Post #5 is about the relationships my father and I established during and after the Laotian war and what those relationships meant for the accounting of the missing live POW-MIAs. Among the relationships, the most important was my father’s relationship with Gen. Vang Pao, who was the leader of the anti-communist Hmong tribe funded by the CIA. In 1979, Vang Pao gave my father information regarding live POWs who had been moved to Nhom Marrott, Laos, from another location. This information ultimately led to the CIA’s 1981 incursion into Nhom Marrott in search of live POW-MIAs thought to be there six years after the end of the war, the “Nhom Marrott Raid”.
I also will briefly review my relationship-building with Col. Boonleurt Sacocie who was an anti-communist fighter under Van Pao and who after the fall of Laos co-formed the National Liberation Front for the Liberation of Laos (NLFLL – alternatively called the Lao United National Liberation Front, the Lao National United Front, and other names) to perpetuate guerrilla warfare against the victorious communist government.
I have tried to make this post as brief as possible. However, Laotian and Vietnamese history, the war, and the USG’s involvement in it are as complex as anything can be. I ask for your patience while reading the post.
In a future post, I will review the relationship-building my father and I built with certain US personnel in Laos during the war, most notably individuals in the CIA and its shadow agencies including the US Agency for International Development (USAID), Air America, and Continental Air Services/Bird & Sons. Other relationships included individuals in the International Red Cross, the International Control Commission, the US Army, and the State Department. I also built relationships with various Laotian entities during or after the war, particularly the Royal Laotian Air Force (during the war) and the Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Lao Ministry of Health (after the war).
As I have done with previous posts, please let me briefly set the stage by telling you about Vang Pao. However, first I will take the liberty of again strongly recommending Lynn O’Shea’s brilliant book, Abandoned in Place, which was released in 2014 after 25+ years of research and years of preparing the book for publication. Lynn is a nonpareil archival researcher and her book compellingly conveys how and why the live POWs and MIAs in Laos and Vietnam were abandoned. At my last count there are more than 25 books in print on my shelves on the POW-MIA issue on the Vietnam War, Korean War and WWII, and Abandoned in Place ranks at the top alongside Mark Sauter’s and John Zimmerlee’s 2013 American Trophies and Mark Sauter’s and Jim Sander’s 1993 The Men We Left Behind: Henry Kissinger, the Politics of Deceit and the Tragic Fate of POWs After the Vietnam War.
These books and hopefully my posts enable you to refute anyone who is uninformed enough to say that all the POWs came home and that none were abandoned.
General Vang Pao
People familiar with Vang Pao know he was a general in the Royal Lao Army and the leader of the Hmong tribe who so diligently fought the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese on behalf of the CIA. Vang Pao was the charismatic leader of the mountainous Hmong people and was the only Hmong to rise to the rank of general officer in the Royal Lao Army. He united most of the 18 or so Hmong tribes and was recruited by the CIA to fight the communist/Marxist Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese in the 1960s and 1970s. He did so with his “Secret Army,” also known as the “Hmong Army.” As a mountain tribe and historical adversary of the low-land Laotians, many of whom joined the Pathet Lao, the Hmong tribe was easy pickings for the CIA’s recruitment.
Please remember the 1954 Geneva Accords precluded the U.S. and North Vietnam from deploying military personnel in Laos. The North Vietnamese immediately ignored the Accords by first intervening into the Laotian civil war and then going on from there to win the Indochina war. In contrast, the U.S. complied with Accords by not sending troops into Laos until it did so in the late 1960s and into the 1970s in small, clandestine missions. Those incursions were kept secret until the late 1980s and early 1990s. Thus, when it came to the U.S. trying to stop the massive deployments of troops and material to South Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s through Laos – via the Ho Chi Minh Trail – it did so using Vang Pao’s CIA-backed Hmong army. The Royal Laotian Army was an ineffective force against the North Vietnamese, and the CIA relied on the Hmong Army and the U.S. Air Force and Naval aviation to stem the incessant North Vietnamese flood through Laos.
Vang Pao’s logistical and ideological support came directly from the CIA. Without that support, Vang Pao would not have been a viable fighting force. Vang Pao was an aggressive combatant against the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese (the “People’s Army of Vietnam”) and as a result he gained the respect of his US advisers and a steady supply of weapons from the US, duly backed by the USAF and US Naval aviation in addition to the CIA/Air America operations. It is estimated US aircraft dropped more bombs in Laos than were dropped in all of Europe during WWII. Lt. Morgan Jefferson Donahue was lost and declared MIA in Laos on December 13, 1968, on one of those missions over the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Still, the war was lost to the Pathet Lao and its mentor, North Vietnam, because of its virtually unlimited supply of weaponry and troops who fought the Hmong Army and the Royal Laotian Army. After the war, Vang Pao came to the US via Thailand as a refugee with an estimated 200,000-plus followers. Until his death in 2011 in Fresno, CA, he was leader of the Laotian community in the US which is present in many US cites. Many of his followers were so enraptured by him they felt he had supernatural powers. [I wish I had had a CEO boss like that in some of my many CFO incarnations.]
My father had developed a relationship with Vang Pao during the war and stepped it up after the fall of Laos in 1975. Communicating with Vang Pao became easier when he and many members of his Secret Army immigrated to the USA from refugee camps in Thailand. Vang Pao introduced numerous resistance people to my father and me. These men were dedicated to the overthrow of the communist/Marxist government of Laos. Included in among these was the National United Front for the Liberation of Laos (NUFLL), introduced to us by Vang Pao after the end of the war. One of the heads of the NUFLL was Col. Boonleurt Sacocie. I became point-man with Col. Sacocie while my father was point-man with Vang Pao.
Inevitably, my father and I wound up contributing funding to the resistance movements. That was unavoidable. The funds were intended for them to acquire weapons and other supplies in the Thai black market for the Lao resistance entities under Vang Pao, Boonleurt Sacocie and others. Indeed, my father and I once viewed some of the equipment scheduled for shipment to the resistance in Laos via Thailand.
Boonleurt Sacocie periodically supplied me with updates on the extensive efforts his teams were putting into the POW searches in the Laotian countryside. However, none of the reports gave me what I needed: information on live POW-MIAs. Over time, I came to believe I was just a money pot for the NUFLL, and eventually I terminated his funding. However, the results for my father were substantially different. This was the consequence of his having built a compelling relationship with Vang Pao.
The Nhom Marrott POW Sighting
In 1979 my father received a letter from Vang Pao citing the location in Laos to where US POWs recently had been moved. The new site was a newly constructed prison at Pha Louang, near Ban Kouanphô, containing 18 POWs. Pha Louang came to be known as Nhom Marrott because of its proximity to the town of Naden in the Bank Fai Riven watershed in a remote area of the Nhom Marrott district of Khammouane Province. The district and, indeed, this region of Laos had been one of the hotbeds of hundreds of sightings of American POW-MIAs for years.
The letter from Vang Pao to Budd Donahue originated with Koun Ma Phimmachak, himself a Lao refugee and an officer in Vang Pao’s Hmong Army. Here is the key part of that letter as it was written:
“On the 7-18-79 I have received an information from Mr. Koun Ma Phimmachak who was the leader of Laos resistance in region 3 in Thailand [Region 3 was a refugee camp area in Thailand that he was in] on 3-6 to 10-79. There was an airplane (Arterop 2) which came from Vieng Say Samneua [often cited as Vieng Xai and Sam Neua] and land Khamkeut. Inside the plane, it carried 18 American pilot and 25 Lao former political after that they put he in prison in the cave around Nhom Marat, between Khamkeut and Thakket. The reason why the Vietnam move them from Vieng Say Samneua to Khamkeut because they afraid that the Chinese trip might free the prisoner.”
Sam Neua was the Pathet Lao headquarters during the war and Vieng Xay was the nearby cave complex which was the Pathet Lao’s operational headquarters. Also, China attacked Vietnam earlier in the year, and Laos’ fear about a Chinese incursion into Laos as cited in the letter was valid (Laos’ northern border includes China).
Vang Pao sent the letter to my father rather than to the USG. At that time, many POW-MIA families and many refugees (most of whom were in Thai refugee camps) did not trust the USG on the Indochina POW-MIA issue. The families had been pervasively lied to by the USG since 1973 and most refugees felt their immigration requests to the USA would be discriminated against if they divulged any POW-MIA information (which was true).
Despite the USG’s policy that all POW-MIAs were home, the massive amounts of information from multiple sources regarding live POW-MIAs in Vietnam and Laos kept the DIA and CIA busy. However, in conformity with the policy the DIA and CIA found time to debunk virtually every live POW-MIA sighting except Vang Pao’s. [I know from experience that the DIA and CIA made it impossible for any sightings to be confirmed, which made them easy to refute.] It was not until Lt. Gen. Eugene Tighe was appointed head of the DIA that the POW-MIA intelligence was given its first professional scrub. Gen. Tighe appointed a new deputy, Admiral Jerry Tuttle, who was not knowledgeable about of the POW-MIA issue but who became a very fast learner under Gen. Tighe. Both became committed to an honest resolution of the live POW-MIA. However, they were “experts without portfolio” – while they were reviewing literally tens of thousands of documents on the issue and trying to get to the bottom of them, they were stymied by their superior DIA officers who were committed to the “they all came home” policy. For example, when Gen. Tighe was asked by the Chief Counsel of the Senate Select Committee on POW-MIA Affairs in 1992 regarding his superior officer’s (Admiral Noel Gaylor) reaction to his concern about the growing evidence regarding live POW-MIAs in 1979, Gen. Tighe replied to the Chief Counsel as follows:
“Because I had dealt with Henry Kissinger down through the years over a very long period of time, and I’m not trying to be insulting or anything else, but he was extraordinarily sensitive to the mission he’d been given, to get that war brought to a close. There wasn’t any doubt about it. And I just don’t think he cottoned with any little military guy out in the Pacific about giving him a hard time. I think he thought we were fortunate to get what we got. In other words, these are personal opinions that I really shouldn’t register, but I suspect that he was so thankful to be able to give the President what he asked for that he didn’t want to have anybody giving him a hard time on the issue.”
My father shared Vang Pao’s letter with George Brooks, the League’s Chairman of the Refugee Information Committee. My father thought George was trustworthy and would maintain strict confidentially. My father and I had much respect for George up to that time because of his leadership in the League and his dedicated efforts to bring home the live POW-MIAs. Based on the letter, my father and I intended to create a repatriation effort and rescue the POWs as I had tried in 1975.
Sadly, my father and I were unaware that Brooks increasingly had fallen under the influence of Ann Mills Griffiths, the League’s Executive Director, and that he had given the letter to Ann. In turn, Ann gave the letter to the DIA. While ostensibly she was the League’s chief advocate for the live POW-MIAs, she had become a proxy for the USG on the live POW-MIA issue, guaranteeing no live POW-MIAs. This was tragic because earlier in the issue Ann had been a compelling advocate for the live POW-MIAs, and her efforts were worthy of admiration and respect. However, subsequently in a brilliant maneuver engineered by the Defense Department, she and the League were thoroughly seduced into the anti-live POW-MIA policy and the live POW-MIA issue was more deeply buried in the secret bowels of the DIA and CIA. To accomplish this, Ann was given “Secret” status by the Defense Department, given participation in DIA/DOD meetings, given attendance in trips to Laos for useless DOD for meetings with the Lao government, and more. Regarding the multiple trips for meetings with the Lao government, the Lao government was not about to tell the DOD contingents, “Yeah, we’ve got lots of live POWs. Let us tell you about them.” The same applies regarding the Vietnamese government…
Ann was obligated to provide any and all POW-MIA information she received from whatever source to the DIA including the Vang Pao letter. Similarly, she could not report any government documents to the League’s members and others without the government’s approval. She was enraptured by the status of her authority and her seat at the DOD table and gleefully pursued it. She effectively became the anti-live POW-MIA voice for the League in support of DIA/DOD policy. She was unstoppable as that voice, which was why I stepped down from the League’s Board of Directors and why the League became neutered about the live POW-MIA issue and instead entirely focused (and continues to do so) on returns of servicemen’s remains rather than the live POW-MIAs.
Fortunately, the Vang Pao letter became highly visible within the DIA and CIA, with thanks largely for General Tighe and Admiral Tuttle and their teams. Indeed, Tuttle authorized the formation of the PW/MIA Interagency Group (IAG) in late 1979 to investigate the issue. The IAG gained stature and credibility in the intelligence community as a result of its extensive work. The IAG’s investigations went far beyond the Vang Pao letter and onto thousands of other refugee POW-MIA sightings since 1975, including new CIA field reports about POW-MIA sightings, National Security Agency reports (NSA – sometimes called “No Such Agency”), reports from Thai intelligence and special operations, and reports from numerous other sources. The CIA finally initiated satellite surveillance on Nhom Marrott. Also, in October 1979 U.S. officials interviewed Koun Ma Phimmachak, the source of the Nhom Marrott intelligence, in a refugee camp in Thailand. Phimmachak not only repeated his earlier information he sent Vang Pao but also added more details to it.
In 1980, the Army Chief of Staff formed the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment (SFOD) to plan for a possible rescue mission of live POW-MIAs in Nhom Marrott, including reconnaissance and surveillance teams. Nhom Marrott had worked its way up the Joint Chiefs of Staff. More sighting information continued to roll-in, and the preparation for an incursion was diligent. About this time, though, it was determined that the CIA was withholding and not issuing some reports, including from sources considered “generally reliable sources.” Also, it became clear the CIA already had begun to conduct its own human source intelligence operations in the Nhom Marrott area. Indeed, the CIA deemed the Vang Pao letter, all other sources of information that the IAG had systematically compiled, and the CIA satellite information so viable that it assembled its own clandestine team to go to the Nhom Marrott site from Thailand and (1) affirm whether there were in fact any POWs there, and (2) get photographic and secure other intelligence on the site and the POWs if there.
Thus, there were two arms of the USG both chasing the live POW-MIA issue. However, a dispute arose between the DIA and the CIA as to who would be in charge of the recon into Nhom Marrott. The DOD/JSOC had diligently prepared for the raid – extensively trained, expertly equipped, and experienced in country operations. The CIA’s team, in contrast, was formed in Thailand, did not have a single American on it, and was comprised solely of Thai and Lao nationals who had no recon experience, no clandestine training and inadequate equipment. They were a group of inexperienced Lao utterly the wrong choice for the mission. The team’s leader, Houm Pheng Insisiengmay, was a confidant of the CIA and was someone the CIA had great faith in. As bureaucracy and the CIA’s original ownership of Laos during the war would have it, JSOC was told to step down. Needless to say the JSOC team, which was ready to launch, was crushed by the decision.
Although the recon mission now was in CIA control, JSOC continued to prepare for the rescue (quoted from Abandoned in Place):
“[JSOC] Mission Planners selected a training site in Tinian in the Marianas Inlands. To explain the movement of men and equipment, they needed a cover story. Under the codename “Vagabond Warrior,” mission planners began an anti-terrorism exercise to cover activities in the Marianas. On Tinian, they would build a full-scale model of the Nhom Marrott camp to practice their assault on the camp. Also underway were plans by the Pacific Command (PACOM) to process an unknown number of POWs en route and return them to the United States.”
The CIA operations dragged on and on and the recon mission was not launched until 1982! By this time, all components of the mission were completely compromised security-wise, and the team was a dismal failure; again, see Abandoned in Place. All the key documents about the mission remain classified to this day. Key documents were not even shared with the DIA. The CIA refused the JSOC’s request for access to the recon team and refused to provide detailed reports of the recon team’s efforts. At the end of the day, the CIA’s team generated the solution the CIA wanted: there were no sightings of American POWs in Nhom Marrott. The JSOC, Gen. Tighe, Adm. Tuttle and many of their subordinates knew the truth would have likely produced a different outcome had the JSOC conducted the recon.
In contrast, can you imagine if a SEAL team had be sent in instead of the Laotian nationals?
Live POW-MIA advocacy within the DIA and CIA subsequently succumbed to the anti-POW-MIA contingents, especially following Gen. Tighe’s retirement in 1981 and Admiral Tuttle’s reassignment just before the Nhom Marrott mission. A decade later, the live POW-MIA issue was seriously further encumbered by the formation of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs in 1992. The Committee itself was a front for the normalization of relations between Vietnam and the USA (more about that in a future post). Today, despite the evidence, there is not a single live POW-MIA advocate in the DIA and the CIA. However, there is growing public awareness of the truth of the issue including yours, dear reader of my Blog. Immutably the truth will be known by tens of millions of people and the live POW-MIA issue will be honorably resolved.
I was visiting my mother and father in Cocoa Beach, Florida, when one evening the doorbell rang. I went to the door and much to my surprise two individuals introduced themselves as FBI agents, with identity and they asked if Vincent Donahue was home. I said, “He is. I will get him.” My father came to the door, introduced himself as retired USAF Col. Vincent Donahue, and asked, “How can I help you?” The senior of the two FBI agents introduced himself, and my father invited them in. Following some minimal formalities, the senior agent said, “Mr. Donahue, the US government is aware you are providing funding to an entity that supports the overthrow of a government of a foreign country recognized by the United States. That is against the law. If you do not cease and desist immediately you will be jailed.” The two agents then dismissed themselves, got in their car, and left.
The threat of being jailed was an extraordinary slap in my father’s face. He had served over 29 years in the USAF (Army Air Corps in WWII) and currently was head of global security for the USAF Eastern Missile Test Range headquartered at Cape Kennedy Air Force Station, the military’s equivalent of Cape Kennedy. He was an employee of Pan America World Services there. Pan American World Services was the prime contractor for the USG on non-manned launches while manned launches were the domain of NASA. All Vincent J. “Budd” Donahue was doing – as I was doing – was trying to find Lt. Morgan Jefferson Donahue, whose government had steadfastly abandoned him and the other POW-MIAs. It also was yet another affirmation that the USG was watching the Donahues and was dedicated to our mission’s failure.
Separately, here is a link to an article on Vang Pao that presents both sides of him – the fearless leader of the Hmong on one hand and the opium grower to the world using Air America for distribution on the other. Knowing something about the subject, I believe the CIA continuing to keep the documents on Laos secret is affirmation of its involvement in the opium trade.
In the mid-2000s, Vang Pao was arrested for plotting to overthrow Laos’s communist regime. Sound familiar? The charges were later dropped. I was advised this precluded the rest of his sons and daughters (estimated at 30+ of them in total) from entering the various US military academies. I do not know how many did before the arrest.
A thought to ponder: if the truth about the POW-MIAs having been left behind alive in Southeast Asia had been told rather than lied about by the USG from the get-go, then my blog and all the books – and all the families’ and friends’ suffering to this day – would not have happened and a different POW/MIA outcome would have happened. The USG took the easy way out just after Operation Homecoming: declare all the POWs/MIAs were home. This was rather than the difficult route: admit that Laos and Vietnam have POWs and negotiate hard until we get them. If only we had leaders with such courage…