For the first time since their fighter pilot days in Laos, the surviving members of the "Secret War's" best-kept secret gathered Saturday in one spot -- in Maplewood, of all places -- to receive a public and official thank-you from the U.S. military.
In a rare ceremony, 38 elite Hmong fighter pilots, who flew alongside Americans during the Vietnam War, were awarded personal letters of appreciation signed by the U.S. Air Force's Chief of Staff, Gen. Norton Schwartz. Of those awards, 21 were posthumous.
"All Hmong aviators represented something greater. They became a symbol of the Hmong people, people's resolve to live free. And they were a source of inspiration for both the Hmong people and the American servicemen," Lt. Gen. Eric Fiel, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, told the packed hotel banquet room. "Today we recognize the Hmong aviators who weathered many storms, braved walls of artillery, kept a steady hand on the stick, surfing the skies. ... On behalf of General Schwartz, I thank you very much."
As honored and moved as the Hmong pilots were by the special recognition, their biggest thrill may have come from seeing one another after nearly four decades. Thirteen pilots made it to the reunion. Like the Air Force tribute, they said, the reunion was long overdue.
"I'm happy with that. It's just a bit too late, in my opinion," Ya Lee, 59, a pilot from Vadnais Heights, said earlier this week about the recognition. "Many of my friends sure did a lot more than me. They're not here to see it."
The last time flier Yia Kha saw his old friend Lee was in an overcrowded refugee camp in Thailand. It was 1975, and they had fled to Thailand after U.S. forces left Laos. Those who had fought with the Americans against the pro-Communists were in danger in Laos.
Like most of the surviving pilots, they eventually resettled in the United States -- Kha in Pennsylvania and Lee in Mississippi. Lee, 59, recently moved to Minnesota.
Last Wednesday, the day Kha arrived from Pennsylvania, the two friends stood inches apart at the Hmong Village shopping mall in St. Paul.
"Aw, what's up, man? Long time coming to see," Lee said, greeting his pal with a handshake and a pat on the back. Kha grinned, then stepped back to size up his friend. "He's changed a little bit," he said, playfully pointing to Lee's biceps. "He's a muscle man."
They were joined by pilot Phong Yang of Maplewood, who helped organize the reunion. The trio's mini-reunion at the Hmong Village kicked off a weekend of reminiscing for the pilot crew, once known by their code name -- "Chao Pha Khao" or Lords of the White Mountains.
'Fly until you die'
From 1967 to 1975, five waves of Hmong men completed a U.S. training program in Southeast Asia, where they learned to fly T-28 propeller planes and helicopters. In all, 38 men swore to "fly until you die" and became part of the Hmong fighter pilot squadron.
Under the leadership of legendary Gen. Vang Pao of the Royal Army of Laos, the Hmong pilots flew many times a day in Laos during the U.S.-led covert war against pro-Communist forces. They bombarded the Ho Chi Minh Trail -- the Viet Cong supply route -- and provided cover for ground troops. They also helped rescue downed pilots and assisted U.S. forces in communicating with Hmong allies.
More than half of them were killed in action.
"If you look at what they did, they're really, really brave guys, said Mike Martin, public affairs specialist for the Air Force Special Operations Command. "Their operations tempo -- how many missions they were doing -- it's amazing. They were really fighting hard."
Back in Laos, the pilots were like a family. Here in America, they keep in touch by phone and exchange pictures, but they hadn't all been together since leaving Laos in 1975. "Many of us still have to work for a living and we live far apart," Lee said.
'It's long overdue'
The idea for Saturday's reunion was born when one pilot, Kha, was honored in 2010 at the Pentagon. He received a certificate of appreciation and congratulatory words from Gen. Schwartz himself.
"We're here to remedy something that wasn't done right, to acknowledge the service of our partners many years ago," Schwartz told Kha at the ceremony. "Certainly I would call them battle buddies. It's long overdue."
Kha, the general noted, distinguished himself as a particularly courageous flier who many times ignored his own personal safety. One mission in particular stands out. An American pilot was suddenly in need of a Hmong "backseater" to fly with him and help in a dangerous rescue mission of a downed U.S. pilot.
Kha, then known as Robin '09, volunteered to fly with American pilot Craig Duehring into a heavily contested zone. Duehring went on to serve as assistant secretary of the Air Force and was key to finally getting all the pilots recognized.
Eve Vang, whose father, Maj. Lee Lue, was a legendary pilot who flew thousands of missions before being shot down in 1969, was moved to tears while watching a video. It showed old photos of the Hmong pilots with cocky smiles standing proudly next to their planes. She said she was struck by how much her father and the other young Hmong men had to overcome to learn how to fly so quickly.
"These pilots were teachers. They were farmers. They didn't know anything about guns or flying," she said. "It shows they had potential."
The sound of champagne corks popping echoed across the room as the pilots toasted their fallen buddies.
At the close of the ceremony, they already were talking of more reunions -- only this time, they vowed, they would not wait so long.
Allie Shah • 612-673-4488