June 05, 1966

Sergeant Bluffs Reds Out of Attacking


(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.)

Ledger-Enquirer Staff Writer

June 5, 1966

Sergeant Bluffs Reds Out of Attacking

Ledger-Enquirer Staff Writer

DUC CO - This  Special Forces camp - precariously perched between Pleiku and the Cambodian border along Highway 19 which comes from Qui Nhon and finally crosses into the mysterious mountains of  South Viet Nam’s “neutral” neighbor - lost its commander recently.

He was a captain, red-haired ,enthusiastic, aggressive.  The camp commander had been a sergeant first class with long Green Beret experience before becoming an officer and when he took over the camp in January his ability and motivation became famous almost at once.

Duc Co has been a hard post for the Special Forces teams in the mountains here.  It was put under a 60-day siege last summer with North Vietnamese troops holding it under bitter pressure in order to force a Vietnamese relief column from Pleiqu to be sent - and inevitably be ambushed - before lifting the siege.

Razor Edge of Tension

The next team to come to Duc Co had lived on a razor edge of tension for long weeks after that.

They first received a report that the Viet Cong were “tunneling. . . intending to attack the camp by appearing from inside of it.”  They had patrolled and searched until the intelligence report from a Vietnamese source was finally straightened out.  The report did not mean “tunneling” but a conspiracy inside of the camp which was to bring an attack from some of its own defenders when the Viet Cong struck again.

During the Plei Me relief by the First Air Cavalry Division in October, a joint operation with Civil Irregular Defense Group units from Duc Co was aimed at a village called Le Thinh south of the camp.  This village and its close neighboring village had long been Viet Cong-controlled.  Punji stakes, bigger sharpened stakes aimed at spiking helicopters, booby traps, etc., were thick around the villages and produced casualties when the First Battalion (Airborne) 12th Cavalry moved to surround the village in coordination with the Duc Co troops.

Families in Villages

The troops hired and trained by the Special Forces at Duc Co included many men who had families still living in the very villages at which the attack was aimed.  The Viet Cong had fled when the sweep came.  Almost every person left in the village gathered in the market place and asked to be taken away to escape Viet Cong domination.  They were lifted by helicopter from the area, but the suspicion remained in the minds of many that it was odd, so many men serving with the CIDG at Duc Co having their wives and children in such a Viet Cong-dominated town.

After the conclusion of the Plei Me-Ia Drang Valley campaign, the Special Forces team at Duc Co suddenly took 25 of its native troops prisoner.  They were members of the conspiracy.

With the interior security of the camp finally cleaned up, the next team under the camp commander who is now missing turned to offensive patrolling and extended the camp’s influence over a wide area.

Then in the final days of the last big First Air Cavalry Division action near Duc Co, Operation Lincoln and Operation Mosby, the captain led a 40-man patrol over toward the Cambodian border.

About noon an Air Force forward air controller in an L19 which had a loudspeaker (for psychological warfare operations, a second mission of the L19 when not used by the FAC) circled low over Duc Co.  He had been unable to contact the camp on his radio.  He turned on the loud speakers.

Unit Surrounded

“You had better do something - that unit of yours out there is surrounded and in trouble,” the loud speaker blared.

Radio communications were worked out and the captain’s force located.  A search by the communications NCO in the camp got the frequency being used by the patrol for a strange series of messages from the sergeant, who was apparently now in charge of the fight.  He was radioing taunts to the North Vietnamese force which had the 18 men he still led surrounded.

“Come on in and have lunch, Charlie!  We’ll be glad to see you, we’ve got Claymores all set and waiting for you so come on and get us!” was one of the messages.

A First Cavalry soldier at the camp listened.

“Strangest Feeling”

“It was the strangest feeling to hear that guy.  He was bluffing them right out of it, bluff all the way.  They didn’t have anything except rifles and he sounded like he had a battalion under him ready for any fight the Commies wanted to make,” the sergeant said.

Lt. Col. Jack Cranford’s 227th Assault Helicopter Battalion, nicknamed the “Hoot Owls,” was located in a field near the Vietnamese II Corps perimeter, a base area now famous as “the Turkey Farm.”

Capt. Ed Bushyhead, assistant operations officer, was in the tent lined with maps and filled with enough communications outlets - field phones, radios, etc. - to give even a stoical man ulcers when the plight of the CIDG patrol was brought to the attention of the First Air Cavalry Division.

It was about 4:30 p.m.  The Special Forces had cut across channels to ask if the helicopter force could help.

Take Pathfinders

Lt. Col. Cranford put four ships into the air and took his own command ship up, loaded with a team of pathfinders, the black hat-wearing specialists who go in to assist difficult aerial operations with ground control.

“Starting this late, with those men in the position they are in, we might just run into a night extraction and when you are in that kind of business, the Pathfinders are professionals.  They can guide you into an LZ and get you out,” he said.

I had seen the area we were flying to on many other occasions.  The trees, rolling terrain and the looming mass of Chu Pong Mountain are old memories to almost every man who has been with the First Air Cavalry Division.  There was a small landing zone, just an open spot in the woods, marked with the flash and smoke of bombs being dropped by a pair of A1E Skyraiders just a ways from the Cambodian border.

The four liftships, flanked now by gunships from the 227th’s Company C, commanded by Maj. Floyd Hattaway, swooped into the clearing before the smoke had cleared.  Lt. Col. Cranford put his ship down low and I could see men running from a fringe of bushes.

Pile Into Copters

South Vietnamese troops are not the calmest imaginable soldiers at such moments.  All of the small figures ran toward the first ship to land.  The crew chief and the Special Forces sergeant managed to fend off half of them and they swamped the second ship in line, leaving the last two ships empty and badly overloading the ones they had dived into.

“There just isn’t any way to get them to understand about it, I guess, but they almost kept us from getting over the trees, piling up like that,” one pilot told me later.  “There wasn’t time to try to get them to move after they got on, either, so we tried it and managed to take off.”

The CIDG who escaped to the helicopter lift had done so by rolling down a steep bank under fire while the remaining American adviser steadied the ones remaining behind, keeping fire on the attacking enemy until the last man rolled down into the brush, then escaping himself and leading the 18 men (some were wounded and had to be helped) to the pickup zone.

The captain had been missing since the first fierce fire of the North Vietnamese attack.

Flushed Snipers

The patrol had flushed snipers and chased them until they ran into overwhelming numbers of the enemy and came under sudden, heavy fire.  The fight came in an area where other patrols had been run and the trail the patrol used had been often used before.  There was no way of knowing whether they had bumped into scouts from a moving group of North Vietnamese soldiers or whether they had been drawn into a trap, but they had fought back aggressively when the hard fighting started, pulling back as best they could.

During the next two days, CIDG troops kept coming in to Duc Co after individual exploits of escape and evasion until the toll of dead had come to only three CIDG . . . and the missing captain.  A force from Duc Co went out and found the three CIDG troopers’ bodies near Cambodia but did not locate any sign of their commander.

The men at Duc Co now are tense and very edgy again.  They have shortened the length of the patrols which had become more extended and aggressive since January.  They say the camp is in danger of attack.  They aren’t as certain that they can beat off an attack as they talk about it inside the bands of barbed wire, bunkers, claymores, etc., that surround the dusty fortress in the ugly, scarred clearing.

Make Point

Just a few days after the camp commander was lost, the Viet Cong or possibly a North Vietnamese unit occupied a Montagnard village almost beside the camp for more than three hours.  They simply came in and took it over, not threatening any harm to the villagers but making their point very clear because there was no reaction from inside of the barbed wire fortress.

They managed to salvage some of the terrible loss in prestige they had suffered in the area along the Cambodian border in recent months with their trip into the little hamlet.  They showed the people living there, very close to Duc Co, with some of the families of CIDG troopers in the camp being residents of the settlement, that they could move in and deal punishment if necessary to gain their ends.


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