The recent hysteria over Yemen has caused me to give you all this little piece of the latest draft of my memoir. This is a minimalist statement of what happened in my Yemen years. There, was much, much more. pl
“Lang was Defense and Army Attaché (DATT/ARMA) in the Yemen Arab Republic for three years (1979 to 1982). The embassy was small and lodged in a multi- story mud and palm log building in the middle of Sanaa. The ambassador lived there surrounded by beautiful gardens and many servants. Lang and Marguerite established themselves in a rambling white masonry house about a mile from the embassy. It was surrounded by a ten foot wall topped with broken glass. Water was provided by trucks that filled and refilled tanks on the roof. In time Marguerite’s garden rivalled that of the embassy. There was a guard, an aged Yemeni tribal, who although in his eighties had a large and ever growing family. His name was Ahmad. He had every Saturday off and spent it at home somewhere making more babies. He and one of his wives produced a new one during the Langs’ time in Sanaa. When asked by Lang how he managed that he replied, “Clean living, fasting in Ramadan and effort every Saturday.” Ahmad was very solicitous of the memsahib’s welfare and guarded the place like a lion during Lang’s frequent absences in the field. Ahmad lived in a little whitewashed building by the front gate.
The office consisted of Lang, his US Army sergeant and a driver who was an employee of the embassy, but in reality was a major in the Yemeni National Police. His assignment was surveillance of the American military attaché. His name was Abdullah al-Shami. He was a substantial person whose help was always generously given when it was requested and sometimes when it was not. He knew that Lang’s work required him to “poke around” the country in places that were frequently unsafe because of banditry or some other sort of local warfare. When Lang needed to go somewhere that was probably insecure he formed the habit of asking Abdullah’s opinion. If the answer was positive, they went there together. If the answer was not, he went alone when Abdullah was away. Abdullah spoke reasonably good English having been a driver for several British officers at Aden when the United Kingdom possessed South Yemen, but Lang asked him when they first met to speak nothing but Arabic to him and he always did. From time to time he gave Lang a verbal report as to what sort of grade his Arabic deserved. Abdullah was a wonderful companion on field trips across the mountain and desert country. On some occasions, parties of tribesmen halted their Land Cruiser truck or Peugeot 504 on country roads to demand tribute or the vehicle. Lang and Abdullah were armed with sub-machine guns in the car and Browning 9 mm. automatic pistols in hidden holsters. These were formidable but Abdullah never waved a firearm at the “bandits.” He always walked back to the car’s trunk and picked up two axe handles. With those in their hands they would approach the offending group. Abdullah then greeted them in a friendly way but if the tribesmen were aggressive he would open his jacket to show his pistol and declare, “oh sons of donkeys, do you want to see blood?” The tribesmen were always taken aback and inevitably settled for canned groceries brought as trade goods. On one occasion Lang fired a magazine from an old M-3 “grease gun” sub-machine gun into a river bank when it was clear that there would be no violence. He had bought the weapon at a local arms bazaar. The strike of the .45 ACP bullets astounded the audience and on an impulse Lang handed the gun to the leader as a gift. The stocky little man in native dress embraced him. As they drove off Abdullah laughed in delight. In the mirror the chieftain could be seen standing by the track holding the weapon above his head. For the rest of his time in Yemen Lang and Abdullah knew they were safe in that little valley. On longer journeys to the south they often “staged’ through there and slept in the village after dining on a sheep or goat they had brought to these people as a token of friendship. Their safety was ensured by the tribal Arab’s duty to offer hospitality and protection to friends.
Abdullah’s “cover” as a driver wore thin at times. On the road, policemen sometimes saluted him and addressed him as “major.” When that happened, Lang would pretend to be looking out the window at the barren countryside. Abdullah lived in a small building in the back yard of the Lang’s large house and he, too, went home on the weekends.
Pat Lang was not the cookie pushing type of attaché. He was not someone who particularly liked cocktail parties although he attended many.
Yemen at that time was a lot like Arizona in the 1870s, a country inhabited by savage, heavily armed tribesmen and run by politician soldiers much like the Mexican military “brass” in the film, “The Wild Bunch.”
The USSR had a 500 man military mission in N. Yemen and another of similar size in communist South Yemen. This military mission was commanded by a Tank Corps major general who liked Americans. He had been a 17 year old lieutenant in 1945 and had been among the Soviet armored men who had met the US Army at Torgau on the Elbe in Germany. He had never gotten over the experience and when he discovered that Lang was friendly, a useful relationship developed that drove the State Department people in the embassy to lecture Lang to the effect that he should keep his distance so that the Yemenis would not think he found the Soviets acceptable company. He told them that he was there to collect information and the Soviets had the information he needed. The CIA station chief laughed and said that he was quite right.
The Communist Chinese also had a very big embassy in Sanaa. It was heavily manned with Middle East trained “spooks” who spoke beautiful Arabic. The Red Chinese also had 2,000 construction workers in North Yemen employed in continuing road projects begun earlier by the US all over the country. They were most helpful in reporting what the Soviets were "up to."
There were tribal wars of varying size all over the country. Some were against other tribes. Some were against the government, and some others were in combination with the government against yet other tribes. The variety was endless.
To make the ”stew” even richer, there was a coalition of leftist political groups called the National Democratic Front waging a major war against the North Yemen government. This “front” brought together; Communists, Baathists, Socialists, and just plain dissident folks who had a variety of motives. As an example, North Yemeni forces killed several NDF guerrillas who were found to be second generation Americans from Michigan. One of them had a copy of a pamphlet by Tom Paine in a pocket along with his US passport when he died. The year was 1978. The USSR supported both sides in this war between north and south largely because Ali Abdullah Salih, the Yemeni president, displayed great skill in playing the Soviets, the US and the UK off against each other to make sure that happened. Salih, the British MI-6 station commander, and Lang often went hunting together. The British fellow introduced Pat to Salih. The president often laughed aloud with the Western spies and rejoiced at the ease with which their countries were duped. He said he placed the Britisher and Lang in a different category as being people as devious as he and unlikely to be believed if they "ratted’ on him.
The United States had a six man military mission in North Yemen and a USAF team busy teaching the Yemen Air Force to fly F-5s fighters that the Saudis had bought for them. Assisting the TAFT was a worthless group of Saudi Air Force Pilots whose specialty seemed to be crashing aircraft and a Taiwanese Air Force group seconded to the Saudi Air force to maintain the F-5s.
The US military training groups were confined by directive to execution of training tasks. Lang was not. Jobs always seemed to grow and change to match what he could and wanted to do. He used the Red Chinese to collect against Soviet activities, used the British embassy to collect against tribal activities and the French embassy for collection against the internal activities of the Salih government. French intelligence had two of Salih’s ministers on their payroll.
Lang was an experienced case officer and had a secondary task in Yemen of assisting CIA in recruiting from the diplomatic community. To that end and for his own reporting to DIA, he cultivated the Soviet intelligence people from the GRU and KGB in their embassy as well as the Soviet military mission in general. Many of these came to the house for; cookouts, sit down dinners, movies, card games and the like.
At a steak and shrimp grill party one night, the Soviet general asked if he would like to accompany a counter-guerrilla operation conducted by 8th Yemeni Commando Brigade. He said he reckoned Lang was better at this than his own men. They had been assigned from the 106th Soviet Airborne Division and that he was sure Lang knew more Arabic than they. He had a KGB minder with him that night and the man’s wife held her sides laughing while the spook husband choked on his steak. The general laughed as well and said to ignore him.
Lang asked DIA and was given permission. This trip to the field was often repeated and developed over time into a relationship with the Soviet commando advisers in which “Westerners” supposedly banded together against the wily NDF. After a while Lang wore Yemeni uniform in the field as did the Soviets. The Soviet advisers with this outfit were almost all non-Russians. They were Azeris, Armenians, Georgians, Chechens, etc. Their home division’s permanent station was in the Trans-Caucasus Military District. Lang could talk to the Yemenis on these expeditions and the Soviets could not. The commando brigade made use of the American built F-5s as well as various Soviet provided jets for close air support on the laurel covered mountainsides in the southeast. They also had armed MI-8 helicopters in support of operations. The Yemeni pilots were dangerous to their own soldiers as well as to the targets, and it was soon agreed that Lang would vector the air support onto the targets supposedly because he had much experience in this. The 8th Commando Brigade killed many NDF fighters and lost a good many men as well. Yemenis are real fighters no matter what side they are on.
Lang’s US general officer boss came to visit. Ironically, The Red Chinese ambassador told the man that Pat Lang was a hero of the struggle against Soviet hegemonic ambitions and those of the running dog friends of the Soviets as well. Pat supposed the Chinese ambassador did not know how much Lang had managed to embed himself in the Soviet advisory effort.
The Langs were sorry to leave Yemen. It had been a grand game.” pl
It will be interesting to learn how many of you believe this story.