By CHARLES BLACK
Enquirer Military Writer
PLEIKU, Viet Nam - I got back here from Duc Co just in time to meet Capt. Robert C. Debardalaben, Capt. James Lybrand and Capt. Walter Urbach of the 17th Aviation Company (the Caribou company which has been flying record hours in support of the 1st Cavalry Division) and eat supper with them.
They were just back in from what must be the most wearying flights available in Viet Nam - radio relay missions.
When an airmobile division goes into the field it is not the easiest thing in the world to keep up with, as the frustrated press corps in Viet Nam has finally realized after trying to cover it from inaccurate and outdated information available at Saigon press briefings.
The key to the division’s ability to conduct coordinated combat activities over an area of several hundred square miles (aside from its air capability, logistics achievements, etc.) is communications. The men in charge must be able to talk to each other.
This implies that some efficient radio operations are being handled and the Caribou-laden radio relay is part of the communications net. A CV2 loads relay equipment on board, long antennae are thrust out the open cargo door like fishing poles, communications specialists climb in and the plane takes off and climbs to about 10,000 feet over An Khe.
Here it throttles back to about 75 m.p.h. and describes sedate circles for periods of up to eight hours, then its place is taken by another aerial switchboard. The Caribou thus becomes the world’s tallest radio antenna. (I never thought to ask if the pilots fly clockwise or counterclockwise, but I assume they can mix them up to kill the boredom.)
I absolutely refused to accompany anybody flying a radio relay mission. I once spent 14 1/2 hours on a Caribou flight from Calcutta to Saigon, and there just didn’t seem to be anything to add to my portfolio of calluses by inspecting a cylinder of air over An Khe for one third of a day.
I did unbend enough, however, to allow Capt. B. D. Silvey and CWO2 Gerard Keeler to get me into a CV2 loaded with gear and technicians who were simply going to fly to An Khe and load into another bird.
I didn’t trust them. Right up until landing I thought they had pulled the elaborate kind of practical joke Caribou pilots indulge in on such a universal scale and that I was stuck for eight hours. However, they made a nice straight-forward flight from Pleiku to An Khe.
Aboard the plane were some old friends of mine from the 13th Signal Battalion who were suddenly full-fledged flight communications crewmen.
S-Sgt. Arthur C. McCullough, Sp4 Gennaro Cappasso and PFC Wilbur C. Wells, all of A Co., showed me the elaborate relay equipment which they use to pick up messages and flash on to their destination and which extends the range of radio communications many fold.
Sp4 Nelson A. Hendrickson, the crew chief from the 17th Aviation Co., kept reassuring me that we weren’t up for the whole night, and when we landed I thanked him for being the best friend I had aboard. The men up in the pilot end kept implying over the intercom that this was probably “going to be the longest mission on record. . . we have updraft and can glide a lot to conserve fuel.”
Maj. Chuck Siler, the 1st Cavalry Division public information officer, picked me up in a jeep. As we bumped along over the road around the Golf Course toward the press camp he showed me one of the most impressive entries in the “Viet Nam Mail Call” field.
All of these letters sent to 1st Cavalry men are welcomed more than the writers would think possible, particularly with the troops being subjected to news reports about the antics of a few people who have a better break than the riflemen here do and are using it to hurt their country. The letters of support and friendship far outweigh the idiocy and brutal callousness of the other demonstrations.
The letter Maj. Siler showed me came from the Junior High School in Bluefield, W. Va., and it was signed by every student and every teacher. It was several feet long and had more than 600 signatures to a warm note of support and a wish for well-being.
The letters to the troops have been coming in great numbers and the troops have been lining up at bulletin boards around An Khe to read them. They are tangible answers to the questions raised in a soldiers’ mind by the well-publicized hoopla of the “protesters.” It must be understood that the demonstrations, signs, etc., have a damned bad effect on morale in this fight. They are not taken lightly by a boy who has just gone through a bad day in the brush and seen his friends carried to the evacuation choppers on litters made of poles and ponchos. He is a very vulnerable boy then and he deserves better than the scurvy answer which a few people serve up on signs.
With the letters sent from the real people back home he gets a better, infinitely better, indication of what the citizens of his country feel about this contribution to his fellow man.
Maj. Siler told me that there was a possible move under way to send the Second Battalion 12th Infantry, commanded by Lt. Col. Earl Ingram, to an operation over around Boon Song where a Special Forces Camp had been hit by the North Vietnamese division which has operated in that area.
As usual, multiple ambushes had been established around the camp which were sprung by the relief forces. The siege on the camp had been broken but intelligence reports indicated another buildup was under way and a joint American-Vietnamese operation was planned to forestall it.
I had been to Boon Song a few days before the attack on it - one of the officers I admire more than almost anyone who has been on duty in Viet Nam, Capt. Paris Davis, was seriously wounded and a good non-commissioned officer I had met was killed in the attack - and I felt very involved in the events over there near the coast.
The wounds suffered by Capt. Davis, three machine gun bullets which he survived and is recovering from, were the fifth, sixth and seventh wounds this officer received in a single six-month tour in Viet Nam.
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