Dec 6, 1965

‘Ridge-Running’ Mission Begins With Jump From Helicopter

By CHARLES BLACK

Enquirer Military Writer

BINH KHE, Viet Nam - Capt. Roger L. McElroy, commander of Company A, 2nd Battalion (Airborne), 8th Cavalry, is a youthful officer who stands exceedingly proud and tall when he talks about his company.

It is his first command, and he has taken to it with a vast amount of energy and natural talent.

I first met McElroy when he was a first lieutenant leading a platoon in the 1st Battalion, 187th Infantry’s Charlie Company back in the old days when the 11th Air Assault Division was a controversial item.

Reinforces Beliefs

He was out at Fort Stewart in one of the innumerable maneuvers conducted there and was completely dedicated to the idea that men could go into battle in accordance with the new idea for infantry mobility.

Since, he has had chances to test his beliefs and has reinforced them, I landed with him and his company on top of the mountain at Mang Yang Pass.  When they hailed me over to their camp for chow and a promise that they were going to “take off on another ridge-running operation” in the morning, I took them up on it.

First Sgt. John Moore, Lt. John C. Miklas, Lt. William J. Marr, Lt. Guinn D. Parrack, Lt. Marty Stango and Lt. Erle A. Taylor briefed me on what the morning would bring.

The 1st Brigade, commanded by Lt. Col. Harlowe Clark, intended to land on top of ridges commanding the rice fields in this area, drive the Viet Cong out of the section and allow the friendly population - which had fled to refugee camps in protected zones - to harvest the rice.

Rain Stops

“Our part of it starts right here,” McElroy said, putting his finger on a map, then pointing through the rain toward a peak in the distance.

It quit raining during the night and the early morning brought only fog, mosquitoes and mud to fill out the discomfort quota of the day.  There was every sign that the sun would come out and turn it all into a steam bath by 10 a.m.
 
The operation had great promise of being just what was needed to cause complete physical collapse, but I agreed to climb on a UH1D helicopter with P-Sgt. Norman Welch, S-Sgt. Joseph Dailey, Sp4 Billie L. Brandenberg, Sp4 Nathan Johnson and PFC George Sykora.

(Welch, incidentally, is one of the best field NCOs I have met in Viet Nam, and has proved to be a remarkable man under the extreme pressures of combat.  He is one of the men I have most admired in this country because he is such an absolute master of his job’s responsibilities and goes at it with a no-nonsense approach.  He is as much of a leader as any single man could be, and his personality outweighs even platoon sergeant stripes in getting things done in the field.)

The air assault which followed was one of the most unique affairs you could ask.  The “landing zones” were simply little bare spots on the spine of the 2,000-foot-high ridges which the battalion was to secure.

Explains Operation

A crew chief from Lt. Col. Jack Cranford’s 227th Assault Helicopter Battalion hurried from one platoon to the other, explaining what was going to happen up on top of the mountain.

You guys are going to have to jump out of the chopper,” he told the men.  “We’ll get you as low as we can, but there just isn’t room to land up there.  When the crew chief says ‘go’ you don’t wait, you jump. . . and good luck to you.”

The choppers got off the ground with the usual flapping roar, and the top layer of mud had dried enough in the already hot sun to create a little dust and to cause the men on the ground to whirl around and hide their faces from it.

The helicopters then circled and climbed, swept up the valley and crossed the end of the ridge and came whirling back down, swooping up over the tops by following little bare spurs which ran up to the timered sides of the big hill.

Patch of Grass

At the top was a patch of brown grass spotted with spiny scrub brush and rocks and about 30 feet wide.  On one side, a sheer slope dove almost 500 feet to a tangle of jungle, and the same thick mess of thorny vegetation came right up to the top on the side behind.

The helicopter hovered at what appeared to be 20 feet altitude and the optimistic crew chief made a motion for us all to unload.

We didn’t bring our rapelling ropes,” somebody yelled.  “Put this thing down a little.”

The pilot finally swooped down to about eight feet, his rotor almost skimming the top of a sapling, and we jumped.

I landed off balance, my pack pulling me over.  I felt a leg muscle which wouldn’t be the same for a couple of days, then landed flat on my back and managed to roll into a rock before going off the long slide into the jungle.

Immense Cloud

I don’t really know how the others landed because there was an immense cloud of dust, grass blades and pebbles, and I had managed to land where I had a worm’s-eye view of the bottom of the helicopter a few feet above.  It was like looking at an elephant from underneath.

The Huey skittered off, swooping on down the contour of the slope, and I managed to get up and hobble out of the clear area into the brush just as three more choppers showed up on their way to the little bare spots.

Despite the hectic landing, it was the safest I have ever made.  It was so obvious that the technique was practically ambush-proof that I didn’t even hurry to move into the semicircle put out by Welch, but stopped and looked at the view.

It showed the huge rice paddies of the area, the empty villages, the tin roofs of the refugee camps, the barbed wire and ditches of fortified towns and headquarters, and much of the tragedy of this country.

Road Cuts

Red lines across Highway 19 traced out Viet Cong road cuts which were filled in by engineers when the road was reopened.  The trails up through empty villages and the crowds moving along Highway 19 in twin lines of white hats and black clothing, with little vehicles in the center, was a good illustration of what this kind of war does to those caught in the middle.

Most of those crowds were families who had their homes in the villages where Viet Cong terror and fear of our own actions to clear the VC from the area had made life too risky to be endured.

The choppers had landed a full company here before it seemed possible, some having to make two passes to get into the correct position over the tiny little clear places on the ridge top.

Not a shot had been fired.

Welch kept moving around, and the first thing I knew we were all in a good perimeter, but spaced so that when the command to move came it could be accomplished without wasted motion.  The command came in about 10 minutes.

McElroy led us off down the slope first.  I thought the downhill part would be easy, but it was actually harder than the uphill sections of the next four or five hours.

Every tree and every vine had thorns, it seemed, and the ground beneath the canopy was still mucky and slippery.  Rocks caught  unwary ankles, and people grabbing at vines or saplings for support speared themselves.

Mangles Thumb

If I picked a water lily in this county it would have stickers on it six inches long,” Taylor told me earnestly after he managed to mangle his thumb on an innocent-appearing twig.  He finished the last 40 feet of descent in a manner which plastered the seat of his fatigues with mud and overran most of the platoon ahead of us.

The uphill climbs, after each ski-slope descent into the little gullies and draws along the mountainside, were grueling and the weather was hot, but they weren’t as completely frustrating as the way down.

The pace didn’t slacken until we came up against a rock structure which I called a cliff and which McElroy spoke of as an “incline,” and it became a real mountain-climbing venture.

Up at the top I could see the complacent faces of the men of Capt. John Martin’s Charlie Company, who had landed up there. They kept calling down encouragement.

Big Rock

Just turn loose and roll up,” somebody yelled as I came to a rock which was too big to hold onto or go around and too slippery to climb over, and I found myself hanging onto crevices in it with my fingertips.

I don’t know how I finally got extricated, but we all wound up back down in the last gully we had started from, grimly surveying the slope we had just tried.  Welch, who had just walked around the whole thing, called to us gently from a nice, smooth trail 100 feet to the left.

Unless you guys just want to, you don’t have to climb that.  Just come around the path,” he said.

The Charlie Company comedians who had been watching it all looked disappointed and went back to looking out over the distance.

Last Laugh

I had the pleasure of being there when the word came up that they would go right on back to the peak we had just left and take over there, but that they would take a route on the opposite slope which was even brushier and steeper than the way we had come.  I said something about last laughs, as I remember.

The idea behind all this position switching, McElroy said, was to keep a steady flow of patrols and movement around the ridge top to clear it of any possible sniper resistance and to  wind up with the ridge all clearly marked U.S. property.

It seemed logical, but it also seemed like more work than I wanted to engage in, since I already understood the technique so thoroughly, so I shook hands all around, complimented them on their mountain-climbing techniques and caught a chopper back down the ridge.

Eight hours of that kind of work is enough for anybody.


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