Community Events Memorials Travel

Hmongstory 40 – Merced Grand Opening

We attended the Hmongstory 40 Fresno grand opening back in December of last year. We immediately knew that we wanted to attend the next opening of the traveling Hmongstory 40 exhibit when it reached its second destination in Merced, CA.

While we were looking forward to attending the exhibit, we knew there would also be some sadness due to news we received of the passing of Lieutenant Colonel Peter Chou Vang on May 4. Thaddeus Miller of the Merced Sun-Star wrote an article “Merced Hmong community leader dies” about Lt. Col. Vang Chou (Peter Chou Vang) and his amazing accomplishments. Peter was one of the first handful of Hmong pilots trained at Udon, Thailand, to fly T-28 planes in Laos and Vietnam, serving in the Royal Lao Air Force under General Vang Pao. He was General Vang Pao’s right-hand man where air power was concerned.

Peter spoke about his life when we interviewed him for our Time of Remembrance Oral Histories project back in December. His story will stand as testimony to the courage and the sacrifices he made serving his country and ours during the Secret War in Laos. To be given the title “General Direction” speaks to his leadership during the war. We hope to have the interviews we conducted with Peter and his daughter Maykou online soon.

Hmongstory 40 Program

Photo: Hmongstory 40 Merced Exhibit Program.

Gail Desler at the exhibit entrance to Hmongstory 40 Merced

Photo: Gail at the entrance to the Hmongstory 40 exhibit.

We first met Raven pilots Tom Palmer and Gene Hamner when we interviewed them for our TOR project last year. The Ravens were fighter pilots who served as Forward Air Control (FAC) in the covert operation in conjunction with the CIA in Laos during America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Working with the Hmong Army, The Ravens provided direction for most of the air strikes against communist Pathet Lao targets and the People’s Army of Vietnam. Tom and Gene attended Hmongstory 40 to talk about their experiences with attendees and Tom also read a letter from a fellow Raven in memory of Peter Vang.

Tom Palmer and Gene Hamner - Raven Pilots

Photo: Raven pilots Tom Palmer and Gene Hamner

Maykou had emailed us earlier in the week to share the news of her father’s passing. Maykou and her family attended the opening ceremony and put together a memorial to commemorate her father.

Gail Desler and Maykou Vang (Peter's daughter)

Photo: Gail Desler and Maykou Vang (Peter’s daughter) viewing Peter’s memorial display.

Hmongstory 40 display for Peter Vang

Photo: Part of the Hmongstory 40 memorial display for Peter Vang.

Peter's memorial table and medals

Photo:Peter’s memorial table and medals.

May Yang Vang - Peter's wife

Photo: May Yang Vang – Peter’s wife.

Opening ceremony - The Pledge of Allegiance followed by the national anthem

Photo: Opening ceremony – The Pledge of Allegiance.

As part of the opening ceremony, Raven pilot Tom Palmer read a letter from Retired Brigadier General Art Cornelius (Raven-48). Art knew Peter as “Vang Chou” while serving in Laos. He later took the name of “Peter” once living in the United States. Chou was assigned by General Vang Pao to fly in his back seat as one of the first Robins. The letter explained how Peter was invaluable to Art and the other Raven pilots with whom he flew – keeping pilots out of troubled areas when possible and aggressively helping Ravens target appropriate airstrikes against the enemy Pathet Lao and Viet Minh. His intimate knowledge of the terrain and ability to communicate with heroic road watch teams gave the Ravens a huge advantage over anything they could have accomplished by themselves.

Raven pilot Tom Palmer speaking about Peter Vang

Photo: Raven pilot Tom Palmer remembering Peter Vang.

Judge Paul Lo also spoke during the opening. We would like to share a few of our favorite parts from Paul’s speech.

“How could a group of people still living in the 16th century survive in America, an advanced country in the 21st Century?”… “Our successes are not due solely to our own efforts, but by the Grace of God we came to this great country, the only place in the history of the Hmong people where the opportunity to get a great education is given to us equally: to sons and daughters of simple farmers in Laos, to children of parents who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the great struggle, to children of poor refugees, even to children of time travelers from the 16th century. Once we took hold of that educational opportunity, it flipped on the light switch in our hearts and minds for us to see and attain the promise of the American Dream.”

Judge Lo was the first Hmong judge in the U.S. appointed to the Merced County Superior Court. He too is a success story and stands as proof of what is possible to achieve – through education – in America.

Judge Paul Lo - the first Hmong judge in the U.S. appointed to the Merced County Superior Court.

Photo: Judge Paul Lo

Ribbon cutting with representatives from the first three Hmong families to arrive in Merced, CA

Photo: Ribbon cutting with representatives from the first three Hmong families to arrive in Merced, CA.

The Hmongstory 40 Merced Exhibit is organized to include displays depicting four phases of history. Each phase includes archival photos, display boards and artifact collections:

  • Life in Laos
  • Secret War
  • Refugee Camps
  • Arrival in California

You can never be too young to appreciate beautiful clothing

Photo: A mother and daughter appreciating beautiful Hmong clothing.

Exhibit attendee reading about the different refugee camps

Photo: Exhibit attendee reading about the different refugee camps.

Beautiful Hmong woman posing for photos with her family.

Photo: Beautiful Hmong woman posing for photos with her family.

Life in California - Acrylic on canvas painting by Boon Ma Yang

Photo: Life in California – Acrylic on canvas painting by Boon Ma Yang

A table inviting exhibit attendees to leave a written promise to future generations

Photo: A table inviting exhibit attendees to leave a written promise to future generations.

We left the Exhibit feeling that it was a different experience than the one we had in Fresno, CA. Even though the majority of the artifacts and exhibits were the same, it’s the different conversations with a new set of attendees and volunteers that makes it feel as meaningful and special as the first time.

Coming soon – Hmongstory 40 Sacramento. The Hmong Story founding 40 are still working on a venue and date, they are hoping it will be in fall 2016. We will keep you posted as more details become available.

Gail and Kathleen

tor talks

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