Camp Hale

The success of the pilot group of six Tibetans trained in Saipan and subsequently parachuted back into Tibet prompted the CIA to step up ST Circus and expand its training program. A second group of Tibetans was secretly flown to the U.S. mainland in 1958 and initially put up at a camp in Virginia. The CIA found the perfect training facility in Camp Hale. Located high in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, the former wartime headquarters of the Tenth Mountain Division – became the new home for the Tibetan trainees. They immediately fell in love with the place - the high mountains, thick forests and alpine meadows reminded them of home. They nicknamed the camp, Dhumra, (The Garden).

The CIA circulated a story in the local press that Camp Hale was to be the site of atomic tests and would be a high security zone. Until its closure in 1964, the entire area was cordoned off and its perimeters patrolled by military police. In the nearby mining town of Leadville, where instructors from Camp Hale occasionally went for rest and recreation, numerous rumors spread about the camp but no one could guess its real function.

In December 1961, the cover was nearly blown when a group of Tibetans was being transported at night from Camp Hale to Peterson Field, a small airport near Colorado Springs. Bad weather delayed the party and instead of arriving under the cover of darkness as they usually did, they reached the airfield in broad daylight. Out of nowhere, jeep loads of GIs swarmed into the airport building and bundled its civilian employees at gunpoint into offices and hangars while the Tibetans were transferred into an unmarked C-124 Globemaster parked on the neighboring air force lot. The story came out in the next day's edition of the Colorado Springs Gazette. But when a reporter from the New York Times picked up on it and called the Pentagon for more information, the story was killed at the personal request of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

One of the civilians involved in this incident recalled that an army officer visited them soon afterwards: "He lined us up in my office. We had to hold up our hands and swear that we wouldn't talk about it... The army officer had a book with him and he read the law to us. He was telling us what would happen to us if we talked about it. The guy threatened us. He said we were under the highest secrecy in the world."*

In all, 259 Tibetans were trained at Camp Hale. The American instructors developed an unusually close relationship with their Tibetan protégés. Many came to identify with the cause of Tibetan independence despite knowing that official America policy precluded the fulfillment of such an option. Years later, they would look back on their years with the Tibetans as the highlight of their careers.

*Jeff Long, "Going after Wangdu: the search for a Tibetan Guerrilla Leads to Colorado’s Secret CIA Camp", Rocky Mountain Magazine, July/Aug. 1981

(For a more detailed account of life at Camp Hale, see John Kenneth Knaus’, Orphans of the Cold War)

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