By Published: June 3, 2024

Carole McGranahan, a CU Boulder anthropology professor who has long studied the Tibetan perspective of China’s invasion and occupation of Tibet, joins the Tibetan community to commemorate the location on June 9 at Camp Hale, Colorado

For decades, the CIA’s training of Tibetan soldiers to fight Chinese invaders was a state secret, but even after the U.S. government formally acknowledged the CIA-Tibet effort, the exact location of the Tibetan camp remained a mystery.

With the dogged research of anthropologist Carole McGranahan, the precise location is now known. McGranahan, a University of Colorado Boulder anthropology professor who’s been studying the Tibetan perspective on the resistance to China for more than three decades, will soon join Tibetans from Colorado and beyond to commemorate the camp, six decades after it was closed.

The memorial gathering, which is titled “Dumra/The Secret Garden–Commemorating the CIA-Tibet Program at Camp Hale,” will take place at noon on June 9 at Camp Hale National Monument.

Carole McGranahan

Carole McGranahan, a CU Boulder anthropology professor, has studied the Tibetan perspective on the resistance to China for more than three decades.

Members of the Tibetan community from around the world and several members of parliament of the Dalai Lama’s exile government in India are scheduled to attend, as is one of his cabinet ministers.

McGranahan said finding the training camp’s actual location now is meaningful for two reasons. “One is that most of the veterans and retired (CIA) agents have passed,” and the other is that the history of the operation had been suppressed and concealed for decades—a condition McGranahan calls “arrested history.”

Tibetans, for instance, have been unable to “celebrate and honor these soldiers in a way that they deserved,” she said. “This service, not just to Tibet but to the Dalai Lama, was the defining moment of their lives.”

For the Tibetan community to know the actual location, she added, “is meaningful in a way that even as a scholar I hadn’t fully appreciated.”

Fraught history

McGranahan’s work adds detail to the history of Tibet and China, which has long been fraught.

In 1949, Mao Zedong won the civil war in China, defeating Chiang Kai-shek. Mao, the first leader of the People’s Republic of China, promised to “liberate” Tibet, which was then an independent country headed by the Dalai Lama, the country’s political and spiritual leader.

Within a year, the Chinese army invaded Tibet and marched on the capital, Lhasa. For the next decade, the Dalai Lama and Tibet’s government sought to negotiate—under military duress—with China. Meanwhile, Tibetan citizens facing Chinese invaders from the east began fighting back.

Initially, they fought with whatever they had from wherever they were. Later, the Tibetans formed a citizens’ army called Chushi Gangdrug, whose mission was to defend the Dalai Lama, Tibet and Buddhism.

The Tibetans’ resistance caught the attention of the United States. “This is during the Cold War, so this was roughly 1956, and the Tibetans were on their own, fighting communists,” McGranahan noted.

The U.S. Department of State got involved, as did, secretly, the CIA, which launched a program to train Tibetan soldiers. That program landed in Colorado in 1958 at Camp Hale, near Vail, Colorado, the widely known training ground of the 10th Mountain Division fighters who served in World War II.

About 300 Tibetan soldiers were trained at Camp Hale from 1959-64. The CIA kept a tight lid on information about the program, and closely guarded entrance to and from the site. The camp closed in 1964, but the CIA continued to support the Tibetan resistance until 1973.

McGranahan began researching the Tibetan resistance in 1993, when she was working on her PhD in history and anthropology at the University of Michigan.

“One of the things I wanted to do was to understand and tell the story of the Tibetan resistance to China from the Tibetan perspective, because in the English language, it had been told almost exclusively as a story about the CIA,” McGranahan noted recently.

That approach clearly left out the Tibetan perspective, which, “frankly, to me, was more interesting and needed to be told,” she said.

In her doctoral research, McGranahan interviewed more than 100 Tibetan veterans, including many who had trained at Camp Hale. She noted that the 300 Tibetans who were trained in Colorado were a small portion of the thousands of fighters in the Tibetan Chushi Gangdrug army.

Though she focused on the Tibetan perspective, she also interviewed about 10 retired CIA officers who had been stationed at Camp Hale. At the time, the CIA operation was still top secret. “Protocol didn’t acknowledge the operation," she said. "There was nothing public about it.”

View of Dumra from across the Camp Hale valley

A view of Dumra from across the valley.

That changed on Sept. 10, 2010, when the U.S. government installed a plaque at Camp Hale formally acknowledging that the CIA had trained Tibetan officers there.

One day prior, on Sept. 9, 2010, Duke University Press released McGranahan’s book, Arrested Histories: Tibet, the CIA, and Memories of a Forgotten War.

The public announcement stemmed from the efforts of Ken Knaus, a retired CIA agent, who enlisted the help of former U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo. Together with Roger McCarthy, Knaus had been in charge of the CIA-Tibet operation, and it had been the lifelong mission of both men to tell the story of the operation and to install a plaque at Camp Hale.

Searching for the garden

McGranahan, who describes herself as the group’s “resident scholar,” joined the dedication ceremony in 2010. After the ceremony, the Tibetan veterans and the CIA officers wanted to find the site of the CIA camp, which CIA officers called “The Ranch” and Tibetans called “Dumra,” meaning garden.

But the group’s desire to see the Dumra location was thwarted by the fact that the CIA had demolished and obscured any trace of the facilities. “The site was made to look as if nothing had been there,” McGranahan observed.

“And to the dismay of the veterans on both sides, they could not find the camp,” she added. “The very camp they had lived in, they couldn’t find. This was very distressing to everyone.”

It’s also understandable. Camp Hale encompasses 53,804 acres, and landmarks that were clearly seen six decades ago could easily be obscured.

Last fall, McGranahan contacted a CU alumnus, Tracy Walters, who lives in the Vail Valley and who does a lot of hiking, camping and bike-riding through Camp Hale. She told him the story of the lost CIA training site, and he offered to help.

Using photos of the CIA site from the early 1960s and comparing them with satellite images, Walters determined where he thought the location was.

She and Walters visited the site in February, strapped on snowshoes to navigate the four feet of snow there, “and we snowshoed out, trying to match up the photographs of the camp with the current landscape, basically 60 years later,” she said.

McGranahan emailed the photographs of the site, new and old, to the one still-living CIA officer, Bruce Walker, who had been stationed at the camp. “He wrote back immediately, ‘Yes, that is the site, and I am the one who took those photographs you’re holding up in the picture.’”

Carole McGranahan locating Dumra at Camp Hale

Carole McGranahan holds up an old photo of Dumra to find its precise location in Camp Hale National Monument.

It turns out that U.S. Highway 24, which is near the CIA training site, was not heavily used in the early 60s, and the site couldn’t be seen from the highway. Also, the CIA agents and Tibetan soldiers entered from Colorado Highway 91, near the Climax molybdenum mine at Fremont Pass.

Having found the location, McGranahan contacted members of Chushi Gangdrug or their descendants, who said, “We need to do a ceremony there.” Former agent Walker, now 91, also plans to attend June 9.

McGranahan underscores the significance of identifying the precise location of this chapter of history:

“You can feel the resonance, the poignancy of it, of what it means to be on the place where there was a hope, there was a camaraderie, there was a commitment. Certain aspects of that did come to fruition, certainly the camaraderie, and there’s a hope that remains.”

China still controls Tibet, but the two groups—CIA agents and Tibetan fighters—remain committed to each other.

The June 9 ceremony is organized by the CU Department of Anthropology and Tibet Himalaya Initiative together with the Colorado Chushi Gangdrug and Vail Symposium. Co-sponsors for the event are the CU Boulder College of Arts and Sciences, the Departments of Communication, Ethnic Studies, Geography, History, Linguistics, Religious Studies and Sociology, the Center for the American West, the Center for Asian Studies, the Institute for Behavioral Science and the Museum of Natural History. It is also co-sponsored by Nova Guides, Polar Star Properties and 10th Mountain Whiskey

Additionally, on June 7 at the Vail Symposium, McGranahan, India-based filmmakers Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin, and retired CIA officer Bruce Walker will present a research talk "Dumra at Camp Hale: The CIA's Tibetan Resistance Program" about the secret CIA training camp for Tibetan resistance soldiers at Camp Hale that operated from 1958-1964.

This presentation is the basis for a book they are co-authoring about Camp Hale’s Tibetan history. Their presentation will be live-streamed.

Top image: Tibetan and CIA colleagues at the Dumra training site in the early 1960s. (Photos courtesy Carole McGranahan)

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