Feb 6, 1966

Franco Sketch

A Typical Night - for GIs


By CHARLES BLACK

Ledger-Enquirer Military Writer
The night at Columbus Landing Zone was such a typical one in the Viet Nam action that it was a temptation to just hurry by it in this account.

But the night’s very sense of normality to a man who had become immersed in this world of our troops in that war gave the pause.  It was such a stark departure from the nights spent by other Americans, such an absolute abnormality when compared to the one spent on the same date by people at home, that it being just “average” to Sky Troopers involved makes it worth studying.

I did these things:

I located Capt. George Forrest and his A Company, First Battalion Fifth Cavalry, in the perimeter defense around Columbus Landing Zone and decided to make my abode near his command post.

I found a section of the line which looked as if it had a good field of fire and where the riflemen and machine gunners had especially strong positions.

There was a small fold of ground with a bit of dead space behind it which would be clear of any incoming fire from an obvious approach by any attackers, a small ridge angling through the trees near the landing zone but too far out to be inside of our perimeter.

I got busy with a shovel (I had acquired a North Vietnamese soldier’s little shovel by now.  It had the name “Ky” cut into its handle and the fact that this was the South Vietnamese Prime Minister’s name also seemed some kind of good luck symbol.)  When I had dug a hole I could call my own I camouflaged the fresh dirt so it wouldn’t be too obvious to possible callers.

Two saplings and a piece of parachute cord, a few sticks, a poncho and I had a house which would keep the heavy dew or possible rain from collecting in any unendurable quantities.  I ditched around my sleeping sight with a kind of cynicism.  (If it rained, I would get wet but at least I would have done my best.)

I then lit some heat tablets and heated a can of C’s, heated some water and made some coffee, and went over to the command post after finishing supper.  Here I got from Capt. Forrest such information as the password; where I should go if the very worst possible thing happened (a mass assault which might break into the perimeter in an effort to get to the artillery), and what he intended to do the next morning, which was apparently still unsettled.  He had heard some tentative plans for a move toward some new landing zones north of us but there wasn’t anything definite.

I left the command post just before dusk and went to a tree where five gallon plastic bags full of water were located.  I filled two canteens (I was carrying four by now, two on my belt and two in my rucksack) and drank all I could hold while the water was handy.  On the way back I “borrowed” two hand grenades and somebody gave me 50 rounds of tracer ammunition for my M-16.

The artillery pieces of the Second Battalion 70th Artillery had been shooting sporadically all of this time. The shooting was “H and I” fire (harassment and interdictory) on likely Communist positions or trails.

Mortars from positions just inside the perimeter, dug in heavily on the edge of the field used by the howitzers and still busy helicopters, coughed out rounds, registering on the little ridge which had bothered me when I first saw the position.  The crack of the exploding shells there made me feel better.  The mortarmen would know exactly where to shoot if trouble started from either that quarter or half a dozen other places they registered on just before dusk.

Helicopters made a big swing around the area, artillery ships loaded with rockets and questing for targets and machine gun-armed scout ships spying for any movement in the area.

A tense quiet came down with the sun.  I sat near my hole and smoked cigarettes with the sneakiness a man learns out in this brush.  Men were still busy around the perimeter, some digging, some bringing up ammunition, others gathered near radios with maps out and red-lensed flashlights making little glows on them.  Radios made a muted sound as their speakers brought in word of impending plans or reports from units nearby.

About 8 p.m. the sky flickered into life.  A series of small red flashes followed by the crack of an explosion and a squeaking noise was signal that Smoky Bear, an Air Force C-123 filled with parachute flares, was on station.  The squeaking stopped and brilliant blobs, three of them, hung over our sector’s front.  The drifting parachutes made the light eddy and shift.  Shadows moved and were replaced by a sudden glare as low clouds reflected the light from the magnesium flares.

I heard somebody go by me toward the hole just to my right and slid into my own hole.  I held the M-16 and muttered the polite greeting of these nights.

“Halt, who goes there?”

“Friend. . .”

“Robin. . .”

“Garden. . .”

“Is that you, Frazier?”

“Who’s that, Charlie?”

“Yeah. . .the gun position is a little to your left if you’re going there.”

S-Sgt. Melvin Frazier faded off into the gloom and I heard it all start again when he approached his other friends in the next hole.  I wouldn’t like to have to stomp the perimeter to check up one last time, I thought for the thousandth time, and then put on more insect repellent.  Mosquitoes were buzzing.  Ants were already attempting to investigate the possibilities of dragging me off during the night.  A good soaking with 6-6-12 wouldn’t add to your welcome in an elevator, perhaps, but it discourages bugs as much as humans so I used it lavishly.

I sleep a while until rifle fire awakened me and then I crouched in my hole until somebody sent a muffled call to me “. . .no sweat, just thought I saw something.”  I already had figured this, there is a feeling about perimeter fire which grows instinctive, and you learn to sense when it is investigative, serious or VERY serious.  This had sounded more investigative than serious.

At dawn, after waking up several more times for no real reason, putting on more insect repellent, smoking more cigarettes, watching more flares and listening to more artillery fire, I rolled up camp, made coffee and heated C’s, and decided to go back to Pleiku.  The choppers were already running again, bringing in ammunition, rations, water and men.

I caught one and (got out) back at Camp Holloway.

The First Battalion Seventh Cavalry was over at their chapel services, held in the open near the runway, or going about normal Sunday business.  They had been brought back in after their heroic fight at Chu Pong, issued new fatigues, given a chance at some hot chow and little rest.  Company B of the Second Battalion Seventh Cavalry and one platoon of Company A of that outfit had come in with them, the men in those outfits had been very heavily engaged at Chu Pong and also rated a rest.

As I went by the area, looking for a ride over to MACV compound with plans concerning eating Sunday dinner there and seeing some friends and relaxing, I saw men suddenly leaving the chapel services.

“I don’t know.  They called the guys from the Second of the Seventh out right in the middle of services and told them to go get their gear, that their outfit was in a hell of a fight and needed them badly,” a soldier told me when I asked him what had happened.

© Columbus Ledger-Enquirer

Return to Index