Two generations ago, Americans went to a strange land to fight a strange war. In many ways this war’s rules were much like the French & Indian War more than 200 years before. In this war, a small group of soldiers met a people who would have been at home in the Americas of 1750. These people were the Dega (Montagnard).
Montagnards are the indigenous people of the Central Highlands of Vietnam, and translates to mean “Mountain People” in French, a carryover from the French Colonial period in Vietnam. This group of people seldom had contact with the Vietnamese people in the lowlands and few even understood their customs or spoke the language. In 1958, the five prominent tribes united against the Vietnamese, but more for political reasons than militarily.
They were not Vietnamese. They differed in language, culture and religion, and pushed out of the fertile lowlands into the central Highlands. In these mountains, they wanted freedom to continue their hunting and primitive farming lifestyle. They wanted to be left alone. This couldn’t and didn’t happen.
Their homelands were of strategic value and these people were excellent warriors. Each of the warring sides sought their allegiance but the Montagnards chose to ally themselves with the Americans. and fought side-by-side for more than ten years.
The RVN government agreed to let the U.S. Special Forces (Green Berets) start training the Montagnard tribal militias in village defense and border patrolling. What the SF soldiers found in the mountains of Vietnam was a group of people unparalleled in fierce fighting skills, personal courage, and loyalty to allies.
By December 1963, 43,000 Montagnard defenders guarded the area around the first camp, Buon Enao, from the Viet Cong, while 18,000 Montagnards were enlisted in mobile strike forces, which were deployed by air to spots where conflict broke out. In 1962, the population of the Mountain People in the Central Highlands was estimated to number as many as one million.
In 1967, the Viet Cong slaughtered 252 Yards in the village of Dak Son, home to 2,000 Highlanders, known as the Đắk Sơn massacre, in revenge for their support and allegiance with South Vietnam.
American Vietnam vets have given endless accounts of the Montagnards’ heroism and loyalty. One such veteran was George Clark, a former staff sergeant in 5th Special Forces Group during the Vietnam War, who also went on to serve as a master sergeant in the Marine Corps. “My team was getting lit up in the middle of a hot zone,” Clark recalled, “and I had gone down, as I had taken two bullets. And the ’Yards [short for Montagnard] on my team jumped on my body to protect me from getting wounded. They are the bravest, most loyal, and fiercest fighters I have ever seen. …”
Clark was one of a number of SF soldiers assigned to work with the Montagnard tribesmen, assigned to one of the mixed SF/Montagnard reconnaissance teams. “The first ’Yards I met in 1967, well, they kind of looked at me like I was a tourist; they literally taught me, instead of the other way around,” Clark recalled. “They knew what was dangerous in the jungle, they knew what to eat in the jungle, it was a give and take situation but first I had to earn their respect. We on the recon teams would go in ahead of the battalions … and flush out the enemy … so in essence we were the bait.”
It didn’t take Clark long to earn the loyalty of his Montagnard charges. He and his recon unit had gotten themselves into a couple of heated skirmishes on the northern RVN border, had been picked up by a Navy patrol boat, and were on their way out of the area when they ran into another enemy ambush. The crossfire panicked the young patrol boat helmsman, causing him to hit an embankment and send a highly respected Montagnard leader flying onto shore into the middle of a minefield. Without thinking Clark leapt out of the boat, determined to retrieve his teammate, and managed to make his way back to the boat, getting both himself and the Montagnard warrior back alive.
“I had to disarm numerous mines as I went,” Clark recalled, “inching my way over multiple trip wires, all while bullets were whizzing past, as by now the enemy had pretty good positioning on us, as you can imagine. When word of the rescue got out, the ’Yards just went berserk; they couldn’t believe one of us had went in and saved one of them. When the ’Yards see you do something like that. … They will follow you to hell and back. And you only get that by standing beside them and going into the fight with them. …”
Clark was one of many special operations warriors who fought alongside the formidable Montagnard people during the Vietnam War. All of them remember the Montagnards with respect and friendship
During these years, the Americans who knew the Montagnards formed strong attachments to them as individuals and as a people. When these Americans, both military and civilian, left Vietnam, their attachment to these people came home with them, but the “Yards” were left behind. They were left alone to face the full fury of the North Vietnamese Army.
In 1975, thousands of Yards fled to Cambodia after the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese Army, fearing that the new government would launch reprisals against them because they had aided the U.S. Army. Roughly 200,000 Montagnard people perished by 1975.
According to the political anthropologist Walker Connor, The SRV Vice Minister of Culture proclaimed in 1976: “It is necessary to eradicate all outmoded customs while gradually bringing the new culture to each ethnic minority. The state has the duty to bring new progressive culture to these people in order to build a new culture with socialist objectives and Vietnamese National Characteristics”. All Bibles and reading materials written in the Montagnard languages were burned after the Communist took over. The trival languages could not be taught in schools and today many Montagnard children only peak Vietnamese. Ancestral homelands have been seized, religion is prohibited and traditinal Montagnard villages dont exist any longer.
The Americans who worked with the “Yards” in the Highlands understood the price they would pay, and as a result they were the first to welcome them to their new life in America. Those Montagnards who finally made it to the security of America had fought their way through Cambodia and Laos to camps in Thailand. Very few of those who left Vietnam made it to safety so a welcoming celebration was in order.
The U.S. military resettled some Yards in the United States, primarily in North Carolina, but these evacuees numbered less than 2,000. In addition, the Vietnamese government has steadily displaced thousands of villagers from Vietnam’s central highlands, to use the fertile land for coffee plantations. Today, the Montagnard population in the Vietnam Highlands is estimated at 500,000.
Information for this article was collected from “Defense Media Network”, Wikepedia, YouTube and “Save the Montagnard People” (STMP), a nonprofit organization of veterans and others who try to bring these refugees into settlements in North Carolina. More info. on STMP can be found here: http://montagnards.org/home
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