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The Dreaded Hog – a good ‘Merican

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By James E. Parker, Jr.

When I applied for paramilitary work with the CIA in the spring of 1970, one Studies and Operations Group (SOG) interviewer said the work would require someone with “hang.” Once hired on contract and in training, I was to learn that trans-lingual word “hang” was the province of one of the case officers up in the mountains of Laos. “Hog” was the case officer’s call-sign. He was one memorable individual—the role model for new hires in the CIA paramilitary business.

To put Hog’s story in context you have to start back with Bill Lair, the case officer in the Lao program that CIA trainers talked about most. He had gone to East Asia in the early 1950s about the time General MacArthur was fired from his job as Supreme Commander of UN forces in Korea. Sort of a changing of the guard. Lair’s job in Thailand was to organize and train a special group of Thai police, eventually called PARU, to act as the vanguard force against any communist threat to the Thai border.

With a base training camp on the coast below Bangkok, Lair would take PARU recruits out into the mountainous jungle west near Burma and personally train them in survival skills and small unit tactics. If the recruits didn’t match up to Lair’s high standards of toughness and adaptability, they were released from the program. By the late 1950s, Lair had developed a well-trained Thai force that could go anywhere along the border to engage the local population to fight advancing communists.

He married a Thai lady of royal breeding and was enormously respected by both common Thai country people and the Thai king, who made him a captain in the Thai police. He was known as Pooh Mai Khouey Go-Hok (“the man who never lies”).

In the course of his work, he first met the Lao hill tribes’ warlord Vang Pao in 1960 and, under a joint Lao, U.S. and Thai agreement, began to provide PARU support to Vang Pao’s ragtag Hmong guerrilla army to help stem the advancing North Vietnamese military into the Lao northeast.

He and his deputy, Pat Landry (AKA the “Stick”), set up headquarters in Udorn, Thailand, and, in conjunction with CIA  headquarters in Langley, Virginia, went about selecting CIA paramilitary case officers to work with Vang Pao.

The first two men assigned after the ’62 Geneva accords were Vint Lawrence, a 22-year-old arts major just out of Princeton, who was to work as Vang Pao’s day-to-day case officer; and Tony Poe, a gnarled, heavy-drinking, pugnacious irascible rascal. He was the CIA outrider from Vang Pao headquarters who went to the most remote Hmong locations to help with the fight against the invading North Vietnamese. Both these men were extensions of Bill Lair in that they were totally dedicated to their jobs and stayed upcountry, engaged in the fighting, for weeks on end.

Lair sometimes objected to CIA headquarters sending him men he didn’t ask for and, whenever possible, put his own men out to supplement Lawrence and Poe’s work. One was a smoke jumper who came to the Lao program to work for Air America as a “kicker”—someone who pushed cargo from aircraft to waiting Vang Pao guerrillas out in the Lao mountain hinterland.

There was something about this young, laconic cowboy that caught Lair’s attention and, in an in-house shift of responsibilities, he went from working out of the back end of Air America planes to working on the ground with Hmong guerrillas. He gave himself the call-sign of “Haugh” after a teacher he had once had, but the Hmong couldn’t get their tongues around the low o-sounding “u.” The word they would pronounce always sounded like “Hog”—and that was what he became known as.

Lair’s policy was to put singleton CIA case officers rather than two-man teams out at remote positions, because it forced the singletons to bond with the local commander, helped them learn the language and the Hmong culture. Hog, appreciative of Lair’s support, took on lonely, dangerous postings without a whimper; in fact, he seemed to thrive in the Hmong hilltop culture.

We new hires in the States learned the general outline of this story of Lair and Hog during after-hour sessions with our SOG trainers, often as they emphasized that our work was not 9 to 5, that it was difficult and dangerous and took dedication, and “hang.”

I arrived in Udorn, Thailand, for my assignment to the Lao program in November 1971. Bill Lair was back in the States going to a year-long war college program. His job had been taken over by his longtime assistant, Pat Landry. Hog had just returned from some Stateside training and was assigned to Long Tieng as “Chief of Operations.”

There had been some question of whether he had “gone native” during the earlier time he had spent at forward Hmong bases, but once he had come back into a more formalized CIA environment, it was apparent that the slow-talking, good-looking guy with the shy smile was a fast-thinking, very effective project manager with tremendous leadership ability. Plus over the years he had developed a close personal relationship with Vang Pao. So his re-assignment back to live in Vang Pao’s residence/headquarters in the Long Tieng valley was a natural. By the time I arrived, most of the Hmong nation considered him Vang Pao’s adopted American son.

My first job in Udorn was as the Long Tieng desk officer in that I did daily situation reports (SITREPS) to CIA headquarters in the States on the fighting upcountry and assisted Jim Glerum in giving briefings to the local U.S. military and visitors from Washington. Few visitors were allowed up to Long Tieng, but those who did go usually commented on Vang Pao’s charisma, and Hog’s silence. The man just didn’t talk much to people he didn’t know. That was his character.

Plus there was this: Vint Lawrence once told me that it took him a year living with the Hmong to get to the point where he could ask meaningful questions. Their culture was developed without exposure to the West and, totally isolated from the outside world, their frame of references was enormously different from that of someone like Vint, just out of school in the eastern US. Interpreters, equally unaware of Western culture, were always guessing what the big Americans were trying to say in their colloquial English. Only when Vint learned to speak the language did he begin to get an honest glimpse into the Hmong character and their way of thinking.

A US professor came out to Laos and lived with the Hmong north of Long Tieng for a couple of months and went back to write a very popular, but enormously flawed, book about the opium trade in southeast Asia. He cited again and again information he obtained during his two months living with the primitive people.

To this, Vint Lawrence said that he once asked the political leader of the White Hmong, Touby Lee Fong, about his religion. The rotund man thought a minute and asked Vint about his religion. Vint said that he was a Methodist, and Touby Lee Fong said, well, then he was a Methodist, too.

Lawrence’s point was the Hmong would say to a foreigner whatever it was he thought the foreigner wanted to hear, without considering what was the actual truth. The Hmong reaction to questions from outsiders was always… What does he want to hear? There is no question the good professor didn’t understand the cultural gap and took the Hmong he talked with about opium at their obsequious word.

Hog understood what Vint Lawrence was saying. Visitors to Long Tieng, especially visitors from inside the Washington, D.C., beltway, could not possibly know what was what with the Hmong in a five-hour visit. So he didn’t try.

Also there were things totally unique about work for the CIA in upcountry Laos. For one thing, contrary to exchanges with Hmong, there was an absolute dependence on honesty among the Westerners when dealing in the unforgiving NE Laos combat zone. Air America pilots, who went out day after day to deliver the mail and the men and the food and the guns and bullets to the Hmong hill tribesmen fighters, required complete honesty. Any hedge on the facts would get people killed. In talking business, you told the truth or you shut up.

Hog probably felt the need to shut up when around people who didn’t know the uncommon reality of upcountry Laos. Whatever the case, few outsiders ever met him, and those who did usually got little conversation. Like Bill Lair, he was a “man who never lied.” Hell, he was a man who rarely talked to strangers.

I met Hog the first time in early December 1971, when I went up to Long Tieng from Udorn on an orientation trip. All those stories I had heard? Hog didn’t disappoint. When introduced, he didn’t offer to shake hands, just looked me in the eye and nodded his head forward only a fraction. With his dusty, dark clothing and his dour expression, he reminded me of cowboys I had seen in black-and-white photographs taken out west a hundred years ago.

He had an economy of movement. He didn’t saunter or strut, but moved like an athlete even wearing the heavy boots necessary for upcountry work. John Wayne said he developed his well-known Hollywood facade of a strong, silent no-nonsense Western sage by practicing in front of a mirror for hours until he had the look he wanted.

In Long Tieng there were few mirrors, but if you want a visual of Hog, think of the John Wayne character for the look, the Paul Newman characters for the smooth moves and Steve McQueen’s for the quintessential cool. That was Hog, but he was the real thing. A 20th century Sam Houston.

Hog had blended into the Hmong culture and had come to be accepted as one of their own. The Hmong loved him and he understood them like few other Americans. They were subsistence slash-and-burn farmers and hunters with no written language. They had no pretensions. There was nothing phony about them. They looked each other in the eye, lived socially uncomplicated lives, had gumption and spoke their minds. They were hardy, good people, survivalists in a harsh environment. They were also constantly under attack by invading North Vietnamese.

But—and this is important in understanding the man—Hog did not have divided loyalties. He was first a CIA case officer who ultimately worked for the American people and he understood the trust and responsibility that went with that job. He took orders from, and answered to, Washington, D.C., but he defended and championed the Hmong at every turn.

We answered to Chief of Unit Dick Johnson, but out on the battlefield, running things day to day, was Hog. He had good judgment, hang, combat acumen, knew the enemy, every inch of the territory and every Hmong commander. With no formal military training, he didn’t really know how to give orders. He was the leader of our herd, the trail boss. He’d tell us what needed to be done in a sort of folksy, conversational way and we’d do it. Same with his dealings with Air America and the Ravens. There were no garbles I can remember. Everyone working with the Hmong every day understood what Hog wanted done. We were a select CIA group at Long Tieng—Hardnose, Lumberjack, No Man, Bamboo, Red Coat, Clean, Moose, Kayak, Digger, Greek—but Hog was the man.

At one point, Hog and Hardnose were the only Americans in the valley when it was attacked by two North Vietnamese divisions. It was their decisive actions in that fight that allowed Vang Pao’s ragtag army to win the Battle for Skyline Ridge … and it was Hog’s conspicuous, continuing presence in the valley that caused the Hmong civilians not to flee, to hold their ground in a face-off with tens of thousands of North Vietnamese. Hog–and Hardnose–had “hang.”

In other times, Vang Pao held open sessions with any Hmong who wanted an audience. They came by the hundreds when there was a break in the fighting and Vang Pao was in the valley, to talk about food supply and property disputes and elections of village chiefs and such.

Hog was often there when Vang Pao held court, off to the side, listening, smiling when it was appropriate, never speaking unless addressed, but very much a part of the scene. He would admit that there was sometimes Hmong “hocus-pocus” going on that he didn’t completely understand. The Hmong were animists who believed in nature and the mountains, the winds and clouds and rocks and animals. Sometimes their conversations drifted into deep-seated Hmong views of the way nature worked, and their sense of how they fit in—areas where he was no authority. He was not Vang Pao’s “consigliore” as much as he was a Marco Polo type in the court of Kublai Khan.

Socially, he had his posse that included some of the Hmong case officers, and with them at night he would become the Long Tieng head ape. Unsmiling and generally uncommunicative with strangers, he was animated and funny with his buddies. He laughed a lot, sort of a cackle. Had a biting humor — once called Bamboo the “Flying Zero” because he hadn’t been doing much. He had his own language and, although his cronies didn’t usually use his pet terms in his presence, his way of speaking became the insiders’ language of the Long Tieng valley. To do anything fast was to do it in “a pair of seconds.” If he had to go see someone, he had to go “darken the door” of the person, even if that person was standing out under a tree somewhere. Beer was “nectars.” Someone he liked he’d call a “good ‘Merican.” He’d use “dreaded” like the British used “bloody”—as in “the dreaded Lumberjack’s a good ‘Merican.” If a situation was hostile, it was “mighty dangeral.”

“Hang?” The Lao word for courage sounds phonetically like “hang” and that’s the word Hog used to mean a strong resolve. CIA men had to have “hang” to work with the Hmong. Anyone putting on airs he called a “lady singer,” to imply a greasy-haired lounge singer warbling out a tune with half-closed eyelids. Most politicians were “lady singers.”

He would stay in the valley for months on end and then take off for Bangkok for a 10-day or two-week drunk, sobering up at Pat Landry’s apartment in Udorn before coming back to the valley. He was at heart a cowboy from Montana, a hard working, hard playing smoke jumper. Like few people you’ll ever meet, money and recognition just weren’t important.

Several Air America men and their wives tried to fix Hog up with visiting women from the States. None of these contacts took off.

The following Alaska folk story reflects Hog’s manner with proper ladies:
“It was their first date, set up by mutual friends. He wasn’t an experienced courter, so he stopped by a bar for some drinks before going to her house. She welcomed him at the front door, awkwardly, and they proceeded to the drawing room. A few silent moments passed. He was looking around the room. She sorta just sat there. Finally she looked up and said, “You know, the many gentlemen who court me usually bring chocolate when they come.”

He said, “Is zhat so? Well, I don’t see you passing none of it around.”

That just sounds like Hog.

By 1971, seven James Bond movies had been produced and they were all the rage in the US. In the CIA clandestine service, maybe there were individuals who would compare to the fictional suave British spy, but to us in Laos, the only individual we knew to have the same superstar, supercool status was Hog.

Maybe Chief of Station (COS) Hugh Tovar could compete, because he was so refined and ran such an effective program. Maybe Kayak, what with the toothbrush and the smarts and the killer instinct. Hardnose even, and the Black Lion. But no one had Hog’s enormous cool.

I was eventually assigned upcountry to work with the Hmong village militia, and then GM 22 when Ringo left. Hog was my boss. I was a johnny-come-lately and not one of his close cronies, but we got along fine. He would tell me to do things and I would do them.

The only time he ever seriously reprimanded me was when I sent a road watch team north around the Plaine des Jarres (Plain of Jars – PDJ) to an area near Ban Ban. I was not smothering them with day-to-day coverage, but I did keep track because of common incidents where road watch teams didn’t do what they were supposed to do. This team was moving ahead, slowly but surely.

One night Dutch came around asking the case officers for some good targets for pending B-52 strikes. He got the coordinates he was looking for and with the Arc Light boxes drawn out on the big mapboard in the Sky base office, Dutch ran them by the assembled case officers again to make sure he hadn’t included any villages or friendly positions.

(NOTE: Project Arc Light was the overall name for USAF B-52 bombing missions in Vietnam and Laos. A “box” was the target area—roughly 1.5 km by about 3 km—for a particular bombing mission. “Sky” was the general radio call-sign for CIA personnel and operations in NE Laos and was also shorthand for the CIA base at Long Tieng.)

The next night I was at the board plotting the progress of my team when I found them near where Dutch had marked an Arc Light box. Hog was standing nearby. He knew why I had gasped, continued to look at the board for a minute, turned to look me in the eye with a cold, dead stare and left. I had never been so reprimanded in my life.

Two days later the team called in that they were safe, although they had had a close call a few days before. Hog never said a word one way or the other, but there again, that road watch team was thereafter never very far from my mind.

By the summer of 1973, the fighting was over in NE Laos. A ceasefire was in place. Digger was gone and Ringo, then Hardnose and most of the CIA case officers working with the Thai volunteers left. Plus Kayak, Red Coat, Greek, Moose, Bamboo and Dutch. They were not replaced. Zack, Hog, Clean, and I, plus administrative officers, were left to work with the Hmong.

I had received orders for Vietnam. In November 1973 Hog took me to Air Ops the last day, parked his Jeep in the shade of the Air Ops building and squinted into the sun. In his slow Montana drawl, he reminded me what our chief had said in a recent visit—that the fighting was all over. He thought a tour in Vietnam was after the fact.

“I reckon it’s just something I got to do,” I told Hog.

Hog looked away, but smiled. “The dreaded Mule,” he said.

I forget but I doubt he said goodbye. Probably he just nodded his head a fraction when I left his jeep to get on my plane south.

I never saw Hog again. He died 29 April, 1982. On a two-day drunk, he was accidentally asphyxiated by a faulty gas water heater in Bangkok, Thailand.

He was a hell’va guy. One of the grandest and least heralded ‘Mericans there ever was.

James E. Parker, Jr aka “Mule” is retired from the CIA and author of Codename Mule, Last Man Out, Covert Ops, Kessler’s Homilies and Timeline:  Skyline Ridge Battle.  Visit:  http://muleorations.com

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