Jan 18, 1966

Airstrip Makes Tea Plantation Almost Indispensable as Base

(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

Catecka tea plantation was worrying Lt. Col. Harlowe Clark, the 1st Brigade commander during the 1st Cavalry Division’s initial pursuit of the North Vietnamese regiments which had struck the Special Forces camp at Plei Me.

“We’ve been here quite a while,” I heard him tell his staff at headquarters.  “I know they have us taped out and I don’t like the idea of staying in one place this long.  I want everybody to have a hole and to be ready for anything.”

The tea plantation boasted its own airstrip, and this had made it almost indispensable as a forward base.  Big C130 transport planes - Georgia products from Lockheed, one Air Force pilot pointed out - were landing with huge loads of fuel and supplies from Pleiku or even from Saigon.  Caribous hopped in and out at all hours and helicopters were constantly landing and leaving.

The big CH47 Chinooks by this time had achieved a fantastic reputation as cargo haulers and artillery movers.

Battalion Commander

Lt. Col. Joe Bush, the paratrooper who commands the 1st Battalion (Airborne), 19th Artillery, had moved his outfit 39 times by Chinook since the operation had started.  He wore a gruesome-looking little doll, a miniature witch doctor, in his helmet and a vast air of properly earned pride when he talked about his cannon soldiers.

“We have been jumping those 105 howitzers around like checkers!” Bush said.  “We’ve put batteries into some of the wildest country you’ve ever seen.  You couldn’t have pulled in there in a truck in less than a month with a battalion of engineers, and we’ve put a battalion of artillery in there in minutes and started shooting for the infantry.  I’ve never seen artillerymen work harder and accomplish more.”

Sees Acquaintances

I saw a group of old acquaintances digging in to guard the headquarters airstrip as I went out to find a helicopter ride to Lt. Col. James Nix’s battalion headquarters.  They were from Company A, 1st Battalion (Airborne), 12th Cavalry, commanded by Lt. Col. Robert Shoemaker, and I had left them clearing out a booby-trapped village called Le Than just a few days ago.

I stopped and picked up some names and met their interpreter, who had done a fine job in getting local people to clear a way for the company.  He was Sgt. Tran Van Trach of the Army of Viet Nam.  His companions included:

Sp-5 Jasper Passacacqua, Sp-4 Anthony DeMayo, Lt. Larry K. Hunter, PFC Kirk W. Knight, Sp-4 Jerry T. Seirgne, PFC Vincent Arroyo, Sp-5 Billy W. Slott, Sgt. Jose E. Davila, Sp-4 David S. Mitchell, PFC Roger Wirdling, S-Sgt. Kenneth L. Watson, P-Sgt. Wesley E. Frazier and Sp-4 Thomas A. Charo, Jr.

“There are a couple of newspapermen down the line there who were looking for you,” Hunter told me.   “One of them had a goatee.”

Robin Mannick of the Associated Press is always easy to remember - there are few burly Englishmen with red goatees in South Viet Nam.  He was with Joe Galloway of United Press International, and both were on the same mission I was, hunting a ride to the scene of the 2nd Battalion (Airborne), 8th Cavalry fight.

Go Beyond Jobs

Mannick and Gallaway are two correspondents in South Viet Nam who go quite a bit further than simply doing their jobs.  Both have been along with the infantry in the middle of fights and have written fine accounts of what they saw.  They are good companions and I was glad to see them. 

I was particularly glad to see them at this time because I had made a personal vow the night before this that I would never again willingly sleep more than one jump from a hole in the boondocks of Viet Nam, and I always believed that three men could dig a deeper and more elaborate hole than one.

We caught a ride out to Landing Zone Falcon on a Jack Cranford’s 227th Assault Helicopter Battalion and landed right in the middle of some of Bush’s artillerymen.

One tube was apparently just waiting for the chopper to get out of the way, because it scared me to death, firing just as I jumped out and causing my already fairly tight nerves to send me in an arching dive for the nearest cover.

I got up, feeling embarrassed, to meet the bemused stare of Mannick.

“I would say that you are quite springy today,” he said.

Gallaway, athletic and youthful, remarked about the remarkable agility of “some old men he knew” and helped collect my scattered gear and offered an elbow to escort me on across the field.

I remembered all of that later and pleaded a lame shoulder when it came time to dig the fairly extensive excavation we decided on when we found it was impossible to get the last 2,000 meters to the scene of the fighting.

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