From Nam Dong in 1964, to Tet 1968, to the 1972 Easter Offensive, Gerald Hickey got involved in it all—and he wasn’t even a soldier.
When Gerald C. Hickey went to Vietnam in 1956 with the RAND corporation, he had no idea that he would spend the next 17 years in Southeast Asia. In 1973 he returned to the U.S. as the anthropologist with the most experience on the ground in Vietnam, and with the greatest knowledge of the many ethnic groups of that country. During his time there, he worked very closely with the indigenous Montagnards of the Central Highlands. And along the way, Gerry Hickey probably experienced more combat than most infantrymen in Vietnam.
When Roger Donlon earned the first Medal of Honor of the war at Nam Dong in July 1964, Hickey was there. When the Montagnards seized several Special Forces camps near the end of that year, Hickey was sent to Ban Me Thuot to advise on how to obtain a peaceful resolution to the crisis. Hickey was at Ban Me Thuot once again during the Tet Offensive of 1968, when the North Vietnamese Army attempted to take that city. Finally, in spring 1972, when the NVA tried to take over the Central Highlands, Hickey was at Pleiku and Kontum during the heaviest fighting.
During his stay, Hickey wrote five books on the populations and events in Vietnam. Village in Vietnam, Sons of the Mountains, Free in the Forest, Kingdom in the Morning Mist and Shattered World are now out of print, but are available on CD from RADIX Press. Hickey’s autobiography, Window on a War: An Anthropologist in the Vietnam Conflict (Texas Tech University Press), provides a detailed history of the Vietnam War from a scholarly participant’s viewpoint. Retired Army Special Forces officer and author George Dooley recently interviewed Gerry Hickey at his home in Chicago.
VN: You were at Camp Nam Dong when Roger Donlon [commander of Detachment A-726, 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne)] earned the first Medal of Honor of the Vietnam War.
Hickey: I went to Nam Dong in early July 1964 to interview the Special Forces team as part of my assignment by the RAND Corporation. At the time, we were doing research on American military advisers. I had no idea that I would be a participant in one of the early major battles of the war.
VN: What happened?
Hickey: There seemed to be a buildup of activity around the camp. Villagers around the camp began to act differently. We knew that something was about to happen. There was a meeting at about 2030 hours [the evening of July 5] and Captain Donlon ordered increased vigilance, particularly for the inner perimeter, which would be defended by the Special Forces team and some Chinese Nung mercenaries. Sergeant Ray Whitsell gave me an AR-15 rifle so I could help in the defense of the camp. Then we went to bed. At 0226 on July 6, I was knocked out of my bed by the first incoming rounds. I grabbed my glasses, sneakers and weapon and went to my alert position at the southwest part of the inner perimeter. Within a very short time, we had VC inside the inner perimeter.
VN: Were you prepared to be a rifleman in combat?
Hickey: I had been drafted in 1944 and been trained on the M-1 carbine. I asked Sergeant Whitsell if he could give me a carbine instead of an AR-15, but there were no carbines available. Fortunately, I had been trained on the AR-15 at another Special Forces camp before coming to Nam Dong.
VN: You’ve written on Nam Dong in Window on a War, but could you describe that battle?
Hickey: My general perception was that of massive mortar fire, which included white phosphorus impacting on the camp and then burning fire as the camp structures blazed. We probably had only about 200 friendly effective troops defending the camp, while there were about 900 attackers. Additionally, we didn’t have any air support or any fire support other than our own mortars. Captain Donlon was wounded but kept making rounds and checking on his people. I remember him stopping by me at one point and asking about how I was doing and did I need ammunition. I told him that I could use more ammunition and he left to get a resupply. Before he left, Captain Donlon told me that Master Sergeant Gabriel Alamo, the team sergeant, and Sergeant John Houston had been killed. Later, I found that Australian Warrant Officer Kevin Conway had also been killed. It was a very bad night.
VN: Were you wounded that night?
Hickey: I had multiple wounds from either a recoilless rifle or mortar round, but no broken bones. I was bruised, bloody and slightly dazed, but I could still fight.
VN: When did it get better?
Hickey: At dawn the VC realized that they had failed to take the camp. There was sporadic fire but we still owned Nam Dong. Everyone knew that with daylight we’d get relief. We treated the wounded, rationed the water and waited for reinforcements. Later, I informed Generals [William C.] Westmoreland and [William] Depuy that the dead sappers in the camp didn’t appear to be southern Vietnamese; this might have been the first involvement of the NVA in the South.
VN: How was the camp reinforced?
Hickey: This was before the days of the Mike forces [mobile strike forces, trained and led by U.S. Special Forces units], so there was no rapid reinforcement immediately available. We were expecting Marine CH-34 helicopters to relieve us and to evacuate our casualties, but as they arrived over the ridge, the VC took them under fire and they left. There was general disappointment; we continued to tend the wounded and redistributed ammunition anticipating another VC attack. Finally, an Army Huey helicopter came sweeping into the valley with its door gunners shooting everywhere. That helicopter suppressed enough fire to enable the Marine CH-34 helicopters to return. Those helicopters brought reinforcements from the Special Forces team in Da Nang.
VN: Did you leave then?
Hickey: No. We had to get the wounded out first, but things became chaotic. We were still under periodic sniper fire, and some Vietnamese CIDG [Civilian Irregular Defense Group] troops tried to storm the helicopters to flee Nam Dong. The most seriously wounded were evacuated, and we returned to defending the camp. The relief team eventually took over, and all of Detachment A-726 was ordered to leave for Da Nang.
VN: What happened at Da Nang?
Hickey: The Marines and Special Forces soldiers treated us very well. The Marines gave us clothing and toilet articles, and the Special Forces gave us an empty barracks and shower facility. We ate, drank beer and talked about our harrowing night. I returned to Saigon the next morning.
VN: Are you still in contact with Roger Donlon?
Hickey: Oh, yes. [In February 2005], Colonel Donlon’s old team number was reactivated at Fort Bragg, and we flew there to observe the ceremony. While there we also observed the training that aspiring Special Forces soldiers receive. It was gratifying to see the latest generation of SF soldiers coming along.
VN: You refer to Donlon as colonel. When was he promoted?
Hickey: After Nam Dong, Roger stayed in the Army until he eventually retired as a colonel. He’s been retired and living in Kansas for a number of years.
VN: How did you get involved with FULRO [Front Unifié pour la Liberation des Races Opprimées—United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Peoples] in the uprising in Ban Me Thuot in late 1964?
Hickey: I had met most of the leadership of FULRO as part of my ethnographic studies. Paul Nur, Nay Luett and Y Bham Enuol were friends from my earlier research. Perhaps it was natural that I was asked to participate in the negotiations in Ban Me Thuot. I had watched the evolution of Bajaraka [a movement whose name was derived from the key letters in Bahnar, Jarai, Rhade and Koho—primary highland tribes] into FULRO. FULRO was essentially the Bajaraka movement expanded to include the Cham and Khmer Krom.
VN: What actually happened in Ban Me Thuot?
Hickey: There were a number of uprisings by the ethnic tribesmen in the Central Highlands. As part of the CIDG program directed by American Special Forces, the tribesmen had been armed to fight the Viet Cong. However, some of the armed tribesmen thought that it was an opportune time to get rid of the Vietnamese, whom they viewed as interlopers on their lands. A number of Special Forces camps were taken over by the tribesmen. The Americans were usually placed under house arrest, and their Vietnamese Special Forces counterparts were often killed. By September 20, 1964, there were about 3,000 CIDG in revolt, and they had marched on Ban Me Thuot.
VN: What was the importance of Ban Me Thuot?
Hickey: Ban Me Thuot was the Rhade capital and the second major city in the highlands. It was located on a high plateau. It had a long history of French occupation, along with plantations, schools, cultural facilities and other urban amenities. The French influence was still profound.
VN: What brought the crisis to a head?
Hickey: The insurgents captured Colonel John (Fritz) Freund, who was the deputy senior adviser of [ARVN] II Corps, and held him hostage at Buon Sar Pa. The FULRO situation had rapidly gotten out of hand.
VN: What was the Vietnamese response?
Hickey: The Vietnamese wanted to intervene massively and teach the insurgents a lesson. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. But, you have to understand the view of the Vietnamese government: The government was fighting a growing insurgency against the Viet Cong, which was aided by the North Vietnamese. At the same time, the government knew that it could only hold the highlands with the cooperation of the Montagnards but those same Montagnards had legitimate grievances against the government.
VN: What happened next?
Hickey: RAND Corporation had met with Ambassador Maxwell Taylor and General Westmoreland, and I was asked to go to Ban Me Thuot. I landed there in a [de Havilland Canada] Caribou aircraft and met with the province senior adviser. Later, general officers of the ARVN and the U.S. Army joined us. My recommendations were that the FULRO insurgents had some legitimate land property issues and that negotiation was the preferred tactic. Through negotiations, the Montagnards were given more representation in the government, and the revolt ended. However, issues of land ownership continued throughout the duration of the war.
VN: Why did those issues continue?
Hickey: Many tribesmen practiced swidden agriculture, which is sometimes called “slash-and-burn.” Under this farming system, a plot of land will be used until it can no longer nourish a crop. Then, a new plot will be tilled while the old plot regenerates over a period of years. This meant that the tribesmen claimed huge parcels of land that were not under effective cultivation. Yet, the Vietnamese government looked upon this as wasteful and claimed that the regenerating land did not belong to any particular tribe. Another aspect to the problem was that the topsoil tended to be thin with a clay-laterite base. Land ownership under these conditions was no simple issue.
VN: FULRO as an insurgency had to be supported by an outside power. Who was that power?
Hickey: Obviously, it was Cambodia. The Khmer Kron [Khmer Kampuchea Kron, an armed group of Cambodians from the South Vietnamese delta] had a vested interest in keeping the Vietnamese off balance. We tend to forget that Cambodia once controlled large parts of Vietnam including most of the Mekong Delta [which its inhabitants—Chams—called Champa]. Les Kossem, a lieutenant colonel in the Cambodian army, tended to be associated closely with FULRO. He was a Cambodian Cham (and Muslim) who was a bearded rebel at Buon Sar Pa during the FULRO uprising, whom I met again in 1970 in a restaurant in Phnom Penh while dining with other FULRO leaders. As we talked, Les Kossem said, “Please give my regards to Colonel Freund.” He admitted to me that he had been sent to Buon Sar Pa to direct FULRO operations.
VN: You were back in Ban Me Thuot during Tet of 1968. What happened there?
Hickey: On January 27, 1968, I went to Ban Me Thuot in conjunction with a land survey project that we at RAND were working on. The following day was Sunday and I went to the village of Buon Kram, about 20 kilometers away on Route 21B, where I joined an end-of-harvest celebration. The mood was festive and rice wine was plentiful. The next day, Monday, January 29, I returned to Buon Kram and the mood was somber. The village chief explained that the NVA were to the south and seemed to be on the march. Montagnard scouts reported that the NVA planned to attack Ban Me Thuot on Tuesday, January 30. I was with Mike Benge, a USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development] worker, at the time and we decided to return to Ban Me Thuot.
VN: Then what?
Hickey: The MACV [Military Assistance Command, Vietnam] officers thought that the NVA would honor the Tet truce and that there was no need to worry. I went to Special Forces Detachment B-23, and they were feverishly digging defenses and preparing for battle. I decided to stay with them when they told me that they had intelligence that an NVA regiment would attack that night. As before at Nam Dong, I was issued a weapon to help defend the compound. This time I received the carbine that I preferred.
VN: When did the attack begin?
Hickey: Despite the province chief’s order not to fire weapons in honor of Tet, the Vietnamese celebrated the arrival of the new year at 2400 hours with gunfire and fire crackers. The noise subsided after about 30 minutes. Then at 0130, the NVA fired a massive barrage of mortar rounds and rockets at the military installations and the center of the town. Fortunately, the friendly forces had tanks, helicopter gunships and other aviation support. We made it through the night without casualties. Mike Benge left to check on one of his villages and was captured by the NVA.
VN: What happened with Benge?
Hickey: Mike drove to the village of Buon Ale-A to check on some American missionaries and was captured along with the missionaries. All the captives were taken to Cambodia, but only Mike survived the trek north to the Hanoi Hilton. Mike was later released in 1973.
VN: Was the attack over on January 31?
Hickey: No. The NVA continued their attack and Ban Me Thuot was filling with refugees, many of them wounded. The medical people had their hands full with the wounded Montagnards, and the shooting increased as the sun went down. We spent another night at B-23 and learned that our attack was part of a massive countrywide operation.
VN: Did you stay in Ban Me Thuot for the entire battle?
Hickey: No, I was able to get a helicopter ride to Nha Trang in the afternoon. I was anxious to return to Saigon because I believed that Saigon would be a natural focus for attack, and that was where my home and office were. When I arrived in Nha Trang around 1730 hours, it was too late to go on to Saigon. I went to the 5th Special Forces Group compound to see my friend Colonel Fred Ladd who was the SF commander. With Colonel Ladd, we visited with Colonel Le Quang Trieu, head of the Vietnamese Special Forces. We learned that another 300 NVA were coming into the northern part of Nha Trang. I looked forward to a shower, a meal, a drink and a bed when we returned to the Special Forces compound.
VN: And did you get that?
Hickey: Yes, I did, except we were attacked at 0130 the next morning. I went to the command bunker and watched the battle. Later in the morning, I accompanied Captain Carl McCarden as he attacked toward the great Buddha in northern Nha Trang with a Mike Force company of Rhade tribesmen. I watched as they threw grenades and advanced up the hill. Later, the same troops recaptured the Nha Trang radio station.
VN: When did you get to Saigon?
Hickey: I heard that Tan Son Nhut airport in Saigon was closed, but I managed to get there in a Caribou on the morning of February 3, 1968. The airport was quiet and almost deserted, but there was military activity everywhere. I hitched a ride with an army ambulance and made it into Saigon. It was good to be home again, although there was still some fighting going on.
VN: You were also present during the 1972 assault by the NVA when they were trying to take Pleiku and Kontum. What happened?
Hickey: The American military operation was phasing out, but much of what the military had been doing was taken over by the State Department. John Paul Vann was the CORDS [Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support] senior adviser for II Corps, after retiring from the Army, and he began to manage the war in the highlands. He tended to rely on B-52 strikes so much that his nickname was Arclight John. Of course, the movements of regiments of NVA and subsequent bombing created refugee nightmares. There were thousands of displaced Montagnards and casualties that couldn’t be easily treated in a mass casualty environment. By 1972 my RAND Corporation studies were largely set aside and I was mostly working on relief missions.
VN: You were personally funding some of these relief missions. Why was that?
Hickey: It’s difficult to describe the chaos that was being created. We had refugees without food, shelter and water. Often there would be a requirement to move these people to a new location, but there wouldn’t be any transportation. If I could pay ARVN soldiers to deliver water to some of the refugees, I did it. I found quite often that many ARVN soldiers hadn’t been paid in months.
VN: What was happening?
Hickey: As the war progressed, the Army was attempting to uproot entire populations and resettle them. Major General William Peers, commander of the 4th Infantry Division, at one point relocated over 800 Jarai. Even though each family was given 7,000 piasters, this money was soon lost to Vietnamese contractors who would provide lumber for house construction in an area where there was no wood otherwise. This sort of thing happened constantly. The goal was to move Jarai off their lands to create free-fire zones. Earlier, there was a plan to move 8,000 tribesmen to a new area, a project that eventually failed.
VN: Wasn’t it unusual for an anthropologist to become involved in a war?
Hickey: I suppose that it wasn’t ordinary, but my studies had caused me to become involved with the various tribesmen and they happened to be located in conflicted areas. There is one school of thought that one should just sit back and observe; however, that isn’t the right attitude. We wouldn’t let people become sick and die if we watched them eating something poisonous. Perhaps my upbringing has had an effect on my behavior, but I know that I’ve always tried to do the right thing.
VN: After writing five books and numerous articles while in Vietnam, one would think that you would have been offered faculty appointments at any number of prestigious universities, but your involvement in the war seems to have caused you difficulties with your academic colleagues.
Hickey: When I returned to the United States, I tried to get an appointment to the faculty of the University of Chicago. Despite the backing of the Anthropology Department chair, I wasn’t wanted. The academy in general appeared to feel that my work for the RAND Corporation and the Department of Defense had tainted me. I did receive some temporary appointments after Vietnam, but my record of publication should have earned me more. Although the temporary appointments weren’t as well paying as a tenured faculty appointment, I was still able to pursue my anthropological studies and meet the leaders in my field. I was one of the subjects of a Wall Street Journal article on November 18, 1971, concerning “McCarthyism of the Left,” which told about my efforts to save the Montagnards. Still, to many of my colleagues I had become a pariah. Unfortunately, that says more about my colleagues than me.
VN: Are you angry about that?
Hickey: No, I’m not. Academia as it exists today is not as rigorous as it was in the 1950s. Today, an anthropologist is held to a lesser standard, and scholarship isn’t as highly valued as political correctness and fitting in. It was my good fortune to become educated by some very good teachers who were truly intelligent and inquisitive. Sadly, I don’t think that it’s the norm today.
VN: You’ve been criticized in the past for advancing the theory that an accommodation government could have worked and that the insurgency could have ended early. Do you still feel that way?
Hickey: I believe that history shows that early in the war, an accommodation with the National Liberation Front could have worked. We must remember that the NLF wasn’t all Communist, and that there were legitimate non-Communists who were against the [Ngo Dinh] Diem and later regimes. As the North Vietnamese presence in the South increased, there was less chance of a compromise. Remember, too, that many areas of South Vietnam have refused collectivization. Many farmers in the delta have refused to surrender their property, so communism hasn’t wholly taken root in the south.
VN: Looking back on your life, would you have done anything differently?
Hickey: No. I’ve met and interacted with the major personages of the Vietnam era. We haven’t always agreed with each other, but I’ve had an impact. I used to dine periodically with Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker. We had great conversations and I’m proud to have met him and most of the principal players of the Vietnam War. My only regret is that the tribesmen of the Central Highlands have suffered so much. They continue to suffer today as the ruling Vietnamese administer the highlands as an occupied military region.
George Dooley, a retired U.S. Army Special Forces officer, is the author of Battle for the Central Highlands: A Special Forces Story. For additional reading, see Gerald Hickey’s Village in Vietnam and Window on a War: An Anthropologist in the Vietnam Conflict.
Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.