by, Allen Cates
Author of Honor-Denied-The Truth About Air America And The CIA

Air America; and who ‘they‘ were, what ‘they‘ did and why; ends up in magazines, newspapers and on websites; filled with half-truths and outright fabrications usually meant to entertain or inform the readers. A false statement can be harmful to the legacy of those who served and if the statement is falsifiable it should not be left uncontested.

Mark Twain said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” Truer words were never spoken, and masters at disinformation take advantage knowing people tend to fault the truth teller when it goes against the grain of a prevailing belief regardless the strength of the evidence to support it.

One should not give up and succumb to the clever revisionist. In the long run, the truth is better than a lie, and to continue to live with a lie represents forced indenture to a false narrative.

The best way to preserve a lie is to sprinkle it with the truth. A fireman placing his life in danger putting out a fire is eligible for retirement benefits because that’s his job. But an ordinary citizen who puts out a fire does not qualify because he acted without authority. Falsifying a person’s job description is a good way to keep him from receiving benefits. Publicly praising him at the same time makes the lie credible and eases the pain.

Air America operated on contracts, but plausible deniability was the purpose. In reality, because the U. S. Government owned Air America, the Government contracted itself and paid itself back with no thoughts or provisions for the plight of the employees. Several of those employees received long-term disabilities or died violently, and all of them served valiantly doing government’s work.

In 1976, Air America was dissolved. The employees had already been sent home without even a fare thee well. The government subsequently sold the wholly owned subsidiary Air Asia Co. LTD, who owned all the assets. The government could have used the proceeds for employee benefits, but deposited them into the U.S. Treasury instead.
The government-owned corporation never told the employees who their actual employer was. Once learned, some Air America employees sued unsuccessfully for federal benefits realizing they had been left holding an empty sack. Summary judgments and the federal appellate court ruled that by not knowing meant not deserved, which should be a violation of every known standard in employment law.

Lies usually have a purpose, but there is a difference between not being candid, where covert and clandestine activity are necessarily kept secret to protect lives, and intentional disinformation to deny benefits to a deserving group.

In 1954, the U.S. Government was asked by the French Republic to assist them with airdrops to Dien Bien Phu, but the political situation prevented overt military assistance. President Eisenhower secretly assigned the USAF to train Air America pilots to fly C-119 Boxcars to do the job. Two pilots were killed, and several others were wounded. Secrecy at the time was understandable, but to this day, the federal government hasn’t acknowledged the event. Years later, France awarded the pilots their highest military honor, but the U.S. Federal government gave them nothing. Silence in itself is a lie when secrecy is long past necessary.

Air America became the government’s secret air force again in 1961 when President Kennedy ordered Operation Millpond. Marine Airbase Squadron 16 was directed to turn over sixteen Marine Corps helicopters to Air America and set up their maintenance and operations departments. The CIA used the asset, but had nothing to do with the assignment.

America had a dilemma in Laos. The 1962 Geneva Accords prevented overt military assistance to an ever-growing threat from North Vietnam. They could violate the Accords overtly, walk away and hope for the best for the Pacific Rim, or assist the Royal Lao government covertly and clandestinely.

They chose the latter, but secrecy and public scrutiny required someone other than the military to do the work. Air America was assigned, and the government fostered a mythical image by first denying its true nature and then shrouding it in a cloak of conspiracy with fraudulent intent. The “CIA’s secret war” and its “CIA proprietary” was supposed to explain everything and shush the public, but shielded Air America’s true identity.

In 1964, the Department of State assigned Air America to conduct the required military activity to protect USAF and Navy aircraft operating in Laos. The assignment included search and rescue (SAR) flying armed T-28s and H-34 helicopters. The T-28 activity stopped in two years, but the SAR activity continued until the war ended, and the assignment was never rescinded. Air America was furnished military aircraft by the federal government. They began hauling ammunition and supplies from Thailand to Laos supporting the USAF Ravens, Royal Lao, Hmong and Thai troops who were fighting the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese.

In 2009, several books and documents were declassified, though heavily redacted, explaining Air America’s connection to the USAF and Air America’s military activity. The same year and again in 2011 the CIA said Air America employees were not required to perform search and rescue and conducted these charitable acts as volunteers. They also said Air America’s military support only lasted two years in Laos from 1964 thru 1965. The unauthorized ambulance chasing characterization was contested, and the CIA countered by praising our endeavors, but explaining them as an airman’s bond, not required and not condoned.

Air America’s military activity did not stop in 1965. Thirty-five percent of Air America’s killed in action during a twenty-five year period occurred from 1969 thru 1973. A declassified USAF CHECO report stated AAM was assigned joint SAR with the USAF for LS-85 from 1967 until the site fell in 1968. These documents reveal the war in Laos was not the “CIA’s Secret War” but “America’s Secret War.” The USAF, U.S. Army, CIA and Air America were used collectively to accomplish the mission directed by the National Security Council.

The CIA repeated the same narrative to the Civilian/Military Service Review Board (Secretary of the USAF) in 2014. They stated we were not eligible for veteran’s status because we were not authorized to support the USAF and did so solely for humanitarian reasons. Therefore, they distanced themselves where it mattered and significantly diminished our chances for veteran’s status and civil service benefits.

The USAF JAO in a letter to the same board stated Air America employees were not eligible for veteran status because they were “unprivileged belligerents,” a more polite term for unlawful combatants or mercenaries. Air America’s rightful legacy will be tainted forever if the characterization sticks because the lie is more palatable than the truth. The CIA could have corrected the record, but didn’t and refused when asked. Both the USAF JAO and the CIA went on to say there was never any intent to discredit Air America and that they held us in high regard.

The truth is we were required, and authorized, and yes, we did it boldly and bravely but with authority and jurisdiction from the federal government. The false narrative should be challenged. God willing, those in authority will have the integrity to correct the record and nullify the falsification from the naysayers and glad-handers. We then can peel off the hollow slap on our back for being brave, courageous and held in high regard and use the truth for the benefits and recognition we deserve.

Allen Cates, Author, aviation writer,