Who was this man that could deliver access to a Thai air base at the simple request of an active foreign officer he never met?
In the early days of America’s war in Vietnam, the Johnson Administration came to the realization they could not disconnect their fight against North Vietnam from the expansion of communist movements in the rest of the region. Their concerns in this regard were shared by long time ally Thailand which was very much under threat from the influence of the communist Pathet Lao and the Khmer Rouge in neighboring Laos and Cambodia as well as from the Communist Party of Thailand which was gaining popularity in that country’s rural north. The resultant accord featured the initiation of a secret war on a second front in Southeast Asia, one fought primarily by commandos and air power. This war, the secret war, was led by the CIA and supported by Thailand which offered secure bases, troops, intelligence, and access to the Hmong, a stateless nation that resides in the remote hilly frontier between Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
From bases in Laos and northeast Thailand, a combination of Thai, US, and Hmong special operations forces conducted raids against North Vietnamese Army columns on the Ho Chi Minh trail or against Pathet Lao and Khmer Rouge units fighting nationalist governments that were holdovers from the French colonial period. The largest of these bases was in Udorn Thani, principal city of the culturally distinct Isan region of northeast Thailand. With fire support from US Air Force fighter-bombers and transportation from the CIA-owned airline, Air America, commandos based in Udorn Thani waged an increasingly lonely battle against overwhelming forces in hostile territory. It was to Udorn Thani that my father was transferred following the handover of the Da Nang military complex to South Vietnamese control in 1970. Now, 37 years later, I had the opportunity to give him a rather unique Christmas present, a guided tour back to his war.
Commandos, Cranberries, and Cigarettes
In late 2007 I had been living in Malaysia for a year though I had worked in the region since mid-2003. Most of my work in Southeast Asia was in support of counter-narcotics programs managed by the Joint Interagency Task Force-West (JIATF-W) in Honolulu. Staffed and funded by numerous federal law enforcement, intelligence, and military organizations that have a stake in the War on Drugs, JIATF-W has deep connections with counterparts in Asia and I had good connections with JIATF-W. The officer that managed their programs in Malaysia and Thailand was a friend of mine named “Kevin”. I would see Kevin from time to time as he visited ongoing missions in Malaysia, usually at the Hulu Kinta police training center in Ipoh or at the Marine Police base in Georgetown, Penang. At these locations, SEAL and Special Forces teams work with Malaysian counterparts to improve their techniques in close-quarters marksmanship, first aid, and planning among other things. Kevin would put me on the guest list for opening and closing ceremonies that I would occasionally attend with a friend retired from the Royal Malaysian Police (RMP) Special Branch. My Malaysian friend was a founding member of both RMP special forces units and thus brought me contacts and credibility with the Malaysian police.
On one of these occasions, Kevin and I were attending a ribbon cutting ceremony on a JIATF-W funded range complex in Hulu Kinta. I told him about my plan to tour Udorn Thani and he introduced me to “Evan”, a retired Thai Special Forces colonel Kevin thought would be helpful. The introduction was a fruitful one. With my credentials established, Evan needed only one phone call to arrange a tour of Udorn Thani Airbase. I was excited but slightly on edge because Udorn Thani Airbase remains the active home of Wing 23 of the Royal Thai Air Force and is in fact a critical node in the defenses of northeastern Thailand. Getting access to it spoke volumes about the good relationship between our countries but also about Evan himself. Who was this man that could deliver access to such a facility at the simple request of an active foreign officer he never met? More importantly, what would it cost me? Evan had opened a normally tightly-guarded door and asked only for a carton of American cigarettes and some dried cranberries sold in American grocery stores. Had he attempted to profit from the deal I would have assumed corruption but the seemingly benign request was actually more ominous because it virtually guaranteed Evan was an active intelligence officer.
No stranger to intelligence officers and their methods, I was confident I could manage the situation so I made the deal. Travelling from Siem Reap in Cambodia just after Christmas, my father and I flew to Udorn Thani and were picked up at our hotel the next morning. Driving through the town in the twilight, I could see the infrastructure in Udorn Thani was the best in the region thanks to the heavy US presence there during the war. The wide streets laid out in a grid featured (mostly) unobstructed sidewalks and wiring on telephone poles that looked more eastern Illinois than Isan. As we drove through a traffic circle, our driver, a man of about 25 years, pointed with tears in his eyes at the ubiquitous photo shrine to the Thai King and said (in English): “I love my king.” Despite countless trips to the Kingdom, I was dumbfounded at his emotion; a poignant reminder that the monarchy remains the strongest unifying aspect in Thai life with the possible exception of Buddhism. It was also an indicator that my driver had come a long distance to pick us up that morning. The people of Isan were Laotian until they were forced to become Thai by an 1893 agreement with France. Consequently, the Thai royals have never had an emotional hold on Isan they way they clearly had on my driver.
War at a Distance
During the war, Udorn Thani Airbase was divided in two with the larger American side also split between the US Air Force, which flew bombing, search and rescue, and some special operations aviation missions into Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam; and Air America, whose Taiwanese and American pilots used a smaller but secluded ramp to support paramilitary operations in Cambodia and Laos. Meanwhile, a specialized component of Air America, the “Ravens”, flew important fire support or “covey” missions over special operations teams in the area. Udorn was a busy place indeed. It was from here that the failed Son Tay prison rescue mission was launched in November 1970. The daring and complicated raid aimed to rescue dozens of American prisoners of war but found they had been relocated, leading some to believe the raid had been compromised. We were on hallowed ground of American special operations history.
My father had worked on the USAF side of the base, arming aircraft for their missions and disarming them when necessary upon their return. Pilots rarely came back with unexpended ordnance. Doing so created logistical challenges for ground crews and sometimes created fuel emergencies as the additional drag reduced aircraft ranges; a problem when operating at the maximum extent of their performance envelope. Occasionally a bomb would fail to properly separate from the aircraft, creating a very dangerous potential for the bomb to shake loose upon landing and detonate next to the aircraft or more likely, to skid armed and damaged to the end of the runway. Events like this disrupted operations until technicians could find and render the munition safe. Rather than risk bringing home a “hung bomb”, pilots would attempt to shake it loose in flight over remote areas of countryside leading to unfortunate (and untrue) accusations the USAF intentionally bombed random Laotian villages.
Beauty Queens and Colonels
My father and I were met at the main gate of the air base by two Thai Air Force colonels and the winner of the local beauty pageant. In typical Thai style, the English-speaking beauty showered us with flowers and hospitality and a degree of personal openness that astonishes most westerners. She was absolutely lovely company and her presence allowed us to relax. Together, our hosts welcomed my father as a distinguished visitor and were very eager to learn as much as they could about his time at the base. What became apparent over the course of the day was that the Thais had lost years of their own history amid heavy secrecy during what they called the “American period”. For them, my father represented a way to recover a small part of that history and they took advantage of the opportunity. They introduced us to each structure on the base, gave us a brief history of its uses going back as far as they could remember, and asked if my father had any specific memories to share. His response was always the same: “It looks familiar but I have no real recollection.”
As the day wore on, his refrain became disheartening and our collective excitement turned to frustration. We had seen everything there was to see on the base including some sensitive areas. We had inspected the covered stalls used by the Ravens, surveyed the entire airfield from both the old and new control towers, visited the munitions storage bunkers on the flightline, and even picked meticulously through the active ammunition storage facility, the modern equivalent of where my father had once worked. He did not remember any of it. Finally we arrived at the last stop on our tour, the missile shop. Standing there surrounded by air to air munitions in varying states of repair, I noticed an aerial photo of the base hanging on the wall. On the photo it was possible to make out the outlines of two areas surrounded by revetments common at ammunition storage facilities. One was the bomb dump we had just visited but the other was a place we had not been. I pointed this out to our host. He said it was not part of the base but agreed to take us there anyway so we piled back into the car and left the air base through a back gate. We made an immediate left into a forested area, parked, and walked through a gap in what was clearly an old revetment. Pushing aside some vines hanging from immense trees, we emerged at the front door of my father’s old workshop.
A reinforced concrete structure, the walls had weathered the test of time though the roof had long since succumbed to the onslaught of Thai vegetation. Doors and windows were rotted into dust but the entire building was a treasure of history because on its walls were hand painted schematics of air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles carefully sketched decades earlier by a very talented airman. The one room with a remaining ceiling featured a mural of an American fighter jet shooting down a MIG. Despite evidence of occupation by squatters, the place remained unmistakably American, with remnants of a barbecue area, sidewalks, and decorative flourishes common in USAF construction. For half an hour my father told stories about his experiences there as the dumbfounded Thais pondered why they never knew the place existed.
Months later, laden with cigarettes and cranberries, I sat on a stool waiting for Evan to arrive in the deserted Tiger Bar on Soi Ban La in Patong Beach, Phuket. It was too early for the seedy business that would bring the place to life a few hours later and in the eerie silence I pondered the amazing resilience of Patong where just a few years earlier, the Boxing Day tsunami had wiped out air-breathing life on this very street. The killer wave though tragic, had a revitalizing effect on Patong Beach in general. All the shops and residences and hotels had been rebuilt and upgraded but somehow Soi Ban La remained the same. The epicenter of the filthiest nightlife in Phuket, the Tiger Bar and every establishment on the Soi had been rebuilt exactly as they looked before the terrible wave failed utterly to cleanse them of their sins.
My thoughts were interrupted by Evan who arrived with an entourage of Thai Marines. The young soldiers regarded me with an odd reverence that made me wonder what Evan had told them about me. To me, Evan was far more interesting. His Oakley sunglasses, short cargo pants, and Teva sandals suggested a contrived attempt to look like an American Special Forces guy-at-leisure. His heavily accented English might have ruined the effect but Evan possessed that intangible aura SF guys everywhere just seem to have and which we can all detect. He told me Wing 23 wanted to turn my father’s shop into a museum and was seeking donations from Americans that served there. Though my father has lost touch with his colleagues from that time I hope others will come through so the Thais can restore the place.
Incidentally, Evan still keeps in touch with me. He gives me fascinating updates on the political situation in Thailand, often communicated in conspiratorial tones. I sometimes wonder if he’s checking other sources to determine my connections. Recently he offered to sell me some military helicopters. He often comments on my very public presence on social media and constantly keeps me on a string with small requests for memorabilia from the different organizations I work with. I don’t mind however. In this game, the string gets pulled both ways. He’s a good intelligence officer indeed.
Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC