Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison




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Part of the CIA's dilemma was solved by the season. The weather in the Indian lowlands during May was starting to get oppressively hot, making the dusty Agra drop zones less than popular with the airborne brigade. Most of the Tibetan jumps were intentionally scheduled around noon -- the least popular time slot, because the sun was directly overhead. The Intelligence Bureau also arranged for the Tibetans to use crude barracks in a distant corner of the air base, further reducing the chance of an encounter with inquisitive paratroopers.

As an added precaution, a member of Brigadier Uban's staff went to an insignia shop and placed an order for cap badges. Each badge featured crossed kukri knife blades with the number 12 above. The reason: after independence from the British, the Indian army had inherited seven regiments of famed Gurkhas recruited from neighboring Nepal. Along with four more regiments that transferred to the British army, the regiments were numbered sequentially, with the last being the 11th Gorkha (the Indian spelling of Gurkha) Rifles. On the assumption that most lowland Indians would be unable to differentiate between the Asian features of a Gurkha and those of a Tibetan, Establishment 22 was given the fictitious cover designation "12th Gorkha Rifles" for the duration of its stay at Agra. [14]

To oversee the airborne phase of instruction, Ken Seifarth relocated to Agra. Five jumps were planned for each candidate, including one performed at night. Because of the limited size of the barracks at the air base, the Tibetans would rotate down to the lowlands in 100-man cycles. With up to three jumps conducted each day, the entire qualification process was expected to stretch through the summer.

All was going according to plan until the evening before the first contingent was scheduled to jump. At that point, a message arrived reminding Uban that the Indian military would not accept liability for anyone older than thirty-five parachuting; in the event of death or injury, the government would not pay compensation. This put Uban in a major fix. It was vital for his staff to share training hazards with their students, and he had assumed that his officers -- none of whom were airborne qualified -- would jump alongside the Tibetans. But although they had all completed the ground phase of instruction (which had intentionally been kept simple, such as leaping off ledges into piles of hay), his men had been under the impression that they would not have to jump from an aircraft. Their lack of enthusiasm was now reinforced by the government's denial of compensation. When Uban asked for volunteers to accompany the guerrilla trainees, not a single Indian officer stepped forward. [15]

For Uban, it was now a question of retaining the confidence of the Tibetans or relinquishing his command. Looking to get special permission for government risk coverage, he phoned Mullik that evening. The intelligence director, however, was not at home. Taking what he considered the only other option, Uban gathered his officers for an emergency session. Although he had no prior parachute training, he told his men that he intended to be the first one out of the lead aircraft. This challenge proved hard to ignore. When the brigadier again asked for volunteers, every officer stepped forward.

Uban now faced a new problem. With the first jump set for early the next morning, he had a single evening to learn the basics. He summoned a pair of CIA advisers to his room in Agra's Clarkes Shiraz Hotel. Using the limited resources at hand, they put the tea table in the middle of the room and watched as the brigadier rolled uncomfortably across the floor.

Imaging the likely result of an actual jump, Seifarth spoke his mind. At forty-seven years old, he was a generation older than his CIA teammates and just a year younger than Uban. Drawing on the close rapport they had developed over the previous weeks, he implored the brigadier to reconsider. [16]

The next morning, 11 May, a C-119 Flying Boxcar crossed the skies over Agra. As the twin-tailed transport aircraft came over the drop zone, Uban was the first out the door, Seifarth the second. Landing without incident, the brigadier belatedly received a return call from Mullik. "Don't jump," said the intelligence chief. "Too late," was the response. [17]

In the weeks that followed, the rest of Establishment 22 clamored for their opportunity to leap from an aircraft. "Even cooks and drivers demanded to go," recalled Uban. Nobody was rejected for age or health reasons, including one Tibetan who had lost an eye and another who was so small that he had to strap a sandbag to his chest to deploy the chute properly. [18]

Nehru, meanwhile, was receiving regular updates on the progress at Chakrata. During autumn, with the deployment of the eight-man CIA team almost finished, he was invited to make an inspection visit to the hill camp. The Intelligence Bureau also passed a request asking the prime minister to use the opportunity to address the guerrillas directly. Nehru was sympathetic but cautious. The thought of the prime minister addressing Tibetan combatants on Indian soil had the makings of a diplomatic disaster if word leaked. Afraid of adverse publicity, he agreed to visit the camp but refused to give a speech.

Hearing this news, Uban had the men of Establishment 22 undergo a fast lesson in parade drill. The effort paid off. Though stiff and formal when he arrived on 14 November, Nehru was visibly moved when he saw the Tibetans in formation. And knowing that the prime minister was soft for roses, Uban presented him with a brilliant red blossom plucked from a garden he had planted on the side of his stone bungalow. Nehru buckled. Asking for a microphone, the prime minister poured forth some ad hoc and heartfelt comments to the guerrillas. "He said that India backed them," said Uban, "and vowed they would one day return to an independent country." [19]


OAK TREE


For the eight Indians -- six from the Indian air force, two from the Intelligence Bureau -- even a van ride had become an abject lesson in the finer points of tradecraft. Sent to Washington in mid- March 1963, they were to be the cadre for the covert airlift cell conjured earlier by Biju Patnaik and Bob Marrero. For the first two weeks, Marrero, who was playing host, arranged for briefings at a row of CIA buildings near the Tidal Basin.

By the beginning of April, the venue was set to change. A van pulled up to their Washington hotel in the dead of night, and the eight Indians plus Marrero piled into the back. All the windows were sealed, and the Indians soon lost their bearings as the vehicle drove for an hour. When they finally stopped, the rear doors opened nearly flush against a second set of doors. Hurried through, they took seats in another windowless cabin tucked inside the belly of an aircraft. [1]

Landing at an undisclosed airfield -- only years later would they learn that it was inside Camp Peary -- the Indians were taken to an isolated barracks. Over the next month, a steady stream of nameless officers lectured on the full gamut of intelligence and paramilitary topics. There were surreal touches throughout: their meals were prepared by unseen cooks, and they would return to their rooms to find clothes pressed by unseen launderers.

The leader of the eight Indians, Colonel Laloo Grewal, had a solid reputation as a pioneer within the air force. A turbaned Sikh, he had been commissioned as a fighter pilot in 1943 and flew over 100 sorties during World War II in the skies over Burma. Immediately after independence in 1947, he was among the first transport pilots to arrive at the combat zone when India and Pakistan came to blows over Kashmir. And in 1952, he was in the first class of Indian aviators selected to head to the United States for transition training on the C-119 transport. When the call went out for a dynamic air force officer to manage a secret aviation unit under the auspices of the Intelligence Bureau and CIA, Grewal was the immediate choice.

Following the training stint at Peary, six of the students returned to New Delhi. The two most senior members, Grewal included, remained for several additional weeks of specialized aviation instruction. Marrero, meanwhile, made arrangements in May to head for India to conduct the comprehensive air survey broached with Biju Patnaik in their December 1962 meeting. Joining Marrero would be the same CIA air operations officer who had been involved with the earliest drops into Tibet, Gar Thorsrud.

Much had happened to Thorsrud since his last involvement with Tibet. In the spring of 1961, he was briefly involved in Latin America. Later that summer he shifted to Phoenix, Arizona, and was named president of a new CIA front, Intermountain Aviation. [2]

Among CIA air proprietaries, Intermountain was in the forefront of innovation. With its main operational base at Marana Air Park near Tucson, Arizona, the company specialized in developing new aerial support techniques. It was Intermountain, for example, that worked at perfecting the Fulton Skyhook, a recovery method that whisked agents from the ground using an aircraft with a special yoke on its nose. Intermountain experts also experimented with the Timberline parachute configuration (a resupply bundle with extra-long suspension lines to allow penetration of tall jungle canopy) and the Ground Impact system (a parachute with a retainer ring that did not blossom until the last moment, allowing for pinpoint drops on pinnacle peaks). [3]

It was this eye for innovation that Thorsrud carried with him to India. For three months, he and Marrero were escorted from the Himalayan frontier to the airborne school at Agra to the Tibetan training site at Chakrata. Much of their time was spent near the weathered airstrip at Charbatia, where they were feted by the affable Patnaik. He offered use of Charbatia as the principal site for a clandestine air support operation and immediately secured funds from the prime minister for reconstruction of the runway. Patnaik also donated steel furniture from one of his factories, cleared out his Kalinga Air Lines offices to serve as a makeshift officers' quarters, and even loaned two of his Kalinga captains. "He was Nehru's fix-it guy," said Thorsrud. "He got things done."

Returning to New Delhi after nearly three months, the two CIA men were directed to a hotel room for a meeting with a representative of the Intelligence Bureau, T. M. Subramanian. Known for his Hindu piety and strict vegetarian diet, Subramanian had been serving as the bureau's liaison officer at Agra since November, where he had been paymaster for amenities offered to the USAF crewmen rushing military gear to India. He was also one of the two intelligence officers who had been trained at Camp Peary during April.

In the ensuing discussions between the CIA aviators and Subramanian, both sides spoke in general terms about the best options for building India's covert aviation capabilities. In one area the American officers stood firm: the United States would not assist with the procurement of spare parts, either directly or indirectly, for the many Soviet aircraft in the Indian inventory. [4]

A subject not discussed was which U.S. aircraft would be the backbone for the envisioned covert unit. Earlier in the spring, this had been the subject of serious debate within the CIA. Wayne Sanford, the senior paramilitary officer in New Delhi, had initially proposed selection of the C-119. This made sense for several reasons. First, more than fifty C-119 airframes had been in the Indian inventory since 1952; it was therefore well known to the Indian pilots and mechanics. Second, beginning in November 1962, the Indians had ordered special kits to add a single turbojet atop the center wing section of half their C-119 fleet. The added thrust from this turbojet, tested in the field over the previous months, allowed converted planes to operate at high altitudes and fly heavy loads out of small fields. The United States pledged in May 1963 to send another two dozen Flying Boxcars to India from reserve USAF squadrons. [5]

Other CIA officials in Washington, however, were keen to present the Indians with the C-46 Commando. A workhorse during World War II, the C-46 had proved its ability to surmount the Himalayas while flying the famed "Hump" route between India and China. More important, other CIA operations in Asia -- primarily in Laos -- were making use of the C-46, and the agency had a number of airframes readily available.

There were drawbacks with the C-46, however. It was notoriously difficult to handle. Moreover, the Indians did not operate the C-46 in their fleet, which meant that the pilots and mechanics would need a period of transition. When CIA headquarters sent over a USAF officer to sing the praises of the C-46 in overly simplistic terms, Grewal cut the conversation short. Recalls Sanford, "He flatly told the U.S. officer that he had been around C-46s longer than the American had been in the air force." [6[

In the end, however, the Indians could not protest CIA largesse too loudly. When Marrero and Thorsrud had their meeting with Subramanian, selection of the C-46 was an unstated fait accompli. The next day, Subramanian returned to the two CIA officers with a verbatim copy of the hotel discussion. "Either he had a photographic memory," said Thorsrud, "or somebody was listening in and taking notes." Both Americans signed the aide-memoire as a working basis for cooperation. [7]

As a final order of business, Marrero asked for an audience with Mullik. With the Charbatia air base -- now code-named Oak Tree 1 -- still in the midst of reconstruction, the first aircraft deliveries would not take place until early autumn. This did not dampen Marrero's enthusiasm as he recounted the list of possible cooperative ventures over the months ahead. The aloof Mullik replied with an indifferent stare. "Bob, we will call you when we need you." [8]

Despite Mullik's lack of warmth, efforts to create the covert air unit went ahead on schedule. On 7 September 1963, the Intelligence Bureau officially created the Aviation Research Centre (ARC) as a front to coordinate aviation cooperation with the CIA. Colonel Grewal was named the first ARC operations manager at the newly completed Charbatia airfield. He was given full latitude to handpick his pilots, all of whom would take leave from the military and belong -- both administratively and operationally -- to the ARC for the period of their assignment.

In New Delhi, veteran intelligence officer Rameshwar Nath Kao took the helm as the first ARC director. A Kashmiri Brahman like Nehru, forty-five-year-old Kao was a spy in the classic sense. Tall and fair skinned, he was a dapper dresser with impeccable schooling; he was a Persian scholar and spoke fluent Farsi. Dignified and sophisticated, he had long impressed the officers at the CIA's New Delhi station. "I had the opportunity to drive with him from Kathmandu back to India," recalled one CIA official. "At each bridge we crossed, he would recount its technical specifications in comparison to its ability to support the heaviest tank in the Chinese inventory." [9]

To assist Kao and Grewal, the CIA dispatched Edward Rector to Charbatia in the role of air operations adviser. Qualified as a U.S. Navy dive-bomber pilot in 1940, Rector had joined Claire Chennault's famed Flying Tigers the following year. He would later score that unit's first kill of a Japanese aircraft and go on to become an ace. After switching to the U.S. Army Air Forces (later the U.S. Air Force), he retired as a colonel in January 1962.

Rector came to Oak Tree with considerable Indian experience. During his Flying Tigers days, he had transited the subcontinent. And in late 1962, following his retirement from military service, he had gone to India on a Pentagon contract to coordinate USAF C-130 flights carrying emergency assistance to the front lines during the war with China.

Now serving with the CIA, Rector was on hand for the initial four aircraft deliveries within a week of ARC's creation. First to arrive at Oak Tree was a pair of C-46D Commandos; inside each was a disassembled U-10Helio Courier. A five-seat light aircraft, the Helio Courier had already won praise for its short takeoff and landing (STOL) ability in the paramilitary campaign the CIA was sponsoring in Laos. Without exaggeration, it could operate from primitive runways no longer than a soccer field. More aircraft deliveries followed, totaling eight C-46 transports and four Helio Couriers by early 1964.

Under Rector's watch, the CIA arranged for the loan of some of the best pilots from its Air America roster to act as instructors for the ARC crews. Heading the C-46 conversion team was Bill Welk, a veteran of the Tibet overflights. For the Helio Courier, Air America Captain James Rhyne was dispatched to Oak Tree for a four-month tour. During this same period, T. J. Thompson, who had been assisting with the Tibetans' jump training at Agra, began work on a major parachute facility -- complete with dehumidifiers, drying towers, and storage space at Charbatia. "By the time it was finished," said Thompson, "it was larger than the facilities used by the U.S. Army in Germany." [10]

Under the tutelage of the Air America pilots, the ARC aircrew contingent, including two captains on a one-year loan from Kalinga Air Lines, proved quick studies. By the close of 1963, transition training was nearly complete. For a graduation exercise, a demonstration was planned at Charbatia for 2 January 1964. Among the attendees would be Nehru himself.

Arriving on the assigned day, the prime minister took center seat in a rattan chair with a parasol shading his head. On cue, a silver C-46 (ARC planes bore only small tail numbers and Indian civil markings) materialized over Charbatia and dropped bags of rice and a paratrooper. Then a Helio Courier roared in and came to a stop in an impossibly small grassy patch in front of the reviewing stand. An "agent," hiding in nearby bushes with a bag of "documents," rushed aboard the Helio. Showcasing its STOL ability, the plane shot upward from the grass and over the stands. Nehru, at once impressed and confused, turned to the ARC and CIA officials in attendance and asked, "What was that?" [11]

***

While the CIA assistance at Chakrata and Charbatia was transpiring under the auspices of the Near East Division, a separate Tibet program had been taking shape since December 1962 under the Far East Division. This program called for the training and infiltration of at least 125 Tibetan agents. But whereas the Near East Division was giving support to what were essentially Indian projects, the roles were reversed for the Far East Division's project -- at least as it was originally conceived: the Indians would provide some minor assistance, but the Far East Division would call the shots.

It was not long before the CIA saw the inherent weakness of this arrangement. India, after all, would be party to the recruitment of Tibetan agents on its soil and would likely be expected to provide rear bases and staging areas. This greatly bothered the Special Group (as had been the case with Uban's Chakrata force), which was leery of authorizing paramilitary assistance to a project potentially subject to an Indian veto, especially if New Delhi grew weary and withdrew its commitment following a future rapprochement with Beijing.

To allay the Special Group's concerns, the CIA worked safeguards into the Tibetan agent program. Agent training would focus on producing self-sufficient three-man radio teams that could infiltrate Tibet, find support, and build a local underground that could feed and shelter them for extended periods without having to rely on lines of supply from India.

Just as with Establishment 22, Gyalo Thondup was quick to buy into the program and went off to recruit. The CIA, meanwhile, reopened Camp Hale to handle the expected influx. Scrambling to piece together an instructor staff, it found a willing volunteer in Bruce Walker, the great-grandson of Methodist missionaries in China. Walker's moneyed parents were family friends of Frank Wisner, the CIA's influential deputy director for plans between 1952 and 1958. Joining the agency with Wisner as his mentor, Walker spent his first four years in Latin America before joining the Tibet Task Force in January 1960. Once there, he proved adept at winning choice assignments. The agency paid for him to spend almost a year at the University of Washington's newly organized Tibet program to learn that country's language and history. In March 1962, the CIA again sponsored him for language classes, this time at Sikkim's Namgyal Institute of Tibetology. [12]

By the time Walker returned to the United States in the fall of 1962, he had the basics of spoken Tibetan in hand. Given its investment in his education, the CIA rushed him to Hale to prepare the camp for the first wave of Tibetans. Ken Knaus, chief of the Tibet Task Force in Washington, would again be on hand to offer occasional lectures. There was also a stream of smoke jumpers -- including brothers Miles and Shep Johnson -- available for parachute instruction. The USAF even provided experts to teach survival tips. Overall command of the training would be held by Robert Eschbach, an OSS veteran.

In India, meanwhile, a search had commenced for suitable translators. All but one of the previous Tibetans serving in that role were unavailable. One of the new candidates, Wangchuk Tsering, was the nephew of a former trade commissioner at Kalimpong. An English student since 1956, he had been writing for the Tibetan Freedom Press in Darjeeling when Gyalo made a recruitment pitch in December 1962. Along with forty-five agent trainees, Wangchuk immediately left for New Delhi in a bus. Unlike the earlier shadowy ex filtrations across the East Pakistan frontier, this time they departed with Indian escorts from the capital's Palam Airport. [13]

By February 1963, four groups totaling 135 Tibetans (ten more than originally planned) had arrived at Hale. Gyalo had been instructed to restrict these recruits to the younger generation, unlike the crowd of seniors at Mustang and Establishment 22. Although the Khampas were still the overwhelming majority, 5 percent were from Amdo, and another 5 percent were from central Tibet. There was even a pair of Golok tribesmen from the Amdo plains who spoke an unintelligible dialect. "We used the same written language," said interpreter Wangchuk (now going by the call sign "Arnold"), "so all instructions we're given to them on paper." [14]
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