Working for the CIA: Sleeping in The Dark Atop a Bulldozed Hmong Cemetery
By Gary Yia Lee
It was 1968. I was on vacation from my high school studies in Australia. I had left Laos 3 years earlier to study there on a government scholarship. My mother and brothers had moved to Long Cheng, but my older sister was still living in Pha Khao with her husband and children. I went to spend a few days with them during my first week back in Laos.
I had known a young Hmong girl named Su (Xws). She was the best looking girl in Pha Khao then, and I was very proud that she did not reject my romance with her. She was keeping a market stand at the eastern end of the little Pha Khao air strip while her parents spent their days farming far from the village. I would ask my brother-in-law, Vue Thao, to walk with me from his house to Su’s market stand so I could spend time with her. I thought there was no one else I would fall in love with and marry, except her. But that is another story.
On the southern side of the air strip, not far from the stands where a few Hmong women and Su
were selling their goods, was the interrogation centre run by the CIA and some Hmong soldiers under General Vang Pao. The head of the Hmong group was Major Pa Cher Yang who was related to me on my mother’s side.
From the outside, it was difficult to know who these CIA operatives were. They would come early by light aircraft from the Lao capital, Vientiane, and then disappear into the fenced compound and re-emerge in the late afternoon to go back to Vientiane. Sometimes, the odd helicopter or light plane would land during the day to deliver some human cargo in the form body bags or hand-cuffed prisoners of war (POWs) from the front line of the Lao civil war. This air traffic came and went so much in this way that it became a normal part of life so no one took much notice, except those waiting to hitch a ride somewhere.
On my third day there, a tall bald American officer, accompanied by shorter scruffy one, came to the market stands where I was chatting with Su. The scruffy guy talked with a loud voice. He did not seem to have time to shave his growing beard, or to comb his hair. He was in his late thirties or early forties. The two started to talk in English to one of the Hmong girls who could not understand a word of what they were saying. I could not help but go over and try to translate for her. It turned out that they wanted to buy cigarettes and were asking for the price. When they realised that I spoke English, we started talking and introduced each other. Normally, these CIA people had code names and stayed away from the local Hmong, but these two seemed to be very friendly and told me their given name. The tall one was called Joe and the shorter scruffy one John. I told them I was visiting Pha Khao and on vacation from Australia.
After a few minutes of conversation, John was asking me how long I would be in Pha Khao.
“A few weeks,” I said.
“Are you interested in working for us as a translator? You English is perfect, and you can also speak Hmong and write Lao. Right?”
“Well, I could. It would be great experience for me,” I said.
I had heard and read much about the CIA’s involvement in the so-called secret war in Laos, especially with Hmong, so I was curious about what went on inside this secretive interrogation centre. Late that afternoon, John borrowed someone’s motorcycle and took me back to my sister’s house where he went in to say hello, maybe to check on me. Before going back to the centre, he told me that I could start work the next day – just like that.
We decided that I should work for two months for John, as my annual school holiday was only for three months. He said I should take my clothes with me and stay at the centre. I would be eating with him and the soldiers there. I later learned that Jo was stationed elsewhere and was only visiting the day I met him and John. The other CIA operative working at the centre was code-named “Zorro”, and was not so approachable. Although he would have the odd conversation with me, he never told me his real name and even John called him Zorro.
Every day, we interrogated North Vietnamese soldiers that were captured from the front. Enemy combatants, they were taken to the centre and kept there until their interrogation was completed, then they disappeared. I was told that they were sent on to Vientiane to be exchanged for POWs from the Royal Lao government side, but I never saw them being put back on a plane. At the centre, they were kept in underground bunkers somewhere behind the two buildings we were using. During the interrogation, they were left to crouch on the floor of the interview room, handcuffed, while the CIA operative or his Hmong assistant, Thai counterpart and I sat behind a desk looking down on them. It was good psychological warfare to humiliate them into telling the truth, and they always seemed eager to talk. We questioned them things like: their name and military ID number, their units, the location of their training, the time they arrived in Laos, what battles were they in, and how they came to be captured. It was a slow process involving three-way interpreting: English to Hmong, Hmong to Vietnamese, and back. After each interrogation, lasting a few sessions over 3-4 days, we would write reports on each of the POWs. If the original report was drafted in Lao, I would translate it into English for John who would then send it on somewhere along the chain.
Some days, we might not have any POW to interview, so we did other paper work inside the centre, or just spent time doing nothing. While Zorro went home every day to Vientiane, John only went on weekends. He told me that he had a wife and her name was Jane. She stayed in Vientiane. He said he had told her about me, and she would like to meet me. He was very open. He even gave me his address in America, and we wrote to each other for a few years.
John often asked me questions about the Hmong, such as the meaning of their names, whether there many Hmong studying in Vientiane or abroad, or what I would like to study after high school. I would explain to him as best as I could. He seemed to be very interested in the impact of the wart on the future of the country. After he told me that he only had five months left in Pha Khao, I asked him where he would be posted next, and he replied that he was going to work next in Savannakhet in southern Laos. He must have had a lot of trust in me to reveal his official movement so readily. He would also take time off to visit the Pha Khao village next door when we were not too busy, or we would take walks to the market stands to buy snacks and soft drinks which John shared with me and the village children. He also told me many things about life in Massachusetts, USA, where he came from. Over time, we developed a great bond between us through these casual conversations, although I was only half his age.
One day, John brought me a carbine and said I should keep it in my room for protection. I told him I did not need a gun since there were guards around the centre 24 hours a day.
He just said:
“Well, keep it in case you need it.”
After he gave me the gun, John also told me many things over the next few weeks when we were working together, including the fact that the centre was built right on top of a Hmong cemetery. They did not dig up any of the bodies but simply bulldozed them under, filled dirt on top, then built the two L-shape buildings on the little hill. The inside of the L was used as a court yard to assemble the dozen or so Hmong soldiers who guarded the compound each morning to salute the Royal Lao government flag. One day, I saw Mr Shong Lue Yang, the Mother of Writing, sunning in this court yard. I was told that he was kept at the centre as a POW, but I did not know enough about him at the time so I did not approach him to have a conversation. I wish I had, as I now know how important he was to many Hmong.
Over lunch one afternoon, I asked one of the Hmong soldiers, Lyfong who had gone to live in France after 1975, if it was true about what John said. Lyfong confirmed that the ground on which the centre stood, used to be a cemetery. They had to bulldoze it to make way for the interrogation centre because it was the highest point on the side of the air strip. I was also told by one of my relatives in the village that I should not venture down to the wooded valley just below the centre. I asked him why and he said he had been there and the sight was not pretty: there were many skeletons there, some tied to trees, others lying on the ground. He did not know who were these dead people or how they died, but I could guess that they were prisoners. After hearing all these ghastly stories, I was glad that John gave me the carbine, although he did not show me how to use it.
After one gruelling day, I was sleeping inside the mosquito net in my room. It was hot and I did not close the window. It was around mid-night when I heard the window next to the door making its creaky noise as if someone was opening and closing it, then opening and closing it again and again. I grabbed my gun and went to investigate. There was noting there. It was rather dark, but it was all silent and clear along the outside veranda leading to the next building which the soldiers used as their quarters. There was no wind that could have caused the window to squeak. As I thought about the old cemetery under the centre and the skeletons in the valley below, my hair stood on end. My hands were shaking and my teeth were chattering as I closed the window and door tight before going back to bed. Needless to say, I tossed and turned, holding on to my gun for comfort all night long.
A few nights later, I went to bed early but woke up about eleven. I was musing over what had happened during the last few days and suddenly thought about the squeaky window. There had been a moon earlier, but now the whole little hill on which the centre stood was covered in total darkness. All was quiet, except for the odd crickets singing away the creepy hours. Not a single dog in the neighbouring Hmong village made a sound. It seemed that even the dead under the houses were resting. I was thinking about the creaky timber window and seemed to hear the sound of footsteps outside on the porch. I also felt the cold from outside. I had forgotten to cover myself with my blanket, so I put out my right hand to get it. As I did so, I slowly opened my eyes and looked into the darkness.
Right outside the window which was left partly opened to let the breeze in, I saw a figure draped in white walk past, then came back to stare right at me. It was dark and I could not see its covered face clearly. I started to shake with fright but had the presence of mind to grab my gun and tried to fire from inside my mosquito net. I pulled and pulled, but the trigger would not yield. I grappled with the carbine in a frenzy as the figure in white continued to stand outside the window. Fighting for breath, I went limp as I fell back on the bed, still clutching the gun and trying desperately to open fire although the gun was now pointing at the ceiling instead of at the window. I made a desperate effort to glance at the window again in case my eyes had played tricks on me earlier. The figure was still peering at me, then it walked ever so slowly away towards the courtyard, but I was too frightened to get up and follow it. For the first time in many years, I remembered to call on my ancestors for help. Being a poor student, I could not afford an ox, but promised to offer them a small pig if they would help me. I became calmer and eventually fell asleep, thanking my good ancestors for their protection, even though I only vaguely knew some of them.
As we were sitting down for breakfast the next day, John was beaming with a big smile on his scruffy face. Looking straight at me, he asked:
“How are we today?”
There was some kind of unusual slant to his loud voice, as if he was mocking me.
“What do you mean? With that broad smile, is there something going on?”, I asked back.
John did not answer and started laughing as he left the breakfast table to go to the veranda outside. I followed him. Finally, he said:
“You should have seen your face last night! It was so funny. I was laughing all night long,” he said, sounding proud like he had just unravelled some enigma.
“What happened last night that was so funny?”
“What were you doing pointing the gun at the ceiling?”, he asked in between fits of laughter, his eyes filled with tears of mischief.
“Did you play a joke on me? Do you know that you scared me to death and I nearly had a heart attack?”
John just continued laughing and laughing. After a while I saw how funny he looked just laughing his head off there on the veranda with the soldiers all looking at us as if we had both gone mad. I started to laugh as well, not for what he did to me the night before, but for his scruffy look and his childish inventiveness. He must have been bored to death doing these never-ending interrogations of North Vietnamese communist POWs, and saw me as an easy victim for his prank. In a way, I would like to believe that maybe he felt a certain kind of ease and comfort in our friendship to have pulled off such a joke.
After we stopped laughing, John said:
“I know you were trying to fire the gun, but it did not go off. I will show you the trick.”
We went to my room and he took the gun from the closet. He took out the magazine holding the bullets, but it was empty. He then flicked some kind of lever on the side next to the trigger. He aimed and pulled the trigger and it made a clicking sound like it was firing.
“There are no bullets! You tricked me!”, I exclaimed.
“Did I?”, he said nonchalantly.
“Is there some gadget that makes it stop shooting?”, I asked him.
“Yep, this little latch on the side. You don’t know?”
“How would I know? I am a student, not a soldier. I’ve never touched a gun in my life”, I laughed out loud to cover my ignorance.
“Well, now you know.”
“Did you give me the gun so you can play tricks on me?”
“Nope, never”, John said triumphantly.
“What about the window opening and closing on the first night? I did not see anybody doing it.”
“Two strings on the handle, one left and one right and pulled over two veranda posts one after the other,” he admitted.
“You rascal!” was all I could say back to him.
John Delawarenne Jr, formerly of Massachusetts, wherever you may be now, on Earth or in Heaven (or Hell), you owe me a big one.