Tibetan CIA Trainees Remembered

A memorial to the 37 Tibetans who died after being parachuted into Tibet by the CIA stands amid the ruins of Camp Hale, a military training camp where Tibetan volunteers were trained from 1958 to 1964 in small unit tactics and the use of modern weapons, and learned how to parachute and use wireless radios. Because the CIA program affected the escape of the central character in our book, Tenzin Namdak, we made a pilgrimage to Camp Hale, or what remains of it, in July. The camp is 18 miles northwest of Leadville, Colorado, just off State Highway 24 in the Eagle Valley. The CIA trained the initial six Tibetans on Saipan in the South Pacific, but switched training to Camp Hale because of its 9,250-foot altitude and location in the Sawatch Range of the Rocky Mountains, the closest approximation to conditions of the Tibetan Plateau that could be found in an existing military training facility. The camp is surrounded by mountains higher than 14,000 feet. Tibetan trainees found it so similar to their home that they called it Dumra, Colorado, using the Tibetan name for garden.

The camp was built in 1942 as the Mountain Training Center for the 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment, the first U.S. training base for ski and mountain troops. The Army named it after Brigadier Gen. Irving Hale, who led his regiment in the invasion of the Philippines and the capture of Manila during the Spanish-American War in 1898. The sprawling camp once housed 16,662 soldiers with a hospital and 321 buildings covering 3.6 million square feet spread along the floor of the Eagle River Valley. The elite 10th Mountain Division was eventually formed at Camp Hale, a division that is still operating and had seen action in Afghanistan.

The camp ceased operations in 1965 and the land was acquired by the National Forest Service. All that remains are the skeletons of a few buildings and concrete foundations. The Forest Service erected a few placards at several locations that outline the history of the camp. Unfortunately, none of the placards mention the Tibetans who trained there. The Forest Service unveiled a brass plaque honoring the Tibetans in September 2010, the first public acknowledgement of the covert CIA program by a government agency. Present at the unveiling was former CIA agent Kenneth Knaus, who worked with the Tibetan agents and has written about the covert program in his book, Orphans of the Cold War.

Since its erection, the memorial continues to attract Tibetan visitors. The memorial was draped with a dozen white khatas that appeared to be recently placed and Tibetan prayer flags hung in the near-by trees.

Return Home

Follow the Book