The People

Typical Bru Family, Khe Sanh, 1967

(Courtesy of "Doc" John Roberts)

There were a few small and scattered settlements in the Khe Sanh area when we were there in 1967-8, including the then-small village where the Sub-District HQ and Oscar 1 and 2 were located, and the outlying Bru tribe hamlets, such as Lang Con 1 and 2. The population of the main village at the time (c. 1967-8) was largely comprised of lowland Vietnamese, brought in to colonize and work the plantations established by the French, who sometimes found the Bru too casual as laborers, and by successive Vietnamese governments, including the current Communist regime, in an effort to assimilate the native Bru population, who were considered "moi" (savages) by the Viets. The Vietnamese population in the region shared the language, physical characteristics, and customs of their lowland neighbors.

The other villages in the area were composed of the aboriginal tribal hill people commonly known by the French term "montagnard", meaning "mountaineer." Their own name for themselves is "Bru" (aka "Brou") which translates roughly as "hill people" and is cognate with the French term. They are collectively known as "Degar" (aka Dega) in their own languages, though they generally refer to themselves by their individual tribal names, such as Bru , Rade (aka Ede), Hre, Cua, Bahnar, Sedang, etc.

There were some coffee and rubber plantations begun by the French, some of which (such as the Poilane's) were still operating despite the war.

The infamous prison of Lao Bao was also in the area, operated by the French and their indigenous allies in the 1930s. It was a brutal place, mainly used to house political prisoners, several of whom later figured prominently in Vietnamese history, including Vo Nguyen Giap, the Viet Minh's architect of victory at Dien Bien Phu. Another was Ho Chi Minh. Ho's wife also did time in the prison. From all accounts, it was, like most political prisons, a breeding ground for revolution -- for those who survived it.

Vietnamese "Wash Ladies" 1967

These ladies kept our uniforms relatively clean

Our native counterparts and those of the local Special Forces units' "Civilian Irregular Defense Groups" (aka C.I.D.G., i.e., native mercenaries in the employ of the CIA) were recruited from the Bru tribe.

There were also a few Eurasians among both the Vietnamese and the Bru, characterized by being somewhat taller, often with lighter skin, European facial features, etc. In our time, these were mainly the offspring of French liaisons, although there may now be some of American descent, as elsewhere in Vietnam.

The Bru

The highlanders of Vietnam generally belong to either the Malayo-Polynesian or the Mon Khmer ethno-linguistic groups. Their languages are represented by Cambodian, Laotian and other Indochina languages, as well as the Dega languages.

The Mon Khmer are thought to have originated in the Upper Mekong valleys, and migrated to Indochina centuries ago. They were later driven from the fertile lowlands into the remote mountain regions by the people now called the Vietnamese.

Due to the language, customs, and physical appearance of the Bru tribes, they are considered members of the Katu branch of the Mon Khmer ethno-linguistic group, and thus related to the Hre, Cua, Bahnar, and Sedang tribes of the Degar people.

The Bru resided mainly in the Annamite Mountains to the west of Quang Tri, near the 17th parallel,in and around the Khe Sanh area. (See map below)

Their homelands originally lay across what were then the borders of the former Republic of (South) Vietnam, Laos, and the former Democratic People's Republic of (North) Vietnam. Within the former RVN, they were situated mainly in Quang Tri and Thua Thien Provinces. They may also have inhabited a plateau region, Kha Leung, located to the west of the Annamites in Laos.

The pre-war Bru are variously estimated to have numbered between approximately 25,000 - 80,000 in the Republic of Vietnam. Obviously these figures are very approximate and vary widely according to the source. These estimates were made before the major combat phase of the war. (I have so far found no population estimates available for the tribal members in Laos and N. Vietnam.)

Until about 1897 when the French "pacified" the area, the Bru were fairly independent of the central regime.

Bru territory was important to the French, who aspired to a "Greater Indochina" colonial empire as a route to Laos, which is why Highway 9 was eventually built. The Bru villages paid a small tax, but generally had little to do with the government.

Little was actually known about the Bru until about 1965, when the RVN authorities resettled many tribesmen, from their remote areas to villages located in a 3-mile strip on each side of National Route 9. This was part of a plan to remove the people from Viet Cong control, part of the then-prevailing resettlement strategy. After the Tet Offensive and Siege, they were once again forcibly relocated with tragic results.


The Bru, like most Degar tribes, had a subsistence lifestyle. They hunted, fished, and gathered what they could from the wild. They also raised some domestic animals such as water buffalos, chickens, goats and pigs, and practiced rudimentary light agriculture, mainly rice, supplemented with corn, using the "slash and burn" technique, which consisted of cutting all vegetation and burning it to clear the fields, the ash serving as fertilizer, with the copious rains of the monsoon for irrigation. Land was communally controlled by the village, but cultivated by individual families. When the fields were farmed out in 2-3 years, they moved to a new area, and repeated the process, eventually returning to former village locations as they regenerated.

The Bru are very generous. Game was customarily shared with all the villagers. Families owned their house, domestic animals, and furnishings such as gongs and jars. Personal property included clothing, pipes, weapons, and jewelry. They traditionally bartered among themselves or the Vietnamese. Some worked on coffee plantations or in military camps.

The lowland Vietnamese have long regarded the Bru and other Dega tribes as second-class citizens (or worse). In addition to the racial and historic animosities, the Bru and other tribes suffered heavily for supporting the US.

To compound the situation, after the war, some of the Degar people continued resistance, having been told by some of the departing SOG personnel to continue to resist because the US would support them and later return. Some resisted until 1993, though many were killed, imprisoned, and otherwise abused in great numbers, reducing their population.

Their plight was worsened by their increasing adherence to Christianity, which has made strong inroads among them. (See below.) The Vietnamese government distrusts Christians as disloyal potential agents of imperialism (which, given the historic record, is understandable).

The Bru are generally small, (5 feet 2 - 4 inches, average weight approx. 115 pounds). They are well built, lean, well muscled, and have high cheekbones, wide noses, dark brown eyes, brown skin, and black hair.

The Bru are intelligent, though they seemed to learn best from demonstration and hands-on "practical application." They worked hard when clearing land for planting and other work. When nothing urgent was at hand, they worked in a more desultory fashion, or rested. Some Westerners mistook this for "laziness" but it is normal in such cultures - the Native North American tribes were much the same in early times.

Like other tribal cultures in Viet Nam and worldwide, the Bru had strong tribal traditions and bonds. They thought in terms of the family and village rather than the individual. They often made decisions in consultation with family and village leaders.

Bru Government

The Bru had no central political organization, though occasionally villages cooperate for common goals. Bru society was patriarchal (inheritance follows the male line). Some studies indicate that other tribes were matriarchal (through the female line). Elders in the village and families comprised the main "governing" bodies.

Bru Religion

Their native religion was animism, that is, the belief that all things have a "spirit" which was either benevolent or malign, and that these spirits governed all aspects of life - weather, crops, illness, etc.

Important spirits included the sky, rice paddies, and the village. Other spirits included the sun,moon, earth, thunder, mountains, patches of forest, rocks, animals, rice wine jars, hearth, tools, and household objects. The communal house (khoan) in the center of the village was sacred to the spirit of the village.

Although details varied from village to village, fundamental beliefs and practices were similar throughout the area.

Major Bru sacrifices revolved around the agricultural cycle - clearing, planting, and harvesting.

They also believed the spirits punished violations of cultural or tribal mores and customs. This,combined with peer pressure, enforced acceptable behavior, as in most cultures.

Crop failures or epidemics were "punishments" from the spirit world for violations of tabus. As in many tribal cultures, the Bru looked for "omens" from the spirit world. Elders of the village or family conducted most rites, while personal rites were the responsibility of the individual.

Sacrifices varied from an egg to a buffalo. They start with an invocation, inviting the spirit(s), and expressing the wishes of the parties involved. This was followed by the ritual slaying, and offering of the blood and flesh, along with rice and other foods, followed by drinking rice wine and eating the sacrifice. The Bru believed the spirits partook also.

Oddly, given the basic decency and kindness of the Bru otherwise, some of these rituals were extremely brutal. I have been informed by those who have studied them that it was considered important that the animal be dispatched in a very cruel and lingering manner in order to strengthen the efficacy of the sacrifice.

To lessen the attractiveness of children to the malign spirits, they gave them unattractive names in hopes that they would pass over them rather than "take" them. When they attained puberty, they were renamed with one of the traditional names.

Earlier attempts by Catholic priests and others to proselytize were sporadic and not of much avail. However, in more recent times, a number of Bru and other Degar people have adopted a form of Protestant Christianity, due to the work of a missionary / linguist family who lived among them when we were there, Dr. John and Carolyn Miller. (See below.)

Due to the closed nature of the current government, especially in regard to the minorities, it is difficult to say how many are currently Christian or to what extent they believe. Judging by other indigenous populations who have been converted over the centuries, there is usually at least a degree of native belief underlying the newer religion. By way of comparison, it is certain that even in Europe, among the Irish and Scottish and others, much remained of the old religions even into relatively modern times, albeit usually under a veneer of Christianity.

I am not a great fan of missionary efforts of any faith or kind, having seen the damage they have often done to native cultures and traditions around the world. However, the Millers were in my experience basically respectful of the Bru culture and traditions, and did as much as possible to assist the Bru and see to their needs, while still fulfilling their mission to learn and transcribe the Bru language to enable their colleagues at the SIL (Summer Institute of Linguistics) to translate the bible into all the world's languages, thus fulfilling a Christian ideal known as "The Great Commission" - i.e., bringing the message of Christianity to all the world.

Health and Medicine

"Doc" John Roberts of O-2 running a "medcap" (basic medical care program) in a Bru ville, 1967

(Courtesy of "Doc" John Roberts)

Ms. Pat Bonnell, a missionary nurse working with the Millers, who also helped SFC Jim Perry (see In Memoriam) in the clinic at HQ.

(Photo courtesy Larry Larsen of SU 5)

Bru who reached adulthood generally had relatively good health, since survival of childhood was itself a culling process in the region. (7 of 10 children died.)

As noted, the Bru believed evil spirits caused sickness, and that sacrifices to the spirits could cure them. Divination was used to find the responsible spirit, and the appropriate sacrifice.

They had little medical care outside of folk medicine and sorcery, except for that which the Marines and the Army Advisory Team provided them during medical patrols. Our hospital corpsmen were often the only modern trained medical personnel they had ever seen.

They suffered heavily from malaria (most contracted it at least once - as did I). All forms include a high fever, chills, and severe headaches. The more benign form features relapses, but is usually not fatal. (Though having experienced it myself, I can say without exaggeration that in the heights of the illness, the only thing keeping me alive was the hope of dying!) The malign forms are often fatal.

They also suffered from typhus, cholera, yaws, dysentery, leprosy, venereal disease, tuberculosis, hookworm and other parasitic infestations.

Disease was spread by insects (such as the anopheles mosquito, rat flea, and louse); by worms (including hookworms); by poor sanitation, and poor personal and sexual hygiene.

Bru Housing

The Bru formerly lived in remote mountain villages near water, but with no conveniences, lacking even rudimentary sanitation.

Huts were constructed on pilings 6 - 8 feet high, and consisted of a framework of bamboo poles with woven bamboo panels and thatched grass roofs.

One common type included a small entrance platform on one side, the other was a rectangular house with the platform extending from a central doorway, flanked by two other doors, and accessible by ladders.

They were arranged in a roughly circular pattern around a central common house called a khoan - the traditional "long house" which was used for sacrifice feasts and other communal purposes.

Some of the Degar community that was resettled in North Carolina by the efforts of former Special Forces operatives and others has obtained a farm through the auspices of "Save The Montagnard People" one of the organizations dedicated to trying to aid the Dega both in America and in Vietnam. On this farm they have constructed a traditional khoan for ceremonies and to preserve the culture.

Villages were moved as the land became worn out from the slash-and-burn agriculture (above).

Bru ville, Khe Sanh area, 1967

(Courtesy of George “Doc” Sargent or Dana Matonis, Oscar 2)

The Bru as Fighters

The Bru were brave and reliable warriors. In times past, they had hunted tigers armed only with cross-bows,spears and a bolo-like knife. However, they were not foolhardy.

Bru Hunters with “magnum” cross-bows used for tigers and elephants, Khe Sahn, 1967

(Courtesy “Doc” John Roberts)

They were fairly good with rifles and other direct-fire weapons when trained properly. They were generally armed with US-made WW II and Korean vintage weapons, incl. M-1 Garands, M01 am=nd M-2 carbines, Thompsons, BARs, etc. Some of these were in new condition, and functioned far better than our own M-16s. As a result, we sometimes used weapons intended for the militia as part of our own arsenal.

Typical CAP Patrol. Note Bru weaponry: .45 "Grease gun, M-1 or M-2 Carbines, M-1 Garand rifle.

(Courtesy “Doc” John Roberts)

However, our Bru, being militia, were only issued 90 rounds per month. This limited both their rate of fire and effectiveness. They sometimes expended all their available ammo in one fight. We supplemented their ammunition from supplies we kept at our compound. (The ammo included boxes of specially loaded“match” ammunition from the old Frankfort Arsenal, c. 1950s.)

The Bru were generally less skilled with mortars, explosives, and mines. They seemed to find abstract and technical aspects (i.e.; timing and trajectories) more difficult to comprehend.

It was also difficult for themm to keep a secret, as their cultural mores and customs made them honest and fairly transparent and lacking in guile.

Their upbringing gave them an excellent background for tracking and ambush activities. They were resourceful and adaptable, knew their jungle homeland better than any of us ever could, and often could detect signs of the enemy that eluded even the best of us.

In one gun-fight I was engaged in (Hill 471), the Special Forces NCO in charge of a team of Bru CIDG (Civilian Irregular Defense Group - basically CIA mercenaries), was trying to position his men on a hill we were moving up. The Bru were exceptionally unwilling to advance, saying; "Beaucoup VC!" As he literally pushed his machine gunner into position, the enemy opened fire, killing the gunner and damaging the M-60.

Bru Traditions and Culture

The Bru had excellent memories, and were until relatively recently a non-literate society. Like other local tribes (and other cultures), the Bru passed on their culture through oral tradition, in the form of memorized stories and songs, usually rhymed, and told from one generation to the next. They were often told around the hearth at the end of the day, or at festivals and feasts, with great accuracy. Poetry assisted their memory, and the tales and songs were recited with great drama. This is how they passed on their folkways, beliefs, proverbs, customs, folklore and legends, such as their origin legends (which include their version of creation and a great flood).

I found this one of many striking parallels between the Bru and other indigenous oral cultures I have known, such as my own traditional Scottish and Irish Gaelic culture, remnants of which still existed in rural areas when I was young. (A few remain to this day.)

The Bru also loved music and dancing, and had an instrument called the 'ken' or 'khen' (pronounced roughly 'cane' as in a walking stick), which is a series of bamboo pipes, usually sixteen in two rows with a wooden mouthpiece. It is common in southern Laos and northeast Thailand.

Their love of music extended to my Highland Scottish bagpipes, which my parents had sent over, and they would dance to both my pipe music and some of their own tunes which I had learned. I still remember and can play one of them. Dan Kelley (our unit's linguist) informed me a few years ago that it had been a popular love song among them. They referred to my bagpipes as "plong khen toar", which I understood to mean "big reed blow-flute.” According to Carolyn Miller, the Wycliffe missionary-linguist at Khe Sanh;

"Plong means to 'play' or 'blow' and you are right that 'ken toar' means 'big ken.' It is probably tuned differently than your pipes, but they would certainly make the connection."

Indeed they did! They would often come to listen and dance when I played. They seemed to like the Scottish and Irish music I played, and I learned a few of their own native tunes, some of which I can still play, including a tune Dan Kelley described as a popular love ballad.

I also bought one of their native flutes, (they look like a sort of pan-pipe), but never mastered it. It was later lost with most of my gear (including my own pipes!) in the evacuation of Khe Sanh. I was hospitalized at the time with malaria and pneumonia.

The editor playing Scottish bagpipes at O-2, Fall 1967

(Courtesy “Doc” John Roberts)


As noted, the highlanders of Vietnam generally belong to either the Malayo-Polynesian or the Mon Khmer ethno-linguistic groups. The Bru fell into the Mon Khmer group.

Some Bru also spoke Vietnamese or French, and a few spoke Laotian. Those in contact with US forces also learned some English. Few Vietnamese spoke any Bru, regarding them and their language as sub-human, calling them "monkey people" and their language "monkey-talk."

The Bru had no written language, until efforts were made to construct one for them. This monumental task was undertaken by a missionary / linguist from the Wycliffe Bible Translators /SIL (Summer Institute of Linguistics), John Miller. He was later joined by his wife Carolyn Paine MIller, also a linguist, and their children.

Dr. Miller lived among the Bru for years, learned their language, and assembled a unique dictionary of Bru, which he was enlarging and improving during our time there. (The goal of his society, Wycliffe, is to eventually translate the Christian Bible into all world languages for proselytizing purposes.)

It was interesting to see a Caucasian family in the middle of a South-East Asian war zone. They seemed such an anomaly in that place and time. Their children could also speak Bru or English with equal ease, and understood Vietnamese and French as well.

The Millers always greeted us kindly and answered my many questions about the Bru language and culture, which interested me greatly. John had previously helped one of our NCOs, CPL Dan Kelley, to learn, who in turn helped get me started. I never achieved their fluency, but could get by in the basics, and doubtless amused the Bru no end in the process.

John had spent his first years among them alone, living in the village in their manner as he learned the language and began his construction of a written version. Later, when he brought Carolyn over, he and his wife moved into a house which I believe was given to them for their use by Poilane, a French planter in the area.

John and Carolyn Miller being interviewed by a Mr. Shakney (a TV newsman) on 23 Oct., 1967

(Photo courtesy of Rev. Ray William Stubbe)

Carolyn Miller with a US officer and local Bru, 1967

(Can anyone ID the officer and photographer?)

The Millers (aee above) were linguists and missionaries. Despite this, the VC appeared to believe them to be CIA agents. (There were CIA agents at Khe Sanh, but the Millers were not among them.)

Although the Millers were forced to evacuate Khe Sanh when the war intensified, they returned later, but were eventually forced to leave again later as the war deteriorated. After the Millers were forced to evacuate Khe Sanh for the final time, they were captured by the VC and held captive for nearly a year. I remember reading of their apprehension in the papers, and thinking; "I know these people!" and hoping they would get out alive and safe.

They had already sent their older children back to the States for schooling. According to various sources, in March of 1975, the entire group was rounded up by the Communists and forced to march to the North. They eventually arrived in Son Tay.

Carolyn described her quarters as a former prison with one wall bombed out. She and family were housed in the Opium Den and visited (interogated) by an the same Vietnamese who had contact with American prisoners of war prior to 1973, a smooth talking, mild mannered officer named Nguyen Van Dung (aka Happy Dan, the Soft Soap Fairy), who was the "good guy" guy in the "good guy-bad guy" routine with his fellow interrogator. He was always complaining about having a better education than his superiors and yet he was not invited to attend the national congress that year.

The family was released months later, in November, 1975, but sadly, without the fifty-thousand word manuscript that represented fourteen years of hard work, which later had to be painstakingly reconstructed from memory and some copies he had left with students. Carolyn wrote a very interesting memoir of their captivity called “Captured”. (Though long out of print, it can still be purchased, and is now available in E-book form from Amazon.

The Millers then returned to the States to accept another assignment.

The Millers remained missionaries up until their retirement, though they were working out of Thailand, not being allowed by the Vietnamese regime to re-enter Vietnam and work with the Bru. However, they maintain contact with their former friends and students through various networks.

The Bru and other ethnic minorities continue to experience difficulties under the current regime.

( Note: This site represents the result of many years of investigative work and research. I have tried to be as accurate throughout as possible, but there is no such thing as 100% perfect. In cases where I was not present, I have relied on the accounts of those who were present and / or official records, correspondence, statements from comrades, their friends and family, and other sources. Statements, quotes, poems, or any material other than my own reflect the views of those who made them. Neither this author nor this site assumes any responsibility for any errata made in good faith, nor for any of the views expressed other than my own. All the photos, documents, text, and other materials are copyright, and they belong solely to the authors, photographers, etc., who retain all rights to the materials. All material is copyright, and may not be used without express written permission of the owners or their heirs and assigns. All material used with the express permission of the owners, who are named where known. Unattributed material will be attributed when the owner contacts me. I receive no financial or material reward or incentives of any kind for any reviews or links on this site. They are posted because I have personal experience of them and / or their products, and think they are good quality and might be of interest to our readers. Your contact information will NEVER be used for solicitation by us, nor will it be traded, hired, lent, sold or otherwise distributed. You will only be contacted if you request it.)