Air America Bill

Bill Young

An American missionary’s son who became a top CIA Vietnam War-era hit-man in the jungles of Burma, Laos and Thailand has been found dead in his Chiang Mai home, a bullet in his head, a revolver in one hand and a crucifix in the other. “Bill Young died as he once lived – violently,” said a friend.

Edward Loxton reports for

William Young was 76, a tall, lean, modest and quietly spoken man who belied the image of a CIA killer. He was likened by his British friends to a retired James Bond.

“He was an extraordinary individual who led an extraordinary life,” said the US Consulate General in Chiang Mai, the main city of northern Thailand, in a death notice.

Despite his action-packed CIA career, Young drifted into quiet retirement in his rambling home on the outskirts of Chiang Mai. Disowned by the CIA after challenging US policy in Vietnam and Laos, Young worked at home for the US Drug Enforcement Administration, using the contacts he had built up over the years among the hill-tribes of Laos and northern Thailand.

I visited him over a period of several weeks, working on the script of a film about his extraordinary life. Our long recording sessions were broken regularly by phone calls from his contacts, conducted in at least four different hill tribe languages.

Bill was most at home among the Lahu, who inhabit the mountains of Laos and northern Thailand. Lahu mourners packed a Chiang Mai church, together with other hill tribe representatives, for a traditional ethnic funeral service today.

Hundreds of hill tribe people in traditional dress, including members of the warlike Wa, are expected to attend the burial on Wednesday in Chiang Mai’s Foreign Cemetery, a leafy corner of the city watched over by a bronze 19th century statue of Queen Victoria.

Bill’s grandfather was a Baptist missionary who converted thousands of Lahu tribespeople in British-controlled Burma in the late 19th century. His father, Harold, also a missionary, pioneered the CIA connection by joining the American intelligence service and conducting spy missions in southern China after Mao Ze Dong’s Communists ousted the Kuomintang.

Bill was born at a mission station in Burma and grew up in hill tribe villages, learning at least five local languages and forging friendships that were later to help him in his dangerous espionage work.

Harold Young’s Washington connections secured Bill a CIA post, and soon the young operative had gathered an army of several thousand Lahu warriors to help disrupt communist supply lines running through Laos during the Vietnam war. “Killing was part of the job,” he told me, detailing several scenes where he had shot his way out of tight corners in remote hill tribe villages.

Although Laos was officially neutral, US special forces penetrated deep into the landlocked country as the Vietnam war raged, while US aircraft bombed border sections of the Ho Chi Minh trail which carried North Vietnamese supplies southwards. The US did all it could to cover up its Laotian operations, which came to be described as the ‘Secret War’.

At the height of the fighting, Bill was air-dropped into the mountains of central Laos to find a suitable site for an airfield base. He scoured the mountainous, forested terrain on foot and finally found an ideal valley near the Plain of Jars. (The photograph at the top of the page, which was on display in Young’s living room in Chiang Mai, was taken during this period.)

The CIA operation known as Air America based itself there and within months the airfield, named Long Cheng but which appeared on no map, had grown into one of Southeast Asia’s busiest.

“It was a small city,” Bill told me. “It had brothels and bars, casinos – everything a serviceman could ask for. But it had a church, too.”

Bill’s base as a CIA operative was a comfortable house on the Thai banks of the Mekong River, opposite Laos.

He liked to party, and his home became open house to a steady stream of air hostesses and nurses heading for the Air America base. Bill married one, but the marriage ended in divorce.

“She was a very beautiful woman and I loved her dearly,” Bill told me. “But she persuaded me to return to the US and take a regular job there. I lasted only a few months – my real home was among the Lahu.”

Bill died with one ambition unrealised. A major Hollywood film studio paid him $100,000 for the rights to his story, but the movie he wanted to see arrive on the big screen was never made. Some say the disappointment fuelled the depression that haunted him in later life.

Source: April 4, 2011

As reported in the New York Times:

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — William Young, a missionary’s son who mixed evangelical zeal with covert missions for the C.I.A. in Southeast Asia and who helped organize the “secret war “ in Laos for the United States during the Vietnam War, died on Friday at his home here in northern Thailand. He was 76.

The Thai police said he apparently killed himself. Mr. Young was found dead from a gunshot wound, a handgun next to his right hand and a crucifix in his left, the police said. He had been suffering from emphysema and numerous other ailments, his friends said.

Born in Berkeley, Calif., on Oct. 28, 1934, Mr. Young spent most of his life in the hills of northern Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, which was British-controlled Burma when his grandfather first arrived as a Baptist missionary in the late 1880s. His family converted countless members of the Lahu tribe to Christianity and became celebrated figures among the region’s patchwork of ethnicities.

Mr. Young’s father, Harold, was recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency and led intelligence-gathering forays into southern China in the years after Mao Zedong’s Communist takeover.

William Young followed his father’s path and joined the C.I.A. after serving in the United States Army. In the early 1960s, as the war in Vietnam escalated, Mr. Young assembled an army of local tribespeople in neighboring Laos, a force that at its peak reached several thousand men.

“We used to jokingly call him the American warlord,” said Bertil Lintner, an author and longtime friend of Mr. Young’s. “He was ideally placed to organize the secret war in Laos.”

Most of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the network of jungle paths that North Vietnam used to funnel supplies southward, ran through Laotian territory. The United States wanted to interdict the supply route, rescue American pilots shot down over Laos and aid anti-Communist forces in a continuing civil war, but was hampered in doing so publicly because Laos was officially neutral. Thus, the secret war.

Missionaries were the best assets the Americans had in the region, Mr. Lintner said. “They spoke local languages and were respected.”

Mr. Young led his fighters into battles against Communist forces and directed the construction of airstrips to be used by Air America, the C.I.A.-financed airline that supplied the hill tribes with weapons and supplies. Among those he recruited was Vang Pao, the ethnic Hmong warrior who later led the C.I.A.-backed anti-Communist forces, and who died in January.

Mr. Young became disenchanted with the C.I.A. over differences in strategy. The falling out was mutual. He was dismissed from the C.I.A. in 1968 as the war in Vietnam was raging.

“He was extremely patriotic, but he felt that the American government had dealt their hand extremely clumsily in Indochina,” Mr. Lintner said.

Mr. Young went on to trade in gems, own a fruit orchard, run a guesthouse and work in Sudan as a security consultant for an oil company.

In recent years he advised the Drug Enforcement Administration on the drug trade in northern Myanmar, a hub for heroin and methamphetamine production.

Mr. Young is survived by five children and two grandchildren, said one of his sons, Jerrick Young.

Source: April 3, 2011

Readers who are keen to learn more about this period of American involvement in northern Thailand could begin with this section from Alfred McCoy’s The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia (1973). Gordon Young and other members of his family are mentioned a number of times. Another appraisal can be found here.

PS. I don’t include the recommended posts at the bottom of this page. This is automatically generated by WordPress. However, I did follow up on one of their recommendations which was indeed interesting: “CIA Skips out on its Air America Bills” printed in the Asia Times which can be found here.

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