When Staff Sgt.Chuck Walsh’s Green Beret unit jumped into Dak Pek, in the highlands of South Vietnam in 1962 to fight alongside the Montagnards, the indigenous people, they were trail blazers.
This was three years before American forces officially declared they were fighting in South Vietnam. It was before there were maps of the country, before helicopters were used to ferry U.S. fighting forces into battle and before the shooting on the ground supposedly involved the USA.
“In September I parachuted in as a member of Company B, 13th Detachment, 5th Special Forces unit,” the 72-year-old Special Forces veteran said. “I was one of a 12-man Green Beret unit that worked with the Montagnards.”
The Green Berets were to train the natives to be 20th Century warriors in support of South Vietnam’s efforts to rid the country of Communist forces. That was a tall order since the Montagnards fought with crossbows and hated the Vietnamese.
During the six months Walsh’s unit was on the ground they gained the confidence of the Montenyards, taught them how to use automatic weapons and whipped them into an effective fighting force. The primary job of the Green Berets and the native people were to keep tabs on the Viet Cong, South Vietnam Communist forces, who were beginning to use the Ho Chi Men Trail along the Laotian border to move military supplies.
“We weren’t part of the U.S. Army. The Green Berets worked for the Department of Defense and were handled and supplied by the CIA,” Walsh said. “We didn’t report to MACV, the Army brass.”
The South Vietnamese had just developed the “Strategic Hamlet Concept” to protect the Montenyard people from the Viet Cong. In the long run, Walsh maintains, it was not a good idea for the natives, but no one knew it at the time.
Even so that was not his unit’s concern.They were there to make friends with the Montenyards and train them to battle the V.C. The Green Berets were very successful.
“I’d go on patrol with five or six of them for 10 days or two weeks at a time. Our primary job was enemy surveillance,” he said.
On one tromp through the jungle with his Montenyard fighters Walsh earned his Purple Heart. He was struck by an arrow from a native crossbow. A while later he injured his foot when he stepped on some punji sticks.
“I think I was hit by a crossbow dart that was set up as a trap to kill wild pigs. It hit my collar bone and bounced off. I was lucky,” Walsh recalled. “I cleaned the cut with rubbing alcohol and moved on.
“A while later I stepped into a hole filled with pungi sticks –sharpened bamboo sticks tipped with human excrement –that pierced my boot. It was set by the Viet Cong. I pulled the stick out, washed my foot in a nearby stream and got the medic to give me a shot when we returned to camp a few days later. I was 25-years-old and invincible.”
The first thing the Green Berets did to win the hearts and minds of the Montenyards was establish schools and hospitals in their villages. Then they began paying them to work as a strike forces in support of the U.S. military. The arrangement worked well.
It turned out that Dak Pek was the longest serving Special Forces camp in the country, Walsh said. His unit left Vietnam on March 17, 1963 and flew back to the U.S. A month later he got out of the service went to college, graduated with a degree in French and worked for AT&T, mostly in Europe, for 35 years.
Looking back on the war in Vietnam and his service to the country the former Green Beret sergeant said, “By the time the Americans got over to Vietnam in force in 1965 they did the stupidest thing they could do. They put conventional troops into the country. This provided the V.C. and the North Vietnamese Army targets to shoot at and hacked off all the people in Vietnam. If we had used unconventional warfare we’d have wiped them out.”
In 2005, Walsh and 11 other American servicemen who received Purple Hearts in Vietnam toured the country as part of a private program funded by a foundation in this country. The 12 old soldiers made the cover of the Aug. 2005 VFW magazine.
“We spent 10 days in Vietnam seeing the country with a guide who had once flown in the Vietnamese Air Force. We saw cities, factories, battle sites and met people all around the country, including a Viet Cong commander or two.
“It was a fabulous trip. The country was beautifully restored and the people were friendly. They told us, ‘We love America. We need your technology and your help,’” he said.
Name: Chuck Walsh
Address: Venice, Fla.
Rank: Staff Sergeant
Unit: 5th Special Force
This story was published in the Charlotte Sun, Port Charlotte, Fla., Feb. 15, 2009 and is republished with permission.