The Other Side of Air America
by Allen Cates
One thing I learned while writing my two books was that being involved with historical events does not make you a historian. But, I have also learned that historians don't always get it correct. My fellow Air America compadre Link Luckett, who probably forgot more about flying helicopters than I ever knew told me the secret of being a good photographer was taking lots of pictures and throwing away the bad ones.
Such is the case for studying history. You can't just read one book. You must read many, and you have to discard information that is not correct.
Real historians will revise their history if someone presents factual evidence showing what they said is incorrect. Those who refuse often cause pernicious harm to individuals who served. Therefore, I will continue to correct those who claim the CIA owned Air America because it didn't. The claim is stated innocently in most cases, and harm is not intended. But continually insisting CIA ownership when proved incorrect indicates an agenda to slight Air America employees with purpose.
The other claim is Air America was not required to conduct SAR activity. Declassified documents show Air America was ordered by the Department of State to conduct SAR operations and furnished military aircraft for the task. Continually saying we were not required while knowing otherwise is a disservice to those who were involved.
Collectively the two claims represent Air America as mercenaries, and that's a false characterization. Approximately one hundred forty-six Air America employees were killed in action. Not one of them died with a gun in his hand. Indeed, Air America was involved with military activity supporting the war effort, but they were noncombatants and involved with hauling war materials into staging areas and battle zones, new soldiers in and wounded out. But a large percentage of the work was humanitarian.
Food drops; tons of it and hauling refugees fleeing war torn areas comprised a large extent of our work in Laos. Air America supported USAID and International Voluntary Services personnel in this effort, and not just because they wanted to, which they did, but because that was their job and duty and the same as SAR activity. Many of those who died were in the process of helping someone escape death.
The word 'Voluntary' would appear to indicate USAID and IVS personnel worked solely for heartfelt conscientious reasons, but I think historians/people who make that statement are not being honest with themselves. Oh, I do believe there is a liberal strain in every man, but Laos was an adventure and every person who served there would not trade the experience for love or money. I have tried to capture in writing the reason why men, and nowadays women, go into battle. Some do it with pictures. I was told I was not allowed to take pictures and didn't, but I am glad there were those who violated that rule. All of my pictures are in my mind and getting them out on paper requires a writing ability that I'm not sure I possess. Therefore, I'm going to attach to this page documents and pictures written and taken by others and allow the readers to form their own opinion. I do want to add the following.
I spent eight years in Southeast Asia, and certain events will always be indelible in my mind. In 1964, while a Marine helicopter pilot, I was on a mission to carry Montagnard soldiers into battle against what I was told was a ragtag bunch of North Vietnamese regulars south of Danang. The Montagnards (a French word meaning mountain people) were trained by Special Forces and all carried automatic weapons. They were dressed in starched utilities with red scarves and their attitude in every sense of the word shrieked of esprit de corps. They were ready, willing and able to fight. The North Vietnamese didn’t have a chance, or so I thought. We brought them in, but we didn't bring them out because every single one of them was killed.
I knew then the enemy could not be taken with a cavalier attitude and that thought may have saved my life many times over in years to come. In 1967, now with Air America and flying Pilatus Porters out of Saigon, and on a day off, I went to one of the hospitals for a sinus condition and was waiting for a doctor. I could see the doctors and nurses working feverishly on wounded soldiers and felt rather silly being there with my minor complaint and left soon after that. There was one soldier there in the room with me for perhaps the same reason, and when he saw the wounded he slumped down after realizing they were from his outfit. He looked at me and said, "I should have been there!" I told him that he might have been killed and he said, "Yeah, but that's where I belonged."
I talked to Marines who were at Khe Sanh in 1968, and I hauled several wounded out of there in my Porter. The living conditions were deplorable, and you had a better chance of dying than living, but to the man, they could hardly wait to get back. I wondered then what drove people to act this way. Were they seeking death?
At the 2017 Air America reunion in Minneapolis, I had the pleasure of meeting Gabrielle Nugent. She was from Ireland and writing her Ph.D. thesis titled The War in Afghanistan: Success or Stalemate. Her father had written a book titled, It Was an Awful Sunday about a battle in France during WW1. There were two statements in the book that I found poignant. One was that the Germans thought the British could not win a battle because they had neither the material resources nor the will to fight. He went on to write, "They were right about the material resources but wrong about the will." The other statement may be more appropriate, and it involved explaining why any sensible person would come out of a trench and charge machine gun firing Germans with just the sound of a whistle? Because he wrote, “The fear of letting their fellow men, their battalion, and their country down was greater than their fear of death.” That statement may explain the Khe Sanh Marines and the soldier I met at the hospital.
My good friend Marc Yablonka, the author of Distant War and Tears Across the Mekong, laments the fact he was not able to get to Southeast Asia until the war ended. I try to tell him it would not have made him a better man, and it wouldn't, but my words fall on deaf ears. He wanted to be there and will always wish he had the opportunity.
And there is Terry Wofford. Bob Wofford was flying Caribous in Saigon when I was flying Porters. One of her picture prints of the CAT 880 adorns my office wall. Here is a description of what is available on their website (click the blue text to follow the link):
"The Terry and Robert Wofford Laotian Image Collection consists of more than 300 images taken in Laos between 1966 and 1972, during which time Ms. Wofford taught at the International School and Lao-American Association in Vientiane and married Robert (Bob) Wofford, an Air America pilot."
From her travels upcountry, the collection notably features images of the Hmong, Yao, and other ethnic groups in several villages in Sayaboury province, along with Buddhist temple scenes from Luang Prabang, the royal capital. Images from Vientiane, the administrative capital, include the morning market and International School, for example, plus the Mekong River floods of 1966 and 1971. The Air America sub-collection includes a variety of aircraft and aerial images, as well as the Wofford’s homes and dogs.
Born in England, Ms. Wofford graduated from college with a degree in design and commercial art. In1964, at age 21, she headed to the United States, first working in California as a commercial artist, then a textile designer creating prints and Jacquard designs for Royal Terry of California, followed by screen print designs for dresses and casual wear for Alfred Shaheen of Hawaii. Continuing her way around the world in1967, she traveled to Asia and worked as a freelance designer for Jim Thompson’s Thai Silk Company in Bangkok, Thailand. Intending to spend no more than a few days in Vientiane while renewing her Thai Visa, she fell in love with Laos and its people and accepted a teaching position at the International School.
Ms. Wofford has been a charter member and Artist Fellow with the American Society of Aviation Artists, a member of the Air Force Art Program and the NASA Art Program. It was during her time in Laos, inspired by the unique aviation environment there, that she first became interested in painting aviation subjects. Her paintings are in the Air Force Collection and the NASA Art Collection, and she has had work exhibited at the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum, the Galaxy Center in Florida, and the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) Museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, among other places. Please click here to see her site for additional information. Several of her SEAiT collection’s images are of her paintings of Hmong and Yao people as well as Air America aircraft.”
And then there is Galen Beery who was tragically killed with his wife in an auto accident in October 2016. His You Tube video HmongStory40 Documentary is featured on this page. You can see the Air America and CASI aircraft in the background.
Mr. Frederic (Fritz) Benson, IVS and USAID, was kind enough to send me two documents about the history of the relief and resettlement assistance program in Laos. His picture collection is extensive and within that collection are photos of Air America aircraft used by IVS and USAID personnel for this program.
And then there was Dr. Charles L. Weldon. His collection is at the University of Texas at Dallas. I will paraphrase. Dr. Charles L. Weldon attended medical school at Louisiana State University in New Orleans, graduating in 1951. While attending medical school, he met Patricia McCreedy, also a medical student at LSU. Shortly after they graduated, they got married and settled in a small town in rural Louisiana where they established a family practice.
After a while, the Weldons felt their work was not challenging them professionally, and they were inspired to seek employment in government service after reading a book by Margaret Mead titled Coming of Age in Samoa. They applied to American Samoa for medical positions and were hired. They moved to Samoa in 1961, and after two years decided to move on.
The Weldons applied to the Agency for International Development (USAID) in the State Department. Both were hired with Charles given the position of Chief of Public Health, USAID-Laos in 1963. They remained there until Dr. Weldon retired from USAID in 1977.
Transportation in Laos was primitive. Once outside of a major city, the primary mode of transportation was by boat, walking, or by air. With vast distances to cover, Weldon frequently flew to areas in Laos where he was needed, and the airline he used was Air America. He got to know the pilots who flew him to his various destinations. More than once Dr. Weldon was evacuated by Air America pilots just before Communist forces overran the area.
While in Laos, Dr. Weldon helped care for refugees fleeing from the various coups, dealt with cholera epidemics, helped train nurses and medical technicians, and built several hospitals and clinics. Also, he helped reduce infant death mortality and improve the Laotian health care system.
And then there was Edgar "Pop" Buell. He was a humanitarian aid worker in Laos. He worked as a farmer in Steuben County, Indiana until the age of 47, but following the death of his wife in 1958 he joined the International Voluntary Services, a precursor to the Peace Corps, which offered him a job as an agricultural adviser in Laos. Buell worked in Laos through the Laotian Civil War, organizing relief aid to refugees and isolated villages, before he was forced to flee Laos in the mid-1970s. His work is chronicled in several books.
I didn't get to Laos until 1969 flying the H-34 helicopter. LS-20 Sam Thong was a station where Air America pilots spent the night after flying various missions throughout the area. I met Mr. Buell but did not know him personally. He was a customer, and our relationship was professional in nature.
And then there is Father Lucien Bouchard, referred to as the walking priest. Father Bouchard often hitched rides on Air America helicopters going from village to village assisting those in need. He rode with me a few times, but I didn't get a chance to meet him personally until the 2016 Minneapolis Air America Reunion. We had lunch together along with Robert Noble, President of the Air America Association and Kathy Bruner the Treasurer, and he blessed the meal. I think I will always remember that event, but again, I didn't take a picture. It's all in my mind.
You can't talk about the history of Laos from 1959 to 1975 and not talk about Air America. But, then again, you can't forget USAID and IVS either. We were intertwined and inseparable. I'm not the person to write their story. It's here in pictures and documents, and the readers will need to sort through it and perhaps add their own experiences. But the people I mentioned are iconic giants who spent a large portion of their life to benefit someone else.
People say America lost the war in Southeast Asia. I don’t agree. The defining battle in Laos was at LS-20 Alternate, and Americans, the Hmong and the Thais sent the North Vietnamese packing back to Vietnam. We won that war. We just walked away and left our comrades in arms, the Hmong, and those who supported the war effort, dangling in an ill wind, and I think that was an error.
I want to say something about the unexploded ordnance in Laos. America came to Laos through USAID and IVS to build hospitals and assist with their agricultural needs. The Special Forces, trained to kill, came to Laos to train Laotian soldiers so they could defend themselves against those who invaded their country. Air America supported them logistically. America did not invade Laos. The thousands of refugees fleeing the northern provinces were running from the Communists. It was never America’s intention to take over Laos or change Lao life style. The 1962 Geneva Accords required all military units of foreign countries to leave Laos. America honored the Accords. North Vietnam didn’t. The North Vietnamese used the eastern portion of neutral Laos to transport military materials meant to kill Americans in South Vietnam with hopes no one would know they were doing it. America saw what was happening through photo reconnaissance. The North Vietnamese shot at the unarmed aircraft and shot some of the planes down. It was a direct violation of the Accords. The road traffic through Laos was intense, and it had to be stopped. Thus, the bombing operation and the unexploded ordnance. Who’s responsible, America or North Vietnam? America brought refugees from Laos to America where they could live in a free society, attend universities, and start and own businesses. What did the North Vietnamese do for Lao refugees? I’d like to think we saved some lives and perhaps we made life better for some of the Lao inhabitants.
If anyone tells me we came to Laos because we just wanted to help, he or she would be mistaken. It was after all an adventure. But, if you say it was only the quest for an adrenalin rush, well, you'd be wrong there too. It was more than that, and it’s unexplainable and intangible, but those who did it will never forget, and none have regrets.
With our friend Becky Sitthiwong Weldon from Thailand. Awaiting additional documents from Smithsonian - but it appears they received jar in 1970 and immediately shipped to quonset hut in Maryland where it sat for nearly 30 years on a wood pallet covered with plastic.
The following was submitted by Fritz Benson:
This is a link to University of Wisconsin's SEA website.
You will note that it contains several photo collections of people who were in Laos (including my collection). There is also a collection of 2,000+ documents entitled “Indochina War Refugees In Laos” which I compiled and scanned. In this collection, you will find links to:
Air facilities data (1967-1973)
USAID air support operations miscellaneous reports (1966-1971)
Refugee food airlifts (1964-1972)
Rice drop procedures (1964-1972)
There is also a book called "Filipinos in Laos" which makes frequent references to Air America.
Other links and information:
Hmong Story 40, 1975-2015: Interview with Galen Beery
Galen Beery served with Pop Buell and International Voluntary Services in Laos
The Larry Woodson Collection at the Vietnam Center and Archive at Texas Tech University
Larry Woodson worked with International Voluntary Services (IVS) in Laos from 1964-1971.
Air America -- "Anything, Anytime, Anywhere, Professionally."