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Shep Johnson: A More Than Interesting Life

by Chuck Sheley (Cave Junction '59) |

For a while now, I've wanted to interview jumpers who worked for the CIA during the so-called "secret war" in Laos, a U.S. paramilitary operation going on at about the same time as the Vietnam War. I wanted to find out more about the initial connection between the agency and smokejumpers.

Jack Mathews (MSO-48), a major player in the effort, communicated with me several times via phone, but Jack died in January 2001, and that source of information was lost. Then I located Thomas C. "Shep" Johnson (MYC-56). It wasn't long before I realized Shep had a pretty interesting story to tell.

A former Marine, Shep had already received a Purple Heart for service in Korea when his brother Miles Johnson (MYC-53) recruited him to the smokejumper program out of McCall in 1956. Shep at the time was working on an Idaho cattle ranch located not far from where he was born. As it happened, it was off-season on the same ranch when he was recruited for the CIA.

Below is his story, in his words.

Getting Involved With the CIA

"I was approached in October 1959 by Richard "Paperlegs" Peterson (MYC-47). He told me I could have an off-season job that paid good money, but I declined. Without any details, I wasn't interested. So 1960 rolled around, and Pete and 'Big Andy' [Roland Andersen (MSO-52)] approached me again. [This time] I said 'okay.' I was feeding cattle on the Weiser River at the time. I had a two-and-a-half hour horseback ride in and out of the ranch.

"A guy I was working with came in and told me that it was important to get in touch with my boss. I only thought about my mom being ill or something. My boss said to call Ray Beasley (MYC-52), who told me we were to report to Washington, DC. When I told Ray that I didn't have any clothes to go back there, he said not to worry and that they had sent of plenty of money.

"I tied in with Ray, got the money and bought a sport coat, slacks, clean underwear, shoes and a tie. Caught a flight out of Boise, first-class, and headed for K Street and Pennsylvania Ave. in D.C. We were briefed by security and started one of the most unforgettable journeys I had ever undertaken. Beat the hell out of the Korean War; the pay was a damn sight better!"

Tibet

"I was hired as a C-130 crewmember, and it was my job to drop personnel and supplies into Tibet during the Tibetan revolution against the Red Chinese. The CIA referred to it as 'Operation Barnum.' There were ten smokejumpers involved in the Tibetan operation, a 50-50 split between Missoula and McCall jumpers. I credit being on the Silver City crew and being available in the off-season for being picked for this job. Many other jumpers were in college during the off-season. I want to say that we had the best group of smokejumpers that could have been put together.

"Out of about 40 flights, I was on six in 1960 and one in 1962, which was the last flight that I know of. The planning for the Tibetan operation began in 1957. There were some exciting moments. One night we had 12 or 15 Tibetans onboard. We were to drop them in one of the northernmost parts of Tibet. We had an internal fuel tank for extra fuel due to the length of the flight. As we approached the drop zone, we depressurized, and the fuel started running down the floor of the C-130. We had to turn on the lights, which was something that we never did. Flights were kept dark to prevent detection by the Chinese communists on the ground. We had to get the troops out first and then drop the cargo of weapons and food. With the fuel problems, we had to make both passes with the aircraft lights on and exposed to enemy eyes. The risk of electrical spark and fire was high, but we got back to Thailand without incident but low on fuel. Bill Demmons (MSO-51) and John Lewis (MYC-53) worked with me on this drop.

"I ended up spending 15 years with the agency, but nothing was as exciting as flying over the Himalayas at 32,000 feet and then dropping down to 15,000 feet to drop cargos of men and equipment. This worked out well for me, because I was able to do this job during the winter and smokejumping during the summer. This particular job only lasted three seasons, because the flights were suspended due to the U-2 incident, when [Francis] Gary Powers was shot down over Russia."

Laos

"In the fall of 1960, John Lewis, Andy Andersen and I reported for duty in Okinawa and made several DC-4 flights into Laos in support of General Vang Pao's guerrilla army. In 1961, John Lewis and I reported to Guatemala with Jack Wall (MSO-48), who was in charge of training parachutists and riggers for the invasion of Cuba. John and I were asked to return to Laos and work for Air America, but I declined and returned to McCall for the upcoming fire season.


"In August 1961, John Lewis, Darrel Eubanks (IDC-54) and Dave Bevan (MSO-55) were killed in a C-46 crash while making a re-supply drop in Laos. Paperlegs Peterson, [my brother] Miles and I reported into Takli, Thailand, to replace those three and continued the re-supply drops to General Vang Pao's guerrilla forces. We did this until March of 1962 before returning to McCall for the 1962 fire season."

South Vietnam

"In September of 1962, several of us reported to Intermountain Aviation in Marana, Arizona. Paperlegs, Jack Cahill (MSO-58), Jack Wall and I were sent to Saigon. Jack Cahill and I started dropping cargo from a C-46 aircraft. Pete and Jack Wall went up north to set up cargo-rigging sites and to work with U.S. Special Forces B-teams. Later, I replaced Jack Wall working with the Special Forces. Cahill and Wall went to work on special ops, setting up a parachutist training area out of Saigon in preparation to [infiltrate] South Vietnamese teams into North Vietnam.

"Air America began phasing out dropping cargo, and the Special Forces started dropping from U.S. Army Caribous. This program was called 'Operation Switchback.' Pete's and my purpose was to train Special Forces to rig cargo and to utilize our type of roller conveyor systems for use in the Caribous. 'Our type' of roller conveyor system is the system that is designed by the CIA to dispatch parachute cargo in a matter of seconds from C-130s, C-47s, C-46s, Caribous and even large helicopters, [known as] Chinooks."

Training Tibetans…in Colorado

"After returning to the U.S., we were sent to Camp Hale, Colorado, to train Tibetans. Why Camp Hale? Because the high altitude and rough terrain were as close as they could come to Tibet. The camp was set up by the U.S. Army for the 10th Mountain Division during World War II. Our job was to train them for airborne operations. We made our training jumps at Fort Carson, Colorado. The Tibetans were probably the best and most motivated workers I have ever seen. To my knowledge they never jumped into Tibet, but walked in instead. Very few of these fighters survived the conflict with the Chinese. They were heavily outnumbered. No Tibetan jumped in Tibet after 1960 that I know of. There was one mission flown in January of 1962. I was a crewmember along with Jerry Daniels (MSO-58), Lyle Brown (MSO-54) and Fred Barnowsky (MSO-42)."

Thailand, 1966

"Ken Hessel (MYC-58), Frank Odom (MYC-63) and I were sent to Phitsunulok Camp Saritsena to train PARUs [Parachute Aerial Reinforcement Units] and members of the Royal Thai Army. Hessel was our team leader and spent some of his time at Hauhin, Thailand, training the queen of Thailand's personal guards. Our [work] was mainly building helicopter landing strips and parachute-training for rescue attempts by our PARU teams. However, these men were cross-trained in many other areas.…CIA personnel had worked with the PARUs since the 1950s."

Marana Special Projects

"Between 1962 and 1975, we worked on different research-and-development projects out of Marana Airpark, near Tucson, Arizona. Projects we tested included a 'para-wing' with a remote-control device and a parachute with a built-in guidance system that could zero in on a ground frequency system commonly known as a ground-to-air beacon device. Also, we tested the Parachute Impact System, which played a huge role in the secret war in Laos. This parachute allowed the pilot to fly high enough to keep out of range of small-arms fire. We worked with the Forest Service and BLM in…support of [combating] wildfire. From New Mexico to Alaska, we worked with the CIA and assisted in airborne training back in Williamsburg, Virginia."

The Secret War

"From 1965-1973, many smokejumpers worked as air-operations and case officers in Northern and Southern Laos. North, East, South or West, we were there. In 1969 and 1971, we supported General Vang Pao's Hmong Army to take the Plain de Jars. I was wounded February 14, 1971, at General Vang Pao's secret base, known as Long Tieng, or Lima Site 20A. I always felt it was a Valentine's gift from Ho Chi Minh."

Christopher Robbins's Account

Chuck Sheley writes: A good account of the incident Shep describes is featured in Christopher Robbins's "The Ravens: The Men Who Flew in America's Secret War in Laos." Writes Robbins:

A friendly 105-mm artillery piece at the south end of the runway kept a steady fire at the rate of one shell per minute, day and night, to harass the enemy. At 3:00 a.m. on the morning of February 14—Valentine's Day—the big gun stopped firing. [Enemy] artillery rounds started dropping into the compound at the rate of one every six seconds. The NVA had overrun the men firing the 105mm.

Shep, one of the CIA men, was caught outside in a shell blast and was pulled into the blockhouse with a badly cut leg. [After they got radio contact,] two Phantoms [F-4 fighter jets] out of Udorn arrived loaded with cluster bomb units (CBUs). The Ravens worried aloud that the fighters, flying into the brown haze in the half-light, would not be able to see a damned thing. The first F-4 went in, but instead of returning to make multiple passes, the pilot took the lazy course and dropped his entire load of CBU canisters at once. Shep, his leg hastily bandaged, was outside with Burr Smith and a platoon of Hmong guerrillas when the plane screamed over. Shep looked up and saw the CBU pods and watched in horrified fascination as the clamshell flew apart and the bomblets were spewed out. Shep, Smith and only a single Hmong survived.

Shep, however, remembers it differently. He told me he was already wounded and inside the bunker operating the radio, and that all the case officers were outside. What is agreed on, though, is that there were many casualties among the Hmong.

An Awesome Workload

Shep Johnson continues: "T.J. Thompson (MSO-55) took my place until the ceasefire in 1973 in Laos. The workload there was awesome. C-130s and C-123s brought food, clothing, fuel, weapons and parachutes in and out. We also used Otters, Pilatus Porters, Hueys and H-34s. They probably moved between 1.5 to 2 million pounds per day. Many of our artillery positions were supplied by C-123s from Thailand. Only God knows how many pounds per day came from outside sources."

Largest CIA Field Headquarters

Chuck Sheley writes: By this time, the U.S. airfield in the Laotian city of Long Tieng was one of the busiest airports in the world, with some 500 takeoffs and landings each day. The base itself constituted the largest CIA field headquarters in the world. As James E. Parker Jr. reports in his book "Covert Ops: The CIA's Secret War in Laos":

Tall rock formations or "karsts" dotted either end of the runway and were the cause for abrupt takeoffs and landings. The only way in was by air or down small foot trails. Visitors were by invitation only.…Vang Pao's stone house, surrounded by barbed-wire, was on the south side of the runway amid the shacks of perhaps twenty thousand Hmongs.

'They Ejected at Ground Zero'
Shep Johnson continues: "There was one tower operator on the east side of the airfield. I don't know why rockets or incoming rounds never hit the tower.…At the north end of the airstrip we had a barricade of barrels filled with dirt and stacked three high. The purpose of the barrels was to stop the aircraft before they hit the limestone karst. I witnessed two T-28s landing with their hydraulics shot out. Before the pilots hit the barricade, they ejected at ground zero. Out they go, and the parachute would open about 75 feet off the ground. Both pilots survived.

"All Air America and Continental aircraft were controlled by our air ops, mostly smokejumpers. My job was to handle all incoming and outgoing parachute or landing cargo. The briefings were held at our para-cargo office, unless there was a special operation such as…picking up wounded or KIA. We kept our air ops advised of where the aircraft were going.

"The day we lost the C-130 with Billy Hester (MSO-58) onboard, he and all the crewmembers were killed. Gary H. was running air ops, and I was working the ramp. We had three C-130s coming in at 15-minute intervals. Some time had lapsed without hearing from Hester's plane, so I advised Gary, and he called the outgoing C-130. Gary was told that the plane was making an approach about 14 miles out.…It never arrived, and the search was on. We spotted the wreckage that day in a rugged area [at] about 8,500 feet. The next morning we left by helicopter and landed about one mile east of the wreckage and walked down to the site. Because of the terrain and jungle, it took some time to get to the crash site. We saw someone, and not knowing who it was (maybe Pathet Lao and the NVA) felt it better not continue to the crash area. Air ops ordered a Jolly Green and air cover while air commandos repelled into the site. People seem to think the pilot ran into the cloud with a mountain in it. The site where the C-46 was lost in 1960 with John [Lewis], Yogi [Eubanks] and Dave [Bevan] was about five miles down the ridge."

The Ravens

Chuck Sheley writes: The Ravens were a special and elite group of U.S. Air Force pilots who acted as spotters for American air strikes. Of the 160 men who were Ravens, 31 were KIA. (Gene Hamner (MSO-67) was a Raven and will be featured in a future issue of Smokejumper.) Robbins reports that at Long Tieng, the Air Force had an air-operations center staffed with ten Ravens.

The Ravens Lost a Bunch

Shep Johnson continues: "This operation did not come without a price. In the overall operation from 1961-1973, we lost several smokejumpers. [See Smokejumper, January 2004; pp. 30-31.] Most were parachute dispatch officers who worked for Air America. There were also many Air America, Continental and military pilots who flew the spotter aircraft who were killed in action. Air America lost somewhere around 241 [men]. The Ravens also lost a bunch.

"After I was wounded, the family and I went on home leave and returned to Laos for another two-year tour. My job was to coordinate airborne operations between the logistics central base and outlying sites.…One goal was to set up a better way to expedite the loading of aircraft. Most of the people at the outlying sites were smokejumpers, so everything went smoothly. We had local soldiers and third-country people to assist in rigging and loading aircrafts. All of our cargo had to have a load manifest, which told the pilot exactly how much cargo was onboard. In a tragic Porter crash, Cotton Davis, several Hmong Soldiers and two American Army officers were all killed. It was the last flight of the day, and air ops had to get this last load out. The plane crashed and killed all on board. We think he was just heavy, or maybe the pilot was shot by a sniper on the ridge. From that day on, we fashioned a manifest called S.O.L. meaning Souls on Board."

'Buddy, We Got Seven People Here Who Don
t Know How to Jump'
Chuck Sheley writes: Parker describes Shep as "a lean former smokejumper" who helped train the 70 or so commandos. Parker goes on to say:

[Shep] was standing in front of them at the end of the dirt airfield near the back of an idling Air America C-130, when someone yelled that it was time to go. They were wet to the bone, some less than 15 years old and none taller than their M-16 rifles. Shep checked the equipment and continued down the line to count off the men. Seventy-seven! He knew there were only 70 commandos trained to make the jump. Seven Hmong, who had probably been support staff at the airfield, had picked up parachutes and joined the group. Shep yelled to the Hmong commander, 'Buddy, we got seven people here who don't know how to jump. I don't know what they're trying to prove, but it didn't get by me.' There was no way to determine who the seven were, and the commander didn't seem concerned, so the plane took off. Twenty minutes later, all 77 men ran out the back of the C-130 and parachuted without injury on top of the pathfinders' lights at the edge of the Plaine de Jarres.

Shep, the rigger, was scheduled to leave in the fall. This was Shep's second tour. He was our special person, and we loved him. He worked hard every day, out of the ramp before the sum came up, rarely talking, always working, rigging things exactly right and then checking and rechecking. He absolutely refused to have anything go out from his rigging shed that wasn't perfect—the right supplies rigged with the right parachutes on the right planes in the right order. It was an uplifting experience to work with Shep because he was so conscientious. Like "Hog" [Jerry Daniels, MSO-58] and "Bag" [Frank Odom, MYC-63], he had come from the hills of Montana [sic] and was, for the most part, a silent frontiersman. Like the rest of us, General Vang Pao liked Shep and admired his work ethic. He planned a large farewell party—a "baci." All of Sky was invited. The war stopped for Shep's baci."

Shep, incidentally, takes slight issue with Parker's account, noting that you don't address officers as "Buddy." He says he would have called them by their ranks.

Silent Helicopters

Shep Johnson continues: "In 1972 I managed heavy-lift helicopter operations out of Lima 16 or Vang Vieng. We supported the Thai mercenary soldiers with fresh food brought in from Thailand. We also moved heavy weapons, bulldozers and road-graders. I did this until my brother Miles came over to manage and supervise that project. I then went to an outpost or a site called PS-44. [The chief of operations] put me in charge of training eight selected commando raiders. They were of the ethnic tribe Lao Touoq. The plan was to put wiretaps into North Vietnam. The tap was put in by a Hughs 500 helicopter.…It was virtually silent, hence [its] nickname, 'Whisper.' The operation was successful, and the information the CIA received gave us the edge between the NVA and U.S. negotiators on the ceasefire in Laos and South Vietnam.

"The jumpers who worked directly with the CIA were from Missoula and McCall. Those who worked for Air America were from all the bases."

Getting the Job Done

"My association with the jumpers from all smokejumping units found us working very well together. We enjoyed one another, we partied together, we looked out for one another. We had our disagreements, but we always came up with a solution to get the job done. When it came to jumping out of any type of aircraft, helicopters included, there was no fear. If we wanted to sit down together and figure out how many types of aircraft we jumped and repelled out of, I would say between 30 and 40. Many of these were experimental jumps with experimental or peculiar types of equipment. When we left the outfit, many of us went to the Forest Service, Department of Interior, Indian Affairs or Department of Veterans [Affairs]. I think all of us ended up okay."

Later Years

Chuck Sheley writes: During his 15 years with the CIA, Shep worked five years in Thailand and Laos. For his service, he received the Exceptional Service Medal (The Star). From 1976-1982, he worked for the BLM Interagency Fire Center helicopter operations in Boise. He retired from the BLM Alaska Fire Service in 1990. He is now living in Payette, Idaho. If you'd like to reach him, he can be contacted at 2090 NE 10th Ave., Payette, ID 83661. Or drop him a line at 208-642-0123. His e-mail address is freezeoutarabian@hotmail.com.