New book ‘Wildflowers Never Die’ examines CIA connection to Camp Hale
Deb Turnbull Devries grew up in Eagle County, and like many kids who were raised in this area, for her a school field trip to Camp Hale became a memorable experience.
But unlike most Camp Hale field trips, Turnbull’s bus was boarded by armed soldiers, setting up a series of questions in her young mind. The year was 1957, the war that created the Camp Hale training ground was long over, yet the area was still being heavily guarded and patrolled by the U.S. military. Why? What was going on there?
Those questions shaped the genesis of the new book, “Wildflowers Never Die” by Devries and Randall Howlett, a former U.S. Marine Corps captain who now writes historical nonfiction. Devries specializes in deep research, of which this book required much, and she looked into the backstories while Howlett did the writing.
Howlett and Devries both graduated from Battle Mountain High School in 1971, and their knowledge of the area helps inform their work. They said the book began as a discussion about Camp Hale and the realization that the CIA had been training Tibetan freedom fighters there, but blossomed to include the larger context of the Cold War which had brought the Tibetan guerrillas to Camp Hale.
“During the 1958 to 1962 period of training Tibetan freedom fighters at Camp Hale most everyone living in upper Eagle County where the camp was located as well as nearby Leadville, sitting 15 miles south, were unaware these activities were going on,” Howlett writes. “Numerous rumors spread about the camp but no one could guess its real function.”
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The book is ambitious in its scope – examining the Cold War from 1945 to 1975 – including the formation of the Communist Party’s totalitarian regimes in Russia and China and the Central Intelligence Agency’s atrocities and failures in the United States and Southeast Asia. And the book does an excellent job of taking a dialectic approach to that topic. While Howlett, in the book’s forward, compares the totalitarian regimes to makers of the Frankenstein monster and the CIA to the pitchfork-armed townspeople, he doesn’t let off either group without reproach.
Many Cold War events are explored in the book, including the Siege of Changchun, the Berlin Airlift, China’s “Great Leap Forward,” the CIA’s secret war in Laos, the CIA’s “MK Ultra” mind control experiments, and, of course, the CIA’s use of Camp Hale as a clandestine training ground for Tibetan guerrillas in the 1950s and ’60s. The most notable connection to Vail is a mention of Bill “Sarge” Brown, Vail Mountain’s famous operations manager, who rendered backcountry support to special forces groups training at Camp Hale in the 1950s.
The book introduces a number of characters, settings and events in an attempt to follow a narrative format, some of which it does rather well. The reader is left knowing much of the history of the Tibetan freedom fighters who trained at Camp Hale, the missions they embarked upon and the outcome of those endeavors. Some characters command the attention of the reader, like Anthony “Tony Poe” Poshepny, who helps train the Tibetan recruits before fighting in the CIA’s secret war in Laos. Poe’s exploits add an element of character development to the work which gives it a sense of narrative for the reader to follow, as we look forward to hearing what’s next for the clandestine CIA operator.
But the book isn’t always successful in its attempts to create a character-driven narrative. Some people are introduced well and then barely mentioned again, so it’s hard to know which characters readers should invest their focus upon. A two-page chapter titled, “The Road to Leadville,” sets up with local Ella Burnett driving past Camp Hale and reminiscing on evenings spent there during WWII before she became a well-known nurse; it would appear this chapter is introducing Burnett as a person who might have some bearing on the story, yet Burnett receives only one brief mention later.
At times, the barrage of characters introduced is a bit messy. In the fourth chapter, “Standoff at Toktong Pass,” characters named McArthur, MacArthur and McCarthy are all referenced, with no first names given. Two chapters later, we’re introduced to Roger McCarthy, but it’s unclear if that’s the same person as Lieutenant McCarthy from “Standoff at Toktong Pass.” In that chapter, in addition to Lieutenant McCarthy, we meet Lieutenant Abell, Private Cafferata, Private Gomez, Corporal Page, Corporal Koone, Corporal Farley, General Almond and Colonel Litzenberg, with no first names listed on anyone.
Those characters arrive during a scene describing a tense battle, so their lack of development may be excused as a stylistic device used to reflect the fast-and-furious nature of the fight. But there are other characters who beg to be better developed, including some close to the authors. Howlett’s father and Devries husband are two such characters.
Howlett, in the book’s introduction, says his father operated as a double agent for 14 years while working for NATO, but that detail only gets a single paragraph of further explanation later in the book. Also in the book’s introduction, Howlett introduces Devries’ husband as a man who worked in the Titan missile silos in Kansas and was drafted into the Vietnam War, yet in the ensuing chapters about those missile silos and that war, we get no further exposition of this potentially interesting character.
But the book, as promised on its back cover, does do a good job of following the careers of key CIA agents during the first three decades of the Cold War. Poe’s tenure as a paramilitary operator becomes symbolic of the CIA itself as he enlists with honorable intentions but later devolves into madness, and the authors trace his journey well.
Some events which the authors present as fact aren’t necessarily accepted as so in the eyes of history, however, specifically the events surrounding the disappearance of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan. While he’s careful to cite his sources, Howlett presents as fact the theory that Earhart and Noonan were captured by the Japanese, at one point stating rather plainly “Shortly after their capture, Noonan got separated from Amelia and was never heard from again.” This then makes the reader second guess some of the other events presented as fact in the book, although again, the authors are careful to cite their sources so readers can follow up on their own if they choose.
The book gives detailed accounts of some of the little-known moments from the conflicts in Korea, Tibet, Laos and Vietnam, which alone make it a worthwhile read, but it really shines in offering analysis of those events. Howlett deserves praise for his key takeaways and balanced reasoning, and being privy to his conclusions is where the reader benefits most in enjoying “Wildflowers Never Die.”
The best of those conclusions comes near the end in the chapter titled “Beyond the Skyline” where (spoilers ahead) Howlett takes to task the idea that the CIA’s secret war in Laos should be a source of pride or seen as a job well done by the agency. And in doing so, Howlett makes a thoughtful comparison with the CIA’s efforts to train the Tibetan freedom fighters in Camp Hale, giving the reader a final bit of insight into why an examination of the Camp Hale situation must include Laos, its Hmong population, and the Cold War surrounding them.
“To use an indigenous people for a wartime purpose, where almost 10% of the population died while leading the way to its possible extinction by depleting its male population, is patently wrong,” Howlett writes. “On a per capita basis, more Hmong were killed in the war than either Americans or Japanese died in World War II. In fact, many more Hmong civilians perished than did their actual combatants, albeit from increased American bombing.
“On the basis of promises or representations made, and Hmong’s reliance on those promises, there was also a failure,” Howlett continues. “Maybe more so than with the Tibetan Program. In the latter, Tibetans came to believe the CIA would help them to achieve their independence from China. The agency denied they made any such representations, but they also weren’t clear with the Tibetans about their true agenda. After all, they needed the Tibetans to be their proxies for harassing and spying on the Chinese. Had they told the Tibetans that’s what they were only needed for, the latter likely wouldn’t have gone along with the program. In Laos, a more succinct promise was actually made to the Hmong: ‘We may not win this war and if not, we will take care of you.'”
The Vail area has often found itself marked on the map of American influence. President Ford planned his 1976 election campaign from Vail, Vice President Dick Cheney cut the ribbon on Beaver Creek’s new Ford Hall in 2007, and President Joe Biden declared Camp Hale a National Monument while visiting in 2022. The fact that Eagle County has seen numerous associations with the country’s power sources is no secret. But what has been shrouded in secrecy is the CIA, and if you’ve ever wanted to learn more about how the agency might be connected to our area, this book is for you.
“Wildflowers Never Die” is available online at amazon.com.