Hill Is Danger To Infantrymen Walking in Field
(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.)
By CHARLES BLACK
Enquirer Military Writer
The one which Company A, 2nd Battalion, 8th Infantry (Airborne), looked over the day Capt. Theodore Danielsen took them on a sweep and clear mission near the Song Cong River was an especially brutal-looking example.
I had been walking with a fine lieutenant named John D. Hanlon and his third platoon since leaving a knee-deep rice paddy and walking along hedgerows and buffalo wallows in the field. The area was dotted with the round graves of this country.
The grave mounds all have little peaks of dirt in the center. Some are surrounded by a stuccoed wall painted with blue, pink and yellow Chinese characters. Stones set into the walls bear names and other information.
Most have no identification, and sometimes the only sign that they are not simply a feature of the landscape is a little stick fence around them. There are elaborate shrines here and there, on the other hand, with little statues and a pagoda roof over a vault.
In the area around Hoi Son the 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry (Airborne), had found that the Viet Cong had constructed many fake grave mounds, digging holes, roofing them with sticks and covering them with dirt.
The little peaked mounds in the middle had been raked aside by fleeing Communists, and the hidden weapons, ammunition, etc., inside had been pulled from the caches through square openings in their centers.
It had been a peculiarly effective arrangement, because neither the GIs nor the Vietnamese troops who had accompanied them were inclined to probe into grave mounds in search of hidden weapons.
On other occasions in the coastal area, the Viet Cong had camouflaged prepared ambush positions in the same manner. I remember thinking as we went through the graves here that one of those old-fashioned mine detectors would be handy on “search and clear” operations such as this to detect buried caches, weapons, etc.
Sgt. Jose Maldonado, fire team leader, and PFC William Butera, PFC Michael D. Fisher, Sp4 John F. Terrell and PFC Caniel Castillo were my immediate companions as we moved up with S-Sgt. Clark D. Sampson’s squad to a little gully. It was lined with vines and saplings which separated the grave-dotted field from the head-high tangle which covered the lower slope of the hill.
I got an excellent chance to study where we were going during the next few minutes. Just as we got to the draw there was a burst of firing just under the crest above us and I could hear the pop of bullets just over us.
We squatted down and the answering fire from the “alphagators” (as Danielsen’s men call themselves) made a rippling smash of sound along the brush line.
I saw Danielsen smiling happily and talking on his radio about 50 feet to our left and a little ahead of us where the gully made a bend. We weren’t down in the ravine, but were spread out along a small earth bank on its edge, peering up through the brush and saplings.
Despite the sheet of bullets which the Americans were sending up the ridge, bullets continued to rip through the leaves around us and I heard several heavy automatic weapon bursts from the ridge. I crouched deeply and almost duck-walked over to the little group near Capt. Danielsen.
Sp5 Robert C. Olson, the senior medic, and Sgt. Edward Dolphin, the radio operator who is always near Danielsen except when he has a chance to go prowling off on a patrol with his M-16 slung submachine gun style from his neck, were sitting down while the VC fire whipped overhead. Lt. Forrest Spooner, the artillery forward observer, was busy on his radio a few feet away.
“Hey, how do you like that fire, Charlie?” Danielsen beamed as I came up to him.
“They have some automatics up there, but you watch the system,” he continued. “Alpha Company will be up that hill right on schedule. Listen to those bullets pop, would you!”
I looked at his happy face rather sourly and muttered something about not wanting my attention called to the noises in the bushes around us any more than was possible. Then a tremendous explosion about 100 yards in front frightened the breath out of me and I quit muttering.
“Bring it on in! Get that smoke on them,” Danielsen shouted, all high spirits and enthusiasm.
By the time I had figured out the explosion - our own 105mm howitzers were getting into the fight - a whole line of blasts stretched along the hill and the patter of friendly shrapnel on the ground around us took the place of unfriendly bullets zipping around our ears.
“That’s right, just right! When that stuff is coming on us it’s just right. Keep them coming,” Danielsen informed his artillery representative, who looked pleased with himself.
I picked up a little splinter of jagged, blue metal for a souvenir and managed to raise a blister on my finger and thumb - the shard was just less than red hot. I decided to join Olson, who didn’t look any more enthusiastic over things than I did.
“They are catching hell up there on the ridge! I bet they didn’t know what they were getting into when the opened fire on us,” Olson told me when I sat down behind his personal bush.
I realized that I wasn’t a bit better off for sensible company than I had been before. Olson just didn’t show his happiness as much as the other group.
The artillery pounded the ridge with beautiful accuracy, then stopped, but Danielsen wasn’t quite finished with the “system.” A volley of LAW rockets, the deadly little one-shot antitank weapon which is also handy as portable artillery, whistled into a tree line below the ridge crest where the automatic weapons had been firing from.
Danielsen was standing up now and yelling at his paratroopers.
“Come on, let me hear from you! Go get ‘em. . .” he was yelling, interspersing it with the kind of whoops that spur a pack of mean hounds into a bear fight.
He got his answer. It was a surge of fast-moving infantrymen shouting “Airborne” and less printable war cries. They hit the tangle of jungle up the steep slope as if they were running over a baseball field but much more cannily.
The squads shifted and split. The men, taking advantage of cover and folds in the ground and firing as they advanced, moved on up the hill fast but very intelligently. There wasn’t a shot fired at them.
The command group put its head down and tried to keep up as best it could, and when we got to the top I was back into the old familiar state of winded exhaustion.
There was a radio message about three Viet Cong being killed and signs of others having been hit, and the advance continued up the slope.
I felt a sting on my right shin as I dragged that tired foot up for another step, and rather disgustedly saw that I had pinked myself on a pongee stick. The top of the hill had been littered with them. They were old, however, with the weathered gray look bamboo gets after exposure to sun and rain.
The one which was dangling from my trousers had broken off at the ground. The point had made a little puncture in my trousers and then raked my shin down to the top of my jungle boot. I cussed about it and somebody passed the word about pongees.
Olson gave one of his first smiles as he proceeded to make me forget the way the pongee had stung by pouring medicine onto the puncture and scratch, making them really hurt.
“What we’ll do now is to evacuate you,” he said pleasantly. “Then the surgeon will split your skin open and clean out any little bits of foreign matter and sew it back up, and in six or eight weeks you will be as good as new.”
“What we will do now is roll my trouser back down, put a cork back on that bottle of turpentine and walk on down the hill,” I said. “I’ve got a thorn in my wrist that is worse than that.”
I immediately wished I had not mentioned the thorn, because he quickly treated this too. It at least made me forget about the pongee.
The infantrymen pulled the things up out of the ground and when the path was clear we went on down the slope and found that we had come in the right direction from us and the wrong one for the Viet Cong.
They had ambushed the rice field on the other side of the hill from the one we had chosen for a landing. Deep holes with tunnels linking them were spotted in the brush over here.
Danielsen gave a demonstration on handling these. He used an M-16 to sterilize one entrance tunnel, tossed a couple of grenades, watched where dust flew from another tunnel entrance and repeated the treatment. An entire section of a dirt bank caved in after the second explosion.
“If anybody is in there they have an earache and dirt in their nose, anyway,” he said.
The thud of grenades and the bursts of automatic fire along the hill showed that the infantrymen in his company had been given the benefit of Danielsen’s previous experience in Viet Nam (he had been here as an adviser for a year and had volunteered to return with the 1st Cavalry Division), and when we got down to the hill’s base I was fairly certain it was deserted.
I mentioned this to Danielsen but he shook his head.
“Don’t take anything for granted in this stuff,” he said. “When you are fighting these guerrilla types you have to assume that you aren’t going to have them cleaned out no matter how long you work on a position.
“The PAVN soldiers, regular North Vietnamese Army troops, are usually out in battalion size, and don’t operate in small groups so much, but the North Vietnamese guerrillas are something else,” he continued. “Around here, I think, we have those black-pajama boys, and there are probably two or three of them hiding in some hole up there right now, waiting to come out and snipe at us when they think we are getting complacent.”
Danielsen had another system for this. As the company moved away - and at a time I was fairly certain that if a sniper was going to shoot he would be taking aim - the craft of Spooner and his thunder and lightning from the 1st Battalion, 19th Artillery (Airborne), came into explosive evidence. A line of artillery shells smashed into the area we had left. The explosions continued for a long time.
“Variable timed fuses - you get a little delay,” Danielsen said. “Some hit and explode on contact and some just lay there and, when the little guy sticks his head up again and thinks he has it made, they go off.”
I realized then that I was seeing something which some tactical books need to include. There are ways to use modern weapons and support with as much craft and guile as any guerrilla. Camouflage techniques, support methods, all of these can be varied to suit the occasion. I mentioned it to Danielsen.
“Everybody is saying you can’t fight by the book over here,” he said. “I think that the book is the way to fight. You just don’t look for the answers in the back of it and you don’t apply the solutions to the situation at the end of the chapter.
“You take what the book teaches and apply it to the situation you have your hands on,” he continued. “Military science is as flexible as painting a picture. Painting has its rules too. Writing has rules. You obey those rules and you use your imagination and you come up with a solution.
“Maybe you use the book in a different manner than it was used before, maybe in a different manner than the man who wrote it ever thought of even, but it is the way to do it,” Danielsen said. “Besides, there isn’t anything which says you can’t write some new pages. That is what we are doing - we are adding some to military science with air mobility.
“The Viet Cong have a book and, just like ours, it has advantages for him and it can trap him,” he said. “If he doesn’t take the lessons and use them to suit this new situation, he is whipped.
“His book doesn’t have the answer to this airmobile concept spelled out. I don’t think he can adjust. His book doesn’t give him room to adjust like my book does. It spells out the situation, gives him the answer, and that is that.
“My book tells me what I can do, some of the ways to do it, how to use what I have which can help me fight and how to think out solutions to problems when they come up by using all of that,” he added. “It has room for some new chapters, like we worked out at Fort Benning in the 11th Air Assault Division.
“It’s a good book and I’ll put it up against theirs every time,” he said, concluding, “The only time the book works against you is when you don’t use it to learn new things and when you’re not willing to bring out a new edition every now and then.”
Danielsen’s edition of the book, which includes helicopters, airmobile artillery, air support, armed helicopters and infantrymen who range out by air and are supplied on the battlefront by helicopters, proved to be a good one in the weeks ahead.
© Columbus Ledger-Enquirer
Return To Index