(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 - Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry, started its walk up to the hamlet of Hoi Son 1 early on a grim, grey morning following a fight there between Bravo Company (and a platoon of Alpha Company) and a dug-in force of Viet Cong.
Capt. Robert Lindquist led his company in a long, single file up the edge of a paddy which runs north and south, flanked on one side by the hedges and groves of Hoi Son hamlets and on the other by the jungle slope of a mountain which had been heavily patrolled for four days.
I walked with 1st Sgt. William Staten and Sgt. William McKelvin in a line of men from Lt. Wayne Simone’s platoon. The big bulk of S-Sgt. Ernest Gregory was leading the third squad of the first platoon across the paddy to comb the brush on the mountainside.
I remembered when I had run into Gregory the day of the assault. It was an odd thing to think about, but it was an odd coincidence.
I had crouched and run across a yard beside a blazing hootch which was getting an occasional sniper bullet. Gregory was bent over, looking attentively at an area ahead, his M-16 held like a hunter’s rifle, trying to see the sniper. I took his picture, then mentioned that I knew his name but couldn’t think of how I knew it.
Met At Benning
“Charlie, you won’t believe it and I almost don’t, but the last time you and I met was back at Fort Benning last spring, I think,” Gregory said. “You were out covering the company when it went through the Asian Village training problem there, and you stopped and talked to me when I was doing just what I’m doing now, looking at a thatched-roof hut trying to figure out a way to tell if it had a sniper in it, except this is for real.”
I hoped the Asian Village training had been thorough as I watched him take the squad over, because he was our life insurance on that flank. He is the kind of an NCO you like to have out there at such times - big, dependable and unshakable.
I remembered that Lt. Col. Robert Shoemaker had mentioned the NCOs of Bravo Company time and again as he told me about the action up ahead during the night, describing the way they had handled their duties and how great their influence had been in the fight. An ambush had been transformed into a firefight where the company had held its ground and forced the Viet Cong to break contact.
The paddy widened after a slow-paced, tense 30 minutes of walking and the flanking squad was motioned in. It was too exposed over there now in the brush of the mountain foot and we had to worry about the impenetrable mass of cover on our left from here on.
We were stopped right after this by sniper fire up front and, as we waited, Shoemaker came walking up through the line, stepping out into the calf-deep paddy mud to go around the crouched infantrymen where the paddy wall was narrow.
‘Bull of Woods’
“Let the old Bull of the Woods through, boys,” he said once when the men had gathered close to a spot of cover.
He was simply walking along there, grinning and confident looking, while we crouched in the tense postures caused by the sound of small arms fire.
It is the kind of thing you expect out of a senior commander in such situations if military tradition is to be served, of course, but the physical courage that kind of demeanor require is always a fantastic thing to watch.
I’d seen it when Brig. Gen. William Knowles strolled around the CP area after a sniper had shot holes in the gunship which followed his chopper and the sound of the VC’s carbine was still coming from 50 yards away.
Col. Thomas E. Brown, the 3rd Brigade commander, seemingly had been unaware of any difference between the same area and brigade headquarters at Fort Benning in the old days.
Wave of Confidence
It is always a mystery to me how these commanders manage it so superbly. It leaves a wave of confidence behind and things get into an easier perspective. It made the walk much easier when the column started moving again.
We came to the final lap of the journey, and the battalion commander had already cleared this point and headed across the paddy to the scene of the fight with Bravo Company and Alpha Company taking over the ground for which they had so stubbornly fought.
There were pools of Viet Cong blood and the body of one VC regular who had been shot as he attempted to flee. We turned to the right to cross the creek and go into the village and then to get on over into the area ahead.
A single carbine shot came just 50 yards away from a wooded finger of land which jutted into the paddy.
I didn’t mention it to anybody just then, but this particular sniper is one I have an intense personal interest in now, and not where his welfare is concerned.
The single shot put a hole into the front of a baggy, loose-fitting camouflage jacket I was wearing. It was soaked with rain and sweat, and I had a can of C rations in the side pocket.
I was walking in an unabashed crouch (I figured I didn’t have to worry about prestige) and the front of the jacket drooped down like an apron. The slug made a round hold on the left, tore out the lower three inches of a zipper which secured the front and then cut a swatch out of the bulge in the right pocket.
I felt a tug and made a jump into the mud behind a paddy wall. I found the tear in the zipper and pocket first. I didn’t find the little round bullet hole until I had left here to go to another operation later in the day, and immediately discounted any theory that a bullet had actually come that close to me.
I lay there thinking of various theories concerning the ripped jacket front and settled on thorns in a paddy where thorns didn’t grow.
I kept looking at the brush in front and I saw it move just enough to make a deer hunter come alert. Somebody whanged an M-79 grenade too far to the right of the movement and I got a glimpse of what looked like a patch of leaves suddenly disappearing back into the thick tangle of vines, grass and trees.
I called to Lt. Simone and he looked carefully at the place I indicated, but the movement was gone.
From down the valley, the noise of the helicopter came, then a Huey swept right by us, swinging around the knoll. The carbine rattled out a burst of automatic fire then. (We heard that the chopper took a hit from it but not a bad one.) A hail of fire rippled out from the men able to see the crest of the ridge.
Simone motioned us back out of the paddy into the village. We crossed the creek at a place where it was knee deep, then took cover in the trees.
“There are snipers all around us,” Simone said. “Keep your heads down and don’t fire. We are sending our people out to get them now, if you see somebody don’t shoot. It may be our boys.”
There was firing again over around the little spit of land and word came that the men over there had found a heavy trail of blood leading into the jungle from the brush where I had spotted the movement. There wasn’t any sense in pushing that any further.
About 30 minutes later, Shoemaker came into the village and walked over to me.
“Charlie, if you had been over there with me you would have seen that Viet Cong body, those blood trails and pools and the weapons the boys picked up which they left behind,” he said. “It makes me feel better to know we came out ahead of them when they had our boys cold turkey over there.”
I heard then that there was word out that the VC had about 150 killed in the entire sweep. Questioning of prisoners and refugees had established this. The battalion had counted eight bodies left behind and a helicopter had spotted the VC carrying 25 bodies up the trail to the northwest that morning.
A refugee had told us about more than 25 badly wounded VC who had been treated in a pagoda in a little hamlet on up the valley. I had seen about 30 wounded in the paratrooper battalion and three soldiers who had died in this action.
The 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry, the old 1st Battalion, 187th Infantry, which had been the original outfit in the airmobile concept, had taken almost every one of the “light” casualties from the four-day operation and had handed the Viet Cong a blood bill which extracted three or four-to-one payment.
The owned the ground; the Viet Cong ran off and left it. They had secured their objective and were in solid contact with the Vietnamese marine battalion across the paddy from us.
Word came a couple of hours later to head back to the command post because the operation was finished and the battalion would go home in the morning. There was some growling and some comments from the men that they “ought to go on up the trail and finish them” but they came out cocky, proud and tough, and they had a right to.
They were too tired and muddy to swagger - and paddy mud doesn’t allow any such shenanigans when you walk through it - but they had grins and the look of men who had tried out this business and found out they knew how to operate it. They had become professionals.
When we came in, a line of newsmen was on the paddy wall. They came in during the afternoon, and I was glad to see the national press on hand to give the battalion its due.
I was even more glad to see Lt. Col. Harlow Clark, its former commander who had moved up to deputy commander of the First Brigade. He walked through the mud to talk to Shoemaker, then walked around talking to the men of the outfits who came walking into the CP area.
I saw Capt. John Colson, a pilot of great renown, and Sgt. “Whitey” Phillips, the big NCO who is always close to Clark’s side, and went over to talk to them. Clark came and offered me a ride “back to An Khe for a shower, a meal and about four hours sleep before we go over and assault Mang Yang Pass.”
I was so tired and dirty it didn’t seem to make any difference, so I agreed. Ever since I had heard about this Indo-Chinese and Vietnamese fighting area I had heard of Mang Yang Pass, where French Group Mobile 100 had died wearing its Second Infantry Division patch from Korean service with the Indianhead.
“We are going to assault from helicopters right on top of the mountain where those thousands of French graves are,” Clark said. “We are going to clear that pass from there right down to the monument which marks the spot where the big ambush was sprung.
“They are going to run 500 trucks up Highway 19 to Pleiku,” he continued. “It is going to be a tremendous operation. The Vietnamese are going to open the road from Pleiku to where we tie in with them, and those are going to roll by the Viet Cong until every last load of supplies is delivered over at Pleiku.”
Col. E. L. Roberts, the commander of the 1st Brigade, has had an operation to straighten out an old knee injury, and during his absence Clark was in command of the brigade. He was completely at home later that night in the briefing tent when the operation was laid out by the staff officers, and command sat quite easily on him.
I had a shower. I didn’t have a razor with me so the whiskers stayed. I didn’t have a chance to get over to my gear at the press tent, where I hadn’t been for about 12 days, and the paddy mud was thick on my tiger suit and the thing smelled of jungle, sweat and paddy water, but I felt very fresh at 4 a.m. with two meals in a row.
I joined up with Capt. Rotar McReynolds and his Company A, 2nd Battalion, 8th Infantry, commanded by Lt. Col. John White, for the helicopter assault.
The plan was beautifully conceived, even to a nonmilitary observer. The helicopters would sweep into a grassy plain on the reverse side of the mountain ridge. The infantrymen would assault over the ridge and down to the road, completely reversing the traditional (and possibly shop-worn) technique of landing in a flat valley and sweeping uphill.
Chinooks would come in behind them and land 105mm howitzers which would frown down from the ridgetops. Eagle flights of CIDG troops and bombers would secure additional landing zones all around.
Out in Brush
Lt. Col. Kenneth D. Mertel’s 1st Battalion, Eighth Infantry (my personal unit, incidentally, as I am on the Mustang’s Bravo Company roll call), was already out in the brush on the other side of the road, clearing out VC from that area.
It was just as beautiful in the morning when the big fleet of choppers landed and the lines of infantrymen moving across the ridge in front of the long rows of French graves (there are uncounted thousands of them on the mountain above Mang Yang Pass).
An asphalt drive winds up from Route 19, like a drive into a park in the U.S. A CIDG fortress, actually a barbed-wire-enclosed camp, sits astride the road down at the bottom of the mountain, a mile or so down the asphalt drive.
When we landed up there it was sunny, the wind was cool, the view was beautiful. I walked over the crest of the ridge and saw a concrete structure which turned out to be a big water tank which was mysteriously built on top of the ridge.
I climbed up the steps to the tank’s top and watched the assault waves come down the slopes, moving by the French graves and down into the place where the last hopes of France had been ground into the elephant grass in Viet Minh ambushes a decade ago.
The assault went over the asphalt drive and disappeared into the jungle and elephant grass which was thick below the beautiful short grass of the ridge crest. I thought about the days I had spent crawling and sweating in that grass and jungle and mud.
Probably because I was tired and still shocked from things out in the paddies around Hoi Son, I just didn’t want to walk down into Mang Yang Pass through the elephant grass and thorns. I am a little worried over giving in to the whim now, but it is something I can always say I did - even if it was foolish.
I walked down the asphalt drive alone, following its pleasant loops through the jungle of grass and brush, not particularly caring who I met or anything except that it was a nice morning to walk.
It had been a long time since I had walked on a paved road, and it had been a long time since I had walked without being in a line of armed and edgy men.
The walk took 30 minutes, I suppose, and ended at the barbed-wire fence of the CIDG fort. The last 100 yards were the ones which made me the most nervous. I saw Capt. John Colson standing out by Clark’s helicopter, an M-16 rifle held very alertly, watching me.
“Charlie, what are you doing walking down that road by yourself?” he asked. “I thought you were a French survivor who decided to come in.”
He opened a barbed-wire gate and let me through and we talked a while; then I walked on around the path to the highway. I met Lt. Col. Clark coming up the path and he looked surprised. He said he thought I was with the assault wave, which was a long way from here.
I told him I had walked down the trail to the CIDG camp, and he shook his head and told me that he thought that constituted a simple-minded action. He hurried on up the path to the CIDG post and his helicopter to get on with the business of securing Mang Yang Pass for the truck column which was heading out from An Khe.
There seemed to be only one other thing to do to make the episode complete. That would be for me to hitchhike from the Mang Yang Pass to Pleiku. If I could do that, it would be proof enough for anybody that when the 1st Cavalry Division secured an area which a regimental combat team with tanks and aircraft couldn’t survive, the area was properly secured!
I stuck up a thumb and a jeep stopped and I got in it.
Three jeep rides later I wound up at the gate to Camp Holloway in Pleiku, asking directions to the 17th Aviation Company, which had brought some Caribous over to support the division, flying the Pacific Ocean in the process.
I felt somewhat the same kind of accomplishment when I got out of the last jeep, and the trip from the pass was, as are all things in this country, a completely engrossing series of events.
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