01 June 2004
We were rolling along the great concrete ribbon of I-95 in south-central Virginia. The sites of the Civil War are all around. We had just stopped at the Stonewall Jackson Shrine, just a couple miles off the road. It is a tranquil place. The wood frame building was not the site of a battle. It had been the office outbuilding to a Great House, and it provided some peace and tranquility for 39-year-old General Jackson.
He had been shot by his own troops by mistake. His arm was amputated, and he had pneumonia, and this is where they brought him to die.
We contemplated the last moments, and climbed back in our rental car and got back on the big road north.
The conversation turned to the monkeys, the ones who would sortie boldly out of the jungle in Subic Bay and steal your golf ball after a particularly good drive. This behavior was legendary and infurating, and despite the best efforts of the Navy Exchange Golf Course, the monkey's were never defeated.
The Americans are gone from the Philippines, and the monkeys remain. Now they are stealing the golf balls of tourists, since they have converted the old navy base to a tourist destination.
Steve Canyon was at the wheel. I was shotgun, and the Corporate Vice President was in the back. Steve Canyon said he had never seen monkeys like the Rock Apes in Vietnam. I'd never heard of them, but the Vice President had.
They used to conduct periodic attacks on troops in Laos and Cambodia. And that was the beginning of the tale of the Rock Apes, the Strange Jungle People. 'Rock Ape ' is the common name of a tail-less monkey known as the Barbary Macaques, found wild in Morocco and Algeria. It is not the same creature known to have pelted and surprised troops in Southest Asia.
Steve Canyon said they were light brown to reddish brown in color, and about half the height of an American. They sat on their haunches and were active at night, though some reports indicate they trooped in the day as well, and were sometimes mistaken for patrols of North Vietnamese Regulars. They were normally light red in color, though "In the dark," said Steve Canyon, "they were gray."
There was evidence of them everywhere. Sometimes excrement would be found on a bunker roof in the morning, mysterious commentary in the night.
In 1968, Mike Company of the 3rd Battalion of the 5th Marines, were in the jungle in the area of Monkey Mountain, just outside of Da Nang. Marines reported that when they were in the mountains, apes would get above them and throw rocks at them, ambushing the ambush teams.
In 1969, Delta Company, First of the 502nd infantry, 101st Airborne Division, was on Nui Mo Tau Ridge, about ten miles south of Hue City. They were eating lunch when about eight apes came walking up a trail and surprised them. They looked very much like NVA soldiers in khaki uniforms as they came around a bend in the trail about 10 meters from the unsuspecting GI's.
Imagine the bizarre scene of about 8 GI's firing madly at seven or eight apes. The alpha male Rock Ape was very dark in color; almost black while the rest were light brown. He was in the trees and repeatedly rushed the GIs and then retreated. He did this several times, apparently covering the retreat of the troop.
The shooting all stopped at the same instant, and we just stood there in shock for a while.
Apparently the fire continued after they realized what had arrived, not to harm the animals but to scare them away.
Hill 868 is one of the names of the Rock ape habitat in Quang Nam Province, in what was the I Corps region of responsibility. The Vietnamese have a name for it, of course, and the Marines had a name for it. Since the elevation was 2,847 feet above sea level, or 868 meters, that it what it was called.
Presumably the Rock apes called it something, too.
It is a major strategic feature about twelve statute miles to the west-northwest of the air base at Da Nang, established during the American War. The vantage overlooks Elephant Valley to the North and Red Beach and the air base to the east and southeast.
The Third Marines created the Divisional Outpost/Landing Zone and Radio Relay site by blowing the top off of Dong Den Mountain. The site was initially manned by elements of the 3d Recon Bn, a radio relay team and a naval gunfire forward observation team.
In early 1966 it was the site of the infamous "Battle of Dong Den," when elements of Alpha Company were overrun by several hundred Rock Apes.
Maybe the apes resented what had been done to flatten the top of the hill. Maybe they objected to the human presence in their habitat. In any event, the battle of Hill 868 became legendary in the annals of combat.
The Marines on the Hill called the Captain and told him they had movement in the foliage, a possible large formation of Viet Cong.
The Captain said "stay in place. " The fire-base would back them up with, artillery if necessary.
The radio crackled back: "Never mind we have a large number of rock apes all around us."
The Captain reiterated the order to not reveal their position by discharging weapons.
Hill 868: "These rock apes are getting close."
"If he gets the handset he can tell you himself."
"Well, throw rocks at them to chase them away."
Not a good strategy. The Apes have a mean fast-ball.
The Marines on Hill 868 called back: "Shit!! They are throwing back and they throw harder than we do! Request permission to open fire."
There was a loud thump, perhaps that of a sizeable rock impacting the radioman and a scream mixed with curses, growls and various descriptive adjectives in the background.
The Captain: 'No shooting!! Don't give away your position!"
Hill 664: "Were fixing bayonets…"
Then the radio crackled with the screams of pain and anger from Marines and apes alike.
Hill 664: "Were goin' hand-to-hand!"
Before the Captain could respond, he heard the hill explode with a full-fledged fire fight, one sided, the sounds all of American weapons.
The Captain couldn't get any response from the Hill on the radio, and dispatched a squad to reconnoiter the situation. When they got to Hill 868 they found Marines and rock apes strewn all over.
They called the Captain and told him the rock apes were mostly dead, the Marines were mostly pissed, the rest were unconscious. The encounter left four serious med-evacs, none of them apes.
In 1970, Steve Canyon had his personal encounter with the apes. He been out one night to test a new flash and noise suppresser for his unit's AK-47 automatic rifles. The claim was that the noise and muzzle flash were deflected completely, and the people you were ambushing could not determine the axis of the attack.
Why Steve Canyon's unit was carrying AK-47s and not M-16s is another story. But they had need for the capability and they enlisted the support of some Recon Marines to go out in the darkness near Monkey Mountain and see if it worked.
The Marines took their position, and Steve Canyon and a buddy set up a simulated ambush position. Then they noticed they were not alone. Gazing at them was a Rock Ape, grave and not at all afraid. The Ape began to cry a strange guttural sound like the bark of a dog.
The noise would give away their location and ruin the experiment. Steve Canyon's buddy picked up a rock, "No! Don't do it! They throw back!" His buddy ignored him and threw it anyway.
The rock glanced off the Ape, who promptly found one of his own, and threw it back with a curious motion of the wrist on the follow-through. Steve Canyon said it was funny. The Rock Apes throw like girls, only with velocity.
"They'd make great fast-pitch softball players," said the VP in the back. He has a daughter who plays the sport, and I could see he was thinking about applications for the resource.
"Yeah, so all of a sudden there isn't one Ape, there is about twenty of them, all barking and throwing stones at us."
"Why didn't you shoot them?" I asked. Steve looked out the windshield. "I dunno. Didn't seem right. But those Apes started to come at us and we ran as fast as we could and we didn't stop until we were out of the jungle."
The Vice President grunted. "Tough friggin' monkeys."
It is said that withdrawal of American forces over the next two years did not end the matter. The Rock Apes continued to hold their ground.
In 1974, the apes caused so much trouble for the North Vietnamese that a major expedition to Tay Nguyen, in the area they had liberated in Kon Tum Province. There are no reports of success or victory.
As Steve Canyon says, "You don't want to get into it with the Rock Apes. They can throw heat."
Copyright 2004 Vic Socotra