In 1962, the CIA, U.S. Special Forces and Vietnam’s Montagnard tribes were breaking new ground, developing counterinsurgency and unconventional warfare principles that live on today.
Two hours after sunset, automatic weapons fire suddenly raked across our village, Buon Don Bak. It was October 4, 1962, in Darlac Province about 10 miles south of the provincial capital, Ban Me Thout. The Mnong tribesmen on perimeter guard duty immediately re- turned fire, the village chief sprang into action, ordering the partially trained 43 village defenders to man their assigned positions and directing the women and children to their trench-like shelters. Adding to the cacophony and confusion, a water buffalo was bellowing in pain and thrashing on the ground after taking a round from the Viet Cong. I ordered my 12-man Special Forces A-detachment to their assigned defense positions and told the radio operator to switch on our high frequency transceiver and report the attack to headquarters, located near Ban Me Thout.
I didn’t know exactly what was going on around us, but I did know we were not ready for this. I was a first lieutenant, commanding Detachment A-2, 5th Special Forces Group, which had arrived at the village just six days before, and only the first strand of the planned concertina wire perimeter fence had been laid. Our band of village defenders had received only eight of the prescribed 16 hours of weapons instruction with their submachine guns.
Earlier intelligence reports estimated a 100-man Viet Cong company was somewhere in the province, and if this was it, and it was intent on attacking the village, I didn’t believe my detachment and the armed tribesmen could survive an assault. Later, as the fire became sporadic, I concluded the purpose of the now apparently aimless VC firing might actually be to draw return fire in order to pinpoint our defense positions. I gave the order to stop returning fire unless the enemy made a ground assault.
About an hour later, around 8 p.m., the enemy fire again grew intense, indicating we might not be undergoing a simple probe, but were now facing the preparation for a ground assault. I decided it was time to call for air support. The U.S. Air Force unit supporting Special Forces was an Air Commando detachment flying WWII-era twin-engine B-26 bombers, C-47s and armed T-28 trainers. Since the detachment was based about 150 miles south at Bien Hoa Airfield, just north of Saigon, it would take about 90 minutes for help to reach us at Buon Don Bak. In the meantime, the communications sergeant prepared the “Fire Arrow,” a 10-foot-long, arrow-shaped bamboo mat to signal aircraft crews our location and the direction we wanted them to strafe or bomb. When the enemy fire again subsided to sporadic shots, the detachment executive officer and I moved around the perimeter defense, giving the tribesmen crouching in their foxholes reassurance that we would be backing them up in the event of a VC assault.
When we heard the aircraft approaching, the communications sergeant lit the gasoline-soaked sand in the coffee cans arrayed atop the fire arrow mat. Soon, there were two B-26s circling overhead, accompanied by a C-47 dropping 750,000 candlepower flares. With the powerful illumination, no strafing or bombing was needed as the enemy ceased firing. The immediate emergency at Buon Don Bak was over. The only casualty was one buffalo. The VC had probably never intended an assault but likely wanted to scare the village’s Montagnards into breaking their increasing allegiance to the Government of South Vietnam and the Americans. Instead, it was the VC that blinked that day, withdrawing as soon as they were confronted with the certainty of air attack. As for my detachment— our power to whistle up bombers gained us considerable respect among the Mnong tribesmen we were trying to win over.
The encounter had been a typical event in what we called the “Crossbow War” involving Communist guerrillas, both South Vietnamese and American Special Forces and primitive tribesmen, who hunted with crossbows. This village was one of many such settlements of the country’s 700,000 tribal mountain people, or Montagnards. Although they constituted only 5 percent of South Vietnam’s total population, they were the chief inhabitants of over one-half of the nation’s territory.
Culturally and ethnically different from Vietnamese, most of the more than 40 Montagnard tribes of both South and North Vietnam had sided with the French against the Communist Viet Minh forces during the Indochina War of the late 1940s and early 1950s. In return, the French had granted the tribes a degree of political autonomy. After the French withdrew from the country in 1954, that autonomy was steadily eroded by the two new Vietnamese governments, adding to the chasm that already existed between the tribes and the Vietnamese.
Prior to our team’s arrival, the Viet Cong would have been able to simply walk into the Mnong village of Buon Don Bak and blithely continue their practice of taking rice and forcibly recruiting young Montagnards. Now, the triad of Americans, South Vietnamese and Montagnards—participants in what was called the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) project—were denying Communist forces rice and recruits and impairing North Vietnam’s ability to realize its long-sought dream of controlling all Vietnam. The program was also intended to relieve the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) of some of its defense responsibilities.
Ultimately, the end product of the American contribution— armed village complexes—would be turned over to Vietnamese Special Forces and local authorities. However, those who were expected to make the CIDG effort a success, Vietnamese and U.S. Army Special Forces and Vietnamese political authorities, would have to defeat Communist attacks, surmount centuries-old antipathies between Vietnamese and the mountain tribes, overcome language barriers and produce results agreeable to each group.
Vietnam’s Montagnards spoke several tribal dialects that reflected an ancient migration of peoples from China to as far south as Malaya and Indonesia. In Darlac alone—a large province with varied terrain of densely forested hills in the south and a brush-covered, relatively flat plateau in the north—there were several distinct tribes of Montagnards. Typically, each tribal dialect was limited to about 500 words. Physically, their average height was 5 foot, 6 inches and their general appearance was similar to that of American Indians. Montagnard dress consisted primarily of loincloths for men and a sarong extending from the waist for women, topped by some sort of shirt. Their religions included beliefs in a deity, devils and spirits summoned during sacrifices of chickens, buffalos and pigs, and celebrated with copious amounts of rice wine. Their attitude toward the Vietnamese, Communist or otherwise, was, to say the least, distrustful. Their chief complaint about the South Vietnamese was Saigon’s settlement of refugees from North Vietnam in the highlands. In contrast, with their fond memories of the French colonialists, most Montagnards eagerly accepted Americans.
The CIDG program in the Central Highlands began in early 1962 with the arrival of a Special Forces Detachment, A-113, 1st Special Forces Group, led by Captain Ronald Shackleton, at a village that had volunteered for weapons and training. U.S. Army Special Forces was given this role because of its experiences with a similar program earlier in Laos, plus its past five years of work training elements of the South Vietnamese army. The CIDG effort, the largest of several U.S.Army Special Forces programs in the country, was secretly overseen and supported by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
The CIA had a Cold War responsibility for covertly supporting armed groups against Communist regimes. As a result, the arms for the program in Vietnam were a mix of foreign and U.S. weapons, serving as a thin disguise of American sponsorship. They included European submachine guns—the Swedish K, German Schmeisser, British Sten gun—and a few American types: the .30- caliber M2 carbine and .45-caliber Thompson submachine gun. After Shackleton’s pilot program proved successful, he began directing newly arrived Special Forces A Detachments,12-man units commanded by a captain or 1st lieutenant, to use the procedures he had developed in other areas of the province.
By the time my detachment arrived in October, there were 24 U.S. Special Forces A Detachments under CIA supervision in Vietnam. Each detachment was on a six-month tour of duty, primarily for two reasons: Returning Special Forces detachments from Third World tours of duty, where they lived, ate and drank with primitive peoples, often came back plagued with tropical ills. Special Forces medical doctors recommended limiting exposure to six months. (I had four different types of intestinal parasites on my return from this tour requiring two weeks of taking a prescribed and ungodly concoction to poison the little critters.) The other reason had to do with incentive. If you were away for a period less than a year, called “temporary duty” (TDY), by regulation you were due compensation for food and shelter at the TDY location (which were almost free if you lived in a village). The per diem for Vietnam in those days was $16 per day. That made for a $3,000 check when you came back. (I bought a brand new $3,500 baby blue Ford convertible on my return from this one.)
The initial goal was to eventually employ 39 Special Forces detachments in the CIDG program, about half of which were to be with the Montagnards. Other Special Forces detachments were with other ethnic or religious communities such as Nungs, Catholic or other religious sects. After organizing, equipping and training these irregulars, they would be placed under South Vietnamese control.
By the end of October, we had completed training of the village defenders at Buon Don Bak, expanded the program to surrounding villages and begun creating the offensive element, the Strike Force. This was a company-size organization of 90 young Montagnard men who would patrol the approximately 15 square-mile territory in between and beyond our defended villages, seek out and destroy the Viet Cong and respond to any attack on one of our villages. While the armed village defenders resumed tending their rice paddies and livestock after their training was completed, the members of the Strike Force were paid monthly and supplied with rice rations for themselves and their families. Strike Force patrols were usually accompanied by one or two members of the U.S. Special Forces detachment and, on occasion, by our assigned Vietnamese Special Forces sergeant. One of our accompanying detachment members on the patrols always carried an experimental small-caliber ArmaLite rifle, a weapon we were to test in field conditions and evaluate.
We had been conducting Strike Force patrols two to three times a week, most based on information supplied by the Mnong to our detachment intelligence sergeant, whose prime source of information came through medical assistance sessions. Each morning, sick call held by our two detachment medics would draw many tribesmen from surrounding villages, seeking relief from some ailment. The intelligence sergeant and our local interpreter would talk to each patient during the examination when the tribesman was isolated from his or her companions waiting to be seen outside.
During one sick call, a Montagnard woman was questioned about any Viet Cong sightings and provided solid and timely information, saying she had spotted three armed Vietnamese earlier in the morning within sight of Buon Don Bak. They appeared to be watching our activities. After the intelligence sergeant determined from the woman just where the sighting had occurred, we decided to send out a patrol using a route we knew was clearly visible to the Viet Cong and leading into the jungle in the opposite direction from their reported observation point.
The patrol, led by one of the detachment’s two weapons sergeants, moved out, and once it was beyond enemy observation, began a lengthy, circuitous route through the foliage to get behind the VC observers. In a whispered radio report from the weapons sergeant about an hour later, he said the Viet Cong had been located and that he was going to attack. Firing broke out, and after it subsided the sergeant called to say one enemy was down, but the other two got away. The weapons sergeant had killed the Viet Cong with his ArmaLite and later reported that the entry point of the bullet was so small that it was almost invisible, but the devastating exit wound had the circumference of a golf ball.
By December, a year after the CIDG program in Darlac Province had been initiated by Shackleton and the CIA, the scorecard for the effort was mixed. As one of the five Special Forces A Detachments in the program, our performance was, on the surface, very positive. At the end of the year, we had established cooperation and regular contacts with 12 Montagnard villages in a six-mile radius from Buon Don Bak. We had armed five of the villages and had trained and begun to employ the 90-man Strike Force. Overall, for all American Special Forces detachments in the province, there were 60 U.S. Special Forces troopers, 10,600 armed villagers and 1,500 Strike Force personnel protecting a population of 60,000 inhabitants of the province’s 200 villages. There were 32 “fully developed” villages, which meant each had an adequately constructed perimeter defense system with barbed wire, bunkers, firing positions, a secure, heavily sandbagged ammunition storage bunker, an adequate fire arrow, protected radio shack, trained defenders with a sentinel routine, and were tied in by radio communications with trained armed defenders and an available, operational Strike Force. Both U.S. and South Vietnamese leaders had declared the program successful, and its procedures and methods were being extended to other provinces.
Although Darlac’s CIDG complex was turned over from CIA/Special Forces leadership to the South Vietnamese province chief in December, he faced a significant problem as he lacked the resources to properly support the system. He had to depend on sporadic U.S. support well into 1963.
After the December turnover, my detachment was given three new missions. Together with a 40-man element of the Strike Force that we had recruited and trained, we moved eight miles northwest to Buon Ea Na, the site of a 120-patient leprosarium. This had been the scene of a ruthless VC attack the night of May 30, 1962, during which the Viet Cong had seized the American staff from the Christian and Missionary Alliance, including Dr. Eleanor Ardel Vietti, the Rev. Archie Mitchell and Daniel Gerber, a 22-year-old volunteer Mennonite from Ohio. The Communists assembled the Vietnamese nurses and doctor’s assistants, who were harshly lectured and told they deserved painful deaths for betraying their country by working for Americans. They then looted the hospital facilities, bound the three Americans and departed with them into the darkness. Our tasks were to protect the lepers from VC harassment, render medical assistance to them and continue the ongoing search for the American missionaries, who were rumored to have been forced to provide health care to Communist guerrilla forces (see sidebar above).
The tasks required considerable change in our operations. Although Special Forces medics received a yearlong course learning myriad medical skills, leprosy had not been on the curriculum. Our medics were provided with drugs and instructions from the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.
The missionary search provided the opportunity to teach our Strike Force stealthy reconnaissance techniques, including tracking and night patrolling. During this time, a local Montagnard village chief told us of a forthcoming visit of a VC agitation and propaganda (agitprop) team. With this information, we were able to conduct a successful night raid, killing the VC team leader and scattering his guards. Several other offensive operations resulted in a great decrease of enemy activity in the region around Buon Ea Na, and harassment of the lepers ceased. We might have been too successful, since we were not rewarded with any positive results in our many reconnaissance patrols searching for the missionaries in heavily forested mountainous terrain. But we did find a recently abandoned and well-developed VC camp with signs of having been used as a headquarters and hospital.
In late January 1963, we were ordered to move northwest of Ban Me Thout in the high plateau region of Darlac Province to replace another Special Forces detachment and assume its border surveillance mission along the Vietnam-Cambodian boundary. Although most Special Forces detachments by this time were being transferred from CIA to U.S. Army control (as a result of the failure of the CIA’s 1961 Bay of Pigs operation, President John F. Kennedy directed all large-scale, overt paramilitary operations to be conducted by the Defense Department), the Agency retained aegis over the Border Surveillance program. This was likely because border surveillance was more closely related to intelligence than to normal pacification and defense tasks.
Our new camp was an old French frontier post, about 10 kilometers east of a 60-kilometer north-south stretch of the frontier. We were responsible for the 90- man Montagnard Strike Force, and their families, that the detachment we replaced had trained. The enemies here were Communist infiltrators coming south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail from North Vietnam, entering South Vietnam from Cambodia. We had the novel advantage of knowing the terrain better than our enemies, and we took full advantage of that. In early 1963, enemy infiltration groups were often only four to six men who, after their lengthy and exhausting trek, were prone to use trails. Our first job was to discover which trails were being used. While the CIA called the program “surveillance,” it was actually an offensive interdiction mission.
Interdiction worked best with a reconnaissance patrol scouting for infiltrators’ tracks along trails that had a general east-west orientation. Finding tracks, we would look for a favorable ambush site—if possible, one where the trail crossed a stream. There, infiltration groups would gather for water and maybe build a fire to cook rice. We would drop off an ambush team and ensure it had radio communications with our base before proceeding on. During February we had a considerable number of successful ambushes. After-action procedures included searching the bodies for any route maps or instructions, removal of any indications or objects that might reveal an ambush had occurred, moving the bodies well away from the site and finding the next likely spot to repeat the action.
Our detachment’s six months were up in March 1963, and we returned to the United States proud of what we had done. We had created a village defense system in the southern region of Darlac Province, provided protection and medical care to a leper colony and conducted successful interdiction operations of several North Vietnamese infiltration groups. In doing so, we had not lost a man, American or Montagnard, and had killed 32 Communist guerrillas and North Vietnamese soldiers, taking one captive. And, we were able to submit a successful combat evaluation of the ArmaLite assault rifle, the weapon that, with some modifications, would soon become the ubiquitous M-16.
Regretfully, the work we had done at Buon Don Bak was all but erased not long after we left South Vietnam. The South Vietnamese Special Forces and Vietnamese district chief there were unable— possibly unwilling—to sustain the armed villages we had developed. This was probably a result of the district chief of Lac Thien District, a Vietnamese Army captain, who was very suspicious of and likely apprehensive about being surrounded by armed Mnongs. And, Vietnamese Special Forces were given other missions by the government. President Ngo Dinh Diem’s brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, began using the Special Forces as a “palace guard” in 1963 when he and Diem sensed a coming coup. They were also employed to conduct raids against protesting Buddhist monks, whose self-immolations were producing bad press for Diem and JFK’s administration. The government also took away some of the weapons we had issued, an act that further exacerbated the lack of trust between it and the Montagnards. This action contributed to a brief 1964 revolt, when a group of Montagnard separatists joined the clandestine United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races (FULRO) that was demanding autonomy. While the revolt was soon settled, it produced an unnecessary interruption in operations against the Viet Cong in the Central Highlands.
Elsewhere across South Vietnam, the Special Forces-CIA initiated CIDG program was successful, peaking at 42,000 armed combatants in the late 1960s, contributing substantially to South Vietnam’s war effort. However, the program’s achievements were largely overcome by Hanoi’s decision to begin mobile warfare in the south and the subsequent arrival of North Vietnamese Army battalion and regimental size units in 1964. While this eclipsed the “Crossbow War,” it did not entirely end it as CIDG units began supporting American and South Vietnamese combat forces during this new phase. As noted in a U.S. Army history of Special Forces in Vietnam, the senior U.S. military intelligence officer in South Vietnam stated in 1966: “Over 50 percent of all ground intelligence reports in the country come from Special Forces sources.” CIDG units continued the border surveillance mission until 1970, when the South Vietnamese Army absorbed it. The ARVN’s Ranger Command gained some 37 light infantry battalions composed of 14,534 CIDG troops.
In terms of lives lost and financial expenditure, the CIDG program was likely the most cost-effective force in the Vietnam War. And, the methods and tactics of the village-by-village development of native forces capable of defending against and initiating offensive action on guerrilla insurgents, echo today in the valleys and mountains of another far off battlefield and will ultimately be pivotal to success there.
Rod Paschall later served in Laos during 1964, a return tour to Vietnam in 1966-68 and in Cambodia during 1974-75. As a colonel, his last Special Forces duty assignment included responsibilities for the development and publication of U.S. Army counterinsurgency doctrine.
Originally published in the April 2011 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.