(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
Time moved like a speeded-up movie film during the kind of events which took place in the area of South Viet Nam where B and C Companies of 2nd Bn. (Airborne), 8th Cavalry were fighting.
Somehow a lot of people had arrived on the landing zone and had moved into the cover of trees around the field.
Lt. Col. James Nix had come in very early, for example. I heard of his presence in a manner which seemed perfectly ordinary at the time but which is rather fantastic now that I think of it.
A radio message came in from someplace and I heard it on the speaker on the PRC25 located in the brush below me. I was lying on my stomach with the reconnaissance platoon riflemen who were firing over the top of a steep bank in reply to a spate of sniper bullets from the trees.
The gist of the message was that Nix, the battalion commander, had captured a North Vietnamese prisoner and a machine gun.
When it came to my rather belated attention that a battalion commander tied in that personally to a fight isn’t quite the ordinary event of the day, the firing had died again and my recon friends were pushing on out into the brush on a sweep to clear the area of any further resistance.
I saw some men around a small, frightened North Vietnamese soldier wearing his long-sleeved gray khaki shirt and sandals cut out of truck tire rubber. He was tied to a tree and a big, sweating sergeant was looking at him as if he couldn’t believe a man that small could be so much trouble in a fight.
“That’s the colonel’s man,” he told me.
S-Sgt. Richard Jones told me Nix had prowled along the creek bank and “saw a light machine gun. When he pulled the brush back and took another look, that North Vietnamese soldier was on the other end of it!”
Nix, who came along then, joked about it.
“I saw this little guy with the big machine gun,” he said. “I grabbed for my .45 and the holster flap stuck. All I could think of to do was to throw up my hand and holler ‘HALT!’ just as loud as I could.
“He threw up his hand, just like I did, and hollered ‘HALT!’ right back and handed me the machine gun,” he grinned. “To tell you the truth, I wasn’t certain who had captured who for a second there.”
Maj. Anthony Carroll, who had brought me into the area, suddenly showed up on a wave of rotor noise, and the sniper fire in the woods became lively. Everybody scattered and hit cover again. Somebody was on the radio telling Carroll “there’s fire down here! Pull off, they’re firing on the LZ.”
The little OH13 didn’t swerve. It dived into a landing and Carroll got out and dashed across the field, grinning.
“No sense in giving them a second shot at me,” he said. “I was already here. Why turn around and go back and do it all over again?”
We crouched in some brush and listened to the firing and then my friend from the recon’ platoon opened up and there was a sudden silence. The radio brought word of the fate of three PAVNs.
“Five of them tried to get away,” the speaker said. “We got them in that little clearing where they hit us yesterday. Three of them down. We’re going on after them and sweep out along that creek.”
Carroll and I skirted around the landing zone, keeping in the brush because the sniper fire was still coming from other directions, and walked along a little trail littered with equipment and beaten down by the passage of troops.
We passed eight American bodies in a little opening in the woods, big men lying quietly with grim-faced boys arranging ponchos so they could carry them to the helicopter landing zone. They were in a little circle, the ground around them littered with empty shells from the M-16s.
“The others pulled back to that creek and fought,” a grimy-faced PFC said. “There were just three guys shooting in here when the PAVNs finally broke off their attack. Just three guys and they ran off what must have been a company.”
The creek was only 10 yards from the bodies of the GIs, and it also was littered with empty brass. There were two more American bodies there, covered with ponchos.
In a circle around the little field, I counted 47 PAVN bodies without walking from the American firing position. They were crumpled in twos and threes, some in the open, some in tall grass. All had good camouflage, a little bamboo frame tied to their back filled with twigs which made them hard to see in the wooded battle zone.
“There’s another hundred of them scattered between here and Charlie Company,” the PFC said. “Charlie Company is off to the right about 200 meters, but it ain’t healthy to walk over there just yet. They’re still mopping up.”
I hate the scene of a fight the day after it is over, and this one suddenly crashed in on me hard. There is a smell of smoke, burned gasoline and death, and it seems as if the ground has been torn up and dirtied. I walked away without going in any further and traced out the line of PAVN holes and fighting positions along another creek.
The positions formed a big triangle. There seemed to be a concentration of about a company at each point of the triangle, with individual fighting holes dug in along between these strong points. However a unit approached the position, it had the advantage of concealment and local terrain, and if an assault smashed through the thin fighting line it was caught between at least two of the heavily dug-in perimeter defense setups.
There can’t be any higher praise of Nix’s outfit than to say that Bravo and Charlie Companies assaulted those positions, fought off the counterattacks, and forced a dug-in battalion with good weapons and every advantage of terrain to run away and face the artillery and air bombardment which surrounded the entire area.
The creek bank was littered with packs and equipment. The PAVNs had left their good rucksacks, better and handier than American carrying equipment, filled with new clothing and gear. Their food was abandoned. Weapons were thrown away and made a big pile now as the U.S. paratroopers kept carrying them in. Prisoners were hustled in from the woods, some wounded and some just ready to quit.
It was a mopping-up operation at this point. The shooting was all over and I was glad when Carroll asked me if I wanted to ride back to Lt. Col. Harlowe Clark’s 1st Brigade headquarters at the Catecka tea plantation.
© Columbus Ledger-Enquirer
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