Jan 30, 1966
Ambush is Jittery Chore
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
The event which started the entire
campaign against the north Vietnamese division which had been
infiltrated into the central highlands was a nine day siege of the
Special Forces camp at Plei Me, about 20 miles southwest of Pleiku.
The immediate battle at the camp had ended (except for a single
raid-style attack which brought the First Air Cavalry Division into the
field on Oct. 19) when a South Vietnamese Army task force and its
American advisers had gone to its relief from Pleiku.
A helicopter assault had put additional troops into the compound itself
and attacks by the 21st and 22nd Ranger Battalions with support from
First Air Cavalry Artillery - plus a fast moving squadron of tanks and
armored personnel carriers commended by Lt. Col. Nguyen Luot - had
forced the PAVN’s to retreat from the Plei Me siege.
I went over with Capt. Paul Leckinger, adviser to the 21st Rangers, to
a small gathering of Americans who had been with the Vietnamese during
the hectic relief. They were quietly enjoying the sensation of
being healthy and all together in one of the rooms at the MACV compound
at II Corps Headquarters in Pleiku.
I have a roster - an incomplete one where first names are concerned
because people kept coming in and out - of the guest list that night.
It included Sgt. Charles Hestesol, Sgt. Jerry Williams and Capt. John
Averra (a First Air Cavalry artillery liaison officer), Sgt. Jackson,
Lt. Stuart Shermond (both of the 21st Rangers), Capt. Jack Woodruff,
Lt. Ed Brady, Sgt. Thomas Rundall, (of the 22nd Rangers) and Lt. Brady
Thompson, an armored officer of great repute from this action.
The gathering was the kind which is best understood by men who have
been through a tough fight together. There is a brotherhood
forged here, a comradeship which draws men into a tightly knit family.
The family talk doesn’t really get through to those outside of the
family. It is made up of sudden references to incidents of which
the outsider has no knowledge, but which are common experiences to the
The conversations I can remember between this brotherhood were of this
Sgt. Williams was in the third armored personnel carrier in the column
which had forged out on the road south of Plei Me in search of a PAVN
ambush. Everyone connected with the relief knew the ambush was
certain to be waiting. He came closest to giving a detailed
account of what had happened.
The company of tanks, company of APC’s and a company from the 21st
Rangers had barrelled down the road with the armor up front and moving
fast, he told me.
“There was a Montagnard village on the right. All the people had
left it. We knew damned well something was right down the road
someplace. It was just like Duc Co, just exactly like it. . .
they hit, we had to relieve.
They knew we were coming, we knew they were waiting,” Sgt. Williams
He told me how Lt. Thompson had been “. . .cool! A brave
man. He grabbed hold of a jittery Vietnamese officer, talked to
him and the Vietnamese got right to work when the chips were
down. Thompson was great all the way.”
Capt. Hank Lane of the U.S. Air Force had been flying over the column
of tanks, APC’s and troop-laden trucks as it barrelled through the
village. He wasn’t there but, as always, the infantrymen and armor
specialists were full of praise for the U.S. Air Force’s forward air
“The ambush hit the trucks. We had gone through it. The
PAVN’s had two 81 mm. mortars, a 57 mm. recoilless rifle and two 50
caliber machine guns located near that deserted village and they opened
up on the trucks. There was a terrific infantry attack made at
the same time. You saw the trucks on the side of the road.
We had help from the air, though. Capt. Lane got us F-100’s in
there within seven minutes. We had already laid on a
pre-strike. Capt. Leckinger’s Rangers moved two platoons in there
where the bombs hit and got fire going on those PAVN positions.
“We wheeled the tanks and APC’s around and charged back into it on each
side of the road. I remember Lt. Thompson. . . I think it was
him. . . talking to Capt. Lane on the radio. We got more F-100’s
in there. Lt. Thompson had his head out in the open and he said .
. bring them on in. I will adjust it from here. Put
them right in front of the tracks.
“There was nothing you can imagine to quite match that fight
then. Artillery was coming in on top of us (your buddy Capt.
Averra over there did us a whale of a job on that) and those airplanes
were pounding in front. PAVN’s were shooting and we were slamming
back at them with our .50’s and cannon. The trucks were on fire
and the ARVIN’s were in a fight along the road with us barreling along
on either side of them.
“The PAVN’s were caught in the middle. We tore them up. . . but
every time I think about tripping an ambush on purpose I get the
jitters, and I have been through the mill on this one, believe
me! It was a mean fight, Charlie.
“We had a 317 body count out there. . . that is a lot of North
Vietnamese who won’t shoot at anybody again. I’ll tell you
something, they sure didn’t get out of that very well when we got the
fire in on them,” Sgt. Williams said.
I left the group about midnight. They seemed to be cheerfully
willing to keep the lodge meeting going until daybreak and I hated to
leave them, but I had an early morning appointment with a helicopter
gong out to Chu Pong Mountain.