Sept 21, 1965
Franco Sketch

Gunfire Causes Quick Reaction




By CHARLES BLACK
Enquirer Military Writer


AN KHE-About 10 p.m. on the third night with the 101st Airborne Division’s patrols which range many miles into the mountains around here to run out any Viet Cong force in the area, somebody opened fire at the camp.

I jumped up from my poncho and sleeping bag and into the spacious hole provided by the good men of gun number three of Battery A, First Battalion, 302nd Artillery, and we all congratulated each other on the cool, careful way we had acted as the echo of the shot died.

“I think I beat you here by a milli-second,” Sgt. Larry P. Russell, the section chief, said. “I’m younger than you are, though so don’t feel too badly about being a little slow.”

Somebody on our side threw a whole lot of ammunition back at the noise and I saw Lt. Thomas Gaither and 1st Sgt. Garland Wright running through the camp to the platoon of riflemen on the perimeter where the firing was, about50 yards from us in thick brush.

A grenade thumped and there was a lot more M-16 firing and then it became quiet but the hole was so comfortable we all decided to stay up and talk for a couple of hours.

“I don’t know about you, but a good hole is one of the most restful places I can think of,” I told Russell.

“If it is dug right, nice and deep, and some attention is paid to keeping it neat, it makes a nice little home,” he said.

He introduced me to Sgt. David Memirow, gunner;. Cpl. David Brennan, asst. gunner; Sp4 John Decker, driver; PFC Davidson Dary, PFC Paul Piegare, PFC Marcellus Graham, PFC Michael Ferra and PFC Flores Alimeda:

I found out that I was sharing the hole with a group who had made some 101st Airborne Division history on July 30 at Cam Ron Bay where the division had been landed.

“This gun fired the first shell in hostile action the 101st Airborne has shot since World War II. Our gun was the first one registering in at Cam Ron,” Sgt. Memirow told me.

Somebody mentioned the other record we had established the day before. We had picked up a group of suspects and a cache of supplies in the village where we were, about eight miles out in the mountains, and the old village chief had been among them. A radio message had congratulated us on his capture.

“You will be proud to know that A Battery and your platoon of infantrymen and Charlie Black share the honor of having captured the oldest prisoner since the Vietnamese conflict started. The chief was born in 1882,” the message-stated.

The fact that we had turned in the biggest single cache of food, tobacco and money etc. captured in this area made us immune to such snide remarks from the distant rear echelon and everyone was feeling very sanctimonious over the fact we had not only captured but had even turned in a full, unbroken quart of bottled-in-bond American whiskey found in one of the hootches.

Lt. Gaither and Sgt. Wright came back and peered down into the hole at us.

“You guys mining? Building a subway?” Sgt. Wright asked.

“It’s cooler down here,” somebody said.

We climbed out and everybody shrugged their shoulders when we tried to find out what happened.

“Somebody Shoots”

“Cloudy, black, and that’s that. Somebody comes up,  somebody shoots, a guy runs into a hootch and Lt. Gaither tosses a grenade in after him and he runs out the back and the night is quiet again. The hootch never will be the same, of course,” Sgt. Wright said.

We went to get some coffee. Some minor miracles had been performed in this line and coffee is always kept on hand in a big insulated container now. From here, we gravitated back to the edge of the hole where we all lived.

I sat around with the gun crew - half of them always lay awake and on duty - and we just talked about Viet Nam and the U. S. and letters and things for a while.

I noticed again the appeal these mountains have for the men. All of us kept bringing up the subject.

“A man with a few thousand acres of this . . . just look at it! Timber, water, rich soi1, grow crops the year around and this mountain climate is not bad. I can see why Red China gets hungry when they look down here. Charlie, in Korea you see every foot of land which can be cultivated used. It is the same in Japan.

“Here are millions of acres that we can see from here with people just moving from camp to camp, not used, vacant. It is fantastic. If these people could get this damned fighting stopped and go to work building, this country would be a paradise,” Sgt. Wright said.

Big Effort

We talked about the big effort which I had heard about back at the 1st Cavalry Division’s advance party camp at An Khe. The Army has bought 35 square kilometers of land and it is being turned into a huge division base. The civic action and AID people were saying that a town would be built for 50,000 people. The program would make An Khe a dramatic showplace in the primitive Central Highlands area and the kind of irrefutable argument for American power - and good will - which could spell permanent defeat for Communism here.

I told Wright about the coastal towns I had seen, where American trucks and men were pouring into the country. Qui Nhon is unrecognizable to anyone returning after a few months absence with roads, air facilities; beach operations, cargo stacked in fields and convoys rolling down the narrow streets.

“That is just a little of it. Up at Cam Ron Bay we are building the biggest, most modern port in Asia, just putting it together where nothing was. It is one of the finest deep water ports in the world and we are suddenly turning it into what will be one of the major shipping cities in the Orient,” Sgt. Wright said.

The sudden onslaught of American effort here, military and economic, stretches from Qui Nhon where cargo is unloaded from barges, amphibious lighters, etc., 24 hours a day all the way up Highway 19 to An Khe. American fighting units, convoys, engineers, heavy equipment, aircraft, make a huge panorama of power which is part of the biggest single troop deployment operation since World War II. (The arrival of the 1st Cavalry Division at Qui Nhon, first stop before An Khe, is a much heftier chunk of logistical accomplishment than any Korean operation, officers here say.)


Absence of Units

And always, there is the strange and mysterious absence of the Viet Cong hard core units which ranged the highlands with such insolence and efficiency just a short while ago. This is the cause of more speculation than any single other thing here.

Where are they, why aren’t they making some fighting moves, have they quit, are they figuring out something really big? You hear every variation on the theme in questions, answers and tentative theories.

One thing is certain. They will not be in a position to be a menace to the 1st Cavalry Division before the division is set up and taking care of its own business. The area around An Khe and down Highway 19 and around Qui Nhon has been sterilized by helicopters, bombers, artillery and constant pressure by American soldiers and Marines. (The Marines have done at Qui Nhon what the 101st Airborne Division and Task Force Hansen has done in the rest of the areas - pushed the Viet Cong right out of the area and deprived them of any striking power within feasible distance of vital areas for the VC to be more than a nuisance at those points.)

All of this is the gist of three hours in a hole drinking coffee and watching distant flares and artillery shells and hearing a few rounds of automatic weapon fire. No major military names were present during the talk, but some guys who have been walking a lot of miles over a lot of Viet Nam talked about it as I have it here.

Having Trouble

Quite a few of us were having some trouble with keeping food down by now. The surgeon had handed out more pills and chalky liquids but he recommended that those who were hit too hard be sent on back to base. I’d been fighting with the stuff for two days and a diet of coffee with sugar was supplemented by oranges and limes picked from trees.

I told the surgeon of my trouble and told him that if it had not been for those orange trees I’d have starved.

“Solid food just won’t stay down. I can get some orange juice down, though,” I told him.

He sighed wearily and nodded.

“I have a very simple prescription for you. Take two of these, a tablespoon of this, three of these and a swallow of that and quit eating those damned oranges. They are what made you sick to start with,” he said.

I went back and threw away three oranges, laid down and slept an hour, heated some C-rations, ate and felt wonderful. So long as I had an excuse, and not having seen a bed for some ten days, I decided to hook a ride back in with the truck which brought a water trailer out to us that afternoon.

© Columbus Ledger-Enquirer

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