Milwaukee, WI — Hmong pilots T28 reunion at Maplewood, Minnesota on June 16, 2012. Due to technical issues with our disk that contained the video footage, we delay the broadcast of the event up until now.
Click here to watch Suab Hmong News exclusive covered Hmong Pilots Reunion.
Read more detail on an article from twincities.com below (link: http://www.twincities.com/localnews/ci_20866993/hmong-pilots-who-aided-u-s-get-recognition)
The choice wasn’t easy for the few young Hmong men all those decades ago. But it was clear: fly until death.
From 1967 to 1975, the CIA and the U.S. Air Force recruited and trained the Hmong in Laos mainly to pilot T-28 fighter planes used for counterinsurgency efforts. They flew alongside Americans during the Vietnam War fighting against North Vietnamese in Laos.
“The Hmong are not soldiers; they are warriors,” said Gaoly Yang of Maplewood, who is the wife of veteran Hmong pilot Phong Yang. “Freedom is very important for Hmong.”
For the first time Hmong pilot veterans will be recognized by the Air Force for their service. The Hmong Pilot Veterans Committee will host a ceremony Saturday, June 16, in Maplewood in which Lt. Gen. Eric Fiel will present recognition awards.
Of 37 original Hmong pilots who took the silent pledge to “fly until death,” 20 survived. Seventeen are alive today.
“During the year I was there, we lost eight,” said Craig Duehring, a retired Air Force colonel and former assistant secretary of the Air Force. “It was a very dangerous mission, and these guys would shoot all day long.”
One of those “guys” was Yia Kha. An interpreter at age 20 in 1968, he accompanied Duehring on some of the most dangerous missions and became a T-28 pilot in 1973.
“We were risking our life,” said Yia Kha, who served as a second lieutenant. “So many of our friends sacrificed their life.”
Now living in Pennsylvania, he will be in Maplewood for the recognition ceremony.
“Yia Kha was an exceptional young man,” Duehring said. “We were delighted when Yia went to training. He ended up being one of the few to be picked as personal pilots for Gen. Vang Pao.”
Yia Kha was a pilot until the end of the war in 1975. In 2010, he received a certificate of recognition from the Air Force for his service as an interpreter in forward air control operations.
Their knowledge of the land and bilingual skills made Hmong pilots an essential ally for U.S. forces. But unlike American soldiers, the Hmong had to cope with war in their own country.
“I feel guilty,” said Phong Yang of Maplewood, who was a second lieutenant. “I didn’t want to be a pilot, I had no choice.”
Phong Yang said he feels guilty about killing people and he avoids talking about the war with his children or family.
“There is not much pride, the more you learn about what the war was about,” said his wife, Gaoly Yang.
Phong Yang said the war made it impossible for Hmong men to earn a living. There was no farming and no jobs. Young men were expected to become soldiers.
Although Phong Yang said he was happy to become a pilot, he joined expecting to die fighting.
“Hmong pilots were not going to survive.
Everybody (would) die so we (wouldn’t) plan for the future,” Phong Yang said. “Hmong pilots had no future. They would fly until they died.”
Hmong pilots didn’t have a limit to the amount of missions they could do each day or there was no retirement after a set amount of missions, Phong Yang explained.
“I saw them,” he said. “They would take off before light and sometimes it was almost dark and I still saw them go.”
Once the war ended and the communists took over, the surviving pilots were at risk of being killed by the Vietnamese. So they were brought to the U.S.
“Everyone in army or air force who used to work for the Americans, wherever they found you, they were going to kill you,” Yia Kha said.
Like Yia Kha and Phong Yang, most pilots relocated to the U.S. and are scattered across the country. Some came back with post-traumatic stress disorder and struggled to figure out their new life. As Phong Yang explained, they didn’t expect to survive.
Recently, the pilots decided it was time for a reunion and planned a simple get-together in the Twin Cities.
With the help of Duehring, Yia Kah mailed a letter to Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Norton Schwartz, asking him to send a thank you letter to the pilots for their service.
Instead, Schwartz decided to provide official Air Force recognition for the first time.
It’s recognition that Gaoly Yang said is long overdue. She hopes it helps to corroborate their service as U.S. allies.
Duehring acknowledged there is a debt to the Hmong pilots. Recognition was delayed due to neglect, he said.
“Nobody asked for it, nobody went for it,” Duehring said.
He said that although the Air Force couldn’t give them an American medal, the certificate of recognition is a way to show gratitude.
“This folks were our dear friends and comrades in arms, we landed in the same airstrip, we lived in the same area, we directed them on air strikes,” Duehring said. “The mutual respect is as high as it could be. We owe them a lot and a huge thank you.”
Survivors and families of the fallen pilots will be recognized at the first Hmong Pilot Veteran Reunion and Service Recognition Awards at 10 a.m Saturday, June 16, at LAV 52 Banquet Hall in Maplewood.
Danya P. Hernandez can be reached at 651-228-5116. Follow her at twitter.com/DanyaPH.