September 04, 1965

Pitching Camp Uncomplicated

(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 one of a series of articles by Black describing the type of operations the cavalrymen face:)

Enquirer Military Writer

BAN ME THOUT -- Setting up camp, as practiced by Vietnamese Marines in the jungle, is uncomplicated. Lt. Col. Yen walked along Route 14 where the battalion had come out of the elephant grass and trees and pointed out positions on a map and companies moved to them.

Lt. Chang’s platoon -- the group I had attached myself to -- dived back into the 12-foot-high tangle of thorn vines and reed like grass for about 100 yards and then the Vietnamese troopers headed for small trees in the area.

I picked out a couple and Lt. Chang and I pulled out knives and commenced clearing. Pvt. Honh, the little radioman who had become my buddy, was cutting grass around his camp site with what looked like a paring knife. I loaned him a machete and he immediately stopped cutting grass and commenced scaring his buddies by making practice swipes at them with the big blade. There was some very curt-sounding Vietnamese spoken by Lt. Chang, and Honh went back to work.

Hammocks Go Up Between Trees

When a place was cleared -- large enough for a hammock to be slung between trees and to have a little sitting room -- the hammocks went up. It is impossible to sleep on the ground. Ants are voracious and cover the whole surface, and this is snake country -- although I saw only one snake during the three days I spent with the Marines, and that was when I came back to “town” and was riding in a jeep which startled a four-foot cobra crossing the trail.

Pvt. Honh cut three stakes and drove them into the ground and the black pot went on top. Water, rice, dried shrimp, some rancid bits of pork, red peppers (plucked from vines beside the trail where they grew in abundance) and various other items, including my six little ears of corn, were tossed in and the lid put on it. He built a small fire.

It was dark by now and the entire perimeter was lighted by cooking fires. Lt. Chang saw me looking at them askance and squatted down by me.

“Very bad. Maybe draw mortars. But we must have an hour to cook or we cannot eat, and, if we cannot eat, we cannot march and fight. We came in here at dark. Maybe grass is high enough to hide them,” he said.

He told me that he “was very frightened when mortar shells come into my position six times. After seven times, not so frightened. I don’t know how many times mortars come on my position now.”

He had been in the service six years. The officer’s handsome features were marred by a large scar on the left side of his face. He had been raked by a bullet there. He said he had been hit twice before this most recent wound.

“Next month I take 30 days and I go to Saigon and maybe get married. Very bad to be alone and cook for myself. Very lonely,” Lt. Chang said.

Smell Fails to Whet Western Appetite

Pvt. Honh raised the lid on the pot, which so far as I was concerned was a disaster. Sun-dried shrimp and rancid pork do not make a smell calculated to whet a Western appetite. He then pulled out a billfold. It was sweated badly but it was thick with pictures. He selected one of a pretty Vietnamese girl and showed it to me.

“My mama-san. She is in Nha Tranh. We have seven girls and have been married 17 years," the 21-year-old radioman said seriously.

I admired the picture, complimented him on his English and again told him I thought he was a wonderful liar. He pulled out my corn and handed it to me, Lt. Chang accepted an ear. It tasted good, if fishy. Then he filled my canteen cup with some rice and various other food, such as boiled cucumber slices and shrimp and pork. I managed it.

Sgt. Sue put the final touch to things, however. He pulled six dried fish from his pack, head and all other parts intact if not in working order, and tossed them on the coals. I strangled and grabbed for the cognac bottle which Pvt. Honh had been carrying all day and which he had offered to me when he handed me the rice.

I pulled out the cork and hurriedly lifted it up, and saw Pvt. Honh looking at me with stark admiration on his face. I held off sipping the cognac as he talked.

“Pvt. Honh says you are a very wonderful American. He says not many can eat Vietnamese food like you, and this makes Vietnamese feel bad, but that he has never seen an American like nuok mang well enough to just drink it out of bottle," Lt. Chang said.

There just wasn't much left for me to do. I took a slug, swallowed it, and slowly walked off into the darkness. I tasted it for four hours, but I had secured my reputation once and for all with Pvt. Honh.

(Nuok mang is made by putting fish in vats with layers of salt. After a fermenting process, red peppers are added to the liquid.)

After recovering from the nuok mang incident, I went back over to the coals of the fire and sat with Lt. Chang and talked.

He said that he thought the partition of Viet Nam was both logical and proper. He said: “Those who wish to try communism can do so. They have a place. Those who don't can come South. I am Catholic. I would be executed and so would my family and all my friends, I suppose, because of our religion. Pvt. Honh is Buddhist. His father was shot and sister was cut open when the VC took her off a bus. She was pregnant. This makes him no friend of the VC, eh? It does not make him afraid, it makes him angry and he joins the Marines and fights. He is 21 now. He has been in since he was 16 and the VC killed his father. His family lived outside of Da Nang and his father was a village chief.”
He told me his platoon had been the point when the battalion had fought through to Duc Tho about 12 days earlier. His men had captured a very important prisoner.

“We thought he was a dead VC. He was in a North Viet Nam uniform and had papers which showed he was a political commissar. He played dead but we see his chest go in and out and we pull him from a hole. Sgt. Sue started to kill him once when he tried to run but we caught him. He was a very important prisoner. He was a regular member of the North Viet Nam Army. It proved Hanoi gives the orders,” Lt. Chang said.

The Second Battalion down the road was apparently having a fight at about 10 p.m. There was a lot of shooting and then the horizon lit up with artillery explosions and illuminating flares.
“We have two 105s, two 155s and two 75 cannons. They are set up at the points (putting a stick on a map under a flashlight) and can shoot for both battalions. They must think they have the VC located over on the coffee plantation,” Lt. Chang said.

The distant racket died down and I climbed into my hammock.

At 4 a.m. I almost tore the hammock apart getting out of it. Somebody about 50 yards away was firing a rifle. I heard three quick shots, then the whole perimeter blazed. It became silent just as suddenly.

I saw Lt. Chang crouching, carbine in hand, and Pvt. Honh, in shorts and socks, listening on his radio and holding a .45 in his left hand. It was foggy and very dark, but Lt. Chang had a flashlight shielded in his hand and was reading code words to Honh.

“Charlie, our security think the VC came up to see if we were awake. They heard men in the grass. I don’t think any trouble if you want to go back to sleep,” Lt. Chang said after about 10 minutes when a radio call came to him.

I didn’t really feel like sleeping, but it seemed foolish to stand around worrying, so I went back to my hammock and got in, keeping my boots on this time. It had been uncomfortable wearing them unlaced on the wrong feet.

Daybreak came very quickly, and I was quite proud of my foresight in keeping my boots on. That enabled me to make my second emergency exit and leap out of the hammock. Pvt. Honh had kindled the fire and Sgt. Sue had tossed his fish on it and I was upwind.

An hour later, crippling along under my overweight rucksack, I followed the platoon through the elephant grass for the second day’s work on the project of clearing Highway 14.


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