Jan 11, 1966

Daring 'Copter Work Aids Ambush Forces

(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.)

Enquirer Military Writer

From 11:05 p.m. on Nov. 3 until 12:05 p.m. on Nov. 4, my memory of the night near the Ia Drang River on the edge of Cambodia is one of a confused uproar of noise and flashing lights while I crouched behind a tree.

Rifles, mortars and grenades made a solid wall of noise from the area of the patrol base of the First Battalion Ninth Cavalry which I had left seven hours earlier with a 27-man ambush party under Capt. John Oliver.

Capt. Robert Knowlen's ambush team had hit a North Vietnamese Army battalion 1,000 yards from us just two hours earlier.

Patrols sent out by the enemy had apparently found the trail left by the retreating platoon and followed it to our base camp, a little clearing containing Maj. Robert Zion's command post and another platoon commanded by Capt. Don Valley.

They had struck with a fierce wall of bullets and a mortar barrage and had attempted at least one assault on the desperate little American force of about 45 men within a few minutes of the initial attack on the base.

The U.S. Air Force had taken a hand by 11:30 and the entire area was not only lighted by a bright moon now, but by parachute flares dropped from "Smoky Bear," a C123 which circled the area.

I heard the propellers of A1E Skyraiders just before midnight and a huge ball of red flame showed that they were napalming.

Just at midnight I heard the flap of helicopters and saw what seemed to be six choppers sweep low over the river, heading for the fight.  I saw some kind of a big gun open up across the river from me, it sent twin blue flashes up into the air from a low hilltop but it was impossible to hear its noise or to see its tracers.

Somebody whispered to me to "crawl over to the command post quick and bring your gear."

I hurriedly got ammunition and grenades, rolled my poncho, and then crawled to the river bank to refill a canteen I had emptied before I went to the rendezvous.

I could see men pulling up claymores from our unsprung ambush trap and then gathering in the shadows of the tree where Capt. Oliver was located.  I got there in the middle of his whispered briefing.

". . . and they are in a hell of a fix back there!  They need every rifle they can get.  We are going to go to the base, shoot our way in or sneak in, and at least fight it out together.  Anybody who thinks it is going to be easy, speak up now because I'd sure enjoy learning what he is basing his logic on," Capt. Oliver said.

He pulled the NCOs close then and shined a red flashlight on his map.  The fighting noise was even more violent and it was joined by the distinctive "whoosh boom" of helicopter rockets and the racket of helicopter machine guns.

More Skyraiders seemed to be bombing in an area between us and the fight, these explosions making big, solid cracking noises as the bombs hit into the woods.  We were almost able to read the map from the flickering reflections of flares and explosions, even under the tree here.

"Scout us a route, Jose.  Keep us under cover, keep us on the straightest way to that fight and keep us out of trouble if you can," he told P-Sgt. Jose Ortiz-Vasquez.  "Remember we're moving in the dark and keep the pace slow up on that point, but they need us bad.  We can't waste any time either."

He looked at everybody then and asked a question.

"Anyone have any clever ideas on how we can get through a battalion into a perimeter defense with everybody shooting at us?"

Nobody spoke and he folded up the map.

I turned to the man beside me, I believe it was Sgt. Ashmore, and we both stuck our hands out at the same solemn instant.

"We probably won't see much more of each other but it sure has been nice knowing you," he said, just half kidding.

Everybody shook hands with the men he could reach then because it didn't take much effort to think it out.

We were moving out, 29 of us in all, to cross through woods full of enemy, sneak through a battalion more of them, and then to try to get inside of the fierce barrage put down by our own forces.

When we finally accomplished all of that we would simply have reached the place where 400 men were trying to kill a few cut-off Americans.

Capt. Oliver grabbed the radio handset as his radioman tapped his shoulder and listened, whispering a reply.  He whispered to us again.

"You guys won't believe it, but somehow those helicopters set down in the little field in the middle of the fight, took out some casualties, threw off ammo and water, and brought in Capt. Danielsen and two platoons of his company for reinforcements!

"They did it without landing lights and with the gunships shooting right along the perimeter.  That hadn't ever been done in world history, boys.  If you want to know if we have luck with us tonight, that ought to be your answer!  There are just two choppers down.  They got hit on the ground, but there are 75 more infantrymen there now.  If we get there, we've got a chance to see the sun come up again!" he said.


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