Newsmen Prepare for Fight as Alert Sounds
(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
The feeling was heightened by the luxurious routine of going into the field for a day and returning to a cot - however hard it was - and a roof at MACV Compound at Pleiku. The transient quarters made available to reporters and other itinerants had showers and indoor plumbing and a handsome arcade looking out onto a lovely patch of green grass, shrubs and flowers.
The billets described a series of squares. Patios were available with lounge chairs and tables, clubs were available, the dining room served excellent food and had Montagnard waiters and waitresses. (Local tribal costume was not used. It is too sketchy for dinner wear.)
Sometime during the night, however, an alarm bell suddenly sounded in our quarters, containing about 20 newsmen by now, and Vo Hynn, the Vietnamese photographer for NBC who is usually conceded to be the “best combat television cameraman in the war,” came to his feet.
Hynn is a powerfully built man, short but with wide shoulders, and he seldom volunteers conversation. This time he simply took charge of the rather bleary platoon of writers, photographers, TV correspondents, etc.
“Gentlemen, get dressed. Hurry. It is an alert. Get dressed and follow me,” he said quietly.
He supervised the heroic dressing efforts of one member of the corps who had not planned an alert for the night’s activities but who had taken stringent precautions against snakebite.
Somebody advised Hynn to “. . . just roll him under the bed. It might be a false alarm and it’s a good place to keep him the rest of the night, anyway. If it is for real, he’ll make it. He has slept through more alerts than anybody I know in South Viet Nam already!”
Hynn and two others managed to get the helpless one into some kind of attire and on his way to the rallying point. The Vietnamese then lined us up in platoon formation and led the way to the officer of the day’s quarters, a heavily sandbagged building which served in times like these as command post.
Joe Galloway of UPI and myself had M-16 rifles and a sack full of magazines. A portly magazine writer was slapping the holster on his belt, never noticing that he had left his pistol under his pillow. Robin Mannick and Peter Arnett of AP were carrying cameras and a couple of cans of assorted nuts which Arnett said would be missing if not carefully guarded. A CBS-TV crew had a burp gun and, for some reason, a camera tripod.
Hynn drew his force up and accosted a harried lieutenant wearing “OD” on his arm.
“Where is our post?” he asked.
The lieutenant looked horrified.
“Good gosh, how many of you guys are there? Oh, my! Look, go right down this walk to that Conex box with the sandbags around it and on top of it. All of you get in there,” he said.
We trotted down, all 20 of us, and filed into the Conex container. There was a little outside area sandbagged in like a storm shelter, and Arnett and myself wound up there. The solid mass of journalistic talent inside of the steel box just couldn’t wedge any closer.
“Somebody give me a flashlight,” I heard a muffled voice demand.
I passed one into the wall-to-wall carpet of pressmen. Somebody took it and shined it one some boxes which lined one side of the shelter.
“That’s why it’s so crowded,” he reported. “They have all these boxes of mortar ammunition and .50 caliber machine gun shells in here.”
The light suddenly bobbed and I heard some strenuous arguing as people shifted around, trying to get away from the stack of explosives sharing the mortar shelter.
A dark figure wearing a steel helmet and carrying a carbine appeared.
‘I’m Your Security’
“I am to guard you people here. I’m your security,” the figure announced crisply.
He leaned his carbine against the Conex box and took out a big .38, whirling the cylinder in a businesslike manner, slapping it back into his holster and patting the pistol’s pearl handles.
Then he suddenly whirled and his voice rose an octave.
“Where is my carbine? What happened to my carbine? I lost my carbine!” he said.
I handed it to him.
“What do you do around here?” I asked.
“I’m the file clerk in the --- office. This is my first alert. Do you fellows know the password?” He reassured me.
I shook my head wonderingly and asked Arnett if he would open the nuts.
“We might as well go ahead and enjoy it. We’re just as safe as if we were in a grave,” I told him.
The alert was secured with an earsplitting siren which shattered my nerves far more than the tiny tinkling of the bell which had announced the danger, and we trudged back to our quarters. Somebody forgot the immobilized member of the platoon and he spent the night sleeping on top of the mortar ammunition boxes.
We were able, through putting the unstinted efforts of 20 determined journalists to the task, to find out what happened the next morning.
Somebody at Camp Holloway had shot at a shadow. Somebody at an airstrip nearby called New Pleiku had shot back at Camp Holloway. A spirited but ineffective firefight was then waged between the Vietnamese perimeter guards.
In the morning, I checked out of the MACV hootch. Pleiku life was too exciting. I caught a helicopter out to Landing Zone Columbus where one of Lt. Col. Robert Tully’s companies from his 2nd Battalion 5th Cavalry was guarding 18 105 mm. howitzers belonging to the 2nd Battalion 70th Artillery.
The place had already been mortared and attacked by a PAVN company, but it was much less exhilarating an atmosphere than a Pleiku alert.
© Columbus Ledger-Enquirer
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