Jan 19, 1966

Franco Sketch

Battle Turns Into Close-Quarters Rifle Duel

(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
Lt. Col. James Nix, commander of the 2nd Battalion (Airborne), 8th Cavalry, was just in from the scene of the fighting.  His radioman took a nap and I offered to stand “radio watch” for him if he would tell me what was going on.

Nix is one of my favorite acquaintances.  In fact, Mrs. Nix had sent me a book of air mail stamps when she read something about my difficulties in obtaining those civilian necessities in a military world blessed with free mail.

As always, his equanimity, which was typical of these professional commanders at moments of great stress, was the first thing which impressed me.  He was very cool and composed as we talked.

He said that his Bravo Company had come through a field about a mile from our seat in the woods by the clearing called “Falcon LZ” and had run into some pongee sticks.

“They had three casualties,” he said.  “The sticks were set in the grass and were old ones.

“They decided to carry the casualties to a small clearing near a creek right there,” he said, indicating a spot just north of us.

One platoon jumped “six or seven PAVNs” as it entered the field and gave chase, killing two of the retreating North Vietnamese.  When the Americans were well into the field a solid burst of automatic weapons fire struck them from a line of brush along the creek.

“Another platoon assaulted and put fire on the PAVNs and the boys got their casualties back to a gully and it turned into a close-quarters rifle duel,” Nix said.  “I tried to get them to pull back and let the artillery handle it but they were too damned aggressive!  I’m getting such heavy casualties because they are so aggressive.  They want to get in there and fight it out with their rifles.”

Charlie Company had flanked the PAVN position then and had hooked back, overrunning a section of woods between two Communist companies, and then had been engaged in a 360-degree fire fight.

“They are fighting hard in there,” Nix said.  “They hit right into a battalion position and were right in the middle of it before they stopped their assault.  It is all mixed up in there and it is hard to get the air in because they are fighting so close.

“I’ve got a battalion of artillery, mortars, and a good reserve force, and we will have an LZ open before long,” he continued.  “I don’t think the PAVNs will be able to break the contact and run as close as this fight is.”

The 105mm howitzers in the field were keeping up a steady bombardment, making conversation very difficult.  Word came from the 15th Medical Evacuation Company that the med’ evac’ choppers couldn’t get into the area because of ground fire.  Some of the lift ships from the 227th had managed to go in and take out the more serious casualties, however.

Early Acquaintance

The lift ship pilots have an early acquaintance with the landing zones involved and often remember a bit of terrain or other local information which enables them to get into a tight position.

The evacuation pilots have had a constant problem with the terrific pressure put on them to come into a fight in a strange area to pull out wounded balanced against the possibility having a helicopter shot down by taking too great a risk.  A helicopter downed early in a fight may mean a real hitch in evacuating the wounded later in the game.

Because of these pressures and because the regular transport helicopter pilots are more used to the landing zones and conditions involved, there have been some on-the-scene changes made in the evacuation system.  Often the lift ships pull wounded back to a “secure” field and the regular evacuation ships shuttle them from there to field hospitals.

Problems Studied

The problems involved in the entire evacuation process, according to officers I have asked about it, are being studied in order to improve the system.  Troops committed to an isolated area by helicopter can’t be expected to evacuate their wounded by walking - there just isn’t any place to walk to in most instances.

One possibility of improving the evacuation techniques, an officer told me, is to have the medical evacuation ships go in with the initial landing so the pilots will have knowledge of terrain surrounding it.  That knowledge, as mentioned earlier, often has allowed the regular lift ship pilots to go into areas where the evacuation ships weren’t committed.

Another recommendation has been to simply to do away with medical evacuation as a special mission and make the evacuation mission part of the regular assault helicopter responsibility.

In practically all instances, the regular transport helicopters have been the ones I have seen come into a landing zone under fire in order to take out American wounded, and they have done the job in some very strenuous situations.

The lift ships were flying from the tea plantation at the time and carrying loads both ways, so there wasn’t any sense in going back there.

Robin Mannick (an Englishman) of the Associated Press went out with two of the medical evacuation ships and each time the craft returned without landing, so it looked as if we would spend the night here at the artillery location.

Known to Enemy

The final word just at dusk made that a bit exciting, of course.  We were far out in the brush and close to a major fight, and the helicopter traffic and artillery noise made it a certainty that the location was known to the enemy.

“A chopper from the 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry, said there were 100 PAVNs heading down the creek, apparently trying to withdraw from the fight area,” Nix said.  “They are getting a licking from our riflemen now.  He said it looked as if they would try to break the contact and retreat south, which puts us right in their way.”

The hole we had dug received a few more improvements just before dusk when I relayed the information to Joe Gallaway of United Press International and Mannick, the journalist team in Nix’s perimeter.  Gallaway and I decided, in fact, to stand watch, one spelling the other.

Mannick, with a certain English dignity, announced that he intended to “pay as little attention as possible to the entire thing” and slung a hammock between two trees.

He joined Gallaway and me for an extended conversation, all seated comfortably in our hole, at about midnight when a spate of firing broke out.  Otherwise it was a very quite night.

© Columbus Ledger-Enquirer

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