In a Bloomington hotel conference room on Friday, former employees of a CIA-controlled airline flipped through color photos of clandestine airfields in the Vietnam War. They had taken the photos nearly 50 years before, though they knew they weren’t supposed to.
The images of lush green mountains, muddy airstrips and battered helicopters brought back memories of dangerous missions to rescue downed airmen, of dropping sacks of rice to Hmong allies fighting the “secret war” in the officially neutral nation of Laos.
This weekend’s reunion brought together about 75 former employees of Air America to reminisce about their part in one of the strangest chapters in the Vietnam conflict. Though Air America ceased flying more than 40 years ago, its story continues, as former workers fight against the government’s continued contention that they weren’t its employees.
Air America, Inc., was presented as a private company performing aid work in Southeast and East Asia. In fact, the airline was created by the government and controlled by the CIA, which needed air transport in its covert fight against Communism in Southeast Asia.
At its height in the late 1960s, Air America employed an estimated 10,000 people, about 1,000 of them Americans. More than 240 employees of Air America and its predecessor organization died doing their jobs over its 30-year history.
Those who signed on knew they were taking on a perilous job, but didn’t really know who was running the show. Dan Williams grew up in International Falls but was working in Alaska when he answered a newspaper ad for aircraft mechanics in Southeast Asia.
The official line was this: “It’s an airline that drops rice to the starving people,” said Williams, now 74 and living in Indianapolis.
Williams was posted at Long Cheng, Laos, the headquarters of Gen. Vang Pao, leader of the U.S.-backed Hmong forces. He suffered a broken back in an aircraft mishap and spent months at Mayo Clinic before returning to the war zone.
Allen Cates, 76, of Lafayette, La., is a former Marine who flew helicopters in Laos for Air America from 1969 to 1974. He remembers picking up wounded soldiers whose faces had been blown off, and having to wash the blood out of the cabin after each mission.
Serving as a Marine in Vietnam could earn medals, he said. “In Air America, they gave you a pat on the back,” Cates said.
The helicopter in the famous image of U.S. personnel evacuating Saigon in 1975 was operated by Air America.
Referring to the Americans, “everybody in that picture has a federal retirement, except for the pilot,” said Maureen Bevans Ebersole, counsel for the Air America Association.
Ebersole’s late father was the airline’s chief lawyer, and now she and two sisters are working in Washington to earn civil service benefits for an estimated 380 surviving Air America workers who are U.S. citizens.
A failed bill last year that would have done so was sponsored by 13 senators, including U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.
A 2011 report from the Director of National Intelligence lauded Air America for its service but rejected federal benefits, saying its workers never thought they were government employees.
The CIA, meanwhile, describes Air America on its website as a “CIA proprietary airline” and an “indispensable instrument” of its “clandestine mission.”
After a trademark fight, the CIA recently sent a $2,000 check to the Air America Association for the right to sell coffee cups, T-shirts and other items with the Air America logo, Ebersole said.