By CHARLES BLACK
Ledger-Enquirer Staff Writer
Catecka tea plantation with its geometrical files of tea bushes, shaded lanes and general air of civilization and detachment from the war has one corner completely dedicated to the conflict.
Lt. Col. Harlow Clark, First Brigade Commander, had been running field operations for more than 21 days when I saw him and he was still full of energy.
I found that he was out in his command helicopter “tearing the tops off of trees” and as close as he could get to the scene of the latest action over where Lt. Col. James Nix’s second Battalion (Airborne), Eighth Cavalry, was mopping up the remnants of a battalion of North Vietnamese soldiers.
In front of the building which he had taken over beside the airstrip to house his headquarters, there was a big, roped-off area filled with hundreds of captured weapons and equipment. I found that there had been a steady stream of VIP visitors to this headquarters, and if they weren’t impressed by the equipment which the paratroopers had captured, I certainly was.
In one small area there were five big .50 calibre machine guns, four 75 mm. recoilless rifles, and at least 100 light machine guns and other automatic and crew-served weapons, including 82 mm. mortars and .37 mm. rocket launchers. Many of them bore the scars of bullets, attesting to the method by which they had come into American possession.
Capt. Ronald Summers, the assistant intelligence officer for the brigade, showed me a tally of what the brigade had accomplished thus far in its relentless pursuit of the 101st and 66th PAVN regiments, who had attacked Plei Me Special Forces camp and set all of the past events into action.
The paratrooper battalions had killed 216 by body count with an estimated 610 other Communist soldiers listed as dead. They had captured 117 prisoners, including two North Vietnamese officers. They estimated the PAVN regiments had 780 wounded.
Some more figures came from the First Squadron, Ninth Cavalry’s fight on the Tae River where there were 57 PAVN’s captured (including 35 wounded) and 78 bodies counted with 57 more estimated as being killed and 59 more wounded. The ambush on Ia Drang River by the Cavalrymen had killed 147 PAVNs and the defense at the patrol base camp during the night had killed 78 more.
The loss of equipment by the Communists was crippling and the weapons captured ranged from pistols to 12.7 mm. machine guns (four of these).
Capt. Summers told me that the First Brigade’s operation from Oct. 26 until Nov. 9 had captured more North Vietnamese prisoners than any previous operation in this war’s history and that “the PAVN morale is low, very low.”
The prisoners were kept for initial questioning in an area across the road from brigade headquarters and I heard that there were six who had just been brought in. I walked over there with Capt. Summers.
The prisoners were huddled in ponchos - it had started raining - and there were two concertina wire circles. One man squatted by himself, watching the constant stream of helicopters landing and taking off with intent interest. Five others were together in the other enclosure, two of them eating cans of C-rations.
“That one is a lieutenant. He flagged down a helicopter and came in with two of these others. He said that he had become discouraged, that he was hungry, and that he did not know he had come to South Viet Nam to kill Vietnamese. He is a Communist, however, and he doesn’t like Americans. But everything we’ve asked him he has talked about,” Capt. Summers said.
One of the guards, Sgt. Ralph Robertson, waved to me and indicated a smiling little Vietnamese sitting near the gate.
“This one here is a character. We figured that these Communists wouldn’t sing for anything. Listen to this,” he said.
He waved to the little North Vietnamese private and said, “Jingle Bells!”
The boy - he looked 17 or less - smiled happily and sang a very minor key version of “Jingle Bells.” He then patted his stomach and told the interpreter something.
“He says he is too full to sing very well now, that he has just eaten and doesn’t sing well then, but that he will sing you a Vietnamese song if you don’t mind,” Sgt. Van Thanh, the interpreter, told us.
He sang a quavering and oddly beautiful melody then and despite the strangeness of the words and the tune, we listened and nobody talked until he had finished.
“It is a very sad song. It is a song about a young man who has gone very far from his home and never expects to see his family again. I think he is very said that he came here and is singing about that,” Sgt. Van Thanh said.
A little later the prisoners were put on trucks and sent to Pleiku where the Vietnamese army took them over. The lieutenant and the young singer and another officer later were interviewed by newsmen and told how they had walked through Laos and Cambodia to come to South Viet Nam.
The journey had taken them 57 days and one of every four of their comrades had been stricken by malaria or other illness. They were hungry and weary when they reached South Viet Nam. They met a force which they had expected to overcome easily but which defeated them.
“Ambushes on the trails, bombs, helicopters shooting, artillery shells, that little black gun (M-16 rifle) are too much. The bombs and the helicopters and the artillery and that little black gun are too much to fight,” one said.
© Columbus Ledger-Enquirer
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