Gen. Vang Pao, an iconic figure in the Hmong community and a key U.S. ally during the Vietnam War, died Thursday afternoon in Clovis after spending days in the hospital with pneumonia and a heart problem.
Over 100 people crowded into the outpatient care center at Clovis Community Medical Center to grieve the loss of a beloved leader, who some saw as the George Washington of the Hmong.
"He was a larger-than-life figure for this community," Fresno City Council member Blong Xiong said. "It will take time to mourn this tragic news."
Gen. Vang, 81, had been admitted to Clovis Community on Dec. 26. He apparently was admitted shortly after making his annual appearance at the Hmong International New Year event at the Fresno Fairgrounds. He had lived in Southern California.
Charlie Waters, a friend and veterans advocate in Fresno, said Gen. Vang was suffering from pneumonia and an ongoing heart problem. He also had battled diabetes and had developed cataracts in the past few years.
Gen. Vang "was a great man and a true warrior," Waters said. "His two dreams were to get his people out of the jungle and to have his warriors buried at Arlington."
News of the death spread quickly Thursday evening.
"The Fresno community is deeply saddened by the loss of Gen. Vang Pao, who was a hero to the Hmong community here in Fresno and all across the country," Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin said in a statement. "Gen. Vang Pao was courageous in times of war and a giant in the advocacy of citizenship within the Hmong-American community in times of peace. He displayed the American flag proudly at every community event he held. He was an American patriot of the highest order."
Assembly Member Henry T. Perea said in a statement: "I offer my most heartfelt condolences to the family of General Vang Pao, and to the Hmong community of the Central Valley and beyond. The general was a leader in the truest sense of the word."
Shortly before 8 p.m., the crowd inside the outpatient center parted as Gen. Vang's body was taken out of the hospital. Gen. Vang, dressed in a suit, was rolled on a gurney in view of the crowd to a van to be taken to a Boice Funeral Home in Clovis.
More than 100 people went to see him at a viewing at the funeral home Thursday night.
Funeral arrangements are being made with the hopes that he can be buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., family spokesman Chai Vang said.
Vang Pao is revered by many as a father figure and leader who helped bring and settle the Hmong community into American life.
But he also has been controversial. Federal authorities in 2007 charged him and 10 others with conspiring to violently overthrow communist Laos. Charges against Gen. Vang were dropped in 2009.
Yet the arrest galvanized Hmong Americans who saw him as a symbol in the fight for public acknowledgment of the Hmong role in the war, and for liberation of those still living in Laotian jungle.
The central San Joaquin Valley has one of the largest Hmong populations in the country. Many Hmong -- some of whom fought beside American soldiers during the Vietnam War -- came here after fleeing Laos.
Conflict paved a path to prominence for Gen. Vang, viewed by some as a king and others as George Washington of the Hmong.
Born in December 1929 to farmers in a Laotian village, he became a teenage translator for French paratroopers fighting the Japanese in Laos during World War II.
He was selected to train at a French officers' school in Vietnam and became a commissioned officer in the French army. Laotian leaders made him a general, even though the Hmong were a small ethnic minority in the country.