General Vang Pao, the rough-hewn leader of the CIA-backed guerrilla forces in Laos, died of pneumonia yesterday in Clovis, California, at the age of 81. Here are some memories of the Hmong leader that are not likely to be in the obits.
I was the press attaché at the American embassy in Vientiane during one of the periodic struggles with North Vietnamese forces for control of the Plain of Jars. The normal foreign press corps in Laos — three or four stringers and a staff correspondent from Agence France Presse — had swollen to a small mob. I was giving two and sometimes three briefings a day.
All of them wanted to leave the capital city and see the real war, which of course we were reluctant to let them do. It was a secret war after all, one of the few to have its own press attaché. But at last we sort of gave in, and I laid on a DC-3 to carry the reporters up-country to a village called Samthong. For public consumption this was supposed to be the headquarters of Military Region II, commanded by General Vang Pao. The actual headquarters was elsewhere, at the CIA’s semi-secret air base, Long Cheng.
General Vang Pao met the press outdoors. His only prop was a bedraggled prisoner of war, sitting sadly on the ground with his hands tied. The first question to the general was his opinion of the North Vietnamese.
“What would you think of somebody who came into your house and pissed all over the floor?” the general asked, glancing toward the prisoner. “Well, that’s what I think of the North Vietnamese.”
A Vietnamese-speaking reporter asked if he could speak with the captive, and the general told him to help himself. Afterwards the reporter translated, “This man says you attached wires from a field telephone to his penis and made him crank the magneto. Is that true.”
“Probably,” the general said. “Sometimes you have to encourage them.” And so it went.
Next day the New York Times ran an account of the press conference, prominently featuring the field telephone. That same day, General Kouprasith, military commander of the capital district, met with the press back in Vientiane.
The Times man, Henry Kamm, went first: “General Vang Pao told us yesterday that he uses electric shock to interrogate prisoners. Do you do that down here?”
“Oh, no,” General Kouprasith said, to my very temporary relief. “We find it works just as well to withhold food and water.”