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Beas – Part II

by by John Driscoll (Missoula ’68) |

In Part I, “Smokejumper” January 2015, of “Beas,” John Driscoll took Ray Beasley (MYC-52) from his time in the Air Force, to Smokejumpers and to being recruited, along with other jumpers, to the CIA. Operations in Cuba and Tibet were covered. In Part II, John picks up with “Beas” and Shep Johnson (MYC-56) arriving in Laos.

Laos

Beas and Shep arrived in Laos before the Bay of Pigs invasion started. In no time at all they were dropping rice, French-packed with double bags, so the outer bag would contain the burst inner bags, which they dropped without parachutes from 800 feet. They also dropped supplies on one-ton pallets.

The recipients were Meo (Hmong) tribesmen on the ground. Shep said, “I call them Meo because I respect them a lot. They were courageous. I don’t think all those people made it out of Laos. The ones that didn’t went to the hills where they came from.”

He remembered that their Gen. Vang Pao knew everybody. “I loved Gen. Vang Pao. He had more guts than anybody I’ve ever seen. He took a lot of chances. He’d been wounded several times. He had a lot of kids and he'd take those kids with him. It was a damned airplane load almost.”

One day the general came down the runway of the secret base at Long Cheng, code-named Big Sky,1 and he said, “Shep, you’re not getting cargo out to the field like you’re supposed to.” Shep told him he didn’t have enough riggers and the general drove off in his Jeep.

“Next day, I had more damned people,” Shep said.

He asked Jerry Daniels (MSO-58), a former Missoula smokejumper and fluent Meo speaker, serving as Vang Pao’s operations chief, “What the hell did the general do to get me all these people?”

Daniels told him, “He shot the lieutenant.”

Shep never did see that lieutenant again, and added, “He smoked pot all the time.”

Shep attended Vang Pao’s funeral in California, but he didn't attend the Meo community’s funeral for Daniels in Missoula,2 after his body was sent home from Bangkok in a sealed casket.

With his tears welling, Shep remembered, “When Jerry died I didn’t go to the funeral. I should have. I just didn’t want to. I knew him as well as any one of the Americans. He was quite a person. He had a lot of respect. He got wounded seven times going forward with his people.”

Gen. Vang Pao gave credit to Daniels for bringing him to Montana. One night, when we were sitting next to each other at the head table in a banquet at the Woodside Grange Hall, he told me that he decided to buy his pig farm a few hundred yards away after Daniels took him for a ride up the Bitterroot Valley.

“This valley reminded me of the Plain of Jars,” Vang Pao said.

Pam Roberts, from Hardin, Mont., then a U.S. State Department Refugee Services Officer, said she was the one who flew into Missoula with Vang Pao’s four wives and linked them up with Daniels’ mother, Louise, who came to be called “Mom” by the community that took root and later buried her son.

Beas hasn’t talked much about Laos, except – like Shep – to mention the grievous loss of Lewis, Eubanks and Bevan. Like all the others, he was issued a short-nosed, .38-caliber pistol in a shoulder holster in case they went down, “but the ground crews would steal them when we left them hanging in the aircraft.”

So Beas armed himself with a .30-caliber Browning automatic rifle. The other guys kidded him, saying, “It’ll never work because of back pressure.” Beas said, “Bullshit,” and kept it within reach on all the cargo drops.

He once mentioned a hot Marine out of Korea with a lot of experience: “If you needed somebody killed, he was the guy.”

Beas thought the man married a Lao princess and that helped cement the loyalty to him of tribes up high on the Mekong River. Beas thought the man he knew was the model for Marlon Brando's character in Apocalypse Now.

“The company didn’t like him having a bounty on human ears, though that’s what was getting the job done,” Beas said. He sensed Ivy Leaguers somewhere up above were applying Marquess of Queensbury rules.

Shep talked about a man named Father Bischard, who followed him and Beas over to Laos from Guatemala. “Wherever he went, he walked or caught a ride on one of our airplanes. I’d tell him, ‘That’s a pretty bad area,’ ” Shep said. “That didn’t make any difference to him. He was like a chaplain to anybody, even the Meo.

“If people had complaints, he’d try to do something about it. He’d come down and sit in our operations shack waiting for an airplane. He was from Nova Scotia or Maine, or someplace. I respected him a lot; everybody did, I suppose, because he was a preacher.”

He thought Father Bischard must have been the one who gave Beas, and the 177 Cuban Airborne troops he helped train for the Bay of Pigs Invasion, a golden medal with the image of St. Michael the Archangel.

Guatemala

The CIA sent Beas and Shep to Guatemala in the fall of 1960. That’s when CIA proprietary pilots were delivering C-46 and C-54 transport planes to a CIA training base near Retalhuleu on the Pacific side.3 The transports were to be platforms for resupply drops into Cuba and insertions onto the island of the paratroops of rebel Brigade 2506.

CIA pilots began training Cuban aircrews in combat airdrop procedures. The contingent of smokejumpers, including Beas, Shep, Miles and Paperlegs, trained the Cuban paratroopers. They were also tasked to train Guatemala’s first paratroopers, from scratch.

“They trained on a rich guy's ranch,” Beas said. “There was a jungle training center and an airport training center, and one for bad guys in the hot area on the Atlantic side, which is where we sometimes dropped a container of gasoline or something. God, they were isolated, living terribly.”

Beas detested the way the Guatemalan officers – all trained by the French – mistreated their own soldiers, who were “shorter than their own bolt-action Mausers.”

For their first jump, he and Miles kicked the Guatemalans out of a C-46, with doors open on both sides, over Guatemala City’s soccer field. “God, it was fun!” he said.

The last man hung up, frozen in the door. Miles had to put a knee in his back and he landed nearly a mile further away from the rest.

Shep spent a lot of his time packing parachutes. He summarized, “We trained commando raiders how to jump and Special Forces taught them that other stuff.”

At 31 Beas remembers walking a few miles into Retahuleu to get beer at the American bar there. He’d load it up and bring it back to the base. They had a kids’ Radio Flyer red wagon they could tow around, carrying a cooler filed with ice and beer.

“It was hotter than hell down there, and we couldn’t drink the water and sure couldn’t eat the ice,” Beas said.

A C-46 would go to the embassy in Panama and load up completely with high-quality booze and more beer. Beas said: “You could get 25-year-old Scotch for 25 cents a shot.”

In the parachute loft they had a big cage with a couple of lovebirds for entertainment. They’d start walking down the runway around 4:30 p.m. toward the bar and a small brothel inside the fence. Waiting outside the bar would be a monkey with a prehensile tail to hook over anybody who would take him into the bar so he could drink Martina’s out of flat glasses.

“All night long you’d hear that monkey, dragging his chain back and forth on the tin roof of the bar. It made a hell of a racket,” Beas said.

Beas feels smokejumpers, in general, held the big advantage of never having to conform to any particular institutional norm. For example, he mentioned New Year’s Eve 1960 and a party at the bar in Retalhulu. He walked in with a couple of Cuban paratrooper friends and encountered a U.S. Air Force major, wearing his uniform and an attitude. One thing led to another and Beas ended up punching the officer.

The major picked himself up, brushed off and said, “I’ll get your ass!” Beas thinks, “He probably would have, except I was one of Thorsrud’s crazies.”

That term causes Beas to reflect on how they all settled for $850 each month, when pilots on the same high-risk runs were making much more. “There was a big difference, but we still did the work,” he said. Pay increased later.

Both Beas and Shep tell of a C-54 crash landing on one of Guatemala’s Pacific beaches. On board were Miles and Paperlegs, training Cubans on cargo dropping. The aircraft hit a tree between the number 3 and 4 engines. They crashed, pulled the radios out and left for Laos or someplace the next day.

At the scene of the crash, Shep found a local Indian who had taken it over. “He stayed right there on the beach,” Shep said. “The airplane was in pretty good shape, and he’d get right in the door and you didn’t go in there. Nobody messed with him. I think they just left it, because the Indian wouldn’t let anybody take it.”

Beas remembered learning that the crew honestly thought they were ditching at sea and ended up jumping out the door and swimming on the sand. With such a big plane on their hands, they pulled the radios, and Miles pulled the altimeter, and they signed it over to a peasant who happened to walk up on the wreck.

“It probably shows something different in the official records, but some poor guy in Guatemala owns it,” Beas said. He thinks the altimeter is in Air America’s museum.

Beas once caught a ride into Miami for three days of rest and recuperation. One of the Cuban trainees asked him to bring with him into town a box measuring 2 inches high and less than 5 inches wide and 8 inches long. “I know I shouldn't have done it,” he said.

He didn’t look inside and delivered it as instructed to the Fontainebleau Hotel and a guy there called “The Greek.” Four other suits came out of the back to sit with him in a booth and talk.

“They were mafia,” Beas said. “One was from Philadelphia and one was from Florida.” He didn’t know where the other two called home. They all had an interest in the invasion because they’d lost assets in the Cuban revolution.

“One of them said his kid was flying guns into Cuba in a Cessna 182, but kept getting caught.” Beas wasn’t sure what all of it was about and he didn’t want to know. The Greek offered him the pick of about 250 gorgeous women standing and sitting along the walls of the lounge, but Beas demurred.

“I just wanted to get the hell out of there,” he recalled. Besides, he already had reservations elsewhere and a date with a stewardess.

In Guatemala, Beas signed up to complete a school at the airport teaching him how to arm the B-26s that came in with the Alabama Air National Guard.

“We armed the aircraft with wing guns and a 20-millimeter (gun) in the center. We tested them by diving on empty oil drums floating out in the center of a lake,” he said.

Once he asked, “Why are we doing this?” He learned the B-26s were to attack an air base and that armaments people would follow in to rearm the B-26s. “That never happened, because Castro had one jet and it shot the shit out of the propeller-driven planes.”

Beas sensed that Thorsrud was torn up by what happened.

Recognition

Coming home in summers to jump fires put a special pressure on the CIA smokejumpers, because the hazards of firefighting from the air breeds camaraderie, a light that dispels secrets.

“I know I’ve jumped fires with partners who returned to the top of the jump list with these secrets intact, pretty much.” This generates concentric circles of night fire line chatter, which for generations has generally been guarded inside smokejumper ranks.

But Beas and Shep had to face another kind of security problem, stemming from the fact that they periodically returned to small towns in the summer. Beas’ cashiers checks from Washington, D.C., went to a bank in McCall where he and Shep and Miles and Paperlegs gave a local bank’s assistant vice president their power of attorney to cash and deposit them.

When they got back off an early CIA tour, they discovered their checks cashed, but never deposited. The banker took about $3,500 from each jumper. Because of the small-town importance of family reputations, they didn’t do anything after he promised to pay them back. He didn’t.

Shep didn’t talk about that incident, but remembered not being able to cash his checks in his hometown. In later years it would be $12,000 to $16,000 for three or four months.

“Nobody got checks for three or four thousand dollars a month in those days,” Shep said. “I knew everybody in McCall, so I went down to Cascade to cash a check. They just called back to McCall to get a reference.” Needless to say, CIA smokejumpers have become urban legends in some rural areas.

Then there was the problem Shep had getting treatment for his second war wound, this one received at Long Cheng in Laos. For years the shrapnel in his hip kept shifting around his sciatic nerve.

“God, it hurt, but I was careful to not let the cat out of the bag,” he said. When he could no longer stand the pain, he went on his own nickel to his private physician in Idaho, who gave him a local anesthetic, “and sure enough he took that shrapnel out.”

Now the question of recognition has become a different one, at least for me as one fellow smokejumper. After seeing the 274 names on a brass plaque at the University of Texas-Dallas, I got to thinking it might be appropriate after all these years to have the names of the 100 CIA-smokejumpers mounted on a brass plate at the University of Montana in Missoula, location for the National Smokejumpers Association archives. With that idea in mind, I drove to Tucson, Ariz. and visited Thorsrud in person before he passed away.

We had a very congenial conversation. He told me that not once did he ever have a smokejumper work for him who was not outstanding about completing the work that needed doing.

On a far less-congenial note, he was adamant in saying, “I don’t want my name on any plaque!” His still-pressing concern was operational security. He explained himself this way: “It’s like a sweater. If you pull on a loose end in one place, it starts unraveling in another.”

Not wanting to be recognized for work that’s been accomplished is a normal sentiment, usually found in direct proportion to the value of what a person has contributed. Yet, that decision must be left for others to make.

In this case, however, we may want to accept his concern about security, because he knows more of the larger covert picture. To honor 11 smokejumpers and the rest of the Air America air crews, he co-commissioned a painting, now hanging in the gallery at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Va.

In “Khampa Airlift to Tibet,” artist Dru Blair depicts a C-130 aircraft with its rear door fully open, red combat lanterns glowing from the inside, flying high between snow-covered peaks under a full moon. Jumpers clothed in smokejumper gear exit the rear behind a large pallet of cargo, tethered to the lead jumper. Each canopy is either orienting on the aircraft or turning toward the jump spot along a moon-reflecting river.

The painting is a fine tribute. Most who were involved have been killed, or died of natural causes. Big Andy, Beas and Missoula jumper Bill Demmons (MSO-51) attended (the dedication at Langley). Shep didn’t want to go back and probably couldn’t, physically, if he’d wanted. Beas thought the ceremony nice.

The main briefer was a Missoula jumper, still active in agency operations. Beas noted that the steadily increasing total tonnage transported by 150 flights impressed current agency operators. Beas was impressed by the briefer’s grasp of parachute artistry.

The CIA gallery holds another painting commissioned by the Thorsruds. In “Seven Days in the Arctic,” artist Keith Woodcock shows a B-17, with a Fulton Skyhook on its nose, coming up under a long curving line hooked to a man springing from the Arctic ice. Below him another man is releasing his balloon so it will raise the upper end of a line tethered to him.

CIA Smokejumper Number One

Now it’s the morning of my scheduled interview with Beas and I’ve just received a text message from his daughter. She’s telling me the interview needs to be canceled. Beas woke up in the night shaking badly and can’t make it stop.

Over the past three years his attitude has improved, especially since making a visit to the PTSD people out at the Fort Harrison Veterans Hospital. Physically, things haven’t been drifting in the same direction. Even though she suggests we reschedule the interview, I sense that’s not going to happen.

Why should it? He and the others have already done enough, and he’s told me enough, along with Shep. Add their memories to the vast amount of published open or declassified sources and it’s possible to pass on this general sense of the real story.

As well, I see no reason to look further into the identity of CIA-Smokejumper Number One because I'm satisfied I already know who he was.

In November 1950, when forces of the new Chinese Communist government entered the Korean War, President Truman’s administration had to wring all the help it could get from the young CIA, created three years earlier. Truman wanted to slow China’s growing influence by means of a covert-action program, which included leafleting, supply and agent airdrops along the Chinese-Korean border and inside China.

C-47 aircraft, outfitted with a pole hook and cable and snatching winch, were used to exfiltrate agents by hoisting them from the ground. This was dangerous for aircrews and agent, and not always successful. It's highly likely that the two CIA agents whom Thorsrud and another Missoula smokejumper were asked to train in rough-terrain parachute techniques were part of those covert actions.

That the CIA returned to the Nine Mile training base for more men a few weeks later, given the expansion of covert action requirements in China, seems logical. Missoula jumper Joe McDonald (WYS-51), who was a rookie that season, happened to live in the barracks with the experienced jumpers.4 He remembers each one of them going over to the office, one at a time, to talk with the man representing the CIA.

“They each came back to our barracks, packed their stuff, said good-bye, and left, just like that,” McDonald said.

Who was that man who could be told about the young CIA’s exploding requirements for covert air support and the need for increased numbers of parachute dispatch officers? Who would have the real-world experience to know the kind of personnel required? Who would have been in a position to witness and work with smokejumpers as they were evolving by then? Who would have been the man the CIA could send to Nine Mile that day, able to make a convincing case for young men to make a snap life-altering decision without once being able to answer their common-sense questions: “Where will I be going? What will I be doing? When will I get home?”

I've concluded that the first CIA smokejumper was a career Forest Service employee, working that summer on the Troy and Sylvanite ranger districts of Montana’s Kootenai National Forest. He was born to a Serbian-speaking family in the mining city of Butte, Mont., and grew up near the Columbia Gardens, where he acquired a love of the outdoors.

By working summers on the Kootenai and Deer Lodge National Forests in Montana, he completed his forestry degree at the University of Montana in 1940, the same year smokejumping began. Because he had also been commissioned through ROTC as a U.S. Army 2nd Lieutenant, he had to leave for active military service at Fort Benning’s Infantry School, just as World War II was beginning.

He was selected and assigned as one of the original members of the OSS by 1943. As a special operations officer he parachuted into mountainous terrain to work behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia for three months and Northern Italy for six months. In both places he organized guerrilla units and helped rescue downed allied pilots.

At war’s end, because he commanded the OSS War Crimes Detachment in Northern Italy in support of the War Crimes Trials, he was not discharged until December 1945, more than two months after Wild Bill Donovan’s OSS was disbanded. That same month he began his Forest Service career on the Philipsburg District of Montana’s Deer Lodge National Forest.

There he managed timber and assisted the ranger with fire prevention, detection and suppression. He probably already chased smoke over his college summers, but after this combination of professional work for five years, he would have enjoyed a good understanding of fire-control relationships in the Northern Region, and would have requested smokejumpers often and understood their unique capabilities.

From the CIA’s point of view, it’s hard to imagine a man more suited by experience to help train a new set of agents for the mountainous Chinese-Korean border, or a better place than Montana to train them.

For all these reasons, I’ve concluded that CIA-Smokejumper Number One was John Risto Milodragovich, a man Beas called “Milo.”

Milo figures prominently on both the National Museum of the Forest Service Honor Roll and the Special Forces Roll of Honor. Beas had always kind of wondered about Milo, with whom he worked in Missoula and who was the godfather to one of his daughters. It’s instructive to also note that through the early 1950s, Milo’s old boss, Wild Bill Donovan, worked energetically in his new assignment as U.S. ambassador to Thailand.

From Bangkok, Donovan became a dominant influence in shaping how our country began viewing all of the nations of Southeast Asia as a whole cloth.5

Perhaps it’s best to leave this story here.

1. Sky is Falling: An Oral History of the CIA’s Evacuation of the Hmong from Laos by Gayle Morrison
2. Hog’s Exit: Jerry Daniels, the Hmong, and the CIA by Gayle Morrison
3. The Cuban Invasion, The Chronicle of a Disaster, by Tad Szulc and Karl Meyer
4. “In Our Own Words” Smokejumper Oral Histories by John Driscoll, Mansfield Archives, University of Montana
5. Wild Bill Donovan, The Spymaster who created the OSS and Modern American Espionage, by Douglas Waller