RENO — Like all soldiers at a reunion, the aging veterans kept alive memories of past wars by toasting the dead and telling tales of heroes and adventure.
But these old soldiers were different, and so were their wars. They were secret soldiers, and their wars were covert.
They were pilots for the CIA's airline, formed 40 years ago this weekend, one that at its height during the Vietnam War was perhaps the world's largest, with as many as 10,000 employees. The company, Civil Air Transport, later Air America, flew such dangerous missions that during that war it was dubbed the most shot-at airline in the world.
"The esprit de corps was 100%. The money was tax free. You felt like you were doing something for your country. I'd be doing it today if the company was still around," said one veteran of half a dozen wars dating to World War II.
About 200 veterans of the companies gathered here this weekend to look back--and ahead. Although some acknowledge that they tended to back lost causes, they believe that they contributed to American security and are planning a memorial for their brethren. Some foresee new opportunities in the U.S.-backed effort in Central America.
Eleven members of the group have died since the last reunion two years ago. Most are retired, although some of the pilots have had jobs flying commercial airliners, which they invariably described as "boring."
Years ago, some pilots ferried passengers aboard 727s, as if they worked for common commercial airlines. But they also were a pivotal part of American military operations in Asia for three decades. In unmarked aircraft, they supplied anti-communists in a string of Asian wars, beginning with the revolution in China, continuing through Korea, the French defeat in Indochina and the failed U.S. effort in Southeast Asia. Finally, they helped evacuate Saigon on April 29, 1975.
William Leary, a University of Georgia history professor who has spent parts of the last 20 years chronicling Civil Air Transport airmen, listed their exploits.
Some Flew in Guatemala
Some flew in Guatemala when the United States overthrew the leftist government in 1954. Some flew covert missions into Tibet to aid anti-communist rebels in the late 1950s. Some flew into Indonesia in 1958 in an effort to topple the regime. Others flew missions during the 1950s to drop agents deep into mainland China. Still others provided cover for the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, said Leary, the author of the 1984 book, "Perilous Missions."
In the post-Vietnam era, a few of the pilots have taken flying jobs in other spots, including Iran and Lebanon. Some have flown planes for the Drug Enforcement Administration. A few of the fraternity got involved in drug running, a touchy subject for the generally conservative group.
Taped to the walls of a hotel suite were pictures of the propeller-driven C-46s and C-47s that formed the original Civil Air Transport fleet in the late 1940s. There were pictures of founders Gen. Claire L. Chennault, a maverick World War II veteran, and Whiting Willauer, a naval intelligence expert and later an ambassador in Latin America.
Chennault and Willauer found work for their fledgling airline by supplying Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists in China. After the Communists won out, Chennault and Willauer needed an infusion of cash and allowed the CIA to take over. The airline kept its commercial operations as a cover, but began covert missions.
"The whole time I was with CAT I don't think I was ever on the winning side," said Bill Gaddie, 66, who flew from 1948 until the fall of Saigon in 1975.
Helped at Dienbienphu
Flying planes that bore French insignia as a cover, Gaddie was among 39 Civil Air Transport pilots who dropped supplies to French troops at Dienbienphu, the pivotal battle that led to the French withdrawal from Vietnam. As he dropped food, weapons and medicine, "there were all these damned guns" shooting at him.
"We were trying to save China. We almost gave our lives. . . . We did a lot of good, fed a lot of Chinese," said Gaddie, who is retired and lives in Florida.
Frank Guberlet recalled the "marvelous life" of bachelor airmen, one of "alcohol and cheap women." For one 17-month period, he recalled, he was the only American in the Vietnamese port of Haiphong.
Guberlet was the main liaison between the Americans and French during the Dienbienphu operation. He left in 1955, shortly after the battle, because he picked up a tropical disease, and "an allergy to being shot at."
"I'd love to be able to go back," he said, "but I know I can't."
While they were in Asia, some of the lower-level Civil Air Transport and Air America employees did not know the name of their employer, though they suspected it was the CIA. It was not until after the Vietnam War and the airlines were disbanded that the CIA admitted owning the companies.
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