In the course of researching my new triviabook, I stumbled across a bunch of stories that made me think, How has it taken me this long to learn about this? One was the story of NASA’s ‘space minibikes’. Another was related to the Hells Angels and Vietnam. Of course, I already knew that Sonny Barger had volunteered a biker force for duty behind the lines in Vietnam. But I did not realize there actually was a military unit known as Nams Angels. Here’s their story…
A little over fifty years ago, Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barger – the president of the Oakland chapter of the Hells Angels – volunteered his gang for duty in Vietnam.
The press conference, which was held on November 19, 1965, featured Barger and four of his ‘associates’. It was held in the storefront office of Dorothy Connors Bail Bonds. You can follow this link to watch KRON-TV’s report. The journalist who introduces the report can scarcely conceal his own disbelief. The segment opens with footage of an earlier, undated confrontation between Hells Angels and anti-war protesters.
In the fall of 1965, Americans were still not used to big, unruly war protests; those would come later. Until the marchers reached the Hells Angels, things seem to have been generally peaceful. TV footage portrays a fairly cooperative and respectful relationship between thousands of mostly draft-age protesters and an approachable police presence that is positively quaint, compared to what we’d see today.
|In fedora: Oakland police chief Edward Toothman. Below: Barger screams at antiwar protesters.|
That ended when Barger started screaming, “Why don’t you people go home, you pacifists!” A cop in standard uniform pushed an Angel back, ordering him to “Back off” and a moment later a 300-pound biker known as ‘Tiny’ was cracked on the skull with a nightstick. Ironically the only police injury occurred when that huge dude slumped to the pavement, breaking a cop’s leg on the way down.
Barger’s often described as a ‘veteran’, which is consistent with the ür-myth of soldiers returning from war and forming motorcycle gangs. The truth is a little more prosaic; Sonny did join the army, but was honorably discharged after a few months when they realized he was actually only 17.
Hunter S. Thompson noted that the march organizers – a loose group of student leftists led by Jerry Rubin – hoped to find kindred spirits in the bikers. But that was not to be; the Angels may have been disenfranchised too, but they were unquestioningly patriotic.
All of which led to the surreal press conference in which Barger announced that the Hells Angels would not attend the VDC march scheduled for November 21, because he was sure that those pacifists would provoke the bikers to violence, which would in turn encourage the public to place its misguided sympathies with the protesters.
“We haven’t been told to do nothin’. This is our own decision. We think it’s best for the country,” said Barger. When asked what the Angels would do instead, Barger added, “We’ll do what we usually do on a Saturday; probably go to the bar and drink a few suds.”
A reporter, perhaps thinking that outlaw bikers – outcasts themselves – would make natural allies with student radicals, asked Barger whether, while he disagreed with the students’ position, he at least defended their right to free speech and assembly. But he literally waved off the question; he never took the bait. (Barger, still in his 20s at the time, comes across as alternately media savvy and, at other moments, hopelessly naïve.)
Barger then read a telegram that he claimed to have sent Lyndon Johnson…
Dear Mr. President,
On behalf of myself and my associates I volunteer a group of loyal Americans for behind-the-lines duty in Vietnam. We feel that a crack group of trained guerrillas* will demoralize the Viet Cong and advance the cause of freedom. We are available for training and duty immediately.
Hells Angels, Oakland CA
If LBJ ever saw the telegram, he certainly didn’t take Barger up on the offer. But ironically, within a few years, there actually was small group of biker-warriors taking the fight to the Viet Cong.
(Photo: US Army photo)
Helmet? Check. Sleeveless biker vest? Check. The only color image I’ve ever found of the Nams Angels.
So who were the real Nams Angels? The Recon Patrol of the 3rd Battalion, 22nd Infantry, U.S. Army.
In 1969, the 3-22nd’s area of operations was War Zone C, up on the Cambodian border. It was 1,000 square kilometers of marsh and jungle, crisscrossed by a maze of small trails, that served as a hideout and staging area for Viet Cong guerrillas.
The U.S. Army set up camps in there to interdict that activity, and those camps became targets themselves, of VC hit-and-run mortar and rocket attacks.
The commander of 3rd Battalion, Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Carmichael, seized upon the idea of using motorcycles as a way for reconnaissance patrols to cover more ground – identifying VC mortar sites, for example.
Carmichael acquired at least four motorcycles, which appear to be pretty much bone-stock Honda CB175 street bikes. Patrols rode out at dawn. I imagine that Sonny Barger would’ve scoffed at those 175cc rice burners – they were hardly intimidating enough for Hells Angels. But the four bikes had a chase vehicle, which was a Jeep with a mounted M-60.
Further up the chain of command, they were skeptical – but not for long. "At first I was very leery of the whole idea, but now I am confident it was a good one," said Major Joseph Hacia.
I love the idea of four guys – some likely were draftees – who were probably a lot happier to ride those CB175s than they would’a been patrolling on foot. I don’t know how long the 3-22nd’s motorcycle patrols went on, but they were around long enough for those guys to get patched.
Which brings me back to the Hells Angels. I’ve always thought of Barger’s offer – which was almost certainly a publicity stunt, but one that reflected his own genuinely-held views – as one of the first instances of a phenomenon that’s now common: Disenfranchised groups that one might expect to be anti-establishment, but which instead adopt militant patriotism.
I mean, really… The Hells Angels were persecuted by the cops, vilified in the media, and completely ostracized by conservative, mainstream America. And yet they were violently opposed to the student radicals that wanted to stick it to The Man. It seemed that the old saying, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” no longer held true.
There may be a lesson in reconciliation in all of this.
A few weeks after that press conference, the beat novelist Ken Kesey organized a meeting. A delegation of anti-war protesters came to Barger’s house, where they all dropped acid. Although Barger never really changed his rhetoric, the bikers and the protesters maintained an uneasy truce for the remainder of the Vietnam war.