By CHARLES BLACK
Ledger-Enquirer Staff Writer
PLEIKU, Viet Nam - I made a courtesy call down to the orderly room to make sure that the men who really runs things in a company knew I was around. First Sergeant Herbert L. Gunn shook hands and introduced me to S-Sgt. Eddie H. Holloway and S-Sgt. Jonas Vaughn.
S-Sgt. Holloway was able to give me a tip in the location of a namesake of his, CWO Don Holloway of the 92nd Aviation Company here, who has achieved a reputation as the most persuasive salesman in Viet Nam. CWO Holloway is pilot of one of the detachment of Caribous the Qui Nhon headquarters of the 92nd keeps at Pleiku to support Special Forces camps at such battle scarred locations as Duc Co and Plei Me. Most of his classmates from flight school at Fort Rucker were from the north - and included a sizable delegation of ski fans. CWO Holloway is a good Alabama product. The Yankees all went to Vung Tao, which is far south on the coast of the South China Sea and which, although beautiful and picturesque, is also hot. Pleiku is in the center of a plateau surrounded by the Annamite Mountains.
CWO Holloway ran into his buddies one day on a hot afternoon while unloading a Caribou at Tan Son Nhut airport at Saigon and commenced talking about the cool, beautiful Central Highlands. As he waxed more poetic for his sweltering friends from Vung Tao, he mentioned sadly that it was a shame such snowsick advocates of skiing as they would miss the season at Pleiku.
“We have a beautiful ski slope and ski lodge. Regular winter paradise there. Snow comes in about six weeks. People come from all over South Viet Nam. We have three Ranger battalions assigned to keep the slope secure. It is real tough getting reservations, though. All of us guys at Pleiku buy season tickets in advance,” CWO Holloway said.
He is very shifty about answering questions concerning the rest of the story, but others maintain that he has sold more season tickets to the Pleiku ski slope and ski lodge than any single man in South Viet Nam. The price is said to vary according to “. . .how good a friend of his you are. The better you know him, the more he charges for the ticket.”
I met CWO Holloway while eating lunch and he told me he was thinking about laying in a sideline of ski wax, parkas, ear muffs and such items not generally available in South Viet Nam for the simple reason that probably not even in the ice age has a snow flake ever been seen in this country.
“There is one guy who doesn’t have a sense of humor who is asking all over, everytime he lands his Caribou, if I’m due to come in there. I think he has a club he wants to use on me,” CWO Holloway told me happily.
I found out the supersalesman of the aviation ranks had not only sold this man a season ticket but had taken a down payment on a pair of skis after explaining that the ones available for “the ordinary tourist trade” weren’t adequate for a real ski enthusiast.
Capt. Gene Hall, whom I had last seen at a Columbus Lions Club meeting in July, sat down just as I was drawing out the last details from CWO Holloway and told me he is running an Otter Company at Pleiku.
“If you would like, we can take a ride up to Duc Co and you can see what happened up there,” Capt. Hall said.
Duc Co was the camp which had been placed under a 70-day siege by the 325th North Vietnamese Division (these troops are usually called PAVN’s, from Peoples Army of North Viet Nam) in order to lure South Vietnamese or American soldiers into a network of prepared ambushes set up around the Special Forces fortress. The PAVN division had finally relented when Vietnamese Marines and airborne battalion had cut through to the camp with the 173rd Airborne Brigade acting as a reserve force at Pleiku.
The actions around Duc Co and other camps of this kind seem the standard gambit of a unit of North Vietnamese soldiers infiltrating from Laos or Cambodia to support the efforts of the hard core Viet Cong or the part time guerrilla. I wanted to study them. It was also a pleasure to see Capt. Hall and I hadn’t had a chance to ride in the big, single-engined Otter, the old workhorse of Viet Nam, either time I have been in the Central Highlands. While I waited for him to round up CWO Randy Cochrum, his co-pilot, and PFC Jim Bielaski, the crewchief, I went out and sat down on one of the innumerable sandbag shelters built handy to the hootches.
Capt. S. L. Sorenson of the 52nd Assault Helicopter Co., whose home base is at Camp Holloway, came over and we talked about the sunny weather and he pointed to the dry-weather beacon which pilots use to locate the Camp Holloway airstrip - a towering cloud of red dust which is visible from the air for miles. Helicopters and Caribous operating from the pierced metal airstrip kept the red clay churned into an eruption which looks like a cloud of smoke and settles in hair and on clothing like brick dust.
“Everybody has a rosy flush between showers, except when it rains and the stuff turns into red paint,” Capt. Sorenson said.
He asked me to “please relay some greetings to Jack G. Parker of the Columbus Bank and Trust Company.” I found out from the chopper pilot that Parker is a favorite of “. . . a lot of servicemen here in Viet Nam who have been to Columbus on duty. He has helped me with some good service. He is a good example of the kind of citizens in that town who make a big part of the Army consider Fort Benning a second home.”
Capt. Hall came from the little green house where air operations formalities are conducted and we all got into the Otter and launched off into the dust cloud toward Duc Co. Because it was Sunday, a nice afternoon and with nothing especially pressing about the timetable on the trip, I got a close aerial view of the Duc Co area. This was handy a few days later when the First Air Cavalry Division went into a battle which saw some of the actions taking place within a few miles of there. This trip and a helicopter tour which set me on the ground in fields and on roads around Duc Co (later when the big fight flared up in the area from Plei Me to the Cambodian border) kept me from falling into an emotional trap which caught several unwary news correspondents.
Exactly the same tactic used by the North Vietnamese soldiers at Duc Co was used again in an attack on the Special Forces Camp at Plei Me. A siege on an outpost is designed to draw a hasty, ill-planned relief force to rescue the men under pressure and to wipe out those units in a network of ambushes. When Plei Me was hit, the reaction was not according to the liking of the PAVN forces. It also was not to the immediate liking of the press corps who could not understand why the reaction by relief forces was “slow.” (It would have been even more painful to them, of course, if it had been ambushed and cut to pieces as the PAVN plan called for.)
A low level flight in the Duc Co area revealed that every road which presented an approach for a relief column had elaborately dug-in ambush sites and that the same preparation had been done around the available helicopter landing areas. Bombing, artillery, etc., had scarred the country around the camp, digging great red gouges out of it and searing away brush. The areas where the earth lay bare showed dug-in positions. The final relief of the camp, even after all of this, had been hard battle which saw the column cut in two and heavy casualties. The punishment to the PAVN force involved had been heavy, but the government losses had also been hard ones.
As an exactly similar situation developed at Plei Me in a few days, and a clamor went up for the First Air Cavalry Division to rush into the PAVN set piece situation, I was very glad to have made the trip that Sunday with Capt. Hall. I was already educated where such matters were concerned.
We landed after circling the area and taking a close look at the camp itself. The camp is a rectangle, one side slightly shorter than the others forming a figure I can’t define but which is available from somebody who didn’t miss that class in geometry, with two tangles of barb wire, a ditch and an embankment closing it in. A Montagnard refugee camp is near it. At one corner a knocked out tank has been salvaged and is dug in as a pillbox with its still operating turret and gun adding weight to that sector’s defense. Buildings line one side of the inner perimeter with sandbagged walls forming part of the defense.
If anything, the little strip by the camp is even dustier than the one at Pleiku and the battle-scarred terrain is infinitely less inviting. The terrain was overcome by the welcome given Capt. Hall by Capt. Richard B. Johnson and Lt. Joseph R. Lube of the Special Forces A Team here, however. Capt. Johnson was already on the runway waving when Capt. Hall stopped the Otter’s propeller.
“Those guys are always glad to see a friendly face around here. They live right out on the edge of nothing,” Capt. Hall confided to me as we unstrapped and climbed out.
© Columbus Ledger-Enquirer
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