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Obituary: Frank Bessac

December 26, 2010

Frank Bessac, who died on December 6 aged 88, was one of two survivors
of an epic and ill-fated trip led by the CIA in the early days of the
Cold War which took him from the borders of Mongolia to the Tibetan
capital Lhasa amid Great Game-style efforts to stymie communists both in
China and in Russia.

6:01PM GMT 21 Dec 2010, The Telegraph, UK

Bessac, who went on to become a social anthropologist, had officially
resigned as a spy by the time he undertook the journey. But his
companion on the trip was a CIA officer believed by some to have been
ordered to arm the Tibetans against the insurgent Chinese People’s
Liberation Army.

A Mandarin speaker, Bessac had himself joined the CIA on its formation
in 1947, gathering intelligence on both Nationalist and Communist
activity as China descended into civil war. He was considered for a
senior role in the organisation, but left when he discovered that this
meant working covertly and would stop him pursuing a new-found interest
in Mongolia. Instead, he studied Classical Chinese and Mongolian at Fu
Ren University, Peking, where he wore the robes of a Chinese scholar.

In spring 1948 Bessac and Prince De, a descendant of Genghis Khan,
distributed food aid for the US State Department’s Mongol Branch of the
China Relief Mission, for which Bessac was made an honorary Mongol and a
Knight of Genghis Khan. In September he was awarded a Fulbright
scholarship and decided to deepen his knowledge of Mongolian and the
life of the pastoral nomad.

Early in 1949 he travelled to Dingyaunying, near Lanzhou, central China,
where he settled and engaged a language teacher. In August he attended a
congress, summoned by Prince De, which proclaimed the formation of a
provisional Mongolian Republic. But within days the whole area became
engulfed in fighting between the Nationalists and Communists, and Bessac
was forced to flee. After travelling 200 miles north-west by camel to
Shandan, he hitched a ride on a truck to Hami, then travelled by air to
the remote western city of Urumqi, where he was astonished to be met by
a car flying the Stars and Stripes.

The car belonged to the American vice-consul, Douglas Mackiernan, who
was about to evacuate the city after the closure of the consulate.
Mackiernan was, in fact, an undercover CIA agent who was in the region
principally to spy on the first Soviet atom bomb test, which was
eventually staged across the border from Urumqi at Semipalatinsk on
August 29 1949.

When Mackiernan used Bessac’s old code word, it was clear that he knew
Bessac had been a CIA man too. Mackiernan asked him whether he would be
interested in helping Osman Bator, the anti-Communist Kazakh leader of
Chinese Turkestan. Feeling that it would be “interesting to spend time
in a Kazakh camp while trying to get a better deal for them with the
communists or help them escape to Tibet”, Bessac agreed. On September 27
1949, having picked up three White Russian refugees as they left, the
two Americans duly drove out of Urumqi in a Jeep.

They soon abandoned the Jeep and joined Osman Bator and his Kazakh
horsemen at their winter camp by Barko, north of Hami (“Left Urumchi on
September 27 1949 and arrived about two weeks later in company of Ozman
Bator’s Kazak Hordes,” Mackiernan noted in his log).

But it was clear that the Chinese Communists knew their location, so
Mackiernan, Bessac and the White Russians set off once again, this time
ostensibly to save their own necks from the advancing “Reds”. Despite
apparent alternative routes of escape, they headed south on horse and
camelback on a year-long, 2,000-mile trek across almost uninhabited and
unmapped territory out of Communist-controlled areas and towards Tibet.

In later life Bessac was concerned to rebut suggestions that he himself
had been working for the CIA in Tibet, but the murky story of why
Mackiernan opted to head there was a potential embarrassment for the
Americans, and information about the expedition was classified. If
Mackiernan had been dispatched to stoke Tibetan national resistance to
Chinese Communists, Bessac claimed to his dying day that he had not been
privy to the plotting.

The group crossed the edge of the Kara (or Black Gobi) desert, at times
struggling to find water. After covering 500 miles in 30 days, they met
a local Kazakh leader, Hussein Taiji, with whom they were to spend the
winter. “Reached Timerlik Bulak at about 10.00am,” Mackiernan noted in
his journal. “Royal welcome by Kussaim Tadji who had yurt all ready for
us. [He] has the largest yurt I have ever seen.”

On March 20 the following year they bought new horses and camels and set
off on a route never before travelled by any Westerner.

About a month after setting out, however, they had a fatal encounter.
Arriving at a Tibetan border post near Shegarkhung Lung on April 29,
they decided to make camp. While Bessac went over to the border post
with gifts, six guards on horseback approached. Bessac heard shots and
saw his four companions with arms raised. Four of the horsemen
dismounted and again opened fire. Mackiernan and two of the Russians
were killed and the third Russian was shot in the leg.

Though Bessac and the Russian survivor were taken prisoner, the
Tibetans, who appeared to have thought the group were Kazakh bandits,
soon understood their mistake and treated them kindly. They set off for
Lhasa and, after three days, the two men realised that the three round
balls in a sack on a camel in front were the heads of their dead companions.

It seems that Mackiernan had radioed Washington to arrange a safe
crossing with the Tibetan authorities, but the messengers conveying the
safe conduct arrived five days too late. The Tibetan government offered
Bessac the opportunity to have his attackers executed or mutilated in
retribution, but he decided on a relatively lenient 40 lashes. To his
surprise, the men thanked him for saving their lives.

On June 12 1950 the men arrived in Lhasa where, after about a week, they
paid a formal visit to the Dalai Lama, then aged 14, in his summer
palace. Tibet at that time was under threat from the approaching Chinese
People’s Liberation Army, and the Tibetan Foreign Affairs Bureau invited
Bessac for discussions about establishing relations with the United
States. Though he protested that he had no authority to negotiate,
eventually they agreed to his suggestion that they should send an
official request for American military aid. “The council voted on the
proposal which was passed by only one vote,” he recalled. “They thought
the People’s Republic of China would not invade until spring 1951 and
that with the threat of US military help and UN recognition they could
save their country.”

At the end of July, the travellers left for India, and after floating
down the Kyi Chu river for 30 miles in a coracle, they crossed the high
Himalayan passes into Sikkim. By the time Bessac handed the Tibetans’
request to Secretary of State Dean Acheson in Washington, however, the
Chinese had invaded. Bessac always felt that, had Mackiernan not been
killed, he might have had time to convince Washington to recognise Tibet
soon enough to preserve it as a sovereign state.

The third of four children, Frank Bagnall Bessac was born at New
Vineyard, Lodi, California, on January 13 1922. His ancestors had
migrated to New Jersey from France, and married into a well-established
family in Connecticut. His great-grandparents and grandparents moved to
Wisconsin and then to California in the Gold Rush of 1849. His parents
were teachers and dairy farmers.

After taking a degree in History at the College of the Pacific in
Stockton, in 1943 he volunteered for the Combat Engineers and applied
for specialist training to learn Chinese at Cornell.

He was subsequently recruited into the Office of Strategic Services
(OSS), forerunner of the CIA, and in 1945 flew “the Hump” from India to
Kunming to join a Chinese parachute commando unit on missions to rescue
American aircrew who had been shot down behind enemy lines. When the war
ended he was dispatched to Peking to assist with the surrender of
Japanese troops, then northwards to rescue American parachutists
operating in Manchuria who were threatened by the Soviet invasion of
August 1945.

With China descending into chaos, in March 1946 Bessac visited the
Chinese Communist Eighth Route Army in Kalgan, about 100 miles
north-west of Peking, towards the border with Mongolia (the name Kalgan
means “frontier” in Mongolian).

While there, he rode out by camel to visit the nomads on the borders of
Outer Mongolia; they told him of their hopes for political freedom. Back
in Peking, he was contacted by Prince De, who told Bessac of his plans
to establish Mongolia as an autonomous state.

After his Asian adventures, Bessac took advantage of the GI Bill to
return to his studies. He obtained a degree in Anthropology at the
University of California, followed by a PhD at the University of
Wisconsin. He then embarked on a teaching career, at the universities of
Texas, Lawrence, and Montana, where he was Professor of Anthropology
from 1970 to 1989. He was the author of three books, including Peoples
of Inner Asia (1972) and a memoir, Death on the Chang Tang – Tibet 1950.
Last year, 59 years after their first meeting, he was delighted to be
invited to meet the Dalai Lama again, in New York.

Frank Bessac is survived by his wife, Susanne, whom he married in 1951,
and by five of their six children.
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