Celebrating freedom at Camp Hale

PANDO, Colorado – Prayers, speeches, flags and a simple plaque have filled a hole in the history of Camp Hale.

The history of the 10th Mountain Division has been told to seemingly the smallest detail. Other military operations there have also been documented. But between 1958 and 1964, the official story was that the military was conducting explosives and weapons tests at the high-elevation base.

Actually, the CIA was training Tibetan freedom fighters at Camp Hale. Fewer than 300 men were trained there. Some were parachuted into remote areas of Tibet – others slipped across the borders. Their mission was to train insurgents to conduct guerrilla operations against the Chinese, who had invaded and occupied the country in the late 1950s. They all wore poison capsules around their necks. If they were captured, they knew what to do.

The men who came back and their descendants have for years lobbied for a memorial at Camp Hale to commemorate this little-known chapter in the history of the Cold War.

Sen. Mark Udall has ties to that part of Asia, thanks in part to his own interest in climbing and his mother’s Peace Corps tour in Nepal. He first proposed the memorial plaque when he was representing Eagle County in Congress.

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“It should have been a simple thing,” he said Friday.

It wasn’t.

Udall started work on the project again after being sworn into the Senate in early 2009. Friday, several dozen people came to see the plaque unveiled, including former CIA trainers, Tibetan freedom fighters and their families.

“This is so meaningful on all sorts of levels,” said Carole McGranahan, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder who has written about the Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet. “It’s the first acknowledgment of what happened here.”

That recognition was important to the Tibetans who came from all over this country to attend the ceremony.

“I’m happy,” former freedom fighter Tashi Poljor said. “This is like coming to my home.

“We trained many good fighters here,” Poljor added. “When someone left, we’d cry – there’s so much connection between Americans and Tibetans.”

Don Cesare, one of the CIA trainers, spent three years training the freedom fighters, talked a little about the bond between the Tibetans and their trainers.

“The Tibetans all chewed snuff, from the English,” Cesare said. “We chewed Copenhagen (tobacco), and they came to really like it.

“We sent a team in once, and hadn’t heard from them for a long time, so we were worried. When they surfaced, they didn’t ask for bullets or grenades – they asked for a roll of Copenhagen.”

It’s easy to forget today, but Camp Hale was still a relatively remote mountain valley when the Tibetans were training there. Still, it could be hard to maintain the cover story.

Kevin McCarthy’s father, Roger, ran the training base. The elder McCarthy died in 2007, but his son talked about the bonds between the men who worked there. But he also told the story of a homemade rocket that veered wildly off-course one night.

The men heard the explosion, then saw the lights from the just-over-Chicago-Ridge Climax Mine go dark. Repairing the damage cost $25,000, “But it helped maintain the cover story they were doing explosive development work,” Kevin McCarthy said.

The Tibetans who trained at Camp Hale didn’t talk about their work, even to their own families.

“We always wondered why our father spoke English with an American accent when we all spoke English with an Indian accent,” said Doma Norbu, the daughter of one of the freedom fighters. “He could look at a map when we were in a new city – we always just thought he was a really good map reader.”

The Tibetan freedom fighters were brave, tough, and, ultimately, vastly outnumbered and outgunned by the Chinese, who still control the mountainous country. But hope lives on in the spirits of Tibetans in this country.

Many at the ceremony spoke about a willingness to take on the Chinese again, with help from their American friends. Others talked to Udall about trying to obtain visas so roughly 5,000 Tibetan refugees could leave Nepal and come to the United States.

“After 50 years, we’re still fighting against the Chinese,” said Karma Namgyal, president of a Tibetan group based in New York. “We’re ever ready to make Tibet free.”

Ken Knaus, one of the CIA trainers and leader of the effort to commemorate the work at Camp Hale, agreed.

“This is not a funeral,” Knaus told the crowd. “This is the continuation of a fight that started 50 years ago.”

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