(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
M-Sgt. Charles McCowan of the 1st Cavalry Division public information office and myself had been rather thoroughly shanghaied out of activities at An Khe by his boss, Maj. Chuck Siler, who gave Mac a chore to do in Saigon, orders not to show up for a week, and recommended that I go along.
Both of us were tired, muddy, ragged of spirit and grimly prepared to follow Maj. Siler’s prescription for a week of “. . .few restaurant meals, a real bed, a hot shower and no regular hours.”
We packed up haphazardly, caught a jeep ride for about 100 yards (it broke down), a truck ride for two miles (it turned off) and walked the rest of the way in the rain to the air strip over by the old French fort where the advance guard of the division had camped 3 1/2 months earlier.
Capt. Hal Roach had a Caribou being loaded with other muddy, tired, determined men on a grim quest for relaxation in Saigon. We joined them and I noted that the 92nd Aviation Company was still hauling pigs and ducks on some of the runs to Special Forces camps out in the highlands. The last passengers had left their aroma in the plane.
We whipped over to Qui Nhon, where it was raining, without incident. We got out and talked to three Special Forces NCO’s who were waiting for a ride, offered them our sympathy but not our airplane seats, and got back on the Caribou.
The plane touched down at Tuy Hoa, a village on the South China Sea whose main industry seems to be the preservation of a row of wrecked concrete buildings, mementos of some action here during the French campaigns in Indo China.
There was a fairly large crowd of women carrying things on shoulder poles, men gravely standing in rows watching them, and a huge crowd of Vietnamese soldiers who tried to mob the Caribou. They were also trying to get to Saigon.
The stop became interesting when one half of the crowd on the runway decided the other half had shoved in front of them for the privilege of not being able to get on the airplane first and commenced shoving back. The argument was heated and the fiery Vietnamese tempers were flaring quite nicely when Capt. Roach took aboard one courier with an official mail bag and taxied out.
I hated leaving Tuy Hoa before I saw the rest of it and I borrowed the crew chief’s headset to register a complaint with Capt. Roach.
“Sorry, but we are having inflight movies and I knew you would rather see a good Tarzan picture than watch 73 Vietnamese tankers lose a fight with each other,” Capt. Roach told me.
I told Mac about the comment and he almost convinced the courier, who was new in Viet Nam, that the crew chief was going to start rolling the projector any minute.
“But I don’t want to see a Tarzan movie. They had a Tarzan movie last night at the base,” the courier said seriously.
Mac told him he would fix that up for him and told the crew chief not to show it. The crew chief nodded just as seriously and said he wouldn’t. The courier looked worried, then.
“Gee, if you other guys want to look at it, that’s all right. I can look out the window,” he said.
We were flying through and over cloud banks and had an hour to go so it was a very generous and unselfish offer. We kept him going on the movie subject for a while and then the plane set down in Nha Trang.
First complication. The plane had to go back to Qui Nhon, Capt. Roach said.
Nha Trang is a confusing base to those not there very often (as any other base in Viet Nam is). Somebody told us to walk to a big stucco building and talk to the people there about going down to Saigon. We saw about 200 Vietnamese and American soldiers and even women and children (apparently dependents of the ARVIN’s) there with a huge variety of luggage.
Mac carefully pinned a set of miniature master sergeant stripes to his baseball-style cap, pulled out some orders (he had written them himself, being the administration NCO back at the office, so they were full of fine print clauses for emergencies) and somehow was suddenly standing tall and impressive at the front of the line. (I was way back in line, someplace between a Vietnamese lady carrying a pig in a basket and two 101st Airborne Brigade paratroopers on leave, who seemed to be under the impression that they were at Saigon already. They didn’t like the place and wanted to get on the first airplane out.
Mac talked quietly to a staff sergeant, looked pained, then took out his pen and carefully wrote yet another line into the already-elaborate orders. He received two slips of paper, hooked a thumb signal for me to go outside, and met me away from the crowd.
“Had a little hitch up there. Had to amend the orders to take care of it. If somebody asks you if you are some kind of a secret agent, don’t say no and don’t say yes but get on the airplane real quick,” he told me.
I didn’t ask any details. Administrative problems, after all, were in his special field.
When an Air Force C123 landed, we got on first. Some more of Mac’s masterful handling of administrative details had arranged for lunch in a mess hall which carefully excluded the common herd of transients, a jeep to get our gear from the operations building to the airplane, and an argument from the paratroopers who wanted to use the jeep to go to Da Lat.
Da Lat was 150 miles or so west across a couple of mountain ranges and through a regiment or so of VC, but not impossible to two determined troopers on vacations, I suppose.
The 101st Airborne lads were second and third aboard, not because they had any priority but simply because they didn’t, and then got off when they heard the plane was going to Saigon.
“We’ve been there two days already. We’re trying to get out of that place! You guys take our advice, don’t go to Saigon,” one of them told us as he climbed out.
© Columbus Ledger-Enquirer
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