The Magners International Comedy Festival

The Inside Story of the Guerrilla War - Chapter 9: Sparks on a Mountainside

For the next seven issues, Word is presenting excerpts from Wilfred Burchett’s seminal account of the American War. A close friend of Ho Chi Minh, Burchett was the only westerner to be embedded with the Viet Cong frontlines in the early 1960s. This work was written in 1964


Revolt of the Kor


Half-a-dozen men, their deep bronze-coloured bodies naked but for skimpy loincloths, squatted on their haunches around the frail old man on the low-slung, woven hammock, listening to his slow-spoken but impassioned words. They then turned to another, not of their race, clad in the loose black cottons of the Kinh, or Vietnamese from the plains.


The old man’s fine white hair was drawn into a tight bun on the back of his head, a sparse white beard reached far down his chest, his skin over the wasted frame was the hue and texture of a shriveled orange. What remained of his teeth, filed down almost to the stumps as tribal custom demanded, were black from betel-chewing; his ears had large holes from which adornments had been removed; around his wrist was a copper bracelet. After he finished speaking, he turned his sightless eyes towards the Kinh and listened attentively to every word. For hours it had gone on like this, only the two speaking and the tribal elders giving an occasional grunt of approval or disapproval.


The old man was Pho Muc Gia, chief of the tiny Kor tribe, which numbered about 4,700 at that time and lived on the mountain slopes of Tra Bong, Quang Ngai in Trung Bo [Central Vietnam]. In his day, Pho Muc Gia had been a mighty warrior and had led his tribespeople against the French even before the first resistance war started. Now he was half paralysed — and his age, calculated by the number of times the tribe had changed their “ray” (the clearings hacked out of the mountainside and used for a strictly limited number of years for cultivation), was over 90 years. But he was still the unchallenged leader of his people. Like most of the tribal peoples, the Kor are passionately devoted to the free life of their forests and mountains and fiercely resent any interference in their customs.


A condensed version of the conversation, with the same points endlessly repeated in different variants was something like this:


“Our tribe will be wiped out like fish in a drying pond. Our people are being killed faster than new ones are born. Over 500 since the Diemist savages came.”


“My heart bleeds with yours at your people’s sufferings.”


“They violate our women, steal our buffalo and pigs, take our young men as slaves to work in the plains. It is not life but living death.”


“We have protested together many times at their black deeds.”


“They insult us every time they see us or come to our villages; defile our customs, show no respect for the old or our women. They treat us like animals. They intend that no Kor people shall hold up their heads again.”


“‘Still we must be patient. I know and my comrades know full well of your terrible sufferings. That is why we believe you should move to another district, further away from these evil beasts.”


“Never do our people move without a battle. It would be to insult the graves of our ancestors. And you and your friends who were such brave warriors in the fight against the French, why do you not join us and fight together again? Either we fight together or we are struck down together like buffalo tied to trees.”


“If we fight back, the sufferings will be still greater. Why don’t you move? The mountains and forest are the same there as here; the fish in the rivers, the animals in the jungle are plentiful. But it is more difficult for the enemy to oppress and insult you.”


“Did we weaken when they tortured us to betray your hiding places? Did we shrink from their blows and tortures when they wanted us to insult you?”


“We will never forget how brave and true were you and your people.”


“Then don’t ask us to run away like a craven antelope without a fight. Never will I ask my Kor people to do that. Never till the forests die out and the mountains mumble and the sky falls in.”


“And at that point,” [translator] Sao Nam told me, “the other elders joined in with very decided grunts of approval, repeating ‘Never, Never, Never’ in voices that rose to shouts, bringing people all over the village outside their hut.”


“Before you were real warriors,” the old man continued, “we fought as one. Now we see you are no longer resistance fighters. If you were, you would support us and not ask us to run away.”


“You are too few, the enemy is too many. The sufferings will be still greater.”


“We will never run away without a fight.”


“And so it went on,” said Sao Nam, “and this was by no means the first time. The Kor people had been brave as tigers in protecting those of us who had fled from the plains. At first the Diemists had tried to buy up Pho Muc Gia because they knew of his great prestige. But he spat at them when he saw they wanted him to betray his comrades of the resistance. The whole tribe was solid about this and some suffered severe torture rather than betray the fact that former resistance cadres were hiding in the area. We felt terribly bad at their sufferings and at a meeting shortly before this conversation, we had decided to propose that they move. We had chosen a spot where we felt they would be relatively safe and where the living conditions would be even better than where they were. I was deputised to try and persuade the old man.”


On the night of the day following this conversation, there was a meeting of the Kor men folk and a few days later, a big feast was organised in the village nearest the Teo-Reo post that was the immediate source of their troubles. All but one of the Saigon garrison came swaggering over, when they learned that food and shum shum — the fierce mountain alcohol made from glutinous rice — were plentiful. The Kor people are traditionally hospitable, and this time more so than ever.


After the shum shum had had its effect, at a signal from the old chief, who had been carried to the spot, the young men of the tribe fell on the garrison, 54 in all, and slaughtered them to a man. Some of the tribesmen raced back to the post, but the lone sentry had already fled. The arms, however, were there. The Kor tribe was now in possession of 54 firearms and a plentiful stock of ammunition. This action took place around the end of January 1959, and as far as I could discover it was the first act of violence from the “other” side in all of Central Vietnam, and one of the very first in South Vietnam as a whole.


“We were appalled when we heard of it,” said Sao Nam. “First, it was a clear violation of the ‘line’ and, secondly, we knew that this uprising would be repressed with terrible ferocity and the Kor and other tribes perhaps completely exterminated.”


The reaction was swift and terrible. The No. 2 Diemist division, plus 23 companies, was sent to Tra Bong district to wipe out the Kor. To get to Tra Bong, the punitive expedition had to pass through the districts of Tra Mi and Son Ha, burning villages and slaughtering the inhabitants as they went, building up a store of hatred — and accounts to be settled.


The Kor were not caught unawares. Skillful hunters, they were used to protecting their homes and fields from wild animals and they set a series of terrible man-traps along and around all tracks leading to their villages. These were very rudimentary compared to the elaborate integrated systems of traps developed later as a result of exchanges of experience between the tribes, but they were still very effective. What seemed to be solid ground suddenly gave way under the feet of one or more troops and they fell several feet to be impaled by needle-sharp, steel-hard bamboo spikes. It did not take too many cases of impaled troops to dampen the ardour of the rest.


Like all the tribespeople, the Kor are natural masters of the art of ambush and the silent fade-out. In addition to the arms they seized, they also had homemade “praying mantis” guns, fearsome bell-mouthed affairs that discharge a load of grape-shot accurately enough for the few yards range at which they operated. Set up to cover a jungle path, they are released when a guerilla jerks a string from a respectable distance as the enemy reaches a pre-selected point. A single shot has been known to put a dozen troops out of action.


The weapon the Diemist troops feared most, however, was the crossbow and poisoned arrows; the slightest scratch from the latter causes immediate paralysis, and death follows within three to five minutes. The faint click of the crossbow trigger makes it impossible to locate from where it was fired.


The Diemist troops began running into traps and ambushes long before they reached the Kor villages, but they rarely caught sight of a Kor tribesman. After many days of slugging through the jungle with losses every day from an invisible enemy, the punitive expedition arrived at the Kor villages and found them empty and silent. Old man Pho Muc Gia, honour satisfied because his tribe had given battle, had led his people to a remote area where they made new homes in grottos, carved out of the sides of ravines, and set up intricate permanent systems of traps at all approaches to the new site, around their homes and cultivation patches.


As they could not wipe out the Kor by military action, the Diemists created an economic blockade, the most serious effect of which was to cut off the vital salt supplies.


“We former resistance cadres felt terrible about what was going on but we marveled that the heroic Kor were still holding out,” said Sao Nam. “We held a meeting of all the former cadres we could collect in the province and decided we must organise at least economic help for them. Normally the Kor exchanged cinnamon and tea for salt and medicines from the plains. We decided to help them move their products out through other districts and bring back what they needed from the plains.


“Soon there were human caravans moving at night between mountains and plains and the supply situation for the Kor people improved radically. We also collected various types of medicinal plants and planted them around the new Kor villages. We showed them how to burn bamboo and the roots of certain reeds to obtain a sort of salt, and introduced them to the bark of a certain tree that contains lots of tannin that also helps replace salt. We procured seed manioc and persuaded them to cultivate this valuable tuber to eke out their rice supplies, since rice cultivation was difficult in the rocky area they had chosen. Old man Pho Muc Gia was deeply touched with all this support and regained his confidence in us.”

Pho Nia’s Weapons


Meanwhile there was a new, unexpected development among the Hre minority, a tribe in which the French had raised a puppet battalion in the past and which was taken over by Diem. One of the most respected leaders of the Hre was Pho Nia, a deputy canton chief under the French who retired to his native village in Son Ha district as an “elder” once the first resistance war started. After the Diemist administration was set up, Pho Nia had to go into hiding because of the repression.


In his own village the usual savagery was employed in seeking out former resistance members. Many tribesmen were killed, women were violated, livestock stolen. When Pho Nia heard of the Kor uprising, he sent a delegate over to check what was happening. Then he decided the Hre should also move.


Most of their troubles came from the Hre puppet battalion under Dinh Ngo and Dinh Enh. People like Pho Nia had tried to reason with them, to awaken some feelings of national solidarity, but as Sao Nam expressed it, “They had been too long corrupted by the colonialists; they had become too used to killing and plundering and the Diemists maintained the specially high privileges and rewards for treachery that the French had introduced.”


Pho Nia, a diminutive, sedate figure with a head like a Red Indian warrior chief, decided to deal with them. He made thorough preparations, taught his tribesmen how to make a wide variety of traps and also the sung van nang, “ten-thousand-purpose” gun, a primitive firearm with a firing pin triggered by rubber thongs and which could fire any small arms bullet likely to be picked up on the battlefield. Like the “praying mantis” it was sufficiently accurate from the sort of range the tribesmen would be using it. The barrel was made of metal from plane or automobile remnants, heated in local smithies and beaten around a perfectly straight, slim stick of appropriate calibre, the stick being burned out later. Soon virtually every tribesman had one of these.


From July 1959, Pho Nia started his ambushes and night attacks, using fire arrows shot from crossbows that lodged in the thatch roofs of the puppet battalion’s barracks in the first attack. Within three months the puppet battalion had suffered severe losses. Later it was wiped out completely.


“His very name struck terror in the heart of the Diemist troops,” Sao Nam said, “and later on when some other Hre leaders followed his example they always operated under the name of Pho Nia. The legend spread that he had some sort of magic medicine that protected his men from bullets. In fact the ‘magic’ was his very careful preparations for every engagement and the superb morale of his people fighting to defend their own villages and avenge themselves for the previous five years of unparalleled oppression.”


Pho Nia continued to develop rudimentary weapons and by mid-1960 there had already been exchanges of experience with tribal weapons experts from neighboring provinces. I have already mentioned the “praying mantis” and the “ten-thousand-purpose” gun that fired any calibre from a Sten gun bullet down, with adjustable grips for those that did not fit the barrel exactly. Its added advantage was it could easily be built into a hoe or plough handle, ready for any emergency. A jerk at the plough handle if an enemy suddenly appeared, and there was a deadly weapon.


It was used by everyone; men, women and children, and local smithies turned them out in serial production. If bullets were short, they filled empty cartridge cases with homemade powder, prepared by roasting bats’ dung, rich in saltpeter, and mixing it with ash from a certain type of bark. Anything from bicycle ball bearings upwards were used for shot.


When enemy troops tried to cross a stream to “mop up” at a Ngao village in Son Ha district in March 1960, the first troops in the line suddenly fell, screaming. They would have drowned had not others come to their aid — but they too were soon writhing around, trying to prop each other up and there was a terrific melee going on in midstream, at the only place where a crossing could be affected by wading. They had run into the chong giay or “spiked rope” — a brand new invention of Pho Nia.


Made of long pieces of stout jungle creeper, they were studded with eight or nine-inch spikes of razor-sharp bamboo, and set in series of threes, one end of each anchored to the bed of the stream. When they were stepped on, with the action of the current, they coiled around the legs of the troops like snakes and the more the latter struggled to get free, the more the chong giay stabbed and slashed and tended to bring the victim down to his knees.


One stalwart young Vietnamese peasant who had started fighting the French at the age of 15, after noting my rather horrified reactions at the first really comprehensive series of traps I had seen, made a valid point:


“You see, our weapons don’t have much range. Some of them none at all. They’re not intended for aggression against the Americans or anyone else. The enemy eliminates the need for range in our weapons when he commits aggression against us. We place them around our hamlets and homes, around cultivation patches, fruit trees and poultry yards. If the enemy keeps away he won’t be hurt. But when he comes into our backyards to kill and steal, he will be hurt plenty. We warn him of this.”


Wilfred Burchett was an Australian reporter often described at the ‘rebel journalist’ for his stories about the American War ‘from the other side’. After years of being at odds with the Australian government, last year the Melbourne Press Club inducted him into their Hall of Fame. Burchett was also the journalist to break the scoop of the 20th century — the devastation caused by dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


Special thanks to George Burchett for allowing us to republish this work. Please note that some of the language in this piece has been changed to reflect its modern-day spelling


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