Life In Viet Nam

By J. D. Coleman


AN KHE, Viet Nam -- He's a shaggy little man, sometimes wearing shaggy clothing. His close-cropped hair, once firecely black, is greying at the edges, resembling an aging thatch on a weatherbeaten hut. His face is nut brown and deeply lined. Bushy eyebrows form a bristly hedge from behind which shines alert but deeply sunken grey eyes.

He stands but 5 feet, 11 inches in his stocking feet, and weighs 145 pounds. He's 46, when most men get that perceptible middle-age spread, but there's not an ounce of fat to be found on his whang-leather body. When he comes back from a prolonged stay in the fields he bears that distinctive aroma, the mixture of sweat, smoke, dirt and assorted insect potions, that herald the coming of the combat infantryman.

He wears a Vietnamese camouflage uniform, called a “Tiger Suit” over here and it is distinguished mainly by its dirt and occasional bullet hole. He carries on occasion a Schmeisser  sub-machine gun, a .38 caliber pistol and the Army’s newest killing tool, the M-16 rifle.

He always manages to have a two-day growth of beard, regardless of the duration of his sojourn under the stars.
And as he passes groups of soldiers, he's always sure to draw cries of: “Hiya Charlie,” “Hey Charlie, when ‘ya comin’ to our company?” and “Hey Charlie, come on over and have chow with us.”

He's the personification of the mountain man, the Indian scout, the jungle fighter and the combat soldier – all rolled up into one compact, shrapnel-scarred rawhide package. But he’s none of these. He's a reporter and there are those who believe he is the nearest thing to Ernie Pyle produced by the newspaper business in the past 20 years.

His name is Charlie Black and he writes a daily column for the Columbus, Ga., Ledger and Enquirer. And until just a few weeks ago, he was known only to the members of a few military organizations and to the readers of the Columbus papers.

But very shortly a weekly news magazine may run a feature on Charlie Black. A network TV newsman may already have showcased Charlie as a personality interview. Other newsmen covering the Viet Nam beat have discovered Charlie and, perhaps soon, the United States may discover Charlie Black.

There are, of course, a great many people in the newspaper business who have written columns about men at war. And they have been great, because all wars produce great copy. But few writers ever really capture the heart and soul of the soldier; the acid breath of mortal combat; the terrible finality of death on the battlefield. Ernie Pyle did and won immortality. Charlie Black is doing it and posterity will judge its ultimate worth.

It is a broad and quite challenging statement to link anyone, particularly someone of absolutely no national stature, with the great Ernie Pyle. Comparisons in any form seem almost sacrilege. Yet comparisons are being made over here more and more frequently and they are standing up.

Newsmen, who are perhaps the harshest judges of their contemporaries, once were patronizing if not almost contempuous of this odd-looking reporter with the unsophisticated demeanor and the rauccous laughter. Now they look upon him with respect, and, in some cases, awe and envy.

For Charlie, who believes a combat reporter must go where the combat is, hasn’t yet missed a fight in which the Air Cav has been involved. Then, when we weren’t doing anything, he would wander off to other outfits, where there seemed to be action. He doesn’t cover the shooting from the command post. He gets with the rifleman or machine gunner and virtually becomes an extra man in a squad.

His clothing, his actions, his words allow him, like the Chameleon, to become part as well as an observer, of the picture. He can talk the language of the soldier and, because he can, the soldier feels that Charlie is his friend. A man will talk to a friend. He’ll ask a friend to help him split his last ration, or to share a part of a poncho in a drenching tropical storm. He won’t divulge confidences to a visiting journalist, or even some of his fellow squad members. But he will to a friend, and Charlie Black is such a friend.

In Viet Nam, when anyone writes about soldiers, he habitually uses the individual’s home town. It’s the right thing to do, and Charlie writes home towns into his daily copy like everyone else. So did Ernie Pyle. Then what is it that sets Charlie Black apart? And being thus apart, does he really deserve being mentioned in the same breath as Ernie Pyle?

There is at least one man in the 1st Air Cavalry Division whose career has brought him in contact with both men. He is Col. William R. Lynch, of Huntsville, Tex., the commander of the Air Cav’s 2d Brigade. Col. Lynch met Ernie Pyle during the Italian campaign and was, in fact, a very close friend of Capt. Henry Waskow, the dead infantry captain about whom Ernie Pyle wove an unforgetable saga. Col. Lynch said he talked to Ernie on may occasions during that campaign.

“It’s difficult to compare Ernie and Charlie,” he said. “They are as different as night and day. Ernie was shy, introverted and usually in poor health. Charlie is brash and extroverted and very robust.”

So where does the similarity begin? Is it in the sheer brilliance of their writing? No one, least of all Ernie Pyle himself, ever claimed that his was a brilliant style of writing. In fact, its greatness was in its simplicity.

So it is with Charlie Black. His daily columns are descriptive and sparkling, but still retain the simplicity of greatness.

“I would say,” Col. Lynch continued, “that the greatness and similarities of both these lies in the fact that they tell the real story of the soldier -- the man in the hole.

“Ernie seldom would be seen with officers. He deliberately chose the company of riflemen. And that’s where you always find Charlie.”

But despite the real, or imagined greatness of Charlie Black, there is one glaring gulf in this comparison. Ernie Pyle was a syndicated columnist long before he went to war and he was read by millions.

Charlie was a police reporter for what essentially is a small-town newspaper and only in the past two years did he move into the military reporting field. More importantly, he is read by mere thousands. His salary reflects this and when some high-priced newsman looks aghast at Charlie’s check stubs, Charlie will take out one of the many letters he has received from wives, mothers and sweethearts of soldiers, and say, in absolute honesty: “Here's my real pay.” Because almost to a letter, they all say, “God Bless you, Charlie. Keep writing.”

Hopefully, the anonymity of Charlie Black soon may be remedied. His paper has announced tentative plans for publishing a compendium of his columns.
Those of us who count it a privilege to be known as Charlie’s friends live in fear that fame may come too late. Charlie’s talent is surpassed only by his intrepidity. He, like Ernie Pyle, rarely misses an opportunity to live along side his muddy, dirty, smelly, weary, and – beloved – infantrymen.

That strange compulsion drove Ernie Pyle to his death in a ditch on Ie Shima. Hopefully, a kinder fate awaits Charlie Black. His friends would like for the United States to really discover Charlie.
 
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