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'Beas' Part 1

by John B. Driscoll (Missoula '68) |

Smokejumpers

Ray 'Beas' Beasley (MYC-52) said, 'Be good,' and smiled back at my last look toward his pale face and gray hair, half-lighted by afternoon sun flowing in the window over his brown lounge chair.

Now that he and Jane had moved to town, there was no wall behind him to hang the black-and-white photo of a Ford Trimotor aircraft and four men suited in smokejumper gear, with him, trim and cocky, his hair combed so that he looked square-jawed James Dean-ish.

He stands with his hands on his hips, wearing a short-sleeved white t-shirt under his spotter's parachute and harness. By then he'd served his time in the Air Force during the Korean War, finishing as a survival expert at the Cold Weather Survival School that preferred using the deep winter snows around McCall, Idaho.

'We were training air crews for Africa and Ivy Leaguers for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA),' he said. 'Those Ivy Leaguers thought they were special, but they didn't know a goddamned thing. It was truly unbelievable.'

After being discharged he joined up with the U.S. Forest Service smokejumpers at their base in McCall. He first jumped fire into the igneous rock west of McCall with an experienced man, a big Swede who was a World War II veteran. It was an easy fire with a short distance to pack out the tools and chutes.

The Swede showed him his system for packing out tools by using the ax-head side of one Pulaski to cut off the shovel heads and the head of the other Pulaski, and then beating the cross-cut saw to useless, pitching it all downhill.

'My eyes were as big as could be,' Beas said.

When the ranger showed up to check the fire and saw the broken tools, he fired the experienced jumper but kept Beas.

At McCall, Beas met Thomas C. 'Shep' Johnson (MYC-56),1 who had returned home after five years a Marine, wounded in Korea, to punch cows on his uncle's ranch. According to Shep, that uncle was 'the meanest son-of-a-bitch there ever was.' Shep's brother, a jumper since 1953, invited him in 1956 to come up to McCall to jump fire.

Shep told him, 'Miles, what the hell's wrong with you? I ain't going to jump out of any damned airplane.' He got to thinking about it; then, 'I told my uncle that I'm going to start jumping with the smokejumpers, but he didn't believe me. We was in a truck going somewhere. I wanted to make sure I had a ride out of the backcountry.

'Earl Lindberg, an old cowboy, was my ride out to Weiser. So I told my uncle, 'See that last cow? When it goes out of the gate, I'm history; I'm going with the smokejumpers.'

'Good God, anything was better than that. God, he was awful. Oh, he didn't believe me. He thought I was bullshitting him, but I made damned sure I had a ride. It was the best move I ever made. I was antsy about it, because I didn't know about jumping out of those airplanes. Scared me to death.'

Shep started liking his new job after his first fire jump with an experienced partner from Salmon, Idaho, named Richard 'Paperlegs' Peterson (MYC-47), on a place called Ruby Mountain. Paperlegs was a veteran of the 82nd Airborne Division and one of the most interesting people he'd ever known.

'If I did wrong, he'd tell me. He was one of a kind,' Shep explained.

Shep liked the way he and his fellow smokejumpers depended on one another. Some got to be unusually close working on the firefighting details down in Silver City, N.M.: 'It wasn't regimented down there like McCall, where they'd boot you if you screwed up.'

Shep never felt he was that good at being a Marine sergeant or cowboy or saddle bronc rider, but over the years he came to consider himself very good at organizing cargo and rigging that cargo under parachutes. Beas also got to know so much about parachute technology that by 1974, the year he ended his career at the U.S. Forest Service Equipment Development Center in Missoula, he fielded a new parachute system for smokejumpers.

By then he was a lot wiser than back in 1959 when someone asked him if he wanted to work in the winter months for the CIA. The deal was that he could come back to McCall and continue jumping fires in the summer months.

The only thing Beas wanted to know was, 'How much does it pay?' When he was told $850 a month, he said, 'Sign me up.'

Shep knew that Big Andy Andersen (GAC-52), the timber foreman down at Silver City, had recommended him. 'Andy was a tough son of a gun,' Shep said.

At 6 feet, 3 inches tall, Andy had trouble exiting the jump door of an airplane. Big Andy and a number of other jumpers had been out in Asia during the off-season helping the CIA. Shep said, 'Beas and I went back to Washington together. I was out in the sticks and didn't have any clothes. Beas said, 'Don't worry, they sent plenty of money to buy clothes,' and they did.'

The joining of CIA requirements with Forest Service capabilities started after the abrupt ending of our nation's World War II Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and in the rapid expansion of the CIA's covert operations during the Korean War. Today, after involving 100 jumpers, it continues.

The CIA must have needed their skills in the fall of 1960 because Shep remembers: 'In Washington we stayed there in the Marriott. When the bigwigs came to interview us, we'd still be drunk. They managed to get us together and get us out to the headquarters of the CIA. That was quite an experience.'

After so many years Shep has come to think about Beas in another way. 'We were close, but he kind of dropped out of sight when he dropped out of the agency. Maybe all that stuff built up inside of him,' Shep said.

Now Beas has just told me he's willing to sit for an interview about all that stuff.

The CIA

The CIA needed Shep and Beas2 that fall to support the Tibetan resistance, which began before the covert operations in Cuba or Laos. The nexus of those later and better-known operations was explained this summer in the CIA's own Journal of Studies in Intelligence.3 Timothy Castle makes the point that the many writings about the failed mid-April 1961 operation to land paramilitary forces in Cuba and overthrow Fidel Castro overshadowed assessments of another CIA plan, scheduled for the same week, to attack Soviet-supplied military stores and anti-government forces on the Plain of Jars in supposedly neutral Laos.

At the time the central figure in both plans, the CIA's deputy director for plans, Richard Bissell, was expected to be President Kennedy's replacement for longtime CIA Director Allen Dulles. Bissell had decided to use 16 World War II B-26 bombers in a pre-invasion attack on key Cuban communications facilities and airfields.

In addition to transport planes flown by half a dozen proprietary pilots to a secret training base in Retalhuleu, Guatemala, the 117th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, Alabama Air National Guard, which had been the last U.S. Air Force unit to fly the B-26, provided 80 men in civilian clothes to serve as aircrew, armament specialists and maintenance men. Like everyone else, they were sworn to secrecy.

In March 1961 the rebel air force and their American trainers moved from Retalhuleu to a secret facility at Puerto Cabeza, Nicaragua. One of Bissell's staff came down from the CIA's Air Branch in Washington to become base chief in Nicaragua. His name was Garfield Thorsrud (MSO-46) and he 'quickly became an essential link between the field and headquarters.'

Thorsrud was a veteran of CIA proprietary air operations conducted during the anti-Sukarno government in Indonesia4 and in China during the Korean War.5

Thorsrud was the person who used early-century travel photos and maps to select two jump spots in Tibet for insertion of two native radio teams, trained by the CIA, flown by B-17 from East Pakistan and delivered in 1957 by parachute out a Joe hole cut into the belly of the aircraft.6

Althar and Lhotse, comprising one of those radio teams, met the young Dalai Lama's group fleeing for the border with India, and provided the necessary communication through President Eisenhower to get India's clearance for His Holiness to enter7 the neighboring nation.

The radio team also brought 300,000 rupees in Indian currency, since Tibet's currency would no longer have any value. Those rupees, parachuted in on a yellow canopy, were divided so that 200,000 went to support the Dalai Lama's party in India, while the rest stayed behind to support a growing resistance.

After the Dalai Lama's escape, Thorsrud continued working in support of a Tibetan resistance operation that required longer-range C-130s, the training of aircrews, and paramilitary training of more than 200 Tibetan resistance fighters at Camp Hale high in the Colorado Rockies.

Thorsrud had been a Missoula-based smokejumper.

As he graduated from the University of Montana in the spring of 1951, he was asked to come early out to the Nine Mile training facility to help train two CIA agents. After the beginning of that regular jump season, he and nine other Missoula-based jumpers were recruited by the CIA.

Six went to Taiwan with Thorsrud. Three, including Art Cochran (MSO-42), disappeared elsewhere.

Cochran had started that summer as Nine Mile's base manager. He had served through World War II as the jump programs point of contact for Operation Firefly, defending against the Japanese fire-balloon threat. Inside the CIA he became closely associated with substantial agency training capabilities on Okinawa, where he spoke the language fluently.

After being seriously injured, he turned CIA logistician in Cyprus and Northern Iran.

Of the other nine recruited for the Korean War, six made careers of the CIA. Thorsrud got out and came home to join the Montana Air National Guard. While flying F-100s out of Washington, D.C., he got recruited back into the agency as an air operations officer.

Thorsrud acquired enough responsibility to be mentioned as the staff officer in Castle's article who reacted to Kennedy and Bissell's last-minute halving of the 16 B-26s painted with Cuban Air Force colors, saying, 'This is unbelievable!'

He was as surprised as anyone when machine guns mounted on a Cuban T-33 wreaked so much havoc. Were he still living, Thorsrud would be one of the few able to explain the decision made a few days later to cancel attacks into Laos by another 16 B-26s out of Takhli, Thailand.

Nine thousand miles separated the two air operations. The first was slashed on April 15, the night before the planned Bay of Pigs invasion was to start. The second was canceled four hours from a scheduled April 17 takeoff. Nevertheless, all covert paramilitary ground operations for both operations went forward as planned.

Unlike the abrupt failure in Cuba, the quasi-military operations in Laos, commanded by diplomats in Washington, Bangkok and Vientiane, and managed by a couple hundred paramilitary officers, became a hard-fought economy of force operation, which relied on air support of all kinds.8

The CIA involvement in the conflict in Laos lasted for more than 13 years, involved many more smokejumpers as trainers, parachute dispatch officers, case officers, pilots and military group leaders,9 until the effort folded after the fall of South Vietnam.

Tibet

Could Shep remember the flights into Tibet?10

'How could you forget? You go up to 32,000 feet and depressurize at a lower altitude,' Shep said. 'All that country in Tibet is high. We'd drop down to 12,000 to 14,000 feet, and we'd be on oxygen. On those long flights, fuel got to be critical. In fact one of them returned and landed on the runway with no fuel at all because of headwinds.

'The pilots were really good. They were the best. They were Air America and Southern Air, and Bill Welk was one of the best of those. I'm glad I did that kind of work and survived.'

Did Shep know about the yellow parachute rigged earlier to drop 300,000 rupees to the Dalai Lama's party as it escaped into India? 'Impact parachute. Foot deploys ahead of the canopy,' he said. 'Drop high; open low. Keep out of gunfire.'

What did Beas know about the yellow parachute? He explained that cargo leaves the aircraft on a reefer chute that 'squids' toward the ground. A measured length of detonation cord extends below the load to an ignition shoe that ignites when the feeler hits the ground first.

The detonation cord blows open the low-opening parachute, which deploys into a canopy at the last moment. This permits high-altitude drops, with low-opening accuracy. He figured the man who devised the technology for the yellow parachute was Missoula jumper Jack Wall (MSO-48) from Havre, Mont., who entered the agency in 1951.

Wall entered the Missoula jumpers from the Merchant Marine. He was exceptionally good with knots and could make anything. Beas recalled that in Guatemala, if Thorsrud needed a mockup somewhere in the jungle, Wall could make it magically appear.

'They were really good friends, and Wall, being from Montana, was Thorsrud's right-hand man,' Beas recalled.

Beas talked about the long flights in fully packed C-130s using old China Air Transport civilian routes, used by Claire Chennault 'until he went belly up.' Big Andy worked as the communications operator on radio silence, but 'keying a dull humming dash at pre-designated reporting points.'

When they cleared China, they'd make a final run over a drop zone in Tibet. 'The CIA permitted only one pass, or we'd get our asses kicked,' Beas said.

On one run, after they cut the straps, the cargo hung up in the door after jumping the two 18- to 20-inch tracks along each side. The pilot decided to come around again, which took about two minutes. With adrenaline pumping, Miles and Beas and Big Andy muscled this huge load onto the tracks so it cleared the door.

'Back in Thailand, we got ripped by this Air Force Major, who later became a Two Star because he was getting ripped by the CIA,' Beas said.

Another winter night, one of the jumpers dropped his weapon as he approached the door. Beas recovered it, gave it back to him and saw the fear in his eyes. 'Those kids were wasting their lives in a futile effort,' Beas said. That bothered Beas a lot.

There exists in the Air America-Continental Air Archives a two-page letter from Shep's brother, Miles Johnson (MYC-53), to Asia aviation historian Dr. William Leary. Miles' letter, written in 1992, lists the names of smokejumpers who flew the China/Tibet C-130 run. The list included Miles, Shep, Beas, Big Andy, Paperlegs and six others, including Yogi Eubanks (IDC-54) and John S. 'Tex' Lewis (MYC-53). Those two, along with Missoula jumper David Bevan (MSO-55), were later killed in Laos in a plane crash at the foot of a Karst formation.

Their three names are included with those of four other smokejumpers on a brass plaque at the University of Texas-Dallas, dedicated to 274 'air crew members and ground support personnel of Civil Air Transport, Air America, Air Asia, and Southern Air Transport who died while serving the cause of freedom in Asia from 1947 to 1975.'

Miles told how the jumpers returned as key personnel to their Forest Service units during fire seasons and returned to the Laos Project in September 1961 after the fire season. He added that several smokejumpers remained in agency employment and formed the nucleus of air operation personnel employed by the agency in Arizona.

'That began a whole new series of projects for quite a few of us,' Miles said. He estimated for Dr. Leary that after 1961, about 50 smokejumpers took part in one project or another all over the world, but mostly in Southeast Asia. He also made reference to a photo negative he had included of a group of men in parkas under the nose of a B-17 with Fulton Skyhook installed.

That negative is missing from the file with the letter, but exists as the photograph central to the book, Project COLDFEET: Secret Mission to a Soviet Ice Station by Dr. William Leary and Leonard LeSchack.

Five men in the picture, including Thorsrud, are former smokejumpers. The B-17, listed as N809Z, arrived in August 18, 1961, as Intermountain's first aircraft transferred from CIA aviation assets at Tainan, Taiwan.

En route it had paid a visit to Lockheed's Skunkworks in Burbank, Calif., and had the Fulton Skyhook installed on its nose.11

One of the crewmen in the photograph, Missoula smokejumper Bob Nicol (MSO-52), said they later used the system to recover the frozen body of a U.S. scientist from his research assignment close to the North Pole.12 One can see the same aircraft in action on the big screen, recovering James Bond and one of his beautiful women friends, or their stunt doubles, in a raft from sea in Thunderball.

In place of the negative of B-17 N809Z, which was not filed with Miles' letter, there is a picture of six Laotians dressed in the gear worn by the four smokejumpers standing with Beas years earlier in McCall.


1. 'There I Was' Smokejumper Oral Histories, by John Driscoll, Mansfield Archives, University of Montana
2. 'Secret Mission to Tibet: The CIA's most demanding, most successful airlift,' by Dr. William M. Leary, Smithsonian Air & Space
3. From the Bay of Pigs to Laos, Operation MILLPOND: The Beginning of a Distant Covert War, by Timothy Castle
4. Feet to the Fire: CIA Covert Operations in Indonesia by Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison
5. Raiders of the China Coast by Frank Holober
6. The CIA's Secret War in Tibet by Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison
7. Tears of the Lotus by Roger McCarthy
8. Shadow War: The CIA's Secret War in Laos by Kenneth Conboy with James Morrison
9. Air America Notebooks from the William M. Leary Papers, Air America-Continental Air Archives On-Line, University of Texas-Dallas
10. Missions to Tibet by Dr. Joe Leeker
11. 'CAT Air Asia, Air America - The Company on Taiwan III: Work for the U.S. Government,' by Dr. Joel Leeker
12. 'There I Was' Smokejumper Oral Histories by John Driscoll, Mansfield Archives, University of Montana