U.S. Army Special Forces Major Jim Morris: Proud of His Service in Vietnam

U.S. Army Special Forces Major Jim Morris: Proud of His Service in Vietnam

6/12/2006 • Vietnam

Retired U.S. Army Special Forces Major Jim Morris had been awarded three of his four Purple Hearts in Vietnam before the Marines ever hit the beach at Da Nang in March 1965, signaling the beginning of full-scale American involvement in the war. In the course of his three tours in Indochina, between 1963 and 1968, he almost lost his right arm to a Viet Cong machine-gun burst while assisting a fellow trooper in a firefight and did lose his left testicle. In 1973 he went back to cover the war as a freelance journalist after the U.S. military had withdrawn from the region.

As the author of two factual accounts of his experiences, War Story and The Devil’s Secret Name, as well as Fighting Men, a collection of magazine pieces that became the pilot of a 1994 video series called The Fighting Men Series: The Green Berets, Morris’ life will forever be entwined not only with the Green Berets but also with Vietnam.

Morris, now 58 years old, believes that the Vietnam War was the event of his generation, and because it was such a major part of his own life, he feels called upon to be a conduit between the war and those who want to know about it. ‘We lived through a legendary time,’ said Morris. ‘Reliving it and telling about it is an interesting chore.’

Since Vietnam, Morris has covered wars in Cambodia, Thailand, El Salvador, Lebanon and Israel for Rolling Stone, Soldier of Fortune, Esquire and the Saturday Evening Post. He once felt a love for the ‘beauty and strangeness of Vietnam.’ But it is not a place he wants to return to.

‘Why should I go back just to get jacked around by petty officials?’ he asked. ‘In the South, the only place I have fond memories of, that you’re allowed to travel to, is Nha Trang. I live close to the beach in Southern California. Why should I travel thousands of miles just to go to the beach?’ One gets the impression that Morris would go back, though, if he were permitted to travel to the Central Highlands, where he pulled most of his duty. That is where he first ‘rock ‘n’ rolled,’ as he put it, with the Montagnards.

Although the Green Berets were trained at Fort Bragg, N.C., and were provided intensive lessons in Indochinese history, politics, economics and language studies (Vietnamese and French) on Okinawa, their truest training, according to Morris, occurred in the field and in bull sessions with other Special Forces personnel. ‘We were constantly rotating in and out of Vietnam in the early days on six-month TDYs (temporary duties),’ he remembered, ‘and, over beers at the club, all the guys who were going hung on every word of those who had come back.’

Unfortunately for Morris and American vets who have chosen to revisit Vietnam, the Montagnard villages of the Rhade, Jarai and others are officially off-limits because of an ongoing battle between the current regime and hill tribe rebels. During the war, Americans moved freely in and out of the long houses attending to the tribal peoples’ medical needs and occasionally drinking the ceremonial but notoriously potent rice wine known as ‘numpai.’

To this day the rebels identify themselves by the acronym FULRO, which stands for Le Front Unifie de Lutte des Races Opprimées, or The United Front for the Struggle of Oppressed Races. They are fighting against the threat of genocide from the Hanoi government, just as they have had to fight discrimination for at least two centuries. In recent decades that has meant Montagnards could not have passports because they were not allowed to leave Vietnam, and Montagnard teachers could not teach classes in their own language. ‘Today, they are being forced to speak Vietnamese, take Vietnamese names and intermarry,’ said Morris, a native Oklahoman. ‘What’s happening to them is exactly what happened to American Indians in this country. Interestingly, some of the gravest concern for the ‘Yards’ has been registered by American Indian Vietnam vets.’

Morris’s area of operations for most of the time he was in Vietnam was in the Central Highlands approximately 115 kilometers southwest of Pleiku. The base camp was about four kilometers outside the village of Buon Beng, alongside the Song Ba River near Cheo Reo, ‘a town of one Esso station, two photo shops, two bars, three whorehouses, six hardware stores, an ARVN officers club and a MACV compound,’ he recalled.

Most Special Forces jungle encampments were constantly under Viet Cong (VC) observation, but Morris still remembers the ease with which he and his Montagnard detachments could maneuver on patrol: ‘Our camp was in a pacified zone. What that meant was we had three quick roads into areas that weren’t pacified. So Charlie [i.e., the VC] could sit there watching our camp, but all he knew was that we had left. We could dismount anywhere along the highway and zip into the underbrush. We had very rapid unobserved entrance into any operational area. Most teams left at 0600 hours and were tracked the whole bleeding way, whereas we couldn’t be, so we kicked some serious ass.’

Morris’ wartime camaraderie with the hill tribes led him, along with other former Special Forces veterans and his friend Don Scott, to work for the few thousand Montagnard refugees now in the United States and to publicly express concern for those left behind in Vietnam. Scott, now a Greensboro, N.C., entrepreneur, aided them in Kontum during the war as a civilian hospital administrator for the San Diego­based Project Concern. He and Morris pleaded the case of the Montagnards in a 1986 airing of the CBS-TV news magazine West 57th.

Interviewed by journalist Meredith Vieira, both emphasized the fact that the Montagnards had all been left behind and virtually forgotten after the fall of South Vietnam by an American government that, as thanks for their service, had promised their leaders safe passage out in the event of what had become by then the inevitable South Vietnamese defeat.

That promise was made to Montagnard leaders by the CIA at the American Embassy in Saigon in the waning days of the war in April 1975. One in attendance was Edmund Sprague, a former intelligence officer. ‘It was politick-speak,’ Sprague said, indicating that the promise to the hill tribes may have been slightly double-talk. ‘But it was my understanding that the Montagnards would be taken care of.’

While Morris finds it painful to ponder the fate of those Montagnards, he does have fond memories of the beautiful countryside in Vietnam: ‘That first day I thought, ‘Lord help me. I’m just a cornfed boy from Oklahoma. I’ve never seen any place like this. Mother, I’ve come home to die.’ I loved it.’

But for Morris the repeated tours could not hold a candle to the first one. The fact that Vietnam had escalated to a full-fledged war by the mid-1960s did not help. ‘It just became crap,’ Morris said. ‘Some things are perfect and some are magic, and you cannot re-create them by trying for the same physical environment.’

With pride, though, he produces a letter written to him by the legendary Lt. Col. John Paul Vann, one of the first U.S. Army advisers to South Vietnam in 1962. Vann, who left the Army the next year in a dispute with the Pentagon over how the war was being waged, went to work as a provincial pacification representative for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). He was killed in a helicopter crash in the Central Highlands in 1972, 10 years after he had arrived in Vietnam (see ‘Troubled Apostle of Victory’ in the Spring 1989 issue). Eerily, his letter to Morris arrived three days after Vann’s death.

Vann was clearly a role model for the retired major, who speaks glowingly of his own training. He and fellow Green Berets were schooled in the ways of their opponents in Indochina. They were trained to beat the Viet Cong at their own game. ‘We read Mao [Mao Tse-tung] until we could quote him word for word,’ Morris remembered. ‘You can lay what he wrote over any revolution throughout history and it’s all right there.’

Morris believes that the Green Berets could not have done what they did, however, without the courage of the Montagnards who were at their side. ‘We planned to wage a war together and we did,’ he said. ‘It took us two months just to stop them from dragging their feet through the jungle, shuffling the leaves to frighten the VC. After a while, though, the last thing that the Montagnards needed was some junior Jesus teaching them how to run raids in the jungle.’ They did, however, desperately need supplies and backing, said Morris.

One particularly courageous Montagnard he remembers well was the famous Phillipe Drouin, nicknamed ‘Cowboy’ by those who fought by his side. ‘Phillipe once charged right by an ambush I was leading,’ recalled Morris. ‘Charging with rounds whizzing past you? That’s courageous!’ Drouin, however, developed illusions of grandeur that ultimately caused his death. He often hired himself out to as many as six different U.S. intelligence operations in South and Central Vietnam, often playing them off against one another. According to Morris, Drouin eventually was ambushed by rival rebels in the FULRO movement.

‘My number one rule in Vietnam was to only trust someone who had saved my life within the preceding two weeks,’ said Morris. ‘Once, when Phillipe picked me up in a jeep, and it was just me and him driving through the jungle, I was ready just in case.’

Looking back on his years with the hill tribes, Morris remembers that humor was often present along with the intrigue. One of his favorite ‘Yards’ was a Jarai tribesman who worked for the Green Beret supply sergeant as an armorer. He had been nicknamed ‘Ush,’ their word for ‘ouch.’ ‘The reason that they called him that was because his face was a mass of scar tissue, which he got from trying to smoke while cleaning weapons parts in a No. 10 can of gasoline,’ Morris said with a laugh. ‘The stuff would just blow up in his face and he would go at it again.’

Another Montagnard, whom the Green Berets called ‘Old Half Head,’ had gotten into a fight with a leopard. ‘You may win a fight with a leopard, but you’re not going to walk away from it [unscathed],’ Morris said.

The Special Forces were often showered with acts of kindness by the peace-loving hill tribes people, who frequently gave them engraved, polished brass friendship bracelets. From the size of the one Morris wears, it is obvious that he was held in high esteem by his Montagnard counterparts. When he returned as a correspondent in 1973, he was elevated to the rank of brigadier general in the Montagnard forces.

From Morris’ experience fighting in Vietnam and reporting on other wars as a journalist, he is convinced that there is a common thread that runs through many contemporary uprisings and leads back to the former Soviet Union.

‘Almost all insurgencies since World War II have been backed by a Soviet Union that wanted to gradually communize the world,’ he said. On a personal note, he remembered, ‘Every time I ever got wounded it was with Russian or Czech ammo.’

Even with the apparent downfall of America’s former adversary, Morris believes that we should not kid ourselves. The collapse of the Soviet Union came about, he said, because the United States won a Cold War comprised of a series of Soviet-supported ‘Third World wars,’ as he calls them.

‘When the Berlin Wall caved in, I was happy,’ Morris said. ‘The world I’d grown up in was gone. I’d been training to fight communism since the age of 11 in military school. After the wall fell, I asked myself, ‘What do I do now?’ It felt like being out of a job.’

Actually, Morris is not out of a job at all. In late July 1995, the Walt Disney Company released a cinematic take on one of his 1982 Soldier of Fortune pieces titled ‘Operation Barroom.’

The true story deals with a request made of Special Forces by Saigon USAID personnel to move four elephants by helicopter from Ban Me Thuot to a sawmill in Tra Bong and to Kham Duc to assist a group of Montagnards who had cut the lumber down in areas that were too rough and hilly for machinery to haul it out. The mission was indeed accomplished. Disney made a children’s movie out of it called Operation Dumbo Drop.

Morris may not want to go back to Vietnam. But he said, ‘I’m proud of what I did during that part of my life. If we accept that Vietnam was one of those ‘Third World wars,’ then it was a valuable learning experience, the learning part of our Cold War victory.’

This article was written by Marc Phillip Yablonka and originally published in the April 1996 issue of Vietnam Magazine.

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32 Responses to U.S. Army Special Forces Major Jim Morris: Proud of His Service in Vietnam

  1. Laurie Safrance. says:

    Jim Morris has to be one of the finest examples of living courage I have ever run across. Spiritual.. truthful to a fault, he is a credit to his country.

    • Mary-Ann Michalak says:

      He certainly is that.

      • Jim Morris says:

        Long time. Everything good here. Hope it’s all well with you.

    • Jim Morris says:

      Laurie: You are so sweet to say that. Thanks.

      • Jan Campbell says:

        I just watched the film Operation Dumbo Drop and I love it! With tears in my eyes, I write about the Green Berets loyalty, commitment and the sacrifices they made for this little boy and his Elephant, Bo Tat in Vietnam. I especially loved the scene by the VC, when he saw the Bo Tat flying and would not shoot. Thank you to everyone involved in the production of this film and a special thank you to Major Jim Morris for your service to our country!

    • Ray Carroll says:

      How are you mate. Still knocking around the left coast. Email me and I’ll send you maryann and me number. Met a few guys fron the Regiment back around christmas in New York.
      Still Chatting alot with Peter, U.S. Seal. He is helping me with my book. Give me a call some time or if your back over on this side, lets share a hot dog on a windy corner, love to see yer. I’m still training, what about you?

      • Jim Morris says:

        ‘Yep, still here. Got knocked off practice when my dad died, and I moved to the woods. Still got the same email, though I lost your email adress when my last computer died. Write me. Good luck with your book. Love to share a brew and a hot dog with you, but I’m not going east in the foreseeable future..

  2. Mike Black says:

    Everyone will be interested to know that Vietnam is much more open to tourism now. Along with Cambodia and Thailand, it makes for an amazing journey.

  3. Thuy Dao says:

    I agree with Morris’s views of the war in Vietnam. I was deeply involved with the war myself as an ARVN officer, and had the honour of fighting along with the Green Berets against the VCs.
    I wonder if he knows Major Jim Battles (served in VN 1968-1969) in Dalat city, a true Green Berets soldier whom I had served under him in the war in the PRU TuyenDuc/Dalat.

    • john fairclough says:

      dear sir i have been reading a lot on the vietnam war but have always wanted to hear from someone who was an actual part of it id really like 2 be able 2 correspond with you thanks john.

    • Jim Morris says:

      I know of Battles, but did not know him personally. Thanks for your service.

  4. Jack mayhew says:

    Sir. could you assist me in locating Jim Morris as we would like to invite him to a unit dedication in NC.
    Jack mayhew, Col. USA Ret.

  5. nikomo says:

    hi awl!
    i was in close proximity of the “HAWKS CLAW”(just carried some bags 4 them,ETC.)i got to visit/assist some YARDS in the Pleiku,AO. i know that a better bunch of people you could never meet, and i think that the S.Viets were beginning to “BIK” same,same as US. WE CAN ALWAYS FAN THAT FLAME OF MUTUAL RESPECT,TODAY.i’m presently “A PEASE(AFB)GREETER”and have met US WARFIGHTERS,of RVN decent.2ALL,STAY ALERT STAY ALIVE/STAND TALL 1&ALL!

    • Scott Peltola says:

      I had the great fortune of working with Jim on Operation Dumbo Drop and shared a lot of stories with a warrior that I grew to admire and respect. One of his Purple Hearts was awarded for an amazing shot that would make every man I know shudder and grab his privite parts just to make sure the were still intact.Jim a true American HERO!!!!!!!!!!

      • Jim Morris says:

        It’s just like jumping without a reserve, Scott. As long as your main works you’re fine.

  6. Ray Carney says:

    Hey Jim . . . I see you’re still “Driving on.” Way to go, Buddy.

  7. Larry Taylor says:

    I served with the 4th Division in and around Pleiku in 1970-71. I served on Firebase Blackhawk right next to a Montagnyard Village. I heard talk of a Jim Morris that spoke fluent Vietnamese. Could this be the Jim Morris they were talking about? I would like to know because this guy was really a warrior.

    • Jim Morris says:

      I don’t speak Vietnamese, but I used to limp along in French. There was another Jim Morris in SF, who later commanded the MACV Recondo School.

  8. Bill Brown says:

    I am the proud son of a Special Forces NCO named William Owen Brown. He served in Vietnam in the highlands base out of Ban Me Tout. {excuse the spelling please.} He told me of being in the field with legends like Mad Dog Shiver and many others. It is my understanding his nick name was Skinny Minny. What little I have been able to find on line indicates his bravery starting with his arrival during a serious fire fight during which he exited the safety of the compound to direct air support. This action led to his first award for bravery above the call. I would be intrested in hearing from any one who might have known him.

  9. Loury Soriton Kaligis says:

    Thanks..call me now Please

  10. Mary-Ann Michalak says:

    I enjoyed reading the article about Jim Morris and his views on Vietnam, and his experiences as an officer there and as a war correspondent. Luckily, while living in Los Angeles, I became a friend of Jim Morris. I remember him well. He is a cool, calm collected, and honorable man, with skills as a journalist and as an author of several very well written books. Jim is brave, smart, and a very interesting person. Kudos to him, for his work in helping the Montagnards who relocated to the United States after the Vietnam war and for speaking out on their behalf. If has been several years since I last spoke with Jim, but if he does read this message, then I pass on my greetings to him on this Christmas day of 2011.

  11. Wayne Wilson says:

    Hi, Jim,

    Back in the 90s, you tried to buy my first novel (Loose Jam) for Delacorte, and we met for lunch in NY.

    I’d love to get back in touch and see how and what you’re up to.


  12. Benjamin "Devil Dog" says:

    Mr Morris read your comments on the Mao Model, while I’m just a simple rifleman class of 79 Paris Island MCRD I have a few thoughts I would like your comment on? I tried to find a email, luck so heres a few thoughts.

    As a simple rifleman with a GED I recall conversations in the 80s where it was pointed out that Mao felt that Viet Nam was too small for his strategy and tactics to succeed, later on when Tariq Aziz said “We have our cities and out cities are out jungles”. He was considered by some to be blowing hot air. It was said that while Mao defended his base areas the Vietnamese didn’t?

    My point IF you take the Maoist rules of war as a guideline not to be followed as exact iterations but modified to the terrain human and geographic to include using technology, in my humble opinion they still are valid. Perhaps had some of our leaders read and comprehended Machiavelli, Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, Galula and Trinquier?

    The mistake I see America making time after time is to expect the terrain human and geographic to adapt to us, we rediscover fire and reinvent the wheel when we fight People’s War Mod 2 while our opponents are using Mod 3.

    But like I said, just a simple rifleman with a GED, but remember when the private makes a mistake he pays with his life, when the general makes a mistake, only his reputation suffers.


  13. Gary Blackburn says:

    Jim: I am working with an old buddy of mine to write a book about the Army Security Agency in Vietnam. We should have the book finished in the next few months and are planning to dedicate it to a good friend of ours who paid the ultimate price in Vietnam.

    You chronicled his death in your first book, “War Story” and your account has been a great source of comfort to us and to the family of Green Beret Johnny Link. Thank you for keeping John’s memory alive and for letting the world know what a brave guy he was. John and I made the trip from our hometown in Iowa to NC in 1965 when he was undergoing his SF training at Ft. Bragg and he slept on our couch most every weekend for the ten months he was there. He was a great guy. Thank you for your service and your great books.

    G. B. Blackburn

  14. Marcus says:

    Jim, I am trying to make contact with you. I have a few questions and some interesting projects you might be interested in.

    Marcus @ the Heard, Phx, AZ

  15. ray carroll says:

    listen, how the chuck are you? wer are you? been running a bit with a big black guy named Peter in NYC. I went back cabbieing love it, but had a miss hap and really messed up my back,,,long story won’t bother you with the truth.
    I am breaking down and writting a book before I die, useing one of your lines, lets all sit down a tell a few lies….Look out for it on Am’zon. The ruins of Ramapo… Lots of true flash backs and a few truths about different, but I left the Reg, alone mostly picking on my royal fam’s I took care of. Its in the last stages of edicting. Email me and if your close by we’ll do a few…I am still teaching, but I can no longer fall,,,bit like you…finally all messed up..

  16. Dave 101st 1968 says:

    Hi Jim, what is your thoughts on Reaper 6 by Andrew Rafkin regarding the story of Staff Sgt. Larry Fitzgerald, Special Forces in Vietnam.

    Reading his book and lots of factual errors.

  17. Robby says:

    Sir, was wondering if you had any news on Crews McCullough, last heard he was in VA hospital. He is my former commander in Texas State Guard.

  18. tim banse says:

    We met when you edited AS magazine I wrote a story about the jungle in Panama.

  19. SF CPT says:


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