After serving with the US Army in Germany, William was recruited to the CIA on his father's recommendation in 1958. As he was fluent in five local languages, he was employed as an interpreter and "tribal expert" and was soon put in charge of covert operations in the tribal border areas of Burma, Thailand and Laos.
Early on in the Vietnam War, Laos became strategically important as a route for North Vietnamese communist forces travelling to and from South Vietnam. In an effort to block off this so-called "Ho Chi Minh trail" and aid anti–communist forces in the separate civil war that had been raging between the Communist Pathet Lao and the Laotian government since the early 1950s, Young was deputed to enlist the help of the hill tribesmen in the region. As Laos was officially "neutral" in the Vietnam War, the operations remained top secret.
In 1960 Young approached Vang Pao, the highest ranking member of the Hmong tribe in the Laotian army, who agreed to help recruit his fellow tribesmen (other recruits came from the Yao and Lahu tribes). To build up the army, Vang Pao and CIA operatives, including Young, flew to scattered hill communities in helicopters and light aircraft, offering guns, rice and money in exchange for recruits. Dozens of crude landing strips for the CIA-backed "Air America" campaign were hacked out of the forest – including the base at Long Tieng, which grew into a small city: "It had brothels and bars, casinos – everything a serviceman could ask for," Young recalled. "But it had a church, too." Tens of thousands of tribesmen would die during the campaign, which remains one of the least-known chapters in the annals of the Vietnam War.
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