CIA smokejumpers honored for secret missions

In this May 23, 2014 photo, Helena, Mont.-area resident Ray Beasley looks out of a window at his home. In the 1960's, the former smoke jumper was involved in secret CIA missions flying over the Himalayan Mountains. (AP Photo/The Independent Record, Eliza Wiley)

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — They were sworn to secrecy. In fact, they couldn’t use their real names.

Their story went untold for more than 50 years.

Now, Ray Beasley and four of his smokejumper buddies from Montana and Idaho, were invited to Washington, D.C., and finally recognized for their secret CIA missions over Tibet in the 1950s and ’60s.

For the first time, Beasley has begun sharing his story with his family — most recently with two of his adult daughters during a recent visit at his home west of Helena.

On May 5, Beasley was among those feted at a reception at the CIA Museum in Washington, D.C., to see the unveiling of a painting: “Khampa Airlift to Tibet.”

The work by Dru Blair, now on display in the museum, shows a C-130 transport flying into a valley of the Himalayans — dropping Tibetan parachutists and supplies — with the mountains bathed in light from the full moon. It commemorates the secret Tibetan missions.

With that invitation, Beasley has finally been able to talk about a chapter of his life he never before shared — not even with his wife and children.

The story begins when Beasley, who was 29 and a laid-off smokejumper in McCall, Idaho, got a phone call in 1959.

“Would you like a job that pays $850 a month?” the caller asked.

Soon, Beasley and a cowboy by the name of Tommy “Shep” Johnson, who would later become one of his close friends, were on their way to the nation’s capital.

They had been “referred” by an insider to “The Company,” the term they used for the CIA.

That’s the only way you got into this line of work, Beasley said. This wasn’t a job that was advertised. They came looking for you.

Ray Beasley took on the alias Ray Barbon, a name that he sometimes struggled to remember. He almost missed a flight when he ignored an airport page before he realized it was for him.

“They told us only what we needed to know,” Beasley said.

Beasley was a “kicker” on CIA missions in Tibet, Laos and the Bay of Pigs invasion. He literally “kicked” the parachute-equipped supply boxes out of the transport aircraft as they circled their secret drop sites. He also helped “kick” out parachuted commandos and hooked up parachutes to the loads.

The Tibetan story, in many ways, begins in 1950 when China invaded the country of Tibet and, in 1951, marched into the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, forcing the government of the Dalai Lama to sign a so-called peace plan for the “liberation” of Tibet, according to a 2006 article from “Military History” magazine.

On March 17, 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama, His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, was spirited secretly out of the Lhasa and eventually into India. Tibetan resistance fighters trained by the CIA were among the group escorting him to India, according to the article. Three days later, when the Chinese discovered he had slipped away, they allegedly executed Lhasa civilians, whose bodies “were reportedly stacked like cordwood in the streets.”

Altogether, 259 Tibetans were secretly trained by the CIA at Camp Hale, Colorado, according to the article.

And it was Beasley and his fellow smokejumpers who were involved in dropping the trained Tibetan commandos back into Tibet along with pallets of weapons, supplies and radio equipment.

Tibet, at that time, was described as “near-mythical” and unknown to much of the world. Even Allen Dulles, the CIA director of the time, was reported to have trouble finding it on a map — thinking it was near Hungary.

Soon, Beasley and his buddies would be quite familiar with Tibet’s location, particularly the high mountainous region of the Himalayas where they made their secret runs on the nights of the full moon.

“Eisenhower was gung-ho to train the Tibetans at Camp Hale, Colorado,” said Beasley. But there was a slight complication. “They can’t speak English,” he said, “and we can’t talk to the Tibetans.”

Once Khampa commandos were trained, they were airdropped into Tibet — with cyanide pills strapped to their wrists, should they be caught.

“We were always ‘Romeo,’” Beasley said of the code name for their mission. “When we did these jobs, it was in the full moon and we flew right by Everest.”

“We were descending down to 13,000 to 15,000 feet (to fly over high-elevation drop sites). They marked it with a big ‘T’ with lights,” he said.

“We were allowed one pass,” he said. “We dropped the agents first,” followed by the parachuted pallets of supplies.

Beasley always carried a “blood chit,” a small piece of cloth offering a reward for returning him to the U.S. government, in case he was found or captured — if he ever had to exit the plane in an emergency or it was shot down.

In Beasley’s case, however, his Tibet adventures were totally airborne. He never stepped foot in Tibet.

“I’m just delighted the CIA honored him and the others,” said John Driscoll, a candidate for the U.S. House and a collector of smokejumper oral histories.

“Smokejumpers, because they are so skilled at parachute dropping and handling, were always in demand by the CIA,” he said.

“All these people kept their mouths shut,” he said. “There were only five of them left,” although at least a dozen had been involved in the Tibetan operation.

As far as Driscoll knows, 82 smokejumpers were involved with the CIA in some way. It’s something that is known in circles of smokejumpers out in the hills, he said, but not by the public. “I’m so pleased they are finally being recognized.”

In 1961, Beasley quit the CIA missions. “I wanted to get married,” he said. He’d been living out of a suitcase for three years.

When they weren’t flying, they were back at the base gambling and drinking, and he was sick of that.

To shake up the routine, Beasley took up snake collecting — that is, until he was called to remove a cobra from a wood pile.

“They had pissed him off,” said Beasley. “It was a spitting cobra. He hit me above the eyes,” temporarily blinding him. “That was the last snake hunting.”

Beasley had also become disillusioned with the CIA, particularly with how it treated some of its veterans.

When he came home, he went back to work for the U.S. Forest Service, winding up in Missoula, where he ran the textile lab.

“I designed and manufactured the ‘Shake ‘n’ Bake’ bags,” which are emergency shelters used by firefighters, he said. He also sewed the prototypes for fire suppression uniforms and designed the specifications for the FS-10 parachute system.

He said his standout memories from his 40 missions, which took him not only to Tibet but also Laos and the Bay of Pigs, are about the “companionship.”

His only regret was that more of his buddies weren’t alive to finally receive some of the recognition due them.

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Information from: Independent Record, http://www.helenair.com

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