Remarks of the Director of Central
Intelligence George J. Tenet
Honoring The Free Thai Movement
May 8, 2000
On behalf of the Central Intelligence Agency—the successor to
General Donovan’s legendary Office of Strategic Services—I am privileged
today to welcome our gallant Free Thai Honorees: Air Chief Marshall
Sit, Mr. Ahnond, Dr. Charoen, Group Captain Wimon and Mr. Piya—and
to open this wonderful exhibit. We warmly welcome the family members
and friends of our Honorees. We also send our congratulations to the
Free Thai heroes who were not able to make the long journey here for
this ceremony. They are very much with us in spirit today.
We are especially pleased that so many OSS veterans could join this celebration honoring their Free Thai comrades-in-arms. We are also delighted to welcome other distinguished guests from Thailand, including Thailand’s new Ambassador to the United States, His Excellency Tej Bunnag, as well as many distinguished Americans who are devoted friends of Thailand.
The remarkable history of the Free Thai—a history that the men and women of the OSS proudly share—speaks powerfully to us of hope and of heroism, and of the vital role that intelligence plays in defending the freedoms we all cherish.
The American chapter of that history begins shortly after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, when Thailand’s ambassador to the United States, Minister Seni Pramoj, defied orders from his government to declare war on the United States. Instead, he appealed to Washington for help in organizing, training and equipping a Free Thai force to liberate his homeland from Japan’s domination. Minister Seni received the green light and proceeded to marshal a Free Thai force comprised of brilliant—and, by all accounts, dashing and gregarious—Thai students from such prestigious universities as Cornell, Caltech and MIT.
These impressive young men were among the best and brightest of their generation. They willingly abandoned their college tweeds for jungle fatigues. Some were of humble birth, others were high born—one was a prince—but all were patriots who refused to let their nation’s 700 years of fierce independence fall to Japan’s militarism. They knew in their hearts that their countrymen felt the same way they did—and indeed, many, many other brave Thais joined resistance efforts inside and outside Thailand.
The American Free Thai volunteers—43 in all—underwent months of rigorous training by OSS instructors, first in the United States and later in India, Ceylon and China. They were taught intelligence collection techniques, radio communications, parachute jumping, guerrilla operations, and jungle survival skills.
Then, risking capture, torture and death, groups of the Free Thai volunteers were infiltrated into Thailand. Some by submarine, others by seaplane or air drop. They rode in on ponies and trudged in on foot. They braved hunger, disease, insects, wild animals and brutal weather, not to mention hostile patrols. Tragically, the first groups were taken prisoner or perished, but by October 1944, Free Thai volunteers had established contact with the resistance within Thailand, led, they discovered to their great joy and astonishment, by The Regent himself—right out of the Royal Palace!
Soon, a flood of intelligence was flowing to the Allies. Working hand-in-hand with the OSS—and earning the deep respect, passionate admiration and lasting affection of their American colleagues—the Free Thai provided priceless information on Japanese military positions and helped to rescue scores of captured allied soldiers. In sum, the Free Thai volunteers played an invaluable role in preparing the ground for the eventual Japanese surrender and the restoration of Thailand’s sovereignty.
It was apt indeed that, in 1953, President Eisenhower named as Ambassador to Thailand none other than General Donovan, under whose inspiring command the Free Thai and their OSS colleagues so proudly served. And it was in Thailand that the General performed his final acts of service, helping to construct the framework for a strong post-war strategic partnership between our countries. Time and again, during the Cold War, Thais and Americans stood shoulder-to-shoulder in Korea, Vietnam and Laos, just as we stand shoulder-to-shoulder today.
For Americans and Thais alike, General Donovan was—and continues to be—an inspiring example of valor and vision. As you may know, he got the nickname, "Wild Bill", for his bold exploits as a young officer on the battlefields of the First World War. Once, when he was leading a charge in France on seemingly impregnable German positions, he turned to find not one of his men following him. As bullets rained and shells burst all around, Donovan spurred his men forward by shouting, "What’s the matter with you? Do you want to live forever?" And together they plunged into the fray.
Veterans of the Free Thai and the OSS in Detachment 101 got their own thrilling glimpse of "Wild Bill" in action. One day, out of a clear blue sky, General Donovan arrived in a tiny Tiger Moth and announced, to their collective alarm, that he was (quote): "going behind Jap lines." He said, "If anything goes wrong," nonchalantly handing over his wallet and identification papers, "it’ll be just as well if I’m incognito."
Like "Wild Bill" Donovan, the Free Thai volunteers who celebrate with us today went boldly behind enemy lines and lived to tell the tale. By the grace of God, they have known the satisfactions of a long, full and distinguished life. But I would guess that it is especially on happy occasions like this that their innermost thoughts turn to "absent friends"—to their brothers-in-arms who, sadly, did not reach this wonderful day.
It is therefore especially fitting that we now take a moment to pay homage to the Free Thai and their OSS colleagues who are lost to us—to the veterans who have passed on in recent years, but most of all, to the brave and brilliant men whose promising young lives were cut short in war so many decades ago. I would ask that you join me in a moment of silence in memory of our sacred dead. [Moment of Silence]
And now, I have the great privilege of presenting our Distinguished Honorees with the Agency Seal Medallion for their noble service to the Office of Strategic Services during World War II.
Gentlemen, when the fate—not just of your beloved Thailand—but of the entire world—hung in the balance, you chose to join with America and her Allies in the great battle of Freedom against Fascism. We honor you today, not because God has seen fit to grant you long life and include you among the last of your comrades, but because you and your magnificent band of brothers were among the first to fight for a Free Thailand and the Allied cause. It is to you—and to your OSS colleagues—that new generations of Thais and Americans owe an eternal debt of gratitude. You have given us a precious legacy of Liberty. We must never, never take it for granted.
Your story of service and sacrifice—the story of the Free Thai—is a tribute to the patriotism and independence of the Thai people. It stands also as a testament to the deep and unbreakable bonds of friendship between Thailand and the United States. May our two nations, which have been such extraordinary partners in war and in peace, continue to work together in this new century for a free and secure world.
May God bless you and all of your colleagues.