Sept 17, 1965
Sept 17, 1965

Guerrilla Hunt Welcome Relief



By CHARLES BLACK
Enquirer Military Writer


ANKHE -- It is very hard to stand on French Fort Hill where the advance party of the 1st Cavalry Division is camped and not become curious about what the tired, bearded, dust men wearing the 101st Airborne Division patch are doing out in the hills around the perimeter.

The paratroopers show up in jeeps, wanting to borrow things (mostly food) or to renew a lot of old friendships they have -among the Sky Troopers. They are responsible for keeping the Viet Cong out of business in this area, and they have done the job.

There has been on1y a single incident in the base area, one sniper shot, since the advance party came here. The perimeter has had a lively sound with shooting almost every night, but never close enough to the camp to cause even a semi-alert.

I had walked from here to the “Golf Course,” as the brush-clearing site is going to be known from now on to the men who took part in the work, and went over to a bamboo thicket being attacked by Lt. Col. Thomas Nicholson, Maj. Harold O. Bourne and Capt. John Smith -- who is wont to assume a determined expression when he tells you his name and spells it for you.

Other Crew Members

The crew of the brush-hook wielders also included:

CWO Maurice E. Cammack; SFC Maximin Gomes; SSgt. Lewis H. Robinson; SSgt. Billy L. Wright, Sgt. Alvin Doyle; Sgt. Robert J. Grant; Sgt. Edward A. Leeson; Sp5 Maxwell E. Jackson; Sp4 David G. Diehl Jr.; Sp4 Jerry Gibbs Jr.

Sp4 Franklin J. Linderman; Sp4 Robert V. Rogers; Sp4 Lee E. Walch; Sp4 Robert M. Beige; PFC Richard A. LaFountain; PFC Milton R. Levesque; PFC Arthur Myers; PFC Thomas B. Williams and Sp4 Allan J. Klepaszyk.

This party was from the 13th Signal Battalion, and it included the complete mess hall delegation. The soldiers had left off clearing the big heliport being laid out here, turning this over to a crowd of Montagnard tribesmen, and had moved into the areas where they will make their home.

Good Ground

“We have a nice piece of ground,” Sgt. Gomes said. “It is well drained and we will get a good breeze from Hong Kong Mountain behind us. We’ll get it cleared off and build us a nice place to live here, tents with concrete floors to start, then mess halls and regular screened in hootches.

“We’ve given up Sunday,” he continued. “It is daylight-to-dark work, and not the kind we’re used to doing, but it is the job we have to do to get ready for the other guys.”

I was rather desperately searching for an excuse to ignore the extra brush hook he was offering me when a jeep full of 101st Airborne types came up. A man I had met when he was a control NCO on Air Assault II, a test held in South Carolina last fall, jumped out and began beating dust out of the back of my jungle shirt.

Sgt. Billy L. Bowlin is an old Columbus resident. He was with the Airborne School Department at Fort Benning from 1958 until March 1962, when he came over to South Viet Nam. He had served a year at Tay Hoi, a little camp far south of here, returning in April 1963, and was back again, this time in the mountains.

Extends Invitation

“How about coming out with my artillery battery for a couple of days?” Bowlin said. “We think we’re going to have a little excitement, and it will give you a look it what the Air Cav is going to be working in when the outfit gets here.”

Gomes was still threatening me with the brush hook, so the choice wasn’t hard. Sleeping on the ground at French Fort Hill or sleeping on the ground up in VC country in the mountains, is about the same, except for the risks involved, but 105 mm. howitzers are rather comfortable companions on such expeditions. I took up the offer.

We drove the jeep through a ford in the river between the camp and the Golf Course. I rolled up my home -- a sleeping bag and a poncho -- and we drove over to the airborne brigade’s camp.

In the past few days, the temperature had been going up into the high 90s after a spell of wonderful 70-to-80 - degree weather, but the Ankhe area is still the finest part of Viet Nam so far as scenery and climate are concerned. Bowlin kept saying it reminded him of the Great Smoky Mountains.

Other Occupants

The other occupants of the jeep were Lt. Thomas D. Gaither, commander of Battery A, Second Battalion, 320th Artillery, and First Sgt. Garland T. Wright, another Viet Nam veteran. Wright had spent a year down in the Mekong Delta country as an adviser to the Seventh Vietnamese Airborne Battalion.

“This is my ninth tour out in the Far East. I was on orders to go to Germany and I volunteered to come back here,” Wright said. “I wanted to go to Germany, but I lost a lot of good Vietnamese friends not long ago.

“The battalion I was with was the one which got trapped trying to relieve Don Xong not long ago,” he said. “They lost 250 men. You don’t like to lose good friends without having a chance to do something about it.”

Drive Through Ankhe

We drove through Ankhe, a very complicated thing to do because of the variety of traffic (oxcarts to bulldozers), and turned off Highway 19 on a dirt road.

The artillery battalion, camped about a mile from the highway, was surrounded by sandbagged bunkers, concertina barbed wire and determined-looking paratroopers with M-16 rifles.

“We had somebody try to throw a log across the concertina last night,” Gaither said. “He disappeared into the brush, but he put the boys on alert. They aren’t standing for any nonsense around the perimeter.

The conversation turned to a rather grisly occurrence at the camp of the First Battalion 502nd (Airborne) Infantry a couple of nights before. The battalion’s headquarters is across the airstrip from French Fort Hill. A sentry heard somebody opening the lid of a water trailer and fired. Three Vietnamese men ran off into the night, one moaning. The little M-16 had torn his hand off, it was found the next morning.

Nobody knew what the infiltrators intended (theories usually ran to poison or explosives), but there had been no more prowling at night around that particular camp.

“I think a lot of this stuff around the inner perimeter, is caused by thieving expeditions,” Wright said. “War is pretty rough on a population, and some of the Vietnamese and Montagnards have lost a little of their traditional honesty, you know.

“But you can't ask a sentry at night in hostile territory to decide whether he is firing on a petty criminal or a VC terrorist,” he explained. “If it is attempted thefts, then what happened will serve as a warning that the perimeter is bad medicine. If it was some VC trying something, he won t try it again.”

We ran into a column of six guns pulled by trucks parked across a Bailey Bridge and drove down to the lead radio jeep. Gaither stopped and delivered what he had borrowed from the 1st Cavalry Division people -- two bundles of sandbags. A sergeant grabbed them, threw them into another jeep and turned in at the artillery camp.

“We’re fortifying the position pretty solid. If Victor Charlie (Viet Cong) hits, we want him to run into something,” Gaither said.

Introduces Commander

He introduced me to Lt. Col. William F. Braun, the battalion commander, and John V. Lamp, the executive officer. Braun, a precisely spoken and wonderfully humorous man, explained the next week's work to me.

“There is a trail which turns off the road up here,” Braun said. “We will go down that trail to where a path turns off. The VC have cut it up pretty badly.

“There are several deserted villages along the way we will screen,” he continued. “We will make a reconnaissance up about eight miles, then pull back to a strategic hamlet the Viet Cong overran last fall which is now deserted except for old women, old men and children That is the first night’s camping ground.

“We will fire supporting missions for a helicopter assault which is going after two fortified hamlets the Viet Cong are reported to be holding in strength about two miles up the va1ley,” he told me. “Frankly, I would recommend that, if you don t have to go, you don't, because it is a long way out for one battery of artillery to be located.

“We may get reinforcements or we may not. I'm working on it. Lt. Gaither is going to be a long way out in the boondocks for a cannon operator on his own,” Braun concluded.

I didn't have to, but it wouldn't have been polite to have turned down Battery A’s hospitality at this point. Besides, Gomes still had that spare brush hook back at the 1st Cavalry Division’s camp, and it looked as if he intended to force me into using it.

Cutting bamboo is second choice to a good many things I have tried, and the possibility of Viet Cong attack is a lot more inviting a prospect than the absolute certainty of a bamboo thicket on the Golf Course!

There are more blistered palms per man in the advance party than in any similar group in the U.S. Army, and that is one of the kinds of war wounds I fear the most.

ã Columbus Ledger-Enquirer

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