By CHARLES BLACK
Enquirer Military Writer
AN KHE, Viet Nam - Lt. John Tower is a handsome young paratrooper serving with the brigade of the 101st Airborne Division. He has the worry lines a man in the public information officer slot get in this country.
He came into the press tent and Maj. Chuck Siler, an old paratrooper who is public information officer for the 1st Cavalry Division, introduced him and said Lt. Tower had an interesting operation, probably the last one the brigade would engage in around this area and the largest it had made in Viet Nam.
Lt. Col. Wilford Smith of the Screaming Eagles was taking a battalion of the tough troopers on an assault landing the next morning in the valley which Maj. Billy Cole had told me was a major training ground and supply point for two hard-core Viet Cong battalions, the 95th and the 96th.
The chopper force, Second Battalion (Airborne), 502nd Infantry, would be brought in by the 52nd Aviation Co. and a group of H34 Marine choppers to a landing zone about 8,000 meters from a village called Ah Min 2. (The hamlets along the valleys often have the same names and are differentiated on maps by numbers.)
Task Force Hansen, a composite group of cavalry type commanded by Maj. Marcus Hansen of Second Battalion 17th Cavalry, 101st Airborne Division, would drive to the Song Con River, with three Marine tanks and gun jeeps clearing the trail, ford the river on foot at a village called Van Than 3, secure hamlets Van Than 1-2-5, move up a steep mountainside into a pass and lay in wait to kill Viet Cong swept ahead by the helicopter-borne assault. The First Battalion, 327th Infantry, would swing around in a hook and block another pass march.
So far as physical comfort was concerned, Task Force Hansen, which would take off at 3:30 a.m., was the least inviting prospect. But as Lt. Tower explained the original plan to two photographers and myself (who had decided to go on the mission at the outset instead of waiting to be lifted in by helicopter), it was obvious that Hansen would be the force where the fighting would be seen.
Or it seemed that way at 10 the night before when I got into a jeep for yet another ride over that risky mountain pass to join Task Force Hansen in the dismal abandoned rice paddy they use for headquarters area at the foot of the mountain.
Lt. Tower was riding with PFC Steve Van Meter, 19, Wheeling, W. Va., a paratrooper-photographer with the brigade PIO, driving. We stopped at a sign saying “Swift CP” and PFC Van Meter continued an argument with Lt. Tower as the two photographers got out to join the helicopter-lifted group. PFC Van Meter thought the same as I and most of the other people concerned did.
“They’re going in 8,000 meters off, Sir. All the action is going to be Task Force Hansen. I’ve been on too many operations where you don’t see anything, where you just walk forever. I’d rather climb that mountain and get to take some action shots,” he said.
He lost the argument. He looked disappointed when I saw him in a dripping tent at the operations shop at Maj. Hansen’s headquarters.
At 3:30 a.m. I joined up with a machine gun jeep driven through the mud by PFC James Willis and loaded up with Sgt. Willie Sampson, Sgt. George Long and Sp4 Leonard Loftus. The jeep went up to the point where Lt. William (Willie) Wilson, the troop commander, was. (The task force is organized from the Second Battalion, 17th Cavalry, 101st Airborne Division; the reconnaissance platoons from the First Infantry Division; a Scout Dog section; a radio research section, for tracking down Viet Cong communications sites; an MP platoon; a platoon of combat engineers, three Marine tank crews and officers assigned to the thus-created cavalry squadron from many different sources.)
I saw some men I knew at once up at the front of the column as soon as it got daylight, about 6:15 a.m., when we stopped and I went with a patrol screening a village ahead of us. We had to drive around Viet Cong road cuts, ditches and holes dug in the trail, and search out each likely ambush spot during the four hour vehicle ride to the river bank.
Lt. Daniel Isacowitz, Troop D, First Ninth Cavalry, the first platoon leader in this outfit from Lt. Col. John D. Stockton’s unit, called hello to me from a perch on the lead tank. He told me a contingent from the 1st Cavalry Division’s “Real cavalry” squadron was with the task force in order to get “on-the-job training.” I saw S-Sgt. Harold B. Campbell, S-Sgt. Joseph N. Falabella and a couple of old maneuver buddies, Capt. W. P. Gillette III, D Troop commander, and Sgt. Don F. Ritter, as I walked up the line of vehicles with the patrol going through the village.
The people were frightened in this town. Old men put their hands together and bowed, women clutched children close to them and the kids either looked at us with wide, solemn eyes or bowed in formal imitation of the old men. It was a stark contrast to the areas which have grown familiar with the sight of the big, heavily armed Americans, where crowds of children salute and shout “Hello” or “O.K.” and ask for candy or cigarettes. (Little bitty guys always ask for smokes first and candy second in An Khe and surrounding villages.)
The road was lined with spider holes, little round foxholes with reed and mud lids propped up with sticks. Each of these was searched out by wary riflemen. A huge bomb crater was directly in the center of the village.
PFC Pedro Canals looked at it and said:
“Mr. Black, what in the world dropped anything that big in here? That hole is six feet deep and 25 feet wide!”
We got through the village without incident and found a hulking metal cone lying on its side in a creek near a small bridge which the villagers had repaired with planks after it had been cut by the Viet Cong with explosives. The bomb was rusty round its nose and Sp4 Billy I. Howard answered PFC Canal’s question for me.
“That thing is a 500-pound bomb! Man, the whole convoy will drive within 20 feet of it. I’d rather not think about it,” he said.
We made a cautious search for wires which might have been rigged to detonate the dud bomb and wondered all through the rest of the operation about what two bombs of this size were doing over a remote area such as this. The dud bomb and the crater just didn’t seem to be part of the step-by-step, hole-by-hold, bush-by-bush method we were using in passing through the little hamlets.
“We’ve criss-crossed this area with patrols and operations but it is still no-man’s land so far as security is concerned. These people are living right on the edge of a firefight at any second if the V.C. come back to use these positions and we find out about it and come after them,” M-Sgt. Roy Rodriguez, the top NCO of the platoon I was with and a man I came to regard with great affection during the next four days, told me.
About 6:30 a.m. we cleared the last of about five such villages and pulled into a clearing beside a wide, fast-moving river, just below a rapids formed by knife-sharp granite rocks. It looked like a poor place to ford a river, but this was the plan.
The tanks and jeeps would stop here. The mountain we had to climb after the river crossing was almost straight up and it had vicious-looking jungle on its ground just beyond the river bank. I decided to leave my rucksack and simply rolled a light sleeping bag in a poncho and took my belt and two canteens and other minimum gear. I tossed the pack to Marine Lt. Arthur Johnson, who shouted from his tank turret:
“Good luck. You guys keep your tails down. We’ll see to it you get your pack.”
The tanks and gun jeeps suddenly cut loose with a deafening burst of 90 mm., 106 recoilless rifle and machine-gun fire, lacing the river bank and brush between the village and river and then arching explosions in the area beyond the village. Three lines of men ran from the tank, about 50 years apart, and into the river. I was chest deep at two of the lines below the one I was with.
I saw the most vulnerable man of us all in such straits disappear just as the water - astonishingly cold for a tropical river - surged around my shoulders and that feeling of swift fright a strong current give a man walking in it with a weight on his back. The man I watched, PFC Bobby W. Sykes, was carrying a radio and a rifle. He edged around one the rocks and a solid ridge of water where the current split hit him. He disappeared. M-Sgt. Rodriguez lunged for him and went under then.
Lt. Wilson turned - he was in the lead here - and half-swam downstream, pulling Sykes out as the soldier came up for the first time 20 feet away.
Wilson is about six-feet-three and the water was neck deep to him. Rodriguez came up near him and he was actually laughing.
Sykes was in a bad way, his feet weren’t touching bottom and his helmet and weapon were gone in the river. He had been rolled along the bottom.
Men edged down, holding hands, taller ones ahead, short ones like me anchoring ourselves as close to the channel as we could and providing a pivot point until Sp4 Billy I. Howard and PFC Anthony P. Garcia got down to aid Lt. Wilson, who face showed no concern. Sykes was gagging up water and his face was very white as the big lieutenant and the burly, and still-laughing M-Sgt. Rodriguez held him between them.
The tanks opened fire again over our heads and everybody wondered if they had spotted trouble or were simply “sterilizing” the far bank, while we worked out our troubles in the middle of the stream here. They were just being careful.
The downstream platoons made it over and some of those men slashed at bamboo poles and then waded out from the far bank. I got hold of one held by PFC Raymond W. Holland and Sp4 Jerry Large and floundered across the 10 feet of swimming water which had trapped the radioman and the platoon sergeant.
When I finally got up the bank I found that my poncho roll had opened. My sleeping bag and $10 I had carefully tucked inside of its folds (the only American money I had handy for PX purchases back at An Khe) had been claimed by the Song Con.
A plastic bag had saved cigarettes and some other articles from wetting, but I missed that sleeping bag before the trip was over. M-Sgt. Rodriguez had lost even his poncho so I was better off than he. PFC Sykes, shaky but mad, was arguing that he had to go back and get his rifle from the river. Somebody loaned him a .45 belt and some grenades, the radio was tested and found to be broken by its trip down the river bottom on Sykes’ back and it was sent back over one of the easier fords to be exchanged.
We picked up three young men cowering in spider holes. They were checked carefully, and detained. A few minutes later the other platoons came in with three more. A woman followed, wailing and screaming and pointing at one of them. The boy, about 19, was expressionless. His black pajamas were mud-stained and he was panting as if he had tried to run.
I never got details on these men (a helicopter came for them), but they were fighting age and in Viet Cong territory. If they were neutrals, they would be released. If Viet Cong, they would be questioned, detained and treated as prisoners of war and turned over to the province chief at An Khe. It isn’t the way to win friends, but at this edgy stage of things I was willing to sacrifice for the practicality of eliminating a possible spy or sniper. Others can discuss the practice at leisure.
We came out on a trial, lined with the inevitable spider holes, above the village, tired, wet-heavy, dreading the long climb ahead of us. Lt. Wilson was on his radio and he looked very concerned. It was about 8 a.m. then.
“All bets are off! We’re heading on a forced march that makes that mountain there look like a picnic. Lt. Col. Smith just radioed that ‘I’ve hit a buzzsaw here.’ He’s needing help. The Five-Oh-Deuce has really got into it over there,” he said.
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