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Frank Bessac, anthropologist who made daring escape from war-torn China, dies at 88

Details of Dr. Bessac's post-World War II trek remained hidden for decades, including that one man in his group was the first CIA agent to die in the line of duty.
Details of Dr. Bessac's post-World War II trek remained hidden for decades, including that one man in his group was the first CIA agent to die in the line of duty. (Family Photo)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 24, 2010; 6:07 PM

In 1949, Frank Bessac was a Fulbright scholar studying in Inner Mongolia when communist forces began organizing bloody raids across China.

Fleeing for his life, he embarked on what became an 11-month, 1,500-mile trek to seek asylum in Tibet.

Before the journey ended, three men in his traveling party would be shot, beheaded and buried in shallow graves near the Tibetan border.

When the student made it back to the United States, the story of his safe return made national headlines. His autobiographical account of the trip appeared in Life magazine and vividly portrayed his harrowing tale of survival.

But many details of the epic sojourn remained hidden for a half-century, including that one of the three men killed was a clandestine CIA agent - the first to die in the line of duty.

For the rest of his life, Dr. Bessac retreated into obscurity and spent most of his career as a professor at the University of Montana. He died Dec. 6 at age 88 of complications from a stroke at a hospital in Missoula.

Dr. Bessac first became interested in Mongolian culture during World War II. He served in China with the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA. Expertly trained, he was part of a commando unit that parachuted behind enemy lines to rescue downed American pilots.

When the war ended, he received a Fulbright scholarship and studied Mongolian and Chinese languages at a university in Beijing.

In the summer of 1949, he lived among isolated nomads in a small village in Inner Mongolia until communist militias began wreaking havoc in the region.

He fled to the western Chinese city of Urumqi, where he met a State Department vice consul named Douglas S. Mackiernan.

In casual conversation, Mackiernan mentioned a code word that Dr. Bessac remembered from his OSS days. It was a secret message that identified Mackiernan's true employer: the CIA.

Mackiernan was posted in Urumqi under State Department cover, but in truth he was a high-ranking spy privy to vital secrets concerning the Russian nuclear bomb effort.


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