May 08, 1966
Cav Tactics Baffle Viet Cong
By CHARLES BLACK
Enquirer Military Writer
PLEIKU - Many victories in this
war can escape the headlines - in fact, they can be overlooked and
unnoticed by the very men who accomplished them almost in passing
during the grueling routine of what they call “the day’s work.”
This is about an important, even a critical, victory. The men
involved in it will probably not really remember it too well except as
an event of sweat, strung with the countless other beads of that
substance woven into the pattern of duty in Viet Nam.
It is one of those victories which take an explanation.
This is how it started one Sunday morning in the very last days of Col.
John (Big Thunderbolt) Hennesseys 1st Airborne Brigade’s “Operation
Lincoln” (March 25-April 17).
There were no significant statistics added to the figures of that 1st
Cavalry Division operation (more than 400 VC killed, etc.) but Capt.
Don Warren’s Company C, 1st Battalion (Airborne), 12th Infantry, Lt.
Col. Jack Cranford’s 227th Assault Helicopter Battalion, Lt. Col. Max
Clark’s 228th Assault Support Helicopter Battalion and Lt. Col. Brady’s
2nd Battalion, Aerial Rocket Artillery, Lt. Col. Robert Shoemaker’s 1st
Squadron 9th Cavalry, Lt. Col. Joseph Bush’s 1st Battalion (Airborne),
19th Artillery, and U.S. Air Force A1E bombers all participated in an
action which is typical of the defeats suffered by Communist guerrillas
and regular units during the past eight months.
A guerrilla unit opened the action, north of Pleiku on a dusty,
The guerrillas - estimated in platoon strength - had chosen careful
positions during the night.
A local agent in a small village nearby had told them of small columns
of American trucks which moved over this trail to support an artillery
battalion in the area. The guerrilla leader brought his men and
planned a classic ambush.
A straight section of the trail was bisected by a culvert. Curves
on either end of this straight area, steep wooded slopes to the right
and left and a thickly brushed gully leading to jungle were natural
ingredients for the ambush which the guerrillas had set.
At 9:20 a.m. the center truck in a line of 10 American vehicles passed
over the culvert. It had six soldiers in the back. The
guerrillas set off a charge of TNT which shattered the 3/4-ton truck’s
left rear wheel and blew the passengers out of the truck bed.
Open Up On Convoy
Small arms fire from the hidden Viet Cong opened up on the stalled and
split convoy - it contained artillerymen, cooks and other men not
usually involved in this kind of situation.
To this point, the entire affair had lived up to the smug predictions
of all of those television tacticians and other tweed generals of the
same sort who have made the word “ambush” sound like a mystic symbol of
Viet Cong guile, invincibility and generalship.
Then these things happened:
The six scratched and bruised artillerymen blown from the truck
took cover in a ditch and a medic treated them. Sandbags in the
truck had taken almost all of the real sting from the mine.
Other Americans leaped from trucks and assaulted the ambushers firing
M16 rifles and M79 grenade launchers. They took cover in the
brush and the VC fire was beaten down to a desultory affair of
Capt. Don Warren got a call at 9:37 from his battalion commander, Lt.
Col. Rutland Beard, to get ready to go. Capt. Warren’s company
was on perimeter guard for the 227th helicopters at Pleiku. He
alerted his platoon leaders and drove over to Lt. Col. Cranford’s
Spot Landing Zone
Capt. Ed Bushyhead, assistant operations officer for the “Hoot Owls” as
the 227th chopper crews call themselves because of long training in
night flying, showed Capt. Warren the area on a map and they found a
landing zone which looked tactically correct.
“I’ll have my company out of the perimeter and ready to go in 40
minutes,” Capt. Warren said.
Pilots were getting their briefings in the operations tent at 9:45 and
crew chiefs and gunners were getting their hoppers ready to go.
A battery of Lt. Col. Bush’s 105-mm howitzers had opened fire by
now, making the hard-shooting convoy’s situation much less
Rocket-splitting helicopters then came flocking to the action and
hawked over the area, plastering likely-looking hiding spots.
Two A1Es came in answer to an Air Force forward air controller (FAC) in
an L19 circling all of the activity. Their napalm, rockets and
machineguns added to the terror suddenly unleashed on the guerrillas.
At 10:15 am., Capt. Warren’s men ran for helicopters, loaded with
nothing but fighting gear.
Get Aboard Chopper
I got aboard a chopper in company with Sgt. James McKelvin,
communications NCO, and some men from S-Sgt. James Gregory’s rifle
As the choppers roared in low and fast over a long, narrow clearing,
gunships from the Hoot Owl battalion sprinted along the edges of the
landing zone just ahead of the liftships, pounding the brush with
rockets and machine-guns.
As our chopper came over the end of the LZ, the door gunner saw the
flash of an explosion in the jungle to our right. It was
impossible to decide if it was a VC shooting or pyrotechnics from the
gunships - but his M60 machine gun put a long burst there to be sure.
The troops on the right side fired little bursts from the M16s at the
last second - experienced air assault soldiers edging into a possible
fight just a few seconds before they were really supposed to do so.
As the choppers came close to the ground, infantrymen jumped out and
charged the sides of the clearing, every M16 and M79 available now
spitting fire and raking the brush, not because anybody felt this was a
“hot” LZ, as one with resistance is called, but simply because these
combat-wise GIs consider it good sense to work over such chance-ridden
places as brush around a new LZ as a matter of principle.
Capt. Warren had a problem, the narrow LZ had spread his troops out in
a long line.
“Like Herd of Ducks”
“We’re like a herd of ducks! Get those platoons pulled in and
let’s move,” he radioed.
The platoons began moving toward him. I stumbled over thorn vines
and burned logs. This was a Montagnard “field,” cleared in the
most primitive fashion by the Jarai tribesmen who roam the mountain
areas. Logs lay where the trees had been felled, leaving stumps
four feet high (nobody like to stoop at such work as tree felling and
the Montagnards simply cut trees down at a handy elevation). As
the trees dry, they are set afire and after several such burnings, a
new field is finally available.
However handy and work-saving the clearing technique is to a Jarai
tribe farmer, it is tough on helicopters trying to land and on
infantrymen jumping down into the ensuing angle of a half-cleared field.
Sgt. McKelvin told me a crew chief had told him that a pilot had said
his helicopters cockpit thermometer showed 114 degrees.
“And it’s just 10:30, Charlie. This is going to be a real spring
day,” he said cheerfully.
The company was already set to plunge off into the jungle, heading in
the general direction of the fearful uproar of artillery, rockets,
machineguns, etc., around the ambushed convoy.
Somehow I got separated from S-Sgt. Gregory and had become the fourth
man in S-Sgt. Anderson’s squad from Lt. Fred Simone’s third
platoon. Capt. Warren stood by the edge of the jungle eyeing the
“You don’t know it but Andy is on point,” he said to me.
He said it at a time when S-Sgt. Anderson had already led me too far
into the tangle of trees, vines, elephant grass and thorns for me to
modify the mistake and I stumbled on in a state of sweaty, tired,
thorn-ripped shock for the rest of the trip.
At 11:50 I managed to find a chance to busy myself “adjusting
equipment” while a few more rifles got between me and an open field of
elephant grass which S-Sgt. Anderson was moving across.
That field was a bad minute. S-Sgt. Anderson had surveyed the
possible alternate routes and found none which didn’t take too
long. He went into the field like a man testing the ice for a
skating party. We stepped out very cautiously behind him after he
got past the center, one man at a time, the man behind him still hidden
in the jungle, edgy and ready to cover those in front if trouble came.
I made my own walk through vulnerability - it seemed about 200 yards
long - and sneaked into the protective cover of the jungle again,
waiting to help cover those still facing the tight rope, then moving on
up the path as the man behind me came across.
There were some men sick from the combination of heat, the speed of the
march, their heavy gear, the blasting sun and jungle humidity.
Their buddies had grabbed their gear, the medic had worked on them and
they kept walking, very pale and very weak but walking. A steep
hill almost finished me here. My legs began hurting and I
couldn’t get my breath. Almost at the second when I knew I could
not lift my foot again, the line of riflemen halted.
“The road is right up front. The choppers are shooting the hill
above it. We’re getting ready to move in on the convoy now.
I sure am glad they weren’t a mile further off,” Sgt. McKelvin
said. (I had joined him again by now, moving back to S-Sgt.
Gregory’s squad during a short stop while the medic treated a heat
Move Very Quietly
Capt. Warren’s platoons moved very quietly and very fast and suddenly I
saw a red slash of road and dust-covered trucks. Dirty, sweaty
artillerymen wearing flak jackets were looking at us with considerable
The wrecked truck was pulled off the road the convoy was already
getting ready to move again when I got out of the brush. The
artillerymen waved and went on in a cloud of red dust, gunships
orbiting protectively around them in hope of finding a target.
There was a series of radio conversations. Some of the pathfinder
team suddenly appeared. They had been walking with us, I found
out, and produced nylon slings. The paratroopers from Capt.
Warren’s company assisted in attaching the rig to the truck.
“Its back wheels are finished but it isn’t a loss, just a maintenance
problem,” an artillery sergeant said.
He left in his jeep, going fast to catch the rest of the convoy,
skirting the hole made by the mine. It was five feet long and two
feet wide, not quite knee deep and rectangular. The blast hadn’t
cracked the concrete culvert. The charge had been placed against
its side but had blown out and up.
Pieces of Tires
Pieces of ripped tires, shattered bits of brake drum metal, torn
sandbags, empty shells and M79 grenade rounds littered the road.
I noticed that the ambush pressure had been relieved quickly enough by
the aerial reaction for the unperturbed artillerymen to have eaten
C-rations while waiting for us. The cans were tossed into the
“They didn’t get much thrown at them from the looks of this,” I said to
“Naw, they blew the mine, all of that stuff came at them and poor old
Charlie cut a chogi! He sure had a sweet ambush site not to do
any better than that with it,” Capt. Warren said.
It turned out that nobody had been hurt badly enough even to be taken
to a battalion aid station by helicopter. The aerial rocket
artillery choppers had spotted a fleeing group of Communists near our
jungle route just after we landed and hit them.
“They got quite a few. No sense going back into that brush to
count dead VC. Their buddies have the weapons they dropped and
are still running,” S-Sgt. Gregory told me.
Chopper Lifts Truck
A big CH47 Chinook roared in - these big choppers fly lovely one-ship
missions as a daily routine - and hovered, kicking up a red hurricane,
then roared off, the truck dangling underneath, on its way to a repair
We pulled off the road and up a hill, gunships orbiting over us and
howitzer shells banging into a likely retreat route to the west.
The UH1D liftships suddenly zoomed over the trees and we ran to get
aboard, firing into the brush behind us, not because of any resistance
but just because it is good principle.
Back at Pleiku, at 12:45 p.m., we had hot food served from a mess tent.
And that is the sum and total of the real disaster Communist tactics
have come to in the Central Highlands when pitted against the First Air
None of the tried and true tricks in the Viet Cong field manual has
come out right for the Communists tacticians.
Ambushes planned to perfection and properly executed end in confused
and punished retreat as the mobile riflemen and their helicopter-borne
support weapons swarm to the scene. Pressure mounts with
unheard-of suddenness and violence.
The relief of the ambushed column was so routine that most of the ones
involved (except for the soldiers on the mined truck, of course)
already have almost forgotten it and are busy on more important matters.
The leader of the VC guerrilla platoon, if he is alive, will never
forget it, however, and the measure of the victory is most important
considered in that light.