Sept 5, 1965

Franco Sketch

New Viet Nam Adversary: Heat

Ledger-Enquirer Staff Writer
BAN ME THUOT -- The bridge which we had come to on our walk through the jungle was a cabinet piece example of the saboteur's art.

As the column of Vietnamese marines I was with filed out of the elephant grass where we had camped overnight, I stepped out of line and walked to the end of it. The two concrete sections which crossed a murky, swift river had been dumped into the water by an explosion which had sheared the connecting beams as if they were sawed.

To get to the bridge, I had to walk around deep cuts in the road. These were about three feet wide and the V.C. had dug them half-way across the road, then moved down and dug the rest of the way. It left a little path which the peasants could use, which a bicycle could use, but which a truck or car couldn't negotiate.

Lt. Khanh, the intelligence officer for this task force of marines and engineers which was charged with opening Route 14 between Nha Trang and Ban Me Thuot so that truck convoys could haul supplies to the American outpost there, walked over and we sat on an intact section of concrete and he told me about the road-cutting technique.

“The V.C. are smart, very smart. They do not get local people mad this way, but they stop government and commercial traffic. Those cuts are not too wide. Most businesses send scooter trucks up, three-wheel Lambretti trucks with merchandise. They stop and pay ‘taxes’ and V. C. lift them across. When we bring up a convoy, though, we have to haul dirt to fill in the holes,” he said.

Lt. Khanh said he was happy to have a chance to practice his English (he had a very emphatic Vietnamese accent while Lt. Chang spoke with an inflection which was almost American) and handed me his address so I could write to him.

“I like letter very much. Make me very happy to hear from you. You pay us a very high compliment by staying with us out here. It is not nice place and we know it is very hard and we thank .you very much,” he said.

He showed me the cut-off which had been built by engineers in an earlier effort to clear the road and we found a steel Bailey bridge span had been put in. The V.C. had pried pieces loose and had burned the timber flooring of the bridge as well as having dug the ubiquitous ditches across the detour.

“Very many people help V.C. here. Ambushes on this road before show that there are many V. C. here too. We go up to plantation now because that was where the company of V.C. we have had our little brushes with yesterday and last night have been camping. Talk to Frenchman who owns plantation there.”

The marines were filing across the bare steel beams of the Bailey bridge, some of them running to the river bank and filling canteens. Lt. Khanh and I went down and filled our canteens and I loaned him purification pills. Then I crossed the bridge and hurried on until I caught up with Lt. Chang’s platoon where it was marching at the head of the column.

An hour later, we met the other battalion’s scouts as they approached from the other direction, and after a conference, our column turned and headed into the brush. Suddenly we came out of it and were walking through coffee bushes with chickens pecking away under them. The marines scattered and chased chickens down, tying them by their feet and hanging them on their packs.

A big villa was in the center of the plantation. The troops stopped and Lt. Col. Yen and his staff, with Maj. William Lefwich the Marine adviser looming tall and solid among them, walked up to the villa where an elderly man with a large nose, a wooden leg showing under trousers cuff and in an obvious temper, awaited. A loud argument in French between him and Col. Yen ensued.

From the way the French plantation owner waved to the squawking, feather loads on the marine packs it was fairly obvious what the discussion was over.

Maj. Lefwich turned to me, hiding a grin, and said:

“Col. Yen told him that his poultry must have been very sick as the chickens all ran off into the jungles and died. He told the battalion commander to have the men pay for the chickens but you know how that is. They don’t have any money and the price of chickens out here is 10 times what the Saigon price is for some reason. We try to discourage this, they do it in their own villages sometimes, but what can you do? They arc expected to live off the country and what they can carry and they have to eat to fight. It is pretty frustrating sometimes. This time, well, the plantation pays its taxes to the V.C., I guess, or it would be wiped out. So now he pays a little tax to the government is about the way it works out I guess," Maj. Lefwich said.

“It’s different when it’s some poor peasant’s chickens, though. We have a real problem there," he said as the conversation ended and the Frenchman limped stiffly toward his villa.

We heard trucks then and saw a long convoy on the highway down the hill below us. They stopped and the staff went down that way. I went back to Lt. Chang's platoon. I saw Pvt. Honh and Pvt. Nae had acquired small, speckled, feathery companions for the rest of the trip. Both hens were hung by strings tied to their feet and looked resigned as they bobbed on the packs of the two.

“Engineers will fill holes and put new boards in bridge and we will go ahead to the next bridge. Second battalion will stay here and guard," Lt. Chang said.

The process was very similar all day. We went out into the brush and looped back to intersect the highway, L-19s put-putted overhead as observation planes, choppers came in and shot up areas and roared away, artillery thudded into hillsides and jungle, fighter planes worked over an area on our left.

We came up by a man lying beside the trail, his boot off and his foot bleeding from an ugly puncture. The medic saw me and held up a wicked thing made of wires twisted together like a child’s jack, four spikes in a cross effect which put one up no matter how it was thrown. The man had stepped into elephant grass to tromp a path and skewered his foot. We had been held up several minutes while marines gingerly probed the area, finding several dozen of the things. I saw more medics coming back along the path, carrying a canvas stretcher.

“When we get out of the trees, we will probably signal for a helicopter and evacuate him,” Lt. Chang said. “Maybe he is lucky.”

We passed another marine then, the sweat and pallor of heat exhaustion showing, a medic pouring water on him from a canteen. The temperature was back up to 120 or more again and the damp air was heavy and oppressive.

I heard the chopper flapping down in back of us later when we had crossed a field and Lt. Chang said the two men had been taken back to the hospital.

"American advisor calls in the helicopter on the radio and gives a signal with a grenade. A gun ship flies over and marines stay in circle. Very bad time for V.C. to hit when we must take out sick men,” Lt. Chang said.

We went by two more bridges during the day, each time holding in a perimeter until the engineers came up and then leaving a battalion behind to guard them as they fixed the damaged structures. Both concrete bridges were blown and the Bailey bridge substitutes had the flooring burned out. The cuts in the road were thicker in this area than they had been around the plantation, now about seven miles down the road.

We ate cold rice twice. Once at 10 a.m. and once about 2 p.m., grabbing out handfulls from the pot on Pvt. Honh’s pack now beside the chicken and eating it from our hand as we took brief rest halts. It was much harder for me on this march than it had been Tuesday because I felt weak and no matter how much water I drank, I wanted more. There was no salt available and my rucksack was becoming something I hated the sight of. I almost threw away the typewriter and extra clothing once but managed to scrape up resolve enough to hang onto what I had started out with.

Camp that night was beside the road in a grove of mango trees. The grass and vines were thick but not as tall and it commenced raining almost at the moment I had my hammock swing. I ate some mangos I found and threw away a melon because it had become gourdlike from being overripe. I was too tired to wait for Pvt. Honh to coax wet twigs into a fire under a poncho he had rigged as a tent, and went to sleep. I slept through two mortar rounds which exploded in a grove near us, hurting a Vietnamese boy very badly and Lt. Chang had a very hard time getting me awake when it was time to pack up and move again.

The helicopter came down onto the road for the wounded boy as we were leaving and Maj. Lefwich stood there, looking very tall and untired. I grinned at him weakly and found that the pace was too fast for me as we headed directly up a steep hill, keeping to the road and almost running. The morning heat and the steam of the drying roadway was more oppressive than ever and suddenly, less than 1,000 yards from where we had started and just as the two helicopters whirled off with the wounded man aboard, I simply blacked out and fell on my face.

I came to with a marine pouring water on me and fanning me with the bush hat I had been wearing. I felt very disgusted with myself and tried to get up, but my head went dizzy and I fell down, this time on my back with my rucksack under me. It was the first time I had ever had this happen on march and I was ashamed of myself. I kept telling the marine I would be all right and to go ahead. He ran off and another one ran over and poured water on my face, then he ran on to catch his column.

I got out of the rucksack and tried to get up, but then I became nauseated and had some very bad stomach cramps which doubled me up and I heard Major Lefwich talking

“Charlie, we’re getting you out on that chopper. We have two others down from the heat just ahead. I’m calling it in now. Stay put, we’ll get you out of here.”

I saw some green smoke, heard a roaring and felt the sting of dust as the chopper came down behind me in a clearing, then two Vietnamese medics, both very small, were trying to lift me and I got my arms around them and we made it to the chopper. They pushed my rucksack in behind me and an American pulled me onto the floor, putting a jacket under my head and hollering something I couldn't understand. I got on my back and the wind felt good and cool, but I was wringing wet and became chilled then.

The boy who had been hit with the mortar was by me in a stretcher and his wrist was over my legs, blood from under a field bandage on his arm was splattering my jungle fatigues. I couldn't remember anything else about the ride until I was in an ambulance in a stretcher.

An Army captain hung a bottle of saline solution on a wire in a little stucco dispensary at Ban Me Thuoc, put a needle into my right arm, and prescribed “…lying there and keeping quiet for about three hours, then lying someplace else and keeping quiet for about three or four days.”

“You hit that country too quick. You are dehydrated and are lucky you’re not going to Nha Trang to the hospital as a serious case. You let your pulse and blood pressure get back to normal. We’ll get a lot of sweet, black coffee into you to get some nourishment working and we’ll get your salt content up and liquids into you. Hang around here tonight, stay in bed and we 11 probably let you get up and walk a little tomorrow,” he said.

That was how I made the acquaintance of Capt. Leon E Curry, commander of the 10-man medical detachment at Ban Me Thuot, and of the group of heroic young medical specialists he has working for him. It was almost worth a touch of heat exhaustion and the other odd lot of things bothering me then to have met this group. Two of them had served in the 11th Air Assault Division before it became the First Air Cavalry, and when I felt better that evening, they both said they were “glad to see the outfit come over here, we’ve needed them!”

The story of this medical detachment is a heartening one. They are doing quite a job.

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