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

By T. Rees Shapiro
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.

As communist forces bore down on Urumqi, Mackiernan enlisted Dr. Bessac's help to burn official documents to prevent them from falling into Chinese hands.

On Sept. 27, 1949, the two Americans set out with a small traveling party for Tibet, where they hoped to find asylum among Buddhist monks.

They headed south for the Takla Makan desert, a desolate expanse known among locals as the "white death." They went days without finding fresh water.

They had brought maps and a compass with them for navigation, but the tools proved useless - mountains and lakes would appear in front of them without any indication on the charts.

In November, the men stopped to camp for the winter in the shadow of an icy mountain range bordering Tibet.

"By good fortune, Mackiernan had brought two books with him," Dr. Bessac wrote in the Life article. "One was 'War and Peace,' which I read three times. The other was 'Cass Timberlane,' which I only had time to read twice before we had to put its pages to use in our makeshift toilet."

In mid-March of 1950, Dr. Bessac's group set off across the mountains. S ome nights they slept at an altitude of more than 17,000 feet. To keep warm and cook meals, the men spent several hours a day foraging for dried yak dung to burn.

Their food supplies ran so low that they depended almost exclusively on the meat of antelopes or yaks they could hunt down.

They approached the Tibetan border in late April of 1950. Weary, the men settled near a cluster of yak-hair yurts belonging to a nomadic family.

To demonstrate friendliness, Dr. Bessac presented a gift of raisins, tobacco and cloth to the Tibetan settlement.

On his way back, Dr. Bessac heard gunfire from a hill above. Realizing they were being fired on, Mackiernan and three men in the traveling party walked out of their tents with their hands up.

Dr. Bessac watched from behind a boulder as Tibetan border guards shot and killed Mackiernan and two anti-communist Russian allies who had been with them. The Tibetan sentries had mistaken the travelers for marauders.

Dr. Bessac and another man wounded in the melee were tied to horses by six Tibetan guards and led toward Lhasa.

Later, Dr. Bessac learned that the three round objects in sacks dangling from a camel had been the heads of Mackiernan and the dead Russians.

During the trip to Lhasa, the caravan was met by two official couriers who had entry papers granting Mackiernan and Dr. Bessac safe passage. The documents - requested directly from the State Department in Washington - had arrived five days too late.

Realizing the guards' fatal error, a courier pulled out a pistol and handed the weapon to Dr. Bessac, urging him to take revenge on the guards. Dr. Bessac refused.

He did request, however, that the heads of his friends be taken back to their proper graves.

In Lhasa, the guards who had killed his three friends were tried in a military court and sentenced to severe lashings. As Dr. Bessac noted in the 1950 Life magazine article, he "watched and enjoyed the whole proceeding."

Before setting off for the last leg of his journey, a 27-day, 300-mile mule ride over the Himalayas to India, Dr. Bessac received a Buddhist blessing from Tenzin Gyatso, who would become the 14th Dalai Lama.

Francis Bagnall Bessac was born Jan. 13, 1922, in Lodi, Calif.

He received a bachelor's degree in history from the College of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., before joining the Army in 1943. He received a master's degree in anthropology from the University of California at Berkeley and, in 1963, a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin.

He moved to Missoula in 1965 and taught at the University of Montana from 1967 to 1989, when he became a professor emeritus.

A son, Harry Bessac, died as a toddler. Survivors include his wife of 59 years, Susanne Leppmann Bessac of Missoula; five children, Bret Bessac of Kingsville, Tex., Barbara Tracy of Santa Rosa, Calif., Andrea Maxeiner of Bronxville, N.Y., Turan Albini of Belgrade, Mont., and Joan Steelquist of Seattle; a sister; and eight grandchildren.

For more than 50 years, Dr. Bessac kept secret Mackiernan's covert status with the CIA.

In 2006, the CIA officially recognized Mackiernan's sacrifice by acknowledging that the first star on the wall of honor at the agency's McLean headquarters belonged to him.

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