May 08, 1966

Air Cav Tactics Baffle Viet Cong

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, red-clay trail.

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 inaccurate sniping.

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 operations tent.

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 uncomfortable.

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 squad.

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.

Fearful Uproar

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 squad.

“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 victim.)

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 friendliness.

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 brush.

“They didn’t get much thrown at them from the looks of this,” I said to Capt. Warren.

“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 shop.

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 Cavalry.

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.


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