Civilians who worked in obscurity for CIA airline to receive long-awaited honor
By David Flick / The Dallas Morning News
RICHARDSON – Whenever Deborah Pirkle comes to Dallas, she visits a largely unnoticed plaque on the second floor of a university library, and she is always moved.
"You have to touch the names, you just do," she said. "It's beautiful, and you can feel the presence. It's like going to Arlington Cemetery."
The body of her husband, Lowell Z. Pirkle, lies in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, and his name is on the plaque at the McDermott Library on the University of Texas at Dallas campus.
He and 241 other employees of Air America and Civil Air Transport are seldom remembered on Memorial Day. Though they died or disappeared in three decades of fighting in Southeast Asia, the plaque represents the only public monument to them in the world, Air America Association officials say.
Though they were civilians, they worked for two incarnations of an airline that, beginning in the 1950s, was owned by the CIA, although many did not know it at the time.
Mrs. Pirkle said she didn't know about the CIA connection until she attended the plaque's dedication in 1987, when former CIA Director William Colby acknowledged the agency's ownership of the airline.
She is proud of her husband's service, she said, but chafes under the anonymity of his sacrifice.
"When your husband was with Air America, you don't have the support groups like you do when they're with the military," Mrs. Pirkle said. "And I think it's a shame, really.
"They were part of the war just like anyone in the military. They died. They made the same sacrifices."
Some of the obscurity may soon end. On Saturday, CIA representatives will present a unit citation to attendees of a joint convention of the Air America and CAT associations in Las Vegas.
Though Air America was dissolved a quarter-century ago, the citation – a framed certificate – will be the first official expression of appreciation by the U.S. government, said Jim Glerum, an Air America Association member who spearheaded the effort.
CIA spokesperson Anya Guisher said the citation would single out the air crews and ground personnel for their courage, sacrifice and superior airmanship. She said she did not know why the agency had waited so long to issue the citation and declined to speculate.
"These things take time. That's the just way it is," Ms. Guisher said.
'Neither fish nor fowl'
The very nature of CAT and Air America has kept their former employees in a kind of limbo.
"We were neither fish nor fowl," said Allen Cates, president of the Air America Association.
Civil Air Transport began life as a commercial airline during the Chinese civil war in the 1940s and was purchased by the CIA in 1950. CAT's name was changed to Air America in 1959, though some commercial flights continued under the CAT logo until the late 1960s.
As a secret arm of the American government, CAT and Air America flew supplies, munitions and personnel for the next quarter-century throughout Indochina, especially during the "secret war" in Laos.
It was in that war that Lowell Pirkle, a flight mechanic on an Air America helicopter, was killed.
At the time, the Pirkles lived in Udorn, Thailand.
"It was hard," Mrs. Pirkle recalled. "They would go up-country for five or six days, and then he'd come home for two or three days, long enough for me to get his laundry done, and he'd go away again.
"I never knew exactly what he was doing."
The couple established a kind of code. Mr. Pirkle avoided divulging confidential information by telling his wife only that he was hauling "rice."
"When he just said 'rice,' that meant rice, supplies. 'Soft rice' was refugees. 'Hard rice' meant munitions," Mrs. Pirkle said.
He was killed in Laos on a mission northeast of Louangphrabang on Aug. 3, 1967, but his body was not returned until 1998, she said.
Air America's role – in fact, the existence of the airline itself – was largely unknown to the American public until congressional hearings into CIA activities in the late 1970s.
Even after its role in Southeast Asian wars became part of the record, Air America never rose into mainstream consciousness.
"We didn't know if we should talk about it. Nobody said we couldn't, but for a long time, nobody knew anything about what we did, and we didn't feel like we should say anything," said Brian Johnson, a retired helicopter pilot who now lives in Arlington and Mexico City.
When Hollywood got around to depicting their exploits – in the 1990 Mel Gibson movie Air America – veterans of the organization wished it hadn't bothered.
"It pictured us as drug dealers and made us look like a bunch of flying cowboys," Mr. Cates said. "That didn't do us any good."
Still, no one denies that the airline included some colorful figures.
"When you flew, you worked very hard, and when you played, you played hard," said Gary Gentz, a former flight mechanic who now lives in Eustace, Texas. "It was maybe only 20 percent of your time, but we had access to travel and we had resources, so we were able to enjoy ourselves."
The veterans also faced the ambiguous feelings many Americans felt toward the Vietnam War. Even when the Vietnam War memorial was built on the Washington Mall, it did not contain the names of the airlines' employees.
Mr. Johnson, like many former Air America pilots, said he has no quarrel with that decision.
"I don't think we deserve to be on the wall. That was for military personnel and they paid for it. We were civilians," he said.
Even so, he added, "it would be nice if we could have something put up next to it."
In the 1980s, members of Air America and CAT raised $15,000 for a bronze plaque, which hangs in the special-collections section on the second floor of the McDermott Library. A smaller version of the plaque has been placed in the CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.
The UTD library houses the CAT and Air America archives, which have about 450 boxes of the airlines' records, said Erik Carlson, head of UTD special collections.
Though the plaque is simple, it brings back memories for former employees and their relatives.
"It never fails to choke me up, to see the names," Mr. Johnson said. "I see the names of people I knew and worked and partied with, and it always brings me a feeling of honor. This is a very sacred place for us."
Sue Hacker, the widow of a CAT pilot captured by the Chinese in 1950, said all the names on the plaque should be remembered on Memorial Day.
"It was like a war. They fought along with the military men, and they got shot at, even if they didn't wear a uniform," she said. "I like to say that they died in the Cold War.
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