History of Major. Vang Kha
First one of three Hmong Helicopter pilots in Laos.
My Birthday 2/10/1943. I was an only child.
I was born in the village Phiajzeb in Xiengkhouang Province. My father's name is Nkaj Zeb Khab and my mom is Mee Her. When I started school, I needed my date of birth so I asked my mother about when I was born. Of course, she did not know the exact year because that was not important to the elders at the time. But, she told me that when the Japanese arrived in Laos, I was a year old. So I know that the Japanese came in late 1944/early 1945. This is why my official year of birth is 1943.
As far as I can remember, my parents, farmed. As a kid, I would make top-spins and play with friends. Our group of boys also hunted birds with bow and arrows and we ran after frogs and tried to catch them. Because I was an only child, my parents love me too much and they rarely made me work in the fields. When I was about 11 or 12 years old, I was one of the three boys in my village to get to go to school. That was because our remote village was a day's walk to the nearest village school at (Phampoom).
I was married in 1960 and had two sons. My wife died in 1962. In 1964 I married LyLy and had five children.
I didn't go very far in school because it was very hard. I completed only about 8th-9th grade by 1959. I wanted to continue, but there were many barriers financially and logistically so I stopped and farmed. I married my first wife, Mao Yang, in 1960. In 1961, I became a soldier. That was when Vang Pao and his troops retreated to Padong. They were recruiting literate people to be trained to serve as radio operators in Thailand.
When I completed radio operator training I returned to Long Cheng I became a radio operator unit leader. I worked until 1968. I was frequently in contact with General Vang Pao. So, in 1968 1 was selected to go learn English in Udorn. This was a language program that the CIA established for the Hmong and Lao were worked in operations supported by the CIA... All of the teachers were, however, Thai. We learned English but because the Thai instructor's accents were not clear, it was hard to learn it was after I finished this language training that I was selected to go learn how to fly."
In 1961, I became a soldier. I was chosen to learn to fly planes.
I was actually trying to help Yia Kha get into the program. But one day while I was working in General [Vang Pao] office he came to me and told me that I was going to train to fly planes. I had not considered pilot training for myself because I did not have a high school education. Not only that, I am short. I never dreamed that I would be able to do it, but of course, I was intrigued about it. .1Ihad actually sat in the back during a few bombing mission so I had an idea of what it was like... The reason General told me to go was because he had received a letter from Col. Thao Chai, who supervised the English training in Udorn when I was there. I often talked to him so he wrote to General that I should be one of the pilot trainees for the group... This was in 1970. The first three pilot groups had suffered heavy casualties so there was a longer gap between the training of group three and four. The children of leaders have now backed off so our group was all soldiers. One of the main reasons I got to go largely was because they were short of candidates.
I began ground school at Civil Aviation Training Center of Thailand. We received 45 hours of required flight training. We learned to fly T-6 1972 with 9 other students. That was an international school. There were students from Vietnam, the Middle East, India, Nepal, and Cambodia. Training was not just for pilots. People were learning to be flight attendants, mechanics, and the like... We were in ground school for three months.
All instruction was in English. We were taught things like the essentials of engines. After completion of ground school, we were sent Hua Hin for an additional six months of training. The private pilot training required 45 hours of flying... At Hua Hin, there were only Thai instructors. After receiving private pilot training certificates, we were sent back to Laos to take tests to see if we could enter T-28 pilot training. In our group of 10, only five passed: Vang Tou, Yia Kha, Lee Moua, Yang Ge, Vang Teng. They were then sent to Udorn. At this time, the fifth group had completed the private pilot course and they had returned as well. They wanted four more so Vang Foua, Moua Shoua, Yang Phong, and Lee Ya were selected. As for the rest of us from group four who didn't pass (me, Vang Chong, Vang Bee, Moua Chue, Vang Fong), we had to keep learning in order to pass and joint T-28 training. Shortly thereafter, I received an urgent message from General to return to Long Cheng. Because I didn't know what it was about, I was quite scared. But when I reached him, he told me that he needed three people to learn to fly helicopters. I would be one and it was my job to find two more people. So I suggested Vang Bee and Vang Chong. We were then sent back to Civil Aviation training center in Bangkok again for ground school for another three months because it was a different program. It was to learn about helicopters. Our class was called HP-8 (helicopter pilot course # 8). Our class consisted of three Hmong, 8 Thai, and one Korean. I completed training in 1972.
For commercial pilot training, it required 100 hours of training. Three months of ground school and then 9 months pilot training. We came back to Hua Hin with different instructors and different aircraft. Altogether we trained for more than one year. I was told that the cost to train the three of us was $27,000. Americans also provided tailored clothes, food, and housing. We even had people do our laundry.
During training, we received 2500 baht stipends. That was just for our own spending. It's important to note that I also received monthly pay as a soldier at home, which my wife collected. Because I was in a safe place and not near military action, I was not promoted to a higher rank. All my friends were at the same level. They all became Lt. Colonels and I'm still a Major. However, I'm ok with that because what I was allowed to learn was beyond my dreams. When we completed 110 hours, we received commercial helicopter license. When you accomplish this you can become a commercial pilot and fly wherever. However, you'd have to renew your license just like a driver's license. But because we were just soldiers, we returned and never bothered to renew our licenses. When the three of us returned, they placed us in Project White Horse. There were file helicopters, which were the kinds that they used in Vietnam. They had guns and rockets.
One day Vang Chong went on a mission with Ly Tou Xiong, who was flying the General's plane and it crashed. They both died. After two months, General Vang Pao sent Vang Bee and me for further training on H-34 helicopter in Savannakhet, but before that, we had to go have physical exams in Vientiane. The Lao doctor, who was also a colonel, who examined us wrote in red ink after our examinations, "These two should not be pilots because they are too short."
This was interesting because we had completed other pilot training and had already flown three different planes. When news reached General, he called General Serit, who was in charge of Vientiane, and told him it was no problem. We should be allowed to continue so we went to the Lao flight school in Savannakhet and trained for another 100 hours. It would be October 1974 when I officially completed H-34 helicopter training.
As we transported people, we were shot at by the enemy, but they had only small weapons so it did not do too much damage. We were usually 10-12,000 feet so that was not too bad. We mostly provided transportation so that was one reason for the fewer antiaircraft activities. We were very busy. I think it was good that I left the country. If we had stayed, I'm pretty sure I would not be alive today. As soon as we awoke we would head up to the office. The leaders had daily flight plans. You load up and went where they told us to. We flew from morning until night. We would be in the air for 6-7 hours. I wouldn't see my family until night time.
I finished training after the cease-fire but the two of us were extremely busy transporting military personnel and civilians around Laos. We flew the H-34 all day long. Each region had five H-34. Since there were just the two of us and this helicopter required two pilots, there were Lao pilots assigned to work in MR Il with us. During the May 1975 evacuation, we flew people to Thailand in our helicopters.
Our commander, Yang Xiong, communicated with Vang Pao and told us what we needed to do. It was a confusing time. There was the talk of sending our wives and kids to Nam Yu and then we return to continue to fight against the Vietnamese.
When Yang Xiong said that General Vang Pao had a list of about 2,400 people who would leave with him. The pilots were on the list so we were pleased. The evening of May 13 was very dangerous. We had parked our three aircraft in front of Vang Pao's house. That evening we put some of the military officers in the plane. Col. Ly Tou Pao, Col. Tou Lue, Congressman Tou Yia Ly and Lt. Col. Hang Chao, Maj. Thao Chue. Vang Pao was still with us. The plan was for us to leave around 3 am. But the evening the aircraft that came back was not able to take certain individuals that he wanted, including Chao Meung Neng Thao and Youa Tong. There were too many people and they were not able to get in. I do not know if you were there, but there were so many people. So many people that fought to get on the planes. They would hang on to a departing plane. Only when the door closed and they fell. Because there were so many people, we did not depart as planned. At the time there was a red American helicopter parked at the [Long Cheng] airport. That was the aircraft to take General out but people did not know that. General would drive around town to observe. Yang Xiong had informed us that when he gave the signal (wink-txiav muag) then we should take off. The crowd surrounded our aircraft, but we had loaded them with people the evening before. We placed some of our people near the creek. One of them was pilot Vang Sue's widow. I was the one who helped airlift her out of Laos. My cousin Yia Kha was there too because this time the T-28's were not allowed to be flown. They waited there until about 1 am when we saw the helicopter with our General take off. Yang Xiong gave us the signal and we rushed into our aircraft. Each of us was with a Lao pilot. The crowd did not know that we loaded people in the aircraft already. If they knew, they'd probably all tried to get in or smash them. Once we took off, I went to pick up the group by the creek. If they have stayed with us and tried to get on when we were leaving, others would see so that's why we told them to wait by the creek and away from the crowd. Once they got on, we took off. Three of the H-34 helicopters evacuated people to Thailand. When we landed at refugee camp Nam Phong, General told the Lao pilots that they could stay with him. If they did not want to, then they could fly these government planes back to Laos. All of the Lao pilots chose to return. We have no idea what happened to them and we do not know what happened to the aircraft.
"When we first arrived in Nam Phong, Thailand, we did not think about going anywhere. We had planned to return to Laos at some point, but after our General left life became very difficult. We began to think about finding a way out. In January 1976, we were moved to Vinai refugee camp but at the time the shelter was minimal. There were not wooden homes yet. I was able to leave the camp for the U.S. in March 31, 1976. At the time, things moved pretty fast. We were only in Bangkok for one week, then we were on our way. There were 10 Hmong families who left the camp together. When we landed in San Francisco, someone was holding a sigh with the names, "Vang Kha and Yang Chia." Our two families continue onto Philadelphia. We were the first two Hmong families to be sponsored by Church World Service. It was the Lanchester Fellowship church that sponsored my family. One church member had a home building business so they had a job ready for me. I started one week after we arrived. Although seven churches collaborated to sponsor my family, they could not do much to help us because there were 10 of us. We moved around 6 times in a year and a half. It was very hard to live that way so I asked the church for a loan for down payment to purchase a home. The church leadership declined my request because they didn't have much either.
I stayed there until 1978 but because of the limited support, I decided to move to Michigan. Lee Moua [another former pilot] encouraged me to move there. He said homes were inexpensive and he and his relatives would help me with a down payment for a house. So, I visited him and the homes in his area were about $10,000. They lend me money for the down payment and I moved my family there. We lived there for three years but I didn't like the urban environment. Too many people. So, I moved back here [Pennsylvania]. Since 1981, I've been here. Most of my work had been in electrical companies. I've been retired since age 62. I'm now 70. Nowadays I just help out with my grandchildren.
Would you make the same decision to come to the U.S if you know what it would be like? Yes. To come to the U.S.
; absolutely! We struggled so much in the camps in Thailand.
Those who had come earlier had sent news that they were able to earn $800 a month. At the time, we thought it was a lot of money. I thought that if I came, I'd be able to do the same.
If I think about the sacrifices and how many died leaving their wives and children without husbands and fathers living impoverished lives, then it doesn't seem worth it. But when I think broadly about our entire Hmong people who had recently been able to move to the lowland for education and the progress that we've been able to make in education attainment and financial gains, then I think it was worth our sacrifices. For example, in Laos, we had only one person with a doctoral degree, as you know, Dr. Yang Dao. Today we have several hundred. There are even some Hmong millionaires. If the war had not impacted us, it is unlikely that we would ever reach this status. It was all because of General Vang Pao's leadership. I think it was overall worthwhile.
I just want to thank you, Dr. Chia Vang, for coming to meet with me. I'd like to share a few words with the younger generation. You are the ones with access to education. You are the ones who have grown much taller than us. I know that there are some pilots already but I'd like to encourage some of you to learn. Being a pilot is not too hard if you want to learn, you can do it. Those of who became pilots in Laos are a small part of our history. I hope that you will help to preserve our story. It was a special moment that will not happen again.
Major Vang Kha