Image: Paul Oelkrug
Matt Slocum  /  AP
Paul Oelkrug, coordinator for special collections at the University of Texas at Dallas, says CIA documents on Air America are "essential to understanding a large untold history of America's involvement in Southeast Asia."
updated 4/15/2009 10:42:46 AM ET 2009-04-15T14:42:46

Former naval aviator Don Boecker isn't too proud to say he was "scared out of my wits" on that July 1965 day in Laos when he dangled by one arm from a helicopter while enemy soldiers took aim below.

Boecker had spent the longest night of his life in the thick jungle, evading capture and certain execution while awaiting rescue. The Navy aviator had ejected after a bomb he intended to drop on the Ho Chi Minh trail exploded prematurely.

His rescuers that day, however, weren't from the American military, who couldn't be caught conducting a secret bombing campaign in Laos.

They were civilian employees of Air America, an ostensibly private airline essentially owned and operated by the CIA.

Boecker, now a 71-year-old retired rear admiral, plans to tell the story on Saturday at a symposium intended to give a fuller account of an important outfit that alumni say is still misunderstood by the American public.

The University of Texas at Dallas event coincides with the CIA's release of about 10,000 previously classified Air America records, which will be turned over to the school's aviation collection.

'Untold history'
Paul Oelkrug, a coordinator at UT-Dallas' special collections department, said the documents speak to "the covert side of the Cold War."

"These Air America documents are essential to understanding a large untold history of America's involvement in Southeast Asia," Oelkrug said.

The records consist mainly of firsthand accounts of Air America missions and commendation letters from government officials, said Timothy N. Castle, a historian who works at the CIA's Center for the Study of Intelligence.

Included are accounts of the chaotic evacuation of personnel in 1975 after the fall of Saigon, the investigation into a mysterious 1964 plane crash apparently caused by sabotage and a letter from President Richard Nixon commending employees for their bravery in Laos.

More documents detail the rescue of wounded airmen from a mountainous Air Force radar station in Laos known as Lima Site 85, where a North Vietnamese raid in 1968 killed 11 Americans. It was the largest single loss of Air Force personnel on the ground during the Vietnam War, Castle said. The survivors were rescued by Air America.

Such operations were the norm for Air America pilots, and the inspiration for the title of the symposium: "Air America: Upholding the Airmen's Bond." Between 1964-65, Air America personnel rescued 21 downed American pilots. Strict records weren't kept after that, but if you "extrapolate and anecdotally, we know there were scores and scores more through the years," Castle said.

"That's the airman's bond. There is another airman who is down. Everything stops until you try to rescue them, because if it were you, you knew they would do it for you, too."

Shell companies
Air America's public face was that of a passenger and cargo airline that operated in sometimes dangerous places. It formed after World War II under the name Civil Air Transport, and did contract work for the Chinese Nationalists.

Control of Air America eventually shifted to the CIA, which set up shell companies to disguise its true ownership. Planes kept flying scheduled passenger flights out of Taiwan, but they also began flying covert missions in Laos and South Vietnam to supply anti-communist forces. Air America also had numerous government contracts, and was involved in humanitarian work though a deal with the State Department.

One of Air America's finest — and most iconic — moments was evacuating American and Vietnamese civilians after Saigon fell in 1975. A famous photograph shows an Air America helicopter atop an apartment building as a long line of people wait to board it.

Brian K. Johnson, a former Air America helicopter pilot and past president of the Air America Association, said flight crews would race to be the first to pick up downed military personnel. These untold stories of the Vietnam War, he said, could help change Air America's image.

'Perception'
Johnson laments that the perception of Air America is more about heroin than heroism, due largely to the 1990 movie "Air America," starring Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. The film depicts the company as corrupt and its pilots as drug runners. It remains a sensitive topic among former employees.

"We have done everything we can to change that perception, and I think we are getting there," Johnson said. "The liberal Air America radio station — that didn't help, either."

The CIA declassified the documents following a Freedom of Information Act request by UT-Dallas. The school's library has an extensive aviation collection, and was chosen by the Air America alumni group as the site of a Vietnam Wall-style plaque listing the names of the roughly 240 fallen employees.

"Most people don't even know it occurred. It was a secret society," said Boecker, who has six children and 11 grandchildren. "They flew in all sorts of danger ... flying every day in terrible wartime conditions. They did a beautiful job."

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