THE BOOK OF HONOR -- PRIVATION AND PRIVILEGE
Privation and Privilege
MACK CHAPELL remembers it well, that Thursday night, just after 9:30. The date was July 13, 1978. The skies over rural North Carolina, undiminished by city lights, were shimmering with summer constellations. The closest community, a crossroads called West Eagle Spring, was miles away. Chapell, worn out from a day in the fields, had just put his feet up to watch television in the den of his farmhouse. Suddenly from outside came a deafening boom. Chapell jumped up, got into his pickup truck, and raced over the half mile of rutted road in the direction from which the sound had come. He had a suspicion what had caused such a ruckus but was praying he was wrong.
Just days earlier he had given some fellows from the army permission to use his private airstrip, a 2, 500-foot stretch of sand and grass that bisected his fields. They had said they wanted to practice night maneuvers. As Chapell drew closer to the airstrip, his headlights fell upon the broken tail section of a plane rising above the shoulder-high stalks of corn. The tail number was N-76214. He turned off the ignition, got out of the truck, and headed for what little he could see of the plane. But when he was no more than fifty feet from the wreckage, he was intercepted by three or four burly soldiers, members of the Special Forces.
"Get back! Get back!" they yelled at him. "It's going to explode!" The air was heavy with the smell of fuel, and the soldiers were running around in utter confusion. They were cursing at each other, arguing over what to do with the bodies and where a helicopter should take survivors. Only moments earlier these same men had been concealed in the shadows of the cornfields waiting for this very plane which now lay scattered in pieces.
Chapell could only listen and look from afar. He saw a blanket stretched out on the ground and, beneath it, the outline of a man's body, a small man it seemed to him.
About that same time, miles away at the Moore County Sheriff's Office, a breathless call came in over the radio: "Code six ... Code six" -- a plane crash. Timmy Monroe sped to the scene along with a rescue squad. By the time they arrived, Special Forces had secured the area and cordoned it off with ropes. Guards were posted to prevent anyone other than Special Forces from getting near the wreckage. Special Forces soldiers were combing through the debris searching for survivors.
Not far from the site, an officer with a flashlight came upon the beginnings of a blood trail. He followed it as it wove through some fifty yards of cornstalks until he came upon a man badly broken and unconscious, but alive. Others at the scene were now going through what was left of the fuselage. They found three bodies, and yet another survivor -- one of their own from Special Forces -- clinging to life. He would die hours later.
It was no great mystery what had happened to the aircraft. The sheared-off top of a towering oak told the tale. The plane had come in low-too low-struck the tree, and flipped nose-first into the ground, cartwheeling and ripping off both wings. The fuselage had split wide open right behind the cockpit. Two of the dead were found fastened into their seats in a cockpit that was torn open like a tin of sardines.
By morning the entire site had been completely cleared by army tractors, virtually swept clean. It was as if the crisis of the night before had all been little more than a bad dream. A few local reporters asked questions and were deftly shunted to Special Forces press officers who gave them the names of those on the plane and nothing else. A few paragraphs appeared in area newspapers along with the names of the dead and the lone survivor. The plane, it was reported, had been on contract from Coastal Air Services to the Army Institute for Military Assistance, a parent organization of the Green Berets. It was said to have been a routine flight, part of an elaborate annual training mission for Special Forces known as Robin Sage.
Sheriff's Deputy Bobbie Hudson filled out the investigative report with what little information he could glean. The plane, a twin-engine Special Light Otter, had been coming in for a low-level landing. There had been five persons aboard the plane. Among the fatalities were a Dennis Gabriel, Walter S. McCleskey, and a "John Doe, name unknown." On this John Doe's person were found a set of car keys and a black watch. Nothing else. It was the body of John Doe that Chapell had seen beneath the blanket. Also killed was a soldier named Luis Lebartarde. The lone survivor was listed as a "Civilian Gov. Employee name unknown." Nothing to attract special attention.
But attached to the typed report was a handwritten note to the sheriff. It read: "Officer on the scene Lt. Harry Pewitt HQT US Army Special Forces Ft. Bragg, N.C. states Highly Classified operation. Civilian plane contracted to the Army for this operation suggest you not release any in- formation ..." Yet another note to the file read: "Classified: CIA & Army Mission." Under orders from the Central Intelligence Agency, nothing more than the names of those who died that summer night would ever be revealed.
The secret was not how the men had died, but rather how they had lived. Their exploits filled entire folders, all of them stamped "Top Secret." The CIA connection was something the Agency was determined to conceal from public view. For decades the cover-tip succeeded.
Four hundred miles north of the crash site, at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, news of the downed plane struck hard. Within minutes the phone beside James Glerum's bed began to ring. It was the middle of the night and Glerum, still half-asleep, reached for the receiver. It was Agency headquarters. Bad news. Berl King and Denny Gabriel wife dead. Alex MacPherson was not expected to live through the night. The names needed no amplification. Glerum knew them well. Each had long been a cornerstone upon which the Agency had depended for its most daring covert missions. Glerum, as chief of Special Operations Group under the CIA:s deputy director of operations, understood the loss not only in human terms but for what it meant to the Agency. To lose three of its very best in a single catastrophic accident was devastating.
Glerum was himself one of the Agency's most seasoned veterans. It was his job to maintain the CIA's capability to wage covert paramilitary actions. There had been none better than King, Gabriel, and MacPherson. Together and individually, their lives circumscribed much of the Cold War's hottest and most secretive history. The less notice the crash received, the less the chance that the secret lives of these men would be- come public.
It was almost unthinkable to Glerum and his colleagues that men who had faced death so many times should die on American soil and in what appeared to be an exercise, perhaps nothing more than a generic rehearsal for some future exploit. That exercise had been part of a broader effort to ensure that elements within U.S. Special Forces retained the exotic skills the CIA might need to supplement its own thinning ranks of paramilitary officers. Crack military units -- the elite of the elite -- had to be ready to do the Agency's bidding whenever the White House gave its nod to covert ops.
Once again, Agency morale was at a low point. As Director Central Intelligence for less than a year, George Bush had been wildly popular within the Agency, perceived as a man who held the reigns loosely, was loyal to a fault, deferred to career officers, and dragged his heels when asked to reduce staff or give up information damaging to the clandestine service.
He was followed in March of 1977 by Admiral Stansfield Turner, a man viewed by some Agency veterans as somewhat imperious and determined to keep a firm hand upon the CIA. His detractors say he was better at giving orders than listening to the needs of his subordinates. To them, he seemed outright suspicious of the old hands at Langley and too eager to implement so- called reforms and cutbacks in staff
Under Turner's watch, technical collection of intelligence prospered at the expense of human intelligence. From the clandestine service, some 820 positions were cut, among these some 200 veteran covert operatives and 600 staff slots, many through attrition. Turner had no interest in shielding the Agency from its own past transgressions and viewed those transgressions as evidence that early directors had permitted too much freedom and too much compartmentation. He excoriated Langley for its inhumane treatment of a Soviet defector named Yuri Ivanovich Nosenko and expressed disgust at the vestiges of earlier drug-testing programs. For this, too, he was reviled by some career case officers. In the dramatic draw-down of manpower that immediately followed the post-Vietnam years and the subsequent cutbacks within the Agency, experienced officers like those aboard the flight that went down in North Carolina were nearly irreplaceable.
But that night the Agency's most immediate concern was breaking the news of the men's deaths to their families. King and Gabriel had been together at the controls that fateful night, sitting side by side in the cock- pit of the twin Otter, linked by years of shared history. It could be said without fear of contradiction that no two men ever had more in common or less than Berl King and Denny Gabriel. And therein lies a story.
The body that lay beneath the blanket that night, listed simply as "John Doe," was that of Ivan Berl King, the pilot of the plane. On the death certificate filled out two days later, the cause of death was given as a "ruptured thoracic aorta" due to massive trauma. Death had been "immediate." King was fifty years old. In the space marked "occupation" were written the words "U.S. Gov't Emp.," and under "kind of business or industry" was scribbled a single word, "Gov't." The medical examiner and North Carolina investigators knew nothing more of King, and that was how the Agency wanted it.
It seemed only fitting that a man whose life was so intensely private should have no less private a death. Berl, as he was known, rarely spoke of himself or of his background, not only because of security restrictions but because it was a life studded with hardship. While the public image of the Agency is often sculpted by the sons of privilege who oversee it-Ivy Leaguers like Allen Welsh Dulles, Dick Helms, and George Bush -- it is the Berl Kings of the world who often as not carried out their orders, individuals of quiet courage steeled by years of early want. They were not only content to be invisible, they would not have had it any other way. Berl King was one of these.
He was born on June 27, 1928, and grew up in a hardscrabble Corner of Arkansas. He was one of fourteen children born to Mabel and William Isiah King. His father was an itinerant Baptist preacher, a circuit rider, who hitchhiked to churches too small to have their own pastors. The elder King received nothing for his services and, but for a $21-a-month veterans pension, seldom brought so much as a penny into the home. He was gone more than he was there. So much the better perhaps for the family, given the frequency with which he reached for the belt and razor strop. It was left to Berl King's mother to make do by taking in others' laundry, often working until midnight.
The family home had neither electricity nor indoor plumbing. For a time, when Berl was a toddler during the Depression, the family moved to the Ozarks. There three-year-old Berl contracted typhoid fever. For an entire month he lay in his mother's arms as she rocked in front of the fire- place, getting up only to relieve herself. He recovered but was so weakened that he would have to learn to walk all over again. After that, he seemed to be a magnet for every childhood malady. Like all but two of his siblings, Berl had white hair as fine as the silk of corn.
The family returned to Nettleton, Arkansas, in the spring of 1938 and to a tiny three-bedroom house. Fifty feet from the front door ran the railroad tracks, and as each passenger and freight train rumbled past, the windows of the King home rattled in their panes. Berl shared a bed in the north bedroom-the coldest of the three and farthest from the wood and coal heater. In that same bed slept three of his brothers, each one sleeping toe-to-head. His mother had made the mattress out of cotton and ticking made available from a government program. To tie it off; in- stead of buttons, which were far too precious, she used rounds of felt cut from a discarded hat.
There was seldom meat on the King table. Most meals featured fried potatoes. Occasionally the boys shot a squirrel or blackbird. There were no birthdays celebrated and no exchange of presents, not even at Christmastime. But Christmas was marked with what the King family called "a feast." On that day they dined on chicken.
Early on, Berl had to pitch in, picking cotton and strawberries in the fields, toting ice at the local ice plant, and working a paper route. He wore nothing but hand-me-downs and did his homework by kerosene lamp. 1n elementary school he had few friends He said little in class and was painfully shy. The more he could stay unobserved, the happier he was. Never did he complain about his circumstances.
In high school he began to gain self-confidence, in part from success on the basketball court, then in the classroom. He was an avid reader. His favorite writer was John Steinbeck, whose stories spoke of the life of the poor with an authenticity that King recognized at once. A romance in high school ended badly. Though other women would come in and out of his life, he would never marry. He told a sister he wanted to be sure that he could adequately care for a wife. He never wanted to see another woman endure the hardships that his mother did. He graduated from high school in 1949 and observed the occasion by buying himself his first suit.
No sooner out of school, King enlisted in the navy. During the Korean War he was stationed aboard an experimental ship that would fire a salvo of rockets into North Korea, then withdraw and reload. He was proud of his service but hated life at sea. He likened the experience to being a cork that bobbed up and down the entire time. He never got over his seasickness.
After service, in 1954, Berl moved to California and went to work in the sheet metal department of Douglas Aircraft, where his brother Clarence worked All the while he was putting money away toward flight school. Whenever he had enough saved, he would take another lesson. He adored small planes. For a time he was a pilot for Pat Brown, who was then running for governor. Later he flew commuter flights between Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Reno.
But King was not one to be content flying the air equivalent of a bus route. He wanted to see the world, he was deeply patriotic, and he was not afraid of taking risks, especially when he could be compensated for his daring. Nor was keeping his mouth shut a burden. It was second nature to him.
By temperament he was perfectly suited for his next employer -- Air America, the CIA's proprietary airline. For years, King flew countless covert missions over Laos and Vietnam. Mostly he flew Twin Beech Volpars on low-level photo reconnaissance missions. Many of these flights put him over the Ho Chi Minh Trail. King reported to Jim Rhyne, one of Air America's most senior pilots. But Rhyne and King were more than col- leagues, they were friends. Even among the rough-and- tumble cohorts of Air America, the sangfroid of these two low-flying pilots was the stuff of fables.
Berl never discussed his work with his family and they never asked. Still they worried for him and with good reason. Sometime in 1963 he was shot while flying a mission over Laos. The bullet pierced his right thigh and arm. He came home to convalesce and stayed with his brother Clarence, then a policeman living in California. Only Clarence knew the truth of Berl's wounds. The rest of Berl's family was told that he had been involved in a motorcycle accident.
No sooner had he mended than he was back in the air. It was duty, not money, that motivated him, but the money was deeply appreciated, as if he could use it to correct his own grim past. In 1966 he purchased a new home for his mother and father in Nettleton, Arkansas, right next to the home he had grown up in. It was one of his great pleasures in life to know that his mother would at last have some measure of comfort.
But that peace was shattered in February 1969 when one of King's younger brothers, David, was killed by a sniper in Vietnam. King's sister Velma pleaded with Berl not to go back to Southeast Asia after David's death, but Berl was determined. "Sis: he told her, "I have to. I don't know if you realize how close the Communists are to the United States, and how many of them have infiltrated the government and what a mess everything is in."
By the time that the war in Southeast Asia was winding down, Berl King had become one of the unspoken heroes within the ranks of Air America, a pilot who time and again had survived flying through storm and enemy fire, over fog-enshrouded mountains, and in planes whose air- worthiness was often suspect.
It was only fitting that on June 30, 1974, it was Berl King who piloted the very last Air America flight out of Laos. In a modified Twin Beech Volpar, with a short-takeoff-and-landing capability, King prepared to fly from Udorn to Bangkok to Saigon. The Air America base manager in Udom, Clarence Abadie, watched pensively as King lifted off on course "Tango zero eight." At the bottom of this last flight order, Abadie scribbled a few lines of tribute not only to King but also to the other pilots with whom he had served.
"So ends the last sentence of the final paragraph of the saga that may have an epilogue but never a sequel. It has been to each participating individual an experience which varied according to his role and perspective, however there is a common bond of knowledge and satisfaction having taken part in something worthwhile and with just a slight sense of pity for those lesser souls who could not or would not share in it. This last flight schedule is dedicated to those for whom a previous similar schedule rep- resented an appointment with their destiny."
With the end of the war in Southeast Asia there was suddenly a huge glut of former Air America pilots, "kickers," and crew members looking for jobs with the CIA, but the Agency was loath to take them, fearing that their former affiliation with Air America-by then widely identified as a CIA proprietary-would compromise the security of future covert operations. The Agency's James Glerum, chief of Special Operations Group, had to get special dispensation from his superiors to carve out two exceptions to the Agency's ban on Air America pilots, arguing that they possessed extraordinary flight skills. One of these was Berl King, who was brought into the CIA on staff following the collapse of South Vietnam. The other was Jim Rhyne, King's friend and superior.
Less than four years later it was Rhyne who would deliver the eulogy for King following the North Carolina crash. No one understood better than Rhyne the risks that King had taken during his career. Years earlier, in January 1972, Rhyne had been in an Air America Volpar on a mission dropping leaflets along the Chinese border hoping to get information on a miss- ing U.S. C-123 that was believed shot down by the Chinese. Rhyne's plane came under intense ground fire. Bullets ripped through the aircraft. One of them shredded the control wires connected to the rudder. There were but two thin strands of cable left, and these Rhyne plied deftly, guiding the disabled aircraft home. But the same eighty-five-millimeter rounds that had ripped apart the cables had also shredded Jim Rhyne's leg. There would be no saving it.
That should have been the end of Rhyne's covert career, but six months after his leg was amputated at the knee, he was back flying for Air America. He would go on working covert operations well into his sixties. The Green Berets even bestowed upon him an honorary beret, and his work for the Agency was often among the most sensitive. As Director of Central Intelligence Stansfield Turner is said to have remarked in mock disbelief, "You mean I sent a one-legged man on this mission?"
But there was something else that connected Rhyne to King and the fateful North Carolina crash. It had been Rhyne who was scheduled to fly the aircraft that night, and only at King's insistence did he relent. King was not quite as familiar with the precise landing setup as Rhyne, and his death was, ironically, perhaps the result of his own meticulous precision with the aircraft. His approach was exactly as was called for, but for a foot or two more of altitude. All of this Jim Rhyne reflected on as he prepared to read his brief eulogy for King at the Farmer's Union Funeral Home in Jonesboro, Arkansas. The date was July 19, 1978, and Rhyne, supported by his prosthesis, stood close by his friend's body, enclosed in a casket the undertaker's catalog listed as "Roman Bronze."
"I am here today to represent and speak for Berl's many friends, fellow pilots, air crews and associates: Jim Rhyne began. "Among these professionals of the aviation community both overseas and throughout the country he was known and respected for his outstanding airmanship. As a friend, he was sincere, understanding and generous. As a man he was courageous in the face of danger, calm and resolute in times of stress and kind and helpful to those less fortunate.
"Berl had been flying for many years and had logged over 18,000 hours. Much of his flying was done under difficult, primitive and hazardous conditions in southeast Asia. Berl was one of the best of an elite group of pilots known throughout commercial aviation for their versatility, experience and performance in a demanding and dangerous profession. With his passing the select ranks of these intrepid men are irreversibly thinned. The loss is irretrievable. The hard unforgiving school of unique flight operations is of another time-an era past. Men of his caliber, skill and dedication are rare. The pipeline for their development is virtually gone. Berl's image stands proudly as an example for those few who have the fortitude, persistence, and skill to follow him as a true professional. Those of us who honor him today will always remember him as such. Now that he has left, his spirit continues to serve as it will forever. God rest his soul."
King was buried beside his mother, Mabel, in the Jonesboro Memorial Park Cemetery. His father is buried in another cemetery-in keeping with his wishes, close to his son David, killed in Vietnam in 1969. On Berl King's simple gravestone are written the words "RDM3 US NAVY KOREA." There was nothing from the quarter century after the Korean conflict that the family felt it could safely refer to on the stone.
But for the siblings of Berl King, his death brought neither peace nor answers. Clarence King, his older brother who was in law enforcement, attempted to piece together what had happened. He was stymied at every turn. A senior Agency official made it clear that no one was to make inquiries, including the family. "They wanted us never to open our mouth to anybody and we've never been any different," recalled Clarence two decades later. "We were not to talk about this, period."
The family was not even free to select which attorneys could close Berl King's estate. Instead, the Agency provided the names of three Washington-area lawyers who had been cleared by the CIA. The first attorney demanded that the family give him a checkbook and leave the rest to him. Suspicious, the family went to the second attorney on the Agency's list. A short time later he was found dead, floating in the Potomac River. Finally they turned to Jim Rhyne to handle the estate. King's family asked Rhyne if there was any risk that the family could be sued either by survivors of the crash or by the decedents' families. Rhyne assured them they would never hear from anyone again. What he did not mention is that the families of the two military men killed in the crash, Luis Lebatarde and Walter McCleskey, were never told it was a CIA flight.
Like many families who have lost loved ones in the CIA's clandestine service, it is often hard to separate paranoia from reality, so enveloped are their lives in secrecy. King's entire funeral had been photographed, and only certain people were allowed to attend. Clarence King says he was warned by an Agency employee to be careful what he said on the phone, that his and his siblings' telephones were tapped by the Agency. He was also told that for a time he would be followed by someone from the CIA's security section, that he would do well to simply ignore the person and go about his life. So long as no one mentioned the CIA to the press or public, there would be no problem. Some months later the Agency returned King's wallet to the family. It had been cleaned out of all but a driver's license.
Not long after the crash, Clarence and sister Velma went to pack up King's belongings at his northern Virginia home. It was clear to them that the CIA had already been through the house making sure nothing sensitive was left behind. It was an eerie feeling as if everything had been set up by the Agency -- it was all too perfect.
King's bed was still turned down just as it had been when he got up the morning of the flight. His sandals were by the bed, as if awaiting him still. There were only hints as to the nature of his life and travels-Persian rugs, an opium scale of teak in the shape of elephants, a cigarette lighter presented by the president of Thailand. In an effort to identify his assets, the family called King's stockbroker. The moment the broker learned it was with reference to Berl King, she told them to call from another phone, that King's phone was bugged.
Members of King's family are still not completely convinced that Berl was even aboard the ill-fated aircraft. His sister Velma believes that, with the Agency, anything is possible, and knowing her brother's devout sense of duty, she does not put it past him to disappear at the CIA's request and to continue a life of covert operations under a pseudonym. She knows how wildly unlikely all this sounds, but no more so than much of her brother's life in the shadows. "There will always be a tiny bit of doubt in my mind," she says, twenty years after the crash. "I have become so jaded about our government since all this happened. I have become very skeptical. They tell you what they want you to know whether there's a grain of truth or not. A lot of times, they don't tell you anything."
Seated in the cockpit next to Berl King that July evening in 1978 was Dennis Gabriel, a tall, broad- shouldered figure with thick black hair, muscles upon muscles, and a torso that formed a perfect "V." The two men, King and Gabriel, had known of each other for a long time, their paths first having crossed more than a decade earlier in the Far East. Both men were quiet, self-effacing, but supremely confident of their skills. Both were unflappable.
But that is where any similarities ended. Where King had grown up in abject poverty, Gabriel was the son of privilege. His father, Philip Louis Gabriel, was a wealthy California industrialist, a Christian emigre from Lebanon, whose financial interests ranged from automotive components to a television studio. Denny Gabriel grew up with a cook, a housekeeper, and gardeners. He attended private Catholic schools. At eleven his parents divorced, and Denny, who was close to his mother, seemed to withdraw into himself Early on, he demonstrated an interest in a life of travel and adventure. He read the stories of Jack London and talked of becoming a fighter pilot like his two uncles.
Despite scoring a hefty 146 on the IQ test, he showed no particular gift for academics. After a stint at Berkeley, he transferred to Washington State University, majoring in political science and French. To these he would later add Arabic and Spanish. Intensely private, he seldom gave even a clue as to his personal goals or feelings. Physically he was a remarkable specimen. At six feet two and 220 pounds, he excelled in the competitive Pacific Coast Conference in both discus and shot put. He possessed an ex- plosive strength tempered by uncommon gentleness.
Gabriel had grown up in California. By 1961 he had set his sights on training for the 1964 Olympics in the decathlon. He graduated from Washington State on June 3, 1962. During his senior year he was approached by a CIA recruiter, and ill 1963 he entered the Agency through a program code-named IU Jewel, one of the major Agency recruitment efforts of the decade. Most of those who entered the Jewel Program came out of the military, particularly Special Forces. But some, like Gabriel, were recruited right off the college campus, based on their unique interests and skills, be it trekking, mountain climbing, hunting. All were rugged outdoorsmen. Gabriel had it all-a rugged physique, a black belt in judo, a fearless demeanor, and a pilot's license.
Denny's roommate those first months with the Agency was Bill Miller, a solid six feet one inch. But Gabriel could literally lift Miller over his head without the slightest strain. Denny neither drank nor smoked and constantly watched his diet. Like Berl King, he was painfully shy at social gatherings, and though he possessed the looks of a Hollywood movie star, he winced when invited to parties and squirmed if ever the center of attention. Besides, he was already dating Renier Barnes, a vivacious redhead whose own gregarious ways more than offset his own awkwardness. Renier, also an employee of the Agency and fluent in Portughese, Spanish, and French, would become his wife on December 30, 1967, at St. Thomas Apostle Church. (The Agency confiscated all the wedding photos except those of immediate family.)
Gabriel's entry into the Agency was intense and exhausting. For eighteen weeks he trained at Camp Perry, taking courses in indoctrination and tradecraft. From there, Gabriel elected to go to Panama and the jungle warfare school, where he learned such arts as knife-throwing, tracking, and living off the land.
Later he was one of twelve Agency recruits sent to mountainous Camp Hale in Colorado for cold weather survival training. Then came three more months studying parachute rigging at Arizona's Marana Air Base, where he was a contemporary of John Merriman's. Denny was pack- ing a parachute on a long table when the news came over the radio that John F. Kennedy had been shot.
A year later he was in Vietnam. Twice he was involved in minor plane crashes. While in Vietnam, he received the Vietnamese Medal of Honor from Vice-President Nguyen Cao Ky. From Vietnam, Gabriel was assigned to Laos. Like Maloney and Detiel, he trained and organized the indigenous peoples to resist the Communists and to monitor and disrupt any convoys of men or materiel moving along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Denny Gabriel had begun in the Agency's Ground Branch but eventually switched to aviation. His missions remain classified to this day.
What is known is that for nearly a year in the early sixties, he worked with the Nagas, a tribe indigenous to northern India along the Tibetan border. There he trained the Nagas for cross-border operations against the Chinese, part of the Agency's effort in support of Tibetan independence. He was also active in helping the Nagas bury caches of provisions, arms, and radios for later use against the Chinese. He might also have taken part in an Agency program to smuggle nuclear detection systems across the border. When Gabriel returned from the Tibetan border, he brought back a couple of six-foot-long native spears, the grips wrapped in fur. And he returned with one less tooth-pulled by a Punjabi dentist without benefit of anesthesia.
For much of the late 1960s Gabriel was based in Thailand and affiliated with Air America. So far from the States, he could only read and wonder what was becoming of his homeland-the assassination of Martin Luther King, the race riots, the demonstrations against the war. The year 1969 was an annus mirabilis- -- former CIA director Allen Dulles died, the secret war in Laos was a secret no more, and a massacre by u.s. troops of some 450 villagers at a hamlet called My Lai was making the news When American astronauts set foot on the moon on July 21, 1969, Gabriel had his ear pressed to a shortwave radio in Bangkok.
Throughout those years his father did what he could to keep him apprised of events at home, routinely sending him American magazines as well as care packages of gourmet foodstuffs, including one of Gabriel's favorites, Lebanese goat cheese, though it often spoiled en route. But the life of a covert officer was taking its toll. Gabriel was working seven days a week and was constantly on the move. u.s. policy in the region was also galling to him, as he watched his fellow Agency officers and American troops risk their lives while the U.S. government waffled on its commitment to the war and pursued seemingly contradictory policies of pacification, war-making, and distribution of relief.
In October 1968 he wrote. "I have had it in the East. When I leave here this time I will never come back. If I do it again it will be to the Middle East. I have finally got this part of the world and this stuff out of my system. The Middle East should prove interesting and right up my alley. Anyway, that's for the future."
In December he wrote his father "I am getting a little weary of this. It will be almost eight years when I finish here (13 months) and plan to stay in the States awhile and relax." From Bangkok in June 1969 he wrote: "When I finish here I should be in the states a couple of years before I go again. And when I go it's going to be where I want or no place. Since 1962 I have been around the world many times, now I am going to be selective."
His entire career within the Agency remains shrouded in secrecy. But in addition to his covert missions in the Far East, he is known to have taken part in ultrasensitive missions in the Mideast, calling upon his skills as both an Arabist and a paramilitary officer. Evidence of one such mission may be found today in a California safe-deposit box. There is stored more than a mere token of appreciation from one beneficiary of Gabriel's efforts.
In 1964 Gabriel was presented a one-of-a-kind Rolex watch from the ruler of Jordan, King Hussein. Gabriel had trained and set up an elite corps of bodyguards and officers to protect the king at a time of great peril to him. The watch, 18-karat gold, is studded with diamonds and the face is adorned with the king's crest. On the back, in Arabic, are inscribed the words "Deepest Gratitude." Gabriel's brother, Ron, has kept the watch in the safe-deposit box. One day he will give it to Gabriel's son, Sean, now twenty-seven.
In the mid-seventies Gabriel lived in McLean, Virginia, with his wife and son. He would frequently disappear on month-long TDYs -- temporary duties -- overseas, particularly in the Mideast and Central America. He became increasingly active in training other paramilitary officers. More than once he declined senior administrative positions, knowing that a desk job was not for him.
But if he had had a mind to, he could easily have retired at forty to a life of comparative ease. With a personal real estate portfolio worth $2 million to $3 million, he had no financial motivation for continuing a career as a covert operative, though those who worked with him had no idea either of his rarefied background or of his own financial position. He continued to take pride in being as gutsy as anyone the Agency could put in the field. He was never an ideologue, but he remained a stickler for individual freedom and hostile to any foreign power he viewed as a threat to personal liberty. It was as simple as that.
The night Gabriel died he left on his desk a resume rife with the fictions and inventions of a covert operative. His bogus cover ID said he was a civilian employee of "The Department of the Air Force, Service and Support Group, Detachment Eight, AFESPA, BoIling Air Force Base." He listed himself as a "GS-13 Operations Officer." Also among his possessions was a bogus business card from Jim Rhyne.
Dennis Gabriel is buried at Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier, California, space 4, lot 2713, beside his father. On his gravestone are listed the dates of birth, July 14, 1939, and death, July 13, 1978. He died one day shy of his thirty-ninth birthday. At the funeral on July 19 Ron Gabriel offered a few brief thoughts on behalf of Denny, who was both his brother and his closest friend. "Please remember his loyalty and gentleness to his family: he said. "His quiet service to country ... God bless us as He did him and make the living worthy of the dead."
From the North Carolina crash site, Special Forces officers had followed the trail of blood deep into the cornfields. There, buried beneath a heap of corn husks was a man, broken and twisted. His name was Alexander MacPherson, and he was swiftly medevaced by helicopter first to an army hospital and later to Cape Fear Hospital in Fayetteville, For five days MacPherson lay in a coma. When he came to, he found himself lying naked on a hospital bed, a large light overhead, and two massive tubes, each as big as a garden hose, coming out of his chest. The ribs on the right side of his chest had been smashed, the broken bones driven back out through his lungs. His legs were scarred and bruised, his skull fractured, His arms were laid out flat, his hands sandbagged on either side to pre- vent the slightest movement.
He had no idea where he was or what had happened to him. From the tubes that went in and out of him he surmised that he had been shot. "Oh my God," he thought to himself, "you mean I've got to go back to that place again?" "That place." What place was that! he wondered, through a mind-numbing fog of sedatives. He felt little pain. That would come later.
This man lying in the bed was an enigma for the hospital staff. It was not clear what was keeping him alive. And whenever he spoke, he spoke in flawless German. The hospital brought in a German nurse to tend to him.
MacPherson would remain a mystery patient. At five feet eight and 180 pounds, he was in remarkably robust physical condition for a man of forty-eight -- the product of a lifetime of mountain-climbing and an un- wavering daily regimen of swimming and hiking. But then, the doctors and nurses had no idea what sort of man they were dealing with -- the ultimate CIA paramilitary officer.
Within a few short months MacPherson -- or Mac, as he was known -- would be back in an airplane parachuting again, many high-risk missions still ahead of him.
There are few major hot spots where MacPherson had not been. To a long succession of CIA heads, among them Dick Helms, William Colby, Bill Casey, and Stansfield Turner, he had been viewed as one of the Agency's most reliable operatives. Paratrooper and rigger, anti-Communist and counterterrorist, he had worked behind enemy lines on at least three continents over the course of as many decades. In his North Carolina home are photos, plaques, and medals from a career spent under cover. Not the least of these is a citation, with accompanying gold medallion, that reads.
"The United States of America, To All Who Shall See These Presents, Greeting. This is to certify that the President of the United States of America authorized by Act of Congress has awarded the Airman's Medal to Alexander MacPherson United States Air Force For Heroism Republic of Panama on 20 of August 1964. Given under my hand in the city of Washington this 29th day of April, 1965."
MacPherson smiles coyly when asked what mission won for him this distinction. There is nothing in the newspapers or the history books to suggest that anything of consequence happened on that day in Panama- which is exactly as MacPherson wants it. "Don't bother trying to find out anything," he says. "You'll just be spinning your wheels. You'll never find out."
Eight years later, in 1973, the CIA presented him with the prestigious Donovan Award -- the reason for that recognition also remains a secret. And he may be the only CIA person to have twice received the Exceptional Service Medal from the Agency. What do they mean to him? "That I was there and forgot to duck," he says, laughing. Among his memorabilia is a photo of him with President Ronald Reagan. Everywhere are clues, but none of them add up to anything that would shed light on his clandestine career.
And even after he formally retired from the Agency in 1986, he went on for another eight years to serve in a variety of sensitive positions, particularly in the Mideast gathering intelligence on terrorist organizations. Like the movie character Zelig, his presence is barely discernible in the background of many historical frames. Among the places he is known to have served are Jordan, Sudan, and Ethiopia.
Tom Twetten, former head of the CIA:s clandestine service, remembers him well. "He's a crazy guy," he says. "Crazy," as in daring beyond words. "He did some extraordinary work from time to time and in between times he was a royal pain in the ass." Twetten encountered MacPherson in India in the late seventies, where he apparently left some Indians with the impression he was a four-star general. Later, Twetten recalls, he was instrumental in somehow stopping Palestinians from corning over the border from Syria and firing rockets into Israel. Toward the end of the Cold War he worked behind the Iron Curtain on a mission involving the cooperation of half a dozen governments. That operation is still deemed so sensitive that Twetten will not even hint at its purpose.
But even as MacPherson's career winds down, he will not acknowledge that he is or ever was with the CIA.
Little is known of his background. He was born in Chicago in 1930 or 1931 and was educated in Scotland and Germany, where he studied electrical engineering. He lived in Europe for sixteen years. Given his thick Scottish brogue, he could easily be mistaken for a native of that country. But he also speaks Spanish, French, German, and Russian, and is known to be conversant in an Eastern European tongue or two as well as Arabic. During the 1950s he served as an Air Commando with the u.s. Air Force, a precursor to the elite Special Forces. In the course of his career he has been shot at by Katytisha rockets, AK-47s, a variety of small arms, and even SA-7 missiles.
He has routinely parachuted from altitudes of thirty thousand feet and higher where sixty-below temperatures can freeze a man's eyeballs, where the slightest gap in the filling of a tooth can reduce a man to desperate agony, and where, if the joints are not scrupulously purged of gases, the jumper will exhibit symptoms associated with diver's bends.
In his world -- as well as Berl King's and Denny Gabriel's -- expertise and survival were never more than a hairbreadth apart. And still there was a place for luck The crash in North Carolina was not the first such downed aircraft MacPherson is known to have crawled away from.
MacPherson knew both King and Gabriel. He had flown with them many times in the days of Air America. But in an odd way he knew very little of either man. That was how he wanted it. "I have purposefully cut myself off from these kinds of things, much as I thought these guys were really great. Even when I worked with them I really didn't try to know them too well. It would have made it tougher to do the job we were trying to do. I have made it a point of not getting to know the people I work with. It is one of the cardinal rules I have followed. When engaged in work, I operate on a need-to-know basis, not just nice-to-know.
Today MacPherson wonders at the young stock of Agency officers coming through the ranks and worries for them. One young man, intent upon a career as a paramilitary officer, saw in MacPherson a kind of mentor and expressed an interest in accompanying him on an assignment.
"Do you think you could live in a foreign country?" MacPherson asked the young man.
"Yes," he said boldly.
"Smile," responded MacPherson. The young man smiled a toothy smile. "No," persisted MacPherson, "open your mouth." Inside, MacPherson was looking at some $20,000 worth of American orthodontic work. "Every time you open your mouth," he said, "you will be telling people where you come from. You can still make the trip but we will have to knock out a few teeth and things like that," he said half jokingly. "Living in a foreign country, you have to have absolutely impeccable credentials, right down to the last tooth." Any mistake can be fatal.
After so many brushes with death, MacPherson remains almost at ease with the idea of his own mortality. "I really absolutely no longer fear death. I've sort of been there," he says. "I came within a whisper of dying." That is not to say that he is ready to die. More than death, he fears being crippled. From his earliest mission to his most recent, he does not get on a plane or embark on any mission without first intoning the same silent prayer that he learned from his school days in Europe, a prayer that dates back more than 350 years to the English Civil War. "Lord, we are about to go into battle and I know that most of the day I will forget about you. Please don't forget about me." That prayer has served him well.
He has known many men who have died. Some are represented by nameless stars in the CIA's Book of Honor. And he has known many men who, like himself, have survived against the odds, among them Dick Holm, whose crash in the Congo in 1965 left him disfigured. MacPherson and Holm have been friends for twenty years, though the two of them have never spoken a word to each other of their respective plane crashes. MacPherson believes in honoring those who perished, not in dwelling on near misses. He is fond of citing lines from Laurence Binyon's poem "For the Fallen" that appear in a place where many British SAS soldiers are buried:
Just what the three CIA officers -- King, Gabriel, MacPherson -- were doing that July night more than twenty years ago remains something of a mystery. Relatives of Berl King and Denny Gabriel each have their own theories based in part on hints from CIA colleagues and in part from the irrepressible need to find some transcendent meaning in the loss of a loved one.
The King family was given to believe that that night's operation was preparation for a specific hostage rescue mission. Perhaps. Denny Gabriel's brother, Ron, a medical professor, is convinced that that night was a practice run for the insertion of a CIA team into Cuba, where it was suspected that a Soviet brigade was present. In fact, some months later the presence of such a brigade was confirmed, nearly scuttling the SALT II treaty. Also plausible. Hardest of all to accept is the idea that it was merely a routine training exercise, a fluke accident oblivious to consummate skill and courage. One man who knows the truth about that night's mission is Alexander MacPherson. The lone survivor, he's not saying a word.