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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

High Mountain Elegy

September 26, 2010

Jamyang Norbu
Shadow Tibet
September 22, 2010

I was waiting at Denver airport for my ride when
I got a call from a Tibetan acquaintance who
asked (somewhat expectantly I thought -- but I
could be wrong) if the Americans had revived the
program to train and support Tibetan jamak
(guerrilla operations) inside Tibet. I
explained  that nothing of the kind was happening
and that I was on my way to Camp Hale in the
Rockies where a commemorative plaque was being
dedicated to the memory of the 300 Tibetan
freedom fighters who were secretly trained there
by the CIA, many of whom lost their lives in
subsequent operations inside Chinese occupied Tibet.

It would take about three hours to get to Camp
Hale from the airport, but the sunlight was
glittering on the distant mountains and the trip
was a pleasant one. Tenzin Pasang la of Boulder
had offered to drive me and we were accompanied
by a couple of other friends. The SUV climbed
steadily up past mountainsides covered with
aspen, spruce and pine -- the last, devastated in
places by pine beetle infestation. But the aspen
had just begun to change color and would, in a
month, turn into their spectacular reds and yellows.

We drove on Interstate 70 for about a couple of
hours and then took the exit to US highway 24,
renamed 10th Mountain Division Memorial Highway.
Camp Hale was established in 1942 during World
War II as a home base for the 10th, and to
provide winter and mountain warfare training,
including skiing, for other military units. After
the war the whole camp area had been
decommissioned and most of the buildings and facilities removed.

When the secret program to train Tibetan fighters
in the USA started in 1958, Camp Hale was
selected because of its perceived similarity to
the terrain in Tibet, and because of its general
isolation. A small part of the vast military camp
had survived and this section was wired off and
some extra quonset huts and a log-cabin
recreation center built and training equipment
set up. A unit of military police permanently
patrolled the perimeter of the area to keep possible intruders away.

We finally got over the mountains and came to a
broad windswept valley about 11,000 feet,
surrounded by low mountains and covered with
scrub and  purple sagebrush. Like native
Americans, Tibetans burn sagebrush which we call
sang ganden khampa, as a purifying ritual and a
smoke offering to the Buddha and the old gods
(yul-lha ship-dag) of Tibet. About two-thirds of
the way into the valley we came to a place by the
side of the road where a group of people were
gathered. The main speaker, Colorado Senator Mark
Udall hadn’t arrived yet but about a hundred
guests were already seated. A film crew was
setting up and reporters from local Colorado
papers,  RFA and VOA  were interviewing people.

We busied ourselves arranging an altar of sorts,
a statue of Lord Buddha and a portrait of the
Dalai Lama on a picnic table. The Tibetan
national flag and  the American flag (along with
the battle standard of the Four Rivers Six
Ranges) were raised on either side of the brass
commemorative plaque. We also strung up a length
of prayers flags behind the plaque (about 20?x
15?)  which was erected on a metal stand.

I am not going into details about the formal
ceremony. Readers will probably have read the
news report "Celebrating Freedom at Camp Hale" by
Scott Miller, re-posted on Phayul.com.

The event opened with a speech by the young
Senator Mark Udall who thanked all those who had
worked hard to make the event possible. In
particular he mentioned retired CIA  officer Ken
Knaus who had led the effort to get official
approval for the commemorative plaque.

Ken Knaus, who had come to the event with his
wife, spoke of the courage and dedication of the
Tibetan trainees. He told the crowd that he had
always felt compelled to create some kind of
memorial to the brave freedom fighters he had
worked with. Tashi Choedrak la (Mark) who had
been Ken’s translator at Camp Hale, gave a full
historical outline of the program. Tashi la also
mentioned that the Tibetan name for Camp Hale was
"Dumra" or Garden. One of the first trainees at
Camp Hale had told me some years ago that they
had called the place Dumra because the bracing
cold, the high mountains and the wind had made it feel like home, like Tibet.

A number of the former trainees, Trundhu Pon
Chime Tsering la (Conrad), Tashi Paljor la (Noel)
Sonam Wangchuk la (Lee) and Pema Wangdu (Pete)
and instructors Ray Starke and Don Cesare also
spoke of their experiences. It became clear from
everyone’s stories that the Tibetan trainees got
on surprisingly well with their instructors and
in turn the CIA people were fond of their
students and came to admire them. I have
reproduced some excerpts from previous interviews
that have appeared in various books and other publications:

As one CIA instructor put it: "Basically we fell
in love with those guys. The Tibetans
distinguished themselves from the other
nationalities that I had worked with. There was
their obvious high spirit, dedication,
self-discipline, and a degree of self-confidence.
But there was something else about them -- hard to explain."

Instructor Tom Fosmire was struck by their
sincerity and devotion. "They moved you in their direction," he concluded.

"The Lao would get frightened during night-time
operations," recalled Roger McCarthey, "and would
hold each others’ hands." The Tibetans, by
contrast were of entirely different mettle. "They
were brave and honest and strong," said McCarthy,
"Basically, everything we respect in a man."

Instructor Frank Hollobar wrote "We already
recognized that we were dealing with people who
were more deserving than some of the people we
had been working for. They were truly involved in
trying to protect their way of life, their
country, and were willing to fight for it. The
Tibetans had this great spirit: "Give us the tool
and we’ll do the job." They weren’t asking the
CIA to do the job for them, which is what we got
from a lot of the groups we were working with."

"They (the Tibetans) had steerable chutes, and
they screamed "Geronimo" as they jumped, then
chased each other down through the sky --
yelling, laughing, trying to catch each other --
just having a hell of a time," Frank Hollobar
observed. "The instructors had never seen such
high spirits among foreign nationals."

"The instructors also came to realize that the
Tibetans had remarkably inquisitive and inventive
natures." -- "Maybe it was the memorization and
meditation associated with their Buddhist
training," one instructor speculated "They picked
up codes fast and were a lot sharper than most people gave them credit."

Instructor John Greaney in discussing the
dedication of the trainees said: "I’ve never seen
anything like it. After dinner they would go back
to practice Morse code. Really, we used to
comment back and forth that we were grateful that
we were working with the Tibetans instead of the
Central American problem, which was the Bay of
Pigs. We knew we were fortunate to be involved with a good program.

Even with the very first group of six raw
trainees at Saipan in 1957, Roger McCarthy was
impressed with their marksmanship "always
impressive" as was their discipline and attention
to detail. "To my surprise, they quickly learned
how to read and use maps, a skill few can claim.
 From simple coordinates concepts to eight digit
accurate grid coordinates and transposing the
resultant coordinates into accurate insertions in
the one-time pad system to be used, as well as
the need for properly and accurately orientating
the antennas to communicate by the RS-1 radio
according to the signal plans provided by Washington."

Senator Udall appeared visibly moved by the
stories and he rose to speak again and repeatedly
requested members of the audience to share their
experiences about the program or with individual
instructors or Tibetans trainees.

A number of the guests came up and spoke, often
emotionally, about their parents, relatives or
friends who had been at Camp Hale. Dolma la, the
daughter of Athar Norbu, one of first CIA
trainees, recalled her father’s American accent
when he spoke English that always intrigued her
and her sister who studied at a Christian school
in Darjeeling. What also surprised her was that
he could always find his ways around a new town
or city, with just a map. She also introduced her
friend, Sonam Yangzom la, the daughter of the
great warrior Ratu Ngawang, who though not a
trainee at Camp Hale, was one of the leading
Tibetan resistance fighters who had fought beside Andru Gompo Tashi in Tibet.

Kevin McCarthy, the son of instructor Roger
Mcarthy, came with his two sisters and spoke of
how much the project had meant to his father. He
also shared stories he had heard from his father
of the escapades of the Tibetan trainees, one
being the launching of a large homemade rocket,
which went seriously off course and damaged the
buildings of a distant molybdenum mine, east of
Leadville. The CIA had to foot the bill of
$25,000 for repairs, but the incident added to
the project’s cover story that secret nuclear
experiments were being conducted in the area.
Julie Hollobar, the daughter of Frank Hollobar
was among the guests, though I am not sure she
spoke. But she joined us for dinner. Lisa Cathy
the daughter of our CIA contact at Calcutta, Clay
Cathy, could not spare time for reminiscing. She
had helped organize this event with Ken Knaus and
the Senator Udall’s staff and  was now busy with
her cameraman and sound-man filming this event
for her project “The CIA in Tibet." Check out her
website for lots of great interviews, photographs and videos.

The representative of the Tibetan Association of
Colorado and other Tibetans including two
monks  spoke movingly of the sacrifice of the Freedom Fighters.

Karma Namgyal and other young leaders of the Four
Rivers Six Ranges also spoke of how, though the
events were before their time, they felt
constantly inspired by the courage and
self-sacrifice of those who had trained at Dumra.
Karma la maintained that  even after fifty years
of brutal Chinese occupation Tibetans were still
keeping up their fight against the Chinese. He
also declared that Tibetans were ready to fight
the Chinese if the occasion ever arose.

Ken Knaus was moved to speak again and he told
the crowd. "This is not a funeral. This is the
continuation of a fight that started 50 years ago."

I was surprised to find that listening to so many
speakers one after the other was an exhilarating
rather than a boring experience. The anecdotes,
the reminiscences, the attempts to resurrect the
memory of past events, and even to establish some
kind emotional connection with people who had
trained at this place and later fought and died
in Tibet, gave the addresses a ritualistic tone,
like orations at the death of epic heroes.
Perhaps I am getting a little carried away here
with my analogies, but I found the experience very moving.

I also spoke briefly. I said I had come to this
event to honor the memory of my late
father-in-law Kasur Lhamo Tsering (Larry), who
had trained at Camp Hale and who had been the
director of all our intelligence and Mustang
operations. I mentioned that my mother-in-law and
my wife had sent khadags, incense and
prayer-flags for the event. I added that though I
was not trained at Camp Hale, I had been a member
of the Mustang operations and that many Camp Hale
alumni were my friends. I mentioned the names of
a few who had passed away since: Utsatsang Buchi
of Derge, who shared the same root (tsawae) lama,
Jamyang Khyentse Rimpoche, as myself, and Tashi
chung-chung (Sandy) of Shotalhosum (but Lhasa
born) who was the smallest yet toughest Khampa I
had ever met, and my roommate at Mustang.

But I particularly wanted everyone to hear the
name of Bhusang (Ken) of Nyemo, who had not only
fought in the Lhasa Uprising but had been at the
center of the fighting in the Jokhang. He had
escaped to join the training at Dumra and had
been parachuted in the last air-dropped mission
into Tibet. His entire team had been wiped out
and he had been captured, tortured and
interrogated, and finally imprisoned without a
trial for eighteen years. I got to know him very
well at Dharamshala, and interviewed him and
often chatted with him when I had the chance.

Although prison had taken a toll on his health,
he was the only senior Tibetan who worked out
with us at the Rangzen Gym, below the old Medical
Center building in McLeod Ganj. He never
expressed regret for the suffering and misery he
had endured all these years, and he had no doubt
about the righteousness of the cause he had
fought for. What upset him deeply was talk of
autonomy and giving up Rangzen. I met him a few
years ago just after the last negotiating team
had been humiliated in China. Bhusang was sick
and in bed but he was mad enough to sit up and
let me know how he felt about the whole thing.
"The Tibetan government has no idea of how the
Chinese think. No matter what they tell you must
never forget the one fundamental operating
philosophy (tawa) behind their words.”  ‘What is
mine, is mine, and I want yours also.’”  It
sounded so witty and succinct in Tibetan “ngae di
ngarae yin, khyorae diyae go yoe”, and it
reflected, I guess, the fact that he had lived
most of his life in Lhasa -- a city he had
defended with his life in ’59. Bhusang la died
this year on 25th March at the age of 80.

I was glad to have this propitious occasion to at
least make known the name of this brave fighter.
Had he been alive he definitely would  have been
pleased that his American gergens had organized
this event. But being the self-willed, outspoken
and feisty old fellow that he was, Bhusang la
would probably have insisted that he and his
comrades had fought and given up their lives not
for the CIA or the USA, but for the Tibetan
people, the Dalai Lama, the Buddhist faith and
Tibetan independence, and that it would have made
him happier if such a commemoration had taken
place at Dharamshala and had been organized by the Tibetan government.

Once the formal ceremony had concluded, late in
the afternoon, we moved over to the only remains
of a structure, possibly the foundation of a
quonset hut, and held a Sangsol ceremony there,
Two monks had come from Boulder and  everyone
joined in the prayers. We started a small fire
and burnt, juniper, sage, incense, tsampa and
butter and soon got a nice column of smoke rising
into the clear but darkening sky. It was just
before sunset when we all formed a large circle
and tossing tsampa in the air shouted "Lha Gyalo" or "Victory to the Gods."

After the Sangsol ceremony most of us left for
Leadville, a once roaring frontier mining town,
to find the Cloud City Bar,  where half a century
ago the CIA instructors would drive down from
Camp Hale for a drink – after putting their
Tibetans trainees to bed. We didn’t find Cloud
City but finally settled on Quincy’s,  a real old
West establishment with great steaks, spare-ribs
and plenty of beer and whiskey. About thirty-five
of us Tibetans and Inji friends crowded around
the large tables and talked late into the night.

Early next morning my friend Warren Smith and I
took Highway 82 to Aspen. We drove up the
mountains to Independence Pass, which at 12, 095
feet is slightly higher than Lhasa. I thought the
name auspicious in bringing to close yesterday’s
events, and though I was slightly out of breath,
I managed to declare the site “Rangzen La”,  before driving on.

Note: I have posted an album of historical
photographs of the place, personnel and training
activities at Camp Hale on the Rangzen Alliance’s
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
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