June 18, 2017 at 8:00 AM
Their families didn't know they were in Laos, and didn't know that they'd started working for the CIA in addition to their jobs with the U.S. Forest Service.
They were young firefighters-turned-CIA operatives working thousands of miles from home in a remote corner of Southeast Asia. David W. Bevan, Darrell A. Eubanks and John S. Lewis, all in their mid-20s, were on a mission to drop supplies for anti-Communist forces in what was then known as the Kingdom of Laos. But on Aug. 13, 1961, the CIA-operated Air America plane carrying the men tried turning out of a mountaintop bowl near the Laotian capital of Vientiane and one of its wings hooked into a ridge.
The C-46 "cartwheeled into little pieces," according to the book, "Smokejumpers and the CIA," published by the National Smokejumpers Association. The CIA operatives died, along with Air America's two pilots.
When their families were told they'd been killed in Laos in a plane crash, they were stunned.
"No one even knew where Laos was," said Leah Hessel, 79, one of Lewis's younger sisters who had dated Eubanks in high school. "My parents never quite recovered from it. It was earth shattering."
It took a week, she said, "for the bodies to come back. I can remember sitting in the living room, and over the hills, you could see in the far distance, the lights of the train, coming into town with the caskets."
Though the U.S. involvement in Laos was later cloaked in secrecy, their deaths were not hidden. Newspapers ran tiny wire stories about the crash, which, according to "Smokejumpers and the CIA," made the men among the first Americans killed in the Laotian theater of the Vietnam War.
But it took 56 years for the CIA to publicly honor the deaths of the three CIA operatives. Last month marble stars for each were carved into the agency's iconic Memorial Wall, which pays tribute to the men and women who died in the line of duty. The wall now features 125 stars, though the identities of some remain classified.
In a statement, CIA spokeswoman Heather Fritz Horniak said the agency is proud to recognize "the heroic sacrifices" of the three operatives. "The passage of time neither dilutes their valor, nor reduces the immeasurable debt we owe them," she said.
Their stars highlight the little-known roles of dozens of smokejumpers — men who normally parachuted out of airplanes fighting U.S. forest fires, but who were tapped by the CIA to drop food and ammunition for anti-communist forces in Southeast Asia.
By the late 1950s, the agency was increasing the number of airdrops to remote posts for the Royal Lao Army, according to an article on the CIA website written by William M. Leary, a University of Georgia history professor and Air America expert. The CIA-led "secret war" in Laos began brewing more intensely by the early 1960s and lasted through the mid-1970s, according to Joshua Kurlantzick, whose book on the conflict, "A Great Place to Have a War," was published in January.
Two of the three men who died in Laos, Lewis and Eubanks, were best friends from the same Texas town of Lampasas, south of Dallas. They both played football for Lampasas High School, according to their relatives. After high school, they spent their summers as smokejumpers out west, where the CIA was quietly recruiting men who were experts at handling parachutes.
"[The] CIA specifically invited/recruited smokejumpers into the covert operations business for several reasons: 1) We were damned good looking. 2) We didn't get airsick. … 6) We were not active duty military, so our direct involvement in an affair of arms didn't constitute an official act of war. … 9) We were deniable. … 10) Did I mention that we were damn good looking?" wrote Don Courtney in "Smokejumpers and the CIA."
Between the 1950s and 1970s, the agency hired more than 100 smokejumpers. Many worked as "kickers," dropping supplies in remote parts of Laos and Tibet, according to "Smokejumpers and the CIA." The kickers bundled food, ammunition and other supplies onto wooden or steel pallets, and strapped them to parachutes. To make the drops, the pilots nosed upward, while the kickers shoved the bundles out the door or off the ramp, their parachutes guiding them safely to designated drop zones.
Hessel, who married a smokejumper, had been hoping for a CIA star for her brother for years. And so were other people. Leary, the University of Georgia history professor and Air America expert, wrote the CIA a letter urging the agency to give the three men Memorial Wall recognition as far back as 1993.
"From an historian's point-of-view, at least, there does not appear to be any good reason why this should not be done. I hope that you will give this matter your consideration," Leary wrote to David Gries at the CIA's Center for the Study of Intelligence, according to the men's letters that the Hessel provided to The Washington Post.
"The suggestion you make … is worth pursuing," Gries wrote back. " I am contacting the appropriate people and hope to have an answer for you."
Leary died in 2006; Gries, now in his 80s, said he doesn't remember the discussion.
Relatives of the three men said the CIA called them out of the blue earlier this year and invited them to an annual ceremony on May 22. The agency said the men would be receiving stars on the Memorial Wall and calligraphied inscriptions in the adjacent Book of Honor.
"We couldn't believe after 56 years, something like this was going to happen," said Kathleen Sallee, 70, Bevan's younger sister, a retired medical technologist who lives in Washington state about 100 miles away from the town where she and her brother grew up. "Why now? I was told that someone at the agency felt for years that they should be recognized, so he collected the research to satisfy the criteria they should get the award."
The CIA is making an effort to honor those who died in the agency's earlier years. Just last year, four people who died in the 1950s and 1960s had stars carved into the wall.
When the families attended the ceremony, they bonded over their ties to the plane crash, and the heroism of their loved ones. They also got to meet CIA director Mike Pompeo in his office on the seventh floor.
"He wanted to know about Darrell, and I told him that I felt like Darrell didn't regret what he did," said Margaret Sargent, 68, a second cousin to Eubanks who lives in Arlington, Tex. "I felt an emotion during the ceremony from the people around me. They really revered this kind of sacrifice."
One former smokejumper from Montana, Mike Oehlerich, 77, believes he and his crew mates should have been on that flight. The way he remembers it, Oehlerich and his two colleagues had been in Bangkok for a short break. But they were out getting lunch, and accidentally missed their pickup at a hotel for a ride to the airport. They got stuck in Bangkok and so another crew — Bevan, Eubanks, and Lewis — flew that mission on Aug. 13, 1961.
"We had no idea anything happened until we got back the next day, and that's when they told us that they went into a canyon and tried to turn around and got into bad air," he said.
He said that CIA officials told him days after the crash that Lewis had jumped out of the plane, rather than remain inside.
"When they told me that, I teared up," Oehlerich recalled. "It was something John and I had talked about — 'Don't go down with the airplane, your chances are better if you get out.' "
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