7:17PM BST 17 May 2011
William Young, who has died aged 76, was a CIA operative in southeast Asia who was instrumental in organising the so-called “Air America” campaign during the “secret war” against communists in Laos and Vietnam.
Young was born at a mission station in Burma on October 28 1934 and brought up among the hill tribes in the fuzzy borderland between Thailand, Laos and Burma. He was described by the writer Roger Warner as “a jungle boy with extraordinary family credentials”: his grandfather, the Reverend William Young, had moved to Burma in the 1880s and opened a Baptist mission in Kengtung City, where he began preaching the gospel in the marketplace. He made little headway among the local Buddhists but was a runaway success with the nearby Lahu hill tribes, who adopted him as a god.
His son, William’s father Harold, inherited his divinity and used it to organise Lahu intelligence-gathering in southern China for the CIA during the 1950s. The government of newly-independent Burma, however, became suspicious of his activities and he was forced to leave the country. He moved to Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he became curator of the local zoo.
After serving with the US Army in Germany, William was recruited to the CIA on his father’s recommendation in 1958. As he was fluent in five local languages, he was employed as an interpreter and “tribal expert” and was soon put in charge of covert operations in the tribal border areas of Burma, Thailand and Laos.
Early on in the Vietnam War, Laos became strategically important as a route for North Vietnamese communist forces travelling to and from South Vietnam. In an effort to block off this so-called “Ho Chi Minh trail” and aid anti–communist forces in the separate civil war that had been raging between the Communist Pathet Lao and the Laotian government since the early 1950s, Young was deputed to enlist the help of the hill tribesmen in the region. As Laos was officially “neutral” in the Vietnam War, the operations remained top secret.
In 1960 Young approached Vang Pao, the highest ranking member of the Hmong tribe in the Laotian army, who agreed to help recruit his fellow tribesmen (other recruits came from the Yao and Lahu tribes). To build up the army, Vang Pao and CIA operatives, including Young, flew to scattered hill communities in helicopters and light aircraft, offering guns, rice and money in exchange for recruits. Dozens of crude landing strips for the CIA-backed “Air America” campaign were hacked out of the forest – including the base at Long Tieng, which grew into a small city: “It had brothels and bars, casinos – everything a serviceman could ask for,” Young recalled. “But it had a church, too.” Tens of thousands of tribesmen would die during the campaign, which remains one of the least-known chapters in the annals of the Vietnam War.
In The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia (1972), Alfred McCoy observed that Young’s upbringing meant that “he actually enjoyed the long months of solitary work among the hill tribes, which might have strained the nerves of less acculturated agents”. Young led his fighters into battles against Pathet Lao guerrillas in north-west Laos and fought his way out of several tight corners. “Killing was part of the job,” he told an interviewer.
From 1962 he was also involved in sending trained Yao and Lahu tribesmen into the heart of China’s Yunnan Province to monitor road traffic and tap telephones. Since the Americans were concerned about the possibility of Chinese military intervention in Vietnam, any intelligence on military activity in southern China was valued and the cross-border operations were steadily expanded. Later, he became involved in attempting to build support for Burma’s first independent prime minister, U Nu, after his overthrow in a coup d’état by General Ne Win in March 1962.
But in 1968, as the Vietnam War continued to rage, Young parted company with the CIA in circumstances that remain mysterious. One suggestion is that the agency got tired of a womanising habit that sometimes led him to disappear for days on end. “He liked to party,” recalled Edward Loxton, a writer who spent several weeks with Young. “His home became open house to a steady stream of air hostesses and nurses heading for the Air America base.” Others suggest that a territorial dispute between Young and Thai intelligence officers had led to his being recalled to Washington. There were also claims that the CIA was dissatisfied with the paucity of intelligence communications he was sending them. Yet another account claims that he was disowned by the CIA after he challenged US policy in Vietnam and Laos.
Just as mysterious is the extent of his involvement in drug trafficking in the area. The CIA always denied any involvement in the narcotics trade in the “Golden Triangle” of Laos, Burma and Vietnam, but Alfred McCoy documented the interactions between the agency and drug cartels in the region which, he alleged, had fuelled an epidemic of drug abuse in America and among GIs in Vietnam.
During the war, McCoy claimed, Air America flew Hmong opium out of the hills to Long Tieng and Vientiane, and Young used the revenue from these shipments to fund arms and training for the guerrillas.
The extent of Young’s involvement is unclear, however. In Drugs, the US and Khun Sa (1989) Francis Belanger (who described Young as “perhaps one of the most effective [CIA] agents ever”) saw his role as a passive one, noting that Young’s “deep and sophisticated” understanding of the hill tribes allowed him to see opium production from their point of view.
In an interview given in September 1971 Young recalled that: “Every now and then one of the James Bond types would decide that the way to deal with the problem was to detonate or machine-gun the factories. But I always talked them out of it. As long as there is opium in Burma somebody will market it. This kind of thing would only hurt somebody and not really deal with the problem.”
Whatever the truth it seems that the CIA harboured some regrets about losing such a valuable agent. As Roger Warner wrote: “People in the CIA always talked about Bill Young wistfully, in terms of his remarkable potential. For all his flaws, no other American was as gifted at collecting intelligence information.”
Young went on to work, variously, as a gem trader, a fruit grower, a guest-house owner and a security consultant for an oil company. In recent years he was said to be advising the American Drug Enforcement Administration on the drug trade in Burma. A Hollywood film studio reportedly paid Young $100,000 for the rights to his story, but the film was never made, and some believe the disappointment tipped him over into depression.
Young was found dead at his home in Chiang Mai on April 1, a bullet in his head, a revolver beside one hand and a crucifix in the other. “Bill Young died as he once lived – violently,” a friend was quoted as saying.
Young’s marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by five children.