Nov 23, 1965

Hair-Trigger Tension Evident Throughout Special Forces Camp

By CHARLES BLACK

Enquirer Military Writer

DUC CO, Viet Nam - The Special Forces camp here is typical of these installations in this country, and a close look at its functions - and faults - is as good a way as any to understand the events at the camp at Plei Me and the campaign by the First Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division fought under the command of Lt. Col. Harlowe Clark from Oct. 26 until Nov. 7.

The campaign, and that is the only military term which can describe it, dealt out a losing hand to the 101st Regiment of the 325th Division of the People’s Army of North Viet Nam (PAVN) and gave a bloody introduction to combat for yet another PAVN division infiltrating South Viet Nam from Cambodia, the 324th.

(The First Brigade’s operations have been taken up after Nov. 7 by Col. Thomas Brown’s Third Brigade in a systematic fashion which is aimed at knocking out the 32nd Regiment of the 325th PAVN division.)

Duc Co is a small chunk of Vietnamese real estate enclosed with double entanglements of barbed wire, claymore mines, ditches, and defended by bunkers and a tank which won’t maneuver because it was knocked out of action once but which is handy as a dug-in pill box.  There is a Special Forces A team here whose members include:

M-Sgt. Joseph P. Seyer (19 years of service); S-Sgt. Edward A. Stevens (16 years); S-Sgt. Jackie D. Lawson (6 years); S-Sgt. Anthony Salandro (6 years); S-Sgt. Raymond C. Dell (6 years); S-Sgt. Kelly P. Decker (3 years); S-Sgt. Murray H. Parker (4 years); SFC Charles R. Smith (10 years); Sgt. David A. Woods (9 years); Sgt. Harold T. Palmer (10 years); S-Sgt. Thomas G. McNiff (19 years) and Sp5 Thomas A. Jones III (2 years).

I put in the length of service of these NCOs to emphasize that in the main these Americans are professional soldiers who have volunteered for the hazards and hardships of Special Forces work and who have training and vast experience to fit them in it.  The team is commanded by Capt. Richard B. Johnson with Lt. Joseph B. Kube as his executive officer.

The camp’s fighting force consists of about 250 Montagnard Civil Irregular Defense Guard (CIDG) troops which the Special Forces men usually call “Strikers” because they are organized as a “Strike Force” and 240 Nuong tribesmen.

The Strikers are commanded by a lieutenant (Tee Wee he is called in Vietnamese) and have been recruited and trained by the American team or its predecessors here.

Actually, the Americans are in command, planning the tactical operations and going along in the field.  The Strikers get their pay from U.S. funds and are known as being among the most reliable fighters in Viet Nam.

The Nuongs are fantastic men who are legendary here.  Descendants of Chinese refugees who settled in Viet Nam in past centuries, they come from families who first engaged in river pirating and banditry in a most dedicated fashion and who then realized that simply hiring out as professional soldiers was a more reliable source of income.  They are hired through “contractors” and are the highest paid non-American troops in the country.  They are used as scouts, reconnaissance specialists, bodyguards and whenever especially skillful and tough professional killers seem to be indicated.

Duc Co is an area where such was indicated.

The camp was hit by several battalions of North Vietnamese soldiers in May.  The fighting holes and bunkers dug by those soldiers litter the area outside of the wire and the cleared terrain around the little fortress.  The pressure was relentless but never so relentless that the camp was overrun and this apparently was designedly so.  (Later events at Plei Me bore out this assumption.)

I talked to Capt. Johnson and M-Sgt. Seyer in the long, tin-roofed hut which is divided into rooms with a hall down the center to a kitchen - mess hall, lounge - club room and serves as the resident and headquarters of the team.

There isn’t any exact source for this information but it came to me during the day in conversations and offhand remarks.

The Montagnard CIDG troopers are dissatisfied.  Some of them have been at this camp for five years.  The camp is effectively blocked off from the countryside by Viet Cong (local hard core guerrillas and part-time fighters) and by memory of the 70 days when regular North Vietnamese soldiers occupied the area.

There is no government influence outside of the range of the camp’s defenses or the rifles of the patrols sent out from it.

The Nuongs are restive men who aren’t happy in a defensive stance and who are apt to engage in ruthless brawls if not kept busy patrolling, ambushing and fighting.  (The most recent casualties came from an argument over a game of cards and from the objections of one Nuong about another Nuong wearing his cap crooked.  The card game argument was settled with a bullet exchange which caused some casualties but no fatalities.  The cap was straightened with a carbine bullet which killed the man inside of it.)

The camp duties of the team include keeping the Montagnards from simply resigning; the Nuongs as happy as possible by diverting their energy toward fighting the surrounding enemies rather than each other; keeping a 24-hour guard on the radio; mounting as much of an offensive patrol and ambush system as is possible; recruiting and training new troops to shore up the long suffering Montagnards and building up the camp’s defensive system by adding wire and clearing brush, etc.

The strain of all this shows, too.  The men in the team are tense and hair-triggered even at their most relaxed moments.  They have the tension of a tightly coiled spring about them even when they sit and drink coffee and talk about the weather.

I came here in an Otter piloted by Capt. Gene Hall of Columbus who simply decided to fly up and see if there “was any need for an airplane” on his “day off” from the usual sunup to sundown routine of the aviation company he commands at Pleiku.

He had picked up some mail for the team at Pleiku and brought it in and then agreed to taking seven Nuongs back to Pleiku on the return trip.  They were being given a rest and recreation leave (R and R in GI conversations).

I walked around outside the camp while the Nuongs were having their leave papers checked by M-Sgt. Seyer and was dismayed by seeing the siegecraft of the PAVN units.

They had opened their attack from prepared, dug-in positions which had taken more than a single night of digging to construct.  A working party clearing grass out of the wire and a newly cleared swatch in the brush, with the fresh scars of a bulldozer grave where the PAVN fatalities had been buried when the camp was relieved in the last days of June, 70 days after the first attack, showed that the lesson had been learned here.

When men can dig positions at close range to a defense perimeter before opening fire, something is lacking in camp security.

The pattern of the attack, as outlined by the A team and other reports (the team at Duc Co now was not the one there during the attack and siege) was this:

A new PAVN force had marched down from North Viet Nam to a staging area in Cambodia on the Vietnamese border.  From there they went to long-planned positions around Duc Co.

Platoon and company sized elements went to fields suitable for helicopter landings and dug bunkers, shelters and constructed field camps - each field which presented a feasible landing zone for a relief.

A field hospital was established close to Plei Me and it is likely that a similar field hospital was set up near Duc Co.  If the Plei Me pattern held there, it would be within three or four miles and have a medical regiment ready to receive casualties.

An elite battalion of fighting men would provide security for this hospital and probably had elaborate dug-in defenses set up on the trails from planned battle sites to the hospital area.

At Plei Me, these trails were actually blazed on trees to help the litter parties and walking wounded find the hospital.

© Columbus Ledger-Enquirer

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