(EDITOR’S NOTE: The delay in receiving Charlie Black’s stories from Viet Nam was due to the fact that he was on an extended operation some 18 miles from the 1st Cavalry advance party camp and was unable to write and get the stories dispatched.)
By CHARLES BLACK
Enquirer Military Writer
KY SON MOUNTAIN, Viet Nam - The villages of Ky Son and Phung Son were twin wrecks.
Major Billy Cole, S-Sgt Claud Enos (a member of Capt. Bill Myers’ A Team which had trained the forces which took these villages back from the Viet Cong,) Dick Kreagor, the U.S. Operations Mission province adviser Lt. John Flynn, a Marine officer who had come up here with a platoon to learn Special Forces tactics in patrolling, etc., and I walked down to the bottom of the hill from the fort above and onto a trail.
Capt. Ralph Aarington and two interpreters were there. Capt. Aarington headed an Army Civil Affairs team based at Qui Nhon and was there to help the village committee, elected by the 800 refugees who would return to their homes here from a camp near Qui Nhon in the days ahead.
It was a pretty mixed bag of Americans to be spending the night in a battle-wrecked, deserted village with the Viet Cong engaged in open supply operations a mile or so away along the Song Am Phu fork of the Song Bhe River. Major Cole compounded the nerve factors involved. His team is due to return to Okinawa soon and turn this operation over to a headquarters team at An Khe which will work closely with the 1st Cavalry Division in the months ahead, securing and resettling this entire valley from the mountains to the seacoast, and breaking the back of VC control of the central highlands.
The villages were adjacent to each other, equally wrecked by mortars, gunfire and rockets, equally deserted, indistinguishable except possibly to the 800 refugees.
The people had the old land ties of Oriental farmers. Graveyards, the birthplaces of generations of families, familiar paths and familiar farm plots, these were important to them.
“You have to provide them protection. You have to first keep the Viet Cong off their backs and then you get a school, a hospital, and help them rebuild their homes and reclaim farm land. When you get a village operating as it should be, you have whipped the Viet Cong. If you leave it then, though, the VC come back. We’re going to hold them from now on, none of the old story of securing an area and then letting it fall back on its old devices and having the Viet Cong take it over again,” Major Cole said.
“The First Air Cavalry Division and other American forces will give these people something they haven’t known in their lives, a knowledge that they will not be terrorized and that they can work and not lose their lives or everything they own,” Kreagor said.
Kreagor is a man who is fiercely dedicated to his mission of getting this region resettled and back in normal living operation. I asked him about his hobby of spending as much time in the field in such nerve-wracking surroundings as the villages we were walking toward.
“Nuts. If I don’t know what is going on, how can I follow up with my work? To understand a problem, you study every bit of it. I intend to earn my money, and this means understanding the problem,” Kreagor declared.
The village committee, an unimposing but very serious-faced group of Vietnamese peasants with carbines over their shoulders, walked along the road toward the hill. They were going to the security of the camp for a briefing and would decide then whether to come back down and stay with us overnight.
The idea of the American party sleeping in the village was simple. We were to demonstrate that it was safe. With rather typical Special Forces reasoning, Major Cole had informed a sound plane using a loud speaker over the VC village during the night that if they wanted to come and get him, he would be sleeping in the village. With just as typical U.S. Marine tactics, the platoon doing “on the job training” on the hill and Sgt. Enos planned an ambush on the route from the VC stronghold, just in case the Communists took up the challenge.
So far as I was concerned, it sounded like the kind of a night which almost anyone in their right mind would be willing to pass up, but the more Americans who were down there the better and it meant another man able to stand a guard turn, so I became the glummest member of the group.
A school house with a long veranda had been shot out, leaving the veranda standing with gutted walls behind it. We laid our sleeping gear on the porch and formed up in a strangely variegated patrol formation - USOM, Army, Special Forces, Marines, Vietnamese army and the press all represented. A couple of platoons of the village armed guard were posted on one end of the shattered town and we walked along winding paths, crossing canals, and paddy walls, searching huts and banana thickets, looking in the ruined shops of what had been the village market square. It just wasn’t a time when we wanted Communist infiltrators on hand in town. If they came, there was an ambush up the way which would welcome them.
Our biggest risk was a patrol of VC from the next village which might have holed up in Ky Son or Phung Son.
We came to the edge of a huge rice paddy stretching away to the north and Major Cole pointed across it.
“That is how close you are to more Viet Cong than I like to think about. That is the village we looked at from the mountain,” he said.
Lights were already showing in some of the huts over there. Air strikes had shattered them, but the VC had made camouflaged hideouts in the area and apparently were cooking supper near them. I had an unusual chance to study a Viet Cong village defense system at close range during this patrol.
Major Cole showed me each of the complexes as we went by them. Tunnels had been dug from under the water of a canal to concealed foxholes. Bunkers and trenches were dug in under the lush foliage of citrus brush and banana trees in back of huts and in the overgrown hedge fences along the village paths: Shell fragments and even small arms bullets lay around. I picked up three .30 calibre slugs lying on the school porch later, as well as shrapnel shards.
The heat of the battle for this village could be best seen along the palm-lined paths near the market place. Each of the palms had been riddled and slashed with small arms fire. The bullets had ripped coconuts from the palms and their shredded husks littered the paths. We found a 60 mm mortar round which was buried in paddy mud.
Somebody on a mortar crew had forgotten to pull the pin and arm the little missile. We walked around it as carefully as if it were a cobra. Kreagor had found one of those nasty specimens lying on the stone steps to a hut and killed it with a thrown bottle he had picked up in the littered yard. It was the last, single touch needed to guarantee that the night would be a chilling affair for all concerned.
As we came back to the school porch, we saw something which made a very deep impression on me. There was a line of Vietnamese men walking down the trail from the fortified camp with their sleeping mats and hammocks. The members of the village committee had decided to stay out in the open with us. These were the people who had been the victims of Viet Cong terrorism, then had their village leveled by our aircraft, attacked in their refugee camp, and who knew full well about the village just down the trail.
They had known no peace in this place since the Japanese soldiers had come in 1942. They were not soldiers or American civilians with jobs to do which called for indulging in such situations. They were farmers who had decided to risk themselves to see if they could bring their families home again.
They walked by us, smiling and nodding and speaking in Vietnamese, and went to the next building, the equally shattered village headquarters. Major Cole nodded and told Capt. Aarington, the civil affairs specialist from Qui Nhon, to send an interpreter to arrange for a Vietnamese to accompany each of us during our hour of guard on the road after dark.
The interpreter came back and said it was arranged. Kreagor, Major Cole and I said we would work out things for security until 11 p.m. and the American - Vietnamese teams could start then. We also arranged for one of the party on the porch, 50 yards from the post we selected on the trail, to remain awake at intervals.
As it turned out, the last was quite easy. During the night there was at least a pair of us sitting close together holding whispered conversations, looking at the horizon. The Vietnamese group didn’t even bother unrolling their sleeping mats, and I didn’t blame them. I managed to sleep from about midnight to 5:30 a.m., except during a 20-minute interval at 3 a.m. when we all came alert. Major Cole was monitoring a radio. He nudged me and I almost kicked the rest of the veranda down getting awake.
He whispered that the Marine ambush had an interesting development.
“They were spotted about midnight at a hamlet to the left up the river and drew small arms fire. That is what that mortar barrage from the hill was all about. Just a few minutes ago they opened up on an armed patrol heading our way from the next hamlet. They killed one VC who tried to fire at them and took the other 13 and their weapons into tow. They’re bringing them back in. I don’t think we’ll have any callers tonight, they got scoffed up in the ambush,” Major Cole told me.
Early the next morning the first women showed up, carrying bundles and food on their shoulder poles. They had walked a long way. They were the village committee’s families. One woman had a baby strapped to her back in a shawl. They went directly down the paths toward homes which they would have to rebuild, but where they intended to stay from now on if the new strategy for counterinsurgency proved permanent (i.e., kick the Viet Cong out, keep them out, bring the people back and, help them make a better life than they had ever known before).
“The first thing the families ask is about schools. M-Sgt. Roy Eisenhower of Capt. Myers’ team, the medical supervisor, has a nurse, a midwife and a temporary dispensary ready. We have five Vietnamese school teachers ready to come out. We have materials coming on a truck to roof up and Dick knows where there are some desks in an abandoned village down by Qui Nhon. We’ll have those people moving back in two days. They are sending down two companies of regional forces and the village troops will help on guard. It looks like the program is going, Major Cole said.
Major Cole and I climbed back up the hill with Kreagor. He was going to take his yellow pickup back down the trail to Qui Nhon to get the school teachers, the lumber and tin, the desks and books, the nurse and the midwife, all started up to Ky Son and Phung Son.
“I’d like to come back in six months and look at this. I think it will be a pretty town then. It makes you feel pretty good to think that when all of the shooting, dirty tricks, risks. . well, it ends up with some people getting a chance to make a better life for themselves. I’m prouder of this resettlement project than anything I’ve done lately,” Major Cole said.
He and I caught a Marine chopper back to Qui Nhon and Capt. Dave Humes and Capt. Mills O’Nellion of the 92nd Aviation Company told me I was just in time.
“The First Air Cav is out there in the bay and we’re bringing the first bunch from here to An Khe this afternoon. We’ll fly 475 of them up there, then the Chinooks will get into the act and two days from now we’ll have 5,000 men up on that golf course the guys hacked out. It is going to be one of the biggest psychological blows to the Viet Cong you’ve ever heard of, watching all those choppers fly up the valley and knowing that those tough rifles are coming in,” Capt. Humes said.
When the chopper had circled the harbor, we had seen the two carriers and troop transports in the bay. Capt. Humes summed up what I felt then.
“It must be hard on the Viet Cong to realize that the U.S. is sending in more military power off the ships in that harbor than Viet Nam has ever seen, and that she can keep on doing it just as long as the people want it done. It looks like the end of this thing to me. The VC can look for the end when it comes ashore. It might not be tomorrow, but it might as well be. When we decided to make the big move, the Viet Cong had received the message,” he said.
ă Columbus Ledger-Enquirer
Return to Index