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Vang's War

How the fighting in Southeast Asia transformed a curious young man into a fiercely dedicated pilot.

In May 1975, after South Vietnam and Cambodia fell, it was Laos’ turn. An evacuation of Long Tieng began, with thousands of tribespeople gathering on the runway in hopes of a ride to Thailand—the last pro-Western country in Southeast Asia. An Air America C-130 helped in the evacuation, and Vang Bee made five round trips in the six-seat Beech Baron; on one of them, Vang Pao’s daughter gave birth in the cabin as the flight crossed the Mekong River. All the tribal pilots who survived to the end of the war made it to Thailand, and most of them subsequently immigrated to the United States.

The Americans who had known the Hmong pilots believed that the T-28 program had succeeded, even though the covert war as a whole had not. The Hmong, they say, would have done even better if they had had more education to help them coordinate with U.S. pilots and better understand instrument navigation. But they still performed far beyond expectations. Their dedication was, according to former Raven Karl Polifka, “unsurpassed by any combat pilot anywhere.” He adds, “They seemed to have no fear, although I do think they had a vision of early mortality.” Another Raven, Darrel Cavanaugh, says, “In close, they were damned accurate. They liked to get down there and mix it up with the bad guys.” Bill Lair, long retired from the CIA, remembers, “I never saw any better bombing runs in my life.” He still believes that the methods used to train the Hmong to fly would work anywhere in the world. Tribal people, says Lair, “can do amazing things, if they are motivated and given the chance.”

Vang Bee, now living in North Carolina, is more ambivalent. He wanted to win the war and would have liked to see the U.S. extend its support. He also lost many of his best friends and believes he is lucky to have survived the war without any serious wounds. By his own reckoning, he flew about 1,000 combat missions and made another 400-odd flights in the unarmed Beech Baron. He didn’t keep a flight log, but all the available evidence suggests that his numbers are in the ballpark. Two other Hmong pilots who survived the war and at least two Lao pilots make equally plausible claims of having flown more than 1,000 combat missions in T-28s.

The surviving dozen-plus tribal pilots are scattered throughout the United States. None still fly, though they have inspired a few Hmong of the younger generation to take up aviation. Hmong communities such as those in Minnesota, California, and Wisconsin share information through a Web site (www.hmongnet.org), and a foundation named for Vang Pao has been established.

Vang Bee now calls himself Bee Vang, following the Western tradition of putting clan name last and given name first. One of his sons is a pre-med college student, and another plans to become a computer engineer. Bee Vang has worked as a factory machine operator. He drives the family minivan, and he has occasionally flown as an airline passenger. That’s as close as he gets to the aircraft that fascinated him as a young man in Laos—the machines that changed his life and, for better and worse, the fate of his people.

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