A Forgotten Chapter of Vietnam: How an Indigenous Tribe Won the Admiration of the Green Berets—and Lost Everything Else

Unsung battles.
Nov. 27 2013 8:12 AM

The Snake-Eaters and the Yards

The Vietnamese tribesmen who fought alongside American Special Forces won the Green Berets’ admiration—and lost everything else.

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Russell Mann, who served as a medic in the Special Forces, told Hans Halberstadt one of many funny stories soldiers traded about the Yards. Mann was assigned to teach a group of Montagnards how to throw grenades. “Montagnards culturally do not throw,” he said. “They have no games that require throwing. They don’t even throw rocks at their chickens.” Mann trained his students, who were “more than willing to humor the crazy Americans as long as they got to kill some Vietnamese,” to throw progressively larger items, with an actual grenade toss as the “final exam.”

When a poorly placed grenade, lobbed over a berm, rolled back down the slope toward a student and his instructor, both had to dive into a muddy trench. “The subsequent mud-soaked exit was a source of great amusement to the tribesmen,” Mann said. Eventually, he said, “I developed a great fondness for the Yards. If it was a slow day, I would occasionally dive into the trench just to amuse them.”

The Green Berets also admired the Montagnards’ fighting prowess, noting their loyalty. As Bridges told an interviewer, the Green Berets believed that “the Montagnards made excellent soldiers.” They were used to working in teams: “They were very good at small unit tactics and seemed to know instinctively how to protect their flanks. In a way, combat was almost like a family situation with them: you protect your brother and your brother protects you.” Bridges added, “I found them very brave under fire. They wouldn’t hesitate to run out and help a team member who was in trouble.”

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Perhaps the most respected group of indigenous fighters was the Nung, an ethnic Chinese minority from North Vietnam that had emigrated south as the Communist government took power. The Special Forces often used Nung as bodyguards, as they were a dependable source of security while the Berets were recruiting and training local tribesmen.

On July 6, 1964, in a stellar example of collaboration between the Special Forces and indigenous troops, Capt. Roger H.C. Donlon, his group of 12 Green Berets, 60 Nung, 311 CIDG troops, and an Australian adviser, fended off a late-night attack on their isolated camp near Nam Dong village, repelling 900 North Vietnamese in a five-hour battle. Donlon, who was wounded four times but continued to direct the defense of the camp, earned the first Congressional Medal of Honor to be awarded in Vietnam. He gave particular credit to the Nung.

Nam Dong would eventually become part of American popular culture, featured in Robin Moore’s novel The Green Berets and the John Wayne film adaptation, both of which popularized the collaboration between Special Forces and indigenous allies by way of burnishing the mystique of the Green Berets.

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Not all Special Forces troops were united in their good opinion of the indigenous forces’ fighting prowess. Meissner also interviewed some Green Berets who described Montagnard soldiers as undisciplined, though these informants allowed that Vietnamese discrimination against the Montagnards in matters of pay, provisioning, and the distribution of difficult duties exacerbated the trouble.

American soldiers mediating between Montagnards and Vietnamese repeatedly found themselves in difficult positions. Many of them believed that the tribesmen got a raw deal from the Vietnamese and were inclined to look with sympathy upon Montagnards’ enmity towards the government. The official American position, however, was to encourage national unity.

This awkwardness worsened in 1964 and 1965, as political circumstances made it harder and harder for Americans who might have sympathy for the Montagnards. After the coup against Diệm in 1963, the succession of military leaders that took control in Saigon pursued ever-more restrictive policies regulating Montagnard life. In response, some highlanders formed FULRO, a group whose initials, in French, translate to the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races.

In September 1964, FULRO-allied Montagnards in five Special Forces camps rebelled, killing 80 South Vietnamese troops and taking 20 Americans hostage. Eventually, Special Forces personnel in the camps managed to talk the rebels into laying down their arms. Howard Sochurek was on the scene for National Geographic and published an article in the January 1965 issue that documented the tense situation and credited the Special Forces with “pulling the firing pin from the revolt of 3,000 mountain soldiers.” Capt. Vernon Gillespie appeared in the photographs accompanying Sochurek’s article dressed in Montagnard clothing: a long loincloth, tunic, and bare feet. Gillespie saved the Vietnamese in his camp by negotiating a ceremony in which he, the Vietnamese commanding officer, and a Montagnard chief performed a two-hour rite of friendship.

After the uprisings, Saigon made some concessions to Montagnard demands but refused to allow tribal autonomy. Saigon also made a formal protest to the United States, alleging that the arming of the Montagnards had proceeded without the regime’s knowledge or consent and that the U.S. had assisted the highlanders in their rebellion.

The episode also exacerbated tensions between Special Forces and the Army. The Special Forces commanders of the camps were relieved of their posts, and, as Gillespie told Halberstadt, headquarters tried to “whitewash the whole event.” Edwards writes that Gillespie was later reprimanded for having worn the Montagnard costume in photographs and “for telling a general officer that the general didn’t know enough about the Montagnards to interfere in that part of the country.”

In the mid-1960s, responding to South Vietnamese pressure and acknowledging that it had become difficult to successfully defend the isolated camps against attack, the Americans dismantled the Village Defense Program in its original form. The most highly trained Montagnard troops, those in the mobile strike forces, were redeployed in base camps along the Laotian and Cambodian borders. As Prados points out, “this move clearly aimed at closing off a large potential source of arms for FULRO adherents,” since many decommissioned CIDG militia members would have to surrender their weapons.

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The Montagnards moved into the second half of the 1960s living ever more precarious lives. From a humanitarian perspective, their situation worsened, and the Green Berets felt powerless to help them. Master Sgt. John J. Self, interviewed by Sochurek for National Geographic in 1968, told of the lack of supplies and food for the Montagnards who lived near his camp. (The Special Forces camps often contained not only the enlisted Montagnards, but also their families, who insisted on staying near their loved ones.) “We are trying to help them, but there are only 12 of us here and 8,000 of them,” he said. “If just sitting down and crying about it would do some good, I’ll tell you something—I’d sit down and cry.”

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