Cold War, Military

Hells Angels at War in Vietnam

When you think of wild men on bikes, you naturally picture a fight against authority. However, during the Vietnam War it seemed Hells Angels were very much on the side of the US government.

A movie was then made about bikers battling the Viet Cong… Easy Rider this wasn’t!

Where did the Hells Angels come from? As mentioned by History, the idea apparently came from “motorcycle enthusiast Otto Friedli”. They go on to add that “this has been disputed and denied by Friedli himself.” Either way, the other person linked to the Hells Angels as we know them today is Ralph “Sonny” Barger.

Sonny Barger

His activities with the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club in California meant that Barger became something of a legend. The Club first revved up back in 1948, with Barger helping establish an Oakland chapter in 1957.

He was widely seen as a figure who built bridges between different gangs, broadening and strengthening the Angels into a larger organization. He was also described as the Club’s “International President”.

If you think that a Hells Angels President sounds weird, then you’re not alone. Barger claimed he didn’t hold any such role, though police and reporters handed him the tag anyway.  

Sonny Barger
Sonny Barger seen here in 1967. He was American and pro Vietnam War. Not everyone agreed.

Barger formed his chapter of the Hells Angels in Oakland, and with good reason – he was born in the state of California. Raised by a religious grandmother after his mother left, he also coped with an alcoholic father at home. Barger grew up against a background of social deprivation.

Key industries were on their knees. With a lack of job prospects, the young Barger needed something to take his mind off fighting in school – this included getting physical with teachers.

Military service

Avoiding pitfalls like drug addiction, Sonny Barger found a spiritual home in the Army. Sadly for him, his service only lasted 14 months. You couldn’t sign up till you were 17, and Barger didn’t want to wait.

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He used a fake birth certificate, entering the service at 16 before being honourably discharged after the ruse was uncovered. From there, he took whatever job came along, before getting caught up in the roar of the motorcycle engine. The year before founding his own group, he joined the “Oakland Panthers”.

Barger may not have made it in the Army, but there were plenty of ex-servicemen burning rubber that he could connect with. Military style imagery is long associated with the Hells Angels.

Their “Death’s Head” logo remains a proud feature of the organization. The distinctive image of a skull with aviator wings emerged from Barger’s collective.

It was a surprise when the Hells Angels didn’t join other members of the Sixties counterculture in opposing the Vietnam War. Yet when you hear more about Barger’s background, it makes sense why they weren’t keen on the idea. Putting it mildly.   

Hells Angels vs Protestors

On October 16th 1965, the Hells Angels made their feelings on anti Vietnam war protestors known. Looking back in 2018, the San Francisco Chronicle describes how sixteen bikers landed on an event happening around the border between Oakland and Berkeley.

In an interesting reminder of current times, the shouts from the aggressors included “America first”. The gang made it through the police line and physically assaulted those with anti Vietnam war placards.

Hells Angels
The Hells Angels weren’t shy at ‘defending America’ against Anti-War protesters.

Footage captured by KRON-TV showed the ensuing chaos in stark black and white. The action shifts from polite (yet firm) interactions between cops and protestors to absolute pandemonium. Barger appears, yelling at the crowd to go home.

The voice of authority booms across the scuffling, ordering people to sit down on the ground. Police brandish truncheons as we hear the unmistakable sound of Pete Seeger’s anthem We Shall Overcome.

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There is a sequence of a Hells Angel face down on the tarmac, clutching his bleeding head.

The men in uniform came out relatively unscathed, with one major exception. One cop suffered a broken leg from an unexpected source. details how a 300 lb biker named “Tiny” was struck and fell down… snapping the policeman’s limb on the way!

All in all, 250 cops stood between Hells Angels and protestors. With public opinion reportedly against peace in Vietnam, it was a particularly tense time in America for pacifists.

This confrontation was also a worrying sign, due to the potential for a homegrown war to break out between bikers and marchers. Ultimately that didn’t happen, for one strange reason. A little over a month later, Sonny Barger decided to hold what was surely a world first…

Press conference

A press conference hosted by the Hells Angels? This wasn’t what people expected at all. Rightly or wrongly, these folks were associated more with bar room brawls than media scoops. Nevertheless, Barger invited reporters to hear what he had to say.

As you can imagine, the content was eye opening. The KRON-TV reporter comments that the prospect of a press conference “conjures up some unusual and perhaps interesting ideas about social comment”.

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The location for the conference was Dorothy Connors Bail Bonds. KRON-TV refers to the company’s status as the official bondsman for the Hells Angels. Inside, five members of the organization headed by Barger filled the media in regarding what was on their minds. For starters, they planned no further confrontations with protestors.

What led to the halt in hostilities? Essentially, Barger and co didn’t want to create sympathy for people they saw as “un-American” and a “mob of traitors”. By avoiding fights with the anti-war brigade, the Hells Angels were doing what they believed was best for the state of the nation, who didn’t appreciate this peaceful stance to begin with.

Of course, the public mood would change over time as the topic grew hotter and hotter.

Volunteers from Hell

Barger also wanted to talk about something else. He announced the intention of himself and the Angels to fight for freedom in Vietnam. While reporters were taking that in, he pulled out a telegram addressed to then-President Lyndon B. Johnson. The communication was read out loud, at the urging of the press.

LBJ was asked to consider them for active duty. A “crack group of trained guerrillas” – i.e. Barger and his men – would surely “demoralize” the enemy Viet Cong, according to the hardened biker.

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When asked if he was qualified to take part in such activity, Barger pointed to his former jungle training in the military. He was less keen to talk about whether the rebellious Hells Angels should be supporting the protestors as fellow disruptors.

ARVN soldiers in Vietnam during Operation Elk Canyon, 12 July 1970.

A moment that was very much of the time happened, when a female reporter asked what the women of the Hells Angels made of the move. Barger bluntly responded that there were no women among their ranks.

The reporter shifted focus to ask what their wives or girlfriends thought about the idea. Barger stated they had “no say”. This prompted laughter in the room, apparently from the men in the press club!

This was a truly surprising moment in press conference history but, unbeknownst to the bikers and reporters, a bike-based part of the Army would play a decisive role in the Vietnam conflict. Enter Nam’s Angels…

Nam’s Angels

Four years later, the stage was set over at the Cambodian border for guys on wheels to tackle the ruthless Viet Cong. Had Barger been granted his wish? No – in fact, the President never got back to him.

What happened was the military came to the conclusion that military motorcyclists gave them the edge on the enemy. As written about by, an area called War Zone C was where the 3rd Battalion, 22nd Infantry battled against the odds.

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This was far from easy territory. Not just because of the bullets and bombs flying around. The zone was reportedly 1,000 sq km, featuring what sounds like the worst that the jungle environment had to offer.

Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Carmichael was in charge, and he needed a way for his men to get across ground quickly. He hit on the idea of sending reconnaissance patrols out on bikes.

Following them was a jeep with a mounted M-60 machine gun. With a combination of speed and firepower, the Nam’s Angels rode their Honda CB175 street bikes into danger. The site identifies them as  Dennis Verbrigghe, James Linder, Scott Anderson and James Tomusco.

Their story doesn’t appear to be one of the most documented of the war. Photos show scenes which wouldn’t look out of place in a war movie. They arguably weren’t the rough ‘n ready types typically found in the Hells Angels community, but they certainly looked ready for a fight.

Speaking of movies, a film was later made inspired by Sonny Barger’s offbeat press conference…

The Losers

Otherwise known as Nam’s Angels, The Losers was released in 1970. Directed by Jack Starrett, who had a record helming biker pictures, and filmed in Thailand, it was allegedly inspired by Barger’s out of the blue offer. The Losers wasn’t exactly a prestige production. They filmed it using sets from the high profile war picture Too Late the Hero. 

The Losers
Poster for the 1970 Vietnam war movie The Losers. It met with mixed reviews and criticism.

The plot focused on a gang called the Devil’s Advocates, dispatched to Cambodia to retrieve an American diplomat and CIA asset. The hardy Advocates were led by William Smith as Link Thomas. His crew had suitably fiery nicknames, such as Dirty Denny and Speed. Taking one of the main roles as Captain Jackson was Starsky & Hutch star Bernie Hamilton.

Quoted by a William Smith fansite, now apparently defunct, the actor himself revealed how the ending of The Losers was changed to become a lot grittier. Rather than surviving their mission, the Devil’s Advocates wound up buying the farm. Smith co-wrote the new sequence with Starrett.

While an obscure part of movie history, The Losers went on to influence two major filmmaking talents. John Milius stated that it inspired the screenplay for a little Vietnam war picture he was working on called Apocalypse Now.

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Over a decade later, Quentin Tarantino featured a clip from the movie in Pulp Fiction (1994). In 1989, another film called Nam Angel was released, to some controversy.

The Hells Angels Motorcycle Club objected to their less than flattering portrayal, and filed a federal trademark infringement lawsuit against the producers and distributor. The matter was settled out of court.

Peace man

Antagonism between Hells Angels and other sections of society is a familiar idea. However, there was one time where bikers and peaceniks came together in harmony. A meeting organized by One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey saw a meeting of countercultural minds.

Tiny the 300 lb rider, who famously broke a policeman’s leg, rubbed shoulders with poet Allen Ginsberg.

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According to reports, the attendees consumed drugs and even had a good old singalong to a Buddhist mantra. Peace and love indeed, though not without the help of some questionable substances it seems! According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Ginsberg rang a small bell, announcing that he was doing so to “protect everybody from evil.” He wanted to reach a point where he could “start to groove with the Hells Angels”.

What happened to Sonny Barger?

The Hells Angels shown in the press conference footage are quite different to those we think of in the 21st century. No long hair for starters. But as the years passed the Angels grew a lot hairier, not to mention becoming the bad guys and boogeymen of many a movie and TV show.

Sonny Barger
Sonny Barger was a larger than life character. He is seen here in 2019 at a book signing.

A more favourable depiction came in the series Sons of Anarchy (2008 – 2014). Sonny Barger himself even made an appearance as an actor.

Barger went on to write five books, and was in and out of prison during the 1970s and ‘80s. He passed away from liver cancer in 2022, aged 83. It was only fitting that his activities inspired a war movie. After all, the Motorcycle Club that became like family to him got its moniker from a certain flight squadron. Their name? The Hells Angels, in turn taken from a war flick of the 1930s.