National Geographic : 1965 Jan
The forces at Buon Brieng included a montagnard battalion of 700-all drawn from the Rhade tribe commanded by Captain Gillespie's friend, Y Jhon Nie. The 12-man U. S . Special Forces team, plus 12 of their Vietnamese counterparts, rounded out the complement. The senior Vietnamese officer, Captain Truong, served as camp commander. As we watched the flares die above Chu Mnang, Gil lespie confided that a message had come earlier that evening from his headquarters detachment in Pleiku, alerting all Special Forces teams to demonstrations being planned by the montagnards against the Vietnamese Government. At that time, of course, neither of us linked the message with the flares. Gillespie explained the mon tagnard-government hostility as a continuing problem. "The mountain people," he said, "just don't get on with the lowland Vietnamese." "But what will you do about the message?" I asked. "I'll call an alert sometime during the night. Concern over the Viet Cong will keep everyone occupied." Camp Besieged by Constant Danger Frankly, our situation, as I pieced it together, unnerved me. Here we are, I thought, surrounded by Viet Cong who nightly harass the camp with mortar and sniper fire. That isn't enough. The camp itself is indefensible against a large-scale attack. It could be overrun by a full battal ion any time the Communists chose to do so-as they had done in July at another camp exactly like Gillespie's. Even that isn't enough. The camp is full of armed mon tagnards who resent the Government of South Viet Nam and the Vietnamese officers on the spot. In a capsule, I thought, our situation here mirrored the complexity of the problem that the United States faces in Viet Nam. As Gillespie and I left the bunker, I noticed that clouds now blotted the moon completely. Almost immediately the rain began-an ominous, chilling rain that made me shudder. I thought what a God-awful place this would be to die in. I wondered at the motivation of people like Gillespie. Why was he here? Why was I here? And I remembered a soldier's phrase, "Every man must face himself in a mirror every morning." Before turning in, I visited the mess hall-a room built of split bamboo with an old camouflage parachute for a ceiling. Ammunition belts and grenades littered the ta bles. Two kittens gamboled on the concrete-slab floor. A Japanese tape recorder hummed unattended against a wall. In one corner, Sgt. Earl Bleacher tapped out Morse code to detachment headquarters. Maybe I had grown paler as the night grew older, but I could tell the sergeant was concerned for my welfare. Maybe this was the night the Viet Cong would attack. "You shouldn't worry," he said. "If things get too hot around here, we'll blow up the ammo bunker. That will divert attention long enough for all of us to gather at the mortar bunker. From there we'll make it through the barbed wire and out of the camp." 44 Summoning the spirits, the sorcer er sips rice beer through a bamboo straw. A chicken, dedicated as an of fering to the gods, provides feathers for a ceremonial stirring of the potent brew (below). Throughout the proceedings, a rhythmic beating on brass gongs ac companies the sorcerer's chanting. Intoxication from the beer comes as part of the ritual. At its end, Captain Gillespie and Captain Truong pledge their allegiance to the Rhade tribe (page 47), a device proposed by Y Jhon to safeguard them from the Rhade rebels and assure himself of American protection.