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Remembering Tibet's Freedom Fighters

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I was waiting at Denver airport for my ride when I got a call from a Tibetan acquaintance who asked (somewhat expectantly I thought ... but I could be wrong) if the Americans had revived the program to train and support Tibetan jamak (guerrilla operations) inside Tibet. I explained that nothing of the kind was happening and that I was on my way to Camp Hale in the Rockies where a commemorative plaque was being dedicated to the memory of the 300 Tibetan freedom fighters who were secretly trained there by the CIA, many of whom lost their lives in subsequent operations inside Chinese occupied Tibet.

It would take about three hours to get to Camp Hale from the airport, but the sunlight was glittering on the distant mountains and the trip was a pleasant one. Tenzin Pasang la of Boulder had offered to drive me and we were accompanied by a couple of other friends. The SUV climbed steadily up past mountainsides covered with aspen, spruce and pine - the last, devastated in places by pine beetle infestation. But the aspen had just begun to change color and would, in a month, turn into their spectacular reds and yellows.

We drove on Interstate 70 for about a couple of hours and then took the exit to US highway 24, renamed 10th Mountain Division Memorial Highway. Camp Hale was established in 1942 during World War II as a home base for the 10th, and to provide winter and mountain warfare training, including skiing, for other military units. After the war the whole camp area had been decommissioned and most of the buildings and facilities removed.

When the secret program to train Tibetan fighters in the USA started in 1958, Camp Hale was selected because of its perceived similarity to the terrain in Tibet, and because of its general isolation. A small part of the vast military camp had survived and this section was wired off and some extra quonset huts and a log-cabin recreation center built and training equipment set up. A unit of military police permanently patrolled the perimeter of the area to keep possible intruders away.

We finally got over the mountains and came to a broad windswept valley about 11,000 feet, surrounded by low mountains and covered with scrub and purple sagebrush. Like native Americans, Tibetans burn sagebrush which we call sang ganden khampa, as a purifying ritual and a smoke offering to the Buddha and the old gods (yul-lha ship-dag) of Tibet. About two-thirds of the way into the valley we came to a place by the side of the road where a group of people were gathered. The main speaker, Colorado Senator Mark Udall hadn’t arrived yet but about a hundred guests were already seated. A film crew was setting up and reporters from local Colorado papers, RFA and VOA were interviewing people.

We busied ourselves arranging an altar of sorts, a statue of Lord Buddha and a portrait of the Dalai Lama on a picnic table. The Tibetan national flag and the American flag (along with the battle standard of the Four Rivers Six Ranges) were raised on either side of the brass commemorative plaque. We also strung up a length of prayers flags behind the plaque (about 20″x 15″) which was erected on a metal stand.

Photograph: Doma Norbu

I am not going into details about the formal ceremony. Readers will probably have read the news report “Celebrating Freedom at Camp Hale” by Scott Miller, re-posted on Phayul.com.

Photograph: Dominique Taylor / dtaylor@vaildaily.com

The event opened with a speech by the young Senator Mark Udall who thanked all those who had worked hard to make the event possible. In particular he mentioned retired CIA officer Ken Knaus who had led the effort to get official approval for the commemorative plaque.

Ken Knaus, who had come to the event with his wife, spoke of the courage and dedication of the Tibetan trainees. He told the crowd that he had always felt compelled to create some kind of memorial to the brave freedom fighters he had worked with. Tashi Choedrak la (Mark) who had been Ken’s translator at Camp Hale, gave a full historical outline of the program. Tashi la also mentioned that the Tibetan name for Camp Hale was “Dumra” or Garden. One of the first trainees at Camp Hale had told me some years ago that they had called the place Dumra because the bracing cold, the high mountains and the wind had made it feel like home, like Tibet.

Photograph: Jamyang Norbu/Tenzin Pasang

A number of the former trainees, Trundhu Pon Chime Tsering la (Conrad), Tashi Paljor la (Noel) Sonam Wangchuk la (Lee) and Pema Wangdu (Pete) and instructors Ray Starke and Don Cesare also spoke of their experiences. It became clear from everyone’s stories that the Tibetan trainees got on surprisingly well with their instructors and in turn the CIA people were fond of their students and came to admire them. I have reproduced some excerpts from previous interviews that have appeared in various books and other publications:

As one CIA instructor put it: “Basically we fell in love with those guys. The Tibetans distinguished themselves from the other nationalities that I had worked with. There was their obvious high spirit, dedication, self-discipline, and a degree of self-confidence. But there was something else about them - hard to explain.”

Instructor Tom Fosmire was struck by their sincerity and devotion. “They moved you in their direction”, he concluded.”

“The Lao would get frightened during night-time operations,” recalled Roger McCarthey,”and would hold each others’ hands.” The Tibetans, by contrast were of entirely different mettle. “They were brave and honest and strong,” said McCarthy,”Basically, everything we respect in a man.”

Instructor Frank Hollobar wrote “We already recognized that we were dealing with people who were more deserving than some of the people we had been working for. They were truly involved in trying to protect their way of life, their country, and were willing to fight for it. The Tibetans had this great spirit: “Give us the tool and we’ll do the job.” They weren’t asking the CIA to do the job for them, which is what we got from a lot of the groups we were working with.”

“They (the Tibetans) had steerable chutes, and they screamed “Geronimo” as they jumped, then chased each other down through the sky - yelling, laughing, trying to catch each other -- just having a hell of a time,” Frank Hollobar observed. “The instructors had never seen such high spirits among foreign nationals.”

“The instructors also came to realize that the Tibetans had remarkably inquisitive and inventive natures.” ... “Maybe it was the memorization and meditation associated with their Buddhist training,” one instructor speculated “They picked up codes fast and were a lot sharper than most people gave them credit.”

Instructor John Greaney in discussing the dedication of the trainees said: “I’ve never seen anything like it. After dinner they would go back to practice Morse code. Really, we used to comment back and forth that we were grateful that we were working with the Tibetans instead of the Central American problem, which was the Bay of Pigs. We knew we were fortunate to be involved with a good program.

Even with the very first group of six raw trainees at Saipan in 1957, Roger McCarthy was impressed with their marksmanship “always impressive” as was their discipline and attention to detail. “To my surprise, they quickly learned how to read and use maps, a skill few can claim. From simple coordinates concepts to eight digit accurate grid coordinates and transposing the resultant coordinates into accurate insertions in the one-time pad system to be used, as well as the need for properly and accurately orientating the antennas to communicate by the RS-1 radio according to the signal plans provided by Washington.”

Senator Udall appeared visibly moved by the stories and he rose to speak again and repeatedly requested members of the audience to share their experiences about the program or with individual instructors or Tibetans trainees.

A number of the guests came up and spoke, often emotionally, about their parents, relatives or friends who had been at Camp Hale. Dolma la, the daughter of Athar Norbu, one of first CIA trainees, recalled her father’s American accent when he spoke English that always intrigued her and her sister who studied at a Christian school in Darjeeling. What also surprised her was that he could always find his ways around a new town or city, with just a map. She also introduced her friend, Sonam Yangzom la, the daughter of the great warrior Ratu Ngawang, who though not a trainee at Camp Hale, was one of the leading Tibetan resistance fighters who had fought beside Andru Gompo Tashi in Tibet.

Kevin McCarthy, the son of instructor Roger Mcarthy, came with his two sisters and spoke of how much the project had meant to his father. He also shared stories he had heard from his father of the escapades of the Tibetan trainees, one being the launching of a large homemade rocket, which went seriously off course and damaged the buildings of a distant molybdenum mine, east of Leadville. The CIA had to foot the bill of $25,000 for repairs, but the incident added to the project’s cover story that secret nuclear experiments were being conducted in the area. Julie Hollobar, the daughter of Frank Hollobar was among the guests, though I am not sure she spoke. But she joined us for dinner. Lisa Cathy the daughter of our CIA contact at Calcutta, Clay Cathy, could not spare time for reminiscing. She had helped organize this event with Ken Knaus and the Senator Udall’s staff and was now busy with her cameraman and sound-man filming this event for her project “The CIA in Tibet”. Check out her website for lots of great interviews, photographs and videos.

The representative of the Tibetan Association of Colorado and other Tibetans including two monks spoke movingly of the sacrifice of the Freedom Fighters.

Karma Namgyal and other young leaders of the Four Rivers Six Ranges also spoke of how, though the events were before their time, they felt constantly inspired by the courage and self-sacrifice of those who had trained at Dumra. Karma la maintained that even after fifty years of brutal Chinese occupation Tibetans were still keeping up their fight against the Chinese. He also declared that Tibetans were ready to fight the Chinese if the occasion ever arose.

Ken Knaus was moved to speak again and he told the crowd. “This is not a funeral. This is the continuation of a fight that started 50 years ago.”

I was surprised to find that listening to so many speakers one after the other was an exhilarating rather than a boring experience. The anecdotes, the reminiscences, the attempts to resurrect the memory of past events, and even to establish some kind emotional connection with people who had trained at this place and later fought and died in Tibet, gave the addresses a ritualistic tone, like orations at the death of epic heroes. Perhaps I am getting a little carried away here with my analogies, but I found the experience very moving.

I also spoke briefly. I said I had come to this event to honor the memory of my late father-in-law Kasur Lhamo Tsering (Larry), who had trained at Camp Hale and who had been the director of all our intelligence and Mustang operations. I mentioned that my mother-in-law and my wife had sent khadags, incense and prayer-flags for the event. I added that though I was not trained at Camp Hale, I had been a member of the Mustang operations and that many Camp Hale alumni were my friends. I mentioned the names of a few who had passed away since: Utsatsang Buchi of Derge, who shared the same root (tsawae) lama, Jamyang Khyentse Rimpoche, as myself, and Tashi chung-chung (Sandy) of Shotalhosum (but Lhasa born) who was the smallest yet toughest Khampa I had ever met, and my roommate at Mustang.

But I particularly wanted everyone to hear the name of Bhusang (Ken) of Nyemo, who had not only fought in the Lhasa Uprising but had been at the center of the fighting in the Jokhang. He had escaped to join the training at Dumra and had been parachuted in the last air-dropped mission into Tibet. His entire team had been wiped out and he had been captured, tortured and interrogated, and finally imprisoned without a trial for eighteen years. I got to know him very well at Dharamshala, and interviewed him and often chatted with him when I had the chance.

Although prison had taken a toll on his health, he was the only senior Tibetan who worked out with us at the Rangzen Gym, below the old Medical Center building in McLeod Ganj. He never expressed regret for the suffering and misery he had endured all these years, and he had no doubt about the righteousness of the cause he had fought for. What upset him deeply was talk of autonomy and giving up Rangzen. I met him a few years ago just after the last negotiating team had been humiliated in China. Bhusang was sick and in bed but he was mad enough to sit up and let me know how he felt about the whole thing. “The Tibetan government has no idea of how the Chinese think. No matter what they tell you must never forget the one fundamental operating philosophy (tawa) behind their words.” ‘What is mine, is mine, and I want yours also.’” It sounded so witty and succinct in Tibetan “ngae di ngarae yin, khyorae diyae go yoe”, and it reflected, I guess, the fact that he had lived most of his life in Lhasa - a city he had defended with his life in ’59. Bhusang la died this year on 25th March at the age of 80.

I was glad to have this propitious occasion to at least make known the name of this brave fighter. Had he been alive he definitely would have been pleased that his American gergens had organized this event. But being the self-willed, outspoken and feisty old fellow that he was, Bhusang la would probably have insisted that he and his comrades had fought and given up their lives not for the CIA or the USA, but for the Tibetan people, the Dalai Lama, the Buddhist faith and Tibetan independence, and that it would have made him happier if such a commemoration had taken place at Dharamshala and had been organized by the Tibetan government.

Photograph: Jamyang Norbu

Once the formal ceremony had concluded, late in the afternoon, we moved over to the only remains of a structure, possibly the foundation of a quonset hut, and held a Sangsol ceremony there, Two monks had come from Boulder and everyone joined in the prayers. We started a small fire and burnt, juniper, sage, incense, tsampa and butter and soon got a nice column of smoke rising into the clear but darkening sky. It was just before sunset when we all formed a large circle and tossing tsampa in the air shouted “Lha Gyalo” or “Victory to the Gods”.

After the Sangsol ceremony most of us left for Leadville, a once roaring frontier mining town, to find the Cloud City Bar, where half a century ago the CIA instructors would drive down from Camp Hale for a drink - after putting their Tibetans trainees to bed. We didn’t find Cloud City but finally settled on Quincy’s, a real old West establishment with great steaks, spare-ribs and plenty of beer and whiskey. About thirty-five of us Tibetans and Inji friends crowded around the large tables and talked late into the night.

Early next morning my friend Warren Smith and I took Highway 82 to Aspen. We drove up the mountains to Independence Pass, which at 12, 095 feet is slightly higher than Lhasa. I thought the name auspicious in bringing to close yesterday’s events, and though I was slightly out of breath, I managed to declare the site “Rangzen La”, before driving on.

Photograph: Wikipedia Commons

Note: I have posted an album of historical photographs of the place, personnel and training activities at Camp Hale on the Rangzen Alliance’s website.

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I have provided below a spoken Tibetan version of this essay for the listening convenience of the non-English reading Tibetan public. I hope to be able to provide more such Tibetan audios of my writing in the future. If you have enjoyed reading this essay please recommend this audio to any of your non-English speaking friends, relatives and senior Tibetans. Thanks, JN.

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This audio version can also be downloaded from the Rangzen Alliance’s website.