Travel Tales

Scroll down for Part 2

The Exotic Life and Mysterious Disappearance of the
“Silk King of Thailand” 
Part 1
by
Lew Toulmin

     Doubtless you have heard about the two tragic Malaysian aviation mysteries in the last fourteen months but you may not recall the original mystery of all mysteries in Malaysian (and Thai) history – the disappearance of Jim Thompson, the “Silk King of Thailand,” in the Cameron Highlands of central Malaysia in March, 1967. This led to the biggest land search in Malaysian (and perhaps south-east Asian) history.
The Jim Thompson house, an art and architecture museum made up of six antique Thai houses, is one of the top tourist attractions in Bangkok.
     The case made headlines around the world, since Jim Thompson was the most famous American in Thailand at the time, was a decorated intelligence and military officer, had served in the World War II predecessor to the CIA, was a CIA asset after the war, had resurrected the Thai silk industry, and lived an amazingly glamorous lifestyle in his famous house/museum in Bangkok, entertaining movie stars and world leaders almost every night. Jim was on vacation in the Highlands, apparently went for an afternoon hike in the jungle on Easter Sunday, and disappeared without a trace. 
     I have been working in my off-hours for the last two years on this case and the search, tackling it from a scientific search and rescue (SAR) point of view, which has never been done before. 
     This month I will tell you about Thompson’s life, and then later about the search and my evaluation of it. 
     Jim Thompson was born in Greenville, Delaware in 1906, to a distinguished family. He attended Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania, then practiced architecture and interior design until World War II. He enlisted in the Coastal Artillery Command as a National Guard private in 1940, and was promoted to Lieutenant a year later. Since he spoke fluent French, he was recruited by a friend in 1943 into the Office of Strategic Services -- the OSS -- the wartime predecessor of the CIA.
Jim Thompson rose to Lt. Colonel in the OSS in World War II, and was awarded five Bronze Stars for secret activities behind enemy lines.
     In the OSS, Thompson parachuted into occupied France on missions of spying and sabotage.  Then he served in the Balkans on secret operations, and trained in Ceylon for service in Thailand. As the war ended, he became the OSS chief of station in Bangkok for about a year, resigning in January 1947, having risen from private to Lt. Colonel in just six years. He was awarded five Bronze Stars for his OSS exploits.
     After the war, Thompson began resurrecting the almost-dead Thai silk industry. He founded a company which still exists, and through clever and incessant marketing took it from nothing to a multi-million dollar operation employing over 3000 workers. He became known as the “Silk King of Thailand”. He collected Asian art and antique houses, and assembled six of the houses into a fabulous home and museum, stuffed with art, which is one of the top tourist attractions in Thailand.
Jim Thompson in the 1960s, with spindles of his famous silk – he was known as “The Silk King of Thailand”.
     Each evening after work he entertained lavishly, and virtually everyone of importance in Thailand or who came through Bangkok in the 1950s and 1960s was his guest. Notable guests or customers included Eleanor Roosevelt, Truman Capote, Adlai Stevenson, Tennessee Williams, Katherine Hepburn, Vice President and Lady Bird Johnson, the Kennedys, the Eisenhowers, the Du Ponts, various Rockefellers, Elizabeth Taylor and the Queen of Thailand. 
     Thompson also had time to continue his secret activities. According to US State Department files, he was accused in the 1950s by the French government of running military supplies to resistance groups in Cambodia. It seems apparent that Thompson was a CIA asset (but not officer) during this period, working under CIA direction. As the Vietnam War began, Thompson’s connections with the CIA weakened, and he may even have opposed the war and antagonized the CIA, although some of his friends dispute this.
    Thompson accumulated various enemies, including the Director of the Thai Fine Arts department, who accused Jim of looting Thai art, not rescuing it, from up-country sites, and who seized three valuable Buddha heads from Thompson. Jim had a long public affair with Irena Yost, the wife of the distinguished diplomat, Ambassador Charles Yost. Jim befriended and supported a deposed Prime Minister of Thailand, antagonizing the Thai police and intelligence services. And his successful silk business made him a rival of other silk vendors, especially the powerful wife of another former Prime Minister.
A Thai girl spins Thai silk at the Jim Thompson house museum in Bangkok
     In March 1967 Jim Thompson was 61. Despite his glamorous life, he was somewhat depressed, out of shape, and taking medications for painful intermittent gall bladder attacks and amoebic dysentery. To take a break, he went with a long-time female associate on a short vacation to the Cameron Highlands in north central Malaysia. They stayed with two friends at an attractive house, the Moonlight Bungalow, on a steep hill overlooking the small resort town and the dense surrounding jungle. On Easter Sunday, March 26, the four friends went to church, then a picnic, and returned to the Bungalow. All but Jim took a nap. He apparently sat for a while on the veranda of the Bungalow, smoking a cigar then went out for an afternoon walk. 
 

The Moonlight Bungalow in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia, the “last known point” for Jim Thompson, in March 1967.
The Moonlight Bungalow today in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia – this was the “last known point” for Jim Thompson in March 1967.
     Jim Thompson, the “Silk King of Thailand” and the most famous American in south-east Asia, was never seen again. No trace was ever found. Next month I will describe the 1967 search for Jim Thompson and my own search to figure out what caused his disappearance.
* * *
 Lew Toulmin was born in Mobile, Alabama and lived in Thailand from 1959 to 1965, and worked on a project in Thai government reform in 2002. He lives in Silver Spring, Maryland and is a Fairhope, Alabama “snowbird,” along with his wife, editor and sometime co-author Susan Little Toulmin. His substantial report on the Thompson disappearance is downloadable in pdf form for free on his website: http://www.themosttraveled.com/new/new_land.html 



Searchers for the
“Silk King of Thailand”—
Generals, Gurkhas, Boy Scouts, Dogs,
and 118 Psychics 

Part 2 
by
Lew Toulmin
  

     Last month we learned about the exotic life and mysterious disappearance of Jim Thompson, the “Silk King of Thailand,” in the beautiful Cameron Highlands of Malaysia in March 1967.  This month we will focus on the massive search for Thompson – probably the largest search for an individual on land in south-east Asian history. 

Jim Thompson at the time of his mysterious disappearance in March 1967.

     The search began within hours of Jim’s disappearance.  A hasty search in the late afternoon and evening of Easter Sunday, March 26 was led by Thompson’s doctor, who coincidentally was staying in the area.  Local residents, schoolchildren, police and even hospital patients participated and searched the roads and trails around the Moonlight Bungalow, located high on an isolated hill, surrounded by thick jungle. Over the next two days the search force swelled to 400 persons, including Malaysian Police Field Forces, Malaysian Army soldiers, British Army volunteers, Gurkha soldiers, US Embassy officials from Kuala Lumpur, Boy Scouts, orang asli (local aborigine) trackers, and many others. 
 
The Moonlight Bungalow today in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia – this was the “last known point” for Jim Thompson in March 1967.
     Mr. Perak Aleyak, now a commission agent in the area, was a 17-year-old Boy Scout in 1967.  He and his Troop were called out and sent to search the trails around the nearby 6923-foot Gunung Irau Mountain.  Perak said, “We were led by five orang asli trackers, and we walked the main trails.  If we found a side trail or animal trail, we would go down it, looking for evidence of Thompson, and calling out ‘Mr. Jim! Mr. Jim!’” 
 
Perak Aleyak was a Boy Scout in 1967 and participated in the Thompson search.  Here he points to a map showing the mountain he searched in the dangerous jungles of north central Malaysia. 
     Captain Mokh Ta Mohammad was a 23-year-old Malaysian Army Lieutenant in 1967, and one of the leaders of the search.  His team had line abreast searchers, spaced 40 yards apart, combing the area in a three mile radius around the Moonlight Bungalow, the “last known point.”  He also called in bloodhound-type tracking dogs to search the grounds of the Bungalow, overlooking the tiny resort town of Tanah Rata.   Mohammad said, “Three bloodhound-style dogs found scent trails on the grounds of the house, but could not find a scent trail going down the only access road or into the jungle.”  Based on this evidence (reported here for the first time), the search leaders began to suspect that Thompson had left the area in a car, which would have broken the scent trail.  (But none of the occupants or servants at the Bungalow heard or seen such a car.)
 
Captain Mokh Ta Mohammad helped lead the search for Thompson in 1967.   Here he points up to the Moonlight Bungalow from a spot where Jim may have been sighted shortly after the disappearance.
     US Army Brigadier General Edwin Black, who had introduced Thompson to his World War II bride, arrived after several days with his aides, including Lt. Denis Horgan, later a well-known newspaperman.  Horgan told me, “One or two Malaysian military helicopters made brief overflights, but that wasn’t helpful because of the thickness of the [jungle] vegetation.  There are reports that we had US helicopters, but that definitely wasn’t the case.  The jungle was thick enough that searchers, and presumably Jim, would have stuck close to the trails.  You could not run a line of bush-beaters in there.”

     The official search continued for 11 days, far longer than most such efforts, which usually conclude within 24 hours.  Sporadic searches continued for months.  Altogether, I estimate that about 1448 person days of searching was delivered, a very large number.  (No previous estimate of the total size of the search effort has ever been attempted.)
 
The only known photo of the search effort for Jim Thompson shows soldiers in a loose line.  Note the thick ground cover in the clearing.
     As the search efforts wound down, things got weird. Over 118 mystics, soothsayers and psychics showed up to give their visions of where Thompson was – and all disagreed.  Many set off firecrackers in the jungle, to drive off the evil spirits that had kidnapped Jim.

     The most famous psychic in the world, Peter Hurkos of Holland, arrived on scene.  After walking around the Bungalow while muttering, he declared that Thompson had met a man on the lawn, walked down the access road, was knocked out by morphine and kidnapped by the man and 13 soldiers, and was now being held in Cambodia, 600 miles away across the Gulf of Siam. 

     From my analysis of contemporary FBI documents (obtained via the Freedom of Information Act), it appears that the FBI felt that Hurkos was a “known charlatan,” but the Bureau carefully did not inform General Black of this fact.  So General Black and psychic Hurkos subsequently cooperated in a lengthy and fruitless investigation into the Cambodia angle.

     Thompson was supposedly sighted in Tahiti on May 27, two months after the disappearance.  A confidential State Department report, since declassified, states that Edward Pollitiz, a “responsible American citizen” who “claims to have known Thompson for a number of years,” saw Jim in the Hotel Tahiti and shouted out to him.  But Thompson and an accompanying “Caucasian woman…drove away in a black sedan.”   Pollitz admitted it could be a case of mistaken identity, but was “very positive” about his impressions. This report was apparently circulated to Bill Colby, CIA chief for SE Asian affairs, and later a famous director of the CIA.

     Next month we will analyze the quality of the search, and calculate the “probability of success” of the effort, using formulas employed by the US National Association for Search and Rescue.

* * *
Lew Toulmin was born in Mobile, lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, and “snowbirds” to Fairhope with his wife and editor, Susan Little Toulmin, a retiree from the Library of Congress.  His massive report on the Jim Thompson disappearance, including hundreds of pages of primary source documents and interviews with persons never before contacted, can be downloaded for free from his website at: http://www.themosttraveled.com/new/new_land.html.

 Photos: all credit to Lew Toulmin unless noted otherwise.

No comments:

Post a Comment