H. Ross Perot said he'll never forget a call he made to then-retired General Wayne A. Downing more than a decade ago to help some 125 Hmong Vietnamese living in Hong Kong.

 H. Ross Perot said he'll never forget a call he made to then-retired General Wayne A. Downing more than a decade ago to help some 125 Hmong Vietnamese living in Hong Kong.


Perot explained how the group had aided special forces soldiers during the Vietnam War. With Hong Kong returning to China's control, a deal had been made to return the Hmong to Vietnam - a deal that certainly would have led to severe punishment.


As a favor to another friend, the Texas billionaire and former presidential candidate said he called the U.S. Embassy. "They said 'Oh, we heard about them, but we can't prove who they are,'" Perot recalled in a phone interview last week. "I said 'Well, if I can get someone to identify them, will you let them come back?' They said 'yes,' so then I called Wayne Downing."


"I've known him for years when he was a general in the special forces; I had a close relationship with him," Perot said of Downing, a Peoria native who is to be honored in his hometown next month.


Downing, 67, a retired four-star general, died July 18, 2007, of complications from bacterial meningitis after his immune system was weakened by cancer. He was the former commander of the nation's Special Forces and was picked by President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to be the point man for counterterrorism.


The Greater Peoria Regional Airport this week will be renamed the Gen. Wayne A. Downing Peoria International Airport, a change that will be formally recognized Oct. 10 during a groundbreaking ceremony of a new $60 million airport terminal. Perot said he will attend.


"(Downing) said 'I can identify those people, I'll be on the next plane,'" Perot said, continuing his Hmong story. "I'll never forget, I said 'Wayne, I'll send you the tickets.' He said 'No, nobody buys this ticket for me, I wouldn't be alive without them.'"


Perot said he helped Downing get an interpreter, but that it was the general who was responsible for getting the Hmong refugees out safely.


"The next day (Downing) called me, he says, 'They're all on the airplane coming back home,' and I said, 'Just out of curiosity, how did you get them off the island?' He just laughed and said 'Don't ask, Perot' and hung up the phone," Perot said, laughing himself, admitting it was his "favorite story" involving Downing.


"I could tell you Wayne Downing stories forever," Perot continued. "He was a wonderful man, a great general, great leader, and I just think it's wonderful that they're going to name this airport in his honor."


While admitting he had nothing to do with seeing the airport renamed after his friend, Perot did say he is helping to see that a statue of Downing is created.


It will be of "Wayne Downing in his combat gear as you drive into the airport, we're working on that right now," Perot said.


"I want to make sure that Wayne is properly honored in his own hometown," said Perot. "Anything I can do to help I ought to do. And so I think my little bit will be to get that big monument in his honor."


He said he knew Downing some 30 years. He also attended Downing's funeral in Peoria last year.


Ending the interview, Perot quoted Abraham Lincoln: "Any nation that does not properly honor its heroes will not long endure."


Dave Haney can be reached at (309) 686-3181 or dhaney@pjstar.com.