Air Cavalrymen Swarm Ashore At Qui Nhon While Mob Lines Beach
By CHARLES BLACK
Enquirer Military Writer
QUI NHON, Viet Nam - Saturday afternoon on the beach went like some kind of ceremonial clockwork when the 1st Cavalry Division men began coming off the ships.
There had been an influx of generals and colonels and a C-130 full of correspondents from Saigon during the preceding night and morning. Maj. L. L. Ballard, commander of the 92nd Aviation Company, which came over here from the 11th Air Assault Division almost a year ago, was rubbing his hands in anticipation of the show in which his planes were involved.
I ran into Maj. Chuck Siler, Sp4 Joe Treaster and PFC Marve Wolfe of the 1st Cavalry Division Public Information Office and made a deal to meet them at the beach about 1:30 p.m. when the first three boats would come in. A sizable mob of people showed up and lined the narrow strip of beach. Trailers and trucks poised and the boats suddenly appeared, coming from the USS Boxer.
It was one of those frustrating moments for a reporter. A crowd of men in helmets, carrying M-16s and luggage, swarmed from the three big landing barrages which nuzzled into the beach and hurried aboard the trailers. I saw Sgt. David Johnson, M-Sgt. Juan Romero and PFC David Strickland representing the 227th and 228th Assault Helicopter Battalions. They waved and hollered something at me and I waved back, but getting to anybody on that 50-foot walk from boat to truck was impossible. I saw the boats back off for another load and the trucks heading for the Caribous, and hooked a ride in a jeep driven by a dusty sergeant accompanied by a big, dusty lieutenant.
It was a lucky break. I was riding with Lt. Jonathan T. Graham, Jr., the communications officer of a company of men formed into an organization known as “The Monsoon Express.” They were officially known as the 394th Transportation Battalion, commanded by Col. Thomas J. Emery, and had been in Qui Nhon since Aug. 10 to provide wheels and muscle to haul the 1st Cavalry Division’s cargo up to An Khe over Route 19. Lt. Graham was in company with his communications sergeant, S-Sgt. Willard N. Harris.
This battalion headquarters was the main push for everything which moved on wheels or boat bottom from ship to shore, over the shore and up the road. It was in charge of mail, rations, quarters, communications and setting up and arranging the convoys rolling up the road, parades of dozens of big trucks each day bearing beans, blankets and bullets to the operating base of the men from Fort Benning.
They dropped me off at a jeep driven by PFC Malcolm Lyons of the 92nd Aviation Company, who whipped me over to the place where the trucks were stopping. The 1st Cavalry soldiers simply filed from the trailers and were met by members of the 92nd Aviation Co., who counted them off and headed them toward the rear ramp doors of the 12 Caribous waiting with idling engines on a parking space. Capt. Cecil Ramsey pointed to a plane where I could recognize Capt. Jerry Ledford and Capt. Fred Kirbo in the cockpit. Even as I ran to the rear door the crew chief was on the intercom, and the plane taxied out.
The trip from Qui Nhon to An Khe can be described as swift and noisy when Caribou people are in a hurry. The plane roars off the metal (rapidly being asphalt-topped) runway and heads over the bay, giving you a square but tilted view of 14 ships in the blue water of the harbor and a fleet of white-sailed, bird-like native fishing sampans in a beautiful line along one side of the bay. The plane turns and clears the high circle of hills and goes up a flat valley through which Route 19 and the Song Bhe River trace their twin courses to the mountains which separate the coastal flatlands from the high plateau where An Khe is located.
I found myself in a group composed of Lt. John D. Jenkins, the postal officer; Sp4 Tracey E. Grady, who gave karate classes back in Columbus; PFC Phil Floyd, SFC Robert Floyd, both of the post office detail from Fort Benning; Sp4 Stacy Grady, of the 229th Assault Helicopter Company; Sp-5 Ronald L. Tucker and a bunch of guys down the plane from me whose names I have but whose ranks didn’t get into the notebook passed up to them from hand to hand: This list includes:
Philip Condon; James Farless (a photographer buddy of mine whose rank I know is S-Sgt.); Nicholas Palladino; Maurice Williford; Paul J. Remine; Charles O. Schaurhorst; Andrew Swarthoat; Dennis Cox and Joseph A. Dema.
Just a I got the notebook back, the plane hit the metal runway at An Khe. It was sunny and I could see that French Fort Hill had been deserted except for men handling cargo from the planes. The division advance party had moved over to the big clearing hacked out and called the Gold Course. There, the world’s largest helicopter pad was already covered with choppers and a quadrangle of unit areas which are already being called Camp Radcliffe in honor of Maj. Donald Radcliffe, the executive officer of the First Battalion Ninth Cavalry, first casualty of the division.
It seemed appropriate that the 1st Cavalry Division had unanimously adopted the name for its main base in An Khe. It also seemed appropriate that as the plane edged down for its landing I could see an American flag and a Vietnamese flag and Capt. Kirbo look and a tall royal palm tree in the area of division headquarters. I saw Capt. Ledford point to the flag and Capt. Kirbo look and his face light up even as they were landing.
The men left the plane and their bags were thrown out in a continuous stream. The engines never shut off. The Caribou suddenly lurched off, simply using the last half of the runway for a takeoff, and was back to the air and aimed at Qui Nhon and another load. In exactly 42 minutes, the Caribou had landed again, had another load and was taking off. It was a fast round trip. It took 90 minutes to haul 475 men and their gear by the 12 planes.
The process became monotonous and overpoweringly impressive in the days ahead as the Chinook helicopters joined in the procession. The Caribous went back to the other missions on Monday. The Chinooks roared back and forth, carrying their load of American troops. More than 4,000 were transported in a day, another brigade in a couple of more days and, within a week, a division was setting up tents, digging holes, filling sandbags, hunting for Conex boxes and lost luggage and making a primitive home.
It was a movement of men which showed this country what a major U.S. commitment can mean and which had to be a psychological blow at Communist hopes in this country. They had no chance to harass or strike as the helicopters flew troops over their heads to the inland base.
The troops of Task Force Hansen and 101st Airborne Division prowled Highway 19, the mountain pass, the valleys around the Golf Course and Camp Radcliffe in a network of aggressive patrols.
Vietnamese companies trained by Special Forces and a Vietnamese ranger battalion from the camp near Qui Nhon, along with the Marine battalion there, kept the Viet Cong off balance and running while trucks roared up the highway carrying fuel and other cargo to An Khe. A French newspaperman I met at Qui Nhon told me:
“One knows that the United States is a major power. One knows that it can apply fantastic force when it chooses. But it is always like seeing some kind of a miracle when one sees it happen. This is a division which only your country could equip and supply. The roads, the trucks, the helicopters, the weapons, all of that is more than has ever been seen in Viet Nam. Only Americans could do this, simply build a base, build a supply line to it, build what amounts to an Army in a few weeks, and commence an operation such as this. It is like this all along the coast, and now it will be like this 50 miles inland at An Khe. You won’t have any easy victory, but this kind of power will overwhelm the problems you cannot solve any other way.”
It was something I had seen very often since February of 1963, but nevertheless which made me feel very proud. I hope the people at Columbus and Fort Benning can grasp this feeling of pride. They have sent something to this war which hasn’t been here before, and it shows in the comments of every American adviser and aviator I have talked to. The Vietnamese people show it. They lined the streets of Qui Nhon waving and shouting and watching the helicopter in their seemingly endless flights from the airstrip to the mountains.
It was shown in a sign I saw at An Khe after I came back up again in a jeep with Lt. Graham and Sgt. Harris early the next morning in order to get a look at the method of keeping the cargo convoys secure from ambush. (It was a simple method. Helicopters, aircraft, men, jeeps and weapons simply flooded the area and the trucks rolled through with only a few sniper incidents marring the hundreds of convoys which have come into An Khe by now.)
The sign said:
“The people of An Khe thank the people of America for making it possible for them to live in safety and to have a way of life of their own choosing.”
It didn’t mean that the mountains and thorny brush of the country are cleared. It didn’t mean there wouldn’t be fighting and days of primitive living ahead, but the force which can do that had made its appearance and it was an electrifying event.
There was just one single dampening note to the first day.
As Lt. Graham and I talked about the movement, I saw a white figure proceeding up a sandy road toward a Chinook. It was Maggie, the white mule mascot of the First Battalion Ninth Cavalry. I had helped 1st Sgt. Don Fare of the 92nd plant a big welcome sign to Lt. Col. John Stockton, his dog and the cavalry mule. I stopped to speak to old Maggie, absolutely the only specimen of her kind in this country.
She bore a memento of the trip. Sometime in the dark of night aboard the USS Boxer somebody had stamped a light brand on her left hip saying “USN.”
Other than that, she made it in great style, as did all the men I talked to. They lived well, ate well, kept in physical shape, had classes and movies, had shipboard papers and mail, and looked rested and ready. They had an arduous job ahead of them simply making a place to live, but they seemed eager to get on with it.
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