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Eagle County: Tibetans build Camp Hale missile

Bob Winsett
Special to the Vail Daily
Vail, CO Colorado
Photo courtesy of Colorado Ski and Snowboard MuseuCamp Hale as it looked when U.S. troop trained there during World War II.
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CAMP HALE ” On June 25th, 1950 North Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel.

It was a move that would divert the world’s attention from the Chinese takeover of Tibet for years to come. Nevertheless, there was a silver lining of sorts to the Korean conflict in that the United States was now forced to fine tune its policy in regards to the spread of communism in Asia.’

The U. S. State Department under Eisenhower had to pay at least some attention to the situation in Tibet even if its primary focus was on the situation in Korea.

When the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1950 they brought with them the latest in modern weapons along with the latest in communications technology and a seemingly endless supply of troops.

By 1959, their advantage over the Tibetans had increased exponentially with the construction of airports, roads and camps that comprised an infrastructure that helped facilitate the rapid deployment of troops and supplies.

With an additional 100,000 Chinese troops occupying Tibet by 1960, there was virtually no chance that the Chinese would ever retreat from Tibet.

In March of 1959, the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru allowed the Dalai Lama to enter India after a heroic escape from Lhasa and the Chinese who sought to control and, in all likelihood, kidnap or otherwise control the Dalai Lama for their own purposes.

Other than allowing the Dalai Lama to enter India, Nehru was reluctant to aid the Tibetans in any other way. Nehru tried to control the Dalai Lama’s exposure to the outside world and even tried to sabotage the Dalai Lama’s attempt to file an appeal with the United Nations.

In the meantime, however, the U. S. had begun to increase its support of the Tibetans even though not everyone in the CIA was clear as to the whereabouts of Tibet. Allen Dulles, director of the CIA at that time had to be shown the proper location of Tibet after he had pointed to a map of Europe and asked if the country that was actually Hungary was Tibet.

Roger McCarthy was appointed to be the head of the Tibetan Task Force. McCarthy held the view that the CIA should either support the Tibetan resistance or let the Tibetans know that support was being withdrawn. McCarthy proposed that trainees be provided with skills and equipment to conduct modern guerilla warfare as well as how to collect intelligence on the plans and intentions of Mao’s army for use by the U.S.

In 1958 Camp Hale was selected for the training site based on it’s topography, weather and remoteness. The Army supported the project and built the facilities that would be needed over the next few years.

The Army, however, was not informed as to the exact training and purpose of the new facilities and was told by the CIA only that a foreign national group would be on site. To simplify public relations matters and to keep curiosity seekers away the CIA announced that the area was off-limits because of “atomic-related research.”

Upon arriving at Camp Hale, Tashi Chutter, a Tibetan translator, thought he was actually back in Tibet. While the Americans stationed at Camp Hale called it simply “the Ranch,”, the Tibetans nicknamed it “Dumra,” which is Tibetan for flower garden.

The CIA operatives that were assigned to Camp Hale held only he highest regard for the Tibetans. Most were glad to not be involved in the chaos in Central America.

In addition, the CIA was amazed by how diligent the Tibetans were when it came to learning anything. The Tibetans seemed to be drawn to anything dangerous and also possessed a great deal of curiosity as well as the ability to invent solutions to problems with the materials they had at hand.

In one instance, the Tibetans were able to make a portable “rocket” out of a simple wooden trough, using homemade napalm, a small warhead and gunpowder. One evening a final “launch” veered off-target and disappeared over a distant hill.

Suddenly the faint lights that came from Climax molybdenum mine at the top of Fremont Pass went out. The Tibetans cheered. The next morning one of the CIA officers went to the mine and offered to pay for the “interruption” ” the bill was $25,000.

Tibetan and major U.S. holidays were routinely celebrated at Camp Hale. On such holidays the men were usually granted a day off, which often involved kegs of beer and volleyball. This was in contrast to the otherwise intense days of training, which included on-the-ground surveillance, infiltration techniques, radio operation and sabotaging and disrupting transportation.

Camp Hale was virtually self contained with the exception of a small airfield not far away that facilitated each trainees’ three mandatory parachute jumps ” an integral part of training.

By then, Lhasa was now under martial law and curfew and was completely suppressed by the Chinese army.

Unfortunately, communication among the rebels was almost nonexistent. It was not unusual for one rebel unit to enter into combat without any knowledge of the whereabouts of other nearby units.

In fact, one Tibetan named Thupten Dargyal who was a captain of a resistance group that was overrun in the Kongpo region remembers, “We had heard that the Dalai Lama had left Lhasa but we had no idea he was escaping to India.

“We didn’t know anything. We didn’t even know that there had been a general uprising in Lhasa. All we knew was that our situation in Kongpo was very bad.”

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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