Guerrillas Abandon Headquarters
By CHARLES BLACK
Enquirer Military Writer
He was leading his outfit, Battery A of the 30th Artillery, a 105mm howitzer unit in the 101st Airborne Division’s brigade which is keeping the Viet Cong away from the base area being prepared for the 1st Cavalry Division.
The officer told me that his advance party would clear the trail and put out security, and the guns and the rest of the battery would come up about dusk. We turned off onto a one-way buffalo trail and then a radio call came which caused a delay but made the expedition more cheerful.
A platoon of the cavalry outfit thrown together from the 1st Infantry Division and the reconnaissance platoons of the 101st Airborne Division, commanded by Maj. Marcus Hansen and called “Task Force Hansen” or “Task Force Panther,” was coming up to keep us company.
“We’ re going into territory the Viet Cong has controlled without any opposition since last year,” Gaither said. “The village we’re going to set up at tonight had a 90-man defense force, and the VC took it over completely.
“They uses the school and the village headquarters as Viet Cong headquarters in the area,” he said, “so we like to have all the guns we can have in this way.”
The cavalry jeeps, loaded with lO6mm recoilless guns and riflemen commanded by Lt. Robert Anderson of the 101st, came up in about 15 minutes and took over the lead. The column now had about 15 vehicles in it and looked rather imposing, but it lacked a certain amount of dash.
At each of the deserted little hamlets along the trail, barbed-wire entanglements, foot spikes, holes in the road and torn-out bridges had to be contended with, and a careful patrol of the mud-walled huts was required. I stuck with 1st Sgt. Garland T. Wright on these house-checking operations.
The inside of a mountain hootch is very complicated. The peasants build a hut and roof it with thatch, then they keep working on it. A room is attached wherever fancy dictates. Sometimes extra cubbyholes are built inside other rooms and the cubbyhole is partitioned into more cubbyholes.
“They are like those Chinese boxes, the ones where you keep finding smaller boxes inside of them,” Wright said after we had prowled through the third hamlet.
This hamlet caused considerable delay. The Viet Cong had dug several cuts in the road and had put mantraps in front of them. The traps were small holes filled with bamboo spikes and covered with reeds and dust. While the lead elements poked through the village looking for snipers or ambushes, the rest of the column used shovels and pliers to open the trail.
We made this slow kind of progress all the way up the valley until we came by a village which SFC James E. Claypool, the battery’s fire director told me was to be our home.
The village was actually in three parts, and we found later that two portions were not entirely deserted. As we came through, though, the only signs of life were a flock of ducks swimming on a fairly large pond held by a grass-covered dam and about 15 big water buffalo standing belly-deep in mud in a rice paddy below the dam.
On a dusty hill, stucco buildings with red tile roofs and blue and white paint jobs were obviously deserted. They had the date 1963 painted on the gable ends and looked very luxurious compared to the mud-and-thatch affairs we had seen before.
The stucco villas were built as part of the “new life hamlet program” under the Diem regime, and the walls all had a sentiment concerning Diem painted on them. There were other things concerning Diem scribbled under them with charcoal by the VC which even when written in Vietnamese looked pretty bad.
There were three large buildings on the peak of the hill, still surrounded by a moat, bamboo spikes, barbed wire, gun pits, but looking littered and lonely now. A flower bed grew in front of one which had a postal box before it. The doors of one were torn off and school desks could be seen inside of it.
The other apparently was the main headquarters building. Down the side of this one some Viet Cong with a can of red paint had printed “Long Lives Ho Chi Minh! All dies My!” (My is the word used to denote Americans over here.)
The path from the trail which led along the pond on the east side went to a small Buddhist temple and a cluster of mud huts under a clump of coconut palms. A banana grove and rows of coffee shrubs were on this hill slope as well, and the huts ran along a rise of ground to join with a few more which lined the trail up the hill to the fortified headquarters.
Across the pond, a worn path crossed the earth-and-grass dam. A line of houses was visible among orange and grapefruit trees going up over a hill, then continuing down a little valley. A cleared hill reared up behind the six mud huts in the valley.
We went by this village and dismounted about a half-mile further up. The cavalry with Lt. Anderson formed a skirmish line in the front. The artillery men in the group formed into fire teams and followed along, keeping under cover.
Gaither and Wright moved ahead with the cavalry while Claypool took charge in the reserve elements. I liked Wright’s no-nonsense approach to these matters - he moved with a fine economy of risk - so I went along.
We wound through mango bushes (they seem to grow wild here) and rows of coffee shrubs. (Apparently this had been a French plantation which had been abandoned when that country’s soldiers had met a tragic defeat at Ankhe a decade ago.) The village we came into was dusty, dead, ruined. There was no sign of life. Yet, when we searched the hootches, we found the ashes of cooking fires in the back rooms, cartridge cases, bandages, bits of discarded clothing, all the litter left behind by men in a camp.
“It has been like this all over the place,” Gaither said. “The VC are getting out of our way. When we get them in a trap they fight. We’ve had a few fights, when they bump into us by accident. They aren’t interested in a fight with us. They just keep backing away, running and moving, and we keep pushing them.
“When that helicopter bunch gets here,” he said, “they are really going to get a pushing, and I think the VC are going to get one hell of a licking and be out of business.”
Oddly enough, it is disappointing to become keyed up for an operation like this and have nothing happen. You have the feeling that you want the fight to come and have over with. I heard disgusted comments all around me as we poked through the village on our way back.
“What do they want? Two platoons up here in their own backyard, and a couple of months ago they were jumping on Vietnamese battalions up here” Wright said. “If they don’t fight us, how do they figure on keeping their war going? We aren’t here to leave. They either fight or they break up and they’re finished.”
I had a sense of uneasiness after we had pushed the patrol to its limits and beyond, and I still haven’t lost it. I had been on a road-clearing operation with two Vietnamese marine battalions on Highway 14 a few days earlier, and a Viet Cong company had put up harassment all the way.
Here, they had simply decamped, and the remnants of cooking fires in the deserted huts showed it had been a sizeable band of men who had run away.
We moved back to our own village (it wasn’t entered on any available maps but it is about eight miles out in the mountains from the 1st Cavalry Division’s base site at Ankhe), and I watched the artillerymen go into the technical details of getting a gun position staked out.
I understood the work being done by the cavalrymen better. They were engaged in the business of setting up rifle outposts and fire support positions. The gunners put out red-and-white stakes under the direction of Claypool. Gaither took compass sights on peaks while somebody else unreeled wire. It was a very fascinating affair to watch, but it took second place to an exhibition of the art of the old soldier displayed by Wright.
He winked at me, walked around to a pile of equipment in the jeep we had ridden in, pulled it aside, opened a trapdoor and pulled two cans of beer out of an insulated container filled with ice.
“There are three cans of this stuff within 10 miles of here, an I’ve got every one of them,” he said. One each for you, me and the battery commander.”
I usually make it a point not to take advantage of too many privileges available to a reporter around an outfit in the field, but there are definitely exceptions to any rule, and this was one of them.
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