PHAGNA NORAPAMOK GENERAL VANG PAO
Grand Officer of the Order of the Million Elephants and the White Parasol.
Commander of the US Legion of Merit
Knight of the French Legion d'Honneur
Grand Officer of the Thai Order of the White Elephant
Medal for Combatants from King Sisavang Vong
Medal of the Reign of King Sisavang Vatthana
French Croix de la Guerre des Operations Exterieures, four bronze stars and 1 bronze palm
French Foreign Legion Indochina Vietnam Colonial Medal
French Foreign Legion Indochina Campaign Dien Bien Phu
The Honorable Phagna Norapamok General Vang Pao was the Father of the Hmong People. His extraordinary journey changed the destiny of the Hmong People. His legendary deeds will continue to inspire his Hmong People for generations to come.
In his long and distinguished life, even as he dazzled the eyes of four different countries, which awarded him their highest military honors, General Vang Pao was many things. He was a successful Hmong-French ally. He was a legendary Hmong-Laotian General. He was a loyal Hmong-American war hero and citizen. But in his most unique role, he was the revered Leader of the Hmong People after their beloved country of Laos fell to communism and they were scattered to the four corners of the world. His whole life was guided by his pride and belief in the grandeur of the Hmong People. He worked in many places with many allies, but he always had a single goal: to ensure a safe home for his Hmong People and lead them to a brighter future.
General Vang Pao was born into one of the most obscure and isolated hilltribes in Laos and Indochina. Like most other Hmong people, his family made a hard living through slash-and-burn farming on the barren highlands along the soon-to-become Lao-Vietnamese border.
In 1945, Laos was a French colony caught up in the troubles of World War II. Germany was occupying France and its Japanese ally sent troops to Laos to secure that territory. The French army asked for the Hmong People's help to keep them safe. They came to see then Tasseng of Keng Khuai Touby Lyfoung to ask him to provide Hmong men to hide them in the jungle and keep a flow of communications. Vang Pao was one of the bright young men that Touby Lyfoung recommended. He was then a young lad of thirteen or fourteen who dreamed of a better life. He welcomed the opportunity to work as a messenger and interpreter. World War II officially ended in 1945, after the US dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. However, the Province of Xiengkhouang, where many Hmong lived, was not liberated until 1946. Upon that victory, Touby Lyfoung was appointed as the first Hmong Chao Muang (district director of a province). As for young Vang Pao, his outstanding service won him the distinction of being sent to train as a Corporal at the French Gendarmerie NCO School in Luang Prabang. He was later trained as a Sergeant in Vientiane. Next, he was recommended to the Lao Officers' school in Dong Hen, in Savannakhet, in 1951. After graduating at the top of his class in tactics and strategies in 1952, as a Royal Lao Army Second-Lieutenant, he was posted at Mouang Hiem and put in command of Commando Special Number 4, where he worked with Colonel Max Mesnier. His first mission was to take his troops to attack some Vietminh pretending to be Pathet Lao in Sam Neua. When the Vietminh retaliated by coming to Mouang Hiem, Lieutenant Vang Pao moved his troops to the Plain of Jars. The Vietminh pursued him there in 1953. Alarmed, the French asked for US military support, but the US was concerned about violating its policy of not supporting colonialism. In 1954, Ho Chi Minh, who emerged as a Communist political force in Vietnam in 1951, ordered a massive attack on Dien Bien Phu. Vang Pao was selected to command a mixed unit of Hmong, Mien, Khmu and Lao troops to support Dien Bien Phu, however, the post fell before they arrived. Vang Pao's brilliant work with the French earned him several military honors from the French Foreign Legion, as well as the ultimate French honor: the French Legion d'Honneur.
After the defeat of the French by the Vietminh in 1954, the Geneva Accords of 1954 were signed. They granted independence to the newly-formed and neutral Kingdom of Laos. From the beginning, Laos struggled to maintain its neutrality and its democratic nation, as it became the unofficial fighting ground between East and West politics. Despite official gestures, such as the 1961 US President John F. Kennedy and Russian Premier Nikita S. Krushnev joint statement or the 1962 Geneva Declaration on the Neutrality of Laos, both sides strategized for undercover combat. The US started to send undercover operatives, including CIA agents, to observe activities in Laos. By 1963, Kennedy had dispatched more than 300 CIA agents into Laos.
Laos was just a small, land-locked country with little natural resources of economic interest. However, it was strategically situated in between Thailand and Vietnam, themselves smaller players backed up by the great powers of the Cold War, respectively France/the US and China/Russia. Laos became the key tile in the domino effect feared by the US, as best expressed by President Kennedy, in line with his predecessor's, President Eisenhower, assessment: "Laos is far away from America, but the world is small. Its two million people live in a country three times the size of Austria. The security of all Southeast Asia will be endangered if Laos loses its neutral independence. Its own safety runs with the safety of us all, in real neutrality observed by all."
By the late 1950's, after being selected to attend a battalion commander course at Chinaimo (Laos), followed by a 6-weeks counter-insurgency training program at the Scout Ranger Base in Manila (Philippines), Vang Pao commanded the Royal Lao Army's 10th Infantry Battalion, on the Plain of Jars. There, beyond his value as an outstanding military leader, he found himself in the eye of the perfect storm that would propel him and his Hmong People to the glorious and tragic fate of defenders of Freedom and Democracy. In the same way that their country of Laos was relatively small and obscure, the Hmong People was a smaller and isolated hilltribe. However, they were strategically situated along the Lao-Vietnamese border. In the War of Indochina, the French came to the Hmong People for help to defend Laos against disruptive Vietnamese forces. During World War II, the French came to the Hmong People for help and the Japanese pursued the Hmong, whom they perceived as the French allies. In those times, Hmong revered leaders Kiatong Lor Blia Yao and Tasseng Touby Lyfoung were called upon to lead the Hmong People in defense efforts that protected their Hmong People, the Lao lands and the French colonial empire. During the Cold War, the Hmong people fought side by side with other Lao ethnics to protect the Kingdom of Laos against communist attacks. By that time, Vang Pao had risen as a Hmong-Laotian military force that could play a pivotal role in the Vietnam War.
On August 9, 1960, Captain Kong Le led a coup d'etat in Vientiane, with simultaneous offensives in Xieng Khouang Town. When Russian planes came to drop off arms and supplies, it became clear that there were greater forces at play.
On January 4, 1961, Captain Bill Lair came to meet Lieutenant-Colonel Vang Pao at the Tha Vieng airfield, south of Xieng Khouang Town. A World War II veteran, Captain James W. (Bill) Lair, who worked for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), had established a successful paramilitary operation in Thailand, known as the Thai Police Aerial Reinforcement Unit (PARU), to fight the Communist forces in Thailand. When the Russians appeared to be backing up a take-over by Captain Kong Le, in an effort by the neutralists to ally with the communists, the US understood that Laos was at great risk and the Lao-Vietnamese border had to be secured. Captain Bill Lair sought out the upcoming military wonder, Lieutenant-Colonel Vang Pao. At a critical first meeting with the young Laotian military leader, Captain Bill Lair heard the answer he was looking for: "We (the Hmong) are sure we cannot live with the Communists. We either run south for our survival, or if someone supplies us with arms-support, medical assistance and food, then we will fight to protect our women, children and country." The US had found the determined defense ally they were looking for.
In 1961, Vang Pao was promoted to full Colonel. His Hmong secret army started with the authorization to arm and train up to 1,000 Hmong. Air America dropped weapons to the first 300 trainees at Pa Dong, a mountain top base, south of the Plain of Jars. The Hmong were taught to use those weapons and in basic ambush tactics by PARU teams. Twenty Hmong men out of the 300 were selected to train in Thailand as radio operators. Soon, Colonel Vang Pao's base established his headquarters, Long Cheng, in a valley up 3,000 feet in altitude and surrounded by tall mountains. A natural fortress, the 1,260 meter-long runway was its main transportation access point and one of the mostly challenging landing sites. It was a secret CIA base, also known as Lima Site 20A. By 1963, the Hmong troops increased to 20,000 strong. In 1963, the CIA along with the Navy and the Air Force gave them an official ally name, and they became known as Special Guerilla Units (SGU).
When it was in operation, from 1961 to 1975, General Vang Pao bravely led his troops to achieve three goals, which in his words were to "1) stop the flow of the North Vietnamese troops and supplies through the Ho Chi Minh Trail into Laos on their way to attack the American and pro-democracy Vietnamese troops in South Vietnam, 2) rescue any American pilot that got shot down along the Lao-Vietnamese border, and 3) protect the US Air Force Navigation Radar in Phou Pha Thi that guided the B-52s and the jets to bomb military targets in North Vietnam.
General Vang Pao's military journey included transforming the Hmong People from a slash-and-burn agricultural people to a military people, again in all its glory and gore. From tilling the earth, the Hmong People took to the sky. Ly Lue and Vang Toua were the first two Hmong pilots selected by General Vang Pao to get pilot training to fly T-28 bomber aircraft, under Captain Bill Lair's directions. Many would follow. General Vang Pao went on many reconnaissance flights with American and Hmong pilots, to survey the land and plan successful strategies. On the remote mountainsides and valleys where they were stationed, the Hmong soldiers relied heavily on air support for supplies, communications and defense. CIA advisors even became known as SKY lords by the Hmong troops, after the onsite CIA SKY headquarters, which may have been named so by Jerry Daniels, a CIA operative originally from the Big Sky Country State of Montana. CIA SKY Jerry Daniels was authorized to be the CIA liaison officer closest to General Vang Pao. Jerry Daniels was the last of General Vang Pao's CIA advisors, who was preceded by Bill Lair from 1961 to 1967, Pat Landry from 1967 to 1969, Dick Johnson from 1969 to 1971, and Vince Shields from 1971 to 1972.
Air support was a lifeline for the Hmong People during that period. So much so, that the history of the Hmong people is now intricately intertwined with that of legendary flight units, such as the Ravens and Air America. Hmong soldiers often flew as backseaters to the Raven pilots, sent on perilous missions in thick layers of mists and treacherous canopies of jungle. In the wilderness of the land and of the times, both Hmong and American soldiers lived unbelievable adventures, which formed stronger bonds than in routine service. "All of us quickly developed sympathy with [the Hmong] people and threw a little more of ourselves into the war... it only took you about a month or two to realize this was an extraordinary mission," recalled Jim Lemon, one of the first two Ravens, the elite pilot unit operating in Long Cheng. Just as the Hmong soldiers relied on air support for survival, so did their families. With all their men gone to war and unavailable to farm the harsh highlands, Hmong women and children risked starvation. Edgar "Pop" Buell, an Indiana farmer from the USAID recruited by Captain Bill Lair, after trekking for two months around the Plain of Jars, designed and scheduled airdrops of rice to Hmong villages via Air America. Buell was also in charge of relocating hundreds of thousands of war-torn families into safer regions throughout Laos.
General Vang Pao successfully defended his Laotian and Hmong People, his country of Laos, and Freedom and Democracy for the rest of the World, for fifteen years. During that time, his troops helped save countless American lives and delayed the advance of communism for nearly two decades. His rapid rise through the ranks reflects the increasing challenges faced by his beloved People and Country. With more fighting and more outstanding acts of extraordinary service, he was promoted to Brigadier General, a 2 star General, in 1962 and became Commander of Military Region 2, one of the five Military Regions of the Kingdom of Laos. Along with General Soutchay Vongsavanh, Commander of Military Region 4, and their three other peers in each military region, General Vang Pao defended the Laotian nation and the Free World. Later, that year, he was gravely wounded by enemy fire. Phagna Touby Lyfoung remembered in his memoirs advocating for waiting for his recovery and not assigning a Lao General to take over the command of the Laotian-Hmong troops, who were primarily SGUs. After a full month of intensive medical care, General Vang Pao came back in full force, and in 1968, he earned his third star and was promoted to the rank of Major General. He was the only Laotian Hmong-ethnic General in the Royal Lao Army. His remarkable military prowess earned him the title of Phagna Norapamok, Lord Protector of the Land, from His Majesty the King of Laos, King Savang Vatthana.
General Vang Pao inspired a whole generation of Laotian-Hmong officers, such as Colonel Ly Youava, Colonel Sublong Lyfoung, Colonel Ly Teng, Colonel Toulu Moua Chongtoua, Colonel Choua Vang Ly, Colonel Ly Tou Pao, Colonel Nhia Lue Vang, Colonel Waseng Vang, Colonel Shong Leng Xiong, Colonel Ly Lo, Colonel Cher Pao Moua, Colonel Moua Sue, Colonel Vang Geu, Colonel Soua Yang, Colonel Nao Kao Lyfoung, Colonel Yong Chue Yang, Colonel Tou Long Yang, now-retired French Major Vang Neng, Lieutenant-Colonel Moua Gao, Lieutenant-Colonel Tou Fue Vang, Captain Nhia Bee Vue, Lieutenant Wang Yee Vang, Lieutenant Vang Xang, and so on.
General Vang Pao also fostered Laotian unity as soldiers from all ethnic background served loyally under his command, such as Brigadier General Chao Monivong, Captain Chaomai Srisongfa from the Lao Lu Mien minority, Captain Kham Seth from the Kamu minority, Colonel Khamhoung Pravongviengkham from the Lao majority, and so on.
After the Fall of Saigon in 1975, the US also quickly pulled out of Laos. As always said in the military service world, "the leader goes first in fight and pulls out last at loss." General Vang Pao asked to have his officers and their families airlifted to safety in Thailand first, and then took the last airplane. This fulfilled the old American promise to not let its Hmong allies be persecuted by their enemies. However, General Vang Pao's heart ached for all his soldiers and their families who were left behind on the frontlines. He relentlessly educated and advised Washington, and was instrumental in gaining congressional approval to resettle Laotian and Hmong refugees in the US. More than 100,000 Hmong refugees from Laos found a new home here in America, and more went to other countries (France, Australia, Canada and Germany) in the West, after they lost their beloved country.
With his coming to America, General Vang Pao's military career ended. He first went to live close to his former appointed CIA SKY advisor, Jerry Daniels, in his native Montana. For several years, General Vang Pao and his family farmed and ranched near Missoula. However, he often traveled to California and Minnesota to help his people settle in their new lives in a new land with a new government system. Soon after Jerry Daniels passed way while on a mission in Thailand, General Vang Pao decided to make a definite move to California, where a large Hmong community had resettled.
In times of peace, General Vang Pao found a new calling, as he stayed close to his Laotian and Hmong People. He sought to support them in making a successful transition to America.In 1977, he founded the first Hmong-Lao non-profit organization, Lao Family Community, in Orange County, California, which branched out to provide social services to most Hmong communities anywhere they might be. He also experimented with creating a Hmong grocery wholesale cooperative and a Hmong credit union. Thus started a new era of community service and leadership to achieve community building and the creation of strong and prosperous Laotian and Hmong communities in the US. In 1986, he created the Hmong 18 Clans Council in Fresno, to preserve the Hmong cultural ways and provide a Hmong traditional problem-solving structure. This Council provided a Hmong alternative dispute resolution process and forum, similar to the wise elders' council of the old days.
General Vang Pao enjoyed visiting and celebrating with the Hmong People in the US and abroad. He could be found at New Year celebrations (often with his good friends, such as Chao Ophat Na Champassak, Chao Phaya Luang Outhong Souvannavong, General Thonglit Chokbengboun, General Khamkong and so on), at various community functions or just lunching with local families who welcomed him as a Father. He was a strong supporter of education and always accepted to make key note speeches at graduation parties, where he urged young Hmong men and women to study hard, do well in life and come back to move the Hmong People forward. He sought ways to facilitate the development of a thriving Hmong community. He worked with local, state and federal government officials to explore opportunities for his Hmong People. He delighted in witnessing the entrepreneurial activities and civic engagement of his people here, who boldly started businesses or engaged in public services. He actively participated in local veterans events and parades.
At the same time General Vang Pao was building strong Hmong communities in the US and in the West, he tirelessly continued to advocate for the return to freedom and democracy in Laos. He founded and was active with several pro-democracy and international human rights organizations. In 1981, he founded the United Lao National Liberation Front (ULNF), also known as 'Lao National Liberation Movement,' with other Laotian dignitaries, such as Chao Phaya Luang Outhong Souvannavong, Chao Sisouk Na Champassak, Chao Ophat Na Champassak, General Phoumi Nosavanh, General Koupasith Abhay, Dr. Khamphay Abhay, General Thonglit Chokbengboun and others. The purpose of that organization was to educate and advocate in the rest of world, about human rights violations committed by the communist government in Laos. It also sought to restore the Royal Lao Family, by making more visible The Regent and the Heir-Prince. He supported the work of other human rights organizations, such as the "Mouvement pour les Droits des Hommes," a Lao human rights organization based in France and the Lao Human Rights Council based in Wisconsin. One of the highlights of his human rights efforts involved the successful education and advocacy, with a coalition of influential American diplomatic allies and many Hmong-Americans, which resulted in stopping the United Nations-sponsored repatriation back to Laos of thousands of Hmong refugees in Thailand. This eventually led the Bush Administration to authorize the resettlement in the US of the last recognized Hmong refugees from Wat Tham Krabok (Thailand). This last wave of 15,000 Hmong refugees arrived in 2004-2005.
To promote Freedom and Democracy in Laos and to encourage the Communist Laotian government to open the door for the exiled Laotians to visit and live in Laos with some liberty, General Vang Pao traveled all over the world to keep alive the dream that one day all the Laotians abroad would be able to go back to a democratic Laos. For many Hmong and Lao exiles in different countries, he symbolized the undying hope that, one day, Laos might be free and its people might return safely to their motherland.
In later years, General Vang Pao became more progressively engaged in Veterans issues. He was thoroughly involved in many veterans' advocacy efforts, such as the legislative bill H. R. 371 or the Lao-Hmong Veterans' Naturalization Act of 1997, which enabled Lao-Hmong veterans and their widows to become naturalized US citizens. Also in 1997, General Vang Pao, in the company of 3,000 Hmong and Lao veterans, accepted the Vietnam War Veteran Medal at the Mall in Washington and proudly attended the unveiling of the Hmong and Lao Soldiers Memorial Monument at the Arlington National Cemetery. He created Lao-Hmong veterans' organizations, such as the Lao Veterans of America and the SGU (Special Guerilla Units) Veterans and Families of USA, Inc. He was most recently actively involved in efforts to recognize the right of Lao-Hmong veterans to be buried at the Arlington National Cemetery with their fellow American soldiers.
Like a true soldier and devoted leader, General Vang Pao worked for his Lao-Hmong People until his last breath and his last step. He was braving the weather to celebrate the 2011 Hmong International New Year in Fresno when he fell weak from a bout of pneumonia. After ten days at a hospital, sickness won the best of him. On January 6, 2011, the Hmong People lost their Hero, Leader, Lord Protector and Father.
General Vang Pao devoted his life to his Laotian Nation and to his Hmong People in his life. He will watch over them from beyond this life. His last wishes would have been for the Laotian and Hmong people to remain strong, to love each other, to work together, to continue to work hard and prosper, and to raise future generations who will carry on the proud heritage of the Laotian and Hmong people.
General Vang Pao is survived by his two ex-wives May Song Vang and Pai Lo, twenty-five children, sixty-eight grandchildren and seventeen great-grandchildren from his direct line. He also has many nephews, nieces, grandnephews and grandnieces, whom he adopted and are like his own biological children. In addition, he also raised several hundreds of orphans as his own children. Finally, he has all his 18 Hmong clans who mourn him as a Father. General Vang Pao has gone on to a better world, but his great deeds will continue to inspire Hmong, Lao, Khamu, Yao people and everyone he has touched, for generations. His wise words will continue to guide them towards a bright future. Although he is gone, his legacy is strong and firmly anchored in all those who knew him or will know of him: whichever new mountain they climb, whichever new cloud they fly to, it will come to be, because he made the first step starting the journey and he mastered the first wind lifting his People up into the limitless sky.
May He rest in peace in the Great Beyond and May He always watch over us from Above
This eulogy was researched and compiled by General Vang Pao's firstborn grandchild, Pacyinz Lyfoung, Esq. , with the generous contributions of his sons Chong Vang and Chong Lia Vang, Noah Vang, Colonel Vang Geu, Lieutenant-Colonel Tou Fue Vang, Lieutenant Vang Xang, Major Vang Neng from the French Foreign Legion (special assistance with the identification of all the medals we have records of), Touxoua Lyfoung and from the CIA's and Ravens' files.