The Indochinese wars and the "jungle killers"

(To Andrea Gaspardo)

The 20th century was, if possible, the worst century in the history of Indochina, a former French colony that occupied the territories of the current states of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

Between the 22 and the 26 September 1940, the forces of the Empire of Japan occupied the rich French colony giving rise to a series of conflicts which, starting from the "Second World War", would have crossed the entire "Cold War" and ended definitively only in the 1999 with the surrender of the last Khmer Rouge to the government forces of the Kingdom of Cambodia, almost 60 years later.

Now described as "a titanic struggle of the oppressed peoples against the imperialist powers" or as "an endless series of civil wars", in reality the "Indochinese wars" have been all this but above all a huge humanitarian disaster which is cost millions of losses to all the involved contenders, in particular to the local populations, and a legacy of scars still not healed. However it is good to remember that, during the long years of fighting, death did not come only through the gun barrel belonging to the most disparate enemies, as they learned at their own expense, for example, the men of the so-called "Team Rock Mat" in May of the 1970.

The 5 of May of that year, while the "Vietnam War" (also known as the "Second Indochina War") raged all around, a core of the "1st Force, Recon Company, 1a Marine Division" was inserted by means of helicopter in the middle of the Vietnamese jungle, 40 kilometers northeast of Da Nang for a patrol mission that was supposed to last 5 days. The 7 marine group was led by 32-year-old Sergeant Robert C. Phleger, a veteran with extensive experience accumulated during the conflict and already previously distinguished in other patrols in the thick of the jungle, who had just returned from a brief period of leave in Hawaii where he had married his girlfriend he had known at school.

The listing was done with manual precision and the patrol began its tour of patrol through the tangled jungle, among swarms of insects and under a sultry heat. The mission of the "Team Rock Mat" was to find signs of activity on the part of the Vietcong irregulars or the forces of the People's Army of Vietnam. The marines on patrol completed their mission for that day unaware that enemy eyes were spying on them, just waiting for the right moment to attack.

As darkness fell, the "Team" men prepared a series of holes for the night and squatted there while Sergeant Phleger set up the first watch. Around 20: 00, the silence of the jungle was suddenly broken by a brief patter followed by a thud and a broken scream and noises of rapid drag. Although the entire "action" lasted literally a handful of seconds, the noise was still enough to wake up the entire patrol, with the men grabbing their weapons and settling in a defensive position, calling in a low voice to the radio command, asking for instructions on what to do and receiving an order not to make a noise, keep calm and do not for any reason abandon the defensive position until the following day. Thus the soldiers spent the entire night in a state of perpetual tension, immersed in the darkness and silence of the jungle broken here and there only by the sound of insects or of some bird.

Once the sun had risen, the marines regrouped and ventured into the tangle of vegetation to understand what had happened to their commander. Immediately they found on the ground the backpack complete with all the equipment, the military poncho and the ordering M-16 assault rifle that had not had time to fire even a shot, despite the safety was removed and the bullet in the barrel. The second thing they found was a copious trail of blood that the men followed for about 50 meters until they discovered, against the trunk of a tree, the battered and lifeless body of Sergeant Phleger ...

His neck had been broken with an animalistic fury and the completely torn uniform barely covered the pitiful remains of his semi-devoured body. The marines barely had time to meditate softly on what happened to their commander who, suddenly ... his killer appeared before them! A specimen of a heavy Indochinese tiger at least 200 kilos which, hungry and furious, launched itself against the marines responsible for being stationed too close to its "meal".

The men of the "Team" immediately opened fire on the animal that, having failed, immediately disappeared in the thick of the vegetation, continuing to run and roar around the small group of men who, frightened to death and adrenaline a thousand, they collected the poor remains of their commander and began to run, calling at the same time a helicopter in order to obtain a priority extraction from "a hot zone". But the beast had no intention of letting them go and, indeed, it continued to attack them again and again with the marines even forced to throw them at fragmentation grenades in order to keep it away. Finally the helicopter arrived and the "Team Rocket Mat" men could get on board, carrying the remains of Sergeant Phleger, and leave the area at a time of the base camp.

What has just been narrated is not a fantasy story but the dramatic account of one of the many attacks by Indochinese tigers "eating men" against American soldiers during the "Vietnam War". Few in fact realize that the jungles of South-East Asia represented an authentic hell where death did not come only because of the action of the enemies but also through tropical epidemics, venereal diseases, heat stroke, infected water, spiders bites and insects, snake bites and, obviously, attacks of large-sized ferocious animals such as bears, leopards and, precisely, tigers.

It is estimated that out of around 1 million people killed by tigers during the 20th century, well 373.000 were killed in Indochina and the frequency of the attacks took an exponential nature right from the beginning of the Indochinese wars. The conflicts that bloodied the territories of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia during this time period had dramatic effects both on local populations and on the ecosystem.

Suddenly the food chain on which the tigers had always counted for their survival was completely subverted when the local populations of ungulates, primates and birds moved towards more peaceful territories or were demolished by the hungry local peasants. Left without natural prey, the tigers opted for the only source of food left in great quantity on their territory: human beings!

Indeed, field surveys, especially during the "Vietnam War", proved that the massive presence of human population weakened by the war represented by malnourished refugees and dead soldiers or wounded belonging to all the armies on the field had the following effects on the local population of tigers:

- the abundance of "food" meant that the tigers grew in size and had a more robust health;

- females with more robust health gave birth to healthier and more numerous litters;

- the abundance of "prey easy to catch" like human beings meant that even the oldest, sick or wounded tigers that in nature would have been condemned to death by starvation now lived longer;

- all this contributed to the exponential increase of the tigers population (for example in the 1967 it was estimated that in the province of Quang Tri they lived over 3.000 tigers!) and to a consequent increase in attacks against man.

Essentially, the "Indochinese wars" had created the largest population of "man-eating" that History has ever remembered. There are no precise data regarding the total number of US military personnel killed or injured in the course of tiger attacks since military censorship was very effective in not distributing the data and the press was authorized only on two occasions to speak of two cases of death of military personnel Americans (in both marine cases) because of the feline tusks: one was the first-class marine Frank Baldino, in the 1968, and the other was the aforementioned marine sergeant Roger C. Phleger, in the 1970. However, the fact that the attacks by the tigers had become a real scourge for the soldiers at the front can be deduced, in addition to the amount of stories circulating within the vast community of veterans of Vietnam, even from direct testimony on the part of John Walter Ripley (photo), legendary figure of the war and highly decorated hero of the "Marine Corps" who in his "Tiger Tales" of the 1967 (therefore in the full course of events) described precisely the encounter-clash between man and beast in the jungles of South-East Asia starting from his personal experience and the men under his direct command, and from the fact that to describe the losses suffered in the theater of action, alongside the canons "KIA" ("killed in action" - "killed in action"), "WIA" ("wounded in action" - "injured in action") and "MIA" ("missing in action" - "missing in action") the US military also introduced the acronym " EIA "(" eaten in action "-" torn apart in action ")!

Not only that, these events had a particularly demoralizing effect on the troops because the soldiers (even those of the special forces and reconnaissance units of the Marines, as seen above) had not received any particular training on how to face this "threat" and often they did panic and run away abandoning arms; the only notable exception was represented by those who, regardless of degree or operational assignment, in civilian life in the US had had experience as hunters.

The tigers even learned to benefit from combat tactics and strategies used by opposing armies to find food more easily. This is confirmed by the testimony of veteran Bob Konrardy who, during a conference at St. Ambrose University, in 2014, told how on one occasion he and his unit, in transit to a new military base following a path in the tall grass back of elephants, they saw in the distance a tiger that was following another column of American soldiers this time on foot. Determined to warn their fellow soldiers of the imminent danger, Konrardy and his men decided to make a detour but first called the headquarters to describe the situation and to inform the command of their initiative. The response of the command made his blood freeze:

Negative! Do not get too close to the other patrol and in fact turn around and return immediately to your home base. The reason the tiger is following the other patrol is because it knows that the Vietcong have prepared an ambush later and for this she will soon have food available. Come back now! We can't miss two patrols! I close! ".

Reluctantly, Konrardy and his family directed the elephants back along the path from which they had come and, not long after, they heard in the distance the crackling of assault rifles and enemy machine guns that did their job and the desperate cries of their fellow soldiers who were exterminated; that night the tiger had earned an easy feast!

If this was the situation of the Americans and their allies of the "Free World Forces", that of the men of the People's Army of Vietnam, the Vietcong, the Pathet Lao and the Khmer Rouge was, if possible, even worse given that they had to literally "living" in the jungle on a permanent basis, in daily contact with its deadly pitfalls.

The Vietnamese military sources and those of the other Indochinese states are as mute as the American ones in hiding the real extent of the attacks suffered by the large ferocious animals but it is interesting to note that the field regulations distributed to the troops during the conflict thus read: "Always go out in the jungle in large groups and never alone! Do not fear the Americans and pay attention to the tigers, snakes and bears, in this order! ", Any further comment seems superfluous.

However, all wars end sooner or later, and this has also happened in Indochina. Although the Indochinese territory returned completely to peace only in the 1999 with the surrender of the last Khmer Rouge to the government troops of the Kingdom of Cambodia, already in the middle of the 80 the general security conditions across the peninsula began to improve markedly and the governments of the three countries were able to begin a slow process of resumption of control of the territory and reconstruction of the material life of the people and, in this new historical phase, a vast and out-of-control population of "man-eating" tigers was a factor that was no longer tolerable.

The years that followed were marked by a methodical effort to achieve the total elimination of the tigers and nothing was left to chance, despite the protests of numerous Western environmental organizations. It must be said, in partial excuse of the Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian governments, that it would have been very difficult to implement a policy of "recovery of the tigers" since, once the tiger tastes human flesh, it almost never renounces it, and in any case the tigers had by now become really too numerous and constituted a real danger for the safety of the local populations, and not only in the most isolated areas. All this does not make less sad than it inevitably happened.

In the 1997, the tiger was declared extirpated from the territory of Vietnam when the last wild bird was killed. It is believed that even in Cambodia the tigers have been completely eradicated, while in Laos a tiny population survives that should not count more than 20 at most.

Although when we talk about the "Vietnam War", or the other Indochinese conflicts that occurred before and after it, we always tend to think about the clashes between the armies in the field or the humanitarian dramas that these events have caused, it is good to remember that also nature and its "fairs" have paid a very high price, perhaps the highest, due to man-made disasters.

This was ultimately and net of geopolitics and military history, the ultimate legacy of the "Indochinese wars"; a series of brutal conflicts like few others in the History of Humanity, initiated by a plurality of actors both local and international, all animated by their geopolitical ambitions and ended ... with the defeat of the tigers.

Photo: web