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Tibet

While the signing of the Korean War armistice in 1953 did little to ease global cold war tensions, the loss of an estimated 2.4 million casualties1 on both sides does appear to have influenced a turn away from large-scale bloodletting during the following decade. Almost as if by mutual agreement, both Western and Communist-bloc powers turned to a more discreet, if still vicious, form of warfare. Intelligence agencies developed formidable paramilitary capabilities.

When Chairman Mao Tse-tung ordered his People's Liberation Army (PLA) into Tibet in 1950, the army entered through the forbidding Chamdo region, home of these fiercely independent tribesmen. Populating these desolate areas were the proud Khamba and Amdo tribes, a predictably tough people with a long and proud warrior tradition in irregular warfare. Within a few short years, the heavy-handed Chinese occupation provoked a rebellion among the Khamba and Amdo, who became vilified as "bandits" in the Chinese propaganda machine. Much to the dismay of the Chinese, these tribesmen rebelled with such ferocity that by 1957 the vastly superior Chinese invasion forces found themselves fighting an 80,000-strong, horseback-riding guerrilla army that seemed to come out of a nineteenth-century Rudyard Kipling poem.

But the Chinese continued to have one advantage that was even more indispensable than their superior numbers: the brutal geography of Tibet itself made outside Western support to the guerrillas almost impossible. In responding to the Eisenhower administration's decision in 1957 to provide clandestine support to the Tibetan resistance, the intelligence community quickly encountered its first major obstacle. Without the expertise and equipment to conduct long-range clandestine air missions it needed just to get to Tibet, the program appeared doomed before it had even started. But where could it get the help it needed?

Throughout the 1950s, successive US administrations tasked the Air Force to support such paramilitary operations by providing clandestine aid to a number of anti-Communist rebellions, including one taking place in the remotest and darkest of these shadow wars. The barren and freezing mountain kingdom of Tibet, located on Communist China's southwestern flank, was by anyone's reckoning a long way from anywhere else. One nineteenth-century traveler recorded his impression of the unforgiving terrain as "the most frightening desert in the world."

In responding to the Eisenhower administration's decision in 1957 to provide clandestine support to the Tibetan resistance, the intelligence community quickly encountered its first major obstacle. Without the expertise and equipment to conduct long-range clandestine air missions it needed just to get to Tibet, the program appeared doomed before it had even started. There is a reason why Tibet is often referred to as "The Roof of the World." It is a country whose lowlands are located at an elevation of 13,000 feet! Fundamental to the entire problem was simply that of finding transport aircraft with adequate range and payload performance to operate under these extreme conditions.

The last of the active duty air resupply and communications groups had been deactivated the previous year. One of the only two remaining USAF troop carrier squadrons (medium) (special) still dedicated to special operations was based on Okinawa, but its aircraft did not have the required performance. And neither for that matter did the special operations Air National Guard units based in the United States. The needed expertise turned out to be right within the intelligence community itself in the form of a select group of both young and experienced USAF officers seconded to intelligence duties from the Air Force. A few of these seconded officers were assigned to Detachment 2, 1045th Observation, Evaluation, and Training Group (OE&TG) on Okinawa.

Most of this small team, like Capt (later Col) Ed Smith and Lt (later Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense) Lawrence Ropka, were new to the unconventional warfare business. But the commander who set the pace for these special operators had already established himself as a formidable unconventional warfare fighter and leader in Korea. Heinie Aderholt's Korean War combat experience in "special air missions," proved especially useful to the young group assembled on Okinawa. Now a major commanding Detachment 2, 1045th OE&TG, he was soon to become one of the most influential (and controversial) Air Commandos in Southeast Asia. But that was to come later. For the moment, the high-altitude, high-risk flights to Tibet demanded his most imaginative effort.

For the Tibetan operation, C-118s was loaded on Okinawa with Communist-bloc weapons and supplies already rigged for parachute drop over guerrilla strongholds in Tibet. From Kermatola, an abandoned World War II airfield located 20 miles north of Dacca, in East Pakistan, the Air America crews would take the C-118 on the final run north into Tibet.

The reality of supporting the intelligence operation in Tibet proved a daunting task for the Detachment 2 planners. There is a reason why Tibet is often referred to as "The Roof of the World." It is a country whose lowlands are located at an elevation of 13,000 feet! Fundamental to the entire problem was simply that of finding transport aircraft with adequate range and payload performance to operate under these extreme conditions.

Prior to 1959, Detachment 2's largest aircraft, a four-engined C-118 transport, had been frequently used for flights conducted by Civil Air Transport, a CIA proprietary airline operating throughout Asia. And CAT had indeed been busy during the earlier stages of the cold war. According to the highest ranking USAF special operations officer at the time, Brig Gen Edward Lansdale, CAT had by 1959 completed numerous overflights of mainland China and Tibet.

For the Tibetan operation, the C-118 was loaded on Okinawa with Communist-bloc weapons and supplies already rigged for parachute drop over guerrilla strongholds in Tibet. Proceeding to Clark Air Base in the Philippines to pick up fuel and long-range communication specialists, the plane then overflew Indochina enroute to its final destination at Kermatola, an abandoned World War II airfield located 20 miles north of Dacca, in East Pakistan. From Kermatola, the Air America crews would take the C-118 on the final run north into Tibet. Unfortunately, Detachment 2 had only one C-118. And by 1958, the Tibetan resistance movement was growing dramatically, outstripping in the process Detachment 2's inadequate air support.

In 1958 the CIA established a secret base at Camp Hale near Leadville, Colorado where the agency gave training to troops of the Dalai Lama, the temporal and religious ruler of Tibet. The Tibetan guerrillas were trained and re-equipped by the CIA in order to support the struggle of the Dalai Lama' s forces against the Communist Chinese. Guerrilla raids into Tibet by theses forces did occur, sometimes led by CIA contract mercenaries and supported by CIA planes [the training program appears to have ended in December, 1961].

By 1959, Detachment 2 was also organizing flights that took carefully screened guerrilla recruits all the way to Peterson AFB, Colorado, located some 70 miles south of Denver. The airfield was of course only a transfer point for the Tibetans, who were immediately bussed higher into the Rocky Mountains to Camp Hale, a former World War II Army training site near the mining town of Leadville. There they were put through a demanding training curriculum including weapons, demolitions, communications, and guerrilla tactics. At an elevation of over 10,000 feet, the camp was as close to "home" as their US advisors could hope to find for the mountain tribesmen. During field exercises at Hale, the Tibetans astounded their trainers with their physical endurance, the agility with which they traversed the most difficult terrain . . . and their passion for their US-issued weapons. One Tibetan source estimated that about 170 Tibetans passed through Camp Hale between 1959 and 1962. Following their training, they were quickly flown back to Asia. Shortly thereafter, they were parachuted from the "skyboats," as the guerrillas called aircraft, onto Tibet's high-desert plateaus.

By 1958, the Tibetan resistance movement was growing dramatically, outstripping in the process Detachment 2's inadequate air support. The new Lockheed C-130 just coming off the production lines was the obvious choice for this operation. To tap clandestine Air Force C-130 support for Tibet, US intelligence approached the Office of Special Operations (OSO), the division within the Office of Secretary of Defense charged with providing military support to the intelligence community. The old airfield in East Pakistan was abandoned as a launch point in favor of much better facilities located at Takhli Royal Thai Air Base in northern Thailand.

When Tibet's most important religious leader, the Dalai Lama, fled his country in March 1959, US-trained Tibetans played a key role in his escape.

When the ranking Chinese general in Tibet ordered his 50,000-man army to close all mountain passes to India, Khamba guerrillas guided the group across the 17,000-foot Che Pass and set up the clandestine air resupply drops that were crucial to the success of his safe arrival in India.

Moscow twice in early April 1959 repeated in radio commentaries Peiping's claims that Kalimpong, in northern West Bengal, had been used as a base for the Tibetan rebels, despite Nehru's public denial of this charge 30 March 1959. Moscow limited the blame for the uprising to Tibetan reactionaries , Western imperialism, and Chiang Kai-shek. Peiping, on the other hand, continued to repeat its statements about Kalimpong, together with public attacks against Indian "reactionaries" and "expansionists" for their sympathy and alleged aid to the rebels.

In April 1959, DCI Dulles appeared in closed session before the SFRC to discuss the escape of the Dalai Lama from Tibet a few weeks earlier. In thecourse of his testimony, not only did Dulles describe the Agency's role in theescape but with some specificity also made reference to the assistance the Agency had been covertly providing the local Tibetan resistance since the Chinese had occupied the country in 1957. While it was unusual if not unprecedented for a DCI to provide this kind of information to a "non-CIA committee," there was overwhelming sympathy in Congress at the time for the plight of the Tibetans, and, no doubt, Dulles - so often forced to bear thebrunt of criticism from the SFRC - for once was able to relish its praise.

By early 1960, the guerrilla movement was flourishing with a string of tactical successes in the countryside. But in the face of these successes, the Chinese responded with increasingly ruthless counterinsurgency tactics. Women and children, by now the only inhabitants left in many villages were reportedly used as human shields in front of Chinese troops assaulting guerrilla strongholds and monasteries. In the face of such tactics and the overwhelming Chinese superiority in numbers, the rebellion inevitably began to falter. Another blow came in 1960 when the Chinese moved an entire air division into western China to attempt intercept of the essential night resupply airdrops.

During this same period, growing Indian and Burmese political pressures further restricted overflight routes, making the missions all but impossible. The downing of Gary Powers's U-2 reconnaissance jet over Russia later that year and President Dwight Eisenhower's subsequent decision to cease all overflights of Communist countries eventually brought an end to USAF special operations support to the Tibetan operation.

In a strange cold war twist, Soviet airdrops to the guerrillas became common by 1966, following the Sino-Soviet rift. Unlike earlier US "plausible-denial" operations, the Russian diplomats were quite open in admitting their support.



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Page last modified: 22-11-2013 00:03:38 ZULU