June 03, 1966

Prisoners Show Climbing Skill; GI Captors Enjoy Fresh Coconuts

(EDITOR’S NOTE:  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.)

Enquirer Military Writer

CHOU PHUAI HAI - The coconut grove where the 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry stayed the night of May 12-13 was hot, full of mosquitoes and ants, but by field standards of Vietnamese duty, it was a remarkably wonderful place to find.

We had collected many Viet Cong prisoners during the day.  Some were pulled out of hiding places by National Police agents who had come along on the sweep of this valley, some captured by the troops in the vicious little firefights during the long, exhausting walk down the valley to here, and some simply had walked up and surrendered.

Give Exhibition

The prisoners gave a chilling exhibition of tree climbing craft.  They twisted coconut fronds into a loop and scurried up the slippery trees like monkeys, disappearing into the thick fronds, then reappearing to twist off big, green coconuts and throw them down.

Energetic Prisoners

We lopped off the tops of these big nuts.  The prisoners were very energetic in their efforts with watchful GIs standing around the trees they climbed.

“Can you see why we get sniper fire out of those trees?” Capt. Milton Baker, commander of Charlie Company, asked me.

A little boy, less than six, came out of the distant village to the back of the grove, near where a leper colony had been built by the Catholic church, with an old man and two even smaller boys.

The old man twisted a rope and the little boy scampered up the tree, then twisted off nuts with his hands and even, when they were hard to reach, with his feet.  He harvested three trees and the family left, the boy taking four coconuts out of the pile first, however, and offering them to the GIs, making a sign that he wanted to sell them.

Too Tired

Somebody gave him a 50 piastre note and he dropped all of them and hurried for another tree.  This time he saw me looking at him and he stopped halfway up and motioned to me to come on up.  I declined, not because I didn’t think I could manage it, of course, I was simply too tired to be bothered.

He threw down a new stock of coconuts and came over to where I was sitting with Lt. David P. Sigle, Sp4 Rodd D. Williams and PFC Gerald Solar, all of the battalion’s communications shop.

Capt. Richard C. Hansen, the Air Force observer who was in charge of bringing thunderous assistance from tactical air when desired, and P-Sgt. Loring W. Sewer of the weapons platoon, bought some coconuts for 20 piastres.

Cigarette Price

I couldn’t find any small enough notes but the little guy picked up a pack of C-ration cigarettes, containing four crumpled weeds of a brand I wouldn’t have chosen in a store, counted them, dropped four coconuts and started to leave.

“He works on a ‘one for one of anything’ system,” PFC Charles Farel of the security platoon told me.  “If you gave him a $20 bill you would get one coconut.  If you gave him 20 pennies you would get 20 coconuts.”

I noticed just before dark that the civilians who had been walking warily through the grove were all gone.

Supper Made Easier

The coconuts made the C-rations for supper go down with a little bit more variety than usual.  They tend to become flat to the palate after a few meals no matter how nourishing, and I had found a nice, level place under a big tree loaded with the green nuts.

Just at dusk the racketing noise of shots came, incoming shots from carbines and one heavy sounding rifle.  The explosive response of American weapons took up the challenge.

“That village you guys went through is alive again.  The Cong who got away went back home,” PFC Larry J. Haley, the operations radioman, yelled at me.

PFC Frank R. Frizzie of the intelligence section and I shared a palm log with Vu Van Trang, the Vietnamese interpreter for the battalion, and he told me that helicopters coming to bring loads to the new battalion base had been hit and one knocked down.

‘Hit It Good’

Lt. Col. Walter Johnson, commander of the 227th Assault Helicopter Battalion, later told me the chopper hit the hardest had been “. . . number 714, that brand new beauty you rode up here in.  It had about 2 hours on it and old Charlie hit it good.”  (It was sling loaded out with a Chinook CH-47 the next morning and minutes later maintenance men were working on it to get it back in the air again.  Very few helicopters are lost to gunfire, no matter how badly disabled.)

I was told that nobody was hit by any of the rounds hitting the six choppers that evening, but the repossession of Van An 1 by the remaining guerrillas who had been forced out of there on May 12 by Capt. Baker’s Company C sealed the already shattered hamlet’s fate.

Artillery Pours In

Aerial rocket artillery ships poured rockets into it now, aiming at the hootches themselves.  I had walked through it with the GIs who had evicted the Viet Cong earlier that day and they had searched those hootches as well as could be accomplished.

It is an almost impossible task to dig out every person in one of these hamlets, however.

The civilian population had left long before for Bong Son as refugees.  Only Viet Cong used the village now but the hootches had been left.  The populace of the hamlet had left most of their possessions there.

Fires sprang up over there now, making a pall of smoke.

River Bank Hit

Artillery rounds commenced whistling over, racking the other bank of the river with explosions and tearing into the hamlet.  Sudden rifle fire from our side of the river came, then.  It cracked into the trees over our heads and sung through the grove at random.

The artillery made terrifyingly close hits.  Shrapnel buzzed and clattered, falling on the ground around us.

I had moved from the log during a lull for some reason.  It was a mistake.  I lay where I had decided to sleep, a small, bright piece of shrapnel had dropped near me and a sniper bullet had made a popping sound just over me, but I was transfixed by the big, heavy coconuts hanging 70 feet over my head.

Confusion from the artillery made them shake menacingly.  I wanted a steel helmet for the only time I can remember in Viet Nam, wishing I had the heavy thing over my suddenly vulnerable skull, waiting for all of those big coconuts to bombard me.

Back to the Log

I finally couldn’t stand it and got up and ran back to the coconut log, joining a half dozen men lying there looking thoughtfully at the sky and smoking cigarettes.  One of them motioned with his toe and I saw a huge piece of shrapnel laying 10 feet away.

Something made a “plop” by me and I looked.  It was a carbine bullet, the end painted orange signifying that it was a tracer round.  It had landed on a dried palm frond and had not penetrated it, completely spent and unscarred by impact.

I picked it up and showed it to the man next to me.

“They must be shooting from a long ways off, but that gunfire was awfully close,” he said.  “Maybe everybody is shooting at us.”

Quiet in 10 Minutes

I put the mysterious bullet in my pocket and in ten minutes the explosions of rockets and shells and the crack and rattle of rifles was quiet again.

It was almost dark and the flames of Van An 1 made a big, orange cloud across the river.

It was a ticklish walk to where the dark bulk of my poncho spread neatly under the coconut tree made a kind of square in the gloom.  I got it and folded my gear in it and quietly moved out from under the big bunch of coconuts which somehow hadn’t fallen during all of the uproar.

I found a less inviting place, near a bank of dirt covered by the inevitable hedge growth and undoubtedly the abode of snakes, rats and ants, but without any coconuts hanging over my head.


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