Battalion Alerted, But Orders Changed
(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
After a lot of hard, detailed work by Ingram and his staff, the first notice of what has become one of the proudest chapters of the combat history of the 1st Cavalry Division - and the most significant chapter in the story of American involvement in the Vietnamese war - came into the battalion command post.
The word was that a Special Forces camp in an obscure location 20 miles or so south of Pleiku was under a bitter siege by Communist forces and that the 1st Cavalry was on alert to go to the rescue.
The decision on exactly what part the sky troopers would play seemed up in the air. The 2nd of the 12th was alerted to two possibilities: It would either take part in actual relief of the camp or go to Pleiku and take over security posts around areas there (Camp Hollowell, New Pleiku base and the II Corps headquarters) while Vietnamese forces were sent out to force the siege’s halt.
Maps Pulled Out
The operations planners had to pull out maps of both areas and put away their maps of the Boon Song section. One overworked sergeant told me “We’re not using maps now. We’re just getting out the globe” at about midnight on the night the chance came to the battalion.
The Plei Me fight was the center of attention then. American Advisers (Special Forces men) and the 360 CIDG troops there were surrounded by a heavy force of men with mortars, automatic weapons, recoilless artillery, etc.
Word came in that two A1E Skyraider planes had been shot down by heavy machine guns hidden around the camp and that a helicopter attempting to land in the camp had been shot down, with heavy casualties resulting from all of this.
There was a definite air of uncertainty about exactly what role the 1st Cavalry would play in the Plei Me fight at first. Sentiment at the division itself was to move into the fight at once and to do it hard.
However, there seemed to be reluctance at Task Force Victor, the newest of the headquarters complexes which blossom in Viet Nam with such profusion, to commit the Americans to the fight.
I have since noted some local resentment about that early reluctance expressed in off-the-record comments. The caution seems to have originated at Task Force Victor, which is in the spider web of command some place between the 1st Cavalry Division and some other headquarters in Saigon.
(I was able to track down seven different headquarters which had to “coordinate” with each other for a mission which took two hours to accomplish one day. The coordination - with Vietnamese officials and various American officials - took the best part of two days.
(When the raid was accomplished, of course, it was so much wasted effort. For the record, the mission had to be co-ordinated with II Corps, 24th Special Sector Zone, Sector Headquarters, Task Force Victor, the province chief, the Special Forces C Team headquarters, which provided some of the riflemen who took part, and a headquarters which I can’t find in my notes but which had an interest in the entire thing.)
The decision which finally came was for the Vietnamese forces to be committed to relieving Plei Me and for the first involvement by U.S. forces to be as a reserve at Pleiku.
Nobody at the battalion knew that, of course, so the preparations forged ahead. I left the busy grease pencils and field telephones and went over to the tent occupied by Maj. Beau Blasingame, the chaplain, one of the single most interesting men I’ve met over here.
Blasingame’s tent sits beside a small lake with a medium-sized but beautifully proportioned banyan tree on a flattened knoll above it. The banyan tree shades his chapel area - a collection of seats made out of empty rocket launchers laid end to end in semicircles before the stand used by the chaplain.
It is a beautiful open-air location, and rocks studding the sides of the knoll afford handy seats for the congregation if the rocket launchers are all filled.
It is the kind of church in which I believe Blasingame is particularly at home. He is a chaplain who wears the Combat Infantry Badge from Korea, for example, and there are several men in the 1st Cavalry Division who remembered him as “one of the best company commanders who ever served in Germany.”
He resigned his commission with an abruptness which had surprised his friends in 1957, as I recall the chronology, and had come home to Georgia where he attended theology school and was ordained as a minister. He came back into the Army as chaplain in 1961.
He is both the toughest and the gentlest man I have ever known. His tent was always filled with officers and men who came by to “talk a while.”
It was to be the first operation for the battalion, and the atmosphere around a camp on the eve of such things is always one of impending events. The chaplain is apt to be sought out more than usual, in fact.
The atmosphere at the battalion camp was especially charged on this night because of the sudden switch in plans and the fact that the Communist activity around Plei Me seemed especially ominous.
(Nobody knew what eventual role the battalion would fill, and the universal opinion was that it was on its way to lift the siege as quickly as helicopters could get it there.)
Sits in Tent
I sat in the tent talking to Lt. William Siebert and Blasingame for a while. Bill Siebert is a big youth who intends to become a Catholic priest when he has finished his military obligation.
Siebert seemed eager to get on with the war here when I talked to him that night (later meetings proved he was the kind to have that sort of inclination when the war was all around him, too) and he is very serious about his intention to study to become a priest.
When he left I told the chaplain that Siebert reminded me of his own unique qualifications as a soldier’s preacher.
“Well, I’m not a fancy man in my beliefs,” Blasingame said. “I have an infantryman’s belief about theology. It simply adds up to this: You have to be prepared to die.”
The way he made his decision about the ministry provided insight into the personality of the man for whom these soldiers have such respect.
He told me that he had his company in the field in a bitter winter maneuver in Germany and that he left his command post and went to an abandoned chapel.
“I simply stayed there in the dark and the cold, and I knew finally that I had made a decision,” he said. “I went to see my battalion commander and told him I wished to resign my commission, and from that morning on I have known what my place in this world is.”
I went to sleep in his tent that night on a borrowed cot and air mattress, thinking about the chaplains I have met over here. I remembered Capt. Billy Lord, who had organized men to bring the wounded out under fire when the 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry, landed at Hoi Son on operation Shiny Bayonet. I remembered him leading those men and crying once as he conducted last rites in a rice paddy.
The morning the troops came up to the scene of the fight, I saw Capt. Lord standing knee deep in a rice paddy (we were going single file along a slippery paddy wall in the rain), a sort of shy smile on his face, saluting men and speaking to them as they filed by, then tag onto the column himself.
He and Blasingame are different personalities, but each has a very strong tinge of iron in his system.
For example, a lieutenant had told me at supper that after he had discussed a few personal matters with Blasingame the chaplain had brusquely moved into a professional critique of an effort by the lieutenant’s platoon during the day.
“He told me about 10 things I did wrong and how to do them right, and told me not to let it happen again when he was around - that he just can’t stand bad infantry work,” the young officer told me.
Chaplain Lord isn’t an expert infantryman, but is highly qualified to receive the respect of infantrymen for his courage at Shiny Bayonet. Blasingame talked about him quite a bit during the evening.
I probably shouldn’t mention it, of course, but one of the items which came up on the conversations about Capt. Lord here and there was the fact that he had been writing to his wife that he had a very dull schedule and didn’t take part in any of the operations.
(This is such a common practice that I am in constant jeopardy when I mention names in some of these stories. Somebody comes over and tells me about once a week that I have just ruined an elaborate cover story he has been building up in letters home.
(Since the division has been in headlined actions lately, of course, this sort of thing has been less of a problem. At first, when the operations were fewer, a man could get away with it, but not since the 1st Cavalry has set the Vietnamese war on fire.)
Capt. Lord got into Shiny Bayonet quite by accident, having landed in a chopper on what was believed to be a perfectly quite landing zone and having the fight just build up around him - but this didn’t impress Mrs. Lord.
She wrote him a letter about seeing him on a television report of the fighting and noted that what she had seen was at complete odds with the kind of day’s work he had written home about.
I thought it was a nice touch for a chaplain named Billy Lord, who incidentally used to live on Christian Lane at Fort Benning to get that kind of letter.
I thought it was even more appropriate that the young captain had gone around to see another chaplain and ask him to write a letter explaining what had happened and that he really hadn’t been fibbing.
I don’t remember what time Blasingame and I finished talking, but it was suddenly daylight and word had come around for everybody to “saddle up.” The battalion was going to Pleiku to stand by for whatever the top echelons should decide concerning the Plei Me action.
We went out and got on 2 1/2 ton trucks about 9 a.m. We stayed on them for more than an hour, jammed into a solid mass of men, equipment and weapons, waiting to be taken to the strip to board Caribous from the 17th Aviation Company which would fly us to Pleiku.
Then everybody was told to get off and just stand loose.
“So far was we can tell, the thing is all off and we are just on a two-hour alert status,” Ingram said.
It was all very frustrating to the soldiers. They made some comments which were rather embarrassing to a man who was living down at the chaplain’s tent, but I felt quite a bit of sympathy for the language they chose. In fact, I made certain Blasingame wasn’t around and used some myself.
It all appeared to be over, and I had heard that the 1st Brigade, commanded by Lt. Col. Harlowe Clark, was going into some technically interesting operations around Binh Khe, east of An Khe on Route 19.
I told everybody goodbye and hooked a ride over to the helicopter pad, got on a Chinook carrying ammunition crates and landed in the field near where Task Force Hansen had headquartered so many weeks ago when I first came up here. It was now a kind of central location for operations in the Song Con river area.
I paid a visit first to a group of men doing one of the most important jobs in the 1st Cavalry Division - the doctors and medics.
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