Editor’s note: This article was written by Claymore. His previous blog posts can be read here.
I mentioned something about my yellow rain story and TFB’s Senior Writer Phil White said he would sure like to hear that story. We had an up close and personal run in with this chemical weapon while with the Hmong so here it is, just for you Phil.
First, a little background for you guys that weren’t around for the last part of the Vietnam war and the first war in Afghanistan. The use of some type of chemical weapon by the soviets during the later part of the Vietnam war on indigenous troops (there was no use on Americans that I have heard about).It was not in the public domain and was one of “those” stories that make the rounds in military circles only.
The rumors surfaced again during the start of the first war in Afghanistan and the Soviets were again being accused by journalists and NGOs of using “Yellow rain” on the Mujh. There were abundant stories in the press and the term “Yellow Rain” was adopted to cover any use of chemicals in the theater by the press and the name stuck.
It was called “Yellow Rain” because it was allegedly air disbursed and the sign of it’s use was yellow droplets remaining on plant leaves after people became sick in those areas. It was hard to find proof as the material dissipated fairly rapidly.
Why would the Soviets use these chemicals you may be asking? The main reason is forced migration of the people in a large area with only a minimum number of troops. People in areas that have been hit by chemical weapons quickly move away to avoid being attacked again, so any insurgents in that area are denied the support of the people and it makes finding food much more difficult.
Another reason is mass casualties using very few troops and the victims tie up many more of their own people to deal with the dead and the sick survivors.
The below photo is NOT yellow rain. This is a shot taken on my car today and it looks EXACTLY like the material we found in the following story. I’m not a scientist and don’t know what these spots are but every time I wash my car I find a few and it reminds me of the story I am about to tell you (Unless the Soviets are still trying to get me!)
As you can see it’s a small yellow droplet that is probably bee pollen or feces, which will we cover later, but this is just one and when an area comes under attack there are thousands of these drops all over everything.
The story made the rounds but was pretty much ignored by the public until 1981 when Secretary of State “I’m in charge here” Al Haig had a press conference and denounced the Soviets for using “Yellow Rain” on the Hmong in Vietnam and Laos.
It was huge news at the time and it was like a “shot across the bow” from us to the “Evil Empire” to come out in public to openly accuse them of using chemical weapons and this caused a stir worldwide. If you are interested just put “soviet yellow rain” into a search engine and you get hundreds if not thousands of hits.
Now we get to my part in all this. In 1990 my usual partner and I were getting ready for our second trip inside with the Chow Fa Hmong we were going on our normal evaluation and training mission profile when we were asked to also include finding out what we could on the use of “Yellow rain” while we were there.
Our Afghan students (read more about our trip to Afghanistan here) had told us about it again and we have heard about it on our other trips with the Vang Pao Hmong. We had taken note of it and continued with our other missions as investigating Yellow Rain was not our remit and we had no proof to offer. That was about to change.
When we arrive in Vietnam we interviewed the Chow Fa and they reported that there had been frequent attacks.
The chemical attacks in Laos had been found by the Hmong (and also reported by the Afghans) to be three distinct types. All are referred to by the Hmong as generic “Chemie”.
- Yellow Rain, which leaves behind the yellow droplets and causes upper respiratory distress and a few deaths in the elderly, infirm, and small children.
- Blue Chemie, which has some of the same properties, as the more mild “yellow rain” but includes vomiting, but is stronger acting, and effects even robust persons causing twice as many deaths as yellow rain style.
- Red Chemie, the worst of the lot. This one is a killer almost everyone that comes into contact with this one eventually dies from severe respiratory tract distress and projectile vomiting. Choke, puke then die.
The red version was only known to have been used in remote areas on mountaintops where the Hmong held the high ground with no way the Laotian army could get to them. Most affected were the fighting Hmong that had been holding the mountain tops for years, so long that they all had long beards from not shaving due to lack of water supplies. These “Long Beard” guys were held in high esteem by all the Hmong because they sacrificed so much.
All types can be used from Hip (Soviet supplied helicopters) that have “spray bars” attached like crop dusters. They just fly over and release the chemicals. Or, infrequently, artillery shells are used to disburse the chemicals but the Hmong reported that this method seemed to be used on the mountain top areas only.
So there we are: fat, dumb and happily going about our mission when very early one morning Hmong came streaming into our little hut yelling Chemie, Chemie.
Needless to say we were quite interested in what the story was and it’s funny how you get a tickle in the back of your throat, that you never noticed before, when someone is telling you there has been a chemical attack in the area!
Turns out the area where the Hmong were growing corn, about a 5-10 minute walk from our hut, was sprayed just after dawn and several people were already sick.
With some trepidation, because we had no chemical protection equipment, we headed to the area. The Hmong explained that we SHOULD be ok as the effectiveness of yellow rain does NOT last very long with only people in the direct path of the falling yellow rain becoming sick and that after a few minutes nobody else is affected.
Sure enough we could see the surrounding area of the corn field was covered with tiny yellow droplets. Let me tell you something, that was a butthole-slam-shut situation if there ever was one.
This photo is of the Hmong’s second man in charge holding up one of the ears of corn with droplets still on it. You can’t see them clearly because I didn’t want to get close enough to get a better shot.
After a bit of “yes you do it, no you don’t” back and forth I drew the short straw and we collected some samples of vegetation with yellow droplets using field expedient methods to avoid contaminating ourselves and or the samples. The samples were preserved as best we could.
We then went on an area survey to try and discover any victims or witnesses. This kid heard the helo but wasn’t sick.
This group heard it and had relatives further away that were sick due to the poorly made shelters.
We ended up with 5 or 6 victims but without any effective treatment to give them other than rest and replenishment of fluids lost to vomiting and or diarrhea.
We continued on with our mission and after completing it we headed back to the USA. There were a couple of tense minutes at customs with the “are you carrying any vegetation?” question since we had split the samples and both of us were carrying leaves with yellow rain, but the gods were with us that day and no veggie sniffing beagles were in our area.
We sent our samples off to the Defense Intelligence Agency lab for analysis and, as with so many other samples submitted around that time, the results were labeled INCONCLUSIVE.
This whole “Yellow Rain” thing was a giant mystery during the time and remains so until this day.
My take on it, if it means anything, is this: I actually saw sick people from it and there were thousands of people sick in many areas in many countries where “yellow rain”, bee pollen, or bee feces were found. If it was just pollen or feces why were people in different countries affected in the exact same way? But the clincher for me were the chemical decontamination kits that we talked about in my previous post.
IF nobody was using chemical weapons (there were NEVER any reports of either the Afghans or Hmong using it) why were Soviet troops issued these kits unless the Soviets themselves were using it? That makes up my mind.
But since that day I haven’t grown a tail or any extra fingers I guess we came out alright.
Here are two of the best webpages discussing the situation. The first one is interesting because the area he is talking about was the EXACT same area we were working in and during the same time frame. The town where this interview took place, Nam Poon, was our jump off point.
The second webpage tells the back and forth of the bee crap story and controversy. About two years ago I was contacted by the professor mentioned on page 5, Paul Hillmer, and interviewed for a book he is writing about the Hmong. He talked to many people involved in the Hmong story, both in the later years and during the war in Vietnam and it should be a good read if he ever gets it finished
From that link above …
On one side, information about the former Soviet Union‘s weapons program continues to emerge, and on the other, the State Department maintains that it has further research that proves once and for all that yellow rain was a chemical weapon. This evidence, however, remains classified.”
Good enough for me. Whenever I go to the big range in the sky my second question will be “Did the Soviets use chemical weapons on the Hmong?”
Phil note: Thanks Claymore I enjoyed reading this story!