Guerrillas More Difficult Than Regulars
(EDITORS’ 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.)
The North Vietnamese regulars are hard fighters - disciplined, trained and possessing automatic weapons and good equipment - but fighting them is not nearly as complicated as the problems connected with the home-grown Viet Cong guerrillas.
The two villages which were being cleared by the First Battalion (Airborne), 12th Cavalry, had long been considered hard case strongholds of local Viet Cong units and of the Viet Cong regular guerrilla bands from the Seventh Main Force. Yet, these same villages had sent a large contingent of recruits to the Special Forces camp company at Duc Co and these men had wives, children and relatives in both.
The operation called for the Special Forces-trained Vietnamese troops to sweep through the village, picking up suspects and searching for Viet Cong material, while the paratrooper battalion from the 1st Cavalry set up blocking positions in an effort to trap the VC if they left town.
The plan was one which included a long night march by Capt. John Drake’s Company A, another by B Company on a converging course, and a helicopter landing between the villages on a bare, hilly field by Capt. Robert Lindquists’s Charlie Company.
Most of the GIs involved felt that the whole operation was probably known about from the start because of the CIDG members who came from the village. (In a later development, in fact, 25 of these men were taken into custody by the Duc Co Special Forces team. They admitted that they were part of a scheme to seize control of the camp from inside when the next VC attack was launched on the already battle-scarred post.)
Lt. Col. Dale Cranford let me out of his chopper about 10 minutes after the initial landing by Charlie Co. (I had missed their takeoff while looking over brigade headquarters back at the tea plantation) and I joined up with S-Sgt. Ernest Gregory’s squad. I was well acquainted with this group, having been with them on Operation Shiny Bayonet back in September, and S-Sgt. Gregory is a very reliable squad manager.
The squad had come through a melon patch which was planted heavily with watermelons and pongee spikes and had a full complement of “rotor bumpers,” eight-foot-tall pointed poles stuck into the ground to keep helicopters from landing. A big school building was deserted, windows broken and doors smashed with Communist slogans and cartoons scrawled on the walls inside with charred sticks.
Whatever their opinion about the operation’s security, Lt. Col. Shoemaker’s battalion had been in too many fights and through too many other villages not to take the job seriously. S-Sgt. Gregory’s squad had searched their sector, including the school building, thoroughly and had then moved to a deep ditch with a mud wall beyond it. The wall was heavily spiked.
“You people stay clear of that ditch. This is as good a place as I’ve ever seen for booby traps. Keep you eyes open when you move. Just hold your positions and wait word before you fire at anything because the CIDG will be coming through the village and we don’t want any mistakes,” S-Sgt. Gregory told his men.
He and I found a clear path through the bristling pongees - the sharp bamboo splinters were angled in all directions about eight inches high in order to spear an unwary shin - and came to the village gate.
The VC had dug a very deep pit here and had been especially prolific with spikes, sowing them in grass and even out in the trail itself. A path led through them. We pulled up a few to make the way safer and picked out way inside of the ditch and barbed wire fence.
A little leeway had been left by the diggers so that villagers could walk through and we used it after looking it over for booby traps.
S-Sgt. Gregory found where the gate guards had been camped, the camp was under a thatch frame open-sided hut, and the cooking fire ashes looked fairly old.
“They pulled out of here two days ago, just like we all thought,” he said after checking around.
I saw Lt. Col. Shoemaker walking from the company command post, further back on the hill slope, toward an OH13 helicopter then, and I told S-Sgt. Gregory I wanted to go around to the other side of town and see what Alpha Company was doing.
Just as I left, two men were helped in with deep pongee wounds in their calves. One had speared himself walking through grass, the other was a medic who had inadvertently caught another one while treating the first man.
“I hate those things,” Capt. Lindquist told me. “The soldiers sooner or later forget them in doing their job and that is just all it takes. They are easy enough to see. They just are stuck up in the air. But they always manage to stick somebody!”
I rode over the village. It was a fairly large one with a big market place. I could see many people running toward the market place carrying loads and children, so the usual crowd of people wanting to get out from under the Viet Cong and back to a refugee camp was apparently already gathering.
“The CIDG is moving through down here now. A Company caught one man sneaking out and turned him over to them and they are questioning him up at their command post, right in the market square there,” Lt. Col. Shoemaker said as we flew over.
He landed behind a grove of trees on the north side of the village and I climbed out of the little bubble-shaped chopper just in time to help a limping man into the seat. He was shaking his head disgustedly.
“Lousy, stinking pongee stick! I was worrying about snipers over in those trees and just didn’t look where I was walking,” he told me.
The wounds are painful and keep a man from walking. They have to be treated and it takes a while for a man to get back into operation, so the thousands of sharpened bamboo splinters set out by the VC are probably as effective over-all as any other kind of anti-personnel mine.
The stakes aren’t set out by the North Vietnamese regular incidentally. They are used by both Communist and anti-Communist fighters in the village with great profusion, and it is hard to tell friendly pongee from unfriendly ones.
I walked over toward a group of men near a radio just as the helicopter left and from about 50 feet away I saw a sudden vivid flash. A man’s instincts become sharp here. I was already diving for cover when the dirt and shrapnel of the explosion flew by.
I kept my head down and heard a man crying out in pain. When I got up I saw men walking very carefully toward a crumpled GI who had triggered a mortar-shell booby trap.
The medic desperately worked on the man, his bag thrown down by him, while a helicopter was being radioed for medical evacuation. I went over and felt very chilled when I saw four bullet heads sticking up in a little cluster by the medical bag.
The area was sewn with homemade booby traps and land mines. A sergeant put a stick down by the one I saw and when the wounded man was carried away a couple of men had gently probed out the mouse-trap affair with bayonets.
We weren’t able to get the man out in time. He died just after the helicopter took off for the hospital at Pleiku, and we backed away from the deadly strip of ground very depressed. A radio message from a Special Forces adviser with the CIDG came then.
“The Viet Cong suspect you turned over to the Vietnamese lieutenant admitted he was a VC and said he was proud of it. He was duly executed by the Vietnamese,” the message came.
There wasn’t any sorrow shown on the faces around me over the prisoner’s fate.
I saw a chopper coming in, then, and headed for it as they began moving through the booby traps, stepping carefully bent forward and scrutinizing each foot of ground. The whole village looked distasteful to me.
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