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Camp Hale Tibetans face defeat

Bob Winsett
Special to the Vail Daily
Vail, CO Colorado
Bruce Walker/Hoover InstitutionThis warning sign was meant to keep people out of Camp Hale when the CIA was training Tibetan resistance fighters.
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CAMP HALE, Colorado ” Shortly after the 1959 uprisings in Lhasa that eventually led to the Dalai Lama’s decision to escape Tibet, the Chinese went on the offensive against the resistance fighters, most of whom were operating from an area in southern Tibet.

Most of these fighters soon discovered that they were outnumbered and stood relatively little chance of accomplishing any substantial victories against the Chinese.

Soon, many of the fighters also escaped over the border from Tibet into India. Some groups still remained however and continued to hinder the Chinese. Between 1959 and 1960 the CIA helped four groups of resistance fighters parachute into Tibet to work with the existing groups of resistance fighters.

The lack of communications still plagued the Tibetans. When the first group of Camp Hale trainees was parachuted into Tibet they believed that they were going to be met by resistance fighters that they would help train. However, when they landed they found that there were no Tibetans and nearly a thousand Chinese soldiers waiting to greet them.

The second group of 16 Camp Hale trainees that was sent back into Tibet faired very poorly indeed. They were parachuted into an area called Pemba, northeast of Lhasa in the autumn of 1959.

There were already thousands of resistance fighters amassed and waiting for the Camp Hale trainees as well as additional weapons and supplies. About 800 weapons were dropped to the Tibetans who began to plead their case to the CIA for more weapons and even U. S. military personnel.

Both the CIA officers involved and the Tibetans were increasingly disappointed that the hope for U. S. manpower and even more weaponry was not a realistic possibility. The U.S. was not about to enter into a war with China over Tibet.

The second group of Tibetans were eventually targeted by the Chinese air force and artillery. With virtually nowhere to hide in the high plains around Pemba, the Chinese killed thousands of resistance fighters and captured a few hundred more.

In January of 1960, the last group of Tibetans from Camp Hale was parachuted into Tibet and joined forces with a small group of guerillas that engaged the Chinese in a series of small battles.

Finally, however, the Tibetans were surrounded by the Chinese. It became apparent to the Tibetans that defeat was imminent.

Two men chose to take the cyanide capsules that they had been issued before being dropped back into Tibet. Soon they were dead.

One survivor, Bhusang, remembers putting his cyanide capsule into his mouth in case he would not have time to locate it later. Before he could ingest the capsule he was knocked unconscious by a Chinese soldier.

For the next 20 years Bhusang was imprisoned in Tibet. Upon his release from prison in 1980, Bhusang was able to escape to India. This all but signaled the end of the resistance fighter’s large scale efforts against the Chinese oppressors.

However, while the large scale parachute missions were taking place, the CIA had also become involved in supporting small groups of resistance fighters that were secretly sent into the Mustang region of Nepal and then into Tibet where they were to set up small units of resistance fighters.

Within a short time the small, secret bands of resistance fighters were joined by other Tibetans who had heard about the “secret” base in Mustang. It forced the CIA to rethink its strategy and it soon found itself supporting upwards of 2,000 Tibetan guerillas.

Four of the Camp Hale trainees and supplies were parachuted into Mustang and training began for the fighters on the ground. Once the training was completed the CIA began to prod the Tibetans to enter Tibet and to begin their covert activities including the collection of intelligence data and info about Chinese soldiers that the Tibetans killed.

One of the main targets for the Tibetans was a supply route that enabled the Chinese to bring in large quantities of troops and supplies from China into Tibet. On one particular mission a group of guerillas encountered a supply convoy and was able to capture some official documents that startled even the U.S. intelligence community.

The papers indicated that the Chinese were having trouble with their Great Leap Forward as well as other internal programs within China. Kenneth Knaus, author of “Orphans of the Cold War” and one of the key CIA operatives stated, “The Chinese document raid was one of the greatest intelligence hauls in the history of the Agency.”

The capture of these documents gave greater credibility to the CIA’s involvement and helped maintain the CIA’s support for the Tibetans.

Two more arms drops were made to the Mustang fighters with the last coming in May of 1965. At the same time the CIA was directing the Tibetans to limit their operations to intelligence gathering. While the Tibetans told the U.S. that they had stopped making raids in compliance with the directions they had been given, the Tibetans, nevertheless, continued to attack the Chinese whenever conditions were deemed favorable.

Eventually, the Tibetans disabled the highway that had been their main focus so that the Chinese were not able to transport any more supplies or men.

Until early 1969 the Tibetans continued their attacks on the Chinese. Finally, the CIA announced without warning that they were cutting off all support for the Tibetan resistance.

At the time that the U.S. began to consider engaging China it became apparent that the involvement with the Tibetan rebels would be an impediment to any negotiations with Beijing. The Dalai Lama’s brother, who had first introduced the U.S. to the Tibetan cause, was told that the U. S. had been given two conditions that they had to meet in order to establish diplomatic relations with China: The U. S. must cut off its relations with the Republic of China and the Tibetans.

This contradicted a statement that had been made to him by a U. S. official stating that if the Dalai Lama was able to reach India, the U.S. would aid the Tibetans until they were able to regain their independence.

Finally, in 1974 the Dalai Lama appealed to the last remaining resistance fighters to stop fighting and to put down their arms. While the majority of the fighters complied, some killed themselves out of grief and frustration.

There are those in the CIA that argued that in some ways the CIA only helped antagonize the Chinese against the Tibetans. One CIA operative was William Bueler, whose sister, Barbara Werren, lives in Summit County. She read from Bueler’s memoirs one day in which he expressed concern that the CIA’s involvement only created worse circumstances for the Tibetans.

Others contend that the Tibetans would have fought back with or without help and that the Chinese agenda was already bent on extreme measures.

Roger McCarthy, the head of the CIA’s Tibetan task force said, “Nobody had an accurate read on Tibet. There was a golden opportunity there at one time.” McCarthy attributes the Chinese decision early on to build roads and transportation infrastructure as the best move the Chinese could have made. The Chinese were soon bringing more soldiers into Tibet than anyone had ever expected.

In the end, many involved were confused as to the real intentions of the U.S. government. Nevertheless, McCarthy recounts that many within the CIA believed the efforts in Tibet to have been some of the most successful in the history of the CIA. McCarthy is quick to point out, however, that the end result was that of failure.

“If we look at what we did for Tibet as about the best that we could do, then I say that we have failed miserably.”

Bob Winsett is a freelance photographer residing in Frisco. Over the years he has mountain biked, hiked and skied in the Camp Hale area and first heard about the use of Camp Hale for the training of Tibetans during a presentation at the Telluride Mountain Film Festival in 1999.


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