Napalm and Nagas
Updated: Aug 26, 2020
"Take a look at the symbol of your Vietnam occupation medal, and you’ll find there’s a dragon in bamboo. You ever wonder why?”
-Kregg P. Jorgenson, Very Crazy, G.I.!: Strange but True Stories of the Vietnam War.
The Mekong Dragon
"When the dragon whispers, the wise man listens."
According to Thai folklore, the Phaya Naga -- dragon lord -- is a sixty-foot-long dragon, a water serpent that lives in the Mekong River. Many legends are attributed to Phaya Naga and to naga in Asia generally. Naga tales range all across Southeast Asia, from the banks of the Mekong itself in Laos and Thailand to Cambodia and Vietnam, and even far beyond to Japan, Korea, and China. In Lao folklore, for instance, the black and green-scaled dragon is said to protect the Lao people, especially their river-side capital of Vientiane. Cambodians claim they are descended from a naga princess, while the Vietnamese people insist their race originated from 100 naga eggs, from which sprang 100 sons -- the seed of Viet-Nam.
Of course, dragons remain the most powerful creature in the Asian zodiac. Too, dragons symbolized the power of the state in ancient China, where dragon symbols dominated the iconography surrounding the emperor, the throne and the flag of the Middle Kingdom. In Taoism, there are the eight Dragon Immortals,
Some of these legends describe the lesser naga as little more than an impish ghost that overturns boats and frightens travelers near the water. Sacrifices of food and drink are offered on the banks of the Mekong to fend off these angry spirits. But there are other aspects to the naga. Ananta-Sesha is a "world snake with a thousand heads." The naga Mucalinda is depicted protecting Buddha as if her many heads were an umbrella. The naga Karkotaka controls the weather, while the naga queen Padmavati wields a sword that causes earthquakes. Then there is the nine-headed dragon lord of Angkor Wat, who in its female human form once controlled the Khmer kingdom by having sex nightly with its human king.
One GI described his experience with a dragon in Vietnam. His platoon had been bathing in the Bong Son River, in Binh Dinh Province, Vietnam, when one of the paratroopers of the 173rd Brigade, known as Sky Soldiers, spotted a large serpent swimming up the river toward them. Thirty feet long, the dragon was covered with golden scales and had a large square head mounted with a dark red plume. As it swam the plume stood out of the water, while a long undulating body trailed behind. When the soldiers spotted it and begin shouting, everyone got out of the water and grabbed their weapons. However, by the time they could react, the serpent disappeared stealthily beneath the murky waters of the Bong Son.
The Mekong stretches nearly 3,000 miles from the plateau in Tibet to the South China Sea. Some 60 million people inhabit its banks, swamps, estuaries, and backwaters. With few roads and few large cities, must of the Mekong is only reachable by boat or helicopter. Most of the people of the Mekong are simple agriculturalists, farming rice from the rich silt of the river. Some are fishermen, either part-time or as a profession. Life along the Mekong moves with the cycles of the seasons.
From June to October is the wet season, when monsoon winds bring heavy rain. The rest of the year is the dry season. During the wet season, hundreds of thousands of tons of silt is carried out of the banks during flooding, providing the region with its ample rice crops. In the lower delta of the Mekong, farmers can harvest up to seven rice crops every two years. Little wonder then that the water dragons and their weather control powers are a major source of concern for people so dependent on rice.
Well, what of the dragons? The Mekong is home to over 1,200 species of fish, including several giant freshwater species, such as the Giant Catfish, Giant Barb, and the Super Red Arowana. Some of these fish reach up to 10' in length and weigh over 500 pounds. Scientists claim these are the likely source of the dragon sightings. Some claim that dragon sightings were only distressed or disoriented oarfish -- a long, ribbon-like fish whose normal habitat is in the South China Sea, not rivers.
The Dragon-Haunted Forest
"The [Navy] chief shrugged. “I think there are things...we haven’t discovered yet, and dragons may just be one of those still lurking in the depths. And then again, maybe not. However, I think too many people in too many cultures have seen something, and that should give us pause to think.”
--Kregg P. Jorgenson, Very Crazy, G.I.!: Strange but True Stories of the Vietnam War.
In the Kamchanod Forest near the village of Ban Dung in Udon Thani province, Thailand, is a small island that many Thais consider to be a thin veil between the human world and the netherworld of gods, ghosts, and mythical creatures. The island is considered one of the most famous locations in Thailand for hauntings, ghost stories, and monster encounters. Locals consider Kamchanod Forest to be a gate to the subterranean homeland of the mythical Phaya Naga.
Perhaps the most famous ghost story associated with Kamchanod Forest is not an ancient tale, but a surprisingly modern one. According to legend, in 1987 an unknown caller phoned a projectionist and arranged to hire the projectionist and his team for a movie to be shown in the Kamchanod Forest. The team arrived and began the film at the pre-arranged spot, but no audience appeared until a few hours later. Then groups of women in white and men in black materialized out of the forest. The audience watched the film in silence before disappearing in the wee hours of the night. When the team returned to the nearby village of Ban Dung and inquired about the audience, nobody knew anything about the movie. The team, so it goes, had shown a film to a ghost audience. This ghost story made its big-screen debut in a 2007 Thai movie named The Screen.
Of course, many questions remain unanswered about the "film of death" and its connection to Kamchanod and the naga. It has never been determined what film was shown, for what purpose, or where the film came from. Or if or how the film projectionists were paid -- or who paid them. Or even how they managed to stay in the haunted forest the whole night with a ghostly silent audience. The story might end there, but there are some fascinating possibilities for conspiracy theorists.
"I shone my flashlight in one of their faces, I clicked my fingers, she didn’t respond. Her clothes told me she was VC, they were all VC, three women and seven men, all gently rocking forward and back, not a care in the fucking world. Their eyes were a solid color...the VC were all facing a small altar, I walked toward it. On the simple stone plinth stood a gold statue illuminated by several candles. The statue was ornately crafted, it was of a beautiful naked woman, the top half anyway, the bottom half was something like an octopus, dozens of tiny gold tentacles had been meticulously crafted to a woman's torso instead of legs."
-US Army tunnel rat, near Cu Chi.
Based on reports from US soldiers during the war, the silent staring of the audience at the death film was very similar to the actions of Viet Cong encountered in their underground bases near Cu Chi and the so-called Iron Triangle. So, a simple question: were the VC and the audience in Kamchanod Forest in 1987 connected? If the cult discovered by the tunnel rats during the war was making use of an ancient underground stone ritual site, then it seems plausible the resources of the cult might have been immense and well-connected to Indochinese communist activities. The cult could have easily moved out of South Vietnam and into neighboring countries as Laos and Cambodia fell, perhaps searching for a better site for its rituals. It's not hard to imagine what would happen if they learned of Kamchanod Forest and its gateway. Or perhaps the cult originated there in the first place, spreading out from the gate at Ban Dung amidst the chaos of the Indochina Wars.
Of course, there is another aspect to this, and that is the American presence in Southeast Asia. Udon Thani province was home to thousands of US airmen, soldiers, and Marines at the Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base, a joint Thai-American military base during the Vietnam War. This was one of the largest and busiest airports in the world at that time, a major part of the Secret War in Laos and the unpublicized bombing of North Vietnam during the Linebacker operations. Sorties by the thousands were flown into Laos and North Vietnam during the war. Air America, the CIA's proprietary airline in Southeast Asia, had its headquarters at Udorn RTAFB.
And all of this was a mere 65km from Ban Dung and the haunted forest. And the flight path for many American aircraft bound for battlefields east led -- you guessed it -- right over Ban Dung and Kamchanod Forest. Did these aircraft awake the underworld denizens at the weakened veil of Kamchanod? Did the constant rumbling of USAF F-4 Phantoms and C-47 Spooky gunships (indeed, yes, that Puff the Magic Dragon) disturb the Phaya Naga?
Whatever the case, Ban Dung has remained a spooky place for another reason. First, it must be understood that while the US did abandon Laos and South Vietnam in 1975, it never left Thailand. Thailand and the US remained staunch allies during and after the Vietnam War. Its close relationship with the kingdom buttressed its security against the likes of Pol Pot and the Pathet Lao. It shouldn't be surprising then that in 2003 news reports sited Ban Dung as one of the CIA black sites, where terrorists captured in Afghanistan or Iraq were secretly interrogated.
Ban Dung was, in fact, the location of a massive Voice of America radio station. The VOA station reportedly contained "seven shortwave transmitters ...capable of broadcasting 500 kilowatts of power, covering 40 percent of the earth's surface." Ostensibly used to keep in contact with the Thai and Lao diaspora, it most likely served as a Chinese listening station. The station, according to open sources, was developed at Ban Dung in 1989, took five years to complete, and cost over $120 million. So why did the CIA build this expensive and elaborate site there, just two years after reports of the "death film"? Was the station listening in on otherworldly transmissions? Could it be that the radio station transmitted a standing wave that could rip open space-time at the Ban Dung gate? Was this a way of sending a temporal strike team to Yuggoth, or the Plateau of Leng? Or did some rogue US government agencies make a deal with the silent black-eyed cultists of Cu Chi and gain access to the Phaya Naga itself?
"The napalm was devastating, utterly terrifying...each aircraft seemed to come a little closer, fly a little lower, and drop a little more accurately. And each pass seared a swath of safety around us. It was beautiful."
-Larry Gwin, Baptism.
The Phaya Naga is said to project "naga fireballs" during certain times of the year, mostly at the end of the wet season. These balls of fiery light emerge from the Mekong and float into the sky. Thousands of people line the banks of the river near Isan, Thailand to catch a glimpse of the ghostly fire in a festive atmosphere. Skeptics claim the fire is just swamp gas or plasma orbs -- or most likely, fireworks set off by humans on the other side of the river. The thing is, claims that these are naga fireballs is fairly new, something devised in the 1980s to attract tourists. Long before these were called naga fireballs, the will-o-wisps were just that -- ghostly orbs, possibly the naga themselves, rather than their fiery breath. They were not greeted with festivity, but with fear.
In any case, sightings of fire in the sky were surprisingly common during the war. Pilots, ship captains, and grunts on the ground all reported being harrassed by "searchlights" or glowing balls which were impervious to weapons fire. In one instance 30 of them surrounded HMAS Hobart (Royal Australian Navy). The fireballs were finally driven away by anti-aircraft fire and the approach of F-4 Phantoms. In the summer of 1968, a U.S. Army recon team encountered a bright blue light silently hovering toward them. A nearby North Vietnamese Army unit began firing at the light, and though their fire was useless, the glowing object emitted an extremely bright light toward the NVA, which silenced their fire. The next morning the recon team investigated the enemy camp and found piles of ash and bones and even weapons which had been melted. In 1967, soldier Pete Mazzola was on patrol and pinned down by VC when his patrol saw “bright objects” rise up over the paddy fields and hover in the air. Mazzola founded the Scientific Bureau of Investigation after the war to "investigate UFOs and paranormal events."
These lights and balls of fire were common enough that the US military had developed a euphemism for them: "enemy helicopters." Will-o-wisp hovering over a base camp? Enemy helicopter. USAF aircraft buzzed by incredibly fast UFO? Enemy helicopter. Any sightings of bright lights and other such anomalies were submitted according to the document known as JANAP146 which detailed the procedure for CIRVIS report (Communications Instructions for Reporting Vital Intelligence Sightings). Of course, rather than describing the UFO as it was, the term "enemy helicopter" was used. In November 1967, alone, some 15 "enemy helicopter" sightings were reported. Others were reported further south near the Cambodian border at Nakhon Phanom RTAFB.
The question then is what was will-o-wisping all around Southeast Asia for the better part of fifteen years? Mundane answers include the usual culprits, swamp gas, kites, balloons, etc. And there was certainly plenty of US spy aircraft in the region, ranging from U-2 to YF-12A and SR-71 aircraft zooming across the sky, to silent black CIA-built helicopters. If not US aircraft, perhaps the sightings were enemy aircraft? Hundreds of Russian and Russian-trained pilots patrolled the skies north of the Vietnamese DMZ all the way to North Korea. And then the sightings could have been actual UFOs, drawn to the conflict as observers or combatants, piloted by the Greys or Reptoids. Take your pick.
One possibility, if one were to indulge in a bit more fantasy, is that the balls were, in fact, naga. Dragons acting out of curiosity or stepping in to help or hinder as they saw fit? Given the inscrutable nature of the semi-divine naga, it's impossible to know just whose side they were (or if they even cared to take a side). Given that naga were often depicted as protectors of the kingdoms they watched over, they may have had just as much difficulty determining who the enemy was as did the human participants themselves.
But what if naga aren't naga after all, but something more alien? Something too alien to undertsand, or to even contemplate. What if the dragons are just earthly constructs of Mi-Go, aspects of Yog-Sothoth, or the tentacled minions of the Great Old Ones? Maybe Kamchanod Forest and all associated with are just misremembered and comforting stories torn from the fevered mind of someone driven mad in the clutches of whatever shape was slouching across the plateau of Leng.
The Naga War
If the naga got involved, there's no reason to believe they would show their true form. With expert magical or hypergeometric control, the naga could remain completely invisible, or nearly so. They could move from place to place undetected, visible perhaps only when distracted, injured, or weakened. Their motives might truly be incalculable, but according to legends naga enjoy human sacrifice and relish the fear and chaos their appearance causes among humans. Then again, with the right means of control, ritual or psychotronics, it might be that the naga were forced to fight on one side or the other. Perhaps the VC cult mentioned above used a group ritual to inhabit a naga as a drone. And perhaps Agent Orange was not just a defoliant, an anti-naga agent. The stats below depict a naga suitable for use in just such an alternate Vietnam War.
This is a powerful being, a challenge to even a well-armed squad of grunts. It is fast enough to catch a flying gunship or slick but jets are out of its reach. Its tough hide will turn most explosive fragments and shotgun, pistol, and SMG rounds, leaving it vulnerable to direct hits from grenade launchers, LAWS, and rifle- or machine-gun fire.
However, its most powerful abilities are its magic, with which it can conceal or disguise itself until the moment it wants to strike, sew confusion, or attack, curse, or harass from a distance. There are several ways to approach the magic-using aspects of naga. The simplest would be to give naga one or more levels of Magery and a limited list of spells from GURPS Basic Set. Another approach would be to give naga one or more talents and abilities form GURPS Thaumatology, Chinese Elemental Powers.
The more interesting approach is for naga to use GURPS Thaumatology Ritual Magic, gathering energy to create spell effects as needed. In this case, naga should be Ritual Adepts, while most humans will not. To reflect the horror and corruption associated with the black-eyed cult, have the humans use the Corruption system in GURPS Horror. This fits best with the assumption that naga are more akin to a Haunting Horror than to a legendary guardian spirit.
Any fight between humans and naga is likely to end badly for the humans. The better approach would be to investigate and find a way to contain or defeat the naga through guile.
ST: 45 HP: 45 Speed: 7.00 DX: 13 Will: 15 Move: 7 (Water Move 7, Air Move 84) IQ: 15 Per: 15 Weight: 1,200-1,500 lbs. HT: 14 FP: 15 SM: +4
Dodge: 11 Parry: N/A DR: 8
Fright Check: -4 Bite (13): 5d-1 cutting; Reach C-2. Tail Whip (13): 5d+5 crushing; Reach C-3 (rear), C-2 (either side), or C (front).
Magic: See discussion above. Traits: Amphibious; Born Biter 1; Constriction Attack; Combat Reflexes; Discriminatory Hearing; Enhanced Move 2.5 (Air); Flight; Nictitating Membrane 2; Vermiform; Vulnerability (Fire, x2); Weakness (Agent Orange, 1d per minute).
The description of naga and their associated imagery and forms could fill volumes. One good source for all-things serpentine is, of course, GURPS Dragons. This is a gorgeous book and provides a wealth of background details on all types of dragons. Anyone planning a naga war should check it out. If fighting dragons, check out Combat Writ Large in Pryamid 3/77 Combat. Another helpful draconic source if GURPS Dungeon Fantasy Dragons, which gives dragon stats, tactics, and generally useful advice on GMing the beasts.
One thing to consider is that naga may indeed be encountered with their allies, whether they are summoned by villagers protecting their homes, ARVN conjurers, CIA hypergeometric specialists, or desperate VC commanders.
One final point: the military planners of the communist regime in Hanoi ruled from an ancient stone structure, the entrance to which was flanked by two immense stone dragons. It was known as Dragon Court.