Dec 25, 1965

‘Old Baldy’ Battered, Blackened


Enquirer Military Writer

I spent too long prowling around the battle area outside the Special Forces camp at Plei Me.  The 2nd Battalion (Airborne), 8th Cavalry commanded by Lt. Col. James Nix, already had moved out into the brush on its way to a hill 2,000 meters away.

The hill was a bare knob which dominated the surrounding forests.  Its peak and slopes were torn and blackened from the terrific U.S. air attacks put down during the siege of Plei Me by the 101st, 66th and 32nd North Vietnamese Army regiments.

“The companies are about 500 meters out and on their way to ‘Old Baldy’ up there,” Nix said.  “They’re really moving and I don’t think you could catch them.”

Regular Troops

He walked to a pile of PAVN uniforms and equipment which had been gathered from the holes and trenches which surrounded the triangle-shaped camp and pointed to it.

“These lads weren’t guerrillas,” he said.  “They were regular North Vietnamese Army troops.  Did you check the gun positions and the way they had dug in along that ridge on the other side of the camp?  They had studied this problem for a long time and they had good intelligence.

“They could have overrun this camp.  They apparently just kept the pressure on, laying here and taking the air and artillery, forcing a relief to come so they could spring their ambushes,” Nix concluded.

I talked with the commander for a few minutes, then a series of mortar explosions came from the hill his battalion was moving toward.

“Ours!  We have some men set down in the back of it, too,” Nix said.  “They are putting that barrage down.  When it lifts our boys will go right on in.  I’m getting airborne right now if you want to get up there.”

Sickening Smell

His helicopter covered the ground quickly and got me onto the peak just after the first platoon from Capt. Roger McElroy’s Company A had moved across it.  The sickening smell of the area around the camp was even worse up on that peak.

Capt. McElroy walked over and shook his head.

“You show up in the darndest places!  I wouldn’t come up here if I didn’t have to.  This place is bad,” he said.

It was.  The holes contained bodies.  I counted four only a few feet from us.  Bombs had buried some of the dead Communists but three others were sprawled on down the slope as if they had been hit in the open, unawares.

“They were caught moving down there,” McElroy said.  “It looks like napalm got all of them in here and then the bombs finished the job.”

U.S. Equipment

U.S. equipment of the type issued South Vietnamese troops was scattered around.  I saw several old-style canteens and canteen cups - each of which was bullet riddled - and web gear around some of the holes.  A barbed wire, entanglement around the peak had holes blown in it.

A small outpost here had come under Communist attack.  Some of the CIDG (Special Forces - trained Civil Irregular Defense Group) troops had managed to escape; others had dies in the same holes where the Communist bodies were now lying.

McElroy said there hadn’t been a shot fired as they moved up the hill and that only the dead PAVN’s and a half a dozen automatic weapons (assault rifles from Russia and Chicom submachine guns) had been found.  His company would spend the night here, and I didn’t look forward to it.

A helicopter swept up from the valley then, two gunships following it, one high and one low.  It came into the little level space at the top and I saw Maj. Gen. Harry W. O. Kinnard, the division commander, get out.

Looks Startled

McElroy looked very startled and hurried away as Kinnard walked across the battle-scarred peak which had been secured only minutes earlier.  I kept waiting for him to greet the general as he had me by saying something about “seeing him the darndest place,” but he didn’t.

Kinnard inspected the shattered positions, looked at the bodies of the PAVNs, got a report from McElroy, then offered me a ride back to Pleiku.

I had been told that the brigade headquarters was moving out the next day, as were the 1st Battalion (Airborne), 8th Cavalry and the 1st Battalion (Airborne), 12th Cavalry.

The 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry already was holding several landing zones and howitzers from the 1st Battalion (Airborne), 19th Artillery had been set up out in these wilderness sites by Chinook helicopters.

I also figured I might wangle a supper invitation out of it if I worked it right, so I climbed in and flew back to II Corps (Vietnamese Army II Corps) headquarters at Pleiku.

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