Jan 29, 1966

Caribou Porthole Reveals Terrain Is a Hodgepodge

(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 trip back from the Saigon adventure was accomplished in two short bounces.

The first landed me at the now-bustling An Khe Army Airfield after another Caribou tour of the country between Tan Son Nhut air terminal and the 1st Cavalry Division’s home in the mountains.

The view from a Caribou porthole is worth reviewing because it emphasizes the problems which come up in the face of any really simple tactical ideas about South Vietnamese fighting - the ones which are typified by suggestions of  “. . . and then marching from the south end right on up to the north end and. . .” or “. . . just seal off the borders and the sea coast and. . .”

First, it is well over 300 miles as a Caribou flies just from Saigon to An Khe.  The country has about 69,000 square miles (give or take a few rice paddies, mountains and an odd jungle or two) which makes it 12 per cent larger than Georgia.

I lost count but somebody has figured out there are 750 miles of border to contend with as well as about 2,200 miles of coastline and not even the mapmakers know how many river mouths, deltas, inlets and other geographical oddities.

Mountains, jungles, rivers, valleys turned into man-made flood zones by rice paddies, canals, hamlets and village systems, tunnels, holes.  I have heard the country described in its entirety by a weary Special Forces officer as “. . . the world’s biggest single ambush site.”

You can appreciate this flying over it.  It’s worse walking!

Simplified tactics of the kind which would put a line across this military mess - and we did do such as that in Korea in a similar country - are further complicated by the problem of being selective concerning who we shoot.

The surest road to a simple solution, of course, is an intelligence system which could locate and identify the VC and signal their plans.  Establishing such an intelligence system would be one of the most complicated and diplomatically touchy problems imaginable, however.

It would be very hard, for instance, to set up our own complete espionage system in South Viet Nam and have it fully appreciated by the South Vietnamese authorities who are in charge of the country.

Yet, without such a system we are sometimes operating in fruitless and frustrating circumstances.
I bounced right out of An Khe across the 65 kilometers of mountains and open plateau country to Pleiku because Lt. Col. Raymond L. Kampe, the division supply officer, Maj. John R. Jones, Maj. Jimmie M. Chaffin, Maj. Floyd Eberhard, Maj. Alfred E. Brodeur, First Sgt. Edgar Ross and M-Sgt. Joseph Marazio - all of the G-4 shop - offered me a cup of coffee at their office up on the hill where division headquarters is located.

I rode over with them in a muddy group of jeeps, trucks and walking soldiers plodding along the knee-deep perimeter road (all were plodding, vehicles and pedestrians, because it had been raining for 10 days and the road surface showed it) and somebody told me Col. Thomas Brown’s Third Brigade had a fight going.

The scene of the fight was Chu Pong Mountain, the 2,500 foot high peak south of the Ia Drang and which straddled the Cambodian - South Vietnamese border.

Lt. Col. Hal Moore’s First Battalion Seventh Cavalry had been heavily engaged when they landed on the rolling ground at the foot of the mountain in a clearing called “Landing Zone X-Ray.”

I talked to PFC Michael Richardson, PFC Ronald Gilham and Sp4 Ernest Salyers in the G-4 office and they let me have a ride with them back to the airstrip.

When I got to Pleiku, via a 17th Aviation Company Caribou again, I found that there just wasn’t any chance of getting to the LZ X-Ray that night.

(Joe Galloway of UPI had managed to get there on a resupply helicopter about 8 p.m. and wrote some vivid stories about the first fierce fight.  Galloway, a young and sturdy reporter who can walk and knows how to live in the brush, had done similar on-the-scene reporting of U.S. Marine operations.

He is sometimes inflicted with over-eager desk men who add imaginative phrases and insert gratuitous paragraphs.  This is a problem faced by almost all of the correspondents of major news media who are battling deadlines and competition but still endeavoring to do good reporting.

Men in Saigon or New York offices sometimes just can’t understand why the man on the scene doesn’t know as much as they do about what is going on and correct him accordingly.)

I finally gave up trying to get out to Chu Pong Mountain that night, made arrangements to go with Capt. George Forrest’s Company A, First Battalion Fifth Cavalry which was being sent to the scene early in the morning, and accepted an invitation from Capt. Paul Leckinger, adviser to the 22nd Vietnamese Ranger Battalion, to an empty cot over at the MAACV compound.

I was glad to see Capt. Leckinger.  I had met him first in the Mang Yang Pass and he had been one of the men who was involved in the initial relief of the Plei Me Special Forces camp.

“You’re in time for a reunion.  Your old buddy Capt. John Averra was the artillery liaison officer with us that day.  He is here and we’re all getting together,” he said.

Capt. Averra was from the Second Battalion 12th Cavalry and I wanted to see him.
He had been having a tough war.


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