Jan 30, 1966

‘Tripping’ Ambush is Jittery Chore

(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 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 brotherhood itself.

The conversations I can remember between this brotherhood were of this type.

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 said.

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 control representative.

“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.


© Columbus Ledger-Enquirer
Return to Index