Somebody ought to write the movie treatment to Gayle L. Morrison's new book, Hog's Exit: Jerry Daniels, the Hmong, and the CIA. It should start with a scene in the Missoula airport in May 1982, where more than 150 people, including CIA agents, grizzled smokejumpers, Hmong immigrants and a former general, sat drinking beer.
As Deirdre McNamer, a reporter with the Missoulian at the time, recounts in the book, "There were these people who showed up who looked like old Asia hands with white linen suits on ... a look that you don't often see walking down the street in Missoula, Montana." They were waiting for an aircraft bearing the sealed casket of one remarkable man: Jerry Daniels, nicknamed "Hog."
Hog's Exit is an oral history that tells Daniels' story through letters, newspaper articles, Department of State cables and quotes from dozens of his family and friends. The book has everything you'd want from a gritty political thriller: revelations about the secret war the CIA orchestrated in Laos, heartening camaraderie, glimpses into a foreign culture, hard-drinking American boys and a mysterious death to top it off. I highly recommend Hog's Exit to people intrigued by war, U.S. government meddling, or anyone who's ever wondered why Missoula is home to a Hmong community.
Daniels, a blue-eyed, dark-haired man, grew up in Montana and worked as a smokejumper from 1958 to 1960. At the age of 19, the CIA recruited him to help with supply drops in Laos, where the U.S. government had committed to fund a fight against invading communist forces, concurrent with the war in Vietnam. The CIA liked smokejumpers because, as one State Department employee says, "Smokejumpers were people with special skills that were picked up during a time of crisis and told to keep their mouths shut. They did that superbly."
Daniels, an avid outdoorsman, fit in among the Hmong people and their mountainous, rugged homeland. He served as the CIA liaison and operations officer for Gen. Vang Pao, who led the Hmong guerrilla army. When it became clear that the war in southeast Asia was unwinnable, the CIA pulled all Americans out of Laos. The Hmong were left stranded, facing persecution by the new Pathet Lao communist government. Daniels was the lone CIA representative who stayed behind and coordinated flights, helping get more than 2,500 Hmong refugees to camps in Thailand and on to the United States. Gen. Vang, sentenced to death by the Pathet Lao, fled with his family to a ranch in the Bitterroot Valley.
Though Daniels often talked about missing Flathead Lake and other Montana landmarks in his letters home to his family, he stayed in Thailand for years after the war as a refugee coordinator. In 1982, State Department officials cabled the news of Daniels' death to his friends and family. The official story is that when Daniels hadn't shown up to work for three days, his swollen, disfigured body was found in his apartment, the victim of carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty gas water heater.
It seems suspicious that a savvy CIA agent, who survived a brutal war and was wanted dead by communist forces, could be undone by such an accident. One of several eyebrow-raising details: Some news reports mentioned that a young Thai man was found unconscious in another room of Daniels' apartment, but there's no other trace explaining who he was or how he survived.
Oral histories can be a little difficult to follow, and I sometimes got lost in Hog's Exit's plethora of military acronyms and unfamiliar geography. I'd also recommend knowing a bit about the role the CIA played in Laos during the Vietnam War before delving into the book, and about the Hmong people, an ethnic group from regions of China, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. (Hmongmissoula.com is a good place to start, actually.)
But for the most part, Morrison finds the most compelling quotes and stories from her subjects, and keeps the narrative fresh with chapters that alternate with stories from Daniels' life and of his death and funerals, which included a Buddhist memorial in Bangkok and a three-day traditional Hmong ceremony in Missoula. Testimonies ring with feeling. Xuwicha "Noi" Hiranprueck, a Thai who organized the Buddhist ceremony, says, "I shared years of friendship with Hog, and he is a man I am looking forward to seeing in the afterworld."
Other stories in Hog's Exit are more uplifting. Daniels certainly died too young, but it does him a disservice to dwell too much on his death. His astonishing legacy is that he saved thousands of lives.
Gayle L. Morrison reads from Hog's Exit: Jerry Daniels, the Hmong, and the CIA at Shakespeare and Co. Tue., Sept. 17, at 7 PM. Free.