BLACK IN VIET
Another Ernie Pyle
By ROBIN MANNOCK
PLEIKU, South Viet Nam - The
least exclusive club in the central highlands of Viet Nam consists of
from private to general who are friends of a gnarled, ornery and
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
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
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.)
A former Marine, a leftover
from two previous wars, Charlie says he hated his years in the service,
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
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
from Charlie’s column how their husbands are eating, living and
fighting. Charlie knows many of the
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
central highlands. He gave Charlie $430
for expenses and told him to use the return half of his airline ticket
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
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
L. R. Clack; but to hear Charlie tell it, he was christened just plain
Black. He was born 43 years ago in
Dallas, Tex., of poor folks who raised him in the Blue Ridge mountains
It was there Charlie learned
to be a connoisseur of the best pot-stilled North Carolina moonshine
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
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
Hawaii three times - twice to the airport and once to the dockyard when
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
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
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
calls his “degree’ In journalism. He
tried to plug the gaps in his education by learning from his fellow
There was Leo Aikman, now
with The Atlanta Constitution. From him
Charlie learned that “You have to be human - you cannot simply be an
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
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
most terrifying and demoralizing.”
For a high-school dropout,
Charlie brings to the job of reporting war a formidable armory of
Half-way through his newspaper career, he quit for two years and went
his old trade of ironworker in the New York area so he could read
book on irregular warfare in New York’s public library, starting with
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
warfare run by the U.S. Army and is the only civilian who has qualified
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
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
“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
go) unarmed into battle.
“If I didn’t have a weapon
(to shoot them) I’d have to be throwing rocks at (them.”)