Fred Donner

This article was first published in the July 2003 issue of "Smokejumper" Magazine

When Jerry and I began rookie smokejumper training in June 1958, he had been 17 years old less than a week and was a rising senior at Missoula Sentinel High School. Two brothers had been Missoula jumpers (Danny '53 and Jack '54). "The Youngest Smokejumper" (January 2003 issue) noted that the late John Lewis made his first fire jump at 17 years, two months, and six days of age. With all due respect to John's memory, Jerry had made several fire jumps by that age. (I was one of three rookies who broke bones on practice jumps in 1958. Two of us repeated rookie training in 1959.)

Among the approximately 50 rookies in 1958, there were many colorful characters but Jerry stood out. He was very vocal about people of any kind who did not measure up to his own high work ethic standards. He was a railroad brakeman while still in high school and was scathing in his denunciation of railroad union "featherbedding." He was also outspoken with his low opinion of college fraternities. Jerry thought the entire East Coast should be paved over. He helped his mother run a janitor business (named "Death of Dirt") where he once cleaned up the aftermath of a shotgun suicide. A rodeo bull rider who talked about "ranch bums" a lot, Jerry was altogether not your ordinary teenager or even jumper and clearly destined for an eventful life.

I saw a lot of Jerry while I worked at Missoula on crutches in 1958. We jumped a 16-jumper fire together in California in 1959 and were both on a jumper-tanker crew on the Cleveland National Forest east of San Diego for several months late in 1959. He was both a high school state wrestling champion and chess champion. I occasionally beat him at chess in California. (Not as dumb as I look, I knew better than to wrestle him.) He was a sore loser but I mean that as a compliment.

Jerry Daniels was the most mission-oriented, job-committed, task-driven individual I have ever known. His motto was "lead me, follow me, or get the hell out of the way." Jerry was not anti-authority but he was most definitely anti-bureaucratic. Nothing stood between him and completing the mission. Dedicated and hard-charging only begin to describe Jerry. These are not unusual smokejumper traits but he was an outstanding example. He was also one of the funniest and most irreverent people one could meet, combining humor and hard work. With Jerry, you busted your butt working while splitting your sides laughing.

While I was an Air Force lieutenant from 1960 to 1965 in Texas, Washington state, Taiwan, and Vietnam, I ran into smokejumpers in each location, especially Vietnam. I heard stories about Jerry and other jumpers, notably from Intermountain Aviation, a CIA operation, in Marana, Arizona. Some of the places mentioned were Bay of Pigs, Tibet, Arctic ice islands, Laos, and Thailand. Never sure what to believe about second-hand jumper stories, I thought some stories were just typical jumper equine feces, a common commodity in Missoula.

When I got out of the Air Force, I flew as aerial observer on the St. Joe National Forest in Idaho that summer, and was hired by Air America® to be the traffic manager at Danang, Vietnam. In November 1965, I went to Missoula to get on Northwest Airlines for Taipei, Taiwan. To our mutual astonishment, Jerry and I got on the same plane, Jerry headed for Laos. We flew out of Montana seated together (the flight attendant upgraded me to sit with Jerry in first class) celebrating old times while headed for new adventures. Alternating periods of work and study, he had graduated from the University of Montana in business.

Fast forward. In April 1982 I was a Foreign Service officer in the American Embassy in Manila, Philippines. One day I picked up the embassy message file and was dumbstruck to read that Jerry had just died of carbon monoxide poisoning in his apartment in Bangkok, Thailand.

A number of books over the last two decades talk about Jerry's spectacular CIA career in Laos after 1965. The circumstances of his death add an odd finale that could not have been invented for a novel.

Tragic Mountains: The Hmong, the Americans, and the Secret Wars for Laos, 1942-1992 by Jane Hamilton-Merritt (1993) has errors in it and was not well-received in some book reviews but it probably has more Jerry information than any other book. The frontispiece of Sky Is Falling: An Oral History of the CIA's Evacuation of the Hmong from Laos by Gayle L. Morrison (1999) dedicates the book - In Memory of Jerry "Hog" Daniels: June 11,1941-April 28, 1982.

The Ravens: The Men Who Flew In America's Secret War In Laos by Christopher Robbins (1987) describes Jerry's career as the CIA's connection to General Vang Pao, the leader of the Hmong tribal army in Laos. Back Fire: The CIA's Secret War in Laos and Its Link to the War in Vietnam by Roger Warner ((1995) covers much of the same story with lots of Jerry in it. This book was reissued in a slightly different version in 1996 titled Shooting at the Moon: The Story of America's Clandestine War in Laos.

Another book out under two titles is Codename Mule (1995 hardback) by James E. Parker, Jr., reissued in paperback in 1997 as Covert Ops: The CIA's Secret War in Laos. He refers to Jerry only as "Hog," Jerry's self-chosen call-sign, on numerous pages recounting Hog's actions but never by proper name.

That Jerry was "the most beloved of all the Americans by the Hmong" is a statement from the inside cover flap of The CIA's Secret War in Laos - Shadow War by Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison (1995) that sums up the various references to Jerry in the book. Oddly enough, Jerry is not in the book's index but is found on at least ten pages of the text.

One Day Too Long: Top Secret Site 85 and the Bombing of North Vietnam by Timothy N. Castle (1999) is an excellent investigative work that mentions Jerry briefly.

Harvesting Pa Chay's Wheat: The Hmong and America's Secret War in Laos by Keith Quincy (2000) at 600 pages seems to be the most exhaustive book to date on the war in Laos. Jerry is mentioned in some detail. By now, the astute reader has noticed that most of the books on Laos have "Secret War" in their titles, something of an oxymoron regarding Laos.

Between all these books mentioning Jerry and more books naming other jumpers in the CIA (see my bibliography article in the July 2002 issue), I learned that those smokejumper stories I heard in the Air Force were basically true. In Project Coldfeet: Secret Mission to a Soviet Ice Station by William M. Leary and Leonard A. LeSchack (1996), I read what Jerry had done in the Arctic. In 1962 an Intermountain Aviation B-17 with the Fulton Skyhook apparatus and a number of jumpers in the crew parachuted a Navy officer and an Air Force officer on to an abandoned Soviet ice station and gave them three days to sort out important intelligence material. (The Fulton Skyhook has two arms or "horns" extending from the nose of the aircraft that engage a 500-foot rope held aloft by a helium balloon and tethered on the ground to an object or person to be picked up.) The B-17 returned and picked up the intelligence material and officers in three passes. Jerry was the winch operator who brought the cargo and people on board. In 1963 the same aircraft with Jerry as winch operator picked up the body of an American scientist who died of a heart attack on a U.S. ice station. (See the April 1997 issue for extended details on both events.)

According to Tragic Mountains and Sky Is Falling, Jerry had been a "kicker" dropping cargo over Laos before 1965. Tragic Mountains adds that he had also flown numerous drop missions over Tibet. A jumper told me of accompanying Jerry on the first C-130 Tibet drop mission. (For more on Tibet, including many smokejumper names, see The CIA's Secret War in Tibet by Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison, a 2002 book too late for my bibliography article last year. How many more "CIA Secret War" books are out there remains to be seen.)

From late 1965, Jerry was a paramilitary officer (Hog or Mr. Hog) at Long Tieng , the headquarters of Vang Pao's Hmong soldiers. (Long Tieng, sometimes written as Long Cheng, was commonly known as "Sky" to the Hmong.) He committed to stay with Vang Pao and the Hmong, come hell or high water, and spent nearly ten years in combat with the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese. Once he refused to get on an airplane he thought was overloaded, then watched it crash killing all on board. In the wreckage, he found an extra leg beyond the number of people known to have been on board, confirming his suspicions as he told his brother Jack.

One story stands out among many extraordinary Jerry tales. The U.S. government had an electronic installation on a mountain top at Phou Pha Thi, also known as Lima Site 85. Jerry was there when four Soviet-style AN-2 Colt biplanes attacked the site with crude weapons. According to several books, Jerry opened fire with his M-16 and claimed to have shot down a Colt that crashed. (He did admit other people were also firing.) There is more. An Air America® helicopter actually overtook a Colt. A crewman firing a hand-held weapon downed that Colt, likely the only time in history a helicopter has shot down a fixed-wing aircraft as well as creating probably the most oft-told story in Air America® history. With two Colts down and two escaped, that was the first and last enemy air attack against friendly ground forces in the Indochina War. Unfortunately Lima Site 85 was later overrun in a disaster well-told in the Castle book cited earlier.

Another famous story occurred when Jerry and another jumper staged a rodeo at Sky featuring bull riding, to the bewilderment of the Hmong. According to one book, Jerry lasted about a second on his bull while the other jumper made a respectable ride. Jerry was upset to lose to another jumper, a reminder to me of past chess games.

Sky was heavily attacked in 1971 and, with the United States withdrawing forces from Vietnam, the handwriting was on the wall for the demise of Sky. The Hmong fortress lasted four more tough years under constant enemy pressure. According to one book, Jerry lived underground the last year at Long Tieng with Vang Pao after putting three sons of Vang Pao in school in Missoula.

Sky Is Falling contains personal recollections from nearly 50 Hmong and Americans who were witnesses to the fall of Sky on May 14, 1975. The enemy was at the gates and thousands of Hmong expected to leave, a repeat of Vietnam the month before. By every account, Jerry was the glue that held things together until the final bitter moments when he and Vang Pao had to pull the plug. His Hmong radio operator said of Hog on the last day that, "For Jerry it is duty, duty, duty first. Real deep duty." Two Air America® pilots spoke on tape in the last hours, "But old Hog, I've never seen that guy get excited yet. Have you?" "No, not really." Later, "Hog, hell, he'd have stayed there all day, I believe, if I hadn't pushed him. Because, like I said, he isn't afraid of no mob scene or nothin' ." On the last airplane out of Sky, Hog broke out a case of Olympia - a true blue smokejumper.

After Laos, Jerry went on a two-month hunting adventure with another Laos jumper in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area and also worked his gold mine north of Butte, Montana with some Laos jumper help. He became a resettlement officer with the State Department refugee program in Thailand. A fluent Hmong speaker, no one knew better than Jerry who was telling the truth among Hmong fleeing Laos seeking refugee status. He earned a State Department Superior Honor Award. A retired senior CIA officer who knew him well told me that Jerry had "thrown his career away" by staying with the Hmong rather than the Agency. If he had been willing to be an intelligence bureaucrat (not a chance, as the reader knows by now), there is no telling to what high rank he might have risen. Instead Jerry chose the Hmong, bringing the first Hmong refugees to the Bitterroot Valley south of Missoula.

Jerry was 40 years old at his untimely death. Unfortunately he has not been allowed to rest in peace. The official story is that he died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty gas hot water heater and was not found for several days. It was probably inevitable, given his storybook life, that rumors would abound after his unusual death. Some jumpers who knew Jerry believe the official story. Some do not. There is little dispute that Jerry died of carbon monoxide poisoning but how that came about is not agreed upon. Some think it was an accident, some suicide, some murder. The instant-on, instant-off, on-demand propane hot water heaters that are all over East Asia are notorious for malfunctioning and causing occasional deaths. Nevertheless, rumors continue when old Southeast Asia hands get together.

Tragic Mountains relates that Jerry made a pact with a friend to jump off the Missoula Higgins Avenue bridge into the Clark's Fork River when they were 40, presumably because they would have done everything with no new worlds to conquer. Later he wrote to the same friend to make it "50." However joking these remarks may have been, in retrospect they were ill-chosen words.

Jerry told friends of death threats received in Thailand from Hmong, presumably some who had been refused refugee status and then blamed him. More ominous, a Laos jumper was in Jerry's house in Missoula when Jerry answered the telephone. When asked what that strange conversation was about, he said it was the "mystery man" who said he was going to "kill me."

The Ravens repeats some conspiracy speculation about Jerry's death but states that no evidence supports that speculation and further that journalist investigations confirm he died as reported. However the same author goes on to say, "For a more sinister interpretation of events, see "Mystery in Bangkok: Yellow Rain Skeptic Found Dead," Covert Action Information Bulletin, No. 17, Summer 1982." (CAIB is an anti-CIA and anti-establishment publication.) Jerry was a well-known disbeliever of "yellow rain" and was outspoken about it, according to several jumpers.

Today Jerry's brother, Jack, a former smokejumper, feels the family has never gotten the complete story about his death. Jack, a Ph.D. in physiology, a winner of Olympic silver and bronze medals in the modern penthathlon competition, and a professor at the State University of New York at Cortland, is puzzled by two aspects. One is why Jerry died and a Thai found unconscious in Jerry's apartment lived. Jack, who certainly knows, says carbon monoxide attaches itself to hemoglobin at 35 times the rate of oxygen. According to Jack, the Thai fellow, reportedly a university student, was taken to a hospital and later fled, never to be seen again. (One 1982 press account says the student talked to a U.S. journalist and "does not remember what happened." Admittedly a local national found near the death of a prominent American would not hang around to see what happened.)

The sealed coffin also puzzles Jack. As the executor and next-of-kin, Jack was initially pressured to have the body cremated with possibly some cremains to remain in Thailand and/or Laos and some to Missoula. Jack consulted Hmong in Montana who vetoed cremation, especially since division of the cremains was offensive to Hmong culture. So a tightly-sealed coffin with guards to keep it that way arrived in Missoula.

Whatever the circumstances of his death, his family is extremely proud of his CIA service. A prized possession is their photo of the CIA director presenting three posthumous awards, the second, third, and fourth highest medals of the Agency, to his mother and three surviving brothers and families. (As reported in the January 2003 issue, the family of John Lewis (McCall '53) received his posthumous CIA award 41 years after his death. The Daniels family didn't have to wait that long.)

I make no claim to having been one of Jerry's closer friends but I knew him well in the early years and I know the literature. There are better qualified jumpers from the Laos and Thailand years to memorialize him and I hope mine is only the first chapter. I felt someone had to get him in the official archive of smokejumper history since it had not been done to date. Jerry tops anything in a Tom Clancy novel. He was an unforgettable larger-than-life character of whom it can truly be said that the mold was thrown away after he was born. There will never be another Jerrold Barker Daniels. Ask the Hmong.

(This article has been reviewed by the CIA. That review neither constitutes CIA authentication of information nor implies CIA endorsement of the author's views.)

Fred Donner is an AAM Association member. He was the traffic manager at Danang, 1965-67. Previously an Air Force Lieutenant and a Foreign Service Officer, he is now a retired Defense Intelligence Agency Officer with nearly 40 years of experience and education related to Southeast Asia and China.

This article is reprinted from the July 2003 "Smokejumper" magazine.