Sept 15, 1965
1st Cavalry Talk Centers on Mail
By CHARLES BLACK
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 to the camp, seven days after the group had come
here from the seaport of Nha Trang.
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).
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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