Helicopter Is Preferred as Means of Transportation to Battle Sites
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Charles Black, Enquirer military writer, has returned home after four months in Viet Nam. He was with men of the 1st Cavalry Division during many of their recent engagements with Communist guerrillas, and his articles on the war will continue in The Enquirer daily.)
By CHARLES BLACK
Enquirer Military Writer
Morning around Camp Holloway comes on in a cloud of dust. Capt. Russ Bronson and I had slept down by the airstrip, rolled up in ponchos, and a heavy dew had fallen.
The dust arose as soon as the helicopter blades of the Hueys from Lt. Col. Jack Cranford’s 228th Assault Helicopter Battalion cranked up, dew or not, and it settled on us and turned to a fine film of mud.
Big CH47 Chinooks were getting ready to load out the First Brigade headquarters and take it out to a location about six miles south of Pleiku where it would set up shop for the rest of its operations in the Plei Me campaign.
Plei Me itself, the Special Forces camp where all of this had started with a violent attack by regular army units from North Viet Nam on Oct 19, is about 20 miles southwest of Pleiku. The road there was open since the original Vietnamese relief column had forged through, although south of there the wreckage of six trucks hit in an ambush of the same relief was mute evidence that the thoroughfare was not fully guaranteed to be safe.
Sp4 Jay Brette, Capt. Bronson’s driver and radioman, showed up and we got the jeep and trailer loaded. I noted that there was material for a small tent lashed on the trailer and put in a request for a permanent dry spot when I got back to brigade.
“I’ve even got a spare air mattress. You can really live it up if you stick to Bronson,” my host told me.
While Sp4 Brette backed the jeep and trailer into the back of a Chinook, I renewed acquaintances with Sp5 Pat Calhoun, the crew chief, who was my neighbor 11,000 miles away. Pat said he was about “flown out of energy.
“These big birds have really come through for us. We’ve put hours on them I wouldn’t have believed possible. We’ve hauled everything in the book and they have really been handy on helicopter recovery missions when we weren’t moving artillery or carrying troops and supplies,” Calhoun said.
His helicopter hadn’t picked up a scratch and I got the impression he was a little downcast about this. He implied that some of the crew chiefs whose choppers were sporting a little square patch marking a bullet hole just might be using the memento as a kind of status symbol.
“So far as I’m concerned, I’d just as soon I never had to put a patch on old 133,” he said, rather sourly as if he was tired of the subject. “I can find other things to brag about.”
The subject of hits brought up some more shouted discussion of something which is absolutely undebatable so far as these big choppers and the reliable Hueys are concerned - they are not easy to hit, they aren’t easy to knock down when they are hit.
There are a lot of dreary statistics which have been compiled for years on that matter, and the day-in and day-out experience of the 1st Cavalry under the very toughest kind of combat, weather and terrain conditions has firmly convinced me that I would rather ride to a fight in Viet Nam in a chopper than in any other form of transportation. It’s safer, it’s easier, it’s faster and it’s proved. (I’ve heard my own opinion reinforced by Maj. Gen. Harry W. O. Kinnard in a statement to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara that the durability of helicopters “far exceeded expectations.”)
This particular trip was fast and uneventful and ended at one of the most startling sights I’ve seen in South Viet Nam - the country’s largest tea plantation.
This huge plantation is owned by French interests and is a world of its own, a tranquil park in the middle of a war. The tea bushes look like small hedge plants, carefully tended and picked over so that the tops are all of a height - about 4 feet tall - and flat. The rows extend over thousands of acres. Trees are set among the bushes to shade the tea from the scorching sun which beats down during the dry season.
A narrow, straight, asphalt - topped road runs from the main route through the tea plantation. It is one of the few Vietnamese roads I have seen unscarred by the ubiquitous road cuts. Plantation trucks run all over the area in apparent perfect security.
There are several beautiful houses set back behind high barbed wire, guarded by soldiers. The main house is a mansion, in fact. It has its own water and power system and the landscaping around it would be the envy of any botanical garden exhibit.
Workers - hundreds of men, women and children - move through the tea bushes, picking tea leaves. I never got a chance to walk through any of the processing or even the harvesting process, but a four story processing plant seemed to be operating at full capacity and big trucks filled with cases of packaged tea rolled down the road daily.
The headquarters picked by Lt. Col. Harlowe Clark for his First Brigade was right on the edge of the rows of tea plants and there was considerable amateur tea leaf drying work carried on. There also was quite a bit of discussion among the Sky Soldiers concerning the apparently peaceful operation of what is one of South Viet Nam’s major agricultural industries without Viet Cong sabotage or interference.
Some of this was explained, I found out later, by the French manager of the plantation, who confided that he had been “kidnapped” by the Viet Cong on a recent trip from Pleiku to Kontum and has paid a “ransom” of one million piatres for safe release.
An occasional “ransom” of $80,000 or so probably would lead the “kidnappers” to the obvious decision concerning geese and golden eggs, some very cynical soldiers finally decided.
The thought never crossed my mind for a minute, of course! Thoughts like that would lead to suspicions of various petroleum dealers whose trucks ramble blithely across the country and of other oddly untouched commercial ventures in Viet Nam.
Actually, whatever the reason for the plantation’s unharried operation, it is beneficial to South Viet Nam. A USOM representative I queried about it said it was a major provider of foreign exchange and “it is more important for it to continue operation, I guess, than it is for either side to extend the war to cover it.”
At any rate, it had an airstrip and a handy building and it was one of the most pleasant spots I’ve seen for a headquarters.