Jan 24, 1966

North Vietnamese Near Helpless When Cut Off From Food Supply

 

By CHARLES BLACK

Ledger-Enquirer Staff Writer

The little asphalt road which led from Pleiku to the Cateka Tea Plantation where Lt. Col. Harlow Clark’s First Brigade had its headquarters had become one solid line of trucks and jeeps during the afternoon.  Lt. Col. Clark told me he was pulling his men out of the fight.  They had been in the field almost 30 days by now at Binh Khe, the Mang Yang Pass and during the Plei Me campaign.

The trucks were bringing in men and equipment of Col. Thomas Brown’s Third Brigade, an outfit with a penchant for naming its operations to include the word “bayonet.”  I met Col. Brown, in company with Lt. Col. Harold Moore, Lt. Col. Fred Ackerman, Lt. Col. Walter Tully and Lt. Col. James McDade who commanded the three battalions of First Air Cavalry soldiers who would take up the fight.

Lt. Col. Moore’s First Battalion Seventh Cavalry and Lt. Col. McDade’s Second Battalion Seventh Cavalry are units steeped in the old “Gary Owen” spirit of the plains days.  Lt. Col. Ackerman’s outfit, the First Battalion Fifth Cavalry, was one I had been with on a previous operation and Lt. Col. Tully was an old friend from Fort Benning.  I had been up with his unit on the perimeter defense around the An Khe base when that was a hectic undertaking but had not been in the field with it.

The Third Brigade’s operation seemed aimed at the area north of Pleiku, between Pleiku and Kontum, and Lt. Col. John B. Stockton’s hard flying scouts from the First Squadron Ninth Cavalry were already swooping over that terrain in search of targets.

It didn’t work out quite like that, however.  The fights which the Third Brigade found have been entered in Vietnamese history now as the most effective defeats of North Vietnamese Army forces in the course of the war, and they came in the ominously familiar locations of Chu Pong mountain and the Ia Drang River in quick succession.

The original operations plan was aimed at finding and fighting the 32nd PAVN Regiment which had fled the Plei Me area after ambushing a South Vietnamese relief column.  The 66th had been hit by Lt. Col. Stockton’s ambush on the Ia Drang and was know to be lurking around Chu Pong Mountain.

The 101st PAVN Regiment, according to one of the many prisoners questioned in the days past, had been riddled and the remnant of it formed into a “provisional battalion,” an understrength and ruined outfit which would never perform the tasks the Communist strategy in the Central Highlands had envisioned for it.

The bag of prisoners was high and the little North Vietnamese soldiers, some bandaged for wounds, some shivering and weak from beri beri or malaria, all near starvation and with their morale described by Lt. Col. Clark as “rock bottom,” intrigued me.  I kept going over to the compound and watching the interrogation process and listening to the interpreters.

I found that a brownish powder many of them carried in a ration can was a mixture of ground peanuts, soy beans and sesame seeds and that they used a teaspoonful of it to supplement their daily rice ration.  When they ran out of this concentrated food they turned to cornmeal and it is possible to identify men who have just arrived from North Viet Nam by a look at their food supplies.

If North Vietnamese soldiers are placed in a set-piece battle, such as at Plei Me, they turn over the rice they carry tied in a cloth roll to the company cook.  He cooks them a daily ration early in the morning and delivers it to their positions once each day. On the march he takes a carefully measured amount of rice from each man and cooks it while the men carry their own rice bags.

The company cook must know more about the plans and movements of PAVN troops than any other enlisted man and he is always a good source of intelligence when he is captured.  A simply inspection of the rations found on the battlefield again tell the story of the PAVN posture at the time of the fight.  If they were in a prepared ambush site, they will have only cooked rice and will not have their rice bags.  If they were on the march, they carry their rations.

The PAVN battalions are in deep trouble where food is concerned when they are forced into extended operations in the highlands near the Cambodian border, as were these men when pursued by the First Cavalry Division battalions.  There just isn’t sufficient rice grown there by the seminomadic Montagnard tribesmen for the soldiers to survive very long.  Food was an overwhelming problem with them.

Oddly enough, they knew very little about living from the country.  South Vietnamese soldiers can turn up an astonishing amount of edible items on a patrol through the jungles.

The North Vietnamese solider is almost helpless when cut off from his regular food supplies or is forced to exit in an area without villages to supply his wants.  He knows few of the long list of professional attainments in which any American Infantryman who has finished Advanced Infantry Training is skilled.

He does, however, have thorough training in camouflage and concealment - which our men have only sketchy ideas concerning - is silent on the march - our men are prone to have radios turned up high and shout to each other as they walk - and knows how to dig and shoot.  He also is heavily drilled in small unit maneuver.

More, because of a system which has individual soldiers indulge in “self-criticism” before their comrades, a consistent high motivation is apparent when the PAVN is under the discipline of his regular unit in combat.  It falls apart when he is left on his own, but the desire to do well because of the inspection of his actions by his comrades is a powerful factor in the bravery and fanaticism he shows in battle.

© Columbus Ledger-Enquirer

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