In the years when he was saving the lives of downed U.S. pilots in Southeast Asia, Col. Song Leng Xiong was fighting a war most Americans weren't even aware of.
Decades later he's being remembered in St. Paul, where the city proclaimed Saturday "Col. Song Leng Xiong Day" as one of the leaders of the Hmong-American community is laid to rest.
A proclamation approved by the city council this week recognizes Xiong, who "personally rescued and retrieved" at least seven American pilots who were shot down over Laos. (Watch the council's presentation at the 40 minute mark of this video.)
Xiong was among thousands of Hmong fighters the U.S. recruited to wage what's often called a "secret war" against communist forces in Laos at the same time Americans were battling North Vietnamese troops in the 1960s and early '70s.
That secret war was in an international spotlight in September when President Obama spoke about it during the first visit to Laos by a sitting U.S. president.
A few weeks after Obama's speech Col. Xiong died in St. Paul, his relatives say. Xiong had moved to the Twin Cities in 1993 after living for nearly 20 years in a refugee camp in Thailand.
Xiong was only 14 when he joined the military, the Pioneer Press reports, and he got military training from the CIA before becoming leading a battalion that expanded the base used by the revered Hmong Gen. Vang Pao.
According to a remembrance posted to Facebook by his nephew, Xiong lost 30 soldiers on the way to rescuing one American pilot in Laos. Another pilot was sheltered for more than a week and nursed by Xiong's wife and her father until the pilot was able to be evacuated, the nephew writes.
St. Paul's resolution notes that Xiong attended the dedication of a monument to Hmong and Lao soldiers on the State Capitol grounds this summer even though he was in poor health.
In keeping with Hmong tradition, his funeral is a round-the-clock three day event that started in St. Paul on Friday, the Pioneer Press says.