Vang Pao fought the Japanese as a teenager. He later led Hmong guerrillas in their CIA-backed battle against communists during the Vietnam War. More recently he was a father figure to Hmong refugees who fled Laos for the United States.
Listen to a 2008 profile of Vang Pao by former KPCC reporter Doualy Xaykaothao, Vang Pao's great niece: Download
After immigrating to America once the communists seized power in Laos in 1975, Vang Pao was venerated as a leader by his transplanted countrymen who settled mainly in California's Central Valley, Minneapolis and cities in Wisconsin.
Xang Vang, the general's chief translator who fought by his side, said Vang Pao died Thursday night following a battle with pneumonia, which he caught while traveling in central California to preside over two Hmong New Year celebrations.
"I touched his hand, I called his name on his ear, and he opened his eyes briefly," Xang Vang said. "He had been getting better for the last few days, but last night he was getting worse and now he has left us."
The general had been hospitalized for about 10 days, Clovis Community Medical Center Michelle Von Tersch spokeswoman said.
Xiong was at the hospital with a growing crowd of mourners. He said he spoke briefly with family members, who were planning a memorial service, but had no details on what caused Vang Pao's death.
During World War II, Vang Pao fought to prevent the Japanese from seizing control of Laos.
In the 1950s, he joined the French in the war against the North Vietnamese who were dominating Laos and later, as a general in the Royal Army of Laos, worked with the CIA to wage a covert war there.
Former CIA Chief William Colby once called Pao "the biggest hero of the Vietnam War," for the 15 years he spent heading a CIA-sponsored guerrilla army fighting against a communist takeover of the Southeast Asian peninsula.
After his guerrillas ultimately lost to communist forces, Vang Pao came to the U.S., where he was credited with brokering the resettlement of tens of thousands of Hmong, an ethnic minority from the hillsides of Laos.
"He's the last of his kind, the last of the leadership that carries that reference that everyone holds dear," said Blong Xiong, a Fresno city councilman and the first Hmong-American in California to win a city council seat. "Whether they're young or old, they hear his name, there's the respect that goes with it."
Regarded by Hmong immigrants as an exiled head of state, Vang Pao made frequent appearances at Hmong cultural and religious festivals and often was asked to mediate disputes or solve problems.
In 2007, however, he was arrested and charged with other Hmong leaders in federal court with conspiracy in a plot to kill communist officials in his native country. Federal prosecutors alleged the Lao liberation movement known as Neo Hom raised millions of dollars to recruit a mercenary force and conspired to obtain weapons.
Even after his indictment, he appeared as the guest of honor at Hmong New Year celebrations in St. Paul and Fresno, where crowds of his supporters gathered to catch a glimpse of the highly decorated general as he arrived in a limousine.
The charges against Vang Pao were dropped in 2009, "after investigators completed the time-consuming process of translating more than 30,000 pages of pages of documents," then-U.S. Attorney Lawrence G. Brown said in a written statement. The government arrested the defendants before understanding all the evidence because they felt a threat was imminent, he said.
In November, a federal judge in Sacramento threw out parts of the case against 12 other defendants. They include retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Youa True Vang and 11 members of California's Hmong community, many of whom fought for the U.S. during the Vietnam War. All 12 have pleaded not guilty since their arrests in 2007.
"Vang Pao was a great man and a true American hero. He served his country for many years in his homeland, and he continued to serve it in America," said attorney William Portanova, who represents one of the remaining Hmong defendants. "To think that these elderly men would be in a position to try to overthrow a country is, on its face, almost laughable."
Lauren Horwood, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Sacramento, said she had no immediate comment.
Vang Pao had been a source of controversy for several years before the case was filed.
In 2002, the city of Madison, Wis., dropped a plan to name a park in his honor after a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor cited published sources alleging that Vang Pao had ordered executions of his own followers, of enemy prisoners of war and of his political enemies.
Five years later, the Madison school board removed his name from a new elementary school named for him, after dissenters said it should not bear the name of a figure with such a violent history.
But such criticism meant little to Hmong families who looked to Vang Pao for guidance as they struggled to set up farms and businesses in the U.S. and assume a new, American identity. The general formed several nonprofits to aid the refugee communities and set up a council to mediate disputes between the 18 Hmong clans, whose president he hand-picked for decades.
"He's always been kind of the glue that held everyone together," said Lar Yang of Fresno, who featured an interview with Vang Pao last month in the Hmong business directory he publishes annually.
"He's the one that always resolved everything ... I don't think it can be filled by one person at this point. There will probably be a search for identity. There will be a lot of chaos for a little while, until things get settled."
Don Thompson in Sacramento contributed to this report.
© 2011 The Associated Press.