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Southeast Asia

By the late 1950s the region of Southeast Asia known as Vietnam had endured centuries of warfare. After the Vietnamese had defeated the French and their Foreign Legion and gained independence, they were left with a country ravaged by war and torn by political factions at odds.

The Communist North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies in the south solicited and received help from the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China in the form of weapons, ammunition, and other supplies. Overall, however, the communist-supported North Vietnamese and Viet Cong depended upon their own populations for manpower. Soldiers volunteered or were drafted to fight for what they considered a war to liberate the south and reunite it with the north.

The South Vietnamese, on the other hand, received most of their support-both equipment and personnelfrom the United States. When the war escalated in the mid-1960s, President Lyndon Johnson sought to increase the numbers of Allied combatants as well as broaden worldwide support for the war. On April 23, 1964, President Johnson issued a public call for additional countries to join the United States in Vietnam. This effort became known as the "more flags" request.

Thirty-nine countries responded to Johnson but most provided only relief support, food, and medical supplies and aid. Australia and New Zealand, close allies of the United States and in agreement with Johnson's domino theory that if Vietnam fell to the communists, all of Southeast Asia might follow, responded with combat troops. Over the next six years the Australians maintained up to seventy-six hundred combat troops in the war zone. Smaller, less populated New Zealand deployed a force of five hundred men during the same period.

Both Australia and New Zealand bore the entire costs of their forces in Vietnam. Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand also agreed to send troops to Vietnam, but they demanded that the United States pay the costs of deploying the soldiers, an additional per diem payment, an overseas allowance, and a death benefit. It was also understood that the United States would look upon the countries with great favor when it came time to distribute foreign aid. Although not quite as direct as the British employment of the Hessians in the American Revolution, the United States did in fact hire Koreans, Filipinos, and Thais to fight the communists on behalf of South Vietnam. Although they fought under the command of their own officers and wore their national uniforms, they were paid to do so by the United States.

Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand each negotiated their own agreement with the Americans. Korea specifically demanded a promise from the United States that the Americans would not reduce the number of U.S. troops stationed on the Korean peninsula. It also demanded payment and modern equipment for its forces deployed to Vietnam, as well as for those who remained home.

Thailand in turn agreed to provide troops in exchange for a similar modernization of its army and payment of $75 million, while the Filipinos took $36 million for its smaller force. Thai, Filipino, and Korean fighters all received per diem, combat, and death allowances. The Filipinos got a specific per diem reward of $1 per day per soldier and a graduated overseas allowance that provided an additional 10 to $6 per day, per man, depending on rank.

The bulk of the payments went to the governments of the three countries. Individual soldiers received only a few dollars a day-poor pay except in comparison to their normal wages. As a result, some critics of the war labeled the troops from Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines as mercenaries, although the United States and their allied three governments preferred to call the payments subsidies to avoid mention of soldiers of fortune. In part, this claim is valid because none of the three countries could afford to bear the entire financial burden of sending their troops to war. It is also noteworthy that the Koreans, Thais, and Filipinos themselves were facing communist threats at home and believed in the domino theory. The opportunity to fight communism on someone else's turf, using someone else's money, certainly had its appeal.

In 1968, at the height of their involvement, more than fifty thousand Koreans were fighting alongside the South Vietnamese and Americans against the communists to earn the reputation as some of the fiercest-and at times most ruthless-soldiers in the war. Thailand provided more than eleven thousand soldiers while the Philippines deployed more than two thousand during their maximum support years. The Thais and Filipinos were known as somewhat reluctant warriors but nevertheless contributed to the defense of South Vietnam.

As the war dragged indecisively on and on, the American people lost interest and their support diminished. Likewise, citizens of Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines tired of the war. When the United States began its pullout from Vietnam in 1969, its "more flags" supporters followed. By 1972 most of the foreign troops were gone, except for Korea's, which maintained more than thirty thousand troops up until the very end of the year.

Although Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines were the only countries to actually provide "mercenaries," President Johnson and Gen. William C. Westmoreland, commander of U.S. troops in Vietnam, openly looked elsewhere for additional soldiers of fortune during the war. While Westmoreland and Johnson sought "more flags" to support the war, they also looked within Vietnam for soldiers to hire. Although about 90 percent of the Vietnamese population resided in the lowlands and shared a degree of common cultural civilization with neighboring countries, in the highlands of Central Vietnam lived about a million and a half additional people in various tribal organizations whom the Vietnamese considered barbarians or moi (savages).

By the time the Americans arrived in Southeast Asia, the numerous highland tribes had become known by the French word Montagnards, meaning "mountaineers" or "mountain people." The tribes-composed of peoples with Chinese, Malay, Mongol, and even Polynesian backgrounds-often warred with each other, but they shared one common characteristic. The Montagnards hated all Vietnamese, and few responded when the Viet Cong attempted to recruit them to the communist side. The Yards, as they were later affectionately called by the U.S. Army Special Forces (Green Berets), had little concept of the politics involved except their hatred of the Vietnamese. Although they were not happy to ally with the southerners, they welcomed the opportunity to fight the northerners-especially with the inducement of weapons, supplies, and money.

The many Montagnard tribes varied in their population numbers and their willingness to fight. Tribesmen from the Chain, Tuong, Mien, Jarai, Bahnar, Mnong, Halang, Ragulai, Bong, Ma, Chi], and Durng all joined the Green Berets. The most proficient and numerous Montagnard soldiers of fortune came from the Hre (a tribe of one hundred ten thousand), Rhade (one hundred twenty thousand), Sedang (seventy thousand), Nungs (fifteen thousand), and the Renago (ten thousand).

All of these tribes, except the Rhade, who were Malay-Polynesian, traced their origins to southern China. Rarely did any one tribe provide more than 10 percent of its total population to the mercenary units, but they willingly provided replacements for those killed or wounded.

In 1961 agents of the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and teams of U.S. Army Special Forces moved into the Highlands to recruit the villagers. Tenman Green Beret "A Teams" organized, armed, and trained the tribesmen into Civilian Irregular Defense Groups (CIDG) and established fortified camps in the interior and along the western border of the South Vietnamese Central Highlands. By 1964 the CIA and Special Forces had established twenty-one CIDG camps with the mission of blocking North Vietnamese infiltration into the South. That same year, with the arrival of additional A Teams, the CIA withdrew from the program and left it entirely in the hands of the Special Forces.

In 1965 the Green Berets, responding to complaints from the Montagnards that their villages were vulnerable to attack and looting by the Viet Cong when their warriors departed to join the CIDGs, supplied weapons and training to natives who stayed behind to protect their own homes and villages. Payment for these "Regional Forces" also came from the Americans.

The Green Berets and the Montagnards worked well together and developed a mutual respect and a sincere bond of loyalty. Mountain warrior tribesmen came to quickly learn how to use modern weapons and implement counterguerrilla tactics. They became excellent scouts, and a select company was even trained as paratroopers. One adviser later remarked, "The Yards were tough little bastards. They had little fear of death and seemed to enjoy fighting-especially against the hated Vietnamese."

In 1964 and 1965 the United States attempted to transfer some of the CIDG camps over to control of the South Vietnamese Special Forces. The Yards objected and several of the camps rebelled. Only after the Green Berets agreed to stay with the CIBGs and the South Vietnamese promised a degree of self-autonomy for the Montagnards once the war was over did the mountain tribesmen resume their operations against the communists.

Several of the more belligerent CIDG camps were closed during the unrest, but after the sides came to an agreement the number of camps of Yard mercenaries increased to sixty-two. During this period the Special Forces added quick reaction units called Mobile Strike Forces to respond to CIDG camps under attack or to reinforce other Allied operations in trouble all across Vietnam. Nungs made up most of these "Mike Forces" and these ethnic Chinese tribesmen earned the reputation as the most loyal and fiercest of the Special Forces Yards.

When a large force of Viet Cong attacked a camp at Polei Krong in the Highland province of Kontum on July 4, 1964, many of the South Vietnamese soldiers who shared the camp either refused to fight or joined the communist attackers. The Nungs stood their ground, organized an orderly retreat, and withdrew along with the other survivors.

Two nights later the Viet Cong attacked the Nam Dong Camp in Thua Thien Province. Although the camp was lightly defended by a Special Forces A Team commanded by Capt. Roger Donlon and a company of Nungs, they held out despite repeated assaults by a large number of Viet Cong. At daybreak the communists withdrew in defeat. The reputation of the fighting abilities of the Nungs grew from their actions at Nam Dong, and Donlon received the Medal of Honor for his leadership of the camp's defense.

The Green Berets regarded the Nungs so highly that they organized a special security platoon of them in 1964 to serve as guards for the 5th Special Forces headquarters in Nha Trang. This platoon was later expanded into a force of three companies that guarded approaches to the entire city.

In their efforts to counter the communists, the Americans also employed mercenaries in Cambodia and Laos. More than six thousand Cambodian Khmer Krorprimarily advised, armed, and paid by the United Statesjoined the fight against communism in their own country and opposed the North Vietnamese who were using their country to invade South Vietnam.

The Americans also hired the Montagnards of Laos. The Hmong comprised about 20 percent of that country's population and, like their fellow tribesmen in Vietnam, shared the reputation of being savages. As early as 1961 the United States deployed Special Forces advisers into Laos to hire and train the Hmong to combat Laotian communists as well as troops from North Vietnam. Ultimately about a thousand Green Berets led a force of thirty thousand Hmong soldiers of fortune.

Cambodian and Laotian mercenaries joined fellow mountain tribesmen from Vietnam to form a sizable and effective army. By 1965 more than sixty thousand Montagnards were serving in CIDG, Regional Forces, and Mike Force units-the equivalent of about five infantry divisions. This number remained fairly steady until their numbers declined with the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam that began in 1969. During most of the period, the United States secured this large number of allies with the deployment of only about two thousand Green Berets.

The costs of employing the mountain mercenaries were relatively small. Some payment was in gold, but these remote tribesmen had little experience with or use for hard cash. They preferred food, clothing, and other goods in exchange for their military service. As the war progressed and the years passed, the Special Forces began to pay the Montagnards in Vietnamese piasters, which they used to purchase items from traveling merchants. Ethnic Chinese traders along with South Vietnamese went to the camps and villages to exchange their goods for the mercenaries' money. Undoubtedly some of the merchants had to pay the Viet Cong in order to safely cross communistcontrolled areas to reach their customers; it can be assumed that at least some of the mercenaries' income ended up in the pockets of their enemies.

People who had for centuries lived off the land did not expect or require much in the way of salary, nor did they require as much logistical support as the American infantry. On average, ten Montagnards could be sent into battle for what it cost to have one U.S. soldier take the field. Even at their low wages, about $60 a month, most of the Montagnards were making more than soldiers in the South Vietnamese Army-a fact they sincerely appreciated.

When the United States began its withdrawal from Vietnam, it ended its support for the Regional Forces and reduced the numbers of CIDGs and Mike Forces. Control of the remaining units passed to the South Vietnamesebut their pay, routed through local officials, continued to come from the Americans. Despite resentments on both sides, the Montagnards served the South Vietnamese well and continued to fight bravely after the departure of their Green Beret advisers. During the Easter Offensive of 1972 the Montagnards anchored the defense of the Central Highlands, and they held the communists out of Pleiku and Kontum during the North Vietnamese offensives of 1973 and 1974.

The Montagnards remained loyal to the South Vietnamese and their former American advisers until almost the bitter end. In an action not uncommon to many mercenaries of centuries past, the Montagnards finally received what they thought was a better offer from the North Vietnamese. Before the final offensive in 1975 against the South, agents from North Vietnam approached key Montagnard leaders with cash payments and promises of increased independence if they would change sides.

The South Vietnamese responded by promising the tribes local autonomy for their continued loyalty, but the offer came too late. To the Montagnards, and indeed the world, the ultimate demise of South Vietnam was already apparent. There is no evidence that the mountain mercenaries turned their weapons against the South Vietnamese, but they did agree to stop fighting. When the North Vietnamese made their final assaults into the South, the Montagnards provided little resistance.

After the fall of Saigon, the communists quickly forgot any promises made to the Montagnards. Instead they began a campaign of retribution. As mercenaries on the losing side have always suffered the consequences of the vanquished, Montagnards would be no different. The communists murdered some of the Montagnard leaders and sentenced others to long terms in "reeducation camps." Vietnamese from the lowlands were moved into traditional Montagnard territory, leaving the Montagnards without land or a means of survival.

During the three decades since the fall of Saigon, the exact toll on the Montagnards for their service to the Americans is unknown. It is apparent, however, that their prewar numbers and lifestyle no longer exist. Their enemies are many, their friends few. They are fortunate, however, that their former Green Beret employers are among these few. For years Green Beret veterans have worked with the governments of the United States and Vietnam to bring Montagnards to America. They have been successful in relocating several thousand to the States, where the former Green Berets have arranged housing, food, job training, and adjustment to the tremendous cultural shock of moving from the mountains and jungles of Vietnam to American suburbia.

colonel Michael Lee Lanning. . Ballantine Books; New York. 2005.


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