Jan 8, 1966

Ambush Set Up on Trail Beside River

(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

Two files of men carrying weapons and a minimum of anything else  filed out of the little clearing Maj. Robert Zion had selected as his patrol base, putting the bulk of Chu Pong Mountain behind them and walking toward the Ia Drang river and the Cambodian border two miles away.

I fell in with Capt. John Oliver’s file of 27 riflemen (three of these fine soldiers were killed during the night, so I only listed 24 men in the platoon in my roster).  Capt. Robert Knowlen’s 27 men walked a divergent course to our right.  We could see them through the park-like expanse of open trees.

Lt. Col. John B. Stockton, commander of the 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry; Capt. Don Valley, whose platoon would guard our home base in the little clearing, and two television newsmen, Vo Vynn and Ron Nesson of NBC, stopped beside one of the big black boulders a quarter of a mile out into the brush and watched us go by.

Vo Vynn, a Vietnamese cameraman, is one of the most interesting Vietnamese I have met.  He is a sturdy man whose bravery is a legend.

Lonely Mission

Vynn once crawled at night inside of Viet Cong lines, gathering ammunition and weapons and aiding South Vietnamese wounded, on a lonely mission which enabled a surrounded airborne battalion he was with to survive one last assault from the Communists.

He was high in the Diem government, being chief of the secret police.  He left Viet Nam until his status was finally settled after the overthrow of Diem, and came back as a news cameraman.  Vynn is constantly on the scene during the very toughest fights, and he is respected by troops and newsmen alike.

Vynn knows more about the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese invaders than any man I have met, and I spent a lot of time plotting ways to get the reticent cameraman to give me an education in those matters.

Ready for Argument

I respect him as much as anyone I have met anywhere.  He is not untypical of the Vietnamese nation in his bravery.  That is one of the reasons I am optimistic about the eventual outcome of the struggle. 

Valley signaled me over to the rock.  I thought perhaps there were some last-minute qualms about me going out on the ambush, and was ready for an argument.  However, he leaned over and slipped me two M-16 grenades.

“These might come in handy,” he whispered.  “I’ve got a feeling it is going to be a noisy night.  You guys get your job done and get back here in one piece!”

Stockton and the newsmen were returning to Duc Co, he told me.

We kept on moving, fast and quiet, with P-Sgt. Jose Ortiz-Vasquez, a PFC Gray and a PFC Daily ranging ahead as scouts.  We walked about an hour in the dwindling light.  The going was easy but treacherous.  The short curling grass covered round rocks and little holes and gullies so that an unwary foot could be ambushed.

Any noise grated on our nerve ends, and when men stumbled it brought a quick hiss from the man nearest, usually something like “. . .pick up your feet. . .” except with more decorative adjectives.

Animal Tracks

The bamboo along the Ia Drang was as thick as it had looked from the air, but our aerial surveillance had caused one miscalculation.  What had looked like a series of trails beaten into the river bank, indicating fords, held the prints of tiger paws and deer hoofs.  Animals had used those approaches for watering places.  The river was swift and deep, and they just didn’t pan out as ambush sites.

We fought our way through bamboo and thorns.  The sun was waning and there was a feeling of some trepidation as we climbed into a deep gully leading to the river, followed it down and once more found that it wasn’t a crossing site.

“We will go up the bank until just before dark,” Oliver said during a halt.  “Then we’ll set up a perimeter and sweat it out.  There is a crossing east of us, all right, but it’s too far away.

“Knowlen and his bunch are on a trail at the river right over on the border right now,” he said.  “If we don’t find one in 30 minutes, we’re out of the ambush business.”

Slow Progress

It was very rugged walking along the river.  We made only slow progress because it wasn’t healthy to make too much noise and our scouts had to pick paths we could follow without using machetes.  The platoon was sweaty and thorn-scarred when the sun went down.  We had finally found a trail along the river, however.

“This is it.  We aren’t going to thrash around in the dark,” Oliver said.

Our position was in a semi-circle, both ends of the arc hard on the Ia Drang.  I got a big tree allocated as my portion of the line, and I could sit against it and look at the other bank of the river.

There seemed to be a trail a few yards in from the brush screen over there.  I spotted it just at last light and crawled over and told Oliver.  (He had appropriated another big tree for his command post in the center of the semicircle.)

“I wish we were over there,” he said.  “The only problem is, it would amount to suicide.  We’d never get across this river if we made a hit over there.  We have to get back to the base, if we don’t intend to settle down in this part of the country and farm or something.”

Explains Setup

He explained the defense setup, which was really an ambush put out at a second-best location and almost a duplicate of the one which Capt. Knowlen’s platoon was operating at what now looked like the choice spot for business.  This ford was about 1,000 yards from us.  The patrol base, our ambush and Knowlen’s described a triangle with the apex -- the patrol base -- aimed at Chu Pong Mountain three miles away.

“We have ten claymore mines set out along the trail,” Oliver said.  “Eight of them aim directly into it, covering about 80 meters of the trail.  I think it is just a game trail, but you never know.

“There is a four-man security team on each end of the perimeter, just to your right over there, with a claymore aimed up and down the trail,” he continued.  “I’ll set off the first one right into the center of any column moving along the trail.  The others go on that signal.

“We shoot and grenade on through then and rendezvous down at that gully we crossed,” he said.  “Everybody can find that thing just be moving along the river.  The password is any two numbers which add up to nine, for the 9th Cavalry.

“You keep your eye on the river,” Oliver ordered.  “There may be some sampan traffic.  Anything here is our enemy.”

SP4 Chester came by then, collecting canteens to fill from the Ia Drang.  I eased away from the command post with him and we crawled down to the river.

It was fast, clear and cold water, and we filled up two canteens for everybody.  I put iodine tablets into mine and noticed how noisy the night was along the river as I went back to my tree and laid out ammunition, grenades and worries in a row so any of the three could be  found in the darkness.

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