By CHARLES BLACK
Enquirer Military Writer
AN KHE, Viet Nam - After you make the drive up here from Qui Nhon in a jeep a couple of times, you get used to the idea of driving through an area where the Viet Cong directed traffic a couple of months ago.
Lt. Jonathon Graham, signal officer for the transportation battalion headquartered at Qui Nhon, guided the last of a dozen trucks which had followed us for 50 miles into its destination. It was dark and rainy.
The trip had been made through an armed cordon of U.S. and Vietnamese fighting men. You could see 101st Airborne Division and 1st Infantry Division patches, Vietnamese Ranger berets, the variegated uniforms of Civilian Irregular Defense Group and Regional Force companies, prowling all along the ridges and valleys from the town of Binh Dinh to the road which cut off 19 to the 1st Cavalry Division’s beautifully situated base site. The base is in the center of a ring of hills forming a scenic natural bowl. The governments of the United States and of the Republic of Viet Nam worked out a deal, and it is American property with the U.S. flag flying from a royal palm tree near Maj. Gen. Harry W. O. Kinnard’s tent headquarters.
The truck was going to a unit now attached to the 1st Cavalry Division. It was the Second Battalion 17th Artillery, and its extra 105 mm. howitzer punch gave the Sky Soldier unit even more big punch than it had at Fort Benning.
As might be expected, the new outfit was preening itself a good bit over its new association with the air assault unit and over another event which had just taken place. At 9:40 p.m. on Sept. 11, Bravo Battery fired the first artillery round the division launched in the Vietnamese combat shortly after pulling into its position at An Khe. (It was the first round fired under a division artillery organization in Vietnamese history, according to some technical traditionalists.)
Lt. Col. Harry O. Amos, battalion commander, and Bravo Commander Capt. Santi DiRuzza, along with his executive officer, Lt. John R. Woffored Jr., had teamed up with section chief S-Sgt. Julio C. Veles to send the 105 mm. projectile out into Viet Cong territory for a “high burst registration.” The historic shell was quickly followed by a fire mission designed to harass any Viet Cong movements aimed at causing trouble for the incoming cavalrymen.
Col. William A. Becker, division artillery officer, got the shell casing as a present from Lt. Col. Amos Sept. 13 and it will take its place in division mementos of this tour in Southeast Asia.
Capt. DiRuzza fixed me a space between himself and Lt. Kenneth Gireau, one of his forward observers, in a tent the artillery had produced from someplace. They also had their mess hall operating, and coffee and sandwiches weren’t the problem they are in most of the areas just now, what with people still sorting through crates and trucks to find their unit property and then hacking out a place in which to put it.
The lieutenant was just back from a three-day prowling patrol with the First Battalion 327th Infantry of the 101st Airborne out in the hinterlands. All of the units are sending officers and men out with the outer perimeter forces in order to get them acquainted with the terrain and problems, just as pilots and others went out to in-country units before the main force arrived. They can pass on the information they obtained, answer questions, and help other people get their feet on the ground when the go into operational assignments. He was very excited over his tour, and proved to be a keen observer.
“The terrain is rugged. We got into elephant grass 12 feet high and climbed mountains where it took both hands. It is wild and beautiful out there. The heat can be terrifically exhausting when the sun bears down, then a shower comes and you can get chilly,” he said. “You can’t carry very much with you out there and you need three times as much as you have along.”
Capt. DiRuzza said his battery had been a school support unit “with tactical training. We learned to operate our weapons understrength like every school unit so my NCOs and regular crewmen can do any job in this battery. The replacements are good men and I’m proud of them.”
His battery had pumped 340 rounds out of their six cannons during the first six days here, firing at all hours and in all directions around the 50-square kilometer base into areas where Viet Cong might gather or move.
Leap for Cover
I went over to the number three gun where Sgt. Valez was located and, just as I got within sight of it (the sky is usually lighted with flares at one point or another during the nights here), the thing cut loose with a round. I had my usual reaction, a horrified croak and a leap for cover, got myself collected and waited while the battery fired two more rounds for each gun.
Sgt. Velez is a veteran soldier from Puerto Rico who has been with the battery for more than 18 months. He was very formal about how it felt to be the top man on the first division gun to cut loose here.
“My men and I feel proud and honored to be the first artillery called into action,” he told me.
After that it got a little less ceremonial and Sgt. Velez told me that he missed his family quite a bit “but wouldn’t miss this tour in Viet Nam for anything.”
“I think we are going to settle this thing now. I’m glad I’ve got a part in it,” he told me.
Long Hard Days
“We have put in some long, hard days since we got here. We have to get a place to stay built, cut brush and dig holes, fix up shelters and all, fire our missions at night and clean our guns by day, but my boys, all of them in the battery in fact, have got morale. I think there will be some of them re-enlist, who maybe wouldn’t have done so back at Fort Sill, just because we are doing this job,” he said.
I spent the usual kind of a night one spends when sleeping 50 feet from six cannons which are shot off at regular intervals. If their fire had the same effect on the Viet Cong that the muzzle blasts had on me, they were a pretty jumpy and sleepless organization the next morning.
I hooked a ride over to the patch of ground near a high peak called Hong Kong Mountain which has been homesteaded by Maj. Chuck Siler and the rest of the public information organization, including Sp4 Joe Treaster, PFC Marve Wolf, Capt. J. D. Coleman, PFC Jim McConnell, PFC Jim Lull, PFC Charles Andrews and M-Sgt. Charles McCowan. Sp5 James Graham was the first man I met there, and he produced major surprise of the day with a flourish: The press center possessed a tent.
The tent has a few holes, it was lighted by candles, the floor was boggy Vietnamese dirt, stumps were being uprooted in front and Treaster was rather gingerly filling sandbags at a bunker in the back, but it was absolute luxury compared to what the crew had been calling home over at French Fort Hill as members of the advance party.
The tent is a solid line of cots and poncho and sleeping bag bedrolls, a welter of cameras, typewriters, other paraphernalia of both the Army press and the dozen or so civilian newsmen who come in and out of the area from their offices in Saigon. The correspondents come in groups, never singly, with a TV crew always having three men. One talks, one takes pictures (usually a Vietnamese or Japanese) and one is call “the correspondent” and argues about getting jeeps, food, helicopter rides, etc. The news photographers work on their own but usually arrive in pairs and split up. Reporters are almost always in a gaggle and spend immense energy interviewing each other back in the tent after touring the area. There are Frenchmen, Englishmen, Australians and New Zealanders, Japanese, Vietnamese, people writing and taking pictures and talking about Viet Nam.
They run the gamut from good guys to the kind you like to see leave and from bored, blasé and superficial fakes to dedicated men trying to dig in and get their stories. All in all, with so much literary, oral and pictorial manpower focused on the division, almost any event will have every possible version recorded in every possible way when it goes into action. It cannot help but be the most famous unit in the world when it has done it work in Viet Nam.
Treaster threw down the shovel he had been wielding with great eagerness when he saw me and produced a canteen cup of very bad lukewarm coffee. He told me what had been going on -- a steady stream of men moving off Chinooks and of cargo moving off trucks and of the wearying hours spent escorting the crowds of correspondents around when work details, etc., were not calling. In between, the Army guys were planning a division newspaper, writing stories on their own, and taking pictures which they couldn’t develop yet because the equipment hadn’t arrived. (I had some tough luck with a camera I had brought. The climate had gimmicked the mechanism some way and it wouldn’t work, so we commiserated about the picture problem at great length.)
I told Joe about a re-enlistment ceremony I had been witness to down at Qui Nhon before I went out with Maj. Billy Cole, the Special Forces B Team commander there, to a civic action program at Ky Son. (I always give Treaster little talks about the benefits of re-enlisting as opposed to life in a newspaper city room where he maintains he intends to make his living when he is finished with Viet Nam.)
Hauled Into Copter
Maj. Allison L. Nicholson and First Sergeant August J. Sterzenback of the 79th Transportation Co., a supporting unit of the 92nd Aviation Company, had collared me while I was watching some men from the ships loading on airplanes to fly up to Qui Nhon. (Small parties of men had been joining the advance party from time to time before the main unloading had commenced and I had gone down to see Sgt. Maj. Bill McGuire and M-Sgt. James Paquetter of the Support Command, a couple of old friends of mine.)
Sgt. Sterzenback hauled me into a helicopter, a UH-1-D piloted by CWO Custis Warren and CWO Robert Lovering with Sp5 Kenneth E. Rittinger as crew chief with no explanation except “we’ve been looking for you, so come on, it won’t take very long.”
Sgt. Sterzenback is from Ozark, Ala., served two years at Fort Benning before coming here in August and for six years was a crew chief instructor at Fort Rucker, Ala., so we had an acquaintanceship of long standing. He has been in the Army 24 years, so his air of command has had time for development. I went with him.
The helicopter headed north until it was directly over the hamlet at the mouth of Song Am Phu River where the View Cong reign in full sway.
Re-Upped in Air
Sgt. Sterzenback shouted in my ear finally and explained the mission as the helicopter made insolent circles over the area.
“I’m re-enlisting. I wanted the major to swear me in right over the head of the Viet Cong district chief. I want this next enlistment to start out right. . . it’s my third war and I just wanted to get it straight where I stand,” he said.
He put on the crew chief’s headset (the major had one) and they stood up in the helicopter and concluded the ceremony. It was impressive and it is something I’m going to remember a long time. It was a real privilege to be a witness to the event.
When it was over, the major looked at the papers which had been solemnized and shouted to the first sergeant now beginning his next tour in the Army over the enemy’s head:
“Are these things right, Top?”
Sgt. Sterzenback grew red, looked stern, and shouted back in a voice which the Viet Cong must have heard 2,000 feet under us:
“You’re damned right they are right, Sir! Those forms were filled out in my office and I checked them myself. What kind of an orderly room do you think I run?”
© Columbus Ledger-Enquirer
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