The Curious Case of Jim Thompson

Was the American secret service agent killed, kidnapped or just lost?
Thursday 3 January 2019
Was Jim Thompson taken by the jungle? Photo: Getty Images

What happens when a CIA agent goes out for a walk in the woods and vanishes without a trace? If this were a Mission: Impossible movie, his adventure would have just begun. He would have bedded the hot female assassin, defeated the villains and driven a pimped-up supercar into the sunset.

However, there were no happy endings for former Office of Strategic Services (OSS) officer James Harrison Wilson Thompson, known to the world simply as Jim Thompson, the art-loving American who revived interest in Thai silk and the industry. Thompson’s disappearance coupled with his later known affiliation with the OSS sparked conspiracy theories; how could it not?

The OSS was the US intelligence agency during World War II and the forerunner of the modern CIA, and an OSS agent’s mysterious disappearance was perfect fodder for conspiracy theory enthusiasts. 50 years is a long time. Long enough for people to either come up with theories as to what really happened to the adventure-loving American who was 61 at the time.

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Moonlight Cottage was where Jim Thompson was last seen. Photo: Fazil Fuad

The story is simple, in fact too simple for people to accept at face value. On Easter Day, 26 March 1967, Thompson who at that time was based in Thailand, had come to Malaysia for a holiday. He was staying at the Moonlight Cottage in Tanah Rata, Cameron Highlands, hosted by his friends Dr and Mrs Ling. After church in the morning, Thompson had gone back to the cottage to rest and at about 3pm, he decided to go for a walk. His hosts who were resting at that time heard his steps on the trail, walking away from the house and assumed that he was going for a stroll, which was something he did often. That was the last anyone saw or heard of him.

According to a report by the US Department of Justice (DOJ) dated 8 May 1967, a search was hastily organised immediately after he went missing. The police, along with Thompson’s family and friends had combed the entire vicinity until 2am in the morning to no avail. Despite extensive search operations for 11 days involving over 500 people, the authorities were unable to find anything that could help explain what happened to Thompson.

The absence of a lead naturally made way for speculation. And many theories have since emerged. It is believed that the ‘Thai Silk King’ who loved going for walks had left the house via the kitchen door, and walked the trail now known as the ‘Jim Thompson Trail’, a significant tourist attraction that allows visitors to indulge in the possibility of finding a clue on those tracks. Like those tourists, UNRESERVED also embarked on a journey to understand the disappearance of the 61-year-old and examine whether this cold case remains unsolved due to lack of evidence or simply because of Thompson’s high profile life.

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Jim Thompson examining a piece of fabric. Photo:

Search and rescue expert Dr Llewellyn Toulmin has been studying the disappearance of Thompson for over a decade now. In his research video The Mysterious Disappearance of Jim Thompson, he analyses and explains why (in his opinion) some of these theories remain mere myths. One of the most notable things said by Toulmin in his work is that even the US Embassy had classified Thompson’s case as having “virtually no prospect of solution”, in other words, they basically declared that they have given up.

Besides the embassy, a Thai investigator ‘Mr Noon’ who was apparently renowned at that time had said “this is an impossible case, there is not even a trace to go on”. Noon however later concluded that he was absolutely sure that Thompson could not have gone missing in the jungle. No explanation was given for this opinion other than him crediting his own “expertise”.

According to Toulmin, the first theory that emerged after the disappearance of Thompson was that the OSS killed him. “In my opinion that is just utter nonsense. Why would the CIA get rid of someone who was once a part of their team? From my research, Thompson was quite an asset to them and he had apparently done some amazing investigative work, which I unfortunately could not get an elaboration on.

“I cannot name my sources but one person who believed in this theory told me that he was running supplies to the Vietnamese for the ongoing Vietnam War. In fact there were also claims that Thompson had opposed the war in Vietnam and rebuked someone in the force to state his opposition to the ongoing war,” said Toulmin.

The Vietnam War which lasted for 20 years saw the US’ longest combat force participation. Logically speaking, the fact that Thompson was an asset to the US government would have put the Vietnamese off from reaching out to him. In addition, there were no records whatsoever, not even at the US embassy in Malaysia, of Thompson working against them, so this theory does not hold water.

Speculation supporting this theory is an eyewitness claim that Thompson had left the cottage in a black car. Commenting on this, Toulmin said that in a place like Cameron Highlands, cars were very limited back in 1967. “In addition to that, they were very loud. So if a car had made its way uphill to get Thompson, people within 100 metres would have heard it, and that would include his hosts, the Lings, but they claimed that they only heard him walk away,” he adds.

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Research shows that this was an apparent possibility due to Thompson’s financial status as the ‘Silk King’ which earned him a minimum income of US$1.5 million a year. It was a little like a “millionaire on a holiday in the highlands, let’s kidnap him and demand ransom” kind of situation.

This was however debunked by the Malaysian police whose report said: “The police has contacted all criminals and communist gangs in Malaysia and received assurance that none of these groups had knowledge pertinent to the victim’s disappearance.” The statement by the police brings to light the presence of another strong player – terrorists. Thompson went missing just as the Communist Insurgency began, leading up to the Malayan Emergency.

This dangerous context makes this theory plausible. According to filmmaker Barry Broman who made a 2-hour documentary called Who Killed Jim Thompson, a former member of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) had made a deathbed confession claiming that the communists did indeed execute Thompson.

Broman, at the premiere of his documentary in Thailand in 2017, had said that his friend Xuwicha ‘Noi’ Hiranpruek had contacted him back in 2012 and told him of a deathbed confession made by his friend’s uncle Teo Pok Hwa, who once served as a cadre with CPM. Pok Hwa had told his nephew Teo Pin that the CPM had executed Thompson as he had made known his intention of wanting to meet Chin Peng who was CPM’s secretary-general at that time.

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Former leader of the banned Communist Party of Malaya, Chin Peng (L), during negotiations between the communists and government from a photo dated 1955. Photo: National Archives of Malaysia/AFP

“Thompson wanted to meet Chin Peng, who was then the most wanted man in Malaya,” he said, adding that a request from the American had elicited suspicions in Cameron Highlands, which at that time was a hotbed for communist activities. In fact, Moonlight Cottage where Thompson stayed before his disappearance had once served as the CPM headquarters.

Pok Hwa had explained that the dangerous request by Thompson to meet the most wanted man in Malaysia had forced CPM and its sympathisers to dig more information about Thompson which then unravelled his history as a secret service agent. He further added that it was not a good time for a ‘westerner’ with a past history of being an intelligence agent to be asking to meet Chin Peng.

This prompted the communists to terminate the spy’s life. As valid as this sounds, the communists were always one to claim responsibility, especially after the assassination of a high-profile individual such as British High Commissioner Sir Henry Gurney which took place in 1951.

No mystery is complete without a love scandal. From the days of Lady Macbeth to the tawdry tales of the movie, Unfaithful. The plot line is rather similar, person is married, person falls in love with someone else and finally person is killed by the partner’s spouse.

That is allegedly what happened to Thompson who was known for having many girlfriends, during and after his short-lived marriage to Patricia Maury Thraves. Thompson was married to her for all of three years and there were claims they got divorced when she found out that Thompson was a homosexual. This, however, remains unverified.

Toulmin claims that during the time of his disappearance, Thompson was having a fling with the wife of the-then United Nation Ambassador Charles Yost. “It was suspected that his wife Irena was having an affair with Thompson for almost a year. When her husband found out, he was enraged and ordered that Thompson be killed immediately.”

Besides Irena, there were claims that he had gay lovers. The numbers are unknown but it is claimed that the Thai Police had received reports from two sources, one from Bangkok and the other from personnel in Cameron Highlands, both claiming that Jim was quite the love master who had lovers on both sides of the gender divide. This theory though juicy and convenient was clearly unfounded as there was no proof tying his death to his scandalous affairs.

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Gnarly. Photo: iStock

The one theory that makes the most sense and is somewhat credible in nature is the possibility that Thompson died in the forest. This is heavily supported by the fact that Dr Ling, his friend and host, described Thompson as an “unreasonable adventure-loving man”.

According to Toulmin, the day before Thompson disappeared, he and Dr Ling had decided to walk to the golf course which was supposed to be 30 minutes away from the cottage by foot. The two, however, got lost in the forest and only reached the golf course four hours later. It was said that Dr Ling was rather annoyed and uncomfortable as his body began aching, but Thompson on the other hand was ecstatic at the idea of getting lost and was in an unusually good mood for the rest of the evening. Not a surprise really, considering his hardcore history of serving in World War II. This seems like the most credible testimony by far as it came from someone who was close to Thompson and had spent the morning with him before he vanished into the forests of Tanah Rata.

Though there were claims that he could have been mauled by tigers, what makes more sense would be that Thompson fell into a ditch, a spur or even an animal trap. Considering Thompson’s poor health – he had a failing gallbladder and a weak heart – the conditions would have worsened his dire situation and ultimately caused his death.

In explaining the absence of the body, Dr Ling said that the highland forests were thick and there was always rain, so there was a possibility that the search and rescue party could have missed him in their haste and by the time the second search was conducted, he was buried under mud.

The burning question surrounding Thompson’s fate is the inexplicable lack of records relating to his disappearance or even the search operations that took place at that time. It was previously reported that the US had deployed a helicopter from Vietnam to aid in the search and rescue. This only goes to show that Thompson remained an asset to the American government. But if that were really the case, should there not be more details of his sudden departure?

All attempts to unravel the Thompson case led to dead ends with both the Malaysian Police Department and the US embassy in Malaysia saying that “records were not kept for such long periods”. A search in the National Archives only yielded newspaper articles and even then it was noted that his disappearance was not as thoroughly recorded or reported perhaps due to the Vietnam War, the opening of the first race circuit in Malaysia, and the ongoing Sukarno-Suharto spat in Indonesia which was all happening at the same time.

During the research, it was discovered that the Moonlight Cottage which was later renamed the Jim Thompson Cottage has recently been renamed the Sunlight Bungalow. Day by day, it seems like Thompson is fading away. This case, much like the disappearance of famed American pilot Amelia Earhart, will continue to fascinate and tease the imagination. Given the lack of documentation, perhaps it is easier just to believe that Thompson was taken away by the forest fairies all those years ago.

Related: The Crime That Shook Colonial Malaya