Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison




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THE PRODIGAL SON

During the second week of September 1956, CIA officer John Hoskins arrived at Calcutta's Dum Dum Airport to a blast of late summer heat. At twenty-nine, he had already spent two years recruiting agents in Japan and another four shuttling between Washington desk assignments and vigorous tradecraft instruction. [1] Now assigned to the Calcutta consulate, his new post was an experiment of sorts. The CIA's Far East Division had just gotten permission to station its officers at any diplomatic mission where overseas Chinese were found in numbers. This meant superimposing Far East Division personnel outside of their home turf -- in this case, in India of the Near East Division. [2]

In Calcutta, Hoskins could choose from a wealth of Chinese targets. Topping the list was the PRC's consulate and the People's Bank of China branch, both of which had been opened following the 1954 Sino-Indian trade agreement. In addition, some 30,000 Chinese expatriates -- three-quarters of all those living in India -- made their homes in and around the city.

Hoskins landed the secondary assignment of preening non-Chinese sources in the Himalayan states along the Tibetan border. Just as case officer Kenneth Millian had found out four years earlier, however, the Indians went out of their way to obstruct such efforts. "Overseas Chinese were fair game for penetration," recalls Hoskins, "but the others were considered under Indian hegemony." [3] This was driven home when Mary Hawthorne, a CIA officer assigned to Calcutta, allowed Jigme Thondup (a Bhutanese royal who later became prime minister) and his family to spend the night at her apartment. When the Indians learned of the incident, their outcry was so shrill that Hawthorne was forbidden by her superiors to attempt any similar invitations. [4]

Mindful of Indian surveillance, Hoskins made plans for an exceedingly discreet approach to establish his own ties with Princess Kukula of Sikkim. As she was known to have an affinity for equestrian events, he first considered making an overture at the Tibetan pony races held in Darjeeling. But because the crowds were small and whites were sure to attract notice, Hoskins instead opted to wait until she came to Calcutta for one of the city's thoroughbred competitions. Blending with the event's large number of Western spectators, he approached the princess. But Kukula, Hoskins found, had more reservations than in the past. "She wanted to keep contacts strictly social," he concluded. "She was not serious about getting involved."

As things turned out, the services of the Sikkimese royals would soon prove redundant. When the United States learned that the Dalai Lama had gotten permission in early November to attend the Buddha Jayanti celebrations, the CIA scrambled to bypass Sikkim and establish direct links with Tibetan sources close to the monarch. [5]

None were closer than the Dalai Lama's two brothers in exile. The eldest, Thubten Norbu, already had a history of indirect contact with the agency via the Committee for a Free Asia. After he had been unceremoniously dropped from CFA funding in 1952, both he and his servant, Jentzen Thondup, had become stateless refugees in Japan. Not until 1955, following repeated appeals channeled through Church World Services, did he and Jentzen finally get new Indian identity cards and U.S. visas. Settling in New Jersey, Norbu began to earn a modest income teaching Tibetan to a handful of students as part of a noncredited course at Columbia University.

The other brother, Gyalo Thondup, was residing in Darjeeling. Six years Norbu's junior, Gyalo was the proverbial prodigal son. The problem was, he was the figurative son to a number of fathers. He was the only one of five male siblings not directed toward a monastic life. As a teen, he had befriended members of the Chinese mission in Lhasa and yearned to study in China. Although this was not a popular decision among the more xenophobic members of his family, Gyalo got his wish in 1947 when he and a brother-in-law arrived at the Kuomintang capital of Nanking and enrolled in college.

Two years later, Gyalo, then twenty-one, veered further toward China when he married fellow student Zhu Dan. Not only was his wife ethnic Chinese, but her father, retired General Chu Shi- kuei, had been a key Kuomintang officer during the early days of the republic. Because of both his relationship to General Chu and the fact that he was the Dalai Lama's brother, Gyalo was feted in Nanking by no less than Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.

The good times were not to last. With the communists closing in on Nanking during the final months of China's civil war, Gyalo and his wife fled in mid-1949 to the safer climes of India. Once again because of his relationship to the Dalai Lama, he was added to the invitation list for various diplomatic events and even got an audience with Prime Minister Nehru.

That October, Gyalo briefly ventured to the Tibetan enclave at Kalimpong before settling for seven months in Calcutta. While there, his father-in-law, General Chu, attempted to make contact with the Tibetan government. With the retreat of the Kuomintang to Taiwan, Chu had astutely shifted loyalty to the People's Republic and was now tasked by Beijing to arrange a meeting between Tibetan and PRC officials at a neutral site, possibly Hong Kong. [6]

Conversant in Chinese and linked to both the Dalai Lama and General Chu, Gyalo was a logical intermediary for the Hong Kong talks. The British, however, were dragging their feet on providing visas to the Tibetan delegation. Unable to gain quick entry to the crown colony, Gyalo made what he intended to be a brief diversion to the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan. But Chiang Kai- shek, no doubt anxious to keep Gyalo away from General Chu and the PRC, had other plans. Smothering the royal sibling with largesse, Chiang kept Gyalo in Taipei for the next sixteen months. Only after a desperate letter to U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson requesting American diplomatic intervention did the ROC relent and give Gyalo an exit permit.

After arriving in Washington in September 1951, Gyalo continued to dabble in diplomacy. Within a month of his arrival, he was called to a meeting at the State Department. Significantly, Gyalo's Chinese wife was at his side during the encounter. Because of the couple's close ties to Chiang, department representatives assumed that details of their talk would quickly be passed to the Kuomintang Nationalists. [7]

Gyalo, in fact, was not a stooge of Taipei, Beijing, or, for that matter, Washington. Despite State Department efforts to secure him a scholarship at Stanford University, he hurriedly departed the United States in February 1952 for the Indian subcontinent. Leaving his wife behind, he then trekked back to Lhasa after a six- year absence.

By that time, Beijing had a secure foothold in the Tibetan capital. Upon meeting this wayward member of the royal family, the local PRC representatives were pleased. As a Chinese speaker married to one of their own, Gyalo was perceived as a natural ally. Yet again, however, he would prove a disappointment. After showing some interest in promoting a bold land reform program championed by the Dalai Lama, Gyalo once more grew restive. In late spring, he secretly met with the Indian consul in Lhasa, and after promising to refrain from politicking, he was given permission to resettle in India. [8]

Although not exactly endearing himself to anyone with his frequent moves, Gyalo was not burning bridges either. Noting his recent return to Darjeeling, the U.S. embassy in early August 1952 cautiously considered establishing contact. Calcutta's Consul General Gary Soulen saw an opportunity in early September while returning from his Sikkim trek with Princess Kukula. Pausing in Darjeeling, Soulen stayed long enough for Gyalo to pass on the latest information from his contacts within the Tibetan merchant community. [9]

Although he had promised to refrain from exile politics, Gyalo saw no conflict in courting senior Indian officials. In particular, he sought a meeting with India's spymaster Bhola Nath Mullik. As head of Indian intelligence, Mullik presided over an organization with deep colonial roots. Established in 1887 as the central Special Branch, it had been organized by the British to keep tabs on the rising tide of Indian nationalism. Despite several redesignations before arriving at the title Intelligence Bureau, anticolonialists remained its primary target for the next sixty years.

Upon independence in 1947, Prime Minister Nehru appointed the bureau's first Indian director. Rather than suppressing nationalists, the organization now had to contend with communal violence and early problems with India's erstwhile Muslim brothers now living in the bisected nation of Pakistan.

Three years later, Mullik became the bureau's second director. A police officer since the age of twenty-two, the taciturn Mullik was known for his boundless energy (he often worked sixteen-hour days), close ties to Nehru, healthy suspicion of China, and (rare for a senior Indian official) predisposition against communism. Almost immediately, the Tibetan frontier became his top concern. This followed Beijing's invasion of Kham that October, which meant that India's military planners now had to contend with a hypothetical front besides Pakistan. Moreover, the tribal regions of northeastern India were far from integrated, and revolutionaries in those areas could now easily receive Chinese support. The previous year, in fact, the bureau had held a conference on risks associated with Chinese infiltration. [10]

Despite Mullik's concerns, Nehru was prone to downplay the potential Chinese threat. Not only did he think it ludicrous to prepare for a full-scale Chinese attack, but he saw real benefits in cultivating Beijing to offset Pakistan's emerging strategy of anticommunist cooperation with the West. "It was Nehru's idealism against hard-headed Chinese realism," said one Intelligence Bureau official. "Mullik injected healthy suspicions."

Astute enough to hedge his bets, Nehru allowed Mullik some leeway in improving security along the border and collecting intelligence on Chinese forces in Tibet. To accomplish this, Mullik expanded the number of Indian frontier posts strung across the Himalayas. In addition, he sought contact with Tibetans living in the Darjeeling and Kalimpong enclaves. Not only could these Tibetans be tapped for information, but a symbolic visit by a senior official like Mullik would lift morale at a time when their homeland was being subjugated. Such contact, moreover, could give New Delhi advance warning of any subversive activity in Tibet being staged from Indian soil. [11]

Of all the Tibetan expatriates, Mullik had his eye on Gyalo Thondup. Besides having an insider's perspective of the high offices in Lhasa, Gyalo had already passed word of his desire for a meeting. Prior to his departure for his first visit to Darjeeling in the spring of 1953, Mullik asked for -- and quickly received -- permission from the prime minister to include the Dalai Lama's brother on his itinerary. Their subsequent exchange of views went well, as did their tete-a-tete during Mullik's second visit to Darjeeling in 1954. [12]

Apart from such occasional contact with Indian intelligence, Gyalo spent much of the next two years removed from the tribulations in his homeland. To earn a living, he ironically began exporting Indian tea and whiskey to Chinese troops and administrators in Tibet. For leisure, he and his family were frequent guests at the Gymkhana Club. Part of an exclusive resort chain that was once a playpen for the subcontinent's colonial elite, the Gymkhana's Darjeeling branch was situated amid terraced gardens against the picturesque backdrop of Kanchenjunga. A regular on the tennis courts, the Dalai Lama 's brother was the local champion. [13]

In the summer of 1956, Gyalo's respite came to an abrupt end. The senior abbot and governor from the Tibetan town of Gyantse had recently made his escape to India and in July wrote a short report about China's excesses. Gyalo repackaged the letter in English and mailed copies to the Indian media, several diplomatic missions, and selected world leaders. One of these arrived in early September at the U.S. embassy in the Pakistani capital of Karachi, and from there was disseminated to the American mission in New Delhi and consulate in Calcutta. [14]

Although the letter was less than accurate on several counts, it served two important purposes. First, it corroborated the reports of China's brutality provided by the crown prince of Sikkim in June. Second, it brought Gyalo back to the attention of Washington as a concerned activist. For the past four years, there had been virtually no contact between him and American diplomats in India. In particular, he was completely unknown among CIA officers in Calcutta. [15]

This was set to change, and quickly. Once word reached India in early November that the Dalai Lama would be attending the Buddha Jayanti, John Hoskins got an urgent cable from headquarters. Put aside your efforts against the Chinese community, he was told, and make immediate contact with Gyalo. A quick check indicated Gyalo's predilection for tennis, so Hoskins got a racket and headed north to Darjeeling. After arranging to get paired with Gyalo for a doubles match, the CIA officer wasted no time in quietly introducing himself.

First impressions are lasting ones, and Hoskins was not exactly wowed by Gyalo's persona. "There was a lot of submissiveness rather than dynamism," he noted. At their first meeting, little was discussed apart from reaching an understanding that, to avoid Indian intelligence coverage in Darjeeling, future contact would be made in Calcutta using proper countersurveillance measures.

Later that same month, the Dalai Lama and a fifty-strong delegation departed Lhasa by car. Switching to horses at the Sikkimese border, the royal entourage was met on the other side by both Gyalo and Norbu, who had rushed to India from his teaching assignment in New York. The party was whisked through Gangtok and down to the closest Indian airfield near the town of Siliguri, and by 25 November the monarch was being met by Nehru on the tarmac of New Delhi's Palam Airport. [16]

By coincidence, three days after the Dalai Lama's arrival in New Delhi, Chinese premier Zhou En- Lai began a twelve-day stop in India as part of a five-country South Asian tour. Keeping with diplomatic protocol, the young Tibetan leader was on hand to greet Zhou at the airport. The two then held a private meeting, at which time the elderly Chinese statesman lectured the Dalai Lama on the necessity of returning to his homeland.

Zhou was not alone in his appeal. As eager as Nehru was to offset Chinese influence in Tibet, he, too, was against the Dalai Lama's seeking asylum -- especially on Indian soil. This was partly because India wanted to maintain good relations with China. This was also because New Delhi did not want to go it alone, and not a single country to date had recognized Tibetan independence. Fearing that the monarch's brothers would have an unhealthy effect on any decision, Indian officials in the capital did all in their power to keep Gyalo and Norbu segregated from their royal sibling. [17]

The Dalai Lama hardly needed convincing from his brothers, however. During his first private session with Nehru, he openly hinted about not going back to Lhasa. He also requested that the issue of Tibetan independence be taken up by Nehru and President Dwight Eisenhower at their upcoming summit in Washington in December. Nehru was not entirely surprised by all this: Gyalo had already sought out Mullik and told the Indian intelligence chief in no uncertain terms that his brother would opt for exile. [18]

As India's leadership digested these developments, the Dalai Lama departed the capital for an exhausting schedule of Buddha Jayanti festivities. He was still in the midst of this tour when Zhou returned to New Delhi for an encore visit on 30 December. In the interim, Nehru had had his Washington meeting with Eisenhower, and the Chinese premier had scheduled the stop specifically to discuss the outcome of that summit. As it turned out, however, Tibet was a major topic of conversation. In particular, Nehru used the opportunity to press Zhou about tempering China's harsh military and agrarian policies on the Tibetan plateau.

Tibet was clearly shaping into a litmus test for Sino-Indian relations. Anxious to broker a deal that would assuage both Lhasa and Beijing, Nehru summoned the Dalai Lama from his pilgrimage and underscored to the Tibetan leader that Indian asylum was not in the cards. But if that was bitter news, Zhou had earlier proposed a sweetener. While noting that China was ready to use force to stamp out resistance, he claimed that Mao now recognized the folly of rapid collectivization and pledged to delay further revolutionary reforms in Tibet.

Zhou and his senior comrades were by now gravely concerned over permanently losing the Dalai Lama. Leaving nothing to chance, Zhou was back in New Delhi on 24 January 1957 for his third visit in as many months.

Despite Beijing's lobbying, Gyalo and Norbu were still insistent that their brother choose exile. Torn over his future, the twenty-one-year-old monarch had already departed Calcutta on 22 January for Kalimpong, which by then was home to a growing number of disaffected Tibetan elite. Once there, he did what Tibet's leaders had done countless other times when confronted with a hard decision: he consulted the state oracle. Two official soothsayers happened to be traveling with his delegation; using time-honored -- if unscientific -- methods, the pair went into a trance on cue and recited their sagely advice. Return to Lhasa, they channeled. [19]

As far as the Dalai Lama was concerned, the ruling of his oracles was incontrovertible, and the decision was made all the easier by the fact that nobody seemed anxious to give him refuge. Flouting the suggestions of his brothers, he declared his intention to go home. He crossed into Sikkim in early March and was compelled to remain in Gangtok until heavy snows melted from the mountain passes. There, he finalized plans to set out for Lhasa by month's end.

Prior to November 1956, Tibet had never ranged far from the bottom of the priority watch list for those in the Far East Division at CIA headquarters in Washington. The agency had no officer assigned solely to Tibetan affairs; it, along with Mongolia and other peripheral ethnic regions under PRC control, barely factored as a minor addendum to the activities of William Broe's China Branch.

But as soon as the Dalai Lama received permission to attend the Buddha Jayanti, Broe felt it prudent to show heightened interest. Looking for a junior officer to spare, he soon settled on John Reagan. Twenty-eight years old, Reagan had joined the agency upon graduation from Boston College in 1951. He was soon in Asia, where he spent the next twenty-four months working on paramilitary projects in Korea. Switching to China Branch, he served two more years in Japan as part of the CIA's penetration effort against the PRC. Returning to the United States in 1955, Reagan divided the next twelve months between Chinese language training and trips to New York City to practice tradecraft against United Nations delegates.

As the branch's new man on Tibet, Reagan initially did little more than forward instructions for John Hoskins to make contact with Gyalo. He was silent on further guidance, primarily because senior U.S. policy makers had not yet ironed out a coherent framework for dealing with Lhasa. In earlier meetings between CIA and State Department officials during the summer of 1956, there had been those who felt that the Dalai Lama should flee to another Buddhist nation to offer a rallying cry for anticommunist Buddhists across Asia. Others, primarily inside the agency, believed that he could play a more important role as a rallying symbol in Lhasa among his fellow Tibetans. This eas still the CIA's operating assumption in late 1956: once the Dalai Lama was in India, the prevailing mood at agency headquarters was that he should eventually go home. [20]

Gyalo, meantime, was telling Hoskins that his brother had every intention of seeking asylum. With the Dalai Lama apparently intent on staying away from his homeland -- and therefore not conforming to the agency's preferred scenario of rallying his people from Lhasa -- Reagan was largely idle during most of the Dalai Lama's four-month absence from Tibet. [21]

Eventually, however, the CIA looked to hedge its bets. Since the second half of 1956, a band of twenty-seven young Khampa men -- some still in their late teens -- had been growing restive in the enclave of Kalimpong. Most came from relatively wealthy trading families and had been spirited to India to protect them from the instability in their native province. Full of vigor, the entire group had ventured to New Delhi shortly before the Dalai Lama's Buddha Jayanti pilgrimage to conduct street protests. Once the Dalai Lama arrived, they sought a brief audience to make an impassioned plea for Lhasa's intercession against the Chinese offensive in Kham.

To their disappointment, the Dalai Lama counseled patience. "His Holiness only said things would settle down," recalls one of the Khampas. Undaunted, the twenty-seven young men shadowed the monarch during several of the Buddha Jayanti commemorative events. By early January 1957, this took them to Bodh Gaya, the city in eastern India where the historical Buddha was said to have attained enlightenment. While there, the Dalai Lama's older brother, Thubten Norbu, approached the Khampas and asked if he could take their individual photographs as a souvenir. Although it was an odd request, they complied. [22]

For the next few weeks, nothing happened. Frustrated by the Dalai Lama's repeated rebuffs, the Khampas sulked back to Kalimpong. Several Chinese traders were in town, some of whom were rumored to have links to the Nationalist regime on Taiwan. Desperate, the Khampas sounded them out on the possibility of covert assistance from Taipei. It was at that point that Gyalo Thondup arrived and requested a meeting with all twenty-seven. For most of the young Khampas, it was the first time they had spoken with the Dalai Lama's lay brother. As they listened attentively, Gyalo lectured them to steer clear of the Kuomintang. "The United Sates," he told them cryptically, "is a better choice." [23]

Less than a week later, the Dalai Lama arrived in Kalimpong, the oracles had their channeling session, and things changed dramatically. With the monarch's return journey now imminent, John Reagan in Washington scrambled to script a program of action. At its core, the plan called for a unilateral capability to determine how much armed resistance activity really existed in Tibet; further commitments could then be weighed accordingly.

The CIA had good reason to act with prudence. It already had a long and growing list of embarrassing failures while working with resistance groups behind communist lines. Perhaps none had been more painful than its experience against the PRC. There the agency's efforts had taken two tracks. The first was a collaborative effort with the Kuomintang government on Taiwan. Clinging to its dream of reconquering the mainland, the ROC in 1950 claimed to control a million guerrillas inside the People's Republic. Although a February 1951 Pentagon study placed the figure at no more than 600,000 -- only half of which were thought to be nominally loyal to the ROC -- Washington saw fit to support these insurgents as a means of appeasing a key Asian ally while at the same time possibly diverting Beijing's attention from the conflict on the Korean peninsula. [24]

To funnel covert American assistance to the ROC, the CIA established a shell company in Pittsburgh known as Western Enterprises (WE). In September 1951, WE's newly appointed chief, Raymond Peers, arrived on Taiwan with a planeload of advisers. A U.S. Army colonel who had earned accolades during World War II as chief of the famed OSS Detachment 101 in Burma, Peers quickly initiated a number of paramilitary efforts. A large portion of his resources was directed toward airborne operations, including retraining the ROC's 1,50O-man parachute regiment. Other WE advisers, meanwhile, were tasked with putting ROC action and intelligence teams through an airborne course. [25]

To deploy these operatives, WE turned to the agency's Far East air proprietary, Civil Air Transport (CAT). By the spring of 1952, CAT planes were dropping teams and singletons on the mainland, as well as supplies to resistance groups that the ROC claimed were already active on the ground. Some of the penetrations ranged as far as Tibet's Amdo region, where the ROC alleged it had contact with Muslim insurgents. [26]

Concurrently, the agency in April 1951 initiated a unilateral third-force effort using anticommunist Chinese unaffiliated with the ROC. Allocated enough arms and ammunition for 200,000 guerrillas, the CIA recruited many of these third-force operatives from Hong Kong, trained them in Japan and Saipan, and inserted them in CAT planes via air bases in South Korea. [27]

By the spring of 1953, both the ROC program and third-force effort were in their second years. Although the Pentagon's top brass (groping for ways to pressure Beijing during Korean cease-fire negotiations) were wistfully talking in terms of "sparking a coordinated anti-communist resistance movement throughout China," those running the CIA's infiltration program could hardly have been so optimistic. "None of the Taiwan agents we dropped were successful," said one WE adviser. The third-force tally was just as bad: all its operatives were either killed or taken prisoner, and CAT lost one plane during an attempted exfiltration that resulted in the capture of two CIA officers. [28]

That summer, an armistice sent the Korean conflict into remission. This provided the CIA with convenient cover to reassess its third-force track. Although it elected to maintain a China Base at Yokosuka, Japan, this unit was to handle primarily agent penetrations and low-level destabilization efforts; support for broader unilateral resistance got the ax.

Cooperative ventures with the ROC were not so easily nixed. Although Taipei had tempered its claims somewhat, it still pegged loyal mainland guerrilla strength at 650,000 insurgents. By contrast, a November 1953 estimate by the U.S. National Security Council (NSC) put the figure closer to 50,000. Despite this huge discrepancy, the NSC still advocated continued covert assistance to the ROC in order to develop anticommunist guerrillas for resistance and intelligence. Even temporary guerrilla successes, the council reasoned, might set off waves of defections and stiffen passive resistance. [29]

Chiang Kai-shek could not have agreed more. Eager to vastly increase the scope of guerrilla support, the generalissimo in 1954 asked Washington for some 30,000 parachutes. Turned down the first time, he made further high-priority appeals over the next two years. These parachutes were needed for an ambitious plan to drop 100-man units near major PRC population centers. Hoping to set off a chain of uprisings, Chiang optimistically talked in terms of uprooting Chinese communism in as little as two years. [30]

Hearing these plans, Washington patiently counseled against the proposed airborne blitz. On a more modest level, however, the CIA's assistance program continued unabated. In this, success was more elusive than ever. Despite inserting an average of two Nationalist agents a month through the mid-1950s, the ROC operatives were still being killed or captured in short order. [31]

Reasons for the lack of success against the People's Republic were legion. First, the infiltration program took at face value some of Taipei's claims about contact with a vast network of anticommunists on the mainland. In reality, such claims were wildly exaggerated, and precious little was known about events in the PRC countryside; even top PRC leaders were prone to mysteriously disappear from public view for months on end. [32] Second, in the unlikely event such resistance existed, the logistical challenge of maintaining support to these guerrilla pockets outstripped what could realistically be staged by Taiwan and the CIA. Third, the CIA's recent experience against the Soviet Union and its satellites had shown the folly of abetting insurgents in a tightly controlled police state; Beijing's omnipresent militia and party network were no less daunting. [33] Finally, even though the PRC's ruthless experimentation in social engineering had no doubt bred detractors by the score, the corruption of the Kuomintang regime hardly endeared Taipei to any disenchanted masses on the mainland.

Although these reasons might have made covert operations against the PRC a study in frustration, Tibet appeared to be different. Unlike many of Taipei's wishful claims about other areas of the mainland, Tibet had a resistance movement corroborated by multiple, albeit dated, sources. What the CIA needed was timely data that could give a current and accurate picture of this resistance. And given the historical animosity between Tibetans and lowland Chinese, the agency needed to gather this information without resort to ROC assistance.

In February 1957, John Hoskins was ordered by Washington to immediately identify eight Tibetan candidates for external training as a pilot team that would infiltrate their homeland and assess the state of resistance. Gyalo, who had been in Kalimpong making an eleventh-hour bid to convince his brother to seek asylum, was given responsibility for screening candidates among the Tibetan refugees already in India. Although the twenty-seven Khampas did not know it, Gyalo intended to make the selection from their ranks. Using the photographs taken by Norbu at Bodh Gaya, he sought guidance from two senior Khampas in town, both of whom hailed from the extended family of Gompo Tashi Andrugtsang, a prominent trader of Tibetan wool, deer horns, and musk.

With their assistance, Gyalo soon settled on his first pick. Wangdu Gyato-tsang, age twenty-seven, had been born to an affluent Khampa family from the town of Lithang. He was well connected: Gompo Tashi was his uncle, as was one of the senior Khampas helping Gyalo with the selection. Wangdu also had the right disposition for the task at hand. Despite being schooled at the Lithang monastery from the age of ten, he did not exactly conform to monastic life. "He was hot tempered from childhood," recalls younger brother Kalsang.



Wangdu Gyatotsang (right), leader of the Saipan-trained team dropped in Kham, with his two brothers. (Courtesy Kalsang Gyatotsang)

A sampling of this temper came at age seventeen during a trip to the Tibetan town of Menling. Out of deference to the local chieftain, it was decreed that hats, firearms, and horse bells would be removed in front of the chief's residence. It was raining, however, so Wangdu continued wearing his cap. Spying this violation, the chieftain's bodyguard strode up and knocked the Khampa on the head. Without flinching, the young monk drew his pistol and shot the guard dead. [34]

On account of his family connections, Wangdu was spared punishment. In 1956, his family ties again came into play following the PLA's devastating attack on the Lithang monastery. On orders from uncle Gompo Tashi, Wangdu and his younger brother were bundled off to the safer environs of Kalimpong.

When approached by Gyalo, Wangdu immediately volunteered for the mission. Within days, five other Khampas were singled out (Washington now wanted a total of six trainees, not eight), but only Wangdu was given any hint of the impending assignment. Four were from Lithang; of these, three were Wangdu's close acquaintances, and one was his family servant. The fifth was a friend from the nearby town of Bathang (also spelled Batang). All were still on hand to attend the Dalai Lama's final open-air blessing in a Kalimpong soccer field shortly before the monarch headed back toward Tibet.

With the Dalai Lama en route to Lhasa, attention shifted in early March to smuggling the six Khampas out of India for training. This was easier said than done. Because of Nehru's determination to maintain cordial Sino-Indian ties, New Delhi's complicity remained out of the question. Moreover, the Khampas were refugees without proper identification, discounting overt travel via commercial airliner or boat. Brainstorming covert alternatives, several came to mind. "There was some talk in the Calcutta consulate about floating them off the Indian coast," said Gyalo, "then having them picked up by submarine." Consideration was also given to issuing fake Nepalese passports. [35]

A better option harkened back to a suggestion made by the crown prince of Sikkim regarding exfiltration via East Pakistan. The idea held merit: since 1954, Washington and Karachi (which governed both the East and West Pakistani territories on either side of lndia) had forged cordial military and diplomatic ties. A military sales pact had been signed by the United States and Pakistan that May, and both had agreed to join the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization in September; the following year, Pakistan became a member of the U.S.-supported Baghdad Pact. This was all part of a chain of alliances intended by the United States to contain the spread of communism. By 1956, Pakistan had become America's "most allied ally in Asia." [36]

In reality, Karachi had signed the treaties for reasons other than those intended by Washington. Although it was true that Pakistan had some emerging concerns about communism (China claimed some Pakistani territory on its maps, for example, and even raided border villages in 1954 to discourage grazing on its land), its main motivation was to open the spigot of American military assistance, which Karachi desperately wanted to bolster its armed forces against threats from New Delhi.

Different motivations aside, U.S.-Pakistan relations were genuinely warm, and the U.S. embassy enjoyed good access to the top echelons of government. Even before the CIA was sure that the Khampa training was going to proceed, the agency's station chief in Karachi, L. Eugene Milligan, had broached the exfiltration scheme with senior Pakistani officials. Taking his case directly to President Iskandar Mizra, Milligan asked if -- hypothetically speaking -- Tibetans could be allowed to cross the northern border of East Pakistan, then be discreetly transported to the abandoned Kurmitola airstrip north of Dacca. [37]

Milligan could make his pitch knowing that the CIA had particularly good relations in East Pakistan. Since mid-1954, the agency had been allowed to maintain a single case officer at the Dacca consulate. That officer, twenty-eight-year-old Walter Cox, had nurtured close links with most of East Pakistan's civilian and military authorities, helped in part when he coordinated a generous airlift of U.S. humanitarian assistance following severe floods in August 1954. [38]

Based on this spirit of cooperation, Mizra gave Milligan his consent. When Washington's final approval for the exfiltration came in February 1957, the station chief quickly assigned a Karachi- based case officer, Edward McAllister, to coordinate the operation from Dacca. Forty-three years old, McAllister was an experienced Asia hand. Schooled in China through his university years, he had gone back to the United States in 1932 and worked for nearly a decade as a fire insurance underwriter and public health inspector. Lured by the challenges of the war in Europe, he joined the British army in 1941, then transferred in 1943 to the U.S. Army.

At war's end, McAllister's linguistic skills made him a natural for what became an extended army assignment in postwar China. By 1949, he was serving as an assistant military attache during the final months of the civil war. Leaving the armed forces in 1954 with the rank of major, McAllister signed on with the CIA. He entered the Far East Division and -- like Hoskins in Calcutta -- was posted to Karachi as the division's local representative assigned to penetrate the Chinese community.

Joining McAllister for the assignment in Dacca was John Reagan, who had flown in from Washington for the duration of the exfiltration. One potential hitch remained: although McAllister was fluent in Chinese (and Reagan knew the basics), neither officer shared a common language with the Khampas. They were desperate for an interpreter, but there were few qualified candidates. Gyalo himself was ineligible because he needed to run the operation from the Indian side and could not afford the diplomatic heat if he got caught on the border. Norbu could not risk the embarrassment of exposure either. While little other choice, a call was placed to Norbu's long-time servant Jentzen Thondup, who was patiently awaiting his master's return at their apartment in New Jersey.

"I got on the phone," remembers Jentzen, "with somebody who said he was from the CIA." A quiet, elderly man showed up at the house later that day, and the pair were soon winging their way to the subcontinent. [39]

It was 2:00 in the afternoon when Wangdu came to the house of twenty-seven- year-old Athar and told him they were departing that night for training in a foreign country. Like Wangdu, Athar (many Khampas go by only one name) was an alumnus of the Lithang monastery and had been one of the twenty-seven who lobbied the Dalai Lama during the Buddha Jayanti. A total of six Khampas, he was told, would be making the trip.

Athar's first reaction was shock. To maintain secrecy, none of the trainees (other than Wangdu) had been aware that preparations had reached such an advanced stage. His next reaction was disappointment. "Six was too few," he later recalled. "I thought we needed at least ten of us." [40]

With little time for debate, the six ate and changed into Indian clothes. All identification was left behind. At 9:00 that evening, they gathered on a dark road outside town. Like clockwork, Gyalo arrived at the wheel of a jeep and loaded them into the rear. In the passenger's seat was Gyalo's cook, Gelung, who was designated to escort the group across the Pakistani border. Gelung was a good choice on two counts: not only could he speak Hindi, which might come in handy if they encountered Indian authorities, but he was the only one among them who knew how to read a compass.

In silence, they drove south to the town of Siliguri, then another twenty kilometers to the East Pakistan frontier. As the road narrowed near the entrance to a tea plantation, the jeep ground to a halt and the passengers off-loaded. As Gyalo reversed direction and returned north, Gelung led the Khampas down a foot trail through the plantation. Walking until nearly dawn, they approached a large river. Studying his compass, Gelung calculated that the opposite side was Pakistani territory. In contrast to the tension along the Indo-Pakistani border in the west -- where the two nations had clashed over the contested region of Kashmir -- much of the 3,225-kilometer East Pakistan frontier was undefended.

The group found a suitable fording point and waded to the far shore. Moving forty-five meters inland, they came across a small road. While they waited without speaking, three soldiers materialized out of the dawn mist. Because they appeared to be armed and dressed like Indian troops, the Khampas began to panic, but Gelung rose and walked forward. Removing a flashlight from his pack, he flicked it on for a moment. Seconds later, the troops returned the signal. Gelung waved at the others to follow, and the Khampas approached the patrol and offered greetings. To their surprise, one of the soldiers was Norbu's servant Jentzen; the rest were Pakistanis. His work done, Gelung bid them farewell and retraced his steps across the river and back to India, while Jentzen, the Pakistanis, and the six Khampas walked a short distance to a covered jeep.

After riding for an hour, the group came upon an isolated cottage framed by thickets. Inside, CIA officer McAllister was waiting with hot tea and biscuits. As Jentzen attempted to translate pleasantries in halting English, they finished their refreshments and were directed to a bigger jeep. They rode for the next five hours, not stopping until they reached a railway station. Surrounded by supposed Pakistani military guards -- giving them the outward appearance of a prison gang -- the Tibetans were hustled aboard a train and seated alone in the first-class compartment.

Heading south, they took the train to the outskirts of Dacca There they were off-loaded to a truck and driven to a safe house near Kurmitola. "The heat was really affecting us," remembers Athar, "so we kept the cold water running in the shower and took turns going underneath." Sweltering, they spent the next two days hidden away from prying eyes. [41]

For covert airlift needs in Asia, the CIA relied almost exclusively on its proprietary, Civil Air Transport. A handful of assignments, however, went to a special unit within the U.S. Air Force (USAF). This unit dated back to 1951, when the USAF saw the need to pluck aircrews out of the Soviet countryside after dropping nuclear ordnance and running out of fuel on the way home. Given the innocuous title of Air Resupply and Communications (ARC) wings, these recovery units were outfitted with an exotic mix of converted B-29 bombers, seaplanes, helicopters, and transports. For global coverage, three ARC wings were formed: one in the United States as reserve, one in Libya for European assignments, and one at Clark Air Base in the Philippines for Asian missions. [42]

Almost immediately, the activities of the ARC wings grew beyond their pilot recovery role. Their training was expanded to include various aerial aspects of unconventional warfare, and they became fluent in leaflet drops, agent insertions, and the resupply of guerrillas behind communist lines. The Clark-based ARC wing -- which in 1954 shifted to Kadena Air Base on the U.S.-controlled island of Okinawa -- was especially active, being used on psychological warfare flights over the Korean peninsula, the PRC, and French Indochina.

In September 1956, all ARC wings were formally disbanded. But electing to keep the Kadena unit intact, the USAF merely changed its name to the equally ambiguous 322nd Troop Carrier Squadron, Medium (Special). In line with the last word of this extended title, the 322nd Squadron continued to focus on unconventional contingencies; its B-29s, in particular, were kept busy performing simulated low-level parachute drops. [43]

During that time frame, CIA air operations across Asia were being run out of Tokyo. To facilitate liaison between Tokyo and the special squadron on Okinawa, two agency officers were posted to Kadena. Although the entire 322nd Squadron was qualified to fly covert operations, the most sensitive missions went to a small subset of airmen assigned to its Detachment 1. These crews flew a pair of C-54s and a lone C-118, all provided courtesy of the CIA.

Though little different from a civilian DC-6 transport on the outside, the 322nd Squadron's C-118 was an engineering marvel. "It was pieced together from so many different serial-numbered parts," recalls squadron pilot Herbert Dagg, "that it would have been untraceable if it went down." The plane also had removable tail numbers, which were sometimes changed multiple times during CIA- sponsored flights. To add to the intentional confusion, crews were required to file false flight plans and fly circuitous routes to mask points of origin and destination. [44]

Outside eyes were not the only ones the CIA was out to fool. The detachment's own aircrews were kept in the dark as to the identity of their agency passengers. All the windows were blackened, and curtains were always drawn between the cockpit and the cabin. Crews were required to use only the front door; passengers used only the rear. "I never even knew if the personnel we flew were Asians," said squadron member Justin Shires. [45]

Such was the case when the detachment got orders to fly the C-118 to Kurmitola. With perfect timing, a covered truck approached from the rear and stopped at the plane's back door. Six small figures dashed up the stairs, followed by Jentzen and John Reagan. Throttling the engines back up, the crew taxied down the runway and disappeared into the eastern skies.

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