Sept 15, 1965
Franco Sketch

1st Cavalry Talk Centers on Mail




By CHARLES BLACK
Enquirer Military Writer
ANKHE -- I paid my respects to Mess Sergeant Lewis H. Robinson’s malaria book (everybody takes a preventive pill once weekly; the mess sergeant watches them do it and enters it in the book) and ate chili and rice, corn, tomatoes and, for some reason, little sausages. It beat the food provided by the Vietnamese marines last week at Ban Me Thuot by a tremendous factor, and the troops here are happy about their chow.

There were several major conversational topics as I sat in an indiscriminately ranked group of men resting mess kits on the sandbags of a bunker, squatting around the perimeter, and talking to each other across the sandbagged roof. It made a very picturesque picnic table. Ranked in order of importance, the talk centered on:

First Mail Delivered

1.    The first mail delivered to the camp, seven days after the group had come here from the seaport of Nha Trang.

2.    Events in the week-old Stars and Stripes which had been delivered (nobody here was quite certain yet concerning the outcome of the Gemini flight, for example, and this was Sept. 1).

3.    The 101st Airborne Division’s operation the day before which made the first real hack at Victor Charlie in the area by “zapping” eight Viet Cong and capturing 12 more in a village two ridge lines over.

The paratroopers in about battalion strength had pushed out from the perimeter they are holding to guard this camp, landed by helicopter, and had a lively fight which they conducted with great success. They had one casualty, a well-known and popular NCO who had tripped on a wire which set off a grenade, blasting fragments into his back. His wounds were not serious, but he had been sent back to the hospital in Nha Trang because they were extensive and painful.

Day of Brush Clearing

4.    The day of brush clearing out on the golf course, as the area where the division base will be built is called.

5.    The advent of two new things to the Viet Nam scene -- military scrip currency instead of “green” and free mail privileges. The scrip will solve the problem of the black market in currency. Government exchange has been 72 piastres to a dollar, black market about 120. Few people bothered finding out where the legal transactions were performed. Now finance officers will give 118 piastres for a dollar of military currency for men wishing to buy souvenirs in town, and only military currency will be issued.

The word around here is that the United States will make up the difference between the official rate and the real rate of exchange from the bales of piastres it has collected in counterpart funds over the years of American aid. It is a good bargain because the American dollars spent in Viet Nam have been the biggest source of credit for French raids of the U. S. gold reserves in recent months.

French business interests still are huge factors in the economy of Southeast Asia, and the dollars GIs spent seemed to all wind up in Paris. From there they were transhipped to the United States with a demand for gold. The soldiers showed a keen appreciation of the tactic and approved of it. They had a less complicated time approving of the free mail, of course.

The 101st raid had made up for many frustrating days for the paratroopers. This victory came after some sniping and the bad luck of having security guards fire on friendly troops on occasion, and has upped their morale tremendously. The Air Cav people considered it a victory for our side of great psychological impact.

It may be interesting to note that the choice of the base is probably the best in Viet Nam history, so far as security is concerned. It is a huge bowl with ridge lines pushed far back out of effective range except for one spur which the paratroopers occupy heavily. The clearing operation has cut back the cover needed for sneak raids, and there probably isn’t a safer place to sleep nights in this country than in the pup tents on Air Cav’s Hill Ankhe.

Guards on the outer perimeter, a long way from here, keep sending up flares and automatic weapons fire in bursts on most nights, but only a single shot has been fired at this camp since it was set up and the security arrangements made. Alone Vietnamese fired a single hurried shot at a general area of tents and disappeared into tall grass which has since been cut down.

The weather has been showery. The showers come in the evening or night for the most part, and only one heavy one has hit so far, this being the dry season with the monsoons some weeks away yet. The temperature over the past 24 hours varied from 69 to 86 and we’ve had an accompanying breeze most of the time, which isn’t bad at all.

A few miles toward the coast, down the mountain pass, men are sweltering in air which smells of mildew, but the plateau and mountains here make Ankhe a pleasant place to be.

When the rest of the division comes, and when about 4,000 support troops arrive, there will be close to 20,000 men in this area, making it a big Army post in anybody’s town. Ankhe, which has 12,000, is slated to be rebuilt to a model metropolis of 50,000, which will make it a showplace in a gigantic civil affairs program which is part of the formula for winning this war. The 1st Cavalry Division will go out and defeat the Viet Cong in this area and the technicians will move into the secured areas and help the people to develop the country.

The theory is a simple one. The more the people have, the more they will resist those attempting to take it away from them. The more they can see and use the benefits of freedom and of that system’s economics, the stiffer will be their resistance to the lies and propaganda of the Viet Cong.

The area where this work is being done must be protected from terrorism, and the men from Fort Benning will do this by striking from the sky at the roving bands of guerrillas.

This is a topic which is also a major conversational item. But mail; the letters which finally got here, takes up most of the talk.
I got a couple myself, the first since arrival, and I found myself reading them for the fourth time two hours after I had first opened them.

We have generators, so a jury-rigged lighting system has been installed, but the system sometimes has eccentricities. Everybody has procured some candles and often enough the letters are read, or written, by that flickering light. The men hunker on a poncho ground cloth in a pup tent, with the light of the perimeter flares reflected from low clouds almost as bright as the candle.

This is an early-to-bed place simply because there isn’t anything else to do, and the few large tents on hand are always jammed full of conversationalists, lucky men who got in the bull session early, with standing room only. Besides, the work of hacking brush is simply hard, physical labor and a tired man sleeps well, on the ground or in the hammock or cot enjoyed by a lucky few.

When the men finish eating, they go to a line of hot water heaters with the water boiling in open barrels. They scrub mess gear in the first barrel with a brush. The second is a rinse barrel and the third is the final clear-water scalding vat. To make doubly sure that the nemesis of troops using mess gear -- bad stomach disorders caused by dirty mess gear -- does not strike, another barrel is used to dunk the kits before eating. Field sanitation is of a high order in the camp, with drainage ditches, latrines, etc., located by engineers.

It isn’t a comfortable way to live, of course. Most of us are either perpetually damp or perpetually drying clothes, the amenities are at a bare minimum. There is no entertainment except the best of all, comradeship, but nobody is suffering either.

It is a pretty good camping trip, much the same as any other field manuever so familiar to these men, with the exception of the occasional bursts of live fire, the artillery and rocket fire which occasionally lights up the sky at night as a fight comes up a few miles away, and the weapon and ammunition each man keeps always handy.

“When the division gets here, it will be something to watch. That many men will get this place set up in a hurry. We can all talk about the old pioneer days then,” Col. John J. Hennessy, the Support Command commanding officer of the division, told me as he found time for a brief conversation after supper.


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