Civil, Military Complications Make Clearing of Villages Distasteful Operation to Troops
(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
Every imaginable complication - military and civilian - enters into one of those “search and clear” operations. Lt. Col. Robert Shoemaker had put his men into the best possible positions to trap the Viet Cong guerrillas whom the village obviously concealed in great numbers, yet it was almost certain at the beginning that the operation would be frustrating.
Vietnamese troops from the Duc Co Special Forces camp, 25 of whom were later taken prisoner by the Americans there as participants in a Viet Cong plot to overrun the camp with inside help, were charged with searching the village when the paratroopers had surrounded it. These men had relatives there. There were women and children to worry about in case of a fire fight, including the wives and families of some of the CIDG troops.
The loss of a good soldier to a land mine, which any villager was certain to have known about, the pongee wounds, the two hours of scanning every inch of ground for booby traps, and the fact that the Viet Cong had predictably left town before the raid, all were weighing on me when I got back to the First Brigade headquarters at Catecka Plantation, south of Pleiku.
I couldn’t quite approve of one angry soldier’s contention that “we should just send word to them all to leave town and knock it down with artillery. . .” but I could understand the feeling which made him say it. (The same soldier, incidentally, later helped load families onto Chinook helicopters after a crowd of villagers appealed to be taken away from their town to escape Viet Cong terrorism under which they had lived until the clearing operation.)
Lt. Col. Harlowe Clark was standing under a tin awning which graced the front of a cement shed at the end of the plantation’s air strip (most of these big French owned plantations have their own airfield) and beckoned me over.
“I’ve got a headquarters building for a change, right here,” he said.
We went inside and he went over to the big plastic-covered operations map and pointed to a grease-pencil mark on the Tae River about eight miles south of Plei Me.
“The First Squadron, Ninth Cavalry, has tied into one right here and are really chewing something up. We’ve sent Company A of the Second Battalion, 12th Cavalry, up there to help and Company B, First Battalion, Eighth, is out there on the strip loading up right now. It looks like a big one,” he said.
I hadn’t had lunch yet and it had already been a fairly long day, but this was the first time I’d heard Lt. Col. Clark say he had a “big one” and I walked over to the waiting paratrooper squads of Capt. John Martin’s Company B.
Capt. Martin, a big, freckled man who is one of Lt. Col. Kenneth Mertel’s fine team of company commanders, told me to hunt up Platoon Sgt. Wayne Hernandez and get aboard with him. I got there just barely in time. The lift ships from the 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion were already loaded and ready to go.
I don’t remember too much about the ride to the fight which Lt. Col. John B. Stockton was directing but I remember that there was a lot of gunfire when we swooped down to a landing.
The chopper I was in hovered about three feet off the ground and I jumped with the infantrymen, barely missing landing on two North Vietnamese soldiers lying almost hidden in the grass, both stiffened in death.
Two helicopters were down when the ships skimmed off over the trees and there was a solid ripple of noise from small arms fire through the trees toward a small creek we had passed over. The two had been hit coming in. There were no casualties, however.
The men from B Company fanned out and set up a perimeter under cover. The bullets coming into this area were high and obviously coming from a fire fight on up in the woods. There were a dozen PAVN bodies in the tall grass here under the sparse trees.
The firing sounded as if it were scattered all along the northern line of a little ridge which arced through the wooded area ahead of us.
I saw Maj. Billy C. Williams of C Troop, First Battalion, Ninth Cavalry, appear from the woods, flanked by a tall rifleman, Sp4 Nolan King, and followed by a radioman. He ran over and held a conference with Capt. Martin and I saw men helping each other through the woods toward the clearing where we were crouched.
Sgt. Wayne Riddle, a friend of mine from the Ninth Cavalry, was walking with a limp, grinning, his rifle in his hand and all of his gear intact. I got up and skirted through the trees toward him and saw that he had his trouser leg cut open, a bandage around his thigh and a tourniquet twisted with a bayonet.
“Just the man I needed. How about carrying this web gear for me?” he said, still grinning.
I took the heavy load of ammunition and grenades from him, he held onto his rifle, and offered a shoulder to hang to.
“Naw, I got this far - I’m going to get on that chopper on my own. Then I’m going to get this bullet out and get back here as quick as I can,” he told me.
He limped to the base of a tree and leaned against it and I put his gear down. He lit a cigarette and waved it toward the sound of the firing.
“You can find a fight up there just any place you want one. We’ve been tearing them up all afternoon. Old King over there must have shot 15 or 20 of them on his own! They’re regular troops. Every one of them has an automatic weapon, and they fight real good. Just head up that trail and get a handful of it. I’m O.K. I’ve got it made,” he said.
Somehow I wish I could write about Sgt. Riddle as he was just that moment and get it exactly right. He was proud, excited, angry over his wound, full of wanting to get back to his squad and fight some more, and all of that covered up the pain of the bullet. He kept grinning and talking about “the way those kids are fighting up there, you just have to see them in action to believe it. . .” and joking to the medic who came over to check his bandage.
I stuck a thumb up into the air. He gave me the ubiquitous blessing everybody uses at such moments - “keep your tail down” - and I went back up the trail again. I met more wounded, some walking and helping each other, some sitting by trees and resting before finishing their trek to the landing zone. The firing was now concentrated in an area about 500 yards from me.