Cambodian Neutrality Nearly Violated
(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
Maj. Bob Zion slanted his helicopter out of Duc Co in approved cavalry style, tree-top high, and suddenly I was looking out of the open door at a river he had pointed out on the map, the Ia Drang.
The stream looked swift and about 100 feet wide. A heavy growth of bamboo jungle along its twisting course abruptly gave way to open woodlands in the hills to the north and south of its westerly current. White water around rocks jutting from a shallow stretch showed that it had fast water.
There was an old, triangular, mud-walled fort off to the north where a heavily traveled trail came down to a ford in the river and apparently ducked under the trees toward a good-sized mountain to the southwest. The fort was a deserted relic of the French Army.
The crew chief, Sp5 Lynne A. DeFleron, grabbed my shoulder and pointed, shouting in my ear as he indicated the mountain.
Points Out Valley
“That’s the one we looked at on the map - Chu Pong they call it,” he shouted. “That back slope goes into Cambodia. See that valley? The one which runs on over into Cambodia? There is another one behind that other ridge just like it, and it’s all in Cambodia. Trails run up there that look like highways.”
I could see the red ribbon of the beaten paths flashing under the trees in the deep green of the grass. Chu Pong is a steep-sided, heavily timbered ridge which sprawls like a figure “3,” with its center bar being a ridge running along the border with two valleys opening to the north.
Zion edged his chopper over to the west and suddenly, with a big grin, whipped it into a tight turn. The door gunner, S-Sgt. Frank Knackstedt, turned to me.
“By golly, we just almost violated all of that fine old Cambodian neutrality!” he shouted. “I believe we missed it by at least six inches.”
Zion got back to business and zoomed to grass-top level across a clearing about the size of a football field. Trees grew close to the edges of the irregular rectangle, pinching it in on the south.
Big anthills loomed up among black boulders and the grass was short, meadow-like.
The anthills in this country are a kind of compound product of ants, burrowing animals and erosion of the ground not held in by the brush and saplings which grow on the anthill. They are 10-foot-high mounds covered with the thick brush and grass and often are the major local terrain features and become important during fighting.
The rocks were coal black, rounded and weatherbeaten. One of them, six feet high and with a flat side, looked like a black monument. The chopper suddenly lifted over the trees again and circled around for another look.
When my side of the chopper was turned toward the field, I saw six helicopters diving in and troops fan out in the familiar air assault landing. Then Zion was coming back into the clearing for his landing.
He had picked a quiet field. A little red deer bounded across it as his helicopter settled at the south end. He landed close to the big boulder and a king-sized anthill which cropped up just where the trees began.
Lt. Col. John B. Stockton, commander of the 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry was already landing to have a last conference with Zion, Capt. Don Valley, Capt. John Oliver and Capt. Robert Knowlen, who were commanding the rifle platoons which would be involved in the night’s work.
Knowlen would take his men from C Troop to the crossing I had seen from the air and set up an ambush. Oliver would take the B Troop rifle platoon to a crossing about 1,000 yards downstream. Valley would keep his Troop A rifle contingent here, guarding the patrol base.
I had heard reports that there was an entire PAVN regiment prowling this area, and knew that the nearest government outpost was at Duc Co, 20 miles away through territory the Viet Cong had claimed for months. This added a certain tenseness to my own attitude concerning what the night would bring.
I decided I was nervous enough without listening to the commanders run through the program again, so I wandered over to the group P-Sgt. Jose Ortiz-Vasquez was with and volunteered my company for the night.
Ortiz-Vasquez is a small, wiry, tough soldier with a big mustache. He has a way of making you feel he can get you out of trouble if you just stick with him.
He introduced me to the rest of Capt. Oliver’s platoon and I took down their last names from their name tags, saying that there would be plenty of time during the night to get the first ones. The night was long, but there never was time to add to the original list. The platoon roster included:
Sgt. Kilcrease, Sgt. Gloyd, Sgt. Gee, Sp4 Phillips, Sp4 Chester, PFC Charles, PFC Lopez, PFC Cook, S-Sgt. Gray, Sgt. Carr, S-Sgt. Johnson, Sgt. Ashmore, Sp4 Dinkin, Sgt. Stanyard, Sp4 Yarnell, PFC J. Gray, PFC Daily, PFC Cercemont, PFC Ciccoto, PFC Bell, Sp4 Perrichon, Sp4 Bevers, PFC Mabe and Sp4 Byrd.
I had seen Byrd over on the hospital fight two days before. He had accounted for three PAVNs over there, one of them in a stand-up gunfight. Byrd had put a burst into the Communist as the man shot at him with an automatic rifle. He had also knocked a sniper out of a tree who had been causing us trouble.
Sp4 Nolen King, who had been a kind of one-man army on that fight, was with Valley’s platoon.
Sp5 Jay Hockenbury, the medic, and Capt. Thomas Williams, the battalion surgeon, were out in the center of the patrol base field with Lt. John Tweedy’s mortar platoon. (Tweedy was from Capt. Theodore Danielsen’s Company A, 1st Battalion (Airborne), 8th Cavalry. This company was supporting the cavalry, guarding the Duc Co main base and reinforcing this operation.)
Hockenbury, I found out, was the medic I had seen knocked out by a mortar round during the fight near Plei Me. He said he had no ill effects from it but that “somebody had put a KIA tag on me while I was unconscious.”
“I have to keep telling people it’s really me, now,” he grinned.
© Columbus Ledger-Enquirer
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