Soldiers Learn Valuable Lessons at Battle Site
(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
An early morning patrol by Lt. Bill Schiebler’s platoon of Company A, Second Bn., 12th Infantry, had confirmed that the North Vietnamese battalion fought by this unit and First Squadron, Ninth Cavalry, along the Tae River had retreated during the night.
Prowling infantrymen had turned up 57 bodies of PAVN soldiers, which brought the total to 136 North Vietnamese bodies left behind. Total prisoners, including 22 wounded, was finally counted at 57. As nearly as could be ascertained by helicopter and careful estimates, another 150 to 200 PAVN casualties had been inflicted during the previous day’s fighting.
The 15 men from Lt. Schiebler’s platoon had slipped along a ridgeline which had formed the PAVN’s final line of resistance the previous day and come onto elaborately prepared positions which the battalion had been unable to use because the helicopter-borne attack had landed in an unguarded area and surprised the force guarding the field hospital which the 1st Cavalry had captured.
The positions were very educational so far as the tactics and thinking of these Communist forces were concerned and held some valuable lessons for any infantryman.
Troops Dug In
They were dug into the forward slope of a V-shaped hill, not a tall one but just a sloping rise in ground, flanking along an open field which was an inviting landing zone for choppers and also guarding the trail used by the PAVN wounded and carrying parties who had come here from the Plei Me battle about eight miles or so away.
The trail was easy to see. It was not only an old, well-used path, beaten by Montagnard tribesmen and presumably other Viet Cong and PAVN units, but actually marked with blazes on tree trunks. The bark of trees had been cut away at shoulder height every 20 feet or so, marking the route.
A PAVN battalion is composed of four specialty companies and a headquarters company. One company is a weapons company and has four mortars, five recoiless artillery pieces, (57mm and sometimes 75mm) plus machine guns, etc.
Line companies have three platoons of 30 men each, plus the headquarters element. The weapons are all capable of full automatic fire and 37mm rocket launchers are carried as well as Russian assault rifles, Chinese Communist (shortened to “Chicom” by GIs), submachine guns and Russian rifles with a lever on the right side allowing them to fire either semi-automatic or full automatic.
There seems to be a conglomeration of attached troops to this battalion, some of whom carry Mauser style, straight pull bolt action rifles. They apparently come from the support battalion which is included in each regiment.
The regiment itself is composed of its headquarters, three maneuver battalions number four, five and six (presumably the other battalions are in the “old” 325th division regiments which have been operating in South Viet Nam for many months) and the support battalion.
Soldiers Very Young
The soldiers were very young North Vietnamese who had been drafted and then recalled to the 304th PAVN Division which was redesignated the “325th” on arrival in South Viet Nam. They had suffered about 25 per cent attrition from disease, etc., and were very short on rations although ammunition was in plentiful supply. They had apparently prepositioned weapons and ammunition supplies all through the area.
(The men of Lt. Col. Earl Ingram’s battalion had found one of these dumps and it had been a spectacular capture for the Second of the 12th two days earlier. Mortars, machine-guns, anti-aircraft weapons, ammunition, etc., had come in by the helicopter load from the hidden arms dump.)
The young PAVNs had been given a pass on July 17 and then moved to a point in North Viet Nam near the South Vietnamese and Laotian borders, interrogation of prisoners showed. They left on Aug. 17 and spent 57 days walking on the trail.
They came through Laos, entered South Viet Nam near Kontum, proceeded south to Cambodia near the Ia Drang River where, from supplies apparently on hand in the Chu Pong Mountain region, their uniforms, ammunition and weapons were replenished.
Some prisoners told of carrying loads, 200 men apparently having been saddled with one round of 120mm mortar ammunition each.
That big mortar has yet to appear in the fighting and they are believed stored in the safety of Cambodia, along with 75mm pack howitzers and four 105mm howitzers the PAVNs are known to possess.
The regiments which had come down the Ho Chi Min trail in this movement were the 101st, 66th and 32nd. The 101st had besieged Plei Me. The 32nd had joined the early fighting there, then had left the camp to take up ambush positions around landing zones and on roads leading to the camp. The 66th was in reserve.
It was fairly well accepted by intelligence men by now that the entire siege had been designed to draw the 1st Cavalry into a quick relief of the camp and to attempt to ambush its helicopters. The road ambush was set up to hit the usual surface column the Vietnamese troops would send out to the camp. It did, but Vietnamese tanks and APCs, with artillery from the First Battalion (airborne) 19th Artillery commanded by Lt. Col. Joe Bush, along with the fine tactical air supplied throughout the campaign, had made the ambush very costly for the PAVNs.
In the positions dug in here, I counted 125 fighting holes on the forward slope and possibly there were an equal number of ordinary shelter holes near campsites stretched in a draw along a creek facing Plei Me and guarding a trail as well as the LZ.
The PAVN planners had assumed that any pursuit would work out from Plei Me, following them. Air mobility makes such pursuit techniques not only unnecessary but even repugnant to an experienced air assault commander and his staff, however. They had first scouted a circle far out from Plei Me and worked in until they spotted the activity here and then landed behind it.
© Columbus Ledger-Enquirer
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