Jan 12, 1966

Crossing Site Found Dangerous

(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

Capt. John Oliver led us down the way picked up by P-Sgt. Jose Ortiz-Vasquez and, I believe, a Sgt. Gray, in a single file.

With the need for urgency, and whatever concealment was offered by a moonlit night made even brighter by flares, muzzle blasts, rocket, bombs and napalm from the nearby battle at our home base, we moved in the open most of the time.

Somehow, we always seemed to have a bit of cover, however, and it impressed me that the wiry little platoon sergeant could manage to feel his way along with such speed.

Twice Capt. Oliver had to stop while men caught crossing a gully or who had turned off wrong in a patch of elephant grass groped their way back to the column.

(Both times I was among the groping group and the two events added some gray to my already well-silvered hair.)

We decided to turn away from the river, after skirting the thick bamboo there, at a deep gully and follow it up toward the patrol base.  There was an obvious crossing site here where the river broadened into shallows.

We had taken cover while the scouts and Capt. Oliver talked it out, and I remember that I was wishing I could smoke when the burst of gunfire came from across the river.

There was a flickering line of muzzle blasts which seemed to come from not only along the bank, a dark line of brush 75 yards from me, but also from out in the water.  M-16 fire came almost before the echoes of the first Communist shots.

I threw my two grenades out into the river and they made a satisfactory thunder, sending flame-lit sheets of water up into the air about where the firing came from.

There were only half-a-dozen of us involved here.  The rest of the column was watching over the edge of the gully, straining to see approaching danger from the flanks, and the racket of the other fighting in the area actually covered our little affair so that the front of the column didn't know we were engaged.

We shot up a couple of magazines each and listened to the bullets coming back as they zipped overhead or smashed into trees.  One burst dug up dirt near my shoulder, but most of it seemed very high.

We had the advantage.  Our bank looked down on their side and we had a bend in the gully for cover, turning our position into a natural trench.

I suddenly realized that there wasn't any more fire from across the stream and then had 30 seconds to assess the effect all of this had on me.

It was fairly distressing.  I was breathing as if I had just run a long way, and my hand trembled disconcertingly when I changed magazines.

"Come on, move up the gully!  They won't come across there now.  Move out or get left behind," somebody hissed at me.

I slid back down the bank into the bottom of the gully.  There was a little water running in it and the rocks were slippery, and saw a dim shape in front of me.  I followed it.

Somebody kept putting his hand on my back to see where I was and I had to do the same to stay behind the man in front of me. It was still moonlit but our eyes had been dazzled by the firefight back there.  I bumped into the man in front as he stopped.  We were all back together again.

Somebody passed up a count.

"Five," he said, tapping me on the shoulder.

That meant there were five men behind me.

I tapped the dark shape ahead of me, it was a man carrying the radio but otherwise unidentifiable, and whispered my "six" and he passed it up to the next man.

We moved then and my eyes got used to the darkness again.  I picked my way over the big rocks and tripped on the small ones until Capt. Oliver led us out of the gully into a grove of trees -- where we were immediately fired on by automatic weapons.

"Get down, get down!" I heard him say.

It was a fairly unnecessary order.  I had flopped down hard when the first flick of fire came from the dark mass of a low hill on our right.  I could see perhaps six of those flickering spots in the darkness and decided that we had hit a small patrol which was over-ambitious.

They put low, accurate fire into the brush where we had taken cover, searching it out with tracers.  Our fire beat back at them almost in one burst and an M-79 gunner landed an explosion right in the midst of their muzzle blasts.

We crawled back.  There was no more fire from that position although several single rounds whizzed by us, coming from the direction we had been trying to aim for, as if riflemen up there were attempting to draw our fire in order to locate us.

After a short crawl we got up into a crouch and somehow Capt. Oliver and his wonderful platoon sergeant led us into a patch of dark, thick brush.  We counted again and once more the miracle of nobody being lost or hurt came up the line in a series of tremulous whispers.

Along with the tension of this cat-and-mouse game we seemed to be playing, I noticed that I was getting physically tired.  It had been a grueling evening and I had been out in the field since the Binh Khe operation, almost two weeks.

I told the radioman near me that "if I don't get shot, I think I'm going to collapse anyway."

"If you do, you'll get shot.  You can't win, man.  You might as well just stick with the rest of us," he said comfortingly.

We were already moving off again, making a circle and aiming toward the noise of the fight at the patrol base, very loud and very close now.


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