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.

American wounded soldiers of the special forces are evacuated by helicopter from a camp in Plei Me, south Vietnam, November 1965.
Wounded Green Berets are evacuated by helicopter from a camp in Plei Me, South Vietnam, in November 1965.

Photo by AFP/Getty Images

In 1965, syndicated columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak used a frontier metaphor to describe the American Special Forces’ advisory role with Vietnamese tribesmen. “Assume that during our own Civil War the north had asked a friendly foreign power to mobilize, train, and arm hostile American Indian tribes and lead them into battle against the South,” they wrote.   

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Rebecca Onion, who runs Slate’s history blog The Vault, is a writer and academic living in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter.

If that historical hypothetical suggested wild possibilities, Evans and Novak used it advisedly. For four years, Special Forces had been training an oppressed minority group in guerrilla tactics, providing them with weapons and acting as de facto aid workers in their communities. When Americans remember Vietnam, we often think of the war as having three major actors: the North Vietnamese, the South Vietnamese, and the American military. But there was another player: the Montagnards.

The indigenous Montagnards, recruited into service by the American Special Forces in Vietnam’s mountain highlands, defended villages against the Viet Cong and served as rapid response forces. The Special Forces and the Montagnards—each tough, versatile, and accustomed to living in wild conditions—formed an affinity for each other. In the testimony of many veterans, their working relationship with the Montagnards, nicknamed Yards, was a bright spot in a confusing and frustrating war. The bond between America’s elite fighters and their indigenous partners has persisted into the present, but despite the best efforts of vets, the Montagnards have suffered greatly in the postwar years, at least in part because they cast their lot with the U.S. Army. In a war with more than its share of tragedies, this one is less often told but is crucial to understanding the conflict and its toll.

The Montagnards, whose name is derived from the French word for mountaineers, are ethnically distinct from lowland, urban Vietnamese. In the early ’60s, writes military historian John Prados, almost a million Montagnards lived in Vietnam, and the group was made up of about 30 different tribes. The Montagnards spoke languages of Malayo-Polynesian and Mon Khmer derivations, practiced an animistic religion (except for some who had converted to Christianity), and survived through subsistence agriculture.

When the United States Special Forces first arrived in Vietnam in the early 1960s, the Montagnards were already decades into an uneasy relationship with Vietnam’s various central governments. Before their withdrawal, the French had promised to give the Montagnards protected land—a promise that vanished with them. The Communist government of North Vietnam had included the right for highlander autonomy in its founding platform in 1960, but many Montagnards were uneasy about Communist intentions. Meanwhile, South Vietnam’s President Ngô Đình Diệm had begun to settle refugees from North Vietnam in the highlands. His government neglected education and health care in the Montagnard areas, assigning inexperienced and ineffective bureaucrats to handle their needs.

Tensions between the Vietnamese and the Montagnards were ratcheted up by racism. Vietnamese called the tribal people mọi, or savage. Prados recounts a story of a “young Vietnamese woman who told an American, in all seriousness, that Montagnards had tails.” Stereotypes about the “primitive” nature of the tribesmen—unfounded beliefs that they were all nomadic and lived by slash-and-burn farming—made it easier for the government to advocate the expropriation of their lands.

* * *

Meanwhile, in the United States, American Special Forces were taking on an increasingly large role in American military planning and strategy. The Cold War seemed to demand a decentralized, versatile style of fighting. In 1961, John F. Kennedy, a proponent of such irregular warfare, authorized the use of the iconic green beret, a symbol that would capture a nation’s imagination. In the early ’60s, the “Berets” were seen as the supermen of the Cold War: tough, smart, and canny. 

Starting in 1961, in an initiative at first run by the CIA, the Special Forces moved into the Vietnamese mountains and set up the new Village Defense Program (a forerunner of the better-known Strategic Hamlet Program). The Montagnards’ forested mountain homelands, which ran along the Cambodian and Laotian borders in the western portion of Vietnam, were prime highways for North Vietnamese forces to move men and materiel. The Viet Cong, understanding the way the Southern government discriminated against the tribes, promised much if the tribesmen would defect—and some did. But the VC also preyed on isolated villages, taking food and pressing Montagnards into labor and military service.

The working relationship between Green Berets and Montagnards began in the Village Defense Program. Detachments of 12 Green Berets trained Montagnards, drawn from the tribe dominant in the surrounding area, into “civilian irregular defense groups,” or CIDGs. The idea was that a security zone would radiate outward from each camp, with CIDG serving as defense forces, advised by small groups of American Special Forces and South Vietnam’s own special forces, the LLDB. With help from the Navy’s Seabees, Special Forces built dams, roads, bridges, schools, wells, and roads for Montagnard groups, and Special Forces medics provided rudimentary health care. By December 1963, 43,000 Montagnard defenders guarded the area around the first camp, Buon Enao, from the Viet Cong, while 18,000 Montagnards were enlisted in mobile strike forces, which were deployed by air to spots where conflict broke out.

In interviews, Special Forces often described the people they were training as loyal, honest, and friendly and compared them favorably to Vietnamese allies. In 1970, Gloria Emerson of the New York Times visited a CIDG camp at Dakseang. The Green Berets there were uninterested in being interviewed, but she managed to ask them some questions about the Yards:

When they talk of the Montagnards—uncorrupted by the cities, physically superior to most South Vietnamese, less sophisticated in their outlook—the Americans are fiercely possessive ... Because the Green Berets enjoy their own toughness, they appreciate some of the more primitive aspects of the Montagnards’ habits.

The tribal customs were strange; but then, the regular Army found Special Forces’ ways odd. Edward E. Bridges, a Green Beret who was at Fort Bragg when Kennedy came to visit in 1961, remembers that as part of their demonstration for the visiting president, the men caught, prepared, and ate a snake. The nickname “snake eater” stuck to the Special Forces. The Berets, who often made jokes about the Yards eating dogs and seemingly unpalatable vegetation, saw something of their own values in these ways.

In many anecdotes, Special Forces veterans describe their interactions with the Montagnards as full of bonhomie. “The Vietnamese strike me as being a rather sour people,” a Beret pseudonymously identified as “Lieutenant Pretty” told fellow Beret Joseph Patrick Meissner. “The Yards, however, find much humor in things. They’re easy to get along with.”

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.”

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.”

If the 1960s found Montagnard life disrupted by combat, the 1970s were disastrous for the tribes. The Special Forces turned the command of remaining Montagnard mobile strike force groups over to the Vietnamese in 1970, and the transition did not go well, with the traditional conflicts between the two groups souring their collaboration. After the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam in 1972 and 1973, the Montagnard situation worsened further. Tribesmen who had been moved from their traditional lands for security reasons returned to find their former homelands occupied by Vietnamese refugees. More than 150,000 Montagnards became refugees themselves, as fighting between the North and South intensified in the central highlands.

Some American Special Forces personnel continued their involvement with the tribes in civilian capacities after the military had officially withdrawn. Jacques Leslie of the LA Times and Philip A. McCombs of the Washington Post both interviewed Ed Sprague, a former Special Forces master sergeant. Sprague returned to work with USAID in Phu Bon Province, spending his days driving around back roads in a car with Montagnard assistants, visiting tribesmen in his capacity as USAID adviser for economic development.  

The Sprague stories were, in some respects, humorous accounts of a seemingly eccentric man—McCombs described Sprague as he “lounges in his tribal dressing gown” in his “spacious, modern compound on a jungle hilltop surrounded by watchful Montagnard guards.”

But Sprague’s commitment, if unique in degree, was a vestige of the long-standing Special Forces affection for the tribes. Amid the chaos of the 1975 fall of South Vietnam, Sprague took 2,000 tribesmen to the beach at Nha Trang, where the group hoped for an American evacuation. Help was not forthcoming.

Despite the isolated efforts of some former Green Berets and of the government ministers appointed to help ethnic minorities, the Montagnards suffered in postwar Vietnam. By the time the hostilities between North and South Vietnam ceased, according to historian John Fredriksen, around 200,000 Montagnards had been killed and 85 percent of their villages leveled. Known to have fought with the Americans, the Yards entered a new phase of repression under the Communists. Many of their remaining leaders were thrown in prison or escaped across the border to Cambodia. There, the Khmer Rouge imprisoned and killed those it could find.

In 2001, according to Human Rights Watch, about 1 million highlanders lived in four Vietnamese provinces, along with 3 million ethnic Vietnamese. The Vietnamese raise coffee in state-owned plantations on former Montagnard land. Many Montagnards have now converted to Christianity—a fact that increases their vulnerability as a minority in a Communist country.

Throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, some 3,000 Montagnards with combat records have emigrated to the United States. The tribesmen chose to settle in a cluster in North Carolina, in part because of the strong Special Forces presence near Fort Bragg. The Special Forces Association, a veterans’ group, has assisted with the process of immigration, circulating images of refugees who claimed to be veterans, in hopes of finding former Green Berets who could verify their stories.

* * *

Special Forces veterans seem to see the abandonment of the tribes as part and parcel of the larger American amnesia surrounding Vietnam. As with the related Hmong people of Laos, many of whom fought with the CIA in the “Secret War” and then petitioned to emigrate to the United States, the Montagnards’ plight has become politicized, their abandonment seen as analogous to the general neglect American service members felt upon returning from the war. Discussions of the tribes’ plight on pro-military message boards focus on the Montagnards’ loyalty, Christianity, and sense of duty, drawing a contrast between the worthy Yard immigrants and an ungrateful American public. The fight to help Montagnard refugees enter the U.S. has created strange bedfellows, as the Special Forces have advocated for tribesmen alongside organizations like Human Rights Watch.

To the extent that most Americans know of the Montagnards, it is likely through film. The wide gap in style and sentiment between the jingoistic Wayne vehicle The Green Berets (1968) and Francis Ford Coppola’s meditative, almost nihilistic Apocalypse Now (1979) is often cited as symbolic of the way American public opinion turned on the war in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There are Montagnards in both movies. The tribesmen in Green Berets are simple, childlike victims whose appearance on screen is accompanied by a variation on the Oriental riff. And to a cynical eye, the highland group that surrounds Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now is but a living manifestation of the soldier’s madness. Their loyalty to Kurtz, their superstitions, and their traditions of animal sacrifice are all decoration for the former Green Beret’s ultimate descent into “the horror.”

But a look at the movie through Montagnard eyes challenges this interpretation. In a 2002 interview on the Degar Foundation’s website with leader Kok Ksor, who has lived in the United States since seeking asylum after he led a Montagnard protest against the Communist government in 2001, Ksor speaks of Apocalypse Now as emblematic of the relationship between the Special Forces and the Montagnard.

Ksor began working for the Americans in 1960 when he signed on as a messenger carrying word between Americans and his tribe. Later, he ran messages to exiled FULRO leaders living in Cambodia. Watching Apocalypse Now with the interviewer, Ksor began to weep. The alliance with the Special Forces is one that he still holds dear, even as he mourns everything else that has happened to his people.

Telling of Viet Cong atrocities, he adds that he felt his people had been “used” by the American government, which “allowed that the Viet Cong attack our villages ... and promised that at the end of the war they would help us attain independence.” To this bitter assessment, Ksor adds a firm confirmation:

We have been the fiercest allies of the Americans. But not of the Generals or of the Politicians: of the soldiers, of the non-commissioned officers. For us it was people who had come to help us, had come to die of [sic] a country that was not our own.
Yes, the loyalty of the tribe around Colonel Kurtz in the film is real.

As Ksor acknowledges, the Special Forces couldn’t set American policy or dictate Vietnamese attitudes toward the tribes, so their good intentions had limitations. No matter how hard some Green Berets wished for and worked for better lives for the Montagnards, the end result of the war, for the tribes, was disaster.