June 1, 1966

Coconut Palms Offer Shelter From Attack


(EDITOR'S NOTE:  Charles Black, Enquirer military writer in Viet Nam, watched a Vietnamese village destroyed as he followed an American combat unit through its shattered huts and scorched coconut trees.  This is one of a series of articles about the Vietnamese hamlet called Vang An 1.)

Black Hospitalized In South Viet Nam

Charles Black has been confined to a field hospital in Viet Nam, where his illness has been diagnosed as either amoebic dysentery or malaria.  Army doctors say the symptoms are similar.  In the meantime, dispatches he has written in the hospital will continue in The Enquirer.  Thursday, in a letter to Ben Walburn, managing editor of The Enquirer, he describes what it’s like in a hospital near the battlefield.

Ledger-Enquirer Staff Writer

VANG AN 1 - Gunfire came from across the river.

Company A had just bumped into Viet Cong and had “light contact.”  Artillery and aerial rocket artillery had slashed into Vang An 1’s outskirts.

A medical evacuation chopper had gone down over there and picked up some casualties - some from heat and some from battle wounds.  Seven Viet Cong bodies and weapons had been found when it was finished.

Four men had fallen down as we walked from the propaganda booth, fighting through vines, thorns and then crossing muddy paddies in the blistering sunlight.

Two of them had almost been down earlier, now they went down for good.  The chopper had come our way just before we got to Vang An 1 and taken these four out.

“You don’t know.  It might be malaria, it might be the heat.  You just don’t know, but you always hope it’s the heat,” Capt. Milton Baker told me.

“I hate to have to evacuate the first man from the heat.  It affects the others.  We are all miserable. Sometimes seeing a man go out of it works on a lad and makes him commence to notice how bad he feels and then he loses his willpower,” he commented.

Felt Exposed

One platoon moved out of the coconut grove onto a fringe of grassy field, gingerly working toward the nearest rice paddy wall.  The grass had been cropped closely by cattle and buffalo.  A few scrubby hedge plants grew in the low paddy dike.

I moved out with Lt. John Chavarria and Sgt. Charles Parrish, then, walking with Sp5 Hector L. Borges and feeling very exposed to the tangle of Van An 1 200 yards or so away across the flat paddy land.

“My fever thermometer is broken.  It goes up to 110 degrees and it is broken now, so it must be as hot as I’ve ever thought about being,” Borges said.

A solid burst of automatic weapon fire from the village came then, bullets whistled and popped.
The platoon near the paddy wall raced ahead, falling behind it and sending a bitter burst of fire toward a thicket on their left front.

Heavy Footed Run

I was closer to the palm grove and I turned and went for it, a dozen of us moving together, not really fast despite our need for speed, because we were tired, hot and heavy footed.

A burst of firing from the hill to our right came then and this frightened me because it meant that the snipers there would be shooting down on us.

I got into the edge of the grove and spotted the cover I wanted, a narrow place between two big coconut trees, just shoulder wide, with a little depression giving some dirt cover at either end.

I dived between the trees.  Later I laughed about this.  I landed on top of big, round coconuts.  They held me up from the ground.  They felt as big as medicine balls and I was certain I was visible above all of the brush as I lay on top of them.

‘Like a Surfboard Ride’

The tree bases kept me from rolling either way.  I scrabbled with my hands and feet and rolled myself out of the trap and off the coconuts, like a man riding a surfboard.

The firing kept up.  The bullets snapped and cut through the coconut grove as I fought my ridiculous battle with the big nuts and finally sprawled out in the middle of an open spot, rolled out there as if I had been on ball bearings and feeling very exposed.

The platoon on our left had run up to a paddy wall, they had good shelter, and were lacing the end of the village where the automatic fire had started.

A squad moved hurriedly out on our right and commenced shooting up the hillside, moving up it under cover.

The men in the open to our front, behind the paddy wall, fired and I could see the sun searing down on them.

The firing kept up for several minutes.  We had nobody hit but four more men who were caught up in the exhausting business of moving and fighting fainted and were pulled into the oven-like shade of the palms.


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