Jan 28, 1966

Ignorance Found Helpful During Meal at Restaurant in Saigon

(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.)

Enquirer Military Writer

The 1st Cavalry Division’s representatives to the Saigon “five o’clock briefing” took only one night away from business after they had given details of the progress of the Plei Me campaign to that date.

The brigade had been continuously in the field for about 30 days when it was relieved on Nov. 9, having left the Binh Khe sweep and clear operation in the hands of Col. William Lynch’s Second Brigade and moved to clearing Mang Yang Pass for a huge convoy of trucks to Pleiku and then on Oct. 19 to the relief of the battered Special Forces Camp at Plei Me.

Y. B. Tang, an ABC cameraman whom I had met many times during operations with the Sky Soldier units, took me to a Chinese restaurant which had just opened.

“Cheap Charlie’s” has always been the most crowded of those establishments in Saigon and Tang told me that “it has become too popular.  Cheap Charlie’s is too crowded now.”

I have never had great success in getting what I order in any restaurant in Viet Nam, including the MACV mess hall in Pleiku, and since Tang spoke Chinese (he is now a citizen of Hong Kong but speaks English with a California accent for some reason) I thought it would be a refreshing experience to know exactly what I was chasing around the plate with chopsticks.

After a lengthy conversation with the proprietor, Tang and Kenneth Wong, another ABC cameraman, told me that everything was understood perfectly.

“We both speak Cantonese, the same dialect as the man who owns the restaurant,” Kenneth told me.

Whereupon a series of mysterious bowls and platters commenced appearing in double quantities, none of which had any resemblance to what Tang had ordered.

I asked Tang about it.

“I think there was a misunderstanding but I suppose it will all work out.  I cannot understand why two of everything which I did not order, however.  That makes it twice as wrong,” he said.
Once more I pincered up elusive particles of enigma and dipped them into whichever little bowl of sauce seemed best to fit the color scheme of the object at hand.

I  pushed aside one bowl of what was obviously duck feet but ate my way halfway through the octopus tentacles under an impression that were tough mushrooms before Tang helpfully told me what they were.

I requested he just let me browse in ignorance for the rest of the dinner.  It was really a very delicious dinner, one of the best I had in the country, and the fact that I didn’t have any idea of what I was eating aided my peace of mind to the point where the double portions were exactly right.

There were many soldiers from the division roaming the stores and restaurants and they kept stopping and talking.  The recreation program had just started then with a complicated point system which singled out men and whisked them off for a few days in Saigon, Thailand, Hong Kong, or later even Japan and other out-of-country points.

At this time it was just working for Saigon, however, and it had its drawbacks.

I found three soldiers whose three days had grown into seven and who were more or less hoboes by now.  They were bunking and eating with a Special Forces detachment and saving the few piastres they had left from the souvenir shops and other ready disposition points for money in Saigon.

“You can’t get a plane back.  You get down here and it seems like the whole place is trying to get back to An Khe!  We’re on the list but it sure is a problem,” one of them told me.

I found that there was a monumental bottleneck where air transportation for the men on leave was concerned.  There weren’t enough Air Force transports being flown to accommodate the sudden influx of American soldiers into the country.

Nobody was able to explain to me why C130s and C123s were parked in long lines on the Tan Son Nhut taxi strips about 100 yards from the place where people were complaining about lack of air transport, but I imagine there was a reason for it all.

The same bottleneck had occurred where mail was concerned and, at one time, it had briefly curtailed the rockets available for aerial artillery firing.

Part of this came because there was an early lack of understanding about the airmobile concept at Task Force Victor, the U.S. Army Corps headquarters located at Nha Trang.

There was an impression in higher echelons there that the 1st Cavalry Division could haul all of its own freight from the sea ports up to the division base and then out of the operations areas.

The 17th Aviation Company had flown its Caribou transports to a Vietnamese record attempting to do just the impossible until the misunderstanding was cleared up and Task Force Victor planners reluctantly laid on necessary air transport to supply the division at its base of operations and allow it to use its own aircraft to “retail” the supplies out to the field.

The air transport bottleneck was on its way to a solution when I left Viet Nam Dec. 17 but there still seemed to be some areas where enlightenment concerning the Army’s newest division was needed.

One full colonel in Saigon told me, at that late date, “. . . well, I guess it works in primitive terrain, it was tailor-made for that but it sure needs testing against conventional problems such as it would meet in Europe before I would buy the idea.”
The entire series of tests conducted at Fort Benning had been designed to test the division against just the problems the colonel in question was worried over and it had never engaged in a single test or maneuver against an “unconventional” problem such as it met in the Central Highlands of South Viet Nam with such historic success.

There had never been any “tailor work” done on the division except to fit it for use as part of an Army corps against a foe with an air force, tanks, mechanized infantry and paratroopers.

Its “test” for the unconventional war which all of the South Carolina and Georgia maneuvers had ignored came in combat in South Viet Nam.


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