Sept 10, 1965
Franco Sketch

Fairfax, Ala., Captain Leads Task Force

(EDITOR'S NOTE: Enquirer Military Writer Charles Black is in Ankhe, the Viet Nam encampment area for the 1st Cavalry Division now en route to the overseas assignment. His series of articles on the Fort Benning unit will continue as he moves with the division to give a first hand account of its activities.)
Enquirer Military Writer

ANKHE – A unique organization ranges the area of Route 19 west of the high mountain pass which the road ascends to come to this little village where the 1st Cavalry Division’s advance party has been clearing brush, unloading equipment and preparing for the landing of the most powerful U. S. fighting unit committed here.

The task force guarding the lower reaches of the pass is living in mud and water in a dank field across from an abandoned village which has been partially demolished by peasants seeking building materials. They are living in impromptu tents made from ponchos or in squad tents. Dump trucks have brought sand into the field and dumped it to build up the sleeping areas, but square sumps filled with water are all over the field.

The unit is called “Task Force Panther” and is made up of the air cavalry troops of the 101st Airborne Division and of the reconnaissance platoons from the First Infantry Division and the 101st Airborne Division. I got out of CWO Mike Lowe’s jeep and met a 101st Airborne trooper, Sp4 Roger Rogers of Dothan, Ala., and he drove me to the operations tent.

Capt. Robert C. Anderson of Langdale, Ala., a very tired looking man, but apparently not sweating out the war too much, found some coffee and an ammunition case which could be used for a chair.

“We are the only cavalry squadron in Viet Nam this minute. We whip all over the area, sometimes in choppers, sometimes motorized, sometimes on foot, keeping the VC away from this end of the road and the pass. We’re real proud of Task Force Panther, they ought to make it a regular outfit,” Capt. Anderson said.

A look at his operations map showed that they had been active and that the Viet Cong had not deserted the area.

A battalion of about 45 VC had been spotted the night before moving south but had disappeared into the thickly timbered mountains before an air strike got there. A while later, 75 more were spotted moving south across the road in the area.

A raid in the afternoon before had netted the task force its first kill. They hit a village and when they drew fire, killed one Viet Cong guerrilla, capturing his weapon, and captured another. They had had a casualty during the night.

A sniper had spotted a sergeant silhouetted against a light, and had fired on him from the concealment of the abandoned village. The sergeant had been hit in the thigh.

“Not a bad wound. He’ll be back to duty, but it’s the outfit’s first Purple Heart. We’re way ahead of the VC on the score,” Capt. Anderson said.

A convoy of trucks had just come down from the winding mountain pass as we talked and after a coded radio exchange, the operations sergeant, S-Sgt. Ralph Toby, 101st Airborne Division, who comes from Montgomery, Ala., took a red grease pencil and entered another report number.

“Convoy reports sniper attack as it came down pass at 13:30 hours,” he wrote.

Sgt. Toby made a circle on the map which indicated that the VC had fired at the trucks as they had come around a switchback turn, letting the convoy go by and then firing into the rear of it. They had hit no one but had punctured one of the truckbeds with a bullet.

Chase Six VC

“We chased six VC up that way. We wounded one of them, his arm was bloodied; we got that one and ran down a suspect who was in the area. That means there are at least four of them still around, I’d say. We’ll keep the pressure on and either get them or they’ll run,” Sgt. Toby said.

Sp4 Leonard Beard and Lt. Robert Raleigh poked their heads in the tent then and announced that they were ready to “make a jeep run up to the pass.”

A lot of vehicles were heading out of the mud flat toward the mountain just west, loaded with men wearing the red patch of the1st Division and the eagle of the 101st Airborne Division. They seemed to have shaken together very well into a team. Seeing them head up the road, immediately after the report of the snipers, was a comfort.

“We’ll have some company up there. There will be at least a battalion working that pass over after that report a while ago. Everybody put a round in the chamber when we got throught that thing, though, because you could hide a division up there,” Capt. Anderson said.

The lieutenant wore a 1st Division patch and the specialist a 101st Airborne patch. Lt. Raleigh had served at both Fort Rucker, Ala., and Fort Benning and asked me more questions about how the Valley area was doing than I had a chance to ask him about how things were up in the Ankhe pass.

Troops Seek News

A jeep with the windshield down, whipping up a narrow road which twists and turns around a mountain where riflemen had been active an hour earlier, has a dampening effect on conversation but everybody talks about the United States over here and Columbus is a kind of a crossroads for Army men. They pump me for every possible scrap of news about the town and area -- even asking about local politics and real estate developments.

“I’ve been gone a week or so. I’m pretty far behind on any news at all,” I told the two soldiers.

“We’re three weeks behind so anything you know is news,” Lt. Raleigh grinned. “It doesn’t seem to make any difference how old it is, or whether it’s news or not, a guy just gets hungry to hear something he hasn’t heard, I guess.”

Like Georgia Mountain

The road reminded me more of driving over Unicoi Mountain up in North Georgia than any place I can think of. Pine trees and oak trees mingled with tropical foliage. Rocks jutted out of elephant grass and vines, and the twisting turns caused the jeep passengers to twist their necks, looking in all directions at once.

Platoons and squads of American soldiers in helmets and sweat-stained fatigues were pushing up the side of the mountain in spots. Vehicles were parked along the sides of the road below them. They looked as if they were combing the areas very thoroughly and hopefully.

At the exact top of the pass, the temperature had dropped at least 15 degrees from the muggy heat of the valley of the Ankhe River which we had followed up from Binh Dinh on the trip up here. It was down to about 85 and it wasn’t so completely damp. The pleasant landscape at the top of the pass, where a whole company was prowling the brush now, made a sign up there seem necessary just to remind people that there was a war going on around here. It is the kind of sign American outfits are always erecting.

Sign Says ‘Welcome’

“1st Cavalry Division, Welcome. This pass is secured by the 101st Airborne Brigade,” it read.

The 101st is providing perimeter security for the advance party of the Air Cav.

“Do you know that bunch of air assault soldiers is doing something that I doubt has ever been seen in the Army? When you get there, you’re going to see lieutenant colonels and PFC’s out with gloves on using those native brush hooks and clearing ground. I mean it, a major may be boss in the working party and it will be half officers and half NCOs, hacking out bamboo and thorns,” Lt. Raleigh said.

He twisted around in the right side of the jeep and looked back at the sign.

“I think maybe they ought to put up a sign on that base they’re building outside of Ankhe about that, maybe something with crossed brush hooks and a full colonel’s eagle on one side and a PFC’s stripe on the other, because they have sure pitched in together and done something. Wait until you see the place and you’ll understand what I’m talking about. It has been a real good thing to watch,” Lt. Raleigh said.

Ankhe Typical Town

We came down the mountain, and then in a high, rolling plateau surrounded by a ring of mountains, heavily timbered and very beautiful to see, the village of Ankhe showed up. It was a typical town here: ox carts, chickens, pigs, children, women carrying shoulder poles with baskets, little open shops, narrow muddy streets, the pink-blue-and-white color motif of a stucco villa-style building surrounded by wattle and thatch huts making a colorful backdrop for the dusty, olive-green of Army vehicles and helmeted soldiers.

Most of the soldiers were wearing a screaming eagle here, but the green-dyed patch of the 1st Cavalry showed on the shoulder of Sp6 Roy Hernandez, standing by a jeep on the edge of a runway of pierced metal filled with a long stack of boxes and crates. A row of tents showed on a hill across the runway, sandbagged bunkers and holes and an orchard of puptents and poncho shelters behind them located the division’s new home.

It was just out of town on the edge of a huge sweep of land which looked like few other places in Viet Nam. The brush and vines and bamboo were gone, stacked in big piles, many of them smoking and burning, but the grass sod was left untouched and I could see groups of helmeted soldiers hacking at brush clumps and dragging brush to the piles.

Hernandez grinned and shouted a greeting, then he shook his head.

“You better go back to town and tell the blacksmith to make you a brush hook. Everybody uses one here. Col. John J. Hennessey, Sp6 Roy Hernandez and everybody else, buddy. They probably already have you assigned to a working gang,” he said.

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