FRESNO, Calif. - Vang Pao fought the Japanese as a teenager. He later led Hmong guerrillas in their CIA-backed battle against communists during the Vietnam War. More recently he was a father figure to Hmong refugees who fled Laos for the United States.
After immigrating to America once the communists seized power in Laos in 1975, Pao was venerated as a leader by his transplanted countrymen who settled mainly in California's Central Valley, Minneapolis and cities in Wisconsin.
Xang Vang, the general's chief translator who fought by his side, said Pao, 81, died Thursday night following a battle with pneumonia, which he caught while traveling in central California to preside over two Hmong New Year celebrations.
During World War II, Pao fought to prevent the Japanese from seizing control of Laos.
In the 1950s, he joined the French in the war against the North Vietnamese who were dominating Laos and later, as a general in the Royal Army of Laos, worked with the CIA to wage a covert war there.
Former CIA Chief William Colby once called Pao "the biggest hero of the Vietnam War," for the 15 years he spent heading a CIA-sponsored guerrilla army fighting against a communist takeover of the Southeast Asian peninsula.
After his guerrillas ultimately lost to communist forces, Pao came to the U.S., where he was credited with brokering the resettlement of tens of thousands of Hmong, an ethnic minority from the hillsides of Laos.
In 2007, however, he was arrested and charged with other Hmong leaders in federal court with conspiracy in a plot to kill communist officials in his native country. Federal prosecutors alleged the Lao liberation movement known as Neo Hom raised millions of dollars to recruit a mercenary force and conspired to obtain weapons.The charges were dropped in 2009.