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The extraordinary life and mysterious death of Jerry Daniels, a U. S. Forest Service smokejumper at age 17, the year before he graduated from Missoula County High School in 1959, and a cargo kicker in Laos for the Central Intelligence Agency’s Air America by the time he was 20, is the topic of writer Gayle Morrison’s new book called “Hog’s Exit: Jerry Daniels, the Hmong, and the CIA.”

Unlike scores of people in western Montana, Gayle Morrison never knew Jerry Daniels. But she figured she had his story pegged long ago.

“I thought the book was done 10 years ago,” Morrison said last week in Missoula, on the eve of the release of “Hog’s Exit: Jerry Daniels, the Hmong, and the CIA.”

She’d spent years in California recording interviews with the Hmong who Daniels had lived and fought alongside in the 1960s and ’70s, during the U.S. government’s secret war in Laos.

Most of those Hmong had been at an elaborate three-day funeral ceremony held for Daniels in Missoula in 1982 – all the while questioning whether his body was inside the sealed casket sent home from Bangkok.

In researching her first book, “Sky Is Falling,” about the CIA’s evacuation of the Hmong from Laos in 1975, Morrison had visited a refugee camp in Thailand where Daniels had orchestrated the resettlement of thousands of Hmong to America.

She had drawn out recollections of Daniels’ fellow CIA operatives and tracked down State Department documents and letters that revealed Daniels’ vital role in Laos during the Vietnam War. She had ample fodder for a captivating book.

Then she visited Missoula.

“I came just to see some of the places people mentioned in the book,” Morrison said. “I wanted to tour the jump base and see the Oxford, and the Clark Fork River, and the Higgins Bridge. I wasn’t planning on coming back.”

Fate intervened, for Morrison and her book.

She met a smokejumper, the late Tim Eldridge, and fell in love.

“And I found out from Tim that there was a whole bunch of mostly retired – but not all of them retired – smokejumpers who had known Jerry, and it was like, oh, there’s a whole other pool of people,” she said.

A decade later, after dozens more interviews and a major edit to get it down to a manageable 500 pages, “Hog’s Exit” is ready for public consumption. The first copies arrived in area bookstores Thursday.

Eldridge was just 52 when he died in 2009 of complications from liver disease. But Morrison keeps coming back to Missoula, where she’s bought a home in the South Hills and where friends both American and Hmong from Daniels’ “other” life are always around.

***

We crawled through those years of Khrushchev and Kennedy, Hanoi and My Lai, Neil Armstrong and Woodstock, Kent State, Patty Hearst, Agent Orange, Watergate, and all our own incidents and accidents.

Jerry “Hog” Daniels had an opinion on it all, you can be sure.

He was one of us, but there weren’t many like him – a U. S. Forest Service smokejumper at age 17, the year before he graduated from Missoula County High School in 1959, and a cargo kicker in Laos for the Central Intelligence Agency’s Air America by the time he was 20.

Daniels became the CIA’s closest liaison to Vang Pao and the fierce-fighting Hmong, who for 13 years warded off communist forces in the mountains of northern Laos.

He returned home often enough to earn a degree from the University of Montana in 1969.

He was dead in Thailand at 40.

Daniels was as fascinating, provocative, mysterious, ribald and heroic a figure as Missoula and Helmville ever produced.

The bulk of “Hog’s Exit” consists of excerpts from all those interviews and reminiscences, each one adding a new wrinkle to his persona. How to sum it all up?

“You can’t,” Morrison said. “In some ways he was a different person with different groups. I don’t consider him a changeling, in that the people he knew as a high-school student and a young man, he continued to interact with in that same easy, goofy, frivolous manner throughout the rest of his life.

“When they got together, that’s what they did: shoot the bull and carouse and drink beer. They didn’t ever get serious about anything.”

***

Morrison saw another side of “Hog” first-hand. Her background in the Hmong experience comes from years of work in refugee resettlement at the Lao Family Community in Santa Ana, Calif., where her co-workers were all Hmong.

“I think it was 1981, the year before he died,” she said. “He came to Lao Family to talk to the General (Vang Pao). I had no idea who he was, but he came up the stairs, very serious looking, and he was surrounded by probably 50 of what would have been previous Hmong soldiers. So this was somebody of some great stature.”

The mob swept past her desk.

“He never made eye contact, just swooshed into the General’s office. I asked, ‘Who is that guy?’ ”

She was familiar with all the “players” stateside, Morrison said. But Daniels had come straight from Thailand.

“Of course, everybody wanted to see him, everybody wanted to talk to him. Every Hmong in the United States wanted to talk to him,” she said. “So I asked who he was, and the receptionist said, ‘You don’t know? That’s Mr. Jerry.’ ”

Morrison wasn’t impressed at the time.

“I’d seen too many wanna-be spooks (CIA agents) who would insinuate themselves into the Hmong communities and play up who they had been,” she said. “I had seen these guys come waltzing through Lao Family and I didn’t trust them and didn’t care for their acts, and so I thought this was another one. But, no, Jerry was the real deal.”

The Hmong thought so.

U.S. forces evacuated 7,000 Americans and Vietnamese after the fall of Saigon on April 29-30, 1975. It was up to Daniels to orchestrate secret airlifts of Hmong from Laos to Thailand in the ensuing weeks as enemy forces closed in.

He’s credited with saving Vang Pao and 2,500 Hmong leaders and their families in those dramatic days. Afterward, his position among the Hmong whom he’d come to love made him uniquely qualified as an ethnic affairs officer for the U.S. State Department to screen refugees who merited asylum in the United States.

The initial surge of refugees into western Montana in the late 1970s after Laos fell to the communists was the handiwork of Daniels in Thailand, with ample assistance from his mother Louise in Missoula.

“Without him there would not have been a Hmong refugee resettlement program in the United States. I’m pretty sure about that,” Morrison said.

They respected him, she added, because he never lied to them.

“That is huge,” said Morrison. “Whatever he said, they could firmly believe and take action on. He was willing to take every risk that they were taking. He lived with them, he met them as equals and he did not pull the ‘Great White Father’ act. They totally respected him for that, and he respected them for their skills.”

***

The title “Hog’s Exit” refers to the code name Daniels gave himself, and to his reported death 31 years ago. The official cause given for the latter was carbon monoxide poisoning from a leaky water heater in his Bangkok apartment.

Morrison’s sources provide a detailed picture of the controversy and offer a broad spectrum of opinions about what “really happened.” Many Hmong believe Daniels’ body wasn’t in the sealed casket. There are those who believe he was killed for national security reasons, others who claim suicide, and some who think he didn’t die that April day in 1982 at all.

For several years two of Jerry’s brothers, the Hmong and others have discussed having his coffin at the Missoula Cemetery exhumed to see what’s inside. So far it hasn’t been done.

In the book’s oral-history format, Morrison offers none of her own speculation. But ask her and she’ll point to the fierce loyalty Daniels had for the Hmong and his legion of friends and family in Montana, a loyalty that was usually returned. Had he survived, Daniels would be 72 years old today. Morrison says she feels confident that he would have been in touch with somebody – “if he were able to.”

She framed “Hog’s Exit” with the first complete English account of the elaborate Hmong funeral process in Missoula and the Blackfoot Valley.

“I wanted to give equal weight to the Hmong voices and the Hmong importance of that funeral as I did to the American voices and the stories that they were telling about Jerry,” she said.

The oral-history snippets bounce back and forth from the three-day funeral ceremony at the Mountain View Mortuary on South Russell Street and the burial at the Missoula Cemetery to raunchy stories about drinking binges, trips to the brothels of Wallace, Idaho, and riding bucking water buffalo at the Hmong military base in Laos that Daniels reportedly dubbed “Sky.”

***

Daniels was 10 with three older brothers when Louise and Bob Daniels moved the family from San Francisco to Helmville in 1951. They opened a restaurant and stayed two years before moving into Missoula. Jerry and his brothers never lost the connection to the Blackfoot country.

Kent Daniels of Florence is one of three surviving brothers. He was two years older than Jerry and the sibling closest to him growing up. He and his family became good friends of Morrison as she researched the book.

His sons Deeder and Farrett knew their Uncle Jerry well, as well as many of the Hmong who settled in these parts. Those initially included Vang Pao and his family, who bought a farm in the Bitterroot before moving to California. Farrett Daniels penned a moving tribute to Vang Pao and his relationship with Jerry that Morrison read at the general’s funeral in Fresno, Calif., in 2011 (a video of which is attached to this story on Missoulian.com).

Kent added his own tribute at the end.

“I’m pretty sure,” he wrote for Morrison to read, “that VP’s and Jerry’s spirits are having a grand time, wherever they may be.”

Jack and Kent Daniels provided Morrison and Texas Tech University Press with most of the 100 photos in the book. Three are of the medals the family was presented after Jerry’s death on his behalf at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. Jack has a photo of the occasion. It shows then-CIA director William Casey standing with the family, his arm hooked in Jack’s.

Ten years ago Jack Daniels, a world-renowned running coach in New York and a two-time Olympic medalist in the modern pentathlon, filed a Freedom of Information Act with the CIA for records pertaining to Jerry’s service and death.

Morrison chose to end the text of “Hog’s Exit” with the reply Jack got from Robert Herman, information and privacy coordinator for the agency.

“I regret that we are unable to assist you,” Herman wrote, “but trust that you can appreciate the fact that this agency, which is responsible for the clandestine collection of foreign intelligence and the clandestine conduct of foreign intelligence operations, cannot confirm the existence or extent of information that would divulge the identity of an unacknowledged employee.”

Herman said he must be consistent in the practice to “neither confirm nor deny the past or present affiliation of individuals with the CIA – unless their CIA affiliation already has been officially acknowledged.”

It’s left to researchers like Morrison to piece together the stories of “Hog” and the CIA’s secret war in Laos. And it’s left to the rest of us to speculate whether such stories are things of America’s past.

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Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at (406) 523-5266 or by email at kbriggeman@missoulian.com.

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Mineral County, veterans issues

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian