American Odyssey

They fled terror in Laos after secretly aiding American forces in the Vietnam War. Now 200,000 Hmong prosper-and struggle-in the United States

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Yang says the airman was still uncertain whether the Hmong soldiers were friend or foe as they led him to another hilltop village. Their American-donated radios weren’t working, so they put the pilot’s helmet on a long stick and waved it to signal U.S. search planes. A U.S. helicopter arrived the next morning. The pilot “was smiling so much and waving his arms goodbye when he left,” Yang recalls, adding that the American presented his rescuers with his pistol as a token of gratitude.


Bill Lair, a CIA official based in Laos at the time, who directed the agency’s operations there, says Hmong soldiers risked their own lives to lead many U.S. pilots to safety. The total number of American airmen rescued by the Hmong was, according to agency spokesman Mark Mansfield, never tallied by the CIA.


Yang, now 65, fled Laos after the communist takeover in 1975 and has lived in Milwaukee since 1979. He still speaks no English and has found little work in the United States other than odd jobs. Nonetheless, he says, he feels connected to this country, in part because of that pilot he rescued four decades ago. Yang never did learn the man’s name. “I wish that someday I could meet him again,” he says through an interpreter.


Another Hmong veteran in Milwaukee, Xay Dang Xiong, 61, says he commanded Hmong forces protecting a secret American radar installation on a Laotian mountaintop. Like Yang, Xiong fled Laos in 1975. Today, he works with Lao Family Community, a Hmong social service agency in Milwaukee “When we fought alongside the Americans in Laos, it was called the secret war,” he says. “Hmong people did so many dangerous things to help, but people here still don’t know that. It’s still like a secret.”


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