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Wartime Mystery: The Rock Apes of Vietnam

Darcie is a graduate student who spends her free time writing and learning everything she can about cryptozoology, aliens, and the unusual.

It’s not entirely uncommon for soldiers returning from war to come home with stories of seeing a monster. Throughout history, plenty of wartime monster sightings have been reported. However, one sighting in particular, or more accurately, multiple sightings, seems to have been more documented than most. This is the case of the Rock Apes of Vietnam.

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Rock Apes and Jungle People

“Rock Ape” is the name given to creatures allegedly spotted by multiple American soldiers during the Vietnam War. However, even prior to the war, stories floated around of “jungle people.” These jungle people were bipedal and ape-like, standing about six feet tall. They were stoutly built and very muscular, but had protruding stomachs. Like many unknown ape-like creatures, they were also covered in hair, either brown or black, with the exception of their knees, the soles of their feet and hands, and their faces, which were all hairless.

The jungle people tended to live in more isolated, remote areas of the jungle, keeping to themselves. However, if a human made the unfortunate mistake of crossing their path, they would become bold and aggressive, and would not have any hesitation in attacking the unlucky intruder. The jungle people were at their most active at dusk or during the night, and if they traveled, they would do so in packs. This fact would explain some aspects of the sightings later reported by American soldiers.

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Multiple Eyewitness Accounts

The most prominent accounts of Rock Apes were published in Kregg P.J. Jorgenson’s book Very Crazy, G.I. - Strange but True Stories of the Vietnam War. One such story from this book tells the account of a unit of six men from the 101st Airborne Division.

This particular unit was taking a rest when the trees about 15 yards uphill from them suddenly began to shake violently. Naturally, given their environment, the soldiers assumed the shaking was caused by the enemy, and that they needed to immediately prepare to be under attack. However, as the soldiers watched the trees, they saw “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,” according to Brent Swancer in his article “The Mysterious Rock Apes of the Vietnam War.”

When this bizarre creature fully emerged, the soldiers were able to get a better look, and they saw that it was about 5 feet tall and very muscular, and covered in matted reddish hair. The creature stood on two legs and examined the soldiers just as they examined it. As the soldiers argued over whether or not the creature might be an orangutan, it retreated back into the jungle.

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Another incident occurred in 1966, in a location known as Hill 868 in Quang Nam Province, the home of several Rock Ape sightings throughout the war. In this account, a Marine unit was reporting to their captain that they had spotted movement in the brush, which they assumed was being caused by Viet Cong. The captain told his unit over the radio not to fire. Not long after, the unit reported back that, rather than Viet Cong, they were being surrounded by hairy, bipedal humanoid creatures.

The captain told the unit that rather than firing on the creatures, they should instead throw rocks. However, this backfired, as the creatures began throwing the rocks back at them. At this point, the Marines guessed there were hundreds of these creatures, far too overwhelming an amount to stick with their current plan.

The Marines were told to change tactics and use their bayonets to fight the creatures. Soon after the order was given, the captain heard over the radio what sounded to him like an epic battle. Afterwards, men were sent out to investigate. The location was covered with injured—but not dead—Marines as might be expected, but also allegedly the bodies of several Rock Apes. This became known as the Battle of Dong Den, though the only evidence of the event and the dead Rock Ape bodies littering the battlefield seems to be eyewitness accounts, as with most alleged cryptid sightings.

Yet another account comes from an unnamed GI. This man gives a description of the Rock Ape he encountered, which like the other accounts, was recorded in Jorgenson’s book. The GI said, “An oblong head framed the hair-covered face. Dark, deep-set eyes lay beneath a prominent brow, and they did nothing to complement the heavy jowls and angry mouth.”

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Some Evidence

In 1970, Dr. John MacKinnon claimed he had found tracks that had been identified by locals as coming from the “Batutut,” an entity in Vietnamese folklore resembling the Rock Apes. The tracks had “human looking toes, but being around the size of those of an Asiatic black bear, which are not native to Vietnam.”

In 1974, Professor Vo Quy of the Vietnam National University led a North Vietnamese scientific expedition. The expedition found prints that were described as “wider than a human print but too large to be that of an ape.”

Possibly the footprint of the Batutut.

Possibly the footprint of the Batutut.

Theories

What makes the recorded sightings of Rock Apes unique is that these accounts are generally published in books about the Vietnam conflict that feature veterans recounting their experiences, and not in books that focus on cryptozoology. Perhaps this is why most Rock Ape theories consider natural explanations rather than cryptozoological ones.

The most common theory is that the soldiers actually saw Tonkin snub-nosed monkeys. However, these monkeys do not come near to fitting the descriptions given by the witnesses. Other suggestions for misidentified animals are Barbary Macaques, gibbons, or giant orangutans.

Of course, given the mysteriousness of the creatures sighted, more unusual explanations have been given. Some have suggested that Rock Apes could be a surviving population of hominids or early ancestors of humans, or even a surviving population of Gigantopithecus. Others have suggested that they are an undiscovered species of primate.

And finally, given the time and place in which the sightings happened, it’s probably not surprising that some have speculated the soldiers who experienced the encounters might have been under the influence of LSD at the time.

Our prime suspect: the critically endangered Tonkin snub-nosed monkey.

Our prime suspect: the critically endangered Tonkin snub-nosed monkey.

So what are the Rock Apes of Vietnam? We’ll probably never know for sure. For now, much like with Bigfoot and other bipedal ape-like cryptids, all we really have to go on is the accounts of the returning soldiers and a handful of footprint casts.

Comments

van on April 19, 2019:

i encountered whole communities (a dozen or more) of apes traveling in 2-3s through the Vietnam rain forest in Quang Nam province on our Marine Recon missions. A few of them swung on vines passing through the area.

Volunteer37 on April 13, 2019:

Rock apes are quite real and unafraid of humans. They appear similar to a cross between an orangutan and a Chimpanzee.. However they are quite large, perhaps about 5 feet tall. The groups I encountered seemed to live in an extended family of about 10 to 15 individuals.. They were covered with what I would call a thin fine hair and not matted as others have described.

They were totally unafraid of humans. It was a disgusting tragedy as the apes walked right up to the soldiers and didn't try to hide. Some GIs shot them for sport, but when the commanding officer heard about it, he issued strict orders to desist. From what I discerned from other personnel on the mountain the apes were gentle creatures and posed no threat to human safety.

As previously described by others, the Rock Apes lived in trees much like the Lowland African Gorillas do. The exact location of the group I saw was on a place called Monkey Mountain just north of DaNang. Monkey Mountain is about 5 aerial miles (peak to peak) west of a hill designated as "647" where I was stationed for about 5 months; January to May of1969. I am positive of the dates as I flew out of DaNang on Ho Chi Minh's birthday, May 19th, on a US navy Lockheed Constellation that I hitchhiked a ride on to get back to Saigon. I'm not sure what other details I might provide, but there should be no mystery about the apes. They were commonly encountered in our area.