Vietnam War Commemoration Commission

Week of May 21

On May 22, 1964, the CIA-run airline known as Air America officially began to support search-and-rescue missions for downed American aviators in Laos and North Vietnam. Air America pilots flew piston-engine aircraft and helicopters for these and other covert operations throughout the Vietnam War. Their first rescue attempt occurred on June 6, an unsuccessful effort to recover U.S. Navy aviator Lieutenant Charles F. Klusmann, who was shot down while on a reconnaissance mission over the ທົ່ງໄຫຫິນ (Plain of Jars), in Laos.

Air America began its existence under the name Civil Air Transport (CAT). CAT was founded in 1946 by veteran American World War II pilots and based in China. In 1950, the CIA secretly purchased the airline. The agency then began using it to fly supply and support missions for the French military in France's war against Hồ Chí Minh's Việt Minh revolutionaries. In May 1954, two American CAT pilots were killed when their C-119 was shot down by ground fire while supporting the besieged French troops at the battle of Điện Biên Phủ.

The CIA renamed the airline Air America in 1959. By 1961, President John F. Kennedy directed the CIA to conduct a clandestine war against the Communist Pathet Lao, in Laos, with Air America playing a central role. The airline continued to fly covert operations in Southeast Asia, primarily in support of border and counterinsurgency campaigns, for the remainder of the war. It transported tens of thousands of refugees and troops and airlifted millions of pounds of supplies for allied forces and civilians. In 1975, Air America pilots helped evacuate Vietnamese civilians from Huế, Đà Nẵng, and Sài Gòn before South Vietnam's final surrender to the North Vietnamese army.1

1"Air America: Upholding the Airmen's Bond," A Symposium held at the University of Texas, Dallas, date unknown, (Center for the Study of Intelligence and the Information Management Service), 8-11; Tucker, ed., Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War, 13-14; Michael E. Haas, Apollo's Warriors: United States Air Force Special Operations during the Cold War (Maxwell AFB: Air University Press, 1997), 185-86; Stuart I. Rochester and Frederick Kiley, Honor Bound: The History of American Prisoners of War in Southeast Asia, 1961-1973 (Wash DC: Historical Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1998), 52, 54-56; Alfred T. Cox, Clandestine Services History: Civil Air Transport, A Proprietary Airline, 1946-1955 (declassified and published, 1963, Vol. 3, Tab K, 1-22; William M. Leary, Perilous Missions: Civil Air Transport and CIA Covert Operations in Asia, (Tuscaloosa, Ala., Univ. of Alabama Press, 2005). Herring, America's Longest War (4th edition), 33-45. See also (accessed 7/1/14); and Klusmann's own account he wrote in 1999, "The Price of Freedom," (accessed 7/1/14). Regarding Dien Bien Phu, see and the heading for Dien Bien Phu.

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