Gen. Vang Pao, the controversial but revered Hmong leader who was a key ally to the United States during the Vietnam War, died Thursday in Clovis, Calif. He was 81.
Vang Pao was admitted to a hospital for pneumonia Dec. 26 shortly after his traditional opening remarks at the Hmong International New Year Festival in Fresno.
“Because of him, the Hmong are here in America. I have uncles and pastors who fought with him in the jungles. As a child, I grew up with his name,” Maya Xiong, news director of a Hmong radio station in Fresno said as she prepared to go on the air and confirm the news to a grieving community. “It will be so different going forward without him.”
California’s Central Valley is home to one of the nation’s largest populations of Hmong.
The man who would become a fabled soldier and thrust his people from an ancient agrarian way of life into modern warfare and the modern world, was born in 1929 to farmers in a small Laos village.
As a teenager, he became a translator for French paratroopers fighting the Japanese in Laos during World War II. He attended French officers school in Vietnam and served as an officer in the French army. In the Royal Lao Army, he became a general and the army’s highest ranking Hmong.
In 1961, the CIA recruited Vang Pao, then 31, to command a clandestine military operation against communist forces that would become known as the Secret War.
Vang recruited a guerrilla army that grew to 30,000 troops, mostly Hmong, a tribe that lived in the mountains of Laos. He often accompanied his soldiers into battle. He visited Hmong villages, giving money to the wives and children of fallen soldiers left behind.
His ability to skirt death was legendary, according to Karl Polifka, a retired Air Force colonel who knew Vang Pao during the Vietnam War.
Polifka told The Times in 2008 of the time Vang Pao was about to leave a Laotian air base in a Huey helicopter but suddenly refused to go. He ordered the pilot to stop the engines. His reason was simple: “Buddha says not to fly in this.” Half an hour later, the helicopter exploded.
In 1975, the U.S. retreated, leaving Laos under communist control and the Hmong hunted and on the run. More than a 120,000 Hmong died. The general was spirited out of the country by the CIA.
The American government resettled other Hmong to the United States. More than 150,000 Hmong have emigrated since then, some 30,000 to California’s Central Valley.
Vang Pao became a de facto leader for the exiled Hmong. He served as clan mediator and cultural go-between, often mingling and dealing with U.S. congressmen and high-profile business leaders.
He always swore he would go back to save the Hmong left persecuted and hiding in Laos three decades after the war. U.S. government regulators looked into allegations that he was forcing Hmong to donate to a resistance movement.
Over the years, his vows seemed to grow empty and beside the point to the increasingly Americanized Hmong.
Then, in 2007, the U.S. government arrested Vang Pao and other Hmong elders on charges that they tried to buy nearly $10 million worth of military weapons and recruit mercenaries to unseat Laos’ communist government.
The incident caused a collision of past and present in the Hmong community. Old soldiers who fought under Vang Pao cried and told their stories for the first time. Young professionals with no memories of Laotian jungles began seeking out the stories of what had happened to their families and worrying about what was happening to Hmong still in Laos.
The Hmong community saw Vang Pao’s arrest as a betrayal by the American government, and held protest rallies in Sacramento and Fresno. Vang Pao, whose standing seemed to be diminishing with the passage of the years, regained new stature among a younger generation of Hmong.
In 2009, the U.S. government dropped charges against Vang Pao. He said he planned to return to Laos and seek reconciliation and a way out for the Hmong that he said were still trapped and persecuted there. The trip was cancelled after the Laos communist regime said Vang Pao would be executed if he returned.
Vang Pao is survived by at least 20 children.
Funeral arrangements are pending. A spokesman told the media that the family hopes Vang Pao can be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Diana Marcum is a special correspondent.