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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."

An escape to Tibet - with the truth revealed half a century later

January 10, 2011

January 8, 2011

13-1-1922 - 6-12-2010


IN 1949, as the Chinese revolution extended its grip to the western part
of the country, Frank Bessac escaped through deserts and mountains to
Tibet, a journey of almost 3000 kilometres. Doing so, he became one of
the last Westerners to meet the Dalai Lama in his summer palace in the
Tibetan capital, Lhasa.

The trek was shrouded in Cold War era secrecy and its leader, Douglas
Mackiernan, who was shot and beheaded by Tibetan border guards, became
the first Central Intelligence Agency operative killed in the line of
duty, a fact only revealed in 2006.

At the time of the revolution Bessac was a Fulbright scholar studying in
nationalist-controlled Inner Mongolia when communist forces began
organising raids.

He knew what was coming and, fleeing for his life, he embarked on an
11-month journey to seek asylum in Tibet.

Before the journey ended, three men in his party including Mackiernan,
would be shot, beheaded and buried in shallow graves.

When the student made it back to the US, the story of his safe return
made national headlines. His autobiographical account of the trip
appeared inLifemagazine and vividly portrayed his harrowing tale of

But many details of the epic sojourn remained hidden for a half century,
including the CIA status of Mackiernan.

For the rest of his life, Bessac retreated into obscurity and spent most
of his career as a professor at the University of Montana.

He first became interested in Mongolian culture during World War II and
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 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 communists attacked.

Fleeing, he met a State Department vice consul - Mackiernan - who he
identified with a secret CIA code. Mackiernan was a high-ranking spy
with secrets on the Russian nuclear bomb.

After near starvation, they approached the Tibetan border in April 1950
but they were fired on by Tibetan guards. Mackiernan and two
anti-communist Russian allies with them were killed, mistaken for

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

Later, Bessac learnt that the three round objects in sacks dangling from
a camel had been the heads of their dead.

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

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

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