- Brig. Gen. John Wright has told the advance guard of the First
Cavalry Division, which is getting a division base ready here for the
remainder of the Fort Benning troops, that they are a key part of a
major U. S. unconventional warfare offensive.
There are 1,200 Montagnard
families, members of two small tribes, who are refugees in Ankhe. The
Viet Cong terrorized the mountain villages until they packed up and
moved here where the Special Forces have held an island of resistance
with their camp full of self-defense companies and a specially trained
strike force of Montagnard warriors.
Ankhe is a dirty, smelly,
picturesque little plateau village without sanitation, without a paved
street, with very little, in fact, except dingy shops and people who
have plenty to eat because of the rich countryside, but very little
else. There are about 12,000 people here now, counting refugees.
Gen. Wright first told the
soldiers that this would become a major, semi-permanent military base
for the air mobile division and a bastion of strength in Southeast Asia.
He outlined a camp plan
which will make this post unmatched in Southeast Asia so far as troop
facilities are concerned.
The United States has bought
an area seven kilometers long by five kilometers wide. It is here that
the advance party and hundreds of the poverty-stricken refugees hired
through the village priest are clearing a vast helipad and camp area.
The camp has been laid out to include an ampitheatre, two movies,
swimming pools, barracks, clubs, tennis courts, post exchange
Ankhe itself will come to
the attention of one of the vastest civil affairs and development
programs yet attempted. The U. S. and Vietnamese government intend to
build a new, model city which will accommodate 50,000 persons.
The undeveloped, rich
countryside can support such a city if the area is cleared of the
terrorism and depredations of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese
battalions believed prowling the mountains and jungles. That is the
real work of the First Cavalry Division - to run those bands out of
The entire strategy will
reverse the tables on the Viet Cong. It will put a cordon across the
very area where the VC have attempted to sever South Viet Nam by
seizing control of Route 19.
It is very easy to be
cynical over such an endeavor in this country because of the history of
the war here, but this has a different ring.
A powerful United States
division is, in fact, setting up at Ankhe. The huge civic action plan
has, in fact, been directly mentioned and detailed by Gen. Wright,
commander of the advance party until Maj. Gen. Harry W. O. Kinnard
arrives to assume his command. The officers and men here now are, in
fact; more enthusiastic since the announcement by Gen. Wright of what
would come in this plateau than any troops have been whom I have
encountered in Viet Nam.
“We are here for a real
purpose. We are here to turn this into an example of what can be done
in this country by free men if given a chance. It is the greatest thing
I have ever heard of. I want to be part of it and I am going to work my
head off,” Lt. Roger Talmadge, executive officer of Company B, First
Battalion Eighth Cavalry, told me.
Maj. Chuck Siler, division
public information officer, said that the commitment here is a major U.
S. “move in what simply has to be the right direction. Military
security to give these people protection from raids and terror and a
civil affairs program which will be one of the most dramatic single
efforts our country has over undertaken just spell a powerful strategy
for winning over here, so far as I am concerned.”
These visions are very hard
to see now in the muddy trails and paths the men take going out to chop
bamboo, and in the ragged clothing of the Montagnards pedaling along to
work on their part of the brush clearing project.
The working parties leave at
different times each morning. They travel a different path each trip,
crossing a foot bridge over a stream behind the camp and then cutting
off through to their work sites by different routes.
Early in the morning,
patrols sneak out of the camp and screen the routes, moving on out to
the edge of the U S owned land. Platoons of the 101st Airborne maintain
outpost defenses all night and move out on security patrols. The
weapons and live ammunition each man carries make it possible to tell
that this is Viet Nam, but the sprout cutting is a lot like that any
farm boy knows about in preparing a new ground It is hard, sweaty,
wearying work. The bamboo has a hard sheath, the vines have thorns, the
elephant grass cuts like a knife, but the “golf course” grows every day.
The reason I know about all
of this is because Maj. Joseph Bellochi, usually a battalion executive
officer, poked his head into the tent which Sp-6 Roy Fernandez and I
were occupying and – ignoring the protocol one would expect in an area
which has a sign reading “commanding general” outside, even if the
commanding general wasn’t there and a Sp-6 and a reporter were using
his Viet Nam home temporarily -- shouted that it was 5:30 a.m.
The statement was
ridiculous. It was certainly 5:30 a.m., before dawn and a grimmer hour
it is hard to imagine.
“If you’re going out and
help cut brush, you better get up and eat,” the major said.
The mess hall had a hot
breakfast (lunch is C rations with supper another hot meal from
dehydrated food stores shipped here) and a remarkably cheerful line of
officers and men with mess kits lined up to go through. Tables consist
of the sandbags of a handy bunker, an ammunition box, or just the
ground. Mess kits are washed in three barrels.
Just after daybreak, at an
odd time as mentioned before, the parties commenced moving out. Maj.
Bellochi, Capt. John Drake; Capt. Donald McMillan, Lt. Wayne Davis, Lt.
Jimmy Smith, Lt. George Quigley, Lt. Danny Byard, Sgt. Francis
Thornhill, S-Sgt. Mike Hambrick, S-Sgt. James L. Stephens, SFC Ralph
Dixon and one Charles Black trudged across a footbridge, weapons in one
hand, native-made brush hooks in the other, and headed off for work.
It takes about 30 minutes of
very fast walking to get from the tent city to the far edge of the
“golf course” where the jungle is still waiting for the daily
onslaught. It takes a little longer (10 hours later) when the brush
cutters head back because they aren’t quite as energetic any more.
There is little drama in
hacking at bamboo and thorn vines and dragging the hewed brush to a.
pile. Kerosene poured on it and a match make the same kind of smoky;
sweaty brush pile fire here as any place else. Pulling weeds and
uprooting cactus is the same all over. The crowds of little,
black-suited mountain refugees squat and kneel to their work, moving
like ants across the brush and leaving an ever expanding cleared area
behind them. The soldiers were working in the heavy brush spots,
standing and using muscles instead of craft and patience. The re porter
was caught up in the spirit of the effort but had neither muscle, craft
nor patience to contribute and found he was better at dragging brush
than slashing them down.
Out in the brush ahead, the
comforting sight of green fatigues and helmets and men carrying weapons
at the ready showed the extent of the planning which takes place for
this daily operation. Sp-4 Larry Norviax and S-Sgt. Van D. Bailey left
the patrol of infantrymen (the 1st Cav provides its own inner security
here, the 101st Airborne Division brigade handles the outer perimeter
in the hills) and rather aloofly surveyed the sweating coolie gang.
They were on “security” this day and had a certain smugness about them
which would be lost the next when they went back to brush cutting while
others took over patrol duties.
Probably the most unique
jobs in the operation are those held by Sgt. Leo Hines, SFC Edger R.
Smith, S-Sgt. William Lashley and Sgt. Eugene V. Pallai.
Capt. Ron Summers, the
division civil affairs officer, rescued me from a losing battle with a
stubborn mass of bamboo and thorn vines we were dragging to a fire and
said he would like me to see the Montagnard crew working. I replied
that it was one of the nicest things said to me during the day since
SFC Lewis Robinson, the Headquarters mess sergeant, had aimed me in the
direction of the coffee vat at 6 a.m.
He drove one of the few
jeeps available over to the Montagnard area. The tribesmen looked at us
with curiosity, still showing surprise over the sight of all of the new
Americans in their area, and we stopped near a group standing in a
circle discussing something.
In the middle of the circle
a tall Vietnamese wearing full fatigue uniform, starched and pressed
and looking more like one of the American troops than Vietnamese, was
translating for a sergeant who was the center of attention. He was
wearing his green-dyed shirt and had an M-16 slung.