The People


Typical Bru Family, Khe Sanh, 1967

(Courtesy of "Doc" John Roberts)

Originally, there were few settlements in the Khe Sanh area, other than the then-small village of Khe Sanh itself.  
The population of the main village of Khe Sanh at the time we were there (c. 1967-8)  was and remains largely ethnic Vietnamese, brought in to colonize the area, and work the plantations established by the French, who found the Bru too casual as laborers, and by successive Vietnamese governments, including the current Communist regime, in an effort to assimilate the local native population. They share the language, physical characteristics, and customs of their lowland neighbors. 

The other villages in the area were composed of the 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. 
These "montagnards" are collectively known as "Dega" (aka Degar) in their own language, though they generally refer to themselves by their individual tribal names, such as Bru , Rade (aka Ede), 
Hre, Cua, Bahnar, Sedang, 
etc.  
 

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

The infamous prison of Lao Bao was also opened and operated in the area  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, and the less successful Siege of Khe Sanh. Another was his comrade and leader, 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 few who survived it.



Vietnamese "Wash Ladies"-  Khe Sanh ville, 1967

Our own native counterparts and those of the Special Forces' "Civilian Irregular Defense Groups" (aka C.I.D.G., i.e., native mercenaries in the employ of the CIA) were all 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. 

Oscar Company's native counterpart troops were recruited from the Bru tribe.  

Due to their language, customs, and physical appearance the Bru tribes are considered members of the Katu branch of the Mon Khmer ethno-linguistic group. (Also related to the Hre, Cua, Bahnar,and Sedang.) 

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" 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 strategy used to wage the war. After the Tet Offensive and Siege, they were once again forcibly relocated with tragic results. 



Bru Economy 

The Bru had a subsistence lifestyle. They hunted, fished, and gathered what they could from the wild, raised animals and practiced light agriculture. Most men had similar occupations - hunting,fishing, and rudimentary farming. 

Land was controlled by the village but cultivated by families. Agriculture was based on rice,supplemented with corn, raised by "slash-and-burn" farming. (Cutting all vegetation and burning it to clear the fields, the ash serving as fertilizer, with rain for irrigation). When the fields were farmed out (2-3 years), they moved to a new area, and repeated the process. 

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, they 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, and 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 certainly 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 Americans were much the same in early times. 

Like other tribal cultures in Viet Nam and worldwide, the Bru had strong traditions. 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 cooperated 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, that all things had 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 decency and kindness of the Bru otherwise, some of these rituals were extremely brutal. It seems to have been important to the nature of the sacrifice 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 malign spirits, they give 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 their 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 Dega 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 Language 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 other rural native people, 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.  However, the Millers were in my experience basically respectful of the Bru culture and traditions.  




Health and Medicine 


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

(Courtesy of "Doc" John Roberts)




 Pat Bonnell, a nurse who helped SFC Jim Perry (see In Memoriam) sometimes in the clinic in Khe Sanh.  

(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). 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 form is 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. 


 
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 sacrifices. 




(The Dega community that was resettled in NC by the efforts of former Special Forces men 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 with cross-bows,spears and a bolo-like knife! However, they were not foolhardy. 



Bru Hunters with “magnum” 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 armed with WW II and Korean vintage weapons (M-1s, carbines, Thompsons, BARs, etc.) Some of these were in new condition, and functioned far better than our own M-16s. As a result, we often 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, as 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 “match” rounds from the 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) difficult to comprehend. 

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 battle I was engaged in, 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. 

One particular Bru, Huang (aka Hom) who we called the "Sergeant Major" because of his Marine Corps issue “cover” and SGTMAJ insignia, was a fascinating example of the ultimate warrior. The Bru called him the Ghost, because they believed he was supernatural. (So did we!) 

He had been fighting since he was a boy (I was told he was nine when he went to war). He had scars from many fights. He was tough, wiry, and knew his trade. He had served with the VietMinh against the French, then against the Japanese in WW II, then against the French again, then the Americans, and finally he had gone over to our side. 


SGTMAJ Huang 

He was probably only in his forties, but seemed older, yet somehow timeless. He could do phenomenal things in the bush, disappear and reappear almost magically, and see and read trail sign that most of us didn't even notice. 

On one occasion early in the Siege of Khe Sanh, we went through a ruined Bru ville at night. It seemed to me as though we were in Hell. I suppose in a way that we were. There were shell-holes,fires were still burning, destroyed buildings and devastation everywhere you looked. I remember stepping on something soft & yielding, and feeling sick to my stomach, thinking it was a corpse. I looked down, and it was only the body of a poor pig, killed in the shelling. 

The Sergeant-Major stopped us, knelt down, put his fingers to the earth, and tasted and smelled something. Then he said, "VC piss here, little while ago. Many pass here." He knew who had passed, when, and an idea of their numbers, all on a pitch-black night lit only by the fires! 



Bru Traditions and Culture 

The Bru had excellent memories, and were until relatively recently a non-literate society. Poetry assisted their memory, and the tales and songs were recited with great drama. 

Like other local tribes (and indeed other cultures), they 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. 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 the traditional Scottish and Irish Gaelic culture, remnants of which still existed in cultural backwaters when I was young. 

The Bru also loved music and dancing, and had an instrument called the 'ken' or 'khen' (pronounced roughly 'cane'), 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 to me at my request, 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 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! I collected 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, and thus missed the night the ville was assaulted. 


The author / editor playing Scottish pipes at O-2, Khe Sanh, 1967

(Courtesy “Doc” John Roberts) 
 

Languages 

As stated, 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, 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 (I believe) they understood Vietnamese and French as well. 

They 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 by and used courtesy of Rev. Ray William Stubbe, LCDR USN (Ret.), then chaplain of the 26th Marines.)



Carolyn Miller with a US officer and local people at Khe Sahn, 1967

(If anyone can ID the officer and photographer, I'd appreciate it.)

The Millers were apolitical linguists and missionaries.  Despite this, the VC appeared to believe them to be CIA agents. 

After the Millers were forced to evacuate Khe Sanh, they were captured by the VC and held captive for nearly a year. I remember reading of their capture in the papers, and thinking; "I know those people!" and hoping they would get out alive and safe. They had already sent their older children back to the States for school when they were apprehended, but they and a child were held for almost a year. 

Finally, the VC released them, possibly convinced they were what they said they were, or to gain some favorable press. However, John lost a great many of his notes on the language,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” which, though long out of print, can still be purchased and may soon become available again in E-book form.

The Millers remain missionaries to this day, though they are now working out of Thailand, and are not allowed by the Vietnamese regime to re-enter Vietnam or work with the Bru. 

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. 

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