Jan 6, 1966

Bumblebees Defend Landing Site

 (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 as he saw it will continue in The Enquirer daily.)

By CHARLES BLACK

Enquirer Military Writer

The “interesting something” which Capt. John Oliver of Troop B, 1st Battalion, 9th Cavalry, invited me to participate in started at about noon Nov. 3 after an enjoyable day and a half spent roving the countryside with Lt. Col. John B. Stockton and his top NCO, Sgt. Maj. Tom Kennedy.

Members of Stockton’s far-ranging outfit were engaged in half a dozen projects at the time I left 1st Brigade headquarters south of Pleiku to spend a few days with them.  They were scouting for the fleeing PAVN battalions which Lt. Col. Harlow Clark’s 1st Brigade was harrying.

Stockton finally moved his choppers and men to a little field near the Special Forces camp at Duc Co to serve as a “rear base of operations.”  That field was one of the liveliest ones to secure I can remember.

There wasn’t any human resistance, but the entire upper end of it was filled with the burrows of a particularly short-tempered species of bumblebee.

The lower end - the clearing was an old bean field planted by Montagnards - had grown up in 10-foot-high elephant grass, and landings were made here almost blindly while crew chiefs swatted and fought bees which had gotten inside the helicopters on the first landing attempt.

The bees attacked a crew chief on the one helicopter which landed, and their stings were serious enough to cause him to be evacuated for treatment at the field hospital set up by the 15th Medical Battalion at Pleiku’s Camp Holloway.

There seemed to be a line in the center of the field where the bees marked their territory.  Anybody venturing beyond it got stung.

It was a hot day, and cutting tall elephant grass is a hot job, and by the time the landing zone was finally cleared the cavalrymen were putting up as angry a buzz over the bees as the bees were over the cavalrymen.

SFC Jose Ortiz-Vasquez, Oliver’s platoon sergeant, came over from one group of machete-wielding men, his handlebar mustache not quite covering a big grin.

“They are all wanting to call in the tac’ air and have them drop napalm on those bees,” he said.

We walked out of the sun into the shade of the jungle and found that the whole area had been a camp for the North Vietnamese army units which had kept Duc Co under siege last August.

“They dig good holes,” Ortiz-Vasquez said.  “They get more cover from their holes than we do from ours.  They know how to use camouflage right, too.  We need to learn some lessons from them on that stuff.”

The holes they dug were round and had chambers tunneled out from their bottoms.  A soldier crouching in one of these can turn in any direction to fight and his body is not full length on the ground, giving a target to snipers in trees.  The little chamber at the bottom shelters him when rockets, artillery, bombs and mortar shells send fragments whistling around.

Fiber Helmet

The camouflage used by the PAVNs is something which our Army really needs to study.  They do not put branches in their helmets.  They wear only a fiber helmet designed to shade the head, instead of the heavy steel oven our troops wear as fragment protection.  The ones I have seen usually fight with a kind of slouch-brim cloth hat or no hat at all, in fact.

I have often wondered at the reasoning which is used in training American troops to stick branches and grass in their helmets.  Movement is what attracts the eye in the woods.  An infantryman who walks looking like an eight-foot-tall potted plant, branches waving above his head, is not really camouflaged.

In a fight, an infantryman has to move his head to look for targets, even if the remainder of his body is frozen in position.  Once more, our camouflage efforts wave a signal.

The PAVN has a little, circular bamboo frame (it looks like a ring sight on an anti-aircraft gun) about eight inches in diameter.  He puts grass or twigs into this little frame, forming a shield-shaped circle of camouflage material, and two strings secure it to his back.  When he is in his hole it forms a cover.

Covers Head

When he lies down, it covers his head and shoulders and he can look around without moving it.  It makes more sense than any American efforts along this line.

As we talked and walked along the dug-in PAVN positions, Ortiz-Vasquez put his finger on another problem the U.S. soldier faces in Viet Nam.

“It takes a little time to dig in like this,” he said.  “It takes time and somebody who recognizes how important it is to let the guys get camouflaged right.  When you are pushing after them and you are always in a hurry, the troops just don’t get time to dig a hole right or to camouflage.

“One thing, we need to have it straight right up at headquarters about this camouflage,” he continued.  “It has to be realized up there when an operation is planned that this stuff can save men’s lives, and they have to put out the word and allow the time for it to be done. They have to start paying attention to this all over the Army if they want to make it better, and it has to start up top.”

Hot Chow

We spent only a little time at the landing zone after a helicopter brought in containers of hot chow at noon.  Maj. Robert Zion came by and said he would be the man in charge.  He unfolded his map.

“We’ll load up and go look it over if you’re ready,” he said.  “I want to recon’ that area before the others come in.

“We’re going right there,” Zion continued.

“You’ll get a good look at Cambodia.  We’ll set up a base camp here, north of this mountain, and set out some ambushes on these crossing sites along this river here.”

The river was named the Ia Drang and the mountain, we finally found after deciphering the fine print of the map, which had become water-stained, was Chu Pong.

They are both famous now, but when Zion pointed to them on the map nobody knew much about them except that there seemed to be “a lot of activity there.”

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