Columbus Newsman Another Ernie Pyle 


Associated Press Writer


PLEIKU, South Viet Nam - The least exclusive club in the central highlands of Viet Nam consists of Americans from private to general who are friends of a gnarled, ornery and unreformed hillbilly in battle-stained jungle fatigues called Charlie Black.

Charlie knows and keeps more soldiers’ personal secrets than the chaplain.  He knows the fears, miseries and meager joys of frontline troops.  He marches beside them day after day after weary day on jungle patrols, hauls rations and stands guard, shares his poncho at night, fights alongside them and mourns their dead.

Charlie has seen more fighting in the last three months than most soldiers encounter in a year’s Viet Nam duty.  Twice his clothes and equipment have been ventilated by bullets fired with deadly intent.  Yet, he is a civilian.  Charlie is a reporter for the Columbus (Ga.) Enquirer.

A former Marine, a leftover from two previous wars, Charlie says he hated his years in the service, when he bounced from private to gunnery sergeant and back down to private.

“I could never take the discipline,” Charlie says.

He covers military affairs for the Enquirer and came to Vet Nam to chronicle the exploits of the 1st Air Cavalry Division when it moved here from Ft. Benning, near Columbus.

The stories he sends back to his newspaper by air mail are like litters from the men for wives who learn from Charlie’s column how their husbands are eating, living and fighting.  Charlie knows many of the division’s 16,000 men by their first names.

Charlie began his reports on the air cavalry when the “flying horsemen” were first formed as the experimental 11th Air Assault Division.  So it seemed logical to his editor to send Charlie out here to the central highlands.  He gave Charlie $430 for expenses and told him to use the return half of his airline ticket when it was all spent.

Charlie claims he “can’t handle money worth a damn” but has used only $91 of his fund in three months.  He eats “C” rations, sleeps on the ground and there’s little to spend money for in the jungle.

Along with reports on how the men live, Charlie also describes the action.  Many wives clip his column and mail it back to Viet Nam.

For the man in the field, only a tiny part of a large battle, reading Charlie’s column a fortnight later is often the first opportunity to find out what he really did.

The Enquirer signs his columns Charles L. Black; the army, for unexplained reasons, calls him Charles L. R. Clack; but to hear Charlie tell it, he was christened just plain Charlie Black.  He was born 43 years ago in Dallas, Tex., of poor folks who raised him in the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina.

It was there Charlie learned to be a connoisseur of the best pot-stilled North Carolina moonshine aged in the cask.  He uses it sparingly, but even managed to locate some at An Khe, right in the middle of Viet Nam.

Charlie “never quite finished” high school, dropping out in the 11th grade.  At 16, he followed his father’s trade of ironworker, learning to build bridges and climb tall steel structures.

He still holds a journeyman’s card from local 387, the Atlanta branch of the steel and ornamental ironworkers’ union.  Last Year he climbed to the pinnacle of a 1,000-foot-high television mast in Columbus to talk a 19-year-old soldier out of jumping to his death.

It was a shivering 17-year-old Charlie who came in out of an Illinois winter and signed up for the Marines because the recruiting posters showed sunny Hawaii.

“I asked the sergeant if it was sure I’d go to Hawaii and he said ‘sign,’ ” Charlie recalled. “I’ve been to Hawaii three times - twice to the airport and once to the dockyard when my troopship sailed in on the way to the war.”

Charlie served as a raider and sniper “from Guadalcanal on out” in the second world war and was called back for Korea.  He doesn’t talk much about that time of his life.

Charlie literally fell into journalism.  It was just after his first hitch in the Marines and he was building a bridge in Tennessee.  He tumbled 35 feet into mud and was laid up in his boarding house with a bad back.

There he got to talking with a fellow boarder, the program director of a small Kentucky radio station who said he was looking for a news writer.

“It paid about one-third as much as ironworker, but you didn’t fall out of things, so I told him the job was filled.  I’d learned to type in high school, so I wrote ‘em a newscast.”

The next fee weeks in city rooms of small weekly and daily newspapers across the South ere what Charlie calls his “degree’ In journalism.  He tried to plug the gaps in his education by learning from his fellow reporters.

There was Leo Aikman, now with The Atlanta Constitution.  From him Charlie learned that “You have to be human - you cannot simply be an observer.”

Charlie takes in stride such minor matters as having the helicopter he is riding shot out from under him.  He says he has to go along with the troops because he lacks imagination.

“I can’t imagine being thirsty or scared.  But if they’re shooting at old Charlie, I know I’m scared.”

He has taken part in 32 patrols, sweeps and attacks on the VC since he came here in mid-August.  The other night he was pinned down for more than three hours in the open, being shot at by both the Communists and the Americans while returning from an ambush.

“I gave myself up for dead,” Charlie said later.  “I’ve been shot at by Japanese, Chinese, Koreans and Viet Cong, but American fire is by far the most terrifying and demoralizing.”

For a high-school dropout, Charlie brings to the job of reporting war a formidable armory of knowledge. Half-way through his newspaper career, he quit for two years and went back to his old trade of ironworker in the New York area so he could read almost every book on irregular warfare in New York’s public library, starting with the accounts of the Indian Wars.

“All that reading probably bent my thinking,” he says.  Charlie is a qualified parachutist, a graduate of most of the special schools of guerrilla warfare run by the U.S. Army and is the only civilian who has qualified in the dangerous Air Cavalry tactic of rappelling (sliding down a doubled rope) from a helicopter hovering at 160 feet.

“If you don’t do it, you ain’t one of the club.”

Charlie soaks up everything he can learn about the wily Viet Cong.  He believes a program of civic action in Viet Nam as big as the current military buildup is essential if the war is to be won.
“We’ve got the military end of this whipped.  Now we must find ’em, fight ’em, harass ’em.

“But you’ve got to give the Cong some reason to quit.  No guerrilla in the world ever lost - even when he was defeated militarily.”

Charlie wants to stay here until he has seen a solid foundation for the civic program to better the lot of Vietnamese villagers.
“Then I’ll go home.  The rest is repetition.”

Until that day, or until his expense money runs out, you can expect Charlie to shoulder his M16 automatic rifle and follow the war.  He says he can’t understand reporter(s) (who go) unarmed into battle.

“If I didn’t have a weapon (to shoot them) I’d have to be throwing rocks at (them.”)

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