Jan 14, 1966

Franco Sketch

Surprised Reporter Finds Self at Command Post


(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.)

By CHARLES BLACK

Enquirer Military Writer

Memory of a night such as the one on the Ia Drang river Nov. 3-4 is always a tricky thing.

In reconstructing what the platoon led by Capt. John Oliver of Troop B, First Squadron 9th Cavalry, did during the night, a lot of little things seem out of focus and out of chronology.

I remember once somebody whispering to me:

“Hey, how would you like to be back in Columbus having a family argument with your wife or paying off a traffic ticket?”

I can’t remember if it happened when we were crawling into the perimeter or after we got there, but I remember everybody being immoderately tickled by it and how it made the next five minutes easier to take.

The same is true of more crucial events, too.

We may have taken our three fatal casualties after we had gotten to the perimeter and gone into that fight rather than when we were trying to get into the perimeter around the patrol base, for example.

There was no real line of demarcation when we could say that we were under fire coming home and that we were under fire when we got there.

The fire fight was raging full blast all around the little field where Maj. Bob Zion had gathered the three platoons of Cavalry riflemen and had been reinforced by a night landing of two platoons from Company A, First Battalion (Airborne) Eight Cavalry.

Somebody got me by the wrist as I crawled along in the grass and whispered “. . .come on, come with me.”

I followed, my head and face pressed into the grass, moving by pulling myself with knees and elbows and wriggling.  The figure put a hand back and said “. . .wait here.”

There were two of us there, lying side by side, listening to the whine and crack of bullets and the din of explosions.  We lay there for what seemed an hour and I finally inched closer to the other man.

“Where is the captain?”

“Which captain are you talking about?” he asked.

“Which captain?  The only one we have, Capt. Oliver!  Where is he?”

“He is back there on the perimeter where you just came from.  You’re at the command post,” he whispered.

I sat up and stared around me in one of the most insane moments of relief I have ever suffered and immediately was notified that, command post or not, it wasn’t a place to sit up and breathe joyous sighs.  Bullets were cutting brush, knocking bark off of trees and making a spider web of tracers at exactly eye level and I gave a horrified moan and flopped back down again.

“This is the command post.”

“Yeah.  You got any ammunition?  We are holding this part of the perimeter.  They ran us around the anthill and they keep trying to assault from that direction.  We’re going to be short of ammunition before long,” he told me.

By this time I had noticed that he was wearing a warrant officer insignia and wings.  I saw it was CWO John Goldenstein and kept wondering what in the world he was doing here.  I asked him.

“That’s my bird we’re using for sandbags over there.  They put two rounds into it while we were loading casualties and it’s broke.  The other one over there got hit about 25 feet up and came down and bounced.  One .50 slug right into the turbine.  Nobody hurt, but man, they sure don’t teach this kind of stuff at flight school in Fort Rucker!”

I found that the warrant officers and crew chiefs had been taken right into the ranks and were operating machine guns and rifles.  One pilot had crawled over to the perimeter to try to help pull back wounded and had been pinned down and simply enlisted himself in the platoon.  He fought there until the next morning.

I could hear Maj. Zion on the radio.

“I believe they will make their final assault on us about 5 a.m.  We’re still here but I can only promise you one thing, they’ll fight for every damned inch they get!  Over.”

I heard some racket on the speaker and then heard Maj. Zion again.

“Situation report?  Don’t know.  My situation is that I’ve got my head under this log and somebody is shooting bullets into the other side of it.  Soon as they give me a chance, I’ll look around.  Over.”

We had been hearing mortar rounds landing in a senseless pattern, walking along the woods several hundred yards from us, then a barrage of three which landed almost where the PAVN positions were, as if the men shooting were going by guess.

There were Four Sky Raiders just coming in and the little L-19 observation plane used by the Air Force officers who have been with the division since it formed was buzzing around to our north.

There were three horribly close explosions in the center of the little clearing where we were cornered.  They were triple cracks of dooms so far as I was concerned.

I knew we couldn’t stand being mortared and hold off an assault by many times our number at the same time.  I heard the Sky Raiders roaring down and the whoosh of rockets.

“They got the mortars, boys, they got the mortars!” Maj. Zion suddenly shouted.

I found later that Capt. John Hudson of Lt. Col. Harold Stoner’s “poor man’s Air Force” which walks and lives with the 1st Cavalry Divisions, had spotted the flash of the mortar battery as it attempted to pinpoint us.

“That was the easiest perimeter to define I ever saw.  I just had to look down and where all the tracers crossed, that was where you guys were located.

“I’ve never seen fire like that.  One little circle of solid gunfire criss-crossed by all those tracers coming in at you!  Then I saw those mortars bursting in the trees and just when those went off down among the choppers that were down I spotted the battery.

“Those A1E lads hit it with rockets and napalm.  There just wasn’t any more mortar fire after that,” Capt. Hudson told me.

ã Columbus Ledger-Enquirer

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