Incident at Muc Wa

A Vietnam photo album

In June 1964 I visited the Special Forces "A" Team at Buon Beng in the Central Highlands. They were preparing to take their Strike Force of Montagnard tribesmen on a sweep of the mountains to the southeast, killing any Viet Cong they could find and evacuating the civilians (anyone who didn't run) to a fortified strategic hamlet.

Crossing the Song Ba

In theory, a cadre of Vietnamese Special Forces commanded the Strike Force. in fact, the Americans made the decisions and led the "Strikers" in the field. Here Specialist 5 Russell Brooks hunkers in the reeds while one of his platoons moves across the Song Ba at dusk. I've never seen a wilder or more beautiful countryside than this, though the heat and the scarcity of water made brutal work of military operations.

Ridge running

Spec-5 Mike Holland was the other American in our column. Here we're crossing a ridge, sometimes following footpaths (with occasional man-traps filled with punji sticks--bamboo stakes that were sharpened and either dipped in shit or coated with a native poison) but more often bushwhacking.

The main column From time to time we crossed paths with the main column, commanded by Captain Walter Swain. He was very insistent that the Americans blend in with the Strikers, but with great attention to detail (such as would be exercised by a Viet Cong sniper) I'll bet you can figure out which one was he. (Hint: the Strikers didn't wear sunglasses.) Leading the column is Cowboy the interpreter, in his broad-brimmed hat. His name was Phillipe, and from that and his Caucasian good looks I assumed that his father was French.

French graves at Tan Hoa

The objective was a village called Tan Hoa. (Hoa is pronounced "wah.") When we got there, it was empty except for some fighting holes, a bit of metaled road or runway, a Gallic cross and three French graves. We'd been suckered by an outdated map.

The team radioman, Sergeant Charles Coffing, is the American walking with a slung rifle. On the far right, Cowboy leads a band of refugees whom we'd policed up while chasing a Viet Cong rifleman who'd had the ill luck to shoot a deer while we were just over the hill. (We ate the deer, after which we got mortared by the Viet Cong--fair enough, since we'd mortared the deer hunter.)

The Only War We've Got

The next day I went out on a helicopter, and a month later I was home in New Hampshire, playing games of makebelieve. What if we'd been told to garrison Tan Hoa, instead of merely evacuating its residents? I wrote the story as Incident at Muc Wa. (Imagine a Yankee pronouncing "muck war" and you'll get the idea.) It was published in 1967. One reader was the screenwriter Wendell Mayes, who optioned the movie rights to the story. He wrote a script, titled it Go Tell the Spartans, and spent years finding somebody willing to take a chance on it.

Burt Lancaster as Major Barker
Mayes built up the role of Major Barker, the team commander, so as to interest a star who'd work for a percentage of the gross. The project finally came together with Burt Lancaster in the role. Obviously, he was too old to be a major--a major reason why the U.S. Army refused to provide technical assistance to the filmmakers, or so it claimed. But he was splendid in the role.

Evan Kim as Cowboy

Evan Kim was cast as Cowboy, the handsome and bloodthirsty interpreter. The real Cowboy supposedly had killed 22 men with his fast-draw hunting knife, and his reputation naturally followed him into the novel and the movie.

Craig Wasson as the corporal

Craig Wasson played my hero, Corporal Stephen Courcey, shown here buying himself a peck of trouble with a chocolate bar. Cowboy warns that the family are Viet Cong and should be killed; Courcey insists on bringing them back to Muc Wa.

Denice Kumagai as Butterfly

Denice Kumagai played Butterfly, the refugee girl. Casting Japanese and Korean actors and Vietnamese refugees in the film was no doubt necessary, but caused the film to miss the wild beauty of the Montagnard tribesmen who actually populated my story.

Muc Wa under attack

The Viet Cong soon bring Muc Wa under siege. Here in a desperate moment are Ackley, the outpost's radioman (John Megna); Oleonowski, the team sergeant (Jonathan Goldsmith); and Courcey. Their white tee-shirts are accurate for 1964, but instead of a carbine the Americans more likely would have been carrying a Colt AR-15 Armalite, civilian forerunner of the M-16 assault rifle.

Courcey among the graves

The story ends with Courcey staggering through the shattered French graveyard. I let him be killed by a wounded Viet Cong guerrilla. The movie lets him live, whereupon he vows: "I'm going home, Charlie--if they let me." Then 1964 flashes on the screen. Ten years to go.

Question? Comment? Newsletter? Send me an email. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford

Cowboy: interpreter, warlord, one more casualty

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