THE BOOK OF HONOR -- FORGOTTEN MAN
THE ORDER to evacuate came down on July 29, 1949. It was a simply worded cable, direct from Secretary of State Dean Acheson. The Communist juggernaut had swept across China. The ascendancy of Mao Zedong was now certain. The lives of all American diplomats still in country were at risk. Embassies and consulates throughout the land were to be closed. The last remaining skeletal staffs were to torch any classified documents and beat a hasty retreat by any means available. No one was to be left behind.
No one, that is, except for one lowly vice-consul in China's hinterland. His name was Douglas Seymour Mackiernan. He had been posted to what was widely regarded as the most desolate and remote consulate on earth -- Tihwa (today called Urumchi), the wind-raked capital of Xinjiang (Sinkiang) province, China's westernmost state. He and he alone was to stay behind. Mackiernan's diplomatic title was "Vice-Consul," and he had willingly done all the scutwork the State Department had asked of him. But he took his orders not from State, but from a more shadowy organization whose very name he would not utter. Even with those he trusted most, he would simply intone the words "the Company." Those who did not understand the reference had no business knowing.
Just two years earlier, on February 17, 1947, Mackiernan had applied for the position at Tihwa, going through what had appeared to be normal State Department channels. But why Tihwa, an ancient city whose heyday dated back to the time of the ancient Silk Road? With just one main street, its nomadic population was Caucasian Russians, Mongolians, and dark-skinned Chinese. Only the Soviet Union, Britain, and the United States bothered to maintain a consulate there. It was so forlorn a place that the mere mention of its name sent shudders down the spine of even the most leathery of foreign service officers. That anyone should volunteer for such a place was beyond comprehension.
Even more curious, when Mackiernan, then a thirty-five-year-old ex-GI, applied for that posting, he had been so desperate that he was willing to work there as an entry-level clerk. The pay was an abysmal $2,160 a year. The job description held little promise for advancement. The duties: keep the trucks and jeep up and running, the radio in good repair, assist in overseeing supply needs, and provide an occasional hand in code work. The State Department had been overjoyed to snag anyone willing to go to Tihwa, much less someone as worldly and talented as Mackiernan. His superior at the State Department, barely able to contain his enthusiasm, spoke of Mackiernan as "ideally qualified for ... this wild territory."
To the few who thought they knew Mackiernan, or Mac, as he was known to many, it seemed a stunningly poor career choice. In the aftermath of World War II someone of his credentials could have had a wide array of choices. But then, Mackiernan could care less what others thought of his decision. Like a generation of covert CIA case officers to come, he would have to learn to silently endure the whispering and sympathetic looks of friends on the fast track who were ignorant of his true purpose and position. By day, Mackiernan would work his humble cover job without complaint. By night he would devote himself to the real work at hand -- espionage.
Mackiernan understood from the start that even if things went well he would receive no public credit. If things went "poorly" -- a euphemism that needed little elaboration -- he would be just another faceless functionary lost in far-off Cathay. A covert officer can ill afford ego or pride. Besides, these were the least of his concerns. Mackiernan had a wife, Darrell, and daughter, Gail, who had seen very little of him in years. They had hoped that with the end of the war in 1945, he might at last return to them. But with each passing month of absence, the strains of separation increased.
As for Tihwa, Mackiernan was content to let others think it was the end of the earth. At that precise moment in history, cataclysmic forces were gathering. Communism had seized much of postwar Europe and now was about to swallow the most populous land on the planet. The Soviet Union was funneling material across its border with China, destabilizing the region, all the while feverishly working on the Kremlin's first atomic bomb. The border separating the two giants, the Soviet Union and China, would for decades obsess the U.S. intelligence community. And there, posing as a lowly clerk, Mackiernan took it all in, dutifully reporting back to Washington and, in his own quixotic way, attempting to alter the course of history.
Tihwa, far from being the remote outpost others took it to be, was a front-row seat for Scene One of the Cold War.
There was a second reason that this forbidding region was of such intense interest to the CIA. Xinjiang possessed rich deposits of uranium, gold, and petroleum. The Soviets already held 50 percent of tile mineral and oil rights there. Some in Washington even suspected that the true aim of Moscow was to carve off Xinjiang and add it to its own empire.
It was into this cauldron of international intrigue that Mackiernan inserted himself. He was a quiet man, given to answering questions with a simple "yes" or "no." The compulsive talker has, at best, a short career in the clandestine service. At times, Mackiernan appeared painfully shy. He held his own counsel and respected the privacy of others as zealously as he protected his own. A lanky figure, he had boyish good looks, deep dimples, and an easy, somewhat awkward smile. His eyes telegraphed an alluring vulnerability. More than one woman saw a bit of Henry Fonda in him. Like many of his Agency colleagues, he was a wholly unlikely character for a spy, and as such, perfect for the part. Those who underestimated him made the mistake but once. He was a man of singular purpose.
Back in Washington, his personnel file was stamped "Secret." Inside was evidence of what pointed to a brilliant past and an even more promising future. Douglas S. Mackiernan was born in Mexico City on April 25, 1913. He was the oldest of five brothers, all of them with solid Scottish names: Duncan, Stuart, Malcolm, and Angus. His father and namesake, Douglas S. Mackiernan, had been an adventurer himself, running away from a boarding school at sixteen and signing on to become a whaler. Douglas Sr. would successively become a merchant seaman, an explorer, and a businessman of modest success. In Mexico City the young Doug Mackiernan attended a German school. By eight he had mastered English, French, Spanish, and German. As an adult he would add Russian, Chinese, and some Kazakh.
The family moved around a good bit in those early years, finally settling in Stoughton, Massachusetts. There the senior Mackiernan operated a filling station, named the Green Lantern. Mackiernan's mother was a talented commercial artist who dabbled in greeting cards. Mackiernan did not distinguish himself in the classroom -- he bristled at routine and discipline. But no one doubted his intellect. He and a brother designed and built a mechanical creature that rose out of the depths of the family pond and scared the dickens out of anyone unsuspecting. He also early on demonstrated a way with radios. As an avid amateur operator, his call letters were WIHTQ. An entire room in his home was consecrated to ham radios. The yard around his house was crisscrossed with antennae.
If ever a boy was cut out to be a spy, it was Doug Mackiernan. Even as a child he would draft elaborate declarations of war under a nom de plume, then attack one of his younger siblings, all in good sport. He scoffed at his brothers' decoder rings as juvenile, preferring more sophisticated models of his own design. He knew guns and was a crack shot with his own Remington .306.
Mackiernan's boyhood home in Massachusetts featured a huge sun-porch and thirty acres shaded by chestnut trees. There was even a small trout stream called Beaver Brook. The five Mackiernan boys had their run of the place.
Easily distracted in school, Mackiernan was delighted to see class end, even if it meant pumping gas at his father's filling station. His father was a stern and somewhat formal man who, even when he pumped gas, wore a felt hat and tie. In the evenings, Doug Jr. would often lose himself in elaborate science experiments. In September 1932, Mackiernan, then nineteen, went off to MIT to study physics. There, too, the routine did not agree with him. One year was enough. He never did get his degree -- too much bother. But his grasp of the materials was enough to impress his professors. From 1936 to 1940 he worked as a research assistant at MIT. In 1941 he served as an agent for the U.S. Weather Bureau.
That was the year Mackiernan, then twenty-eight, introduced himself to Darrell Brown. They met on a train and discovered they were both headed for a skiing trip. Later, on the slopes, they met again. Darrell had taken a spill. As Mackiernan whooshed by, he said, "You are going to have to do better than that." He then returned to help her to her feet.
They were married on July 19, 1941, in St. John's By-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, amid sprays of ferns, white gladioli, and delphinium. On November 6 of the next year they had a daughter, Gail. But the marriage was frayed from the beginning. Shortly after the declaration of war, Mackiernan virtually vanished.
He had early on demonstrated an invaluable gift for codes and encryption, as well as an encyclopedic interest in history and foreign cultures. By 1942, not yet thirty, he was named chief of the Cryptographic Cryptoanalysis Section at Army Air Force Headquarters in Washington. But he was often away on assignment. Through most of the next year he was plotting weather maps, on temporary duty in Greenland and Alaska, in charge of the Synoptic Map Section. In November 1943 he was assigned to the 10th Weather Squadron in China. There he was to oversee communications and train personnel in the use of radios and codes. One of his primary jobs was to intercept and break encrypted Russian weather transmissions.
For the duration of the war he served in China at Station 233-Tihwa. He also monitored emerging weather patterns that would soon pass over the Pacific, providing valuable data that helped U.S. war planners target their B-29 bombing runs over Japanese-held territories.
His letters home were few and far between. His daughter, Gail, had only the vaguest recollections of him. At Christmas she would receive a gift signed "from Daddy," but she knew it was really from Mackiernan's parents -- her grandparents.
It was hard for Gail to understand that her father was in a place so remote as China. Her mother would take her for drives in the black Mercury coupe and park at Cape Elizabeth. The toddler could see Wood Island out in the bay. She imagined that the island was this far-off place called China where her father was. She wondered why she did not see more of him. She was four when she saw him last.
By war's end, Mackiernan was a thirty-three-year-old lieutenant colonel. But though he had a wife and daughter, he knew that he was not cut out for a desk job or the security of peacetime civilian life. By the spring of 1947 he was desperate to get back to Tihwa. On May 12 he set out from Nanjing for the tortuous overland journey west. The trip would take four weeks and earn him a State Department commendation.
In many ways, Mackiernan was typical of those who joined the CIA in its infancy. Nearly all had a military background and were seasoned in combat, intelligence, counterintelligence, communications, or sabotage. Like Mackiernan, many possessed other skills, not only those of warriors but those of linguists, scientists, or historians. Some were closet scholars, well read in foreign cultures. Some had served proudly with the Office of Strategic Services, the OSS, the World War II intelligence group headed by the legendary William "Wild Bill" Donovan. A successful Wall Street lawyer, Donovan had assembled a corps of operatives and analysts, many from the ranks of America's elite. From the OSS would come such formidable postwar figures as Stewart Alsop, John Birch, Julia Child, Allen Dulles, Richard Helms, Arthur Goldberg, Herbert Marcuse, Walt Rostow, and Arthur Schlesinger.
Donovan's brand of derring-do, his appeal to a sense of duty among those in positions of privilege, and, indeed, even the very structure of his OSS would continue long after to be the hallmark of the CIA. The heady victory of World War II, the sense of America's indomitability, and its newfound activist role in the world would characterize the CIA in those early days and ensure bold though often unsung triumphs. That same proud legacy would also condemn the fledgling agency in the not-too-distant future to highly publicized debacles and humiliations which would dog it forever.
No sooner had the war ended when the OSS was disbanded, many of its most talented and skilled people absorbed by private industry, Wall Street, and civilian government service. Those who stayed in the intelligence service found themselves either at the State Department or in a branch of military service. It was not until the National Security Act of 1947 under President Harry Truman that the Central Intelligence Agency came into being, reassembling many of the vital elements of the OSS.
Although the organization was profoundly weaker than its war-time predecessor, it was the constant victim of envy from the armed services branches, which maintained their own intelligence organizations. The State Department had its own research branch. Even the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover deeply resented the CIA, which wrested away from his Bureau authority over operations in Central and South America. Many in Congress, too, were suspicious of the need for an independent intelligence service in peacetime.
The CIA's uncertain status was mirrored in the tumbledown buildings to which it was relegated in the nation's capital. CIA headquarters was located in the old OSS complex at 2430 E Street. But most of the CIA worked out of what was collectively known as the Tempo Buildings. These were temporary structures left over from the war that were clustered about Washington's Reflecting Pool under the watchful gaze of Lincoln enthroned in his memorial. Each building carried a letter designation, as in "Tempo K" or "Tempo L." The buildings were dimly lit and foul-smelling, bone-chilling in winter and sweltering in summer. At lunchtime in August, Agency secretaries would roll up their skirts or pant legs to dip their feet in the Reflecting Pool to restore themselves. Offices were infested with mice and insects. Secretaries would sometimes suspend their lunches from the ceilings by a string to put them out of reach of the columns of ants.
Those same secretaries would spend their days typing and filing away the most sensitive materials in Washington, many of them related to preparations for an apocalyptic atomic confrontation with the Soviets. Some found themselves typing up top secret war plans. At day's end they would carefully account for each copy, remove their typewriter ribbons and lock them away in the vault until the next day. From the lowliest clerk to the senior-most director, there was the sense that the Agency's mission was of monumental import. Not even its grim surroundings could dull their devotion to duty. Communism menaced the world. Hitler and Mussolini and Hirohito had only recently been defeated, but now Stalin and Mao were taking their place. From the vantage point of those earliest to arrive at the CIA, it was not merely a contest between ideologies but a struggle of epic, even biblical proportions, pitting the forces of light against darkness. The fate of civilization itself seemed to hang in the balance.
In what came to be called the Cold War, no action could be viewed as too extreme. It was the Agency's divine mission to blunt the thrusts of Communism worldwide and perhaps, in so doing, avoid nuclear Armageddon. If World War II had taught the nation's stunned intelligence community anything, it was that containment, not appeasement, was the only hope of staving off war. No longer was any act of barbarism deemed "unthinkable." Pearl Harbor and the ovens of Auschwitz had cured U.S. intelligence officers of that. The gentleman's code of conduct with which America's espionage community had begun World War II was the first document to pass through the shredder.
But like Mackiernan, many had joined the CIA as much out of a taste for adventure as a sense of patriotism. Following the war, it had been hard for men and women like Mackiernan, accustomed to exotic places and the rush of danger, to slip back into the routine of civilian life. Some, like Mackiernan, had discovered that they felt most alive only when they were living on the edge.
Besides, Mackiernan's life in Tihwa was hardly the stuff of hardship. Almost immediately upon arriving, the lowly clerk moved into a ten-bedroom villa he rented from a Russian. He had only enough furniture for three rooms. Soon he purchased a fine strong horse, an Arabian mixed with the breeds of the Kazakhs. On Sundays he would sling an aging English cavalry saddle over its broad back and ride out into the countryside for a day of hunting or exploration. Of course it was not all play. Sometimes he would go to where he had buried scientific equipment used to determine the mineral riches of the region.
In Tihwa, Mackiernan hired a twenty-four-year-old White Russian named Vassily Zvonzov, who would be both a caretaker of his home and a stableboy for his horse. Like Mackiernan, Zvonzov had no love for the Communists. Having deserted from the Russian army in 1941, Zvonzov had joined various anti-communist resistance efforts. Zvonzov shared the house with Mackiernan but not his life. Mackiernan could be affable, even entertaining, but he did not welcome questions. He rarely spoke of family and never of his true purpose in Tihwa.
But Zvonzov soon pieced together that Mackiernan was more than he appeared to be. Not long after arriving in Tihwa, Mackiernan sought out a leader of the Kazakh anti-Communist resistance. His name was Wussman Bator. He was then in his fifties, a striking figure in his traditional Kazakh robes. The rare times Wussman consented to be photographed he posed astride a great white horse, his silken warrior's hat crested with owl feathers. "Bator" was an honorific name, and Wussman already had a reputation for valor and cunning. His band of Kazakh horsemen were nomadic and viewed by some as bandits and horse rustlers. But no one doubted Wussman's determination to resist the Communists -- least of all Mackiernan.
Mackiernan would meet Wussman in the leader's yurt, a round tent-like affair with an opening at the center where light could enter and smoke exit. On his first such visit, Mackiernan brought Wussman a traditional gift of fine blue cloth and a small ingot of solid gold. The relationship between the two grew closer in subsequent months as the Communist threat increased. Exactly how Mackiernan assisted Wussman -- whether with tactical advice, encouragement, or outright weaponry -- is not certain. What is known is that the two came to rely on one another closely, each entrusting the other with his life.
Within a month after Mackiernan's move to Tihwa, a rare American visitor arrived in town. Her name was Pegge Lyons. She was a brassy twenty-four-year-old freelance writer who wrote under the name Pegge Parker. She had long legs, shoulder-length chestnut hair, and a high-spiritedness. And, like Mackiernan, she had a taste for adventure. Already she had put in three years as a reporter in Fairbanks, Alaska. Now she was hoping that Mackiernan might direct her to some good stories on China's ragged frontier. Mackiernan was happy to oblige. Without taking her fully into his confidence, he convinced her to take photos along the Soviet border and to focus on any movement of arms or equipment, transports, trucks, men marching, or weapons. Concentrate, he said, on the faces of anyone in uniform. He handed her his Leica camera and instructed her in how to avoid attracting suspicion. But Pegge Lyons was a step ahead of him. She donned bobby socks and a skirt and by all appearance was a dipsy young American tourist. By July 1947, some of the photos she took had begun to show up in a variety of newspapers -- but only after they had been closely scrutinized in Washington.
For two weeks, Pegge Lyons stayed in the consulate in Tihwa, dining on sweet melons and hot meals prepared by the Russian cook. Pegge Lyons and Doug Mackiernan's interest in each other went well beyond the professional. In Pegge's eyes, Mackiernan was a dashing figure with a disarming smile. Pipe in hand and dressed in a khaki shirt with epaulets, he was the very embodiment of adventure. Fluent in Russian and Chinese, he was equally conversant in geology, meteorology, and geopolitics. He was as comfortable fixing a jeep as he was sitting astride his Arabian. That he was a man of secrets only made him that much more attractive.
Mackiernan, for his part, found in Pegge a kindred spirit, a companion who shared his taste for the exotic, for risk, and his interest in the Russian language. It had been a long time since he had allowed himself to be stirred by a woman. His marriage to Darrell had long been a marriage in name only. They had barely seen each other in years. Ten thousand miles away, in the arid and forsaken town of Tihwa, Pegge Lyons and Doug Mackiernan seemed right for each other.
Doug Mackiernan and Darrell were divorced in a brief proceeding in Reno, Nevada. Not long after, Mackiernan and Pegge Lyons were married in San Francisco. In September 1948, they took a Pan Am flight to Shanghai. That same month, Pegge Mackiernan gave birth to twins -- Michael and Mary. For Douglas Mackiernan, it was a second chance to be a husband and a father. This time he was determined to do it right. In a photograph, a proud Papa Mackieman, dressed in suit and tie, is cradling his newborn son, Mike. It would be the only picture taken of Mackiernan with his son.
Shortly thereafter, Mackiernan returned to Tihwa -- alone. The situation in China was deteriorating rapidly. On November 10, 1948, the State Department ordered all dependents of American diplomats to evacuate the country immediately. Pegge wrapped her six-week-old twins in swaddling and tucked them snugly into a straw laundry basket, then boarded a Pan Am flight for San Francisco.
What was clear to many in China was less clear to American intelligence officials in the nation's capital. At 2:30 P.M., December 17, 1948, the senior-most members of the intelligence community gathered around a long table in the Federal Works Building in downtown Washington, D.C. Chairing the meeting was Rear Admiral Roscoe Henry Hillenkoetter, director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Hillenkoetter was a tall man with close-cropped black hair, a Naval Academy graduate who carried his gold braids and ribbons well, but whose leadership qualities were suspect.
He, even more than most in that first generation of CIA directors, understood the harsh lessons of Pearl Harbor -- the need for constant intelligence and vigilance. As an executive officer on the USS West Virginia, he had been wounded when that ship was sunk at its Pearl Harbor berth on December 7, 1941. He fancied himself a student of history and took pride in being able to quote at length the writings of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin. But nothing could prepare him for the likes of Mao Zedong.
That afternoon, Hillenkoetter admitted being dumbfounded by the speed and agility of the Communist onslaught. But he predicted the Communists would temper their advance, settling for a part in a coalition government -- preferring to be recognized by the United Nations and wanting to court the United States in order to obtain articles of trade they coveted which their ideological brethren, the Soviets, could not provide. "They are not going to force the issue now," Hillenkoetter said. "Maybe in six months."
But neither U.N. recognition nor U.S. trade was of great interest to Mao. One month after the Washington meeting, China's Nationalist president, Chiang Kai-shek, resigned. The next day, Communist forces took Beijing. On May 25, the Communists took Shanghai. Director Hillenkoetter was correct in only one regard. Six months after the meeting, there was no mistaking Mao's intentions -- he had taken it all.
On the evening of February 12, 1949, Mackiernan sat down with his old Remington portable, slipped a page of white paper in the cylinder, and typed the words "My Darling baby." It was a letter to Pegge and it was one of the few letters that would reach her. The others, Mackiernan surmised, were either intercepted or censored in their entirety. Only two of her letters had reached him in Tihwa in the three months since she and the twins had been forced to evacuate China and return stateside.
In the letter, Mackiernan spoke of what he called the "rather peculiar" political situation around him. the Chinese and the Soviets were growing closer, trade between the two was expanding markedly, Chinese newspapers had taken a decidedly anti-American tilt, the staff at the Soviet consulate was increasing, and Soviet influence in the region was spreading.
"To counter this," he noted, "there is the rumor that the Moslems of Sinkiang, Kansu, Chinghai and Ninghsia are joining forces to prevent the spread of Communism into the NW [Northwest] ... My personal opinion is that the Sovs will continue strong in Sinkiang, and that the Moslems will form a sort of anti-Communist island in Kansu, Chinghai, and Ninghsia ... In the event of a Tungkan (Moslem rebellion) life would be rather difficult."
What Mackiernan did not and could not reveal in the letter was that he was more than a passive observer of the events that he described, and that a key part of his mission was to embolden and advise the very resistance about which he had just speculated in such detached terms. By then, Tihwa was so isolated that the only route for supplies was by water to Chungking, and then by truck to Tihwa, a three-month odyssey. And even the water route was now closed till May due to drought. None of this deterred Mackiernan from inviting his wife and twins to join him. "As far as food for the infants is concerned," he wrote, "I am convinced you can get everything you need here. Sugar, milk, oatmeal (Quaker Oats in sealed tins), vegetables are all plentiful and cheap ..."
"So to sum it all up I am planning to try to get you all up here in March or April, provided of course that the Dept. will permit it ..." Mackiernan asked Pegge to ready herself and the twins so that if China's airline resumed a regular flight to Tihwa, they would be prepared to leave at once. But while the invitation seemed earnest enough, there was also a sense that it was Mackiernan's way of coping with the separation and of marking time. Mackiernan had already sacrificed one marriage and the pleasures of fatherhood to his work during the war. In six years of marriage he could have counted the time together in months, not years. Now again he faced the possibility of an interminable separation from the woman and the children he had only just begun to know.
Threading its way through his letter were unspoken anxieties about the deteriorating situation in China. If it became necessary to leave Tihwa, he said, the only route would be to India. That would be a tortuous journey. Mackiernan asked Pegge to send him through the diplomatic pouch two books, the "'List of Stars for the 60 deg. Astrolabe,' by W. Arnold (the big brown book) and the 1949 and if possible the 1950 American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac." Both tomes would be of service should he be forced to plot a route of escape using the stars as navigational reference points. Mackiernan also noted that a new jeep was slowly making its way by truck from Chungking. Within a month or so it would arrive in Tihwa, still in its crate. This could provide him with a means of escape.
"So much for business," he wrote. "How are you now and how are Mike and Mary ... I'll bet I wouldn't recognize them now. Give them both a kiss from me and tell them they will be up here soon." Mackiernan asked for a recent picture of the twins. The only one he had was of himself cradling son Mike as a newborn.
Mackiernan could be playful, self-effacing, and romantic. "I am sporting a beautiful (to me only probably) curly black beard and as soon as I get my photo stuff set up will send a picture of me in my hirsute glory," he wrote. "Have sworn a great swear not to shave it off till you arrive, so hurry before I have to braid the thing (like a Sikh)."
"Well honey bunch," the letter went on, "I will close this down now since they are sealing the pouch. Remember that I love you my darling, and only you, and that I want you up here close to me as soon as possible. Keep writing and soon we will be together again. Give my love and kisses to Mike and Mary, and all my love for you darling sweetheart. Good night for now, darling ... All my love -- Doug."
Two months later, on April 13, 1949, Mackiernan formally asked the State Department to grant his wife and twins permission to join him in Tihwa. Two weeks later came the reply: "Regrets conditions China make impossible authorization Mackiernans family proceed Tihwa this time." A month later, undeterred, Mackiernan informed his wife of the bad news but offered up an alternative plan: "Peggy return through China out. Trying India. No mail service now. Love, Doug!"
At her end, Pegge was trying to persuade the State Department to allow her to return to China. On June 8, 1949, she wrote Walton Butterworth, director for Far Eastern Affairs: "My husband, vice- consul at Tihwa, Sinkiang, has written me an urgent letter to make every effort to return to China, if need be through India ... Doug anf I are parents of twin infants. I would intend to take them with me ... I realize the undertaking at first consideration seems quite complicated. Offsetting this is my own personal knowledge of Sinkiang, the Russian language, the problems presented -- and the fact that my husband has just begun his tour in China. It is worth all the difficulties and hardships to keep our family together ..."
Two weeks later, on June 21, 1949, Pegge sent a cable through the State Department's Division of Foreign Service Personnel: "Please cable my husband following: PAA [Pan American Airlines] Calcutta every Saturday planning arrival when you can meet us impossible navigate alone advise supplies love Pegge." But the State Department refused to send the cable. "I regret that it is my unpleasant duty to inform you that the Department cannot at this time approve of your proceeding to Tihwa with your twin infants."
Desperate to see her husband, Pegge turned to the influential Clare Boothe Luce, whom she had come to know during her days as a reporter. She asked if Luce might intervene on her behalf and have her husband reassigned to a less perilous environment. On July 7, 1949, Luce wrote back: "I cannot possibly promise to get your husband moved to a consulate a little more accessible to a mother and twins than Chinese Turkestan -- but I just might be able to get him transferred to a spot as wild and woolly but a little more on the flat for an approaching caravan with cradles."
Luce acknowledged that as a Republican during a Democratic administration, her influence was limited. "My bridges, tho' not burned, are badly bent!" she wrote. The letter closed, "With a sound buss for Mike and Maryrose [the twins], Cordially Clare Boothe Luce." But nothing more came of Luce's offer.
Two weeks after the Luce letter arrived, on July 24, 1949, the minister-counselor of embassy in China sent a telegram to Secretary of State Dean Acheson acknowledging that it was wise to close the embassies in China. But Tihwa, he suggested, should remain open. "It seems to me Tihwa, properly staffed, could be a most valuable listening post and should be retained as long as possible. Withdrawal should always be possible by some route other than China."
Four days later the ambassador to China disagreed and recomended the immediate evacuation of Tihwa's personnel. The country's collapse was certain. "Tihwa even more isolated and bloody history of Sinkiang counsels that staff be removed before breakdown of law and order become imminent. Difficulty obtaining Soviet visa makes unlikely exit via USSR in event emergency, leaving only difficult mountain route to India or Afghanistan." On July 29, Secretary of State Acheson ordered the Tihwa embassy closed, its staff to leave ''as rapidly as possible ... while safe exit remains."
Bits and pieces of news were seeping out of China, all of it worrisome to Pegge Mackiernan. On August 23 she sent a telegram to the State Department: "Can you confirm NY Trib article Tihwa consulate closing and my husband coming out extremely anxious for news please telegraph collect." The next day the State Department responded that the consulate was closed but that her husband was staying behind to dispose of U.S. property.
The next morning, Mackiernan sent a telegram to Acheson informing him that the consulate had been closed to the public and that all employees had been discharged. In his haste to depart, Tihwa's consul, John Hall Paxton, had left everything behind. Mackiernan told Acheson he would "destroy archives, cryptographic material and motion picture films." The only thing he would spare was a radio and enough OTPs, "one-time pads," to communicate with Washington.
The one-time pads were notebooks that provided a system of encryption that could be used only one time for each message. The code was known only to the recipient of the message who possessed the corresponding pad and code. OTPs were standard issue in the diplomatic corps as well as in the ranks of the CIA's clandestine service.
The situation deteriorated rapidly. On the morning of August 31, 1949, Mackiernan sent a telegram to Acheson reporting that many of the potential overland escape routes from Tihwa were now closed due to banditry. Corridor cities, he reported, were crowded with refugees. Food was scarce. White Russians and Chinese officials were fleeing. One hour later, Mackiernan sent a second telegram. "Situation Sinkiang very grave." Resistance to the Communist troops, he predicted, would crumble. There would be no meaningful opposition.
While Mackiernan worked feverishly to destroy sensitive documents and to plan his own escape from Tihwa, Washington's eyes were focused elsewhere -- on the Soviet Union. At 10:36 A.M. on September 23, 1949, White House reporters were summoned by Truman's press secretary and handed a brief statement from the president: "We have evidence," it said, "that within recent weeks an atomic explosion occurred in the USSR." American B-29s taking high-altitude air samples had confirmed that the Soviets had detonated a nuclear device at its Semipalatinsk testing facility. So began the arms race, as a generation of American and Soviet war planners dedicated their lives to preparing for what each government unconvincingly called "the unthinkable."
For the CIA, the Soviet bomb was a stinging rebuke to its intelligence apparatus. Just three days before Truman's chilling announcement, the Agency had provided a top secret memorandum in which it estimated that the Soviets would be in no position to detonate such a device before mid-1950. Agency experts had predicted "the most probable date is mid-1953." President Truman's confidence in CIA estimates had to have been rattled.
Two days after Truman's announcement, on the morning of September 25, Mackiernan sent a telegram notifying the State Department that the provincial government of Xinjiang had accepted the authority of the Chinese Communist government in Beijing. It was to be Mackiernan's last official telegram from Tihwa.
Two days later, on September 27, Communist soldiers seized Tihwa and posted sentries at each of its four gates, watching all who attempted to enter or leave. Schoolchildren chanted "Long live Mao Zedong!"
That evening, Mackiernan prepared to flee. It was a perfect night -- dark and moonless. At his house, he and Vassily gathered classified papers and carried them to the small detached summer kitchen, tossing them by the armful into the fireplace. Vassily put a match to them. Then came the packing: ammunition, a radio to communicate with Washington, stacks of one-time pads, his Leica camera, army air force maps of the region, a compass, an aneroid barometer, and a sheath of personal documents containing, among other papers, his divorce decree and photos of the twins.
He also packed several kilos of gold bullion with which to barter for whatever might be needed along the way. Then, as now, gold was sometimes provided to CIA officers facing unknown perils in the field.
Mackiernan also packed two machine guns, several army sleeping bags, and a large tent. From his bedroom he removed a radio with keys for transmitting and receiving encrypted messages sent in Morse code.
Virtually everything in Mackiernan's sparsely furnished residence pertained to his trade craft as a spy. In addition to his Leica camera he had a Minox miniature camera, chemicals needed to develop and print film, binoculars, a portable Geiger counter, a shortwave radio, and a cowhide briefcase with a lock. His bookshelves were lined with dozens of specialized books, many of them purchased in the famous Vetch Book Shop in Beijing. Among the titles: Old Routes of W. Iran, The Thousand Buddhas, Innermost Asia (four volumes with maps), Peking to Lhasa, and Peaks and Plains of Central Asia.
Mackiernan had gone over the escape plan with his tiny band of men. There was Frank Bessac, a twenty-eight-year-old Fulbright scholar and former paratrooper who had wandered into Tihwa only weeks earlier. A prodigious reader, Bessac was nearly blind without his glasses. And there were the three White Russians who had worked with the U.S. consulate: in addition to Vassily Zvonzov were Stephani Yanuishkin, thirty, and Leonid Shutov, twenty. From Wussman Bator, the Kazakh leader and resistance fighter, Mackiernan had purchased twenty-two horses and provisions to last several months. One of Wussman's men was to meet Mackiernan east of Tihwa and lead them overland to a place where they might be safe before beginning the arduous -- some would say impossible -- trek to India over the Himalayas.
Mackiernan had his .30-caliber revolver in a holster on his belt. Over his shoulder he slung a carbine. Shortly before midnight, he and Bessac drove through the main gate in a battered jeep. Exiting the city was not the problem -- exiting the country was. Meanwhile, Zvonzov and his two companions, who knew that they would be executed for their anti- Communist activities if they were caught, scaled the city walls under cover of night and lowered themselves by rope to the other side. Three hundred kilometers away, they rendezvoused with Mackiernan, Wussman Bator, and Wussman's "Kazakh Hordes," as Mackiernan would write in his log that would carry a stamp of "Top Secret." So began a two-week trek eastward to Lake Barkol, closer to the Mongolian border.
Fifteen miles east of Tihwa, Mackiernan stopped the caravan just long enough to bury two of the embassy's radios, rather than risk having them fall into Communist hands. Three days after Mackiernan set out from Tihwa, on October 1, Mao Zedong stood triumphantly above the gate to the Forbidden City in Beijing and proclaimed the People's Republic of China.
But that was half a continent away. For two weeks Mackiernan and his men -- Bessac, the White Russians, and the Kazakh guide -- encamped in yurts on the southwest shore of Lake Barkol. Who could blame Mackiernan for being reluctant to leave the relative safety and comfort of the lake? The journey that lay ahead of him, even under the best of circumstances, was grim. Between Lake Barkol and the Chinese-Tibetan border lay a no-man's-land, more than one thousand hostile miles of the Taklimakan desert, known as White Death.
On October 15 they soberly set out "marching at night to avoid being seen," Mackiernan penned in his log. All along the way, he would record landmarks, latitudinal and longitudinal readings, and the availability of game and water. It was a carefully detailed escape route for those who might come later. As a check against his compass, Mackiernan converted a camera, long since ruined by sand and grit, into an octant.
Seldom were there roads. Mostly they crossed open desert, their feet crunching through the salty crust of its surface, sinking six inches or more into the powder-fine sands. It was an exhausting routine that repeated itself day after day. The monotony was broken only by the occasional sighting of a gazelle or lone wolf eyeing their tedious progress. Their course was set for south- southwest. With each passing day the elevation increased. Among themselves Mackiernan and his men spoke an odd mix of languages -- Russian, Chinese, and Kazakh -- but little English.
In the midst of the desert, Mackiernan and his men and horses went three days without even a swallow of water. Then they came upon a brackish well and fell upon their bellies unable to resist. Like wild animals, they gulped down the warm waters. For hours afterward they and the horses were racked with diarrhea and abdominal cramps.
The one constant of their odyssey was Mackiernan's insistence on stopping to radio his position to Washington. Each time, Zvonzov would set up the radio antennae while Mackiernan sent or received encrypted messages. No sooner completed, the message would be burned on the spot. Zvonzov never asked and was never told the content of those messages.
The rigor of the trek occasionally yielded to unexpected comforts. Mackiernan's log records that on November 14, at an elevation of 9,850 feet, they put in with desert nomads and feasted on mutton. Mackiernan traded gold for additional horses and camels, observing that the traders would likely spend it buying opium from the Kazakhs at one ounce of bullion per six ounces of opium.
But the journey was already taking its toll. Increasingly Mackiernan was being felled by gastrointestinal pains and diarrhea. At each stop along the way they would put in with Kazakhs who shared their yurt with them and fed them biscuits called bursak -- a favorite of Mackiernan's -- and thick fried steaks of bighorn sheep. Most of these nomadic peoples had never before seen a foreigner.
By late November, as the temperature began to drop, the terrain had become even more hostile. "Cold as hell -- no water, no grass, no fuel" wrote Mackiernan in his log. "Country absolutely barren. Many skeletons of men, horses, and camels." It was not until the morning of November 29 that Mackiernan reached a place known to him as Goose Lake, where he and his men received "a royal welcome." His Kazakh hosts had prepared for Mackiernan and his men the largest yurt they had ever seen, and set aside a dozen sheep for them to consume. And there Mackiernan would spend the long winter, waiting for the mountain passes to clear.
Meanwhile, on November 25, 1949, Pegge Mackiernan received a cable from Fulton Freeman, the State Department's acting deputy director, Office of Chinese Affairs. "I am happy to inform you," Freeman began, "that word has been passed to us from the British Consul in Tihwa that Mr. Mackiernan is proceeding to India via Tibet and that he is expected to reach early in December."
For Douglas Mackiernan, the next four months were filled with tedium. Winter had set in and a part of each day he gathered brush and yak droppings to burn for warmth. He spent many hours reading and rereading the few books he had brought with him, among them Tolstoy's War and Peace. When he could stand them no longer, they were sacrificed for toilet paper.
One afternoon, with the wind howling fifty miles an hour and the temperature twenty degrees below zero, the White Russians invited Mackiernan to join them for an outside shower. Mackiernan declined but watched in fascination. Undaunted, Zvonzov went first. They heated a cauldron of water, then cowered behind a tent flap as countrymen Leonid and Stephani hurriedly ladled warm water over him. Partly it was to stay clean, partly an effort to break the monotony.
During these long and dark winter days, Mackiernan spent many hours in quiet contemplation. The grandeur and the cruelty of the icescape that surrounded him felt strangely familiar, at once threatening and comforting. In the dark of the yurt, with the winds howling outside, it was impossible not to think back on his father's own saga of survival in a frozen wilderness. From earliest childhood, Mackiernan had heard the tale again and again, until it had become the defining parable of his youth.
Douglas S. Mackiernan, Sr., had run off at age sixteen to become a whaler out of New Bedford, Massachusetts. He spent years at sea. Then in July 1903, he responded to a solicitation from a wealthy patron of exploration, William Ziegler, who dreamed of financing an expedition that would be the first to plant the American flag on the North Pole. A year earlier, Ziegler had financed an aborted expedition to the pole. Now, with the blessing of the National Geographic Society, he was organizing yet another effort. His ship, the America, was a steam yacht, its flanks strengthened to resist ice floes.
The senior Mackiernan had signed on as a common seaman. Even if all had gone well, Ziegler's plan was a bold one. The America was to go north as far as the ice would permit, then anchor and put its thirty-seven men ashore. A year later, in 1904, a resupply vessel was to arrive, replenishing the stores. Instead, the America was crushed in the ice of Teplitz Bay early in the winter of 1903. Its vital provisions and equipment were lost and the ship was reduced to kindling. A full year later the ice was so thick that no resupply vessel could reach them. Seaman Mackiernan and the others were stranded.
Huddling there in a yurt forty-six years later, Doug Mackiernan could remember his father telling him of the endless nights of an arctic winter, of fifty-mile-per-hour winds that burned his face, and especially of the night of January 5, 1905, when the temperature sank to sixty degrees below zero. Inside their tents of pongee silk, the lanterns and stoves created vapors that condensed on the interior. They formed icicles that would later melt into tiny rivulets and find their way into the sleeping bags and then freeze again. A half hour's sleep constituted a full night's slumber. For cooking and warmth, the senior Mackiernan and the others had mined twenty tons of coal from frozen clay and carried it on their backs down a steep and slippery slope.
Mackiernan's father and the others stayed alive by eating polar bears -- 120 in all -- as well as walruses and seals. Decades later Mackiernan would tell his wide-eyed son and namesake that he could still taste the leathery walrus meat. So tough was it that it reminded the expedition's captain, Fiala, of chewing automobile tires. Desperate for variety in their diet, the men risked their lives to scale icy cliffs and stole the eggs of gulls and loons. The cold seeped through Mackiernan's mittens as he tended the dog teams. It cut through his boots, searing his toes with a numbness that turned to frostbite. For weeks he was hobbled, unable to walk.
By day, one or another of the crew would stand as a lookout on a spit of frozen ice searching with binoculars for the promised rescue ship. Nearly every week a shout would go out that the resupply ship was in sight, but it would invariably be just another iceberg mistaken for a sail.
None of them would ever reach the North Pole, or even come close. A fireman, Sigurd Myhre, had died of disease and was buried on the summit of a bleak plateau, "the most northern tomb in the world," Fiala would later reflect. These were the memories that Mackiernan's father passed down to his son and which now came back to him here in the midst of his own frozen wasteland.
For the entire winter of 1904-5, Mackiernan and another man were alone in a remote camp, left with a team of five dogs, a rifle, a shotgun, and limited supplies. They passed that winter playing a marathon game of poker.
But in July 1905, when the men of the Ziegler expedition had come to believe that they might never again see their homes, a ship appeared against the frozen horizon. It was the Terra Nova, a rescue vessel whose mission was literally the dying wish of the expedition's financier, Ziegler. The two-year ordeal was over in an instant.
On board, Mackiernan's father rejoiced in a hot bath, read through two years of mail, and slept in a dry warm berth. In minutes; he and the others were caught up on two years' worth of world events that had passed them by -- the war between Japan and Russia, the results of the international yacht race of 1903, and the usual litany of catastrophes that afflict the world. But the sweetest memory of all, his father recalled, was breaking free of the ice and feeling the rise and fall of the open sea once more, and with it the knowledge that home was not far off. That was forty-five years earlier.
But from such memories, the younger Mackiernan could draw comfort that his ordeal, too, would have a miraculous end, that he would have his own stack of mail awaiting him and feel again the embrace of his wife, Pegge, and the twins. His father had been at the mercy of others for salvation. Mackiernan was in control of his own fate. With each step toward the Tibetan border he was that much closer to being saved.
At CIA headquarters, the anti-Communist hysteria that gripped the nation also defined the Agency's agenda. On January 21, 1950, State Department employee Alger Hiss was convicted of perjury for denying that he had engaged in espionage for the Communists. Ten days later President Truman announced that he was proceeding with development of the hydrogen bomb. As the United States prepared for possible war with the Soviets, the CIA was expanding an already vigorous covert assault on Communism. This would include an ill-fated two-year attempt to overthrow the leftist government of Albania, as well as the creation of Radio Free Europe, a nettlesome embarrassment to Communist regimes. On February 9, Senator Joseph McCarthy announced his infamous list of 205 supposed Communists within the State Department, further putting pressure on the CIA in its counterintelligence role.
On the farthest edge of this ideological struggle stood Douglas Mackiernan. On January 30, 1950, Agency headquarters received a faint radio message from him. When conditions permitted, he said, he would be making his way across the Himalayas.
For Mackiernan two more months would pass at the frozen campsite. Finally, on March 20, 1950, he and his band said good-bye to the Kazakhs and commenced the final and most grueling leg of their journey, over the Himalayas, into Tibet, and eventually to India. From here on, Mackiernan and his men would be ever more exposed to the elements. At night, Mackiernan would lie down in his sleeping bag, huddled against the back of a camel to shield him from the wind. At morning he and Bessac, the two Americans, could no longer assist in saddling the camels. Their fingers were too numb.
Mackiernan and his party would take turns riding the camels and then walking. Too much riding and they could freeze to death. Too much walking and they would collapse from exhaustion. Their diet, too, required a delicate balance. From the White Russians, more seasoned in the ways of survival, Mackiernan learned what to eat and what not to eat. Too much meat at such an altitude and he could find himself wooed into a nap from which he would not awake. Instead, he nibbled on bits of sugar, rice, raisins, a few bites of meat, and the ever-present biscuits he kept in his pants pocket.
It was all a matter of balance upon which his survival depended. At elevations of sixteen thousand feet or more, the air was so thin that the already taciturn Mackiernan rarely spoke at all, trying to conserve his breath. All conversation ended. In its place were hand signals and one or two-word directives: "brush" or "dung" for fires, "snow" to be melted for water. By now, the ordeal of marching had become a mindless and silent routine, one foot in front of the other. Some days Mackiernan would lose sight in one eye or the other, the result of transient snow blindness.
Many of the horses had died from starvation. Others were useless, their hooves worn out. Knowing that the rest of the way there would be little grass to eat, Mackiernan had long before bartered for camels -- not just any camels, but those that ate raw meat. Before making the purchase he tied up his prospective purchases and waited a day to see which camels consumed meat and which were dependent upon a diet of grass. Those camels that resisted meat Mackiernan promptly returned. Where he was bound, there would be no easy forage.
Though there was an abundance of game -- wild horses, sheep, and yak -- the elevation presented its own unique problems of consumption. At sixteen thousand feet, Mackiernan found that water boiled at a decidedly lesser temperature. He could thrust his hand up to the elbow in furiously boiling water and remove it without a hint of scalding. One day Mackiernan shot a yak. The men salivated over the prospect of yak steaks. But after four hours in the boiling cauldron, the meat was still raw.
There were other problems too. A wild horse was spotted on a distant ridge and was brought down with a single shot. But almost instantly, vultures appeared overhead. By the time the men reached the animal, its carcass was nearly picked clean, its ribs rising out of the snow. After that, Mackiernan and his men shot only what they could reach quickly, then concealed their kill beneath a mound of grasses and stones until they had taken what they needed.
From morning to night the wind howled at fifty, even sixty miles an hour. It was a constant screaming sound, rising at times to a shrill whistle. In such cold, even the simplest manual tasks required superhuman resolve.
Mackiernan's clothes had long since become tatters, which he, like the other men, repaired as best he could. But a bigger concern was how to protect their feet in the deep and frigid snowdrifts. After so many miles, the men had virtually walked out of the soles of their shoes. One day, Mackiernan and Zvonzov spotted two yaks. Both men were thinking shoes and meat. Mackiernan let Zvonzov, the better shot of the two, have the honors.
From three hundred yards, Zvonzov brought the beast down. Right through the heart. They scurried through the snow to the animal as it lay on its side. They swiftly cut away its hide for soles and began removing steaks. But having cleared one flank, they were unable to flip the creature over, and were forced to abandon it, only half consumed.
As March, then April wore on, Mackiernan and his men plotted a course for the Tibetan border. At each new campsite, Mackiernan took out his radio and wired headquarters of his progress. He requested that Washington contact the Tibetan government and ask the then sixteen-year-old Dalai Lama to arrange that he and his men be granted safe passage across the border and that they be given an escort once they exited China. Washington sent back a confirmation. Couriers from the Dalai Lama would alert the border guards at all crossing points so that Mackieman and his band would be welcomed.
By now, Mackiernan set a course by ancient cairns and stone outcroppings. Nomads had pointed the way through the major passes, bidding them to be on the lookout for piles of rocks that rose like pyramids. Beneath each mound were the remains of others who had died in this harsh land. The ground was frozen too solid to yield to a grave, and so the bodies were simply covered with rocks. In so bleak a land, devoid of roads or signs, each such grave became a reference point, named for the person who had died there. Mackiernan passed by the grave of Kalibet and later Kasbek, fascinated at the small measure of immortality granted them. Each death was both a confirmation that Mackiernan was headed in the right direction and a reminder of the risks inherent in such a landscape.
Thousands of miles away, in Washington, the landscape of the Cold War was taking shape. On April 25, 1950, President Truman signed one of the seminal documents of the decade, National Security Council Directive 68. The blueprint for the Cold War strategy, it called on the United States to step up its opposition to Communist expansion, to rearm itself and to make covert operations an integral part of that opposition. The policy of containment was now the undisputed security objective of the era. The CIA had its marching orders.
But for Mackiernan it was not grand geopolitical issues that concerned him, but the ferocity of mountain winds and biting cold. The border had proved more elusive than he had imagined. Finally, at 11:00 A.M. on April 29, 1950, as he scanned the horizon to the southeast with his binoculars, he caught sight of a tiny Tibetan encampment and knew that he had at long last reached the border. It had taken seven months to cross twelve hundred miles of desert and mountain. A moment earlier he had been weary beyond words, his thirty-seven-year old frame stooped with exhaustion. Now, suddenly, he felt renewed and exuberant.
Mackiernan and Bessac went ahead, leaving the others to tend the camels. In the harsh terrain it was an hour before the Tibetans caught sight of Mackiernan, who was now a quarter of a mile ahead of Bessac. He was waving a white flag. The Tibetans dispatched a girl to meet him. They grinned at each other, unable to find any words in common. The girl stuck out her tongue at Mackiernan, a friendly greeting in Tibet, then withdrew to a hilltop where she was met by a Tibetan who unlimbered a gun. Then the two Tibetans disappeared over the hillside. Mackiernan followed and observed a small group apparently reinforcing a makeshift fortification of rocks. Their guns appeared to be at the ready.
Mackiernan decided that it would be best to strike camp here, on the east side of a stream that meandered through the valley. He chose a place in sight of the Tibetans. There he built a small fire to show his peaceful intentions. He suspected that the Tibetans might be wary of his straggling caravan, fearing them to be Communists or bandits bent on rustling sheep. As Mackiernan, Zvonzov, and the other two Russians drove tent stakes into the hard ground, six more Tibetans on horseback appeared, approaching from the northwest.
Moments later shots rang out. Mackiernan and his men dropped to the ground for cover. Bullets were whizzing overhead. Zvonzov reached for the flap of the tent and ripped it free. He tied it to the end of his rifle as a white flag and waved it aloft. The gunfire stopped. No one had been hit. Mackiernan directed Bessac to approach the first group of Tibetans and offer them gifts of raisins, tobacco, and cloth. As Bessac approached, he held a white flag and was taken in by the Tibetans.
Mackiernan, meanwhile, was convinced he could persuade those who had fired on him that his party was not a threat. His plan was a simple one. He and the others would rise to their feet, hands held high above their heads. Slowly they would approach the Tibetans as a group. Zvonzov argued against the plan. He feared the Tibetans would simply open fire when they were most vulnerable. Mackiernan prevailed.
Slowly he and the three White Russians stood up, hands aloft. They walked in measured steps, closing the distance between their tent site and the Tibetans. As they walked, Zvonzov eyed a boulder to the right and resolved that if there was trouble he would dive for cover behind it.
Mackiernan was in the lead, gaining confidence as the Tibetans held their fire. His arms were raised. Behind him walked the two White Russians, Stephani and Leonid. Fewer than fifty yards now separated them from the Tibetan border guards. Just then two shots were fired. Mackiernan cried out, "Don't shoot!" A third shot echoed across the valley. Mackiernan, Stephani, and Leonid lay in the snow. Vassily ran for the boulder. The air was thin and he ripped his shirt open as if it might give his lungs more air. A bullet smashed into his left knee. He tumbled into the snow and crawled toward the tent, his mind fixed on the machine gun and ammo that were there.
Moments later Bessac appeared, his hands tied behind his back, a prisoner of the Tibetans. Vassily, too, was taken prisoner. The six guards looted the campsite, encircled Vassily, and forced him to the ground. They demanded that he kowtow to them. Vassily pleaded for his life. Not long after, Bessac and Vassily, now hobbling and putting his weight on a stick, approached the place where Mackiernan, Stephani, and Leonid had fallen.
The wind was whipping at sixty miles an hour, the snow a blinding swirl. A half hour had passed since the shooting. Mackiernan was lying on his back, his legs crossed. Vassily looked at Mackiernan and thought to himself how peaceful he looked. Mackiernan even appeared to be smiling. It was a slightly ironic smile. Vassily was overcome with the strangest sense of envy.
Just then one of the border guards began to rifle through Mackiernan's pockets. He withdrew a bursak, one of those biscuits Mackiernan was never without. He offered Vassily a piece. Vassily turned away in revulsion. Then the guard pressed the biscuit to Mackiernan's teeth. The mouth fell wide open. Vassily was overcome with nausea. He turned and walked away. Mackiernan's body was already stiffening. But there would be one more indignity Mackiernan and the others would endure. The guards decapitated Mackiernan, Stephani, and Leonid, and even one of the camels that had been felled by their volley.
Shortly thereafter, the guards realized that they had made a terrible mistake, that these men were neither Communists nor bandits. They unbound Bessac's hands and attempted to put him at ease. Then Bessac and Vassily, in the company of the guards, began what was to be the last tedious march, to Lhasa and to freedom.
Five days after Mackiernan was killed, the two surviving members of his party encountered the Dalai Lama's couriers who were to have delivered the message of safe conduct and who were to have been part of Mackiernan's welcoming party. The couriers gave no explanation or excuse for their tardiness. It was small comfort that they offered Bessac the opportunity to execute the leader of the offending border guards. It was an offer he declined.
Three days later, Tibetan soldiers made the arduous trip back to the border to retrieve that which had been looted -- including the remaining gold -- and to return the heads of Mackiernan, Leonid, and Stephani, that they might be buried with their bodies. The camel head was taken on to Lhasa. While convalescing, Vassily carved three simple wooden crosses to stand above the graves on the Tibetan frontier.
Mackiernan and the others were buried where they fell.The place was called Shigarhung Lung. There was no funeral for Mackiernan, then or ever. His grave was marked by Vassily's cross. It read simply "Douglas Mackiernan." He was buried beneath a pile of rocks, not unlike those many simple graves that he had paused to admire along the way and by which he had plotted his own course. Eleven days after the killing, the border guards who had killed him received forty to sixty lashes across the buttocks.
On June 11, 1950, Vassily and Bessac finally reached the outskirts of Lhasa. In the final entry in the log, Bessac wrote, "Good to be here -- Oh God."
In Washington, State Department and CIA officials fretted over how they might keep Mackiernan's death a secret. They wondered whether, in the glare of public attention, his cover would be compromised. Such worries were overtaken by more pressing events. At 2:00 P.M. Washington time, June 24, 1950, thirteen days after Bessac and Zvonzov reached Lhasa, North Korean troops poured across the 38th parallel. The Korean War had begun.
Far from Washington, along the quiet coast of southern Maine, Mackiernan's first wife, Darrell, had just been told of Mackiernan's death. Now she would have to tell their daughter, Gail, not yet eight. It was a warm June day. She knew that there would be no keeping the news from her daughter, that sooner or later it would seep out in the press. Besides, it had been years since her daughter had seen her father. Already Gail's memories of him were faint. Still the little girl carried inside of her a gnawing pain that she had not heard from him in so long.
She missed him terribly, and though she understood that her parents were divorced, in the way that any seven-year-old may be said to understand, she could not grasp why he had not come back to visit.
Darrell decided that she would take Gail to their special place, that it was there she should tell her of her father's death. From their home at 47 Fifteenth Street in Old Orchard Beach, mother and daughter drove to Kettle Cove near Cape Elizabeth. She parked in a lot where Gail could look out on Wood Island, the tiny island that as a toddler she had long imagined was China, where her father was working.
The windows were down. The car filled with the sweet sea air. Now Gail's eyes were again fixed on the island as her mother told her that her father would not be coming back. He had been killed far, far away. The little girl's eyes filled with tears, her stare still fixed on Wood Island, as if it were there that her father had died.
It was an equally sunny afternoon in Fairfax, California, as Mackiernan's twins were taking their afternoon nap in the cribs and Pegge Mackiernan was finishing defrosting the refrigerator. There was a knock at the door. It was a gentleman from Washington, a Mr. Freeman. Pegge was embarrassed at the clutter in her living room but showed him in anyway.
He waited until she had taken a seat on the sofa. He was brief and to the point. Doug, he said, had been killed trying to cross into Tibet. Her husband, he said, had already been buried. Freeman was a man with broad shoulders, and from the moment he had entered the room, he seemed to fill it. Now he expressed condolences on behalf of all those in Washington. Before he left, he advised Pegge: "Say nothing to the newspapers. Keep your own counsel. Be so grief-stricken that you can't speak to anyone, and if you have a problem, let me know."
Pegge Mackiernan was now a widow with twins. Between changing diapers and caring for Mary and Mike, she barely had time to grieve. A few days later, on June 12, 1950, she made a humble request of the State Department: that her husband's remains be cremated in Lhasa and then returned to the United States. At least then, she and the twins would have a place to stand in remembrance.
But the U.S. government did not convey her request. It concluded that it could not ask this of the Tibetan government, given that the grave was some four weeks' travel from Lhasa and that the country was already absorbed in a struggle for its own survival against Communist China.
Even after Mackiernan's death, the CIA and State Department considered the incident extremely sensitive. A memo stamped "Top Secret," dated July 13, 1950, notes that "survivors of the Mackiernan party as long as they are in Tibet are in danger of assassination by Communist agents if latter have opportunity." But word of Mackiernan's death reached the world in a July 29, 1950, front-page article in the New York Times, date-lined Calcutta. The story reported that Mackiernan, the vice-consul of Tihwa, had been shot at the border.
That same day, the State Department issued a press release announcing Mackiernan's death. Immediately after, the killing of Vice-Consul Mackiernan was carried in newspapers across the country. But there would be no reference to the Central Intelligence Agency, or to the true nature of his mission.
Even as the CIA and State Department prepared to sort out the death benefits due Mackiernan's widow and children, there was a growing concern that Tibet itself would soon be lost to the Communists. On August 7, 1950, the U.S. embassy in New Delhi cabled Washington, warning that Tibetan officials were extremely anxious about their fate and were unsure whether to negotiate with the Chinese Communists or to resist invasion. The cable noted that a Tibetan oracle had advised that they should resist, and Tibetan forces were experiencing some success in border clashes, emboldening them.
New Delhi referred to "wild rumors" circulating that the Chinese were massing along the border ready to invade. Tibetan nobles had fled. Food and fuel in the capital were already scarce. The Tibetans were feeling abandoned and ignored by both India and the United States.
It was this moment that news of Mackiernan's murder swept through the capital of Lhasa. There the Mackiernan incident was interpreted not merely as a tragedy or border mishap but as a grim omen. "They seem to be extremely sad at the turn of events and are now attributing the incident to the destiny of Tibet," the report from New Delhi observed.
Tibetan officials seized upon the arrival of Bessac as an opportunity to send a message of desperation to Washington. No sooner had he arrived than Bessac became a kind of diplomatic courier carrying a plea for military support to hold off the impending Chinese invasion. On August 30, 1950, Bessac arrived in New Delhi. With him he carried a letter from the Tibetan government addressed to Secretary of State Acheson and stamped "Top Secret." The letter was an urgent request for howitzers, cannons, machine guns, and bazookas. It implored Acheson to approach President Truman on Tibet's behalf.
And in a bid to mollify the United States, the Tibetan government dispatched a photographer to take a picture of Mackiernan's grave. It was sent along with a letter of condolence to the State Department to be forwarded to his widow, Pegge. But the letter and photo were never forwarded. Instead, they ended up in a dusty box at the U.S. Archives.
In late September. Mackiernan's personal possessions were removed from a government safe and returned to his widow. Among the few items were twenty-seven war savings bonds, a Mongolian dictionary, his divorce decree from Darrell, a bill of sale for a 1941 Mercury coupe, and a photo of the twins. There were still many loose ends. Mackiernan had died without a will.
But he was not forgotten. On October 18, 1950, Secretary of State Acheson honored some fifteen diplomats during an hour-long ceremony in the department's auditorium. A single posthumous medal of service was presented to Douglas Mackiernan, Vice-Consul, Tihwa. On the west wall of the State Department's lobby, his name was inscribed among the columns of diplomats killed in the line of service. In death as in life, he would be remembered only by his cover story. His name would be the first CIA officer remembered on the State Department tablet, but it would hardly be the last.
Two days after the ceremony, L. T. Merchant, a State Department official from the Far East Division, met with Pegge Mdckiernan. Later he expressed the department's "deep regret over the tragic death of her husband but told her that she and her children should take comfort from the fact that he had truly died a hero's death for his country."
Merchant asked if there was anything he could do for her. Pegge said she would need a job. As a former newspaperwoman, she wondered if she might work for the State Department as an information officer. And she wanted to return to that part of the world she and Doug knew best -- Asia. In particular, she hoped to be close to where her husband had fallen.
The department was eager to help the thirty-one-year-old widow and her two-year-old twins. On March 15, 1951, the State Department could claim another "Vice-Consul Mackiernan," as Pegge Mackiernan was assigned to Lahore in northern Pakistan. It was the State Department's closest posting to where her husband had been killed. The twins would, for the time being, stay with Mackiernan's parents.
Not long after, Pegge Mackiernan traveled to Bombay, India, and sought out Angus Thurmer, the CIA's chief of base there. She entered his embassy office and closed the door behind her. "I have reason to believe my late husband, Doug Mackiernan, was not only a State Department officer but had other allegiances," she said quietly. "Among his effects I found this and I thought you could send it to the proper place."
With that, she unwrapped a hand towel and produced the largest revolver Thurmer had ever seen. The long barrel reminded him of one of those old six-shooters from the Wild West. Thurmer disassembled the gun, placed it inside an Agency sack, and put the package inside the diplomatic pouch to be returned to CIA headquarters. He also sent a cable giving the Agency a heads-up that the revolver was on its way. He had never met Mackiernan. He had only heard rumors that one of their own had been killed on the Tibetan border.
Little more than a year later, on October 20, 1952, Pegge Mackiernan remarried in a Jesuit cathedral in Bombay. The groom was John Hlavacek, a journalist for United Press.
Among the thousands of pages of State Department records today in the U.S. Archives relating to Mackiernan, there is but one incidental reference to the CIA. Following Mackiernan's death, the CIA's first general counsel, Lawrence Houston, formerly assistant general counsel of the OSS, requested that Undersecretary of State Carlisle Humelsine settle up the Mackiernan estate. That meant drafting a check for $658.90 for Mackiernan's father. Ironically it was Houston that in September 1947 had advised CIA Director Hillenkoetter that the Agency had no legislative authority to conduct covert operations -- at the very tune that Mackiernan was doing just that.
In late November 1951, the State Department decided to ask the Tibetan government to compensate the Mackiernan family for his wrongful death. The amount sought: $50,000. But the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi argued that Tibet was already in crisis because of the Chinese Communists, and that any such request for money might suggest the United States was hostile to them or deserting them in their hour of need. Concluding the matter was "politically inadvisable," the State Department dropped the request for compensation.
As for those who resisted the Communists and whom Mackiernan had aided, they fared no better. In February 1951 the guerrilla leader Wussman Bator and one hundred of his followers were arrested in China. Another five thousand "bandits" had been killed, wounded, or captured, according to Beijing. The Chinese government publicly charged that Mackiernan had been "an American imperialist agent," a spy, who had orchestrated the resistance against the Communists. The State Department dismissed the allegation as "the usual tripe."
A year to the day after Mackiernan was murdered, Wussman was executed, according to the Chinese, in front of ten thousand cheering citizens. Beijing boasted that when its troops searched Mackiernan's house, they found an entire arsenal -- 153 charges of high explosives, radio equipment, and 1,835 rounds of ammunition. According to testimony during the public trial of Wussman, Mackiernan had set up a kind of "Revolutionary Committee" with Wussman. Its purpose was to recruit battalions of Kazakhs who would lead a campaign of harassment against the Communists.
Mackiernan's first wife, Darrell, meanwhile was occupied trying to ensure the financial well-being of her daughter, Gail. She persuaded a U.S. senator from Maine, Margaret Chase Smith, to introduce a bill into Congress that would provide $15,000 ''as a gratuity to compensate ... Gail Mackiernan for the loss of her father." The measure failed to win passage. Instead, the government awarded a portion of Mackiernan's death benefits -- $47.15 per month -- to Darrell and her daughter.
Mackiernan's body was never returned to the States. The exact location of his grave, somewhere near Shigarhung Lung along the Tibetan border, has long since been lost. Over the course of succeeding decades, the few at the Central Intelligence Agency who knew Mackiernan or of his CIA employment either passed away or retired. His name, his mission, and his ordeal were, in time, utterly forgotten, erased as thoroughly as if he had never existed.
He was destined to be the CIA's first nameless star. But there was something Douglas Mackiernan had feared even more than death -- imprisonment at the hands of the Chinese Communists. That fate was reserved for another covert operative not long after him.
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