War brings with it not only stories of suffering, death, and struggle, but also those of mystery. Beyond all of the fighting and tales of battle or valor, there often seem to be other, more enigmatic phenomena lurking in the background. Indeed, some of the most mysterious, weirdest things seem to pop up in the remote battlefields of the earth, from unexplained phenomena to ghostly happenings to strange beasts, war can be a wellspring of high strangeness. The Vietnam War was no different, and among the fighting amidst the humid, mosquito choked jungles, American G.I.s began to come back with tales of something weirder than their enemy lurking in the forests of Vietnam, and it seemed that the Viet Cong were not the only thing to watch out for in the dense underbrush. Here, the foreign soldiers would come face to face with a creature that was well known by the locals, yet new to them; a humanoid, hairy biped the likes of which none of them had ever seen, which would lurch forth from the deepest jungles to startle or even attack, and which would come to be known as the "Rock Apes."
Even before fighting started in the jungles of Vietnam there had long been stories of something strange lurking in the remote areas here. Various peoples of the jungle choked interiors of Vietnam, Laos, and northern Borneo, in particular within the Vu Quang Nature Reserve, have a rich tradition of stories of a bipedal, hairy apelike creature known by various names, such as the Batutut, Ujit, or Người rừng, also written as Nguoi Rung, or “jungle people.” These “jungle people” are said to be around 1.8 m (6 ft) tall, stout and very muscular, with protruding stomachs and covered in hair ranging from brown to black in color, except for the knees, the soles of the feet, the hands, and the face, which remain bare. Although they inhabit isolated, remote jungle areas, the Người rừng are reported to be rather bold and aggressive, especially the variety from Borneo, which will apparently attack humans without thinking twice about it. They are said to travel in troops and are most active at dusk or during the night. The locals of these regions consider these creatures to be merely a fact of life, but the Batutut was not really known to the outside world until war began to impede into their domain.
During the days when troops toiled and fought in clouds of mosquito clouded jungle, dodging enemy bullets and hiking relentlessly through the humid, oppressive heat, there would be numerous reports from soldiers of strange creatures prowling through the forests that were neither human nor ape, and would come to be known as “Rock Apes.” Accounts of encountering these creatures seem to have been commonplace throughout the Vietnam War, from both sides of the conflict. In many cases, the strange beasts were mistaken for enemy troops, only to startle soldiers when they were actually seen up close.
The most well known, in-depth published accounts of these enigmatic creatures come from a book by a veteran named Kregg P. J. Jorgenson, called Very Crazy G.I. - Strange but True Stories of the Vietnam War. The account describes the ordeal of a 6 man unit from the 101st Airborne Division, who were taking a break after a relentless hike through unforgiving mountainous jungle terrain carrying heavy packs. Even as they rested they were attuned to the surrounding environment, very aware that the Viet Cong were everywhere and could strike at any moment. As the unit sat there resting, exhausted in their sweat soaked fatigues, some trees located around fifteen yards uphill then reportedly began shaking violently, and it was assumed that this was the enemy. The soldiers prepared their weapons and trained an eye on the suspicious, jostling trees. As they sat in wait, mosquitos buzzing around their heads and the creeping, sickening dread of the coming battle weighing heavily on their minds, it was then noticed that an oblong head with a face covered in reddish hair and possessing a huge mouth and dark, deep set eyes had emerged from the brush. The startled soldiers then witnessed a strange creature step from the underbrush to reveal a 5-foot tall muscular frame enveloped in the same matted reddish hair, after which it stood there on two legs to seemingly carefully scrutinize the men. The soldiers then speculated that it must be a large orangutan, before one of them pointed out that orangutans were not native to Vietnam. As they argued over what it could be, the strange beast purportedly lost interest in them and quietly slinked back off into the jungle.
In one 1968 account from jungle veteran Robert Baird’s diary, he describes an incident in which his unit began hearing inexplicable noises along the outer perimeter of their camp late at night. Not knowing if what they were hearing was normal jungle life or the enemy, a Mexican American corporal, nicknamed “Poncho,” took it upon himself to go out to investigate in the evening. Poncho determinedly marched up the hill to the communications bunker to see what was going on. When the corporal was on his way back, he was witnessed to let off several short bursts of fire from his weapon before hurrying back to camp in a somewhat unsettled, agitated state. Almost immediately, the unit’s Lieutenant had been on the radio demanding to know who was firing and at what. When Poncho reached the camp, he excitedly related that he had been walking back and had noticed a bush that had not been there before. When he had leaned down to take a look, it had then allegedly “snorted” at him, causing him to panic and fire. Baird would later say:
What he had encountered was the ubiquitous Rock Ape of Vietnam. I would come to learn that they were nearly everywhere, and quite fearless. That is what we had heard near the wire that night.
In another encounter from 1969, a patrol was caught off guard by enemy fire, after which everyone took cover. It was then that something strange made its presence known to one of the group. As the witness was laying there avoiding getting shot, there was a figure that broke out of the thick vegetation which at first seemed to be a large man, but as it ran past it was clear this was something else altogether. The figure was described as being around 7 feet in height, impressively built, and mostly covered with reddish hair. Whatever it was moved extremely quickly, but was then caught by some bullets in the crossfire, after which it stumbled but didn’t go down. It was then that the enemy began yelling something to each other excitedly that the witness could not understand before running off, with one of the enemy even leaving his weapon behind in a panicked haste. The American patrol regrouped and headed to a more secure area, and that night they were assailed by a barrage of strange, animalistic noises from the night, sounding like whines, barks, howls, and grunts. The next day, some of the patrol requested permission to go investigate what had been seen and heard the previous day, and as a search was under way they came across an enemy soldier that seemed to have been viciously torn apart. The patrol was so disturbed by the gruesome sight that they ran back to their base by the hill, and one of the witnesses would later say:
The rest of the time we were in Vietnam, I never heard the sounds or saw anything like it again. The talk of what we had seen spread very quickly, and some of the locals called it a name that I can neither pronounce or remember, but the translation if I recall was 'Stench Monkey' or 'Foul Monkey', something like that. I can’t remember for sure. What I do know is that it bothered me so much that I transferred from there, to a job on a helicopter so that I wouldn’t have to be in the jungle anymore.
Some of the rock ape accounts are truly dramatic and frightening. One such account given by a Michael Kelley, of D Co 1st/502d Infantry of the 101st Airborne Division describes not one Rock Ape, but hundreds of them. In the account, in 1969, 8 of the strange creatures came casually walking up a trail on a ridge of Nui Mo Tau and surprised a platoon that was in the middle of having lunch when they turned a ridge about 10 meters from where the men were situated. According to Kelley, the platoon at first immediately thought they were Viet Cong and “all hell broke loose.” The squad of men opened up with M-16s, M-79s, and grenade launchers, lighting up the forest in a vicious display of booming firepower and flying pieces of vegetation. Kelley himself was at the far end of a clearing, about 50 meters from where the barrage of continuous shooting had started, and he grabbed a weapon to run to join them along with the platoon Sgt., taking cover under a toppled tree.
For a few moments, Kelley and the platoon Sgt. stayed hidden as the cacophony of gunfire erupted everywhere. When they finally gave each other the nod to engage, they popped out from behind the tree, ready to see a sizable enemy force descending upon them judging by the nonstop barrage of relentless gunfire. What they saw instead was the platoon firing away at “ghostly images” that were swooshing through bushes and trees all around them. The mysterious intruders were described as being around 5 and a half feet tall, and all but one was light brown to reddish brown in color. The other was almost black and was a particularly aggressive large male, which reportedly madly rushed at men through the thick underbrush, snarling and with teeth bared. Throughout the frightening encounter, the ape-like beasts reportedly made sounds that sounded exactly like dogs barking. Then, the creatures, whatever they were, abruptly melted away into the forest, disappearing as if they had never been there. When the surprised platoon regained their composure, they searched the bullet riddled, gun smoke permeated area and found no sign of any dead bodies of the animals, and oddly not even any fur or blood. Kelley would remark on the surreal scene:
This may sound very strange to you, but although I had no or little concern about killing the enemy, the killing of innocent animals turned my stomach and could enrage me if done without being a necessity. But I searched the site and but found not a drop of blood, which totally amazed me given the amount of firing that had gone on. I wonder to this day if the men were shooting just to scare the Rock Apes away or whether they were really just poor marksman! The men who'd suffered the surprise looked a bit worse for wear, and I'm sure a few had to wash their shorts out as a result of the unwelcome visit. It really scared the crap out of them, I kid you not!
This sort of mass congregation of Rock Apes was apparently not an isolated incident. In another shocking account, another platoon was also overrun by large numbers of the creatures. In 1966, a highly strategic location known as Hill 868, in Quang Nam Province, had allegedly been the site of a battle between the Marines and a large group of Rock Apes. In the account, Marines operating in the area called their Captain to report movement in the brush which they believed to be a large force of Viet Cong headed their way. The Captain then radioed back saying that they should stay in place and that no one was to fire in order not to give away their position. The patrol soon radioed back to say that it had turned out that it was not Viet Cong after all, but rather a large group of hairy, bipedal humanoids all around them. The Marine patrol was commanded again not to open fire, but instead to throw rocks at the creatures to scare them away. This would prove to be unwise, as the Rock Apes then began hurling the rocks back with great force, all the while screeching and growling all around them in the jungle; an estimated hundreds of them.
Despite the assault of rocks and numerous requests for permission to open fire, the Marines were nevertheless told not to shoot, but rather to use bayonets instead. Shortly after, the Captain could hear screeching and screams of pain from both Marine and ape alike over the radio, as well as the frantic message “We’re going hand to hand!". Shortly after that, the hill erupted in a roar of gunfire, screams, and screeching. When the Captain sent men to go investigate, the war-torn area was found to be littered with injured men, as well as allegedly the bloodied bodies of several of the mysterious Rock Apes. No Marines had died, but several were seriously injured and had to be evacuated by helicopter. The alleged battle became so infamous that it was called the “Battle of Dong Den.”
Hill 868 became known among the men as being allegedly so infested with the Rock Apes that it was called “Monkey Mountain.” In 1968, members of Mike Company of the 3rd Battalion of the 5th Marines operating on Hill 868 apparently often came across plentiful physical evidence of the creatures there, such as droppings, tufts of hair, or footprints, as well as hearing their eerie barks and cries at night, and the Rock Apes even occasionally assaulted them with rocks lobbed from the jungle. The apes were described as “throwing like girls, but with velocity,” and men were reported as being often seriously injured by the hurled stone projectiles. In one account given by a veteran named Steve Canyon, a unit of Marines was out in the jungle of Hill 868 at night testing out a new muzzle flash and noise suppresser for their weapons. As they were setting up, they suddenly noticed a Rock Ape glaring at them from the thick vegetation, reportedly completely unafraid. After a few moments of staring at the soldiers, the creature was said to then let out a sound like the bark of a dog. One of the men threw a rock at it to scare it away, and hit it dead on, after which the ape picked up a rock of its own and hurled it at them. It was then noticed that there were more of the Rock Apes gathering around in the jungle, around 20 of them, which all began screeching, howling, and throwing rocks at the frightened men in unison. Despite the threatening situation, the unit did not open fire, instead making a hasty retreat. When asked later why they had not shot at the creatures, Canyon would say:
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.
Encounters with Rock Apes became so numerous and alarming that the North Vietnamese even mounted expeditions to go out and find evidence of them. According to Kregg P. J. Jorgenson’s book Very Crazy G.I.- Strange but True Stories of the Vietnam War, in 1974 the North Vietnamese party secretariat ordered a scientific expedition to find definitive, solid evidence of the Rock Apes. Professor Vo Quy of the Vietnam National University was chosen to conduct the investigation, and while they did not see any of the beasts, they did find some curious tracks out in the remote jungle. A cast was made of one of the footprints, which was sent to be analyzed and was found to be wider than a human print but too large to be that of an ape. Other expeditions followed up on the find, including one led by the Noth Vietnamese general Hoang Minh Thau, but were unsuccessful.
Interestingly, this was not the first time footprints of the mysterious creatures had been found. In 1970, a Dr. John MacKinnon claimed to have found tracks of the the creatures and believed them to be of hominid origin, perhaps similar to the Meganthropus, and which locals said came from a creature they called the Batutut. The tracks were described as having human looking toes, but being around the size of those of an Asiatic black bear, which are not native to Vietnam. Mackinnon wrote of his findings in 1978 in his book In Search Of The Red Ape. Although he would never find definitive proof that the Rock Ape, or Người rừng, ever existed, Mackinnon would nevertheless discover several new species of large mammal in the Vu Quang Mountain rain forest in 1992, demonstrating that the region was more than capable of hiding large new species from sight.
In another report from Army Reporter, 27 Apr. 1970, a guard fired at movement along the camp perimeter, and in the morning strange footprints which were “neither human nor ape” were found, as well as blood spattered along the forest floor. The prints were photographed and the creature was called "Powell’s Ape," named after the depot company commander, Capt. Powell. In 1982, more footprints were examined when Professor Tran Hong Viet, of Pedagogic University of Hanoi, found them while collecting specimens near Chu Mo Ray in Sa Thầy District. The professor made casts of the prints, which measured 28x16 cm (11.02 by 6.3 in.) long. Photos of these odd casts were later published in the Japanese Fortean magazine, Fortean News of the World. Dr. Bernard Heuvelmans also wrote of curious prints in his opus On the Track of Unknown Animals, in which he recounts the tale of Lt. Alan Szpila, of Cumberland. R. I., who while on a helicopter patrol for the 101st Airborne Division spied some strange, huge footprints below. He would say of the finding:
I had been looking at footprints from the air for quite a while and I noticed the exceptional size (of these) immediately. I landed to get a closer look and sure enough, these tracks were about 18 inches long and eight inches wide. They were embedded deeply, indicating a heavy wearer. The stride of whatever made them was about four feet.
The creature was estimated as being perhaps around 8 feet tall based on the size of the prints and length of stride, underscoring the sightings reports that spoke of much larger specimens. Even more impressive than footprints of the Người rừng are actual bodies that have been claimed to have been found on occasion. In one case described by a Steve Williams, it was claimed that a veteran had told him of doing a nighttime low altitude Special Forces drop in the thick jungle interior of Vietnam during 1967-68, when after the drop the team hear a low gurgling sound over a period of three nights. It was then claimed that on the fourth night they came across the upper torso of a “decomposing bigfoot-like creature” which had been horrifically blown apart by something, perhaps a land mine. Since the creature had been long dead, they surmised that what they had heard over the last three nights had perhaps been its mate mourning it. In Williams’ account, he says of the gruesome find:
They could see into the body cavity...spine, lungs, and such. All was crawling with bugs. There was shorter hair on the huge head. The eyes sunk back an inch and a half from the brow line. It had long arms. Very large and long fingers. One hand was still wrapped around a branch. He (the original source of the tale) didn’t say what color it was, but did mention that it had a flat nose. If the creature had it's legs, the estimated height was around 8 ft tall...there was no sign of the lower half of the body. They were able to see the teeth. All flat, well formed molars, except the canines, which were longer and pointed. Seemed adapted to living in the forest with long arms and fingers, or perhaps just builds night nests like gorillas sometimes do.
In another rather spectacular report published in the New York Times letters on April 18, 2010, a man named Graeme Webster tells of a curious event that occurred at a strategic artillery summit on the western end of the DMZ called “The Rockpile.” One evening sometime in 1967, Marines from the Fourth Marine Regiment were assaulted by a large number of Rock Apes, which were said to inhabit the caves of the area. The Marines fought back in a prolonged burst of firepower which lit up the night. In the morning, there were allegedly corpses of the ape-like creatures strewn about, and they were included in the sitrep briefing body count. This incident sounds very much like the battle between Marines and Rock Apes that allegedly occurred at Hill 868, the Battle of Dong Den, which also was claimed to have left bodies of the dead beasts in its wake. It is unclear what happened to any of these bodies in the aftermath. In addition to bodies, there have even been live Người rừng allegedly captured, with one notable report being that two of the creatures were caught by tribesmen near Đắk Lắk Province in 1971. Again, it is uncertain whatever became of these creatures, although considering it was war time and most had more serious issues weighing on their minds, one wonders if anyone ever actually went there to investigate the veracity of the claims at all.
With all of these spectacular reports circulating around the Vietnam War, we are left to wonder just what the Rock apes, Người rừng, Batututs, or whatever one wants to call them, were. There are a wide variety of theories that have been proposed over the years, with the most commonly being that what was seen was the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey, or Dollman's Snub-nosed Monkey (Rhinopithecus avunculus), Vietnam’s largest native primate species and also highly endangered. It is so critically endangered, in fact, that is was long thought to be extinct until its rediscovery in 1989, although even now there are thought to be fewer that 250 of the animals left. Snub-nosed monkeys are found in southern China, Vietnam, and parts of Myanmar, and get their name from their flat, upturned noses. They live in remote mountainous forests in groups comprised of up to 600 individuals. Several features seem to point to this species as being perhaps the culprits. The Tonkin snub-nosed monkey are highly territorial and are known to show little fear towards humans, which is indeed one of the reasons they have been so decimated by hunters. They also produce a wide range of vocalizations, including those which could be interpreted as sounding like the bark of a dog, one of the hallmarks of Rock Ape reports.
Nevertheless, there are several other reasons for why these monkeys are poor candidates for what was reported from the soldiers in Vietnam. First is the size, with the snub-nosed monkeys not being anywhere near the 5 to 6 foot and up stature reported in the accounts of the Rock Apes. They also have very prominent tails, a feature not consistent with the tailless descriptions given by G.I.s, and they are furthermore not bipedal, which is a trademark of the Rock Apes. Further lessening their worth as a possible culprit is that snub-nosed monkeys are diurnal, active in the day, whereas the Người rừng is always reported as a decidedly nocturnal animal, and additionally the snub-nosed monkeys are arboreal whereas the Rock Apes are mostly reported as foraging about the ground. The bipedal nature of the Rock Apes is also inconsistent with snub-nosed monkeys, as is the reddish brown coloring of the mysterious creatures. Another theory is that there may be some other type of large, undiscovered primate inhabiting the region, perhaps even some kind of new ape. This would fit in more with what was reported, and considering all of the new species of mammal that have been discovered within this remote region in recent years, it certainly seems feasible that something like this could have possibly remained hidden from the outside world. Other theories suggest that the Người rừng could represent some relic population of hominids or early human ancestors.
There are also those who have suggested that sightings of these mysterious creatures are due to the imbibing of drugs by American soldiers, including the highly hallucinogenic lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD. However, most of these reports were made by troops that were on active duty, trained observers, and would probably not have endangered their missions and the lives of those around them by doing potent, mind-altering drugs. There is also the fact that the strange creatures were seen probably just as often by the Viet Cong as they were by the Americans, and were well known by the local tribes, so can we chalk all of these reports up to both sides of the war spending all of their time in a drug fueled stupor?
So what are we dealing with here? Were these myriad reports the result of misidentification of a very rare, yet known primate? Is this all the product of minds addled by the stresses of war, drugs, or both? Or is there a chance that there is indeed some new species of ape lurking about in these remote, isolated jungles, hiding among all of the other large mammal discoveries here in recent years? If so, are they still out there and what are they? Are they an ape, a form of surviving human ancestor, or something else entirely? Is this something similar to the Orang Pendek hairy hominid of Sumatra, which is often touted as being one of the more plausible cases of strange hairy hominid? Unfortunately, in times of war there are more pressing issues at hand than tracking down mystery beasts, and as a result many of these reports were never really followed up on. To the men out these in the jungles, this was just one more struggle to add to those already in place with the forbidding terrain and the constant threat of attack from the elusive enemy. Indeed this seems to be common with reports of strangeness from war zones, and many such reported phenomena have become lost in the mists of time, buried beneath the violence and combat. It seems clear that as long as there is war, tales of the bizarre will seep in along with the tales of horror, and some of these mysteries may be gone just as surely as the lives lost.