Passport photo of Douglas S. Mackiernan, then working for the CIA undercover as a State Department employee. While others shunned assignment to China's remote far west, he was only too eager to set up a listening post there along the Sino-Soviet border. (Courtesy of Pegge Hlavacek)
For Mackiernan two more months would pass at the frozen campsite. Finally, on March 20, 1950, he and his band said good-bye to the Kazakhs and commenced the final and most grueling leg of their journey, over the Himalayas, into Tibet, and eventually to India. From here on, Mackiernan and his men would be ever more exposed to the elements. At night, Mackiernan would lie down in his sleeping bag, huddled against the back of a camel to shield him from the wind. At morning he and Bessac, the two Americans, could no longer assist in saddling the camels. Their fingers were too numb.
Mackiernan and his party would take turns riding the camels and then walking. Too much riding and they could freeze to death. Too much walking and they would collapse from exhaustion. Their diet, too, required a delicate balance. From the White Russians, more seasoned in the ways of survival, Mackiernan learned what to eat and what not to eat. Too much meat at such an altitude and he could find himself wooed into a nap from which he would not awake. Instead, he nibbled on bits of sugar, rice, raisins, a few bites of meat, and the ever-present biscuits he kept in his pants pocket.
It was all a matter of balance upon which his survival depended. At elevations of sixteen thousand feet or more, the air was so thin that the already taciturn Mackiernan rarely spoke at all, trying to conserve his breath. All conversation ended. In its place were hand signals and one or two-word directives: "brush" or "dung" for fires, "snow" to be melted for water. By now, the ordeal of marching had become a mindless and silent routine, one foot in front of the other. Some days Mackiernan would lose sight in one eye or the other, the result of transient snow blindness.
Many of the horses had died from starvation. Others were useless, their hooves worn out. Knowing that the rest of the way there would be little grass to eat, Mackiernan had long before bartered for camels -- not just any camels, but those that ate raw meat. Before making the purchase he tied up his prospective purchases and waited a day to see which camels consumed meat and which were dependent upon a diet of grass. Those camels that resisted meat Mackiernan promptly returned. Where he was bound, there would be no easy forage.
Though there was an abundance of game -- wild horses, sheep, and yak -- the elevation presented its own unique problems of consumption. At sixteen thousand feet, Mackiernan found that water boiled at a decidedly lesser temperature. He could thrust his hand up to the elbow in furiously boiling water and remove it without a hint of scalding. One day Mackiernan shot a yak. The men salivated over the prospect of yak steaks. But after four hours in the boiling cauldron, the meat was still raw.
There were other problems too. A wild horse was spotted on a distant ridge and was brought down with a single shot. But almost instantly, vultures appeared overhead. By the time the men reached the animal, its carcass was nearly picked clean, its ribs rising out of the snow. After that, Mackiernan and his men shot only what they could reach quickly, then concealed their kill beneath a mound of grasses and stones until they had taken what they needed.
From morning to night the wind howled at fifty, even sixty miles an hour. It was a constant screaming sound, rising at times to a shrill whistle. In such cold, even the simplest manual tasks required superhuman resolve.
Mackiernan's clothes had long since become tatters, which he, like the other men, repaired as best he could. But a bigger concern was how to protect their feet in the deep and frigid snowdrifts. After so many miles, the men had virtually walked out of the soles of their shoes. One day, Mackiernan and Zvonzov spotted two yaks. Both men were thinking shoes and meat. Mackiernan let Zvonzov, the better shot of the two, have the honors.
From three hundred yards, Zvonzov brought the beast down. Right through the heart. They scurried through the snow to the animal as it lay on its side. They swiftly cut away its hide for soles and began removing steaks. But having cleared one flank, they were unable to flip the creature over, and were forced to abandon it, only half consumed.
As March, then April wore on, Mackiernan and his men plotted a course for the Tibetan border. At each new campsite, Mackiernan took out his radio and wired headquarters of his progress. He requested that Washington contact the Tibetan government and ask the then sixteen-year-old Dalai Lama to arrange that he and his men be granted safe passage across the border and that they be given an escort once they exited China. Washington sent back a confirmation. Couriers from the Dalai Lama would alert the border guards at all crossing points so that Mackieman and his band would be welcomed.
By now, Mackiernan set a course by ancient cairns and stone outcroppings. Nomads had pointed the way through the major passes, bidding them to be on the lookout for piles of rocks that rose like pyramids. Beneath each mound were the remains of others who had died in this harsh land. The ground was frozen too solid to yield to a grave, and so the bodies were simply covered with rocks. In so bleak a land, devoid of roads or signs, each such grave became a reference point, named for the person who had died there. Mackiernan passed by the grave of Kalibet and later Kasbek, fascinated at the small measure of immortality granted them. Each death was both a confirmation that Mackiernan was headed in the right direction and a reminder of the risks inherent in such a landscape.
Thousands of miles away, in Washington, the landscape of the Cold War was taking shape. On April 25, 1950, President Truman signed one of the seminal documents of the decade, National Security Council Directive 68. The blueprint for the Cold War strategy, it called on the United States to step up its opposition to Communist expansion, to rearm itself and to make covert operations an integral part of that opposition. The policy of containment was now the undisputed security objective of the era. The CIA had its marching orders.
But for Mackiernan it was not grand geopolitical issues that concerned him, but the ferocity of mountain winds and biting cold. The border had proved more elusive than he had imagined. Finally, at 11:00 A.M. on April 29, 1950, as he scanned the horizon to the southeast with his binoculars, he caught sight of a tiny Tibetan encampment and knew that he had at long last reached the border. It had taken seven months to cross twelve hundred miles of desert and mountain. A moment earlier he had been weary beyond words, his thirty-seven-year old frame stooped with exhaustion. Now, suddenly, he felt renewed and exuberant.
Mackiernan and Bessac went ahead, leaving the others to tend the camels. In the harsh terrain it was an hour before the Tibetans caught sight of Mackiernan, who was now a quarter of a mile ahead of Bessac. He was waving a white flag. The Tibetans dispatched a girl to meet him. They grinned at each other, unable to find any words in common. The girl stuck out her tongue at Mackiernan, a friendly greeting in Tibet, then withdrew to a hilltop where she was met by a Tibetan who unlimbered a gun. Then the two Tibetans disappeared over the hillside. Mackiernan followed and observed a small group apparently reinforcing a makeshift fortification of rocks. Their guns appeared to be at the ready.
Mackiernan decided that it would be best to strike camp here, on the east side of a stream that meandered through the valley. He chose a place in sight of the Tibetans. There he built a small fire to show his peaceful intentions. He suspected that the Tibetans might be wary of his straggling caravan, fearing them to be Communists or bandits bent on rustling sheep. As Mackiernan, Zvonzov, and the other two Russians drove tent stakes into the hard ground, six more Tibetans on horseback appeared, approaching from the northwest.
Moments later shots rang out. Mackiernan and his men dropped to the ground for cover. Bullets were whizzing overhead. Zvonzov reached for the flap of the tent and ripped it free. He tied it to the end of his rifle as a white flag and waved it aloft. The gunfire stopped. No one had been hit. Mackiernan directed Bessac to approach the first group of Tibetans and offer them gifts of raisins, tobacco, and cloth. As Bessac approached, he held a white flag and was taken in by the Tibetans.
Mackiernan, meanwhile, was convinced he could persuade those who had fired on him that his party was not a threat. His plan was a simple one. He and the others would rise to their feet, hands held high above their heads. Slowly they would approach the Tibetans as a group. Zvonzov argued against the plan. He feared the Tibetans would simply open fire when they were most vulnerable. Mackiernan prevailed.
Slowly he and the three White Russians stood up, hands aloft. They walked in measured steps, closing the distance between their tent site and the Tibetans. As they walked, Zvonzov eyed a boulder to the right and resolved that if there was trouble he would dive for cover behind it.
Mackiernan was in the lead, gaining confidence as the Tibetans held their fire. His arms were raised. Behind him walked the two White Russians, Stephani and Leonid. Fewer than fifty yards now separated them from the Tibetan border guards. Just then two shots were fired. Mackiernan cried out, "Don't shoot!" A third shot echoed across the valley. Mackiernan, Stephani, and Leonid lay in the snow. Vassily ran for the boulder. The air was thin and he ripped his shirt open as if it might give his lungs more air. A bullet smashed into his left knee. He tumbled into the snow and crawled toward the tent, his mind fixed on the machine gun and ammo that were there.
Moments later Bessac appeared, his hands tied behind his back, a prisoner of the Tibetans. Vassily, too, was taken prisoner. The six guards looted the campsite, encircled Vassily, and forced him to the ground. They demanded that he kowtow to them. Vassily pleaded for his life. Not long after, Bessac and Vassily, now hobbling and putting his weight on a stick, approached the place where Mackiernan, Stephani, and Leonid had fallen.
The wind was whipping at sixty miles an hour, the snow a blinding swirl. A half hour had passed since the shooting. Mackiernan was lying on his back, his legs crossed. Vassily looked at Mackiernan and thought to himself how peaceful he looked. Mackiernan even appeared to be smiling. It was a slightly ironic smile. Vassily was overcome with the strangest sense of envy.
Just then one of the border guards began to rifle through Mackiernan's pockets. He withdrew a bursak, one of those biscuits Mackiernan was never without. He offered Vassily a piece. Vassily turned away in revulsion. Then the guard pressed the biscuit to Mackiernan's teeth. The mouth fell wide open. Vassily was overcome with nausea. He turned and walked away. Mackiernan's body was already stiffening. But there would be one more indignity Mackiernan and the others would endure. The guards decapitated Mackiernan, Stephani, and Leonid, and even one of the camels that had been felled by their volley.
Shortly thereafter, the guards realized that they had made a terrible mistake, that these men were neither Communists nor bandits. They unbound Bessac's hands and attempted to put him at ease. Then Bessac and Vassily, in the company of the guards, began what was to be the last tedious march, to Lhasa and to freedom.
Five days after Mackiernan was killed, the two surviving members of his party encountered the Dalai Lama's couriers who were to have delivered the message of safe conduct and who were to have been part of Mackiernan's welcoming party. The couriers gave no explanation or excuse for their tardiness. It was small comfort that they offered Bessac the opportunity to execute the leader of the offending border guards. It was an offer he declined.
Three days later, Tibetan soldiers made the arduous trip back to the border to retrieve that which had been looted -- including the remaining gold -- and to return the heads of Mackiernan, Leonid, and Stephani, that they might be buried with their bodies. The camel head was taken on to Lhasa. While convalescing, Vassily carved three simple wooden crosses to stand above the graves on the Tibetan frontier.
Mackiernan and the others were buried where they fell.The place was called Shigarhung Lung. There was no funeral for Mackiernan, then or ever. His grave was marked by Vassily's cross. It read simply "Douglas Mackiernan." He was buried beneath a pile of rocks, not unlike those many simple graves that he had paused to admire along the way and by which he had plotted his own course. Eleven days after the killing, the border guards who had killed him received forty to sixty lashes across the buttocks.
On June 11, 1950, Vassily and Bessac finally reached the outskirts of Lhasa. In the final entry in the log, Bessac wrote, "Good to be here -- Oh God."
-- The Book of Honor: The Secret Lives and Deaths of CIA Operatives, by Ted Gup