Sept 16, 1965
Franco Sketch

1st Cavalry Camped in Old French Fort



By CHARLES BLACK
Enquirer Military Writer



 ANKHE -- The advance party of the 1st Cava1ry Division for the past ten days  has been residing on a tree-bare hill overlooking the runway on one side and the village of Ankhe on the other.

The campsite is named “French Fort Hill” and is a historic memento of the last time foreign troops turned Ankhe into a strategic base for operations against guerrillas.

The crown of the hill has a three-sided area enclosed by an old dirt wall. The wall is pierced by old log and dirt bunkers. One of them sti1l has the roof intact. Most of the others have caved in but the firing slits still command the area around the hill. Links from machine gun belts still lie deep in front of these firing slits. The soldiers digging in for their own bunkers and shelters turn up fragments of mortar and artillery shells and ammunition clips are scattered over the area.

Bulldozer Patrols

Across the runway, where C123s, Caribous, C130s and helicopters are busy all day, a large area is taped off and engineers run a remote-controlled bulldozer back and forth there. Severa1 times a day the thud of an exploding mine sounds and the bulldozer disappears in a cloud of dust, then emerges and continues its monotonous patrol.

The minefield, put down by the French forces more than a decade ago, was discovered by accident when an American engineer was injured. The old fort in the middle of the tents and shelters of the 1st Cavalry Division’s advance party camp was maintained by Montagnard soldiers of the French Colonial forces and was a key point in a defense of Ankhe which turned into a debacle.

Mr. Kai, the Vietnamese merchant, contractor and general supply agent in Ankhe, told me about much of the history of the fort. He supplied the French combat team, Group Mobile 100, which was hit by five separate ambushes between here, Kon Tum, Pleiku and Ban Me Thuot.

Cities Impact

“This happened just after Dien Bien Pheu and had an enormous impact on events in South Viet Nam. I don’t think the Viet Cong would have been so strong in the Central Highlands if it had not been for the Ankhe defeat,” Mr. Kai said.

The Vietnamese merchant has lived here about 18 years, except for a period after French Mobile Group 100 left Ankhe for its ill-fated retreat and he fled to Pleiku by the last civilian aircraft to leave Ankhe until two years later.

“As we flew over the Man Yang pass toward Pleiku, they were running into the first ambush. We could see the fire and smoke of battle. They 1ost 96 vehicles along Highway 19 and the group was disbanded at Ban Me Thout as being not fit for further fighting when the last ambush was over," Mr. Kai said.
 
Mr. Kai is the man you see here for wash basins, reed matting, soft drinks, ice, plumbing equipment, etc. He speaks Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, French and he and his son Tommy speak English so well it is hard to remember that they are not Americans.

Across the street from Mr. Kai’s office - store - warehouse in the two-block long “business center” of Ankhe, a tiny open-front room opens on to the sidewalk. There are -rough benches and tables so close that to get to the back of the room you have to walk on a bench.

Every day little Vietnamese children crowd in here and chant lessons and sing songs. Rest-room facilities are through a door in the back of the mud wall in an alley. The school is an elementary one which gives kindergarten and first grade classes. It is private, the teacher charging about 150 piastres ($1.25 or so) a month for each of his pupils. Smaller children, some wearing only shirts, others in black pajama outfits like most of their elders, line up on the sidewalk and watch curiously.

Conditions Primitive

There are other schools in Ankhe which take the children on up to an equivalent of high school, but education is given under primitive conditions in all of them. The fact that they are so crowded is indicative of the desire of the Vietnamese people to get an education.

“Everybody is hungry to know more. Everybody wants his son to have more and better than him,” Mr. Kai said. “Schools have been set up all over Viet Nam but they have been the special, targets of Viet Cong. The Viet Cong and their Communist masters are very fearful of an educated people.”

The work of Operation Golf Course, as the land clearing project here is known, has been continuing. Officers and men walk from French Fort Hill to the area the United States uses for a permanent base and cut brush, lay out helipads and maintenance areas, etc., from early in the morning until evening. The work force of Montagnard refugees from the mountain area has swelled to about 1,250 now. They walk or pedal bicycles from their hovels around Ankhe. Capt. Ron Summers, the civil affairs officer, arranged for them to be recruited by the local priest and province officials. Each worker has to have a security check and be approved by the province authorities after he has been referred to them by the priest who attempts to give the jobs to those who most need them.

First Payday

The Montagnards had their first payday and a footlocker of piastre notes was brought to the area where they .are working. The hill people crowded around and the interpreters called off names. Each man or woman had a record of the days they had worked. Foremen drew 100 piastres each day, men drew 70 piastres, women drew 50 piastres for: each day they had worked.

(The official rate of exchange for piastres at Army finance offices now is 118 for each dollar of military scrip. Black market is 120 for each green dollar with the military scrip not in any demand, the official Vietnamese government rate is 72 piastres for each dollar. The value of the bill is that established for it on the black market. A dollar will buy as much as 120 piastres.).

When the Montagnards were paid, a problem came up. Some of the men have worked several days and were given some of their wages in 200 piastre notes. The poverty of the. highlanders was never more apparent than when they became perturbed at receiving this bill worth less than two dollars. They had never handled a note this large before and did not know what it was. Capt. Summers and the interpreter had a very busy time explaining its value to them.

Out on the perimeter where the 101st Airborne Division brigade is in outpost or pulling patrols, there is an ever-present small fight going on. When the patrols move into villages, long under Viet Cong patrol, they have firefights and give and take casualties. They have killed a dozen Viet Cong and captured at least 32 in two village raids, taking a few casualties of their own each time, but with a healthy edge in the fighting.

A couple of nights ago we sat around the camp here looking up a valley and watched a massive fight taking place about six miles away in a little village. Later word was that a Viet Cong battalion had stumbled onto a Special Forces trained Montagnard force defending the village and had been driven back out of the outpost. Helicopters whirled out of the strip below us and went up to the fight. Artillery and mortars here sent shells up there, and a force of fighters went to help run the Viet Cong back into the mountains.

The VC suffered several casualties but pulled all of the wounded and dead back with them. There were only light casualties in the defense force. The firing, the light from flares, and the helicopter operating from the strip emphasized the fact that Viet Nam is a combat zone. Thus far, there have been only a few sniping incidents around this area itself, however. The hard work of the 101st Airborne Division has kept the Viet Cong busy out in the hill around here, giving them no time to infiltrate the area.

Situation Is Dull

It may not be proper journalism to say this, but right now the situation so far as the troops at Ankhe is concerned -- in the advance party of the 1st Cavalry -- could be described as “dull”. They work on clearing the area, they eat, they read letters (another mail run came in this week) and they talk. At dark, they are prone to crawl under their little shelter half abodes and go to sleep. Electric lights have been strung around the area but there is a dearth of reading material. Letter writing is a problem simply because it is hard to write anything sprawled on an air mattress or sitting on a sandbag.

Large tents where such operations can be conducted more easily are in short supply. Anyone noting that the letter writing seems one-sided with the troops here not being very prolific should be assured, they are perfectly all right and in a secure area, eating well if monotonous1y from C or dehydrated rations, keeping dry by ingenuity and working hard clearing brush, unpacking, supplies, etc.

One of the most talked about events yet to come is the arrival of Maggie, the white mule which is the mascot of the First Battalion, Ninth Cavalry, and who found herself aboard ship on her way to Viet Nam. Maggie somehow has become known all over the country and she. has become a famous character even before her arrival. I achieved a copy of a cartoon which showed up in Saigon, of all places, in an office there. A 1st Cavalry Division officer “borrowed” it and brought it up here with him. It shows a helmeted soldier on a swayback mule with two other soldiers looking on and one of them saying:

“Him? Oh, he’s one of them modern Sky Troopers.”

It is sort of like that all over Ankhe. You see a lieutenant colonel with a brush hook, a PFC hanging out a damp sleeping bag, men filling sandbags, and the expression keeps coming to mind. Right now the modern Sky Troopers are engaged in two age-old soldier projects: coming to a theater of operations on a ship and policing up the area.

© Columbus Ledger-Enquirer
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