(EDITOR'S NOTE: After being out in the “brush” with troops of the 1st Cavalry Division, Enquirer military writer Charles Black continues his reports of action in Viet Nam. The article was written Oct. 18.)
By CHARLES BLACK
Enquirer Military Writer
HOI SON, Viet Nam - Flying with Lt. Col. John B. Stockton, who commands the 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry, is like being on an aerial steeple chase.
Even the more determined advocates of flying low in a helicopter can have queasy moments with these cavalry pilots up front.
The raid on this village was a picture-book operation. Two platoons of Civilian Irregular Defense Group riflemen trained by the Special Forces joined with the 9th Cavalry’s rifle teams. Marines had landed across a river and blocked the exits.
Troops of the 101st Airborne Division had blocked off the area to the land side of the village, and the raiding forces had knifed directly into the village.
Object of Raid
The object of the raid was a single hootch believed harboring a communications-jamming device which had been a pest to 1st Cavalry signal circles.
The pinpoint target was reached without more than sporadic resistance and, after a thorough search, produced a Viet Cong flag and documents. Then the offending hootch was burned by the CIDG troops.
The raiders also searched out caches of rice, several tons of it, and the cavalrymen carried two Chinook loads of it out to refugees at the Binh The sector headquarters. The radio equipment had been moved, however.
The most memorable moment of the raid, aside from the clockwork precision with which the affair was handled, came when Stockton announced that we didn’t have a way home. A sniper had pinked the ship we were using in its fuel tank. The craft was flown out without passengers because the fuel had drained to a minimum.
I hooked a ride in a chopper occupied by a squad of the Vietnamese troopers and went into Binh The on a three-quarter-ton truck driven by a brown-beret-wearing Vietnamese ranger from where the chopper dropped us in a field.
The advisers here were Maj. Allan C. Sterling, subsector adviser; Capt. Thomas J. Canavan, his assistant; P-Sgt. Robert E. Winters; Sp5 Jack C. Jaynes, and Sp4 James T. Boyd.
Roberts is the operations sergeant, Jaynes is the medic (he came here from Santo Domingo) and Boyd is an old Fort Benning friend of mine who had served with the Student Brigade and was handling communications duties at Binh The.
The camp is a big one, well-organized and defended, and it is astride Route 19 at a critical bridge, which makes it double important.
I was able to bum another truck ride up to 3rd Brigade Headquarters at the foot of An Khe Pass, arriving there about 3 p.m. The sniper who managed to hit Stockton’s chopper had done more damage to my schedule than he had to the ship.
Capt. Gordon P. Rozansk of headquarters company, 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, was organizing a Chinook supply run for the battalion, which is commanded by Lt. Col. Hal Moorer. He introduced me to CWO Oscar A. Duhovnik of headquarters troop, 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry, who was going up to forward brigade headquarters on a liaison mission.
That was where I wanted to go in order to find Maj. Joseph Billochi, executive officer of 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry, and get a helicopter ride back up to that outfit’s area at the Hoi Son hamlets.
It had started raining again with the monotony of the on-coming monsoon season here. As the big Chinook took off up the Soui La Tinh River to the valley where the operation - called “Concord” I found out at Col. Thomas Brown’s 3rd Brigade Headquarters - was taking place, I pointed to the boxes and made a questioning motion to Capt. Rozansk.
He wrote me the following note:
“You can tell our friends and families back in Columbus and wherever they are reading about us that our troops are thankful to the American people that they are not forgotten while on the front line. I am delivering free cigarettes, cigars, candy and some toilet articles sent over here to us as presents from the companies involved.”
I remembered then that the same distribution had been made at the 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry, camp the night before it went into the fight at the north end of this valley. Things like that bring home a lot closer.
The Chinook dropped into a hedge-compartmented hillside where the forward elements of the brigade headquarters were located, along with the howitzers of the 2nd Battalion, 19th Artillery, and I started walking toward the battalion’s headquarters tent.
Capt. George McMillan of the battalion staff almost ran over me as he came bumping over the path on a small motor scooter, then I saw men running toward a helicopter landed in front of the headquarters area.
Some 60mm mortar shells landed on the hill near here the previous night. Three had banged in around Lt. Col. Robert Shoemaker’s forward command post up at Hoi Son about the same time, and I thought something of the same nature was happening again.
I ran with a group and then stopped dead in my tracks as I saw the stretchers being taken from the helicopter.
I walked over to the tent area and saw 14 men on litters there. Maj. Billochi turned from watching the doctor and medics working and shook his head.
Fight in Progress
“Charlie, B Company went into that rice paddy and got into a whale of a fight,” he said. “We’re not sure what’s going on, but the fight is still in progress. The Old Man went up and got some tactical air support in, I know that.”
“Mr. Merkle and Mr. Chapman got these 14 wounded out of there in the Tactical Operations Command Huey,” he continued. “They made a fantastic run in there. The weather is awful and the fire is heavy. They got 14 on board with all of that heavy radio gear already on it . . . twice the load the thing ought to carry.”
I saw Sp5 James Lowden, CWO Robert Chapman and CWO Robert Merkle then and asked if I could ride back in there with them.
“If this ship will get there, we’re going there,” Merkle said. “Climb aboard.”
I walked over to the wounded men first and spoke to some of them. A sergeant I knew from Alpha Company - a platoon from that company had been with Company B when the fight came - grinned and said:
“Somebody up there told me I ought to have more sense than to get shot. I’ll tell you what I told him, Charlie. I shall return.”
He had a very bad-looking arm wound, but was smoking a cigarette with his good hand and his face was composed. I didn’t like standing there helplessly watching my friends on those litters while the medics worked.
I walked over to the helicopter and climbed in beside Lowden. There was a big hole smashed into the door frame where I climbed in. It went on out the top of the ship.
“A little thing we picked up on the last trip,” the crew chief told me.
The medical evacuation choppers already had been hard hit in the initial landings, having lost a pilot and a helicopter, and the weather and violence of fire at the loading zone apparently kept them from coming in after the wounded.
The TOC shop pilots familiar with the terrain (and, probably more important, deeply attached to the men involved, knowing them and being close to them), had performed their impossible flight under the kind of conditions which simply aren’t to be asked of pilots.
The kind of effort which finally took all of the wounded and the two men killed from that fight back to friends and assistance has to be volunteered by brave men.
The evacuation of the wounded from Hoi Son 1, where the fight was going on, became even more fantastic during the night when Maj. Billochi and CWO Ronald Ehmann began making the hair-raising flight in the tiny little OH13s.
It sounds impossible, and it probably is impossible under normal circumstances, but Billochi made three trips carrying two wounded each time and one trip carrying three. The little ship is designed for a pilot and one passenger under ideal conditions, not for flying in the dark, in fog, rain and under fire.
The last trip made by Billochi was probably the most fantastic of all. About 11:30 p.m. , during a momentary break in the fog and rain, he and Lowndes, with Ehmann flying the other ship, whipped up the valley for the fifth time.
Ehmann picked up Shoemaker, who had been with the company until the fighting broke off and the night settled down to sniping and flares.
Billochi picked up a wounded hard-core Viet Cong the Bravo Company paratroopers had captured during their fight and Lowndes held a .45 on the prisoner, who sat on the floor of the little helicopter all the way back to headquarters.
When Ehmann came back with Shoemaker at 1:30 a.m., he made a sixth trip up into the battle area to take ammunition, 300 pounds of it.
All of the seriously wounded were taken back, the men in the fight were resupplied, and even the men with minor wounds were brought back to the battalion command post at Hoi Son 3 and were able to spend the night on litters in a dry shelter rigged by the battalion combat medics.
A regular excavation helicopter came in about 9 a.m. the next day and evacuated them from the command post area. The night before, the only men who flew in the Hoi Son section of the valley were the men from the 1st Brigade Aviation Co. in the TOC shop and the OH13 and Billochi.
The Huey in which I flew up the valley was bloodstained inside and everyone aboard it was stained as well. It was dark and the weather was very bad. Lowndes told me we probably would set down at Battalion CP at Hoi Son 3 to pick up supplies to run on up to the fighting. When we were almost there the chopper began shaking very heavily.
“We picked up a round!” Lowndes shouted in my ear. “Something is broken and this chopper isn’t going to fly very far.”
Lands in Paddy
It flew to the rice paddy in front of the CP, however, and settled down in a jerky, bouncy fashion. We landed near an eerily lit square where somebody had poured gasoline in cans and lighted them to mark a landing zone.
Men were standing along the paddy wall, ready to form up into working parties or to go on up into the valley on foot, as one officer kept arguing for. Sniping was forgotten and it would probably have been ignored even if it had been noticed.
I waded over the paddy to the wall and helped hand up some boxes out of the TOC ship which had been sent forward.
“You guys are lucky you got in here in that bird,” Sgt. Ronald Anderson of C Company said. “They can’t see too well but the transmission seems to be shot on it, a bearing or something.”
It was not my day for choppers, this being the second one I had ridden which had wound up hit, but I decided it was my day for luck. Neither of the birds had decided to quit before landing safely.
Sits in Tent
I left the landing zone and went back into the little spit of wooded land where the CP tent was located and sat inside on my bedroll. The tent was filled with people who kept ducking in out of the rain and talking, then leaving.
The men at Hoi Son were in good shape, and had formed up a perimeter defense ready to kick the Viet Cong on out of the area in the morning, somebody said. It was frustrating to look at the 2,000 yards of darkness, fog and rain which separated us from the flares and firing on up the valley.
About 9 p.m. Billochi and Ehmann came in from their final trip to evacuate the wounded. They said things were quiet except for the usual sniping at their helicopters - which both had escaped hits despite the continued flights at slow speeds and low levels.
The two had to be tired, although you can’t tell from Billochi’s voice or mannerisms whether he is fatigued. He is always a humorous and composed individual with a tremendous buoyance.
We moved around in the little tent so the pilots could stretch out on two air mattresses. The rain drained under the tent wall and the floor was a mud wallow, but the people packed in under it were conscious of the luxury of not being rained on.
The gasoline flares burned down and darkness settled. Distant gunshots sounded, and occasionally a few from our own area came. Up on the hill a platoon of Charlie Company was crouched in an ambush on the trail we had found and we kept listening for firing up there, but none came.
About 2 a.m., people began drifting out to their poncho homes when word came that Shoemaker would be coming in to reclaim his home.
I strung up my poncho and borrowed another from somebody who said he had a thatched roof and a cardboard-and-straw floor to his shelter. Using the second poncho for a ground cloth, I lay down. Water filled the poncho on the ground, simple oozing over the sides of it, and I finally just wadded my wet poncho liner and sat on it.
The OH13 flown by Ehmann came in and I saw Shoemaker picking his way up the paddy wall with a shielded flashlight. The ammunition was being loaded on the helicopter. Shoemaker, who had been in the middle of a small unit fight for some hours, peered under the poncho near his tent and recognized me.
“Charlie, you would have been proud of those boys,” he said. “Those lads are magnificent. Everything they did up there was more than you could ask of them. Their spirit is fantastically high - they are cracking jokes and ready to fight again in the morning.
“This American boy we have is wonderful! Our country is just blessed with them is all I can say,” he continued out of the darkness, talking from the door of his tent on the muddy air mattress laid down there.
He told me about the fight, then
“They came from that village across the rice paddy when automatic weapons opened up on them from a range of 40 yards,” he said. “They had 15 men down almost at once, but they put fire right back at the Viet Cong and the squads evacuated every man, bringing them back to the cover of that creek between the village and the fortified area across the paddy.
“I went up there in the chopper and got to the creek where they were,” he continued. “They were actually getting ready to assault those prepared positions then. I got some air commitments, high performance aircraft, the F104s. They came in and were very spectacular, but they simply didn’t have time to get on top of the target, and when they did they didn’t have the fuel to stay there.
“I worked the company down the creek,” he related. “The channel keeps getting deeper and the bank is several feet high. We tried to move out on a flank assault after the F104s hit, but automatic weapons, heavy machine guns, opened up from the right and just grazed the top of the bank.
“I called for more air, and B52s came and dropped those fragmentation bombs,” he said. “They didn’t do any good either. We had worked further down the creek and the banks were 10 to 15 feet high. The machine guns kept raking them and we were getting grenades from those people crawling along the paddy wall and possibly from grenade launchers. It was impossible to assault from that bank.
“At dark, I decided to break contact and to pull into a perimeter about 200 meters back,” Shoemaker said. “It looks quiet now. If we get the go-ahead, we will move up there with Charlie Company in the morning.”
“I would like to really work this out here, spend some time with the brigade and work this thing out and chase them right on up that trail,” Shoemaker concluded.
The night’s misery content remained high until daybreak, when a break came in the clouds. At 5:30, brigade had called and told the battalion commander to go ahead and take the paddy site.
Shoemaker had called for the wonderful old A1E Skyraiders to come up and use napalm, and the propeller driven aircraft were scheduled to work over the area shortly.
There was a tight timetable for all of this, however. The brigade had to leave here the next day because of another operation the 1st Cavalry was committed to - opening the Mang Yang pass for a 500-truck convoy from Qui Nhon to Pleiku - and I saw Charlie Company already filing up the wooded side of the paddy to the rear of the CP area.
I rolled up my gear and got
out there just in time to fall in with 1st Sgt. William Staten for the
to Hoi Son 1.
Return to Index