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The Ghosts of Buon Enao

For one brief moment in 1961, all of the tensions and fears of two giant nuclear superpowers focused on a tiny village of aboriginal tribesmen deep in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. America's future looked bleak then, and she was badly in need of friends.

The leaders of United States had been trying to impress the Russians and other potential enemies with their technological superiority, but on that April 12, Yuri Gagarin became the first man to journey into outer space. On April 15, America sponsored an invasion of Cuba, complete with air strikes on Cuban soil. By April 20, the operation had failed miserably.

On August 3, the East German regime began to build an ugly cinder block wall through the heart of Berlin. Contrary to his public statements, President Kennedy was relieved. More than anything, the young president feared a revolt by the East Germans against Soviet occupation, which might upset the delicate Cold War balance of power. Despite his inspiring speeches, John F. Kennedy had abandoned any hope of freeing Eastern Europe from Soviet domination.

Things looked as dismal in South Vietnam, where the non-communist government in Saigon was steadily losing ground to a communist insurgency. Fronting for the communist regime in North Vietnam, it was supported by other communist governments in China and the Soviet Union.

At the beginning of September 1961, the American Embassy in Saigon had reported that more than 1,000 communists had occupied two government posts only fifty kilometers north of Kontum, in the northern part of the Central Highlands. This was the strategic heart of South Vietnam, and communist control of that area would ultimately lead to the defeat to the South Vietnamese Government. For the first time, the invaders were well armed with submachine guns, machine guns, automatic rifles and mortars. It was the largest enemy attack since the French surrendered Vietnam to the communists, after their humiliating defeat at Dien Bien Phu.

The State Department concluded that a full scale guerrilla war, supported by powerful military units of the Hanoi regime, was about to erupt in South Vietnam. In neighboring Laos, six enemy battalions were located in Attopeu, three thousand near Tchepone, two more battalions nearby, and another ten thousand man force was advancing rapidly from North Vietnam. Even more ominously, large numbers of the indigenous people of Vietnam, the "Montagnards", were accompanying communist troops into the Central Highlands. If they could they persuade the Montagnards in the south to join them, South Vietnam would fall.

The moment of decision was at hand: Victory or defeat of the South Vietnamese government would depend on the role of the Montagnards. Would they join the communists, or would they side with the forces of freedom? In October, 1961 exploratory talks were held with leaders of the Rhade tribe in Darlac Province to seek their participation in a village self-defense program. A meeting was eventually held in the tiny village of Buon Enao between a representative of the U.S. Embassy, accompanied by a Special Forces medical sergeant, and representatives of the Rhade.

The mountain tribesmen were not easily convinced. Beginning in 1954, and until 1961, the South Vietnamese government had done its best to alienate the Montagnards. President Ngo Dinh Diem had abolished their tribal courts and their land rights, settling 80,000 Vietnamese refugees from the communist north on the most fertile regions of their land. He prohibited the teaching of their languages in school, and burned all of their books. The Montagnards saw this as the beginning of the end of their culture. In 1958 the Rhade in Darlac Province had organized a peaceful protest. In response, the government confiscated the only weapons that they had, and which they needed to hunt wild game in the jungle: Their crossbows and spears. The Vietnamese officials considered the Montagnards to be "inferior" people, calling them "moi", or savages

The pressure on both sides at that meeting in Buon Enao was intense. For the Americans, the total loss of Vietnam was at stake, and with it another major defeat which would encourage their communist enemies, make non-aligned nations rethink their relations with either side, and drive their friends to despair. For the Montagnards, there was a sense of deja vu: The French had sought their help just as the Americans were now doing, and even granted them their own nation, with clearly defined borders. When the French lost, there was no serious effort to honor their committment to the tribes and attempt to negotiate in order to salvage even a part of their promised country. Would the Americans betray them as well?

In the end, the Americans had their way despite these misgivings. In return for weapons and training, the Montagnards declared for the South Vietnamese government and agreed to participate in a self-defense program. Armed only with crossbows and spears, the tribesmen built a palisade fence around Buon Enao and dug shelters within the village where the women and children could take shelter in case of attack. They also began developing an intelligence network to provide early warning of a communist attack. The American Special Forces began an intensive training program of America's new allies, expanding to include forty village by April, 1962. When large numbers of American ground troops were committed to reverse the rapidly deteriorating military situation, the Montagnards became an invaluable asset to the American war effort.

Most wars are about resources and money, but on the fringes of these tragedies, there are those who fight merely to exist, sacrificing their lives in the hope that stronger nations will help them to survive. Few Americans who served in Vietnam, and only a handful of those who remained in the United States know about our most loyal allies, the mountain tribesmen of Vietnam, who saved thousands of American lives. Together with the U.S. Special Forces, they accounted for almost half of all ground combat intelligence (CMH Publication 90-23, page 81.) Even the old men and young boys who remained in the villages while the young adults served with the Americans helped the American Forces whereever they could. Please click on this link to read about our: Invisible Guardians!


When I became an advisor to a Montagnard company in 1968, the villagers were beginning to pay a heavy price for their decision to join the war on our side. The older men and those too young to fight as mercenaries with the Special Forces were left to defend their remote villages with mostly single shot 410 squirrel guns, and scarcely one or two ancient automatic weapons, such an occasional Thompson submachine gun. The villagers I trained bought their own ammunition from our corrupt Vietnamese allies, and had to bribe Vietnamese soldiers to have their communications equipment repaired. Despite these hardships, they kept their faith with America, and many of them squandered their own lives to save thousands of young Americans from Vietcong ambushes and mines.

Now, the American government has abandoned them, and signed trade agreements with our communist enemy, leaving the desperate appeals from these Montagnards to fall on deaf ears. When they were certain that there would be no economic costs, the communist government of Vietnam began sterilizing all Montagnard women of child bearing age, the "Final Solution" to their "Montagnard Problem". Thousands of our allies have suffered a slow, painful death, since these brutal operations have been carried out under primitive and unsanitary conditions. On December 2, 2000, police officers from Phu Thien arrested Siu Seo, Siu Ai, and Nay Glel. All are devout Christians, and that was their only offense. The officers, whose names are Dan, ksor Hleo, Nay Phot, Nam, and Hung tortured the Christians with cattle prods and severe beatings. Then they crucified them on trees at the edge of the village, as an example to others who seek to worship the Christian God.

Unable to bear these continuing atrocities, the tribesmen organized and marched peacefully to the city of Pleiku in February, 2001. Unfortunately, the first group arrived in relatively small numbers, and the communist police did what they have always done: Beat them into submission. When the main body of demonstrators finally arrived, they reacted instinctively to the bloodied faces and mangled bodies of their friends and beat the guilty policemen to the point where they had to be hospitalized.

As expected, the communist police state reacted with draconian force, using tanks and helicopter gunships against our unarmed former allies. Within a few days it was all over. Reacting to the brutal acts of revenge by the totalitarian police state in Vietnam, many Montagnards, travelling by night, and seeking refuge in the jungle by day, fled their repressive regime by crossing the border into Cambodia. Some have been forcibly repatriated to Vietnam by the Cambodian government. A few have been permitted to emigrate to the United States, to finally live in peace. For the remainder nothing has changed since their uprising. Just a few weeks ago, Montagnards were tortured with cattle prods for requesting permission to celebrate Christmas.

Please click this link to visit the Montagnards, and express your support for our brave allies!

Click here to see the first four chapters of another of my books about the war in Vietnam: "Never Sleep 'til Dawn". Its FREE!>>> Read Wolfgang May on

Click here to read about:

The War Around Us: War is Always About Money, If You Decide to Go to War, Children of War, Refugees, Alternatives to Ethnic Cleansing, Our Army Self-destructs.

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