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Cowboy, interpreter and warlord

[The following essay was published in the San Diego Reader on June 12, 2003. The author is Jim Morris, who wrote the wonderful Vietnam memoir, War Story. I've omitted the stuff about Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq. -- Dan Ford]

Cooking the Books

By Jim Morris

.... In April of 1964, my commanding officer, Crews McCulloch, led a patrol into the Chu Cle Ya mountain area of Phu Bon province, Republic of Vietnam. The patrol itself was a bitch. They ran into heavy opposition and were totally outgunned. Our chief communicator, Ken Miller (not Kenn Miller, author of Tiger the Lurp Dog), had to beat out his own evacuation message with the wounded hand he was being evacuated for. Our junior medic, Bill Foody (who later retired from the Air Force as a full colonel and surgeon), had his left ankle shattered by a burst from an enemy Browning automatic rifle. It was actually the worst patrol of our six-month tour.

So this stuff was on my mind when I got a message to pick the old man up on the road, ahead of our trucks, when they walked out about 20 miles south of the camp. I grabbed a jeep and headed south. I was alone but unafraid of an ambush, because I had given no prior warning that I planned to travel.

I found Crews, flaked out by the road with the troops. He got in the jeep and said, "Get me to the camp, ASAP." I floorboarded the jeep, which was kind of pointless, since it only meant we were going 45 miles an hour on a dirt road. On the way back he briefed me. Cowboy, Philippe Drouin, our best and most aggressive interpreter, had decided that we were trustworthy. He told Crews that the Montagnards were going to revolt against the South Vietnamese. I could tell you many horror stories about South Vietnamese treatment of the Montagnards, but suffice to say that such a revolt was more than justified.

Cowboy on the march
Cowboy (far left) takes the point, June 1964. On the right is Capt. Swain, executive officer of the Special Forces A Team that replaced Jim Morris's gang. Cowboy may have been murdered by the South Vietnamese authorities in 1968. For more about this fascinating individual, see The Only War We've Got and War Story.

What they wanted us to do was be ready. They didn't want to fight the Americans too; they just wanted to be treated decently and have the same rights and privileges as any other citizen.

He had provided Crews with everything: their constitution, their plan, their organization (FULRO -- Le Front Unifie de Lutte des Races Opprimes, or Unified Fighting Front of the Oppressed Races), their leadership. Even their flag.

He had already radioed our next higher headquarters in Pleiku, and Major Rick Buck, the commander of that headquarters, was supposedly on his way to Buon Beng, our camp, by helicopter.

Crews briefed me on the way home. As soon as Buck got there he briefed him. Then he went to Saigon and made the rounds of the intelligence services, giving them all the same spiel. We all volunteered to stay in Vietnam until after the crisis had passed.

A week or so later the Vietnamese intelligence service, also known as the Surete, sent a fake malarial-spray control crew to the camp. They were obviously not a real malaria crew, because they were sharply uniformed and started to work before noon. Also, they would enter a longhouse, asking anyone there subtle questions on the order of "Say, how about that revolt?" and then leave without having used their props, the spray cans.

Another week passed. A CIA spook, posing as a cultural anthropologist, arrived by helio-courier, an airplane used only by the CIA, and asked to see Crews. "Captain," he said, "we've received reports on this revolt from you, from the MAAG [military assistance advisory group], and from USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development]. All of those reports can be traced back directly to you.

"What I want to know, Captain, is what you hope to gain by making up this preposterous story."

We threw him out of the camp and went back to Okinawa on the sixth of June, 1964, the 20th anniversary of D Day in Normandy.

In October the revolt happened. We had not been the only team that knew it was coming. Some teams handled it well, some not so well. A lot of Vietnamese and a few Montagnards were killed. The Montagnards took over the radio station in Ban Me Thuot (now Buon Ma Thuot).

The Montagnards got a lot out of the revolt. They got slots for their better leaders, including Cowboy, to their officers candidate school. They got eligibility for passports. They got title to many of their ancestral lands, and the Vietnamese Ministry of Ethnic Minorities was formed....

c2003 San Diego Reader. All rights reserved.

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