Becoming a Montagnard Brother – SF in Vietnam

Buck Walters - post-mission photo Vietnam 1966

Editor’s Note: In 1966 and 1967 Buck Walters was deployed to South Vietnam with U.S. Army Special Forces. Read how he was made a member of the Jarai Montagnard tribe. His story is below.

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PREFACE

It has been 55 years since these events unfolded. I have made every effort to ensure this depiction of them is accurate. I must admit, however, there are dates and names I can no longer recall. I mean no offense or disrespect to any person or organization. Buck Walters, De Oppresso Liber.

In 1963 or thereabouts, President John Kennedy decided that the emerging US Special Forces would benefit from the infusion of some Regular Army officers. I was one of those officers. I applied for and received an inter-theater transfer from an infantry battalion in the 3rd Armored Division to the 10th Special Forces Group at Bad Tölz, Germany. It was March 1964 when I stood, heels locked, in front of the desk of the legendary, Colonel Jerry Sage. “Sir, Captain Walters reports.” Sage looked me up and down. It seemed an eternity, before he welcomed me with these words, “Walters, you know, I could knock you out with a single punch?” I replied, “Sir, I do not doubt that.” I was dismissed.

Photo: Author (right, front) and SF team chuted up for a training jump at Baker AAF, Bad Tölz.

Along the way I became friends with the Group Sergeant Major, John Pioletti. John set the standards at Bad Tölz and he seemed to take special interest in making sure I met them. Whenever our paths crossed, I got inspected, from the folds in my Green Beret to the shine on my Corcoran’s. He never said anything, but I knew I was being inspected and I was OK with that. Pioletti left the 10th to become the Group Sergeant Major of the 5th Special Forces Group in Nha Trang, South Vietnam. I do not recall when, but on my arrival in country in February 1966, he was there to pick me up at the airport. As we drove to the compound, he said that he had assigned me to Detachment B-52 (Project Delta). I took note that he said, “he had assigned me…” I was OK with that too.

Charlie Beckwith had been severely wounded and evacuated. He was replaced by a colonel named Warren if I recall correctly. Bo Baker had departed earlier, too. I replaced him as the operations officer. Project Delta was a MACV, J2 asset for tasking purposes. We conducted reconnaissance as they directed, often on behalf of deployed divisions. We were also capable of direct-action missions and with our two attached Vietnamese airborne-ranger companies could line up against the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) from time to time. That is what we were doing in Song Be when I got the fateful radio call. I will get back to that in a bit.

As the operations officer, I could not call myself a “Recon Man”. Never did, but I didn’t like asking men to take risks I wasn’t willing to undertake myself. So, I went on a couple of missions, not as the team leader, just a team member. One day I’ll tell you about the insertion that left us 10 kilometers on the wrong side of the Cambodian border. Later I told the pilot-in-command he owed us all a drink for missing the entire damn country. I flew on every insertion and extraction, sometimes as door gunner if we had weight issues.

A word or two about our Vietnamese airborne-ranger companies. When they were first attached, they were just Vietnamese Ranger companies. It was up to us to qualify them for airborne operations. I set up a two-week program of instruction (POI) and I suspect the Black Hats at Benning would not have approved. We left out the push-ups and the running around and we never came up with a Vietnamese Jody-call. Anyway, we taught them the critical parts and then started pushing them out of our Hueys. I made every jump with the sticks I personally trained. If memory serves, it added up to about 70 over a two-week period.

Somewhere in there we got our hands on a couple of MC-1B’s. I think that was the nomenclature…it had forks you unseated to permit the risers to be slipped to steer the canopy. They did not come with instructions, but I had been a member of the Bad Tölz Sports Parachute Club so I thought I could figure it out. I asked the pilot to take me to about 4,000 feet AGL since I needed a little time for the “discovery learning” I was about to experience. Once was enough.

MACV, J2 ordered Delta down to the Song Be area. I want to say it was late May or early June 1966. I do not recall precisely. They wanted us to lite up an NVA outfit they had located. We got ourselves down there, established a base and got on with it. Along the way the boss decided I should be the senior advisor to the two companies we were committing to the fight. It made sense. They knew me and I had earned a measure of respect from them as a result of the airborne training we put them through. I reckon it was the second or third day of fighting when my radio operator handed me the handset. It was Group and the message conveyed was: “Take a helicopter to Saigon; there’s a fixed wing waiting to fly you to Nha Trang; report immediately to the Group Commander on arrival.” I radioed back words to the effect, “I am in a fight; will comply once wrapped up.” That resulted in, “I say again…” Seems the old man was not inclined to await Captain Walters’ pleasure.

It was 0300 hours when I found myself with heels locked in front of Colonel “Splash” Kelly’s desk. I do not recall being told to stand at ease and I certainly was not offered a chair.

Kelly’s orders to me were direct and clear. The 400 Jarai Montagnard Strikers at Camp A-221 located in Cung Son in the central highlands had thrown down their weapons and abandoned the camp. He had relieved the SFOD-A commander, and I was to replace him. My orders were to “do whatever is necessary to save the camp.” He told me I had 90 days. If I failed, he would close it. “Do you have any questions?”, he asked. “No, Sir”, I replied. I saluted and headed to the waiting UH-1.

Photo: General Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in the Vietnam War from 1964 to 1968, visits Special Forces camp. Author is standing to the right. Two middle ‘civilians’ are reporters who were on the trip with the general.

The LU’C LU’O’NG DAC-BIET (LLDB) team, was the direct cause of the crisis and my guess is that my predecessor, though I never met him, was a well-intended, but misguided contributor. The camp sat on a hill overlooking the village of Cung Son and the river that ran nearby. By any reasonable standard, it was only marginally defensible and the positions the defenders were required to occupy, and hold were little more than hovels. I got there and walked the camp with my team. Fields of fire were not cleared; fighting positions were shallow holes in the ground with wood and cardboard for cover. The Strikers had been brutalized by the LLDB team, they had been shorted on pay and on rations and finally they had enough. They threw down their weapons and they left.

I met with my counterpart. We both had team members present. My 1911A1 was in my hand, a round chambered, hammer back and the safety off. He spoke some English, I spoke no Vietnamese, but had an interpreter at my side. I helped him understand that my definition of “advisor” was different from the guy I replaced. We took control of the funds, the food, and everything else of value. After a couple of weeks, when “face” had been saved, he, too, was relieved. He was replaced by a captain who had fought the French at Dien Bien Phu. I was free to do anything I wanted except get him outside the wire. I was OK with that.

Then the hard work started. I went into the village, hat in hand, and got the Strikers back. We brought in laborers to build fighting positions, clear fields of fire, reinforce barriers and generally make the place both livable and defensible. We cared for them, we respected them, and we led them. Above all, we gained their loyalty. We kept half of the force in the field pretty much constantly. Typically, we were out two weeks at a time conducting operations to interdict infiltrating NVA units. We were very good at our work.

After our first operation, they made me a Jarai brother complete with loin cloth, bracelets, and rice wine. For the record, I was not offered a wife. Importantly, we had a carefully selected Jarai platoon that was focused on the Americans personal security. They made it possible for Green Berets to do what we do.

EPILOGUE

SFOD A-221 in 1966-67, made a difference in a small piece of a long, ugly, and some would say fruitless, war. We came home as individuals, not as units or teams, and we were often reviled by the very people we fought to protect.

They did not know what we did; They did not know what we endured; and They did not know what we achieved. De Oppresso Liber, Buck Walters, Soldier

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Author: Buck Walters served in the 5th, 7th, and 10th Special Forces Group.

Photos: Courtesy of Buck Walters private collection. Top image is a post-mission photo of split-team A-221. Just returned from a highly successful mission against NVA. Buck Walters on the right.


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