Jan 15, 1966

Franco Sketch

Helicopter Night Action Saves Trapped Platoons


(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
The fight which three platoons of riflemen from the First Squadron Ninth Cavalry and two rifle platoons and the weapons platoon from Company A, First Battalion (Airborne) Eighth Cavalry waged against a battalion of regular Communist soldiers for seven hours the night of Nov. 3-4 took place in an area the size of a football field.

The clearing has grass two feet high, a few black rocks, some big anthills where brush and trees grew in clumps, and was surrounded by hardwood, uplands timber.

Very few of the Americans involved had been given a chance to dig in and they fought on top of the ground.  The ferocity of the PAVN fire and attempted assaults had kept the First Air Cavalry Division fighters from getting to the tree line in many places and they fought from the open field.

It was impossible to pull wounded men from the actual firing line.  In the center of the field, Lt. John Tweedy had dug in his mortar platoon and Capt. Thomas Williams, the battalion surgeon, and Sp-5 Jay Hockenbury, his senior medic, had set up shop before the attack started.

The center of the field was exactly where all of the streams of tracers from the PAVN weapons made a fiery cross hatch and impossible to reach.  That point, the furthest from the firing lines, was the very hottest spot of them all, in fact.

Maj. Robert Zion’s command post, actually a defense strongpoint on the southern perimeter, was behind an anthill.

Here the PAVN’s had not been from the trees and they grew fairly thick.  Bark, twigs and branches kept flying as their bullets zipped in from all directions.  A bullet fired at the other end of the fight winged right on through the other side of it, every place along the line, in fact.

All around this circle at about 4 a.m., there came a feeling that the PAVN attack would be pushed home with one last attempt to overwhelm us by sheer mass before dawn.

Everyone felt this way and Maj. Zion had radioed that same feeling to Lt. Col. John Stockton, who was at the battalion base near Duc Co sweating it all out.

“Bullwhip Six,” as the radio call sign for Lt. Col. Stockton had nicknamed him, wasn’t a man to endure things passively.

He had sent Capt. Theodore Danielsen and two platoons from Duc Co in a wild - and absolutely successful - night ride on helicopters into the midst of a fierce fire fight.  It was the first time in world history that anyone had put infantrymen out of helicopters into such an affair.

It had been done with a swashbuckling disregard for certain administrative steps and without military precedence of any kind, but it had been done with technical perfection which was almost unbelievable.

The armed helicopters, for example, had laid down “final suppressive fire” at night, a tricky thing to do in daytime when pilots can see the perimeter they are shooting close to.

The unarmed lift ships had landed without lights and under terrific fire, yet only two had been hit and both these only because they had tarried over-long to attempt to take out casualties.

Capt. Danielsen, one of the finest company commanders I have ever seen work, had taken his men into a fight at night on strange terrain and had organized a bristling fire line which threw back the best PAVN’s had to offer.  The troops he brought were paratroopers, seasoned and tough and aggressive.

The factors involved all had to be bound together with combat luck, of course, and since that quality is also a precious commodity it is no detraction from Bullwhip Six to say he carries it with him.

The men in the clearing that night had about decided the allotment of luck for them had run its course at 4 a.m., however.

Without any orders, they fixed the ugly little bayonets they had carried around on their belts because regulations said they should.  It showed me why the bayonet is kept around, in fact.

It became the grim message from individual soldiers that they were going to fight it out here with no quarter asked or given.

Sgt. Gray and I talked about that later.

“I could see the guys all laying out their stuff.  They put magazines and grenades out, stuck their knives in the ground, and then, without anybody saying anything or any order given, they put those bayonets on their rifles.

“I did.  I just decided they weren’t going to get by me as long as I could pull a trigger or swing a rifle.  I  would have  fought them with my fists.  I had a bellyful of that lying there waiting for them to choose their time.  I wanted them to come on and let’s have it all out right here,” he told me.

He grinned rather sheepishly, then.

“When the sun came up, of course, I was glad they hadn’t tried it.  I don’t know what came over us but it hit us all at the same time.  I don’t believe they had enough out there to have taken us, either,” he said.

The brutal surge of anger which swept around the perimeter at 4 a.m. came from - of all things - a sudden quiet.

The PAVN’s quit firing altogether.  The bullets which beat the ground, fired from trees, and the tracers which had whined in a low scything stream had suddenly quit.  Our fire had tapered and then stopped.

The lull made us very angry.  I believe the feeling was one every man there had.  It was something which seemed to say they were getting together for the big charge and that they were confident they would take us.

It stayed quiet until 4:30 a.m., when there was an extremely violent volley of gunfire from all sides put on us.

The volley kept up for several minutes and was answered with terrific ferocity from the Americans.  It seemed to grow weaker, then it feel off to sporadic bursts from the trees around us.

I hitched myself around the tree I had been behind most of the night and looked to the east and realized that I could see the other end of the field in gray dawn.

Then a huge, crackling series of explosions came.  Sparks and flames shot up, seemingly right in the midst of our circle of  riflemen.

I cowered behind the tree and thought the next explosions surely would come near the helicopters.  I decided to run for the other side of the ant hill which covered my back when I saw the shape of a helicopter swoop in behind the explosions, machine guns firing.

“We’ve got it made!  They’re coming in with a battalion and we’ve got gun ships all over the place!  We’ve got it made,” I heard Maj. Zion shout over the din.

The helicopters hawked back and forth, dodging in and out of trees, shooting rockets, firing machine guns.  I saw Capt. Danielsen leap up from the ground and lift a line of his paratroopers with a wave and send them whooping and firing into the trees.

“Look at that . . . right out of the trees. . . look at that,” Maj. Zion yelled.

I saw three bodies tumble out of trees as rifle and M-60 machine gun slugs ripped at them.

There were more helicopters now, six at a time disgorging fresh infantrymen from Lt. Col. Kenneth Mertel’s Mustang battalion.

The sun was bright.  I saw Capt. Danielsen, cigar, big smile, eyes shining and followed by his tough “Alphagaters” coming in from their slash into the woods.

The fresh companies from his battalion were already ranging out from the perimeter.

I listened.  There was no firing.  There was a lot of excited yelling and talking.  I did my share of it.  There wasn’t a man there who didn’t feel as if he had been born all over again when the sun came up that morning.  I felt 10 feet tall but was surprised to find I wobbled when I walked.

ã Columbus Ledger-Enquirer

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