Memories of Vietnam
July 1968 thru Jun 1969

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Montagnard Villages

There were many Montagnard villages in the Plieku area, mostly occupied by Jarai tribesmen. Most of the villages were "consolidated," meaning several villages were relocated to a single cluster so their population was sufficient to defend itself from small bands of Viet Cong.  This also allowed the establishment of schools, clinics, and resident U.S. Army Civil Affairs teams. My first visit to such a village was in December 1968 when I escorted MG Ken Hodson, The Judge Advocate General, on his visit to the largest consolidated village in our area. My duties as escort prevented me from using a camera during that visit.

A couple months later LTC Bill Oldham, Deputy SJA of USARV, unexpectedly showed up in my office one morning with his camera, asking to visit the same village. I called Hensel Army Air Field, explained the request, and asked if we could get a helicopter. All the regular choppers were out on operation missions but, after some scrambling, they offered an ancient OH-23 3-seat "bubble" chopper that they no longer used. When we got to the field, they had to jump-start the engine because the battery was dead. We took off and had flown a few minutes when the pilot asked me where we were going. I had no idea! I thought he knew. I didn't know the name of the village or in which direction it was. So we just flew over one village after another, but none of them looked familiar.  Out of desperation, I told the pilot to land at the next village.

It was a village with no U.S. military presence and therefore no security or guarantee of a friendly reception. I put a clip in my .45 pistol as we landed. The pilot had to stay with the chopper and keep the engine running for fear that otherwise it wouldn't start again. Fortunately, a Montagnard in a military fatigue shirt rushed out and gave us a friendly greeting. He spoke no English but manage a little French, explaining that he had served an an NCO under the French. My French was worse than poor but it was better than my Jarai, and we managed to communicate. He showed us around the village, explained the social structure (e.g., all men without wives lived together in a hut whose roof-line ran perpendicular to all the others), and introduced us to his family.


The only way to fly - an obsolete OH-23

Montagnard village from the chopper

Our French-speaking guide (L) & friend

Group of huts

Guide's daughter & son

Guide's family

The unmarried men were roasting a pig in a pit and offered to dig it out on the spot (even though it wasn't yet done) so we could share it. I declined, explaining that it was Friday and, as a Catholic, I could not eat meat. LTC Oldham had an instant conversion and similarly declined. Our guide, familiar with French Catholics, accepted this and explained it to the others. Then they insisted that we share their rice wine, drunk from a large crock through a reed. We couldn't refuse without offending them but did our best not to swallow much wine (due to hepatitis warnings). The rice wine actually tasted quite good.  

Children posing by sandbags

Cooking pit (lower left) & firewood

The mandatory rice wine ceremony

After spending nearly two hours in the village, we made our way back to the helicopter. Just as we never knew where we were going, we never knew where we had been. We probably were foolish to undertake this visit to an unknown village with unknown risks, but the Montagnards couldn't have been friendlier. And I'll bet LTC Oldham thought all along that I knew what I was doing, and he probably told everyone back at USARV that I spoke French.

Boys with bicycle

Unasked, villages lined up to be photographed

Our chopper awaits our departure

The following pictures were taken on another occasion at a different Montagnard village, Plei Ho By I believe.

OH-6 "Loach" helicopter

Aerial view of the village

Goats among the huts

The Montagnards used crossbows for hunting birds and small game. The bows were crafted of local wood by skilled artisans. Even then, though, oversized teak replicas were made for Americans, but not by the Montagnards.

The bow-maker draws a crowd

Finishing the cross-piece

Crossbow complete, the artisan takes a break

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