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Long Cheng Visited 39 Years After CIA/Jumpers Left

by Chuck Sheley (Cave Junction '59) |

“The Most Secret Place On Earth” is the title of a 2008 film by German director Marc Eberle. It deals with the 15-year-long “Secret War” that the CIA waged from 1960-75 in Laos. Many smokejumpers (the list numbers 95 at this point) worked for the CIA and it’s airline, Air America.

Following this article, I’ve chosen to reprint Shep Johnson’s (MYC-56) “A More Than Interesting Life” from the October 2004 issue of Smokejumper. Shep’s story gives an excellent background into the CIA work in Southeast Asia (SEA) and other parts of the world.

One of the earliest articles we printed was Don Courtney’s (MSO-56) “And If You Find Out….” in the January 2000 issue. That will also be in this issue.

Jerry Daniels (MSO-58) was the right-hand man for Hmong General Vang Pao in the war directed at the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao Armies. Daniels is the subject of the recently-released book Hogs Exit by Gayle Morrison. We have printed several reviews in Smokejumper magazine.

During its peak, Long Cheng was one of the world’s busiest airports and had a population of approximately 50,000. More than 500 flights per day took off from Long Cheng moving up to two million pounds of cargo. Despite this, Long Cheng was never marked on any maps until recently. It is a restricted area and remains off limits to foreigners and is under the direct control of the Lao Army. (Photo 11 in this area if possible)

Laos is the most intensely bombed country in the history of air warfare. Over 40 years later, groups are trying to clear the unexploded ordnance that remains and has caused over 2,000 casualties as recently as 1999-2008.

With this background in mind, when Fred Rohrbach (MSO-65) invited me along on a trip to Long Cheng, I immediately accepted. Also making the trip were Bob Dayton (MSO-65) and Malcolm Creelman, a Vietnam-era Marine and Silver Star recipient. Bob and Malcolm have made numerous trips to SEA over the past 20+ years.

As with the NSA-sponsored Vietnam trips in 2007 and 2013, Fred handled all the arrangements. Fred’s business takes him to SEA on a regular basis over the years. I’ll say he has good connections and leave it at that. I’m the type of person who plans and over-plans. The best “surprises” are “no surprises” for me. Fred’s planning fits right into that mold.

Arrangements for this trip were far from normal. Long Cheng is in a tightly restricted area and access to the outside is difficult. It is quite possible that, outside German director Marc Eberle, we might be the first “outsiders” to enter the area since 1975. Again, Fred’s contacts would get us access to Long Cheng.

The plan was for Malcolm and me to fly from Seattle and meet Fred and Bob in Bangkok, Thailand. From there we would fly to Vientiane, the capitol of Laos, where we would start our drive in two 4-wheel vehicles. Hopefully, we would be able to access Long Cheng, but that was not set in stone. The drive would continue to Phonsavan, near the Plain of Jars, the site of numerous battles, and continue North to Samneua, where we would see the enormous caves that sheltered the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese armies.

The final leg would be the drive from Sam Neua to the Vietnam border where we would enter that country at Na Meo. Tim, an employee of Fred in Saigon, would fly to Hanoi, get a vehicle and driver and meet us at the border checkpoint. Some pretty good planning was needed as it would not be good for us to arrive at the border checkpoint in the middle of nowhere and not have anyone there to take us to Hanoi, from where we would fly back to the U.S.

I didn’t want this piece to be a travel log, but the easiest way for me to remember events was to sit down in the evening and record the day’s happenings. The days do and did become a jumble, so the daily diary was a big help. I’ve condensed it a bit. This is not a story of the history of Long Cheng—that has been covered by the guys who were there. It was a trip that a person would want to make for educational and historic reasons but not one to be repeated a second time. We’re off to Laos.

Day One -- Seattle

I had not met Malcolm Creelman before, but we quickly spotted each other at the EVA airlines check-in. I had guessed that with his Marine Corps background, he might be a no-nonsense type of person—correct. He told me to skip the regular check-in line and go through the VIP line, even though I wasn’t VIP ticketed. I did, no problem. Malcolm guided me through many small roadblocks on this trip and probably kept me from getting “traveler’s sickness” with his supply of food that he carries with him.

Day Two --Taiwan

We gained 15 hours in clock time on the 13-hour flight to Taiwan. After a three-hour layover, we flew EVA to Bangkok, Thailand. Malcolm was in business class, so we made a plan if we got separated at the Bangkok airport. Bottom line, take a taxi and meet at the JW Marriott, where Fred and Bob were staying. Bangkok was a mess with 500 people trying to get through four customs windows, and we ended up meeting at the Marriott.

Day Three -- Vientiane

All four of us flew a Thai Airlines 737 to Vientiane, the capitol of Laos—a one-hour flight. Malcolm said to hustle off the plane and beat the rush to the counter where we were to get our Visa’s. In answer to my concerns about not having my paperwork completed, he said not to worry, that they only wanted the money—correct again.

Vientiane was quiet and laid back after the bustle of Bangkok. Checked into Lao Plaza hotel. Later that afternoon Fred made final arrangements for vehicles and drivers. Met Bob Dayton’s daughter, Katherine, her boyfriend and his parents for dinner. Katherine was in Laos on business and the parents worked for the State Department. Great dinner at an Italian restaurant (L’Opera)—the owner came to Laos 20 years ago and never went back to Italy.

Day Four -- Vientiane

We had a day off in Vientiane. I tried to do some walking, but I was eight weeks into a full ankle replacement and hobbled, as I was for most of the trip. Malcolm Rule #2: Always get a hotel card from the desk before leaving on a walk. Get lost, hand the card to a taxi, bike driver and you get back. I found this to be a great idea.

We had a 3:00 pm meeting with Fred’s contact (AKA “The General”) to finalize travel plans and see if we were going to make it in to Long Cheng. “The General” was an interesting man and to keep the description generic—sunglasses and a Stetson cowboy hat for starters. After $60 worth of fresh-squeezed orange juice and a transaction, the deal was done.

Dinner that evening with same crew. Noticed that most of the people walking the street in front of the restaurant were white—Europeans, mostly German, plus a lot of young backpackers.

Day Five -- Heading to Long Cheng

Off to a good start. The drivers were 15 minutes ahead of time with three cases of water plus a couple sacks of bananas. I should have gotten a clue to the available food situation when I saw the bananas accompanied by noodles in a cup.

Roads shortly turned from pavement to dirt, dirt to narrow dirt, then to potholes, rocks and mountains. Drove up mountain for 30 minutes, down the other side for 30 minutes, and repeated that five times. Drivers were excellent, missing the large ore trucks (by inches) coming from a mountain that was being stripped away by the Australians. These guys could pass a truck within the 20 available yards before a blind curve and still miss the motorbike parked in the road. There wouldn’t be any white NASCAR drivers at Talladega if these guys ever got to the U.S.

We went through two military checkpoints without even slowing down. “The General” must be for real. It was originally going to take two days to get to Long Cheng, but we pulled in at 1600, checked the fillings in our teeth to see if they were still intact, and got out. Fred says, “It doesn’t get any better than this.” We were to hear that many more times, after which Bob soon replied, “That’s a matter of opinion.”

Big surprise—there were rooms for us at a “Guest House.” Small, no hot water, but more than expected. Ate our own food but drank their coffee—strong, with a large dose of sweet evaporated milk. We were probably the first outsiders to stay overnight at Long Cheng since the 1970s.

Day Six -- Long Cheng

The other three guys did a lot of walking in the area. I still was limited by the ankle. There looked to be about 400 people living at Long Cheng, plus 100 or so military. I was walking back to the “guest house” that evening when a line of 20-30 young men in uniform approached me, walking the other way. At first I thought they were military, but they seemed more like a youth work group of some sorts. If they were military, they had no idea of what made up a line. Moved up the road with an amoeba-like formation. Similar to smokejumpers compared to Hotshots.

As I was watching a high-school-age-girls volleyball game the next morning, there were several soldiers in the crowd carrying AKs. No one questioned, me but there were a lot of extended stares. The younger kids just stopped, turned and watched me as I walked by. Maybe they hadn’t seen a white person before or maybe they thought I walked strangely, dragging one leg.

The place was quiet and peaceful. From the reading that I have done, it was hard to imagine this once was one of the busiest airfields in the world. Skyline Ridge, the scene of many battles, stood impressively in view. The airstrip had grown over on each side and only seemed as wide as a one-lane road. There was the small military base off the top end of the runway. Housing for workers on a hydro-project had been built across from where we stayed. We were certainly off the map.

After breakfast (our food, their coffee), we hit the road again for three plus hours to Phonsavan. Saw several military outposts on the way with 2-3 very young soldiers living in the middle of nowhere.

Stopped for lunch—Pho with strong coffee again. Malcolm brought the ashes of his dog along to be spread in the Mekong River. That didn’t work out, so we went down to the local river, found a cardboard box, put the ashes and some leaves in the box, lit it with a match, and gave the remains a Viking funeral as it floated down the river. Locals probably thought we were rather strange.
Day Seven – Eight – Nine -- Phonsavan

We are in Phonsavan at Vansana Plain of Jars Hotel. No heat in the rooms and it is really cold at nights. “It doesn’t get any better than this.” Who keeps saying this?

We are in the new city. The bombing destroyed the old city. Today we visited Jars Site 1 and viewed these enormous stone jars set in the ground. No one really has an answer as to where they came from or their purpose—just another wonder of the world. There were plenty of tourists at the site—mostly Japanese and some Koreans. Japanese stand out equipped with the latest of travel gear from head to foot. They looked like they were going to climb Everest that afternoon.

Fred said we will be here a couple of days as we picked up a day when we got to Long Cheng the first travel day. He had allowed two days for that trip. We can't speed up the trip as we already have a driver scheduled to meet us at the Vietnam border on a certain day at a certain time. Our guide this morning is a Hmong who lives here. Has sister in Sacramento.

Fred had a young man eat with us tonight. He’s a Hmong who works for the MAG (Mine Advisory Group that finds and digs up the unexploded munitions) that has an office across the street. Fred met him somewhere along the line about five years ago. He says that, since 1975, thousands of people have been killed or lost body parts from the unexploded munitions.

Day Ten – Sam Neua

Arrived in Sam Neua after a nine-hour drive. This country is nothing but mountains, very few valleys. The road was paved but narrow-1.5 lanes. We pass just like no one is coming from the other direction. Our drivers are very good, but I’m not comfortable with driving through villages at 40mph. We went over passes that were up to 5,000 feet and most of the time you could look 2-3,000 feet off the side of the road.

Must have gone through 20 Hmong villages built along side of the road. Their houses are within feet of the road; little kids playing right next to the road -- seems like we miss them by inches.

Good thing we all bought small heaters in Phonsavan before we left as the hotel does not have heat or hot water. “It doesn’t get any better than this.” But, it has great internet -- go figure.

From the Vientiane Times: “The coldest weather in years froze provinces across Laos with northern regions suffering most from the extreme weather conditions. Two northern provinces saw minus temperatures yesterday – the first time this year and for many years.”

We’re eating at a hotel near where we are staying. Fred buys fresh vegetables (broccoli/cauliflower) daily and hands them to the cook when we give our dinner order. They cook them up, add some great spices and serve them. Hard getting service and the orders were mixed up. Fred starts talking to them in Vietnamese when he gets frustrated and they start to get things right.

I’m good with veggies and rice along with Fred. Spaghetti is the standard for Malcolm. Toss in a 20-ounce bottle of Beer Lao and a person could go for weeks on veggies and beer. Fried rice comes standard with a fried egg on top.
Day Eleven – Sam Neua

Easy to get dressed in the morning as I’m wearing all my clothes to bed, it’s so cold. Also easy to wake up as there is a rooster located about six inches outside the bathroom wall who starts at 0400 each morning. Would make a great addition to our rice if we could ever get our hands on him. “It doesn’t get any better than this.” Are you s------ me Fred?

We drove about an hour to see a set of caves where the Pathet Lao had military headquarters inside a mountain. They had everything in there: hospital, sleeping, etc. Went to two more sets of caves. You would have to be raised in this country to live like that” dark, cold and damp.

Day Twelve -- We’re Out’a Here

We left at 0630 this morning from Sam Neua and made great time (two hours) to the Vietnam border. It took about half an hour to clear customs. We were checked three times. I think that since this crossing was so isolated these guys had plenty of time on their hands. I was later to find out in Seattle that these guys must be related to our TSA employees, but much more polite.

Fred’s employee, Tim, and a driver were there right on time. We had a Mercedes van with five rows of seats -- plenty of room.

Then it started -- the road on the Vietnam side was dirt; narrow and logging trucks were starting to go down the hill. The logs were stacked so high it looked like they would tip with a push of the hand. We got by all of them before we got to a place where another truck had slipped off the road blocking traffic. Fortunately, it got out after about 10 minutes. We all felt it was great that we got past the log trucks as one of them would surely go off the road at this spot and the road would be closed for a day or more.

Mile after mile of dirt road passed with villages almost all the way. It seems that everyone builds right on the road. I still can’t get over passing on curves and three abreast. We didn’t get to Hanoi until about 5:30 that evening—11 hours of travel.

Checked into the Army hotel—run by the military. Fred likes it here as, naturally, the security is great. Actually, a pretty good room including breakfast for $50. Got to take a warm shower and shave after two days in a cold hotel. “It doesn’t get any better than this.” I can finally agree with that statement.

The days are starting to fold into a daze. I think we’re ready to come home.

Day 13 -- Hanoi

We were tourists today. Went for a long walk, but the ankle gave out on return trip. Paid a bikecab $3.00 to get me back to the hotel. Traffic about as heavy as a stream during a salmon run. I was wondering how my guy peddling was going to get across a street three lanes wide, especially since we were going the wrong way on a one-way street. Easy, just cut to the inside and go against traffic down another one-way street. I really would like a bikecab with the peddler in front and passenger behind, but they don’t come that way.

Went to the Hilton for dinner. Fred and Malcolm had two women who worked for the government join us. They knew one of them from 20 years back. She is now a spokesman for the government. The other one was in some sort of high position. Malcolm said she trained in Russia. Fred kept them engaged in conversation for a whole hour—Bob and I sat across from each other where we could get out of the conversation. Bob jokingly said that we need to stay clear of Fred as they (police) will probably pick Fred up that night.

Day 14 -- Heading Home

Flew to Taiwan, then to Seattle, picking up a day and arriving before we left Taiwan. Said our goodbyes and I headed for a Sacramento flight. Great to be home!

Home Free -- The Dreaded TSA

We were 30 minutes late getting in from Taiwan and I knew it would be tight getting through customs, go from the international to the main terminal, checking in with Alaska Airlines and making it to the waiting area. I would have to hustle. The ankle replacement was going from talking-to-me stage to a low roar. I had a Rush Limbaugh-type oxy pill that I was saving until I cleared security.

In the last 14 days I had cleared security in three countries, gone into a military restricted zone, and driven hundreds of miles on narrow mountain roads. Now I was home free! Think so?

My first clue came as I approached the TSA checkpoint. It was late at night and I was the only person there. “Hey, you’re in the wrong line,” a voice shouted. By this time I had been traveling 32 hours, was seeing visions, and tearing scar tissue in my new ankle. I looked up and saw a three-headed monster. Once my eyes focused, I saw that there were really three of them. It was just the blimp-sized body of one that shielded the other two with just their heads showing. How could I be in the wrong line? I’m the only person in line!

That should have been my first clue. There were three of these GS-Zero/Wal-Mart rejects with time on their hands. I was the victim. “Remove everything from your pockets,” came the command. My travel shirt had aspirin, cough drops, boarding passes, and everything that I would need in transit, so I just took off the shirt. When I stepped through the machine it sounded. Told them that with a knee and ankle replacement the machine always does that.

Next came the pat down, arms extended as the young man inspected the 1/16th inch hem on my undershirt for hidden explosives. The TSA had a 75-year-old, blonde (at one time), 160-pound Osama Bin Laden look alike. Next came the small pads over the hands, which had to be run through the machine to tell if I had been handling explosives in the past few hours. I was beginning to wish I had the Ebola virus and see if his machine would pick that up.

The steam was starting to come out of my ears as valuable time was being wasted. I needed to make the last flight to Sacramento or spend the night in Seattle. However, I knew that these guys had the power to RF me if I even said a word—therefore, endure in silence.

This trip was a once-in-a-lifetime experience with emphasis on “once.” But I have this strange feeling that if, a year from now, Fred says, “Want to take a trip to Cambodia?” I’d say, “Do they have heat and hot water?” After all, “It doesn’t get any better than this.”

Some of the jumpers who worked at Long Cheng courtesy Ken Hessel (MYC-58) and T.J.Thompson (MSO-55):
T.J. Thompson, Jerry Daniels (MSO-58), Shep Johnson (MYC-56), Miles Johnson (MYC-53), Ed Bustamante (GAC-61), George "Pappy" Smith (IDC-62), Frank Odom (MYC-63), Gary Hannon (MSO-60), Fred Barnowsky (MSO-42), Larry Moore (IDC-59), Woody Spence (MYC-58), Richard "Paperlegs" Peterson (MYC-47), Jack Cahill (MSO-58), Lyle Brown (GAC-54), Bruce Lehfeldt (MSO-54), and Jim Barber (GAC-60).