Wednesday, July 23, 2008
More than 600 people paid their respects yesterday to captain David Harold Kouba, an Iowa man whose dangerous life led him from crop-dusting in Mississippi and Australia to flying missions from 1968 to 1975 during the Central Intelligence Agency's "secret war" in Laos.
It was Kouba who flew general Vang Pao, the CIA's top Hmong leader, out of the agency's embattled headquarters at Long Cheng. A program distributed with services explained:"On May 14, 1975, among few of the remaining American civilian pilots in south-east Asia, Kouba and chopper pilot Jack Knotts flew the last 'up-country' special assignment to evacuate Jerry Daniels (Hog), who was a CIA case officer, and major general Vang Pao."
The written program cited words it said were apparently from Kouba in his log book: "Arrived at Long Chieng [the spelling is different] at dawn to evacuate general Vang Pao and head customer 'Hog'. All was in turmoil. Danang, Vietnam, all over. Meos [tribes people] were beginning to mob aircraft. We took off at 10:47, and this ended the Secret CIA base of Long Chieng, Laos."
Kouba died of cancer peacefully at home in Las Vegas on April 24.
The Sunday service in the Clovis Memorial Building attracted Kouba's family from Iowa, hundreds of Hmong families living in the San Joaquin Valley, military and, at least one speaker hinted, possibly unidentified CIA agents.
The memorial was organized by Thua Va of Sacramento, California. He drew on contacts in Sacramento, Fresno and Oroville, and chose to hold the observance in the Fresno area because Kouba had stopped in town last year to reacquaint himself with community people he had helped.
Thua Va had hoped that general Vang Pao, 78, would attend, but said his health prevented it.
Much of the service was spoken in Hmong, but former American fliers who supported the Hmong cause with supplies and other services spoke of their memories in English.
John Lear, who worked with Kouba in Laos, called him "my special friend".
"When they put us here on earth, there's only one thing to do: live our lives without hate and with integrity, and Dave Kouba did that," Lear said.
Comments reflected the murky combat during war in Laos.
Kouba grew up in Iowa, graduated from high school there and got his pilot's license during a year at Texas Christian College. He left college, crop-dusted then hired on with Continental Air Services, Inc (CASI).
Kathy Sankey and Rick Langguth, Kouba's half-brother and half-sister, travelled from Iowa to attend the Hmong community's homage to Kouba. Sankey, who was 11 years younger than Kouba, said in an interview that she, like most Americans, had known little about his exploits during the secret war. He returned to Iowa in 2004, but her account Sunday was still sketchy. This was, after all, a secret war.
"We didn't know he was in the secret war," she said. "We were aware he was dropping food and supplies for the people."
Sankey said her brother always had been adventurous. She looked at the predominantly Hmong assembly and said, "The Hmong people were his second family. He watched over them, there and here. He made sure specific Hmong people got out safe."
Langguth's comments reflected the intrigue and the lack of most Americans' knowledge about the secret war:
"We went in and recruited these people to help us. They are brave, courageous. We promised them we would take care of them, but we left them high and dry," he said in an interview.
Langguth said more Americans need to know how Hmong-Americans became Americans. The American government needs to do more to assist Hmong people, whom the United States recruited into its wars. Hmong fighters helped American pilots and fought to sever the Ho Chi Minh trail leading fighters and supplies from North Vietnam into South Vietnam.
Blong Xiong, Fresno city council president, said the occasion offered opportunity to remember that thousands of Hmong still suffer in refugee camps. He commended legislation introduced by assembly member Juan Arambula to assure that the south-east Asian story, including the secret war in Laos, continues to be told, "at least in California".