June 02, 1966
Hamlet Victim of Crossfire
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Charles Black has
been confined to a field hospital in Viet Nam, where his illness has
been diagnosed as either ameobic 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.)
By CHARLES BLACK
Enquirer Military Writer
VANG AN 1 - This Vietnamese
hamlet commenced dying just a few minutes after it was caught in a
crossfire between American and Viet Cong forces.
The sudden flap of helicopters rotors came and rocket ships from the
2nd Battalion, 20th Aerial Rocket Artillery hawked down the valley
Lt. John Chavarria was talking into the radio carried by PFC Lloyd
Swisher, quietly sending the information needed by 105 mm. howitzer gun
crews back at Van Hoi 1.
Sp4 Martin Henson ran to crouch close to Capt. Milton Baker under cover
of some brush and palm tree trunks, a light antitank weapon rocket
slung on his shoulder.
The big noise of M-60 machine guns and the spiteful cracking of M-16
rifles was being given an almost monotonous punctuation by the
“thump-WHANG” of M-79 rocket launchers.
Bullets Keep Coming
Everybody who had a weapon had found a vantage point and was
firing steadily into the brush and hedges and around the hootches over
there. Only the radiomen were busy at other work, except for Sp5
Hector Borges, who kept working on heat casualties as they were helped
into the palm grove.
The bullets from the village kept coming, but not like the first hail
People were walking around now, just as the terrifying sound of the
first of the helicopter rockets to slash into the hamlet came to cause
them to flop down again, then look embarrassed and raise up again - not
back to their feet because the sound of helicopter rockets is too
overpowering when they are fired close to your front - but not hugging
the ground with the flat-down pressure a really critical moment in
these light contacts brings.
Henson suddenly triggered his shoulder rocket. We had almost
become a group of spectators for the seconds it took him to aim,
because a LAW rocket is a wonderful thing to watch.
Henson was a marksman. His rocket streaked into the exact hootch
where most of the fire which had laced around us first originated.
There was a thunderous “whap”” from where he crouched, a streak of
flame behind him and in front of him, then a big boom and the hootch
was covered with dust, then black smoke, and then a roaring mass of
The helicopters kept pounding the edge of the village, shooting into
the brush and hedges where snipers hole up in this kind of
fighting. The squad raking the hill was up there.
Baker motioned more men out into the field, moving toward the
paddy. I got up and tried it again, not optimistically, but with
some hope of getting that 200-meter passage done quickly.
This time the fire came weakly from the area just pounded but more
strongly from the loop of the S the village formed on our right.
The snipers on the hill had run down there, retreating from a squad of
GIs which had gone after them.
We went back to the grove again and Baker called the ARA onto that part
of the problem. The rockets smashed into the hootches and trees
and flames billowed.
The fire on the other side where the LAW had hit was over the tops of
the palms. The stink of burning thatch came over the paddy and
smoke added to the heat.
Move Out Again
We moved out again and ignored a few shots from our left, putting rifle
fire on them and beating down this last opposition. A medical
evacuation chopper from the 15th Medical Evacuation Company came
swooping down where bullets had been landing a few minutes earlier just
as we got into the brush where the sniper and automatic fire had come
Four of the heat cases were sent out. Borges had managed to get
the others up and walking again.
We stalked through the village, checking deserted huts and holes. The
village was a warren of holes and shelters and we didn’t have time to
check them all but there was no more fire. Baker sent a platoon
to the right to the top of a bare hill with a few hootches on it.
Grumbled and Staggered
“Cover us when we cross the river. Stay up there tonight and set
out an ambush. I have a feeling we will need some security on
this side because we may have to come back here again,” he told the
platoon as they left, grumbling and almost staggering.
“That lousy hill is 1,000 meters down there and it is steep.
We’ll be lucky if we don’t all get sunstroke,” a PFC carrying a machine
gun said to me. “But he’s right, somebody has to secure the
damned thing or they’ll ruin you when you go across that river.”
Personally, I preferred the hill to the river. It was an equal
distance to walk but instead of a climb it looked like a 300-yard wide
trap with deep water, fast current and soft sand bottom.
A group containing Baker, PFC Michael Vincent, Sp4 James H. Martin, PFC
Richard L. Brewer, PFC Willie Haverly and I crossed after a squad of
riflemen had made the first test ... walking like men assigned to find
out if the ice is thin or thick.
The water was just belt deep and very warm.
The bottom of the river was slippery where there were rocks, and
clutched at boots where soft sand lined it. In the middle I was
almost exhausted, dragging my feet and stumbling, almost falling.
I saw a radioman just entering the water behind us stumble and fall and
two men splash over to help the heavily loaded GI to his feet.
On the other side was a dazzling stretch of powdery white sand.
Men would stumble to it, draw themselves up and make clumsy, lunging
gallops for the cover of the brush.
Sniper fire had commenced snapping from further down the river,
inaccurate and sporadic, not like the solid blast an hour ago because
six dead men had been left in the village by this guerrilla group, but
enough to spur a man into a last desperate attempt to run for cover.
Just a little farther, in a coconut grove, a beautiful Catholic chapel
was nestled, vacant and unused, by the shattered remnants of huts.
There was reputedly a leper colony farther back in the big grove, but
nobody went to see. The rest of the battalion was there, all hot,
all tired, working out a defense perimeter and swapping experiences
coming from “light contact.”