Dec 2, 1965

Franco Sketch

Tough Circumstances Prove Capt. Danielsen’s Command Ability

(EDITOR'S NOTE: Charles Black, Enquirer military writer, has been in the field with 1st Cavalry Division troops. Following is an account of the action and the men involved.)


Enquirer Military Writer

BINH KHE - Capt. Theodore Danielsen, commander of Company A, 2nd Battalion (Airborne), 8th Infantry, is an all-around gentleman and one hell of an infantry commander.

I have had occasion to learn this through seeing him in at least three sets of tough circumstances.

Danny, an old friend, had been in the 11th Air Assault Division in what was then the 1st Battalion, 188th Infantry, from which the 1st Cavalry Division battalion was formed.

He knew about Viet Nam from a very tough and harrowing year as a field adviser with Vietnamese units along the Laotian border just before he became involved in the Fort Benning air mobility tests.

I saw Danny only a few days ago, however, and once again marveled at his demeanor - he just doesn’t seem to bother about worrying.

A smiling, happy man who jokes, exudes confidence and competence, he is inordinately proud of what he refers to as his “hoodlums” in Company A.  To say that the favor is returned is putting it mildly.  Danny is practically idolized by his outfit.

Lt. Col. Kenneth Mertel, the battalion commander, is quite well-blessed with company commanders, in fact.  He has one of the best collections of captains available in the U.S. Army running his fighting units.

Each of these men is an individual and has a different personality and command technique, and they fit together into a team as handily as fingers and knuckles do into a fist.

Called Mustangs

The battalion - called the “Mustangs” - has Capt. R. W. Ramsey in command of Headquarters and Headquarters Co. Capt. Ramsey has a second avocation.  He is one of the most dedicated workers in the Army’s in-service educational program, and on his nights off at Benning was an instructor in evening classes for men furthering their education.

Maj. Guy A. Eberhardt, a lean, tanned man grimly determined to win fights and hunt down Viet Cong and North Vietnamese infiltrators, is the executive officer.

Maj. John R. Herman Jr. operations officer; Capt. Charles Stone, intelligence; Capt. William B. Mozey Jr., adjutant and Capt. Gerrell D. Plummer, supply, make up the rest of the headquarters staff.

Other Key Men

A roll call of other key men included:

Capt. Richard Odom, battalion surgeon; Lt. Irving C. Staton, medical platoon commander; SFC Samuel G. Conner, medical platoon sergeant; Lt. William J. Ellison, service platoon commander; SFC Robert D. Dever, service platoon sergeant; Lt. Thomas R. Grant, communications platoon leader.

SFC James A. Williamson Jr., communications sergeant; 1st Sgt. William J. Tucker, Headquarters Company; S-Sgt. David S. Bey, S1 sergeant; M-Sgt. Raymond Plaisted, intelligence sergeant; M-Sgt. Norman C. Ashby, operations sergeant, and the battalion sergeant major, Herbert P. McCullah.

Senior medics include Sp6 Henry Agee and Sp6 Floyd Williford, and the mess sergeant is S-Sgt. Thomas C. Finnegan.

The team of infantry company commanders which makes the battalion such an effective field unit includes Capt. Roy Martin, B Company, who is the holder of world records as a skydiver; Capt. William (Buster) Smith, a straightforward businessman who runs C Company, and Capt. Vandoster Tabb, who commands Company D.

I’ve always been partial to this battalion, because I happen to be a long-standing honorary member of it.  My name and that of Capt. George Livingston, now an adviser with a Vietnamese airborne battalion, are inscribed on a plaque owned by Martin’s B Company.  This puts us on the company roster from now on.

Greetings Relayed

Livingston, the former B Company commander, had made a special trip from Kontum to An Khe to look up friends in the division, and I had missed him.

Capt. Peter Dawkins of football and scholastic fame in the Army and another of the Vietnamese airborne battalion commanders whom I had seen at Pleiku, had promised to relay greetings to Livingston.

I had received a message back so I assumed that the “Mustang” brotherhood was still close to former members of the outfit.

This kind of sentiment is compliment enough to the command ability of Mertel, and I bring it up because at this particular juncture members of the battalion were worrying about their “old man’s” health.

I spent a night in Mertel’s tent just before I went out with Danielsen’s boys and he had had a high fever and a headache and his neck was swollen, but he was toughing it out.

Mertel Evacuated

The battalion surgeon told me that if the fever didn’t drop he would send Mertel to the hospital at Qui Nhom whatever objections the commander made.  That morning, the fever was still up and the protesting Mertel was evacuated.  (He returned in a few days, cured and in full charge, but we were all worried at this time.)

Eberhardt took over running the outfit and proved to be as capable at it as anybody could ask -  and much is asked of a battalion commander -  but the personal regard for Mertel caused some glum faces when we heard he had been flown out.

The best antidote for this, according to any Army’s tradition, is hard work, and Eberhardt applied it immediately.  He set up an operation which cleared an area which had been VC domain, pushing it so hard that the local Communist organization is probably still wondering where all of those big American soldiers came from.

Danielsen’s itinerary for the day called for his company to make an assault landing in a flooded rice paddy, move out of it and comb the surrounding jungle, assault over a thorny hill and down the other side where a linkup would be forged with B and C Companies, then to sweep on through a pair of deserted villages which were known as Viet Cong hangouts.

Best Antidote

The walking involved was a tough menu in itself.  The terrain offered a choice of rice paddy mud and water or jungled, steep hills.  The opportunities for violence seemed endless, from the helicopter assault until the final tour of thatched-hut hamlets.

I got aboard a Huey with Lt. John B. Hanlon, third platoon leader; Sp4 Roger E. Redd, his radioman; Platoon Sgt. Kenneth Riveer; Sp4 Ulysses R. Laguer, assistant radioman, and Sp4 Raymond Ortiz, the platoon medic, to make the initial assault.

It wasn’t a very long ride from the battalion camp to the flooded rice paddy where the day’s work started, but it gave me a look at what we were up against and some doubts as to whether a man really ought to have to do things like this.

The landscape below just didn’t present a tidy picture.  Hill slopes cut through the muck of paddies, hedgerows ran in menacing lines at regular intervals, and the brush where the land hadn’t been farmed was a solid tangle.

The rain of the previous days had stopped during the night, and the climate of this valley area was sultry when we swooped down over a line of trees into the mud of the big paddy.  Everybody leaped out in a series of splashes and ran across the paddy to secure the landing zone.

We left trails of muddy water behind us, and when the helicopters pulled off they beat the surface of the paddy into waves, flattening the green stalks into the water.

I remember thinking “we’re making a mess out of this rice paddy, and it sure is making a mess out of us” just as I caught my left boot in a particularly mucky area and sprawled full length into the knee-deep water.

The infantrymen stayed in the paddy water, crouched along banks on either side of it, peering through the bushes.  On the east, a trail was beaten down and the  bank up to it was a mess of mud and a tangle of thorns.

I don’t know what the west side was like because I was uninterested in anything except leeches, mud, water in  my shirt pockets and the general situation caused by sudden total immersion in a rice paddy.  I remember some solicitous questions from PFC William Butera and PFC Michael D. Fisher which didn’t help any.

“You been skin diving very long?” was Butera’s offer.

PFC Fisher simply offered to loan me soap and towel if I wanted to go back and do it again.

“When that mud dries you aren’t going to be able to walk.  You’ll be one big brick,” he added.

I told them that it was an experiment in camouflage techniques, and we crouched by the paddy wall, trying to figure out what might be two feet away from us.  They were both sweating, so I at least had the advantage of being wet and cool.

I finally spotted wary little groups of our riflemen working out the area in front of us and felt more relaxed.  These patrols had worked in from the flanks and they made me feel less vulnerable as I crouched under the bank and wished I was out of the paddy.  A paddy is a dangerous place.

The VC have a penchant for digging into the brush and dikes around it and suddenly opening fire on men caught out in the muck.  There isn’t much of a solution available to this situation, either.

The men hit by such resistance usually overpower it and move on, but it isn’t an ideal arrangement.

Progress through the jungle is tuned to the pace of one man with a machete, and hopes of surprising anybody while chopping trail are pretty slim.

The usual avenues of approach are also the usual places where farmers put rice paddies, and a rice paddy seems designed as much for defense as for growing a Vietnamese dinner.

The villages are equally tough affairs.  Ditches, groves, hedges and the hodge-podge architecture all form a kind of maze which gives the advantages to the man who can sit and wait.

The fact that our troops have cleared every rice paddy and every village in their path during the operations speak sufficiently for their professional attainments and personal courage.

By the time the patrols had screened the area and sent word back and we moved out of the paddy into a field approaching the hill, the next major obstacle, I was dry and hot.  The mud was flaking off my upper clothing, although from the knees down we were all soaked, and I had already gone through one of the two canteens of water I was carrying.

Danielsen waved me over to his command group out in the field and I got an insight into why his company knows him so well.

He ranges from one end of it to the other in a kind of happy lope which makes the day quite a bit of exercise if you try to follow him around.  He meets a lot of riflemen that way -every man in the company on each trip - but it isn’t any way to conserve energy.

I was tired before we even got to the tough part of the walk.

© Columbus Ledger-Enquirer

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