Enemies and Allies

Vietnamese Woman With 1st Lieutenant Franklin Vincent Cox Jr., U.S. Marine Corps, South Vietnam, Unidentified photographer, 1966-1967, Gift of Franklin Vincent Cox Jr., 2016


The North Vietnamese Army and the Việt Cộng made a formidable team. Supplied by the communist governments of China and the Soviet Union, their forces knew the terrain. They were skilled at hiding supplies and ammunition throughout the country. They created sophisticated tunnels that provided food, ammunition, and medical treatment for their wounded. They created effective booby traps to kill, maim, and demoralize their enemy. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam, or South Vietnamese Army, fought with distinction in many cases, particularly during the 1968 TET offensive. Some veterans who served closely with South Vietnamese forces believe they were effective and dependable allies. Others recall they lacked discipline and often refused to fight. President Richard Nixon’s 1969 Vietnamization policy was designed to shift the burden of the ground war entirely to the South Vietnamese Army. Despite U.S. funds and supplies, however, the policy failed. Although the North Vietnamese Army wore recognizable uniforms, the Việt Cộng dressed as civilians. Sometimes this made it difficult for U.S. military personnel to distinguish enemies from allies. Even civilians sympathetic to the South Vietnamese Army and U.S. troops often shifted their loyalties from day to day based on the complex nature of meeting their most basic needs. Many U.S. troops had little or no contact with the Vietnamese. One veteran explained this lack of contact made it easy to dehumanize the Vietnamese. This detachment may have contributed to such deadly incidents as the Mỹ Lai Massacre. There, some 500 men, women, and children were murdered by soldiers of the Army’s 11th Infantry Brigade in 1968.


U.S. military forces hired Vietnamese civilians to perform various jobs during the war. Some served as civilian contractors or interpreters. Others washed clothes, cleaned barracks and offices, cooked food, or built military structures. Many “mamasans” (women who washed or cleaned for the troops) and mess hall workers took great care of military personnel and performed their jobs well. Some Vietnamese workers were spies for the Việt Cộng and used their familiarity to try to kill troops. In a war fought without front lines in a country where there was no visible difference between the enemy and the ally, it could become difficult for soldiers to answer the question, who is the enemy and who is a friend? This was further complicated by the idea that U.S. troops were supposed to be “in country” to help the Vietnamese people. Wayne Witter, U.S. Air Force, 1965-1966 remembers, “[On my] first tour, you had to go down with another pilot to get a haircut or anything else. He’d sit there and watch you, and you know, in case something happened. When we came back on the second tour, … he said, you don’t have to do that anymore. So when I went to the barber shop, and I asked where … [the barber] was, they’d say “Oh, he dead.” And I said, “What happened?” And they say, “VC.”[Việt Cộng] I said, “The VC killed him?” They said, “No. He VC.” So he would cut our hair in the day and then go out and try to rocket us at night. And I said this is a crazy war.”

Montagnard Crossbow and Arrows, Handmade, 1970s, Gift of Virginia L. “Ginny” Deardorff Dornheggen

This crossbow and quiver were gifts to U.S. Army nurse Ginny Dornheggen from the father of an indigenous Montagnard child she treated in the 67th Evacuation Hospital near Qui Nhơn, South Vietnam. Many veterans recall the willingness of the Montagnard people to fight alongside U.S. forces against the North Vietnamese and Việt Cộng using only handmade crossbows and spears.

Montagnard Family Making Crossbows, Near Đà Lạt, South Vietnam, William Joseph Bruckner, photographer, 1970-1971, Gift of William Joseph Bruckner, 2017

The Montagnard are a minority ethnic group from the Vietnamese Central Highlands. They are composed of several different communities with overlapping customs, social interactions, and language patterns. Today, they typically refer to themselves by their indigenous names such as Jarai, Koho, Manong, and Rhade. The French coined the term Montagnard, which means “mountain people,” during the French colonial period in Vietnam. The Vietnamese referred to the Montagnard as moi, a term meaning “savage.” Joe Bruckner, U.S. Army, 1970-1971 recalls, “…they were great people, and they really helped us. … They were really good about providing us with intelligence about what was going on, because there were Montagnard villages all over, and they hated – hated – the VC [Việt Cộng] because of the way they were treated by them."

Notebook, Manufacturer unknown, 1968, Gift of Justin Craig Honaman

Taken from a North Vietnamese prisoner of war evacuated for medical treatment at a U.S. facility, this bloodied notebook contains sketches and diagrams that appear to be battle plans.

Vietnamese Children With Army Captain Philip Smith, 48th Assault Helicopter Company, Near Đông Hà, South Vietnam, Unidentified photographer, 1970-1971, Gift of Philip Smith, 2017

Joe Bruckner, U.S. Army, 1970-1971 remembers, “… If anybody wanted to teach English to Vietnamese kids they could do that. So, when I was not out, either on guard duty or out, I taught Vietnamese kids English, and they were probably ten or eleven years old. And at first you could tell that they were just sitting there stiff. They were trying to learn. … But the more you were there, the more they would realize that you would show up every week, and so that was a good experience.”

Refugee Camp, Near Đà Nẵng, South Vietnam, Edward Augustus Woods Jr., photographer, November 1966, Gift of Edward Augustus Woods Jr., 2011

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, nearly 130,000 Vietnamese fled the country. Most of these were former South Vietnamese government or military officials who assisted the U.S. during the war and feared communist reprisal. Images of Vietnamese citizens attempting to board U.S. military aircraft or fleeing in small boats filled television screens in the United States. President Gerald Ford’s administration pushed through the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975, which helped settle refugees with church or volunteer sponsorship. A Gallup poll at the time revealed that only 36% of Americans were in favor of Vietnamese immigration. Many feared the loss of American jobs and increased welfare costs. As of 2015, 1.3 million Vietnamese immigrants live in the United States. Georgia is home to 37,000; one-third of whom live in Gwinnett County.   

Logan Thomas Gay Jr., Captain U.S. Marine Corps, 1967-1968

Marine Corps Captain Tom Gay describes seeing Vietnamese civilians murdered by North Vietnamese forces in Huế. Click here to view the full interview.

For more first–hand accounts from Vietnam veterans, click here.

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