(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
At Camp Holloway, Capt. J. D. Coleman, the towering assistant to Maj. Chuck Siler in the 1st Cavalry Division’s Public Information Office, spotted me as I got off a chopper.
It was easy for him to do. He is about six feet six in his stocking feet and his stocking feet were one of the local conversational topics in Viet Nam when I was there.
Capt. Coleman, who also weighs 265 or so, wears an appropriate size boot - 14 1/2 to be exact.
Despite the fact that boots were being sent to the division in adequate numbers to replace the one rotted away by jungle dampness, the U.S. Army logistical system hadn’t properly planned for Capt. Coleman’s arrival. When his boots wore out, there just weren’t any that big in all South Viet Nam.
Correspondents and interested Army friends had prowled every conceivable source of supply in search of boots size 14 1/2. Since the average Vietnamese man wears size 5 1/2 or six there aren’t many substitutes available from the local economy, either.
Capt. Coleman had taped the flapping soles of his last pair of boots to the uppers but the supply of green tape was also running low on my last visit with him.
This time he swaggered up in a pair of jungle boots which looked as if they had been left over from the French adventure in this land. They were brown, had buckles and bright green canvas uppers - and they were big.
“Maj. Siler found them down in Saigon someplace. How do you like them?” Capt. Coleman asked.
He was obviously proud of them and he was also about twice as big as anybody in the group of correspondents who had just alighted, so we all stood around and admired them for him. There was quite a bit to admire and I almost overdid it walking around and studying the green and brown construction projects from various angles.
“They look like alligators, two big, live alligators,” I told him.
He repaid the comment with considerable interest by informing me that my presence was requested as a member of a briefing team which was going to Saigon to tell interested persons - including the press corps - about the Plei Me campaign to that date.
“It is a little unusual for a reporter to be put on assignment as part of a briefing team, but you’re invited on the official roster. I hope that Saigon press corps goes after you, too,” Capt. Coleman told me kindly.
I accepted the invitation, since it was delivered by him, as a vast education to me. I had not realized until this time how many journalists are actually in South Viet Nam.
The little club of men who showed up out in the wilderness - men such as Horst Faas and Peter Arnett of Associated Press and others whom I have named, as well as some whom I haven’t - are only a representative fraction of those who seldom venture there.
Lt. Col. Harlowe Clark, commander of the First Brigade, his battalion commanders and their executive officers and myself got there on a Caribou piloted by Capt. James Lybrand and CWO Bill Combs with a representative display of captured weapons between our feet.
We were picked up at Tan Son Nhut air terminal and taken to one of the guarded “R and R” (rest and recreation) hotels, the Myerkord, where we left our gear and then went almost directly to the famous “five o’clock briefing.”
There was one other stop during which public information officers explained the ground rules of these affairs. They mainly concerned time and not losing one’s temper, as I remember. Be brief and be sweet seemed to be the idea of it all. The officer who gave the lecture seemed embarrassed to be telling a correspondent how to deal with correspondents.
The briefing takes place in an auditorium in the U.S. Information Service Lincoln Memorial Library. Marine guards check the correspondents in, studying their credentials with the care Marine guards always use whether they know you or not. There were almost 300 men and women in the rows of seats by 5 p.m. with some standing up in the back.
An Air Force officer came down the aisle handing out mimeographed sheets of paper. The ink was very blurred on mine. A lieutenant colonel stood up on the stage and pointed to numbers on a big map and read the items on the mimeographed paper. He only missed pointing to the correctly numbered spot twice, which was fairly impressive to me.
There was a long list of Air Force sorties, numbers of bombs dropped, and estimates of damage done from these bombs. Many of those reports said things such as “45 VC structures destroyed and 38 damaged.”
I remembered the bamboo camps I had helped touch off with cigarette lighters and wanted to ask if the VC structures were different than those, but since I was on the briefing team I felt it wouldn’t be fair play to join the other team.
A report had come in during the day that 27 South Vietnamese men and women had been slaughtered by Viet Cong in a raid on a Buddhist pagoda southwest of Saigon because the peasants had been working on a government canal which would help local sanitation, aid local farmers and provide transportation for them. This one went by with only cursory questions.
A report that a bonze in a temple near Da Nang had threatened to burn himself in order to protest a “desecration” of a pagoda there drew instant fire from some reporter in a front seat, however.
It seemed that an elderly man in the area had said that he “thought” he had seen a U.S. Marine leave the pagoda in the early morning and the protest from the Buddhist elders had been stringent and apparently addressed to all comers. The reporter seemed quite incensed over this occurrence.
I became fairly upset myself when I found that somebody had promised the U.S. would build a new pagoda for them - whether an American was at fault or not, apparently.
I went so far as to ask whether the slaughter of innocent peasants by the VC in the other pagoda was also an act of desecration. So far as the information available indicated it wasn’t.
The damage to the pagoda near Da Nang had been mainly confined to some scrawls on the wall, soiling of the floor and a statue of Buddha knocked over, I was told.
I asked if a good scrubbing and a touch of repair wouldn’t suffice - most of the pagodas I’ve seen could stand both, anyway - but the reporter in the front row had the full attention of the briefing officers and my questions got lost in the shuffle.
The wrangling over the desecrated pagoda went on and on until some reporter with a heavy German accent suddenly burst in and asked if it were true that “the Buddhists in the Da Nang area have launched a submarine fleet to attack the Seventh Fleet in protest” and somebody else asked if the “the Rhade (a rebellious Montagnard tribe) had protested yet, since everybody else seems to have something to say on this.” With this the subject was closed. (I believe the last questions had humorous intent but one is never sure at these briefings.)
Nobody ever printed a story on it that I saw, come to think of it, it just took 45 minutes to get it over with and the entire episode seemed peculiarly typical of things in Saigon.
The briefing officer then underwent some very searching questions on another item from Joe Freed, the New York Daily News reporter who has become a legend in Saigon because he has never left it in his three years in South Viet Nam except under extreme circumstances.
(Once an airplane he was returning to South Viet Nam aboard after a vacation was forced to land at Bien Hoa, about 16 miles away, for example.)
Freed has become very expert at grilling suspects as they climb on the stage at the briefings. He was quite relentless in his pursuit of some nugget of fact on this particular afternoon - I can’t remember exactly what it was he wanted to know about but I will always remember the tremendous effort of his search for it at the five o’clock briefing.
Lt. Col. Clark took his turn on the stage then and I performed my personal mission for him. I was supposed to keep track of how many times he slipped up and used a swear word. Infantrymen in the boondocks occasionally indulge in mild expletives and they may lapse into them on public occasions when suddenly jerked back into civilized surroundings.
He did nobly both on that chore and in his critique of what his brigade had done.
The greatest compliment which could be paid him in fact come from a reporter near me who apparently lived from one five o’clock briefing to the next and considered himself an aficionado.
“Now I believe that man. He is giving straight information,” the reporter told me. “I think the First Air Cavalry Division is really accomplishing something up in the highlands.”
None of the rest of us were called to enlarge on any of the points Lt. Col. Clark had made so apparently the rest of the press corps also was impressed, or possibly simply enervated.
I saw some of my correspondent friends from the boondocks as we left and I stopped and whispered to one of them that I was surprised how many reporters there were in Viet Nam.
“There are a lot of people, not a lot of reporters,” he whispered back to me.
© Columbus Ledger-Enquirer
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