By Stephen Magagnini. Vang Pao – the man called the greatest general in the Vietnam War and viewed by his troops as invulnerable to communists’ or assassins’ bullets – succumbed to heart failure Thursday afternoon.
Vang, revered by Hmong worldwide, brought his people to the United States after the communist victory in Laos and Vietnam in 1975. He galvanized a new generation of Hmong activists who vigorously protested his June 2007 arrest on charges of plotting the overthrow of Laos.
The man affectionately known as “The General” died at 4:32 p.m. at Clovis Community Medical Center after a long bout with pneumonia.
“His heart stopped, we tried to revive him for 10 minutes and then the family decided to let him go,” said his oldest son, Chao Francois Vang.
“He is our father,” Vang said, speaking for many of the 350,000 Hmong Americans from Alaska to the Carolinas.
The photo of a handsome, supremely confident young major general in his Royal Lao Army uniform, circa 1965, hangs in thousands of Hmong American homes.
“We will continue his dreams and hopes for his people,” said close friend Paula Yang. “Every time he’d see Hmong, it would light up his face. He’d have meetings from 9 a.m. to late at night, visiting the sick, solving … problems and never getting tired. For the first time he spoke up for women’s rights. We lived for centuries to hear that.”
Vang, who battled diabetes and heart problems, turned 81 Christmas Day. He was hospitalized Dec. 26 after having attended numerous activities in the Central Valley, including the Fresno Hmong New Year’s observance. “After so many days of activities, he got really tired, and the cold weather didn’t help,” said his eldest son.
Vang was recruited by the CIA to lead a guerrilla army of Hmong and Iu Mien soldiers who fought the Lao and Vietnamese communists from 1961 to 1975.
His jungle army is credited with saving thousands of U.S. lives. “Without the Hmong, the U.S. would have to lose 300,000 minimum, absolutely,” instead of the 58,000 who were killed, Vang thundered in an interview with The Bee at his Westminster home in 2009.
Vang said he joined the U.S. side because “we knew the communists were coming, the Hmong have always loved democracy.”
But the Hmong suffered 35,000 casualties and hundreds of thousands more were wounded. Vang lobbied for his Hmong warriors to get U.S. veterans benefits and be buried alongside other Vietnam vets.
In one of his last conversations, he told his friend Charlie Waters he’d like to see the remaining 700 Hmong veterans buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
“It’s a must for the Hmong to get involved in politics at all levels and to go beyond just the Hmong to help all the American people,” Vang, a Republican, told The Bee.
Hmong and U.S. veterans were shocked when the U.S. government charged Vang and 10 others in June 2007 with plotting the violent overthrow of communist Laos.
His arrest rallied a new army of Hmong Americans, putting him at the forefront of a Hmong civil rights movement aimed at recognizing the Hmongs’ immense sacrifices in the Vietnam War, and saving those still trapped in the jungles of Laos.
About 8,000 Hmong marched from the Capitol chanting “Free Vang Pao.”
Debbie Thao, a 35-year-old Hmong psychologist in Sacramento, flushed with pride at the rally. “It gives us a new identity, we’re becoming true Hmong – passionate, peaceful and always in pursuit of freedom and justice.”
Later in his living room, surrounded by photos of his glory days in Laos, Vang told The Bee “since 1944, all I’ve been doing is helping my people progress forward in life, whether it’s finding food to eat, or education.
“Now we’re able to stand with other people at their height, and achieve and succeed beyond my wildest dreams,” said Vang, who created a network of Lao Family Community centers across the United States to help Hmong adjust to their new lives.
Some young Hmong, however, resented the fact that their parents and grandparents bought promissory notes from Vang in exchange for commissions or political appointments once he reconquered Laos.
After six weeks in jail, he was released on bail and treated like a rock star as he left Sacramento’s federal courthouse. The government dropped all charges against him in September 2009.
For years at Hmong New Year’s celebrations around America, Vang would declare, “Next Year in Laos.” But in 2003, he called for reconciliation with Laos.
Vang was the son of Neng Chu Vang, a county leader in Nonghet, Laos. His father sent him away to school from 10 to 15, when the Japanese invaded Indochina and the French turned him into a soldier.
He told The Bee he got about three hours sleep and did his clearest thinking at 5 a.m., a legacy of the Vietnam War, “when I was always up directing aircraft on reconnaissance missions and bombing runs.”
To the end, Vang relished his role as the leader of the once and future Hmong, taking on gangs, gambling addiction, spousal abuse and other social ills.
“I think 10 generations from now you cannot find another V.P. (Vang Pao) I tell you true,” he told The Bee.
Funeral arrangements are pending. He is survived by his wife, Song Moua Vang, 25 children and numerous grandchildren.