Air America: (Excerpt from Warrior Culture of the U.S. Marines, copyright 2001 Marion F. Sturkey)

At one time it was the largest "airline" in the entire world. The most aircraft. Unlimited finances. Black Ops. And, the American CIA ultimately called all the shots.

First, a little background: Prior to World War II, Japan invaded hapless China. Desperate to stop the Japanese, the American government sent Gen. Claire L. Chennault and his "American Volunteer Group" to China. These "civilian volunteers" flew their P-40 fighters against the Japanese Air Force during the struggle for the Chinese mainland.

After the war ended, America lent clandestine support to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek in his new battle against the communists. Using the framework of the American Volunteer Group, the American government formed Civil Air Transport (CAT) in 1947. CAT operated a fleet of aircraft in support of the Chinese Nationalists.

CAT moved its headquarters to fortress Taiwan in 1950, after Free China set up its government there. CAT also flew regular passenger routes to Tokyo, Bangkok, and locations throughout the Far East. During the Korean War the aircraft of CAT flew a host of never-happened missions that will never find their way into American history books.

The shadowy CAT was "obtained" by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) after the Korean War. Flying as Southern Air Transport, Civil Air Transport, Air America, and Air Asia Ltd., the "airline" operated at the direction of the CIA in the western Pacific and in Asia throughout the 1950s. When the French were on the ropes in Indochina and the American military could not officially intervene, Air America took over. Its mercenaries repeatedly flew into the firestorm at Dien Bien Phu. Yet, for public consumption, the aircraft and mercenaries never even existed.

When the war in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam heated up in the 1960s, the CIA consolidated its "airlines" under the name of Air America. The CIA recruited some of its pilots and cargo-kickers from civilian sources. But, most of the CIA mercenary airmen came from the American military. Air America made it patently clear who they wanted: "The most highly skilled, adventurous, and patriotic aviation personnel who could be found."

All aggressive military pilots of that era had the "unofficial opportunity" to apply for reassignment to Air America. Those who were accepted got "sheep-dipped" and vanished. When next seen, they would be "civilians" flying meticulously maintained silver airplanes and helicopters in Asia. In small black letters on the fuselage of each aircraft: "Air America."

The motto of Air America was simple: "Anything, Anytime, Anywhere." Rice was rice. Hard rice was ammo. SAR was an easy way to get yourself killed. Cambodia, Laos, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, or wherever, it did not matter. When you do not officially exist, there are no restrictions.

Most of the former military sheep-dipped pilots and aircrewmen survived. They surfaced years later, mysteriously popping back up in the Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, or wherever they had vanished from. No questions, no comments.

For the United States, the war in Indochina ended in 1975. Air America disbanded. In retirement the mercenaries formed the Air America Club. Official recognition, which had never existed, would come 12 years later.

The Air America Memorial was dedicated on 30 May 1987. It stands at the McDermott Library at the University of Texas, in Dallas. William E. Colby, former Director of the CIA, delivered the dedication address which he titled, "Courage in Civilian Clothes." Beginning alphabetically with Robert P. Abrams, the bronze memorial lists the name of each of the 242 "civilians" who lost their lives with Air America. The inscription begins:

This memorial is dedicated to the aircrews and ground support personnel of Civil Air Transport, Air America, Air Asia, and Southern Air Transport, who died while serving the cause of freedom in Asia from 1947 to 1975 . . . .

William P. Clements Jr., Governor of Texas, offered his greetings to the hundreds of Air America veterans who attended. He wrote: "It is high time that these brave individuals be honored." Ronald Reagan, President of the United States, was not present. But, he sent a personal letter:

. . . Unsung and unrecognized, each of you confronted danger and endured terrible hardships, and each of you rose to the challenge; you never faltered. Although free people everywhere owe you more than we can hope to repay, our greatest debt is to your companions who gave their last full measure of devotion. Just as their names are inscribed on this memorial, so their memories are inscribed in our hearts . . . God bless you, and God bless America.