Jan 13, 1966

Life Endangered by Angry Outburst

(EDITORíS 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

The platoon led by Capt. John Oliver, trying to get from the bank of the Ia Drang into its own lines in the thick of a horribly intense firefight between 110 Americans and an estimated 400 PAVN soliders surrounding them, was shot at and shot back three more times in the course of the next hour.

Each time we had a little edge, some of the luck which seemed to touch everything that night.  We had cover in trees once and simply backed away, beating down the Communist fire with bursts from our M-16s until we could make yet another detour.

Another time we crouched behind trees which grew thick in just that one place.  Their trunks stopped bullets and fragments and they shaded the moon which kept betraying our movements.

The last time we simply fired into the positions which opened on us, and moved on toward the perimeter in a crouching run when the Communist fire lifted.  This time a sudden burst of fire from a machine gun.  M-79 grenade explosions and a sheet of M-16 bullets laced a lattice of tracers into the ground around us and we had to quit firing and simply run for the shelter of the trees again.

ďIf we get through those Communists, we are going to get it worse than ever.  Our guys canít tell who it is coming in on them.  We are just going to have to quit firing and hope they let us in,Ē Sgt. Gray whispered to me.

Capt. Oliver was on the radio and I heard him say something about ďa red flashlight.Ē

We went around to the other side of the ring of muzzle blasts and explosions that marked the patrol base and then another flight of four ALE Skyraiders came sweeping down and their rockets and bombs lit up a great swath of woods almost in front of us.

We lay prone again, sweating it out.  When the furor of that attack was finished we got up and walked in a crouch along a little sunken path.

Somehow there seemed to be a dead space here.  Firing sparkled in an arc all around us and the little path led into it.  I could see the shape of two helicopters in the clearing when a heavy burst of firing to our rear came.

The Communists had let us get almost to our perimeter, between them and the American defenders, and when we were spotlighted in the open, they fired.  American fire swept back in a furious, demoralizing storm which had a worse effect on me than any fire I ever experienced.

The M-16 makes a flat, vicious line.  There is no arc to the bullet.  It seems impossible for fire to be that flat and make such discordant sounds as it ricochets and kicks up dirt.

If any combat study is made of its effectiveness, I would recommend interviewing any member of the rifle platoon of Troop B, First Squadron Ninth Cavalry, who spent from 3:05 a.m. until 3:20 a.m. Nov. 4 studying it from the receiving end.

We were safe enough from the American fire, actually.  A fold of ground gave us enough cover so that it zipped by a foot over our heads when pressed hard into the ground.  It was simply so flat and deadly, with the flicker of tracers making its intensity so visible, that it was terrifying.

The PAVNs shooting from behind us were joined by a line of automatic weapons shooting from the reverse side of a little slope, then.  I could see their weapons flaring quite easily.  We had no cover from that fire. 

The ricochets and whine of bullets and the dirt scattering on us made me become very detached and able to assess my feelings about all of this.

I noticed that the original PAVN fire had suddenly stopped, either because it had been between down by the American fire or because the men had shifted to the little slope where the present fire came from.

I also carefully counted 18 different firing positions about 100 feet from us, stretching in a line parallel with us.  We couldnít move because of the hail of fire from the perimeter and we seemed doomed to simply stay there while the PAVNs systematically beat out the ground and killed us.

I felt a great, chilling fear at first, I knew this was impossible, really.  I felt that destiny had made an administrative error and that this situation simply could not exist.  Then when I realized that it did exist, I had a bitter, cold fear of dying.

Then I decided I was being made the victim of a brutal situation which I would not tolerate.  I had a snarling surge of anger which dictated that I get up and smash back at the men tormenting me from the dark.

I remember choking out a yell to anyone who could hear me. . . ďletís get up and put some fire on those people!  Letís move! Letís get them!Ē

There is a limit of endurance, and I had reached mine.  I was actually scrambling up when I felt a sharp tug at my equipment and then somebody grabbing my shoulder.  It was the man I had been close to all night.

ďCome on, Charlie! Get down, boy!  You canít make it, get down!  Donít shoot, just sweat it out and weíll make it fine.  If you fire, youíll draw that perimeter into it.  Capt. Oliver can get us in, just settle down,Ē I heard him saying as he kept hold of my shoulder.

I still was ragingly angry but I got down.  I remembered the tug at my belt then and though perhaps I had been hit.  I could not feel anything but later found that a bullet had punched a hole in a leather case I was wearing to carry cigarettes and such items.

My outburst of hysterical anger had missed getting me a bullet in my spine by exactly 1ľ inches, I found out later.

The boy who had kept so cool when I gave way to bad temper suddenly shuddered and seemed to shift his position.  I heard him say something in a choked whisper and he half rolled against me.  We lay there, shoulder to shoulder, and I knew he was dead.

For some reason the Communist fire lifted.

We were only a short crawl from the perimeter then and we made it without another shot being fired, Capt. Oliver taking his life in the one hand which held a red flashlight to identify us to our own gunners.

Three of our group had died.

Columbus Ledger-Enquirer

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