Sept 3, 1965

Franco Sketch

Vietnamese Are Flown Into Battle

By 1st Cavalry Division ‘Copters



(EDITOR'S NOTE: Charles Black, military writer for The Enquirer, is in Viet Nam to cover activities of  the 1st Cavalry Division. The bulk of the division is still en route from Fort Benning to the war zone. Following is the second of three articles by Black describing the type of operations the cavalrymen face:)
 
By CHARLES BLACK
Enquirer Military Writer

BAN ME THUOT - The chopper I boarded with Lt. Chang's first squad of the first platoon of the Fourth Vietnamese Marines at 10 a.m. Tuesday was wearing an Indianhead design which made it one of those flown by Company A of the First Aviation Battalion.

There were two other companies of helicopters in the assault, but I didn't have a chance to identify them.
Gun ships had taken off ahead of us, and four of them circled the formation. The doors of the chopper were off, letting the wind whistle through. Two sergeants wearing the patch of the U.S. 25th Division and holding M-60 machine guns suspended on the lines sat in the doors, scanning the ground. I found that they came over from Hawaii on 120 days of door-gunner duty.

Nobody had a safety belt and eight men with equipment and weapons crowds a helicopter. I held onto a seat back and listened to Lt. Chang tell me about his recent visit to the United States. He had undergone Marine training at Quantico for four months, and said he liked the U.S. and its fighting ideas very much.

Private Leans Close
Pvt. Hohn leaned close to me from the other side and once more said quite emphatically that he had a mama-san and three boys, adding that he had three girls as well. We had been through this once before. He was 21, single, and was learning English in a fanciful manner.
“You are a number one liar,” I told him.
He grinned proudly and said:
“O. K., number one liar, O. K.!”
Lt. Chang leaned across me and said something in Vietnamese to Pvt. Honh, who grinned bigger and answered.
“I told him what you said and he said to tell you that is right: “He is number one liar and he thinks you are a very young man.”


Repeats Joke
It was a pretty subtle kind of joke, and Pvt. Hohn repeated it to Sgt. Sue on his other side. All of this was shouted as the noise of the rotor blades and the wind whipped through the helicopter. Sgt. Sue leaned over and said something, shaking his head ludicrously.

“He says you are 35,” Lt. Chang said. “I have to tell you about that, because in Viet Nam a man at 35 is supposed to be very wild. It is when he is supposed to be at his peak in strength. After that, he is supposed to be getting old.”

I looked out and saw that we were flying much higher than I was used to flying on assaults with the 1st Cavalry. Later, an adviser told me that this was a matter of logic.

“We figure that we are going to get small arms fire here,” he said. Now there isn't any use in flying low where the small arms can get at us to get away from .50 caliber fire which we don’t usually catch.

“If we have an area where there is a chance of .50s,” he continued, “we fly low and chance the small stuff, of course. There aren't any .50s in here that we know of, so we go up to 2,000 to beat the small-arms stuff.”

Firing Rockets
I also saw that the armed choppers were firing rockets into the edge of a clear area just ahead, and that the fighters were working over another area about three miles beyond with bombs followed by rocket runs. I got very nervous.

We went in at tree-top level after a sudden descent by the helicopters. Armed ships were still cruising around us and driving rockets into the undergrowth, making a hellish racket. Lt. Chang took off running toward a growth of elephant grass.

The troops spread out and walked when they got to the grass, and there was a good reason -- it just isn't possible to move quickly through it.

The grass is about 12 feet tall and has a thick reed stem with sword-like blades. As I write this, I cannot use my right index finger because I slit the end of it on one of those blades during the three days I was with Lt. Chang. It was cut as if by a razor, and despite heavy use of iodine it took dispensary treatment later to halt an infection.

Hip-Deep Entanglement
The grass is woven together with vines which make a hip-deep entanglement. The vines have hooked barbs of about the consistency of cactus spines. A man’s forearms become bristly as he moves along shielding his face from the clawed vines. The men in front go sideways, trampling down the grass and vines into a path for those behind, who widen it a bit more.

I came up beside Lt. Chang and he frowned at me.

“You no have weapon, Charlie?” he asked. “Very bad! V. C. shoot you like anyone else - sooner because you are American.”

I assured him that I had ignored certain concepts of reporting and that I had access to hidden resources in case of emergency.
“And if that doesn't work, I'll show them my press cards.”


‘Gun Better'
“Press cards O. K., but gun better!” Lt. Chang said. “You follow me now. We move out a ways into trees over there.”

I was surprised to see Lt. Col. Yen and Lt. Khanh, his intelligence offices, followed by Maj. Thougn and Capt. Tki of the battalion and William Lefwich, the U.S. Marine adviser to Col. Yen come up the path behind Lt. Chang's platoon. It looked rather forward for the equivalent of a brigade commander.
Maj. Lefwich grinned and winked, nodding toward Col. Yen.

“I told you he wasn't a political officer. He's going up with the point. When you work with this man you are working with a real man,” he said as they went by.

Everybody Crouches
Everybody crouched for a while while Col. Yen organized his column and I studied the grass with misgivings. I knew that a squad of Vietnamese Marines was only six feet from me - I could hear them talking and cigarette smoke blew through the grass on a little puff of wind - but I couldn't see them. Viet Cong wouldn't smoke or talk if they were in ambush. I could see the problems facing a body of troops who had to move and who couldn't simply lie in ambush. Men in that grass just couldn't be spotted.

We moved out in single file, down a hill and under trees which look massive oaks. They went up 175 feet and were festooned with vines. Smaller trees grew under this roof and then there was a third level of brush, vines, elephant grass and thorns. The progress must have been brutally hard for those up front who had to clear a way and still keep on course to hit the bridge we were aiming for.

We wound through a “clearing” where trees had been cut away. A hootch was burning and the area had been rocketed and strafed. The 2.75 rockets from the Hueys made a deep hole, charred black, and the odor from the explosion of the warheads was almost nauseating when mixed with the “normal” smells of the dank brush we were going through.

Platoon Spreads Out
In the clearing, Lt. Chang's platoon spread out, and I approved of this until I noticed that they had spread out in order to gather melons growing there, and not for tactical reasons. They came back to the path as it entered the woods, tying the melons to their gear. Some of them were stuffing big cucumbers into their pockets.

Sgt. Sue handed me four little mangoes and two oranges he jerked from shrubbery beside the path we followed. They were good. I was already sweating and breathing heavily, bent under the pack, and the pace was very fast. I finished one of my two canteens.

A buffalo path came into being then. The big cow-like tracks had beaten it bare, and we headed down this very fast. Corn grew along the path, a single row on each side, two or three ears to the plant. The troops kept grabbing-ears and chewing them raw.

“Viet Cong corn, supplies for them. I don’t like to help it grow,” Lt. Chang said.

He kept breaking off stalks as he walked, kicking at them with his jungle boots or hitting them with his carbine.

Grabs Corn
I took his word for it being V.C. corn and grabbed five or six ears, putting them in the cargo pockets of my pants. I had acquired a melon from Pvt. Honh and had it tied to my belt. I realized I was beginning to look like one of the group.

There was a sudden burst of fire up front. I heard the thudding of M-79 grenade launchers and automatic weapons firing. We moved off the trail and watched the sector on our flanks. The firing stopped, then started again, then it died and somebody yelled in Vietnamese.

After about 10 minutes, during which the heat became more oppressive as the sun beat almost straight down into the canopy, Lt. Chang snapped his fingers and we moved on.

We came across shell casings about 100 yards up and a hootch was burning to our left, three big banana trees and some tobacco plants flanked by a scraggly patch of corn showing that it was occupied. Pots and jars were in the smoldering wreckage of the pole-and-straw hut. A basket with black pajama clothing was kicked into the underbrush beside the clearing.

‘He Get Away’
“Somebody saw something and then the man they saw ran away,” Lt. Chang said. “They shoot at him and chase him, but he get away. Maybe V. C, maybe just scared. Most people in here help V. C. You must remember that.”

I didn't have any feelings about it, to be truthful. The area had been V.C. controlled for a long time. Any farmer out in this underbrush probably had no choice but to help them. There wasn't any sign of women or children here, just a single hootch in a hacked-out clearing with a garden, so it seemed probable that somebody was leading a guerrilla existence.

Besides, I had troubles of my own. We had been going about four hours by now, and that was through the most depressing undergrowth and overgrowth imaginable. The heat was more than it seemed possible to bear, and my other canteen was half gone. The pack was impossible. Then the path plunged down a slope, down a slippery mud bank and into a hip-deep river.

I joined the Vietnamese. They splashed water on their heads and arms, and filled their canteens. I filled mine and put iodine pills in them. Lt. Chang borrowed some and used them in his.

“Very bad drink water without fixing, but I not always able to get,” he said. “Can I buy these in pharmacy in Saigon?”

I told him if he didn't that tincture of iodine in a bottle would work, a few drops to a canteen. He wrote it down.

Steep Bank
The bank on the other side of the river was very steep, and the mud was slippery and stinking. I fell twice and my hands got so muddy I couldn’t hold to a stick Pvt. Honh, my radioman friend, held down to me, but I finally made it. The wetness was cooling but my mud coating was odorous. It seemed to attract a swarm of gnats as we pushed on up the hill.

About halfway up the hill, I saw a marine lying in the grass, sweat running from his face, his helmet thrown into the brush. He was almost unconscious. We went by him, our own breath short and legs aching. I hoped he could get up before the column had cleared the area. Almost immediately we passed another boy and then another, both panting and lying on their faces.

There was another burst of fire ahead. The column didn’t stop, but the firing seemed to grow heavier in the area we were moving into. It stopped just as we topped the hill.

“They shoot to make sure this is clear,” Lt. Chang said. “Bad place for ambush after men get tired as we are.”

I heard a thunderous racket on our right, a quarter of a mile off. I could see four F-105s above us, but it was impossible to see them dive because of the trees and vines.

Rocket Fire
The rocket fire made a swishing noise and a series of hard explosions, then there was the concussion and big bag of bombs. There were at least 20 big explosions and many rocket runs just to our right, so there may have been a big strike over there, I don't know because nobody in our column knew what was going on outside of the problem of keeping up.

Suddenly it was over. Just at sunset we came out in a skirmish line onto a blacktop road. A wrecked concrete bridge was on our right, jungle behind us and ahead of us. The dismal little strip of asphalt under our feet was slashed with ditches where the V.C. had ruined it. This was Objective 1
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