Jan 09, 1966
U.S. Ambush Shatters Serene Night
NOTE: Charles Black, Enquirer military writer, has returned home
four months in Viet Nam. He was with men of the 1st Cavalry
during many of their recent engagements with Communist guerrillas, and
his articles on the war as he saw it will continue in The Enquirer
By CHARLES BLACK
Ledger-Enquirer Staff Writer
A RECOMMENDATION. . .
Black, The Ledger-Enquirer's "Man in Viet-Nam," has put
together one of the most fantastic war stories written in our
is a five-part sequence which starts today and continues throughout the
week in The Ledger and The Enquirer.
sequence is a gripping story of a blazing night engagement along
the Ia Drang River, close to the Cambodian border. Black is
with an American unit which ambushes a larger Viet Cong force, then
they are cut off from the American base camp.
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.
is a night helicopter drop, a helicopter attack on Viet Cong mortar
positions, and much more.
the great tradition of Ernie Pyle, Charlie Back is telling the close
up, smell-of-gunpowder story of our men in Viet Nam.
story which begins today is a great story. We hope you enjoy
reading it as much as we did. I heartily recommend it.
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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.