Why Special Forces soldiers brought a Vietnam bear to the U.S.
FORT BRAGG – In the midst of the Vietnam War, a Malaysian sun bear that managed to infiltrate the Special Forces soldiers’ camp was brought back to the United States and is now a permanent fixture at the Special Forces Museum at Fort Bragg.
An orphaned cub was found by members of the 5th Special Forces Group Operational Detachment Alpha 310 in 1968 near Ben Het, Republic of Vietnam.
“Unfortunately, if there were animals, native animals, in the area, they often got involved in firefights as well,” said Roxanne Merritt, director of the John F. Kenney Special Warfare Museum.
The Special Forces soldiers adopted the bear and named him Barney. Barney, Merritt said, loved the Americans but was suspicious of anyone else who entered their camp.
“He snuck up behind her and then grabbed her and held her,” Merritt said.
If someone entered the camp and shouted “Papa Ho” for Ho Chi Minh, “the soldiers knew they had an intruder,” she said.
More:John Wayne helped pay for a Fort Bragg statue, there’s a time capsule containing JFK’s letter, and other tidbits about Fort Bragg’s memorials
More:5 unique things that can only be found in Fort Bragg
“They didn’t want to leave him there”
When the soldiers left Vietnam in the early 1970s, they wanted to bring Barney back to the United States.
“Special forces at the time had a history of often finding orphaned animals and then bringing them to zoos across the United States,” Merritt said.
Former Command Sgt. Maj. Dewey Simpson is another example of a former Special Forces soldier who brought a creature back from Vietnam. In Simpson’s case, it was a Burmese python. The snake was given to the North Carolina State Museum, now known as the Museum of Natural Sciences, in 1964.
American zoos were full of orphaned animals, including sun bears from Vietnam.
In the case of Barney, Special Forces soldiers were undeterred by being told they could not bring him back, and Sgt. Jerald Hilleson is credited with coordinating the bear’s arrival in the United States
“They didn’t want to leave him there (in Vietnam) to possibly get killed or anything,” Merritt said.
Merritt said the stories told by the soldiers in the group say that in order to get the bear to the US, Barney was “drugged” a little and his stomach was rubbed to put him into a hibernating state.
“They had a chest and they put holes in it, and they brought him back to the United States that way,” she said. He happened to wake up halfway through and had a seizure.”
When officers found out, Merritt said, Barney was under threat of euthanasia while the soldiers were jailed.
“The story that we heard and got is that the Prince of Thailand happened to be in San Francisco at the time and said there would be a major international incident if Barney wasn’t allowed to immigrate to the United States,” Merritt said . “So basically the guys got released from jail because the Prince of Thailand went to the embassy. And Barney was sent to Fort Bragg.”
Barney was housed in a small animal enclosure at Fort Bragg maintained by the Gabriel Demonstration Team, an operational team of Green Beret soldiers formed by Lt. Gen. William Yarborough to promote Special Forces from the 1960s through the early 1980s.
“The boys would basically escape (Barney) from the zoo and take him to all their parties,” Merritt said.
Memory of Barney
Barney lived in Fort Bragg for two years before dying of pneumonia in the 1970s.
It is not clear who stuffed Barney, but Hilleson is again credited with efforts to create a memorial for Barney.
“When[Barney]died, they still wanted to take him to all their parties, so they stuffed him,” Merritt said.
Hilleson retired in 1984 after 24 years of service as a sergeant major and died on May 14, 2002, according to his obituary.
When the last team member of Operational Detachment Alpha 310 retired, Barney was donated to the museum “to serve as permanent guardian,” according to a poster ahead of the case in which he is being held at the museum.
More:Unique curiosities in Cumberland County and beyond
Standing between 3 and 4 feet tall, Barney stands up in his plexiglass display because sun bears “fight that way and actually walk that way,” Merritt said.
“It stands out because the red bears are considered an endangered species,” she said. “We’ve had people who would bring their kids to see him, and their kids would grow up and they’d bring their kids … there were families of at least four generations that would come to visit.”
For those wanting to see Barney and the rest of the museum, the JFK Special Warfare Museum is open weekdays from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. at 3004 Ardennes St., Fort Bragg.
Staff writer Rachael Riley can be reached at [email protected] or 910-486-3528.