When he returned to Lodi in October 1950, the young, rangy Frank Bessac was hailed as a hero.
He had, after all, survived an epic journey across the frigid plains and mountains of China and Tibet, only to witness three of his party gunned down by border guards. One of those killed, it was later revealed, was a CIA operative, the first to die in the line of duty.
After the killings, Bessac traveled to the fabled city of Lhasa, where he met personally with the teenage Dalai Lama.
The drama was played out during the turbulent period after World War II as Communists were seizing control of China and threatening to take over Tibet.
So in the autumn of 1950, when the 28-year-old Fulbright scholar returned to his family’s home on Harney Lane, newspapers duly celebrated his odyssey and survival.
“A modern Marco Polo,” proclaimed one news writer.
“Lodi Hero of Sensational Escape,” read a headline from The Record.
Bessac would publish a lengthy first-person account of his experiences in Life magazine, complete with photos of the Tibetan border guards who had shot his fellow travelers.
Frank Bagnall Bessac (pronounced bih-ZAK) died on Dec. 6 at age 88. He was a complex and accomplished man, a professor of anthropology at the
University of Montana and an expert on land reform in Taiwan. A longtime supporter of Tibetan sovereignty, he met last year with the Dalai Lama in New York, his first meeting since seeing him as a 14-year-old boy in Lhasa.
Bessac relished reading Proust and listening to Brahms. Though his vision was impaired in later years, he enjoyed hiking near his home on Rattlesnake Creek near Missoula, Mont.
He was a man who lived a great and daring adventure a world away from the fields and vineyards he grew up near in Lodi.
Yet Bessac remains a man of a certain intrigue; some have questioned whether his role in China and Tibet transcended that of mere scholar and adventurer.
Growing up in Lodi
The property was known as Rosewild because of the abundance of wild roses that flourished there. Frank Bagnall Bessac grew up at the family compound, a few miles outside of Lodi. His father, Harry W. Bessac, was a school principal who ultimately became San Joaquin County Superintendent of Schools.
Bessac’s sister, Virginia Clark, recalled the family property was on a dirt road that served as thoroughfare for livestock moving to market.
“They even herded turkeys down that road. They put them on barges and off they went to markets in the Bay Area,” she said.
He attended Live Oak School and graduated from Lodi High School in 1939. He enrolled at the College of the Pacific and joined the Rho Lamba Phi fraternity.
“He was a good guy. Not stuck-up,” recalled fraternity brother Robert Norman of Morada.
Even as a youngster, he had a studious nature.
“He was a good student and (had) an intellectual bent. He seemed destined to be ‘Professor Bessac,’” said Chris Keszler, a retired Lodi dentist and childhood pal of Bessac.
Bessac played football under famed coach Amos Alonzo Stagg, said Bessac’s widow, Suzanne Bessac. (The Life article published in 1950 included a photo of Bessac in a football uniform and the caption, “Bessac looked the part of a clean-cut college tackle.”)
He earned a bachelor’s degree in history, then joined the U.S. Army and studied Chinese at Cornell University. He served in the OSS, or Office of Strategic Service, a precursor to the CIA, studying and working in China.
He became fluent in Mandarin, studied Mongolian culture, and distributed food to rural denizens for the U.S. State Department. According to an obituary in The Telegraph newspaper, a daily circulated throughout the United Kingdom, Bessac became an honorary Mongol and a “Knight of Genghis Khan.”
After being awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, he decided to remain in Mongolia and continue his studies among tribes on the Gobi desert. That is where his adventure really began. And it is where the exact role he played becomes unclear.
‘An element of adventure’
In 1949, Communists began sweeping across northern and western China. Foreigners like Bessac, and those loyal to the Nationalists, grew anxious.
Bessac might have left China by plane. He did not, choosing instead to travel overland to the far western reaches of China still held by the Nationalists. It was a journey he knew would be lengthy and difficult, a journey he hoped would expose him to the nomadic cultures he found so fascinating.
“There was an element of adventure in Frank. He wasn’t so much escaping as much as he was taking the chance to travel westward, to areas that had not been studied much,” said Suzanne Bessac.
In the remote provincial capital of Xinjiang, near the Soviet border, he discovered another American, Douglas S. Mackiernan. Mackiernan was officially the vice-consul at the U.S. consulate there; he was secretly an agent of the CIA. Mackiernan was spying on the Soviet Union’s development and testing of the atomic bomb.
Writing his story later in Life magazine, Bessac recalled that, out walking one day in Xinjiang, he saw Soviets on the street cheering and heard schoolgirls singing “Long Live Mao Tse-tung!”
The city was in the hands of the Communists.
Bessac helped Mackiernan destroy all U.S. documents and the two packed up, hastily radioing the U.S. State Department that they were evacuating. Their destination: Tibet, a distance of 1,200 miles. Besides the Americans, the group included three so-called White Russians, those loyal to the czar during the Russian revolution and opposed to Communism.
Maps of the region were crude, routes sketchy at best. The provincial farewell, Bessac said later, was “May there be a road.”
In the autumn of 1949, they began their expedition by Jeep, then camel, then horseback. They crossed arid, wind-whipped lands, reaching altitudes of 20,000 feet.
Bessac’s journals of the trip tell of cooking antelope steaks over fires of dried yak dung. The men ate little beyond meat, including antelope and wild ass, and Bessac noted he fell victim to “protein poisoning ... I felt constantly starved. Before we were over the mountain, I became nauseated by the site of meat.”
The camels, too, began eating meat. There was nothing else. The horses could not and soon perished, he wrote.
As winter approached, the men were welcomed into a small native colony near the Tibetan border. Mackiernan had with him two books: “War and Peace,” by Tolstoy and “Cass Timberlane,” by Sinclair Lewis. Bessac read and reread each book, and eventually put the pages of “Cass Timberlane” to use in what he described as “our makeshift toilet.”
Gunfire and a long walk
The winds, he wrote, were relentless. They would rise in the morning and howl across the mountains for the remainder of each day, making conversation impossible.
When spring arrived, the caravan moved on, the men clumsily navigating toward what they hoped would be an entry to Tibet.
On April 29, 1950, they came upon their first Tibetan settlement. While Bessac attempted to befriend the Tibetans with gifts of cloth and raisins, other members of his party were confronted by border guards a short distance away.
After hearing a shot, Bessac raced to a knoll and saw the guards order the men out of a tent. The men complied and walked toward the guards with their hands raised. The guards opened fire, killing three and wounding one.
Then, he wrote, the guards turned their guns and fired in his direction. He dropped to the ground and froze. When the gunfire stopped, he stood and slowly walked toward the armed men.
“Strangely, they took no more shots but let me approach them,” he wrote. “It was a long walk.”
One guard ordered him to kneel and touch his head to the ground.
“I will not. I am an American,” he replied, repeating the phrase in English, Mandarin and Mongolian.
Mackiernan and two of the Russians were dead. One Russian survived with a leg wound. Mackiernan became the first CIA officer to die in the line of duty, though his role as a spy would not be revealed until years later.
The guards had apparently confused the party for marauders or Communists. As Bessac managed to communicate in bits and pieces with the guards, they realized they had made a horrible mistake.
Some days later, as Bessac and the surviving Russian traveled with the guards to Lhasa, a Tibetan messenger arrived with official orders that the Mackiernan group be allowed safe passage. The U.S. State Department had sent Tibetan leaders messages telling of the group’s arrival, but the resulting orders arrived too late.
In his book “Seven Years in Tibet,” Heinrich Harrer recorded Bessac’s arrival on the outskirts of Lhasa: “We met the young man in pouring rain. He was as tall as a bean pole and completely dwarfed his little Tibetan pony. ... I could well imagine how he felt, the little caravan had been months on the road, always in flight from enemies and exposed to dangers and their first meeting with the people of the country in which they sought asylum brought three of their party to their death.”
The Tibetans tried to make amends, providing Bessac with food, fresh clothes, and a role in deciding punishment for the border guards. Under Tibetan law, there is no capital punishment. The culprits would typically have been mutilated with the removal of their nose or ears. Bessac urged a lesser penalty of public flogging, which was carried out with Bessac present. His photos of the guards being punished accompanied his Life package.
During his stay in Lhasa, he met with the Dalai Lama in his summer palace. Bessac initially reported that the spiritual leader, only 14, could not speak at length to him, as tradition barred conversation with foreigners. Later in life, he said the Dalai Lama asked him about Western culture and queried him about gaining U.S. support to repel the advancing Chinese.
From Lhasa, Bessac traveled to India, where a reporter for Life met and interviewed him for the account that appeared in November 1950.
He returned to Lodi for the brief and well-publicized homecoming, then entered academe, earning his doctorate in anthropology from the University of Wisconsin and joining the faculty at the University of Montana in 1965.
A final blessing
As secret U.S. records became declassified, Mackiernan’s role as a spy was revealed. Several accounts, most prominently a book by Thomas Laird titled, “Into Tibet: The CIA’s First Atomic Spy and his Secret Expedition to Lhasa,” contended that Bessac, too, was a CIA agent. An authoritative obituary of Bessac in The Telegraph states he joined the CIA when it was formed in 1947 but was not officially a spy during the journey to Lhasa.
Bessac discounted such claims, saying Mackiernan offered him a position with the CIA but that he refused it.
Bessac enjoyed a richly satisfying teaching career. In 2006, with his wife, he wrote the book, “Death on the Chang Tang: Tibet 1950,” recounting his arduous journey.
He reflected often on that journey, on the brutal slaying of his fellows, and on the sad fate of Tibet, which fell under Communist control in 1951.
“He asked, ‘Why did I survive? Why?’” said Suzanne Bessac.
He felt that Mackiernan, had he survived, might have convinced Washington to protect Tibet from the Communist takeover.
“Frank had no portfolio. He was a student. Mackiernan might have made a difference,” Suzanne Bessac said.
Last year, Bessac was among a group greeted by the Dalai Lama at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. The two had not met since the chaotic days of spring 1950.
The Buddhist leader leaned over Bessac, seated in a wheelchair, and touched his forehead to Bessac’s as a blessing.