Francis Bagnall Bessac (pronounced bih-ZAK; January 13, 1922 – December 6, 2010) was an American anthropologist who spent much of his life teaching the subject at the University of Montana, where he was appointed to the faculty in 1965. During the years toward the end of and immediately following World War II, Bessac served with the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.) in Western China and Mongolia, and while escaping from Communist Chinese forces in 1950 on their way to Tibet, Bessac was part of a group mistakenly attacked by Tibetan forces in which Central Intelligence Agency spy Douglas Mackiernan was killed, making him the CIA's first agent killed in action.
Bessac was born on January 13, 1922, in Lodi, California and earned his undergraduate degree at the University of the Pacific, where he majored in history. He enlisted in the United States Army during World War II. After studying Chinese language at Cornell University, Bessac was sent by the O.S.S. to China, where he served until 1947. He studied language at Fujen University in present-day Beijing after completing service with the O.S.S and was awarded a Fulbright scholarship.
The CIA hired him when it was formed in 1947, but Bessac left after realizing that the covert role the agency wanted him to fill would prevent him from further pursuing his studies of Mongolia. In the Gobi Desert studying anthropology in Inner Mongolia, Bessac was forced to flee in the wake of advancing Chinese Communist forces and decided to escape to Tibet by embarking on a journey of 2,000 miles (3,200 km) to Tihwa (now known as Ürümqi) and from there through Tibet and across the Himalayas to India.
While approaching Tibet, Bessac's group was mistakenly attacked by a group of Tibetan border guards, who shot and killed three members of his group before Bessac ran towards the soldiers while carrying a white flag. Among the dead was CIA agent Douglas Mackiernan, who had been sent to monitor actions by the Soviet Union in the area around the border between China and the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, near the location where the Soviets had conducted their initial nuclear bomb test in August 1949. The Tibetan troops who had been involved in the attack that led to Mackiernan's death were convicted by a military court in Lhasa and sentenced to mutilation, with the leader of the group "to have his nose and both ears cut off", though after Bessac intervened for leniency, the punishment was changed so that the leader received 200 lashes and the other members of the patrol were also lashed.
Bessac died at the age of 88 on December 6, 2010, in Missoula, Montana, due to a stroke. He was survived by his wife, the former Susanne Leppmann, as well as by four daughters, a son, eight grandchildren and two stepgrandchildren.
- Weber, Bruce. "Frank Bessac, Scholar and Adventurer, Dies at 88", The New York Times, December 25, 2010. Accessed December 26, 2010.
- Staff. "Frank Bessac: Frank Bessac, who died on December 6 aged 88, was one of two survivors of an epic and ill-fated trip led by the CIA in the early days of the Cold War which took him from the borders of Mongolia to the Tibetan capital Lhasa amid Great Game-style efforts to stymie communists both in China and in Russia.", The Daily Telegraph, December 21, 2010. Accessed December 26, 2010.
- Bessac, Frank; as told to Burke, James. "These Tibetans Killed an American and Get the Lash for it", Life (magazine), November 13, 1950. Accessed December 26, 2010.