5 Questions About Fly Until You Die and Prisoner of Wars

We ask authors of books reviewed in Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read their books. In our latest installment of the series, Chia Y Vang discusses her books Fly Until You Die: An Oral History of Hmong Pilots in Vietnam War and Prisoner of Wars: A Hmong Fighter Pilot’s Story of Escaping Death and Confronting Lifewhich she co-authored with Pao Yang and are reviewed in the latest issue of OHR.

Read former OHR editor Troy Reeve’s review of Fly Until You Die: An Oral History of Hmong Pilots in Vietnam War. 

What are they about and why does it matter? 

Both books are about the lived experiences of Hmong men who were trained to be pilots to provide close air support to ground troops during the U.S. Secret War in Laos, which paralleled the larger Vietnam War. They tell the stories of war not of their own making but fought in their villages and towns and the struggle to make sense of life following the war. Fly Until You Die is a collective memory of the heart-wrenching stories of Hmong airmen and their loved ones as well as American veterans’ reflections on how they overcame enormous obstacles to train the men. Prisoner of Wars examines in-depth the tumultuous experiences of the only Hmong pilot veteran who was shot down, survived and was captured by the enemy, served several years in a prison camp before he was released and escaped to the United States. Many American veterans who served during the Vietnam War have written about their wartime experiences and post-war difficulties. My books matter because they highlight the lasting impact of the war on Hmong lives that is absent in dominant narratives of the war. 

How does oral history contribute to your books?

Vang, Chia. Fly Until You Die: An Oral History of Hmong Pilots in the Vietnam War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. 

Like other historians, I have spent many years going through materials that are deemed important to be preserved. While archival materials at different institutions were instrumental for my research, the voices of marginalized groups like the Hmong pilots and their families are not found in official archives. Both books are informed by the oral histories I conducted in the interviewees’ homes across the United States. Because the life experiences of the people I wanted to study are not found in archives, my books would not have been possible without oral history. 

What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?

Hmong people have a strong oral tradition where stories are not written down, but instead, they are passed on from one generation to the next. It was the ideal methodology for my research. As a methodology, oral history enables people to share their personal experiences, thoughts, and feelings. While they are structured interviews, I appreciate the conversational nature of oral history interviews. 

I conducted the overwhelming majority of my interviews in Hmong language, then transcribed and translated them into English. As a multilingual researcher, it was a privilege to give interviewees the option to talk about their experiences in their native language where they could explain complex issues to make visible things that have been left out of historical records. 

Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your books?

Vang, Chia and Pao Yang. Prisoner of Wars: A Hmong Fighter Pilot’s Story of Escaping Death and Confronting Life. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2021.

I think fellow oral historians will appreciate the wide range of experiences I included in my books. Many historians are familiar with larger political and military aspects of the Vietnam War, but they cannot access the personal archives of Hmong veterans and families of pilots who were killed in action. The personal narratives are sometimes highly charged because they complicate what it means to be fighting for freedom and being free when they have become uprooted and displaced across the globe.  

What is the one thing that you most want readers to remember about the books?

I would like readers to remember that the stories of these ordinary people who became entangled in a war that was decided by powerful leaders on the other side of the globe have extraordinary lived experiences worthwhile to remember as well.