Jan 09, 1966

U.S. Ambush Shatters Serene Night

(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.)

Ledger-Enquirer Staff Writer

Charles Black, The Ledger-Enquirer's "Man in Viet-Nam," has put together one of the most fantastic war stories written in our time.  It is a five-part sequence which starts today and continues throughout the week in The Ledger and The Enquirer.

This sequence is a gripping story of a blazing night engagement along the Ia Drang River, close to the Cambodian border.  Black is traveling with an American unit which ambushes a larger Viet Cong force, then they are cut off from the American base camp.

Trying to work their way back to the main American force, Black and his companions are pinned in the open, caught in a murderous crossfire between American and Viet Cong forces.

There is a night helicopter drop, a helicopter attack on Viet Cong mortar positions, and much more.

In the great tradition of Ernie Pyle, Charlie Back is telling the close up, smell-of-gunpowder story of our men in Viet Nam.

The story which begins today is a great story.  We hope you enjoy reading it as much as we did.  I heartily recommend it.

Maynard R. Ashworth
President and Publisher
Ledger-Enquirer Newspapers

The 27 riflemen and one news correspondent who made up Capt. John Oliver's ambush force on the south bank of the Ia Drang river the night of Nov. 3-4 crouched in a nervous semi-circle as the sun suddenly disappeared and deep darkness fell.

The river bank was gloomy enough.  Bamboo made an almost impenetrable wall on one flank, big trees spread over the small clearing flanking the trail where 10 claymore mines waited the flick of a switch to turn them into a spray of death.

The shaped-charge mines shoot ball bearings out in a triangle which cuts a swath for 50 yards.  They are set up on three legs, looking like little metal signboards.  They were about 15 yards out from the rifle positions.  They have a backblast which is deadly if the user is too close.

About 100 yards of dim trail looped under the trees 35 yards from us.  Our position fitted inside a curve of this trail, making it a semi-circle with the flanks pinned to the bank of the river.  I was set up by a big tree, about 20 feet from the bank, and was looking to our rear across the river.

At about 7:15 p.m., when the air had cooled from a scorching afternoon sun, we were attacked by a horde of mosquitoes and I compounded this irritation by leaning against the tree and collecting a few hundred ants.

The entire country is covered with ants, black, red and vari-colored ones, all of which seem to be equipped with over-developed jaws.  I spent 15 minutes locating the hungriest of this tribe and listening to night noises.

Fish jumped in the river.  The current, a swift one flowing to Cambodia 1 1/2 miles away and by our other ambush site at a ford 1,000 yards west, kept splashing against rocks and catching low-hanging bushes.

Every one of these noises caused a reflex from eyes, ears and nerves and when the bright half-moon came up about 8 p.m. and I could see the river and the opposite bank clearly it was a relief.

The moon was going to be our deadliest enemy before too much longer, but we all welcomed it then.  It lighted the night brilliantly, making movement easy to spot.

I heard rustling in the brush across the river, possibly 40 yards from where I was.  It sounded as if something -- or somebody -- was moving a log or something over there.  About 8:30 p.m. there was a loud, shrill metallic wail from across the river.  I froze and then I heard an echo from what seemed almost the exact position of Capt. Robert Knowlen's ambush.

I heard Capt. Oliver whispering on the radio and I knew everybody was feeling the same tension.  The signal reminded me of a monster of a bugle -- at least five feet long made of dented brass -- which Lt. Col. John B. Stockton's scouts had captured near Plei Me.

The horn had been used for signaling between distant battalions, a prisoner had said.  It had a high, wailing call just like the two we had just heard, one from the other side of the river and one from our own side.

Almost immediately I heard men moving on the trail across the river.  They smashed through brush and I heard the clink of equipment.  The noises which had seemed so loud before, of water and animals and the buzz of mosquitoes, became a background murmur as the sounds of men moving over there seemed to crash through the night.

There was nothing we could do except listen to them go west toward the ford by the Cambodian border because our security groups of four men each had reported movement back in the brush around our own position.

It was a very trying 45 minutes.  No target showed itself on the trail where our ambush waited, yet movement across the river and on what was apparently another trail out of sight on our side of the river kept us pinned in tense silence, hoping for a target, yet knowing that we were in the midst of some very big forces if we did get a target and probably destined to become the quarry in a game of fox and hounds if we touched off our ambush.

At exactly 9:05 p.m., the night turned into one huge, blasting explosion which erupted at Capt. Knowlen's position.  The hideous racket of claymores, M-16 fire and M-79 grenade launcher missiles echoed along the river for two solid minutes.

The sky flared and turned red from the explosions of cartridges and grenades.  The violence of the suddenly unleashed ambush was almost unbelievable, knowing that less than 30 Americans were authors of the uproar.

The noises around us -- men and animals -- had been shocked into silence when the explosions stopped.  I kept hearing sounds, except for the river itself, started.

It wasn't safe to move so I crouched in the shadow of my tree and again checked magazines for an M-16 and two hand grenades and then picked up the old worries and loneliness a man can feel at night, a long way from safety, a long way from home, in a place which could explode and deal death at any second.

I knew that there were 27 men around me, but I couldn't see them, hear them or talk to them. 

It became quite clear to me about 11 p.m., in fact, that all 27 of them had silently filed away in the darkness and that somehow I hadn't been given the word in my isolated position on the river bank.

The more I considered this, the likelier it seemed, and I was working up quite a fit of anger about it when I heard a noise near me and almost threw a grenade at it.

"It's a friend," the whisper came from a patch of darkness.

I squinted through the moonlight and saw nothing where the whisper came from.  I tried out the password on him.

"Seven," I whispered.

"Two," he whispered back.

They added to nine, the correct password key.

I never thought that hearing the word "two" in a raspy whisper with a distinct Spanish accent would sound quite so wonderful.

I listened carefully as P. Sgt. Jose Ortiz-Vasquez told me what had gone on at the other ambush.

It was a fine thing for him to do, incidentally.  I wouldn't have crawled around that edgy group of men for anything, let alone simply to brief them on the situation so some of their nervous questions would be settled.

"The other guys tore up a battalion moving out of a camp between them and us.  What we heard were some of the PAVN patrols, I guess, plus that battalion on the other side of the river.  They must have been going to rendezvous over there.  Our guys caught the column on the trail and cut loose.  Nobody on our side hurt.  They said there must have been 150 PAVN's down.

"They went back to the patrol base.  We will stay here and move back at dawn.  A good chance we will get some business too, because they said some patrols seemed to be working behind them when they went in and that would put them right on our killing zone.  Stay loose," he said.

I got my poncho over my head and sneaked a forbidden smoke so I missed the first few seconds of what happened just after he left.  Everybody else saw the sudden flash of combat reflected in the night sky.  It came to me as another burst of explosions, turning into a solid, rippling wave of noise within seconds.

The action was exactly where our base camp was located and it didn't take the whispers from the invisible man next to me to tell me that the night was still young and full of menace.

Our base camp was surrounded and under heavy attack with about 48 Americans defending themselves against what seemed by enemy patrols.  Our way out was at the exact center of what seemed to be a last stand by the only friends we had within 20 miles.

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