(EDITOR'S NOTE: Charles Black, Enquirer military writer, has returned home after four months in Viet Nam. He was with men of the 1st Cavalry Division during many of their recent engagements with Communist guerrillas, and his articles on the war will continue in The Enquirer daily.)
By CHARLES BLACK
Enquirer Military Writer
Dawn broke over the bullet-scored trees behind which Capt. John Fox's Company A, 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry had spent the night following a day of fighting at the site of a North Vietnamese Army field hospital hidden near the Tae River.
The hospital had treated wounded from the PAVN siege of the Special Forces camp at Plei Me, and a fanatical battalion of Communists had been defending the place.
Lt. Col. John Stockton surprised them by landing his 1st Squadron 9th Cavalry rifle teams, commanded by Capt. John Oliver during the battle, behind the defense positions.
During the night men had gone in and out of the perimeter of Company A, reinforced by the reconnaisance platoon from the 1st Battalion (airborne) 12th Cavalry, carrying loads of surgical equipment, medicine, weapons and equipment which was found scattered over the battleground.
Lt. Bill Schiebler woke me up at dawn after a night unmarred by action and said he was taking out a patrol to scout the area where the North Vietnamese had retreated just before dark.
"We're fairly certain they broke contact and ran after that last violent firefight, but we're going to go look," he said.
While the patrol was forming I looked at the pile of equipment other patrols had brought in during the night. There were PAVN rucksacks filled with new surgical implements of all descriptions. A doctor later estimated that more than $40,000 worth of medicines and $100,000 worth of equipment was captured.
There were a lot of weapons as well: good automatic rifles from Russia, wicked little sub-machine guns from China, other gear with North Korean stampings, machine guns, mortars, rocket launchers and a huge pile of uniforms and web gear.
There was also a collection of documents, including what was possibly the most important item captured during the entire Plei Me campaign.
The document was a beautifully drafted sketch map with trails outlined in red and a set of carefully numbered crosses.
When it was taken back to Lt. Col. Harlowe Clark's 1st Brigade headquarters at the Catecka tea plantation, it gave intelligence officers a clear grasp of PAVN routes and possible concentrations. It became the basis for operations which had continuous success. In fact the Plei Me campaign was a marked reversal of almost every tradition in the Viet Nam conflict in this field of intelligence.
For the first time, the Communists were in the position of knowing less about the opposition than the opposition knew about them.
Variety of Sources
The intelligence gained by a gung ho military intelligence detachment (the unit’s sign at its headquarters at An Khe identified it as “Detachment .007,” but the designation is not believed to be official, and Lt. Col. George Lang, the division G-2, came from a variety of sources.
The hawk-eyed, hawk-swift scout helicopters and daring rifle teams of Stockton's outfit, the prisoners captured in record number during the campaign, the astute eyes of the soldiers and officers of the fighting battalions, all contributed.
The Special Forces teams in the area proved to have a wealth of information and details which filled the gaps. When the picture was pieced together, the 1st Cavalry Division had an amazingly complete dossier of the enemy and how to find him.
The riflemen, artillerymen, aerial artillerymen and Air Force tactical pilots knew how to beat him when he was found.
The first real break came with 46 prisoners captured during the Nov. 1 fighting on the Tae River. The map and the papers found on the battlefield, even the rations and equipment carried by the North Vietnamese soldiers, turned that break into a breakthrough in the weeks ahead.
That morning, however, the pile of equipment and boxes of papers was simply a place for curious soldiers to gather and talk and to add their own load to the pile.
The 15-man patrol eased out of camp and two others headed in other directions on the same mission. I went along with Schiebler. Such a morning stroll is guaranteed to wake up even the most lethargic riser.
We all breathed easier about 30 minutes later when 30 bright eyes -- all straining and wary -- peeked through a screen of brush and surveyed an abandoned hill slope, a trail without enemy soldiers and a field with a single, lonely deserted Montagnard hut in its center. The creek which drained this area twisted through the field toward the Tae River.
The things Schiebler’s patrol found, when P-Sgt. Robert Carruthers had eased back from a solitary scout of the area and the rest of us moved down the slope, gave me another look at PAVN tactics which added to the impression that they stick very closely to a good, but stereotyped, book written by the Chinese Communist route armies back in 1939.
The location of the hospital itself, for example, was right out of that book, and it is almost certain that if a situation similar to the Plei Me siege arises again, the next hospital will be similarly located.
The fact that PAVN wounded must be carried or walk on their own dictates that the hospital must be within a night’s march of the forward collection point for the wounded. That point is about 1˝ miles from the battle. The hospital will always be less than 10 miles from there, according to the old Chinese tactical book.
The defense of this hospital was out of the same book.
© Columbus Ledger-Enquirer
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