GIs, Natives Innoculated Against Plague
By CHARLES BLACK
Enquirer Military Writer
It looked like a huge pasture with the grass showing where before had been only bamboo thickets.
A throng of Montagnard workmen was hewing brush right up the sides of surrounding hills, and I found that the working parties of lieutenant colonels and PFCs were already hacking out the areas where the division units would build their homes on arrival.
The banyan tree, a big, ancient patriarch of the species which is a central landmark here, still stands, and it may be here for people to write home about. The Buddhist temple has been fenced off and negotiations are under way to have it moved to a new location.
The 70th Engineer Battalion has put together a big road where water buffaloes used to roam and the villagers have a continuous air of astonishment as they watch the landscape changes.
It is very close to time for the first men from the ships to come ashore at Qui Nhon. They are due to start coming off the USS Boxer on Sept 10 (Saturday here). I decided to go check up on the report of a plague epidemic and then hook an airplane ride to Qui Nhon in order to be on hand for the big event.
Maj. Delvin E. Littell, Lebanon, Tenn., told me that his medics had checked out reports from: Vietnamese doctors on Monday and “no matter how you say it, its an epidemic.”
He said that on that day the plague had killed eight natives, and that of the first 500 natives his team checked they had found 27 cases of both bubonic and pneumonic plague. The bubonic type is carried by fleas, the pneumonic by coughing.
“We are going to immunize this population, say 10,000 people in all, and we have to work fast,” he said. “In an area like An Khe, where the people are packed so close together, it could spread all out of normal proportions even for a plague epidemic.”
Dr. Tuoh Qui Nhu, a Vietnamese public health official, had reported to the area village chiefs that the plague had killed eight people earlier and that they were trying to save 20 victims of it.
Capt. Larry McKinstry, Columbus, said he had “found definite signs of the plague” in seven of the first 500 examinations he made in aiding Maj. Littell.
The two Army doctors and six aid men, with an Army of Viet Nam nurse and one of the wonderfully skilled medics from the U. S. Special Forces camp near here, are giving both anti-plague serum and streptomycin sulfate for those believed to already have the disease.
The old man we had picked up collapsed in a village far up in the mountains and died, I found. The 101st Airborne Division soldiers who had found him would be sorry about him. I remembered how one of them had tried to comfort the old man in the only way he was real certain he could help -- he had lighted a cigarette and tried to give it to the old fellow when he had recovered consciousness as we waited for an ambulance and surgeon to come up the trail to where we were.
I went around the camp on French Fort Hill and collected my gear I had left behind and found some friendly pilots with an Otter aircraft going to Qui Nhon -- Capt. Harry Wallace and Capt. William Reynolds -- and found that since I had talked to the doctors the evening before, another person had died and 30 cases of plague had been identified.
The medics had given shots to 900 persons one day and 2,650 the second. About 550 members of the division were given booster shots and about 2,500 natives had been innoculated.
As usual, the Americans were rather frustrated by working with their Vietnamese counterparts because of the difference in speed and organization.
“The work with the natives is going slower than I like, but these people only move so fast. Vietnamese health officials are in charge of the program with the natives and we can only help them. There is a need for more speed but it is their program,” one medic told me.
I flagged down a jeep after visiting the medics and tossed in my rucksack and, with a certain flourish, boarded it with crossbow in hand.
SFC Arthur Dixon was driving and an unidentified and sleepy PFC was riding shotgun in the back seat.
The PFC looked at my crossbow with the kind of unbased envy which I like so well and said:
“Where did you get that crossbow?”
Dixon spoiled it, of course. He looked at the PFC and answered for me.
“He got it down at the crossbow place.”
I guess the PFC decided that a town like An Khe probably had a crossbow store, it being just the kind of a shop most needed, and he went back to looking sleepy. We drove by
C-130’s unloading barbed wire -- fork lifts were piling it into huge stacks -- and a C123 unloading mail sacks.
“Our free mail has all been piled up down at Saigon for a week while the Army and the post office people argue,” the PFC said.
I found out that the Army had insisted that the free mail be sent by air and that the post office department had said it wouldn’t do it. Then the postal people wanted the defense department to pay them for hauling it while the mail sacks were piling up at Tan Son Nhut. The thing was finally settled with the Army winning.
I also made acquaintance with military payment certificates when I changed some piastres with a man down at the airstrip while waiting for my plane to get ready. They are unimposing little things in denominations from a nickel on up, looking like fancy Monopoly game money. The $5 one has the most gruesome female face on it I have ever seen, while the 50-cent one has a real beauty with a nice coiffure.
“You ought to see some of the friendly poker games the last couple of days. The guys have green, piastres, MPC and a. couple were running canteen chits into the game,” Sgt. William Rogers, who was unloading the mail, told me. “Nobody is going to be a big winner because it takes 30 minutes per hand to get the exchange rate straightened out.”
The flight from An Khe to Qui Nhon only takes 20 minutes but the contrast in temperatures is amazing.
On the way, Highway 19, which only a few weeks ago was Viet Cong property, looked like an Army post street. Olive-green columns were threading it in both directions and new bridge spans were visible.
Qui Nhon looked like a huge dust storm from the air as we wheeled out over the bay to make the dogleg approach to miss the hills which circle the beach. Every possible kind of vehicle -- including huge boats on wheels – was visible under us as we settled down onto the runway.
I saw that a big expanse of permanent asphalt runway was completed and that the work of making this strip into a first-class airport was progressing amazingly fast.
Capt. Wallace and Capt. Reynolds rolled the Otter down into the area where the 92nd Aviation Company keeps its Caribous. I was treated to an up-to-the-minute summary of how many days he had left to finish in Viet Nam by neighbor SFC Sam Cook as I lugged my stuff over to Maj. Lowell L. Ballard’s headquarters.
My old friends, the Caribous, are going to figure very large in the landing of the 1st Cavalry Division, and the 92nd is very elated. They are flying 12 of their birds on a shuttle system between here and An Khe for two days in order to airlift troops.
Capt. Emmitt Hollowell and Capt. Ralph Ransome told me they expected to be able to airlift 750 or so troopers “every hour and a half for as many hours as anybody says to go.”
The way the landing will work is fantastic to anyone used to beach operations. A narrow strip of beach near the end of the runway is clear, the rest is covered with tents and trucks and cargo already. The eight LCVMs -- landing barges -- are already on hand. They will haul 300 troops in to the tiny beach and they will load on semi trailer trucks and be taken to the Caribous.
The barges will go back to the ship (the big carrier cannot come closer into this shallow port than three miles) and return with another load just in time to meet the 12 Caribous as they return from An Khe.
After two days, the division’s big Chinook helicopters will be put back together and be ready to take over shuttling troops. The Caribous of the 92nd will go back to their day-in, day-out job of flying “anything, anywhere, anytime” in the Vietnamese war effort.
It is a very good ending to a year’s work for the men in the 92nd, incidentally. They are within weeks of finishing their tours here. They came to this country wearing the patch of the 11th Air Assault Division and changed it for the red and yellow patch of our Viet Nam force.
One of their final major efforts will be to fly the men who changed the 11th Air Assault patch and the Second Infantry Division patch to the 1st Cavalry insignia.
It is a pretty good way to finish up what has been a wonderful job by the pilots and men at Qui Nhon.
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