By Richard H. Dick James
53 years ago, August 1967, I was the SSG E-6 Demolition Sergeant on Detachment A-421 (Ba Xoai), Company D (Detachment C-4), 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), in the Mekong Delta (IV Corps) of South Vietnam, having just been assigned there.
There was a major outpost located at Ba Chuc, the former location of the Ba Xoai team, with a company of CIDG (Civilian Irregular Defense Group), all Vietnamese, and a couple U.S. & VN Special Forces (LLDB). The original camp was opened in January 1966 at Ba Chuc, an abandoned French fort on Nui Troung. Nui was Vietnamese for “mountain,” but I’d classify it as a hill. Until the fort was occupied by the Special Forces advised CIDG troops, the villagers at Ba Chuc had been forced to support the VC. The Ba Chuc outpost was manned by men from our camp.
An SF friend related to me that Ba Chuc had been a Vietnamese ethnicity village. Sometime prior to my arrival, a large group of Khmer Rouge had come across the border and, over a period of about a week, had killed all but one of the villagers (about 500 Vietnamese). The one villager who had escaped death was a woman who had managed to hide.
On the flip side of the coin, he mentioned that they once had a seriously wounded Khmer. They couldn’t get an American evacuation for the soldier. The Vietnamese, however, sent an evacuation aircraft. The Cambodian soldier and wife were loaded on the aircraft, for the flight to the hospital. The next day, the team contacted the hospital to check on the condition of the man. They were told that he never arrived. It could only be assumed that he and his wife were thrown out of the aircraft, at altitude, without parachutes. Such was the hatred between Vietnamese and Cambodes.
The Cambodian CIDG troops in Ba Xoai were Khmer Kampuchea Krom (KKK), indigenous Khmer people from the area, which at one time was Kampuchea (Cambodia). Krom, in the Khmer language, translates to “lower,” or “below,” referring to the fact that the South Vietnamese Khmer region was south of Cambodia, in the Mekong Delta. Kampuchea Krom, in South Vietnam, had been a part of the Khmer Empire at one time.
Many circumstances led to the region changing over to Vietnamese rule. War with Siam in the 17th century resulted in weak Khmer administration of its Mekong Delta region. In 1623 Chey Chettha II, the Cambodian king, permitted The Vietnamese government to operate a custom house in the fishing village of Prey Nokor. At the same time, Vietnamese refugees were fleeing from Vietnam, due to the Trinh-Nguyen War.
The Vietnamese fled to the Mekong Delta, and the fishing village became a major port, later known as Sai Gon. In 1698, the Mekong Delta became a part of Vietnam. The Nguyen Lords of Hue had commissioned Nguyen Huu Canh to organize the territory. Vietnamese settlers entered the area in waves. By 1757, Vietnam had absorbed the Mekong Delta area into their country, many Khmer remaining in what they considered their homeland.
The KKK was loosely linked to the Khmer Serei (meaning Free Cambodians), a not-so-secret anti- communist movement. They were also very anti-Sihanouk (the leader of Cambodia). In fact, about 50% of the KKK were also members of the Khmer Serei. The great thing about both groups was that they could be recruited in company-size groups, with a chain of command already in place.
Most of the militaristic groups were hired by United States Special Forces, to fight on our side. And, fight they did. They were ferocious. Because of their intense hatred of Vietnamese, they were also far less susceptible to being infiltrated by the enemy. They were physically strong, had good stamina, had good tactical prowess, and were reliable and trustworthy (mostly). They always stood by us Americans and would never leave a wounded American.
The Khmer Serei and KKK had groups in Thailand, Cambodia, and South Vietnam. Beside hating the Vietnamese, they wanted to overthrow Prince Sihanouk, the ruler of Cambodia. At the time. Sihanouk was also disliked by the American government. Those Khmer were a people without a country. They had fled their own country and organized into defensive fighting units in the local mountainous area. The Vietnamese certainly didn’t want them in Vietnam, and Cambodia wouldn’t permit them to live in Cambodia. They had become nomadic jungle guerrilla warriors, ready to kill Vietnamese, northern or southern, as well as Sihanouk’s henchmen.
In August 1965 the Vietnamese commander of Tinh Bien, with the help of U.S. Special Forces advisors, had talked a large group of KKK, 626 strong including their commander, into coming over to the South Vietnamese side. Tired of fighting the Vietnamese government and the VC, they finally accepted South Vietnam’s offer of amnesty, to help in the fight against the Viet Cong. The troops were trained at Tinh Bien, and formed into three companies, led by their commander, Chau Hien. Upon completion of their training, they were assigned to Camp Ba Xoai, on 27 March 1967, just four months before my arrival there.
Unlike most CIDG units, ours were led by the Cambodian (also KKK) commander, who was given the rank of Captain by the Vietnamese Army, at the urging of USASF. That made for some strange bedfellows. The Cambodians disliked (maybe hated, or despised, is a better word) all Vietnamese. When on patrol, they would claim every Vietnamese we spotted, was Viet Cong. Many was the friendly Vietnamese farmer that the Cambodes would claim to have seen carrying a weapon at an earlier time and wanted to shoot. The Cambodians’ loyalties were to their own group, and to Cambodia.
The LLDB and Cambodian commanders constantly bickered. It was especially difficult, given that both commanders held the same rank (Captain) in the Vietnamese Army system. Once, while I was in Ba Xoai, our team CO (a Captain) got involved in a verbal argument with the LLDB CO (CPT Baul). After the argument, the Cambodian CO asked our CO if he wanted them (the Cambodes) to kill the LLDB CO. It made for a good laugh for us but underscored the problems that existed in camp.
We loved to go on patrol with the Cambodians, because they were so trustworthy, fierce fighters, and seemed to love a good firefight. These Cambodians also hated the current ruler of Cambodia, Prince Sihanouk, because of his pandering to the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong.
Having since talked to many fellow Special Forces soldiers over time, I have come to find out that our situation in Ba Xoai was not unlike that in several other camps in which Cambodians served as CIDG. The stories of their hatred of Vietnamese are numerous, with the Bodes almost always winning any head-to-head battles. That hatred always made it difficult for the American Special Forces teams, who were having to advise, and be allies, with both the Vietnamese LLDB and the Cambodian CIDG.
The Cambodes were known for being fierce fighters, even serving with distinction in some special operations units. I have heard some stories of the Bodes cutting out the hearts of killed VC and eating them. They believed that doing so made them stronger soldiers. I was at Ba Xoai for a very short time. During that time I saw little or no social interaction between the LLDB and our SF team. In fact, relations seemed to be a little strained.
From my soon to come out, book #4 (SLURP SENDS! A Green Beret’s Experiences in Vietnam Book 4), of my four-book set of SLURP SENDS! Book #1 (“SLURP SENDS! On Becoming a Green Beret Book 1”) & #2 (SLURP SENDS! Experiences of an A-Team Green Beret Book 2”) are already available on Amazon, and #3 (“SLURP SENDS! Experiences of a Green Beret in Vietnam Book 3”) is also soon to come.
PHOTOS: map of Camp Ba Xoai and Ba Chuc area (my diagram) / Google map view of Ba Chuc-Ba Xoai (my labeling) / Aerial view of Ba Chuc (Paul Kulik photo he sent to me)