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Vang Chou, high-ranking Hmong soldier during Vietnam, dies in Merced

A memorial to the late Lt. Col. Vang Chou, also known as Peter Chou Vang, at the Hmongstory 40 exhibit is seen at the Merced County Fairgrounds on Saturday, May 7, 2016.
A memorial to the late Lt. Col. Vang Chou, also known as Peter Chou Vang, at the Hmongstory 40 exhibit is seen at the Merced County Fairgrounds on Saturday, May 7, 2016. akuhn@mercedsunstar.com

A high-ranking Hmong soldier who fought with the U.S. in the Vietnam War before helping thousands to settle in Merced has died.

Lt. Col. Vang Chou, also called Peter Chou Vang, died Wednesday from cardiac arrest while recovering from pneumonia and a blood infection in Merced. He was 82, according to his family.

Among the first handful of Hmong pilots trained to fly T-28 planes in Laos and Vietnam, Vang served in the Royal Lao Air Force under Gen. Vang Pao, who is revered by Hmong worldwide.

Vang was born April 5, 1938, in the Phac Lac village of Xiangkhouang Province of Laos. At age 20, he became a police officer and provided for dozens of members of this extended family, according to his daughter Maykou Vang.

“One thing I remember about my dad, he was a man with a huge heart,” the 49-year-old said.

In 1961, Vang Chou began his service as a first air guide officer for the CIA. The same year he married his wife, May; they were the first in the area to have a Western wedding, dressed in a tuxedo and white gown, according to their children.

Many Hmong agreed to fight against the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. Vang’s knowledge of the terrain and landmarks made him the perfect guide for aerial missions, according to his family. He and five others undertook flight training at the Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base under the eye of American trainers.

Retired Brig. Gen. Art Cornelius, 77, called Vang “tremendously important” and a “pioneer” in the efforts against the North Vietnamese during the conflict.

I felt very close to Chou. We flew probably 100 or more missions together.

Retired Brigadier Gen. Art Cornelius

“I felt very close to Chou,” he told the Sun-Star in a phone interview. “We flew probably 100 or more missions together. Even though we scared ourselves a lot, we never really got hurt.”

That would not hold true for Vang, who in 1968 was struck by a large-caliber bullet while flying with another American pilot over contested skies. The bullet entered his right arm and exited his chest, leaving his arm partially paralyzed for the rest of his life.

Cornelius said the pilots thought Vang would not make it alive to the hospital, as his wounds were too large to address with the field kit. “He was one tough man,” he said.

After surviving his wounds, he ran the air operations center at Long Tieng air base, Cornelius said. He was “Vang Pao’s right hand where air power was concerned,” he said. “The Hmong pilots respected and trusted him implicitly.”

When the United States pulled out of the conflict, communists took over the country and the Hmong became refugees. Many fled the country to save their lives, braving thousands of miles of jungle, raging waters and refugee camps.

Vang and two relatives brought their families to Orange County in 1976. Vang would end up in the Merced area in May 1977, his family said.

Noah Vang, an unrelated Hmong researcher based in St. Paul, Minn., noted Vang Chou’s significance to the Central San Joaquin Valley. “He was one of the first pioneers to help the Hmong community down there to thrive and to become what it is today,” he said.

Merced’s Hmong population at about 7,254 is the third largest in the state, according to 2010 U.S. Census.

Being 28 years old and walking for nearly all my life, the sensation of being able to fly 10,000 feet in the air was one of the most thrilling and exciting moments in my life.

Lt. Col. Vang Chou, in a story recorded and translated by his family

Initially the family lived in a labor camp in Planada, and attempted to move to south Merced, where they were met with racist opposition, the family said. On their first day in town, teenagers threw rocks and yelled racial slurs at them, said Bee Vang, the youngest son.

“Even though he came here lacking knowledge, I’ve never seen a more confident man,” the 47-year-old said about his father. “I’ve never seen my dad panic.”

Despite reaching the level of lieutenant colonel, his family said, the move to the States erased Vang Chou’s status. Without the use of his right arm, he did manual labor or whatever work he could find.

In Merced County, he was a custodian at Livingston High School before working with the refugee resettlement program in the Valley. He also was among the founders of Merced Lao Family Community Inc., which provides job training and other services.

Mayko Vang, 42, his youngest daughter, said even as the end of his life drew near, her father was planning for his family’s future because he wanted everything in order when the time came.

“He protected us in Laos, and he continued to protect us to the very end,” she said.

In a story recorded and translated by the family, Vang Chou talked about his experience during the war.

“Being 28 years old and walking for nearly all my life, the sensation of being able to fly 10,000 feet in the air was one of the most thrilling and exciting moments in my life,” he said. “At the same time, I was placed in situations where every decision meant life or death, and I had to develop a sense of bravery and courage to survive.”

He is survived by his wife, May Yang Vang; children Maly, Wayne, Maykou, Bee and Mayko. He has 12 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

The funeral is planned June 11-13 at the Fresno fairground, 1121 S. Chance Ave. in Fresno. The ceremonies are open to the public.

Thaddeus Miller: 209-385-2453, @thaddeusmiller

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