Jan 11, 1966
'Copter Work Aids Ambush Forces
NOTE: Charles Black, Enquirer military writer, has returned home
four months in Viet Nam. He was with men of the 1st Cavalry
during many of their recent engagements with Communist guerrillas, and
his articles on the war as he saw it will continue in The Enquirer
By CHARLES BLACK
From 11:05 p.m. on Nov. 3 until 12:05
p.m. on Nov. 4, my memory of the night near the Ia Drang River on the
edge of Cambodia is one of a confused uproar of noise and flashing
lights while I crouched behind a tree.
Rifles, mortars and grenades made a
solid wall of noise from the area of the patrol base of the First
Battalion Ninth Cavalry which I had left seven hours earlier with a
27-man ambush party under Capt. John Oliver.
Capt. Robert Knowlen's ambush team had
hit a North Vietnamese Army battalion 1,000 yards from us just two
Patrols sent out by the enemy had
apparently found the trail left by the retreating platoon and followed
it to our base camp, a little clearing containing Maj. Robert Zion's
command post and another platoon commanded by Capt. Don Valley.
They had struck with a fierce wall of
bullets and a mortar barrage and had attempted at least one assault on
the desperate little American force of about 45 men within a few
minutes of the initial attack on the base.
The U.S. Air Force had taken a hand by
11:30 and the entire area was not only lighted by a bright moon now,
but by parachute flares dropped from "Smoky Bear," a C123 which circled
I heard the propellers of A1E Skyraiders
just before midnight and a huge ball of red flame showed that they were
Just at midnight I heard the flap of
helicopters and saw what seemed to be six choppers sweep low over the
river, heading for the fight. I saw some kind of a big gun open
up across the river from me, it sent twin blue flashes up into the air
from a low hilltop but it was impossible to hear its noise or to see
Somebody whispered to me to "crawl over
to the command post quick and bring your gear."
I hurriedly got ammunition and grenades,
rolled my poncho, and then crawled to the river bank to refill a
canteen I had emptied before I went to the rendezvous.
I could see men pulling up claymores
from our unsprung ambush trap and then gathering in the shadows of the
tree where Capt. Oliver was located. I got there in the middle of
his whispered briefing.
". . . and they are in a hell of a fix
back there! They need every rifle they can get. We are
going to go to the base, shoot our way in or sneak in, and at least
fight it out together. Anybody who thinks it is going to be easy,
speak up now because I'd sure enjoy learning what he is basing his
logic on," Capt. Oliver said.
He pulled the NCOs close then and shined
a red flashlight on his map. The fighting noise was even more
violent and it was joined by the distinctive "whoosh boom" of
helicopter rockets and the racket of helicopter machine guns.
More Skyraiders seemed to be bombing in
an area between us and the fight, these explosions making big, solid
cracking noises as the bombs hit into the woods. We were almost
able to read the map from the flickering reflections of flares and
explosions, even under the tree here.
"Scout us a route, Jose. Keep us
under cover, keep us on the straightest way to that fight and keep us
out of trouble if you can," he told P-Sgt. Jose Ortiz-Vasquez.
"Remember we're moving in the dark and keep the pace slow up on that
point, but they need us bad. We can't waste any time either."
He looked at everybody then and asked a
"Anyone have any clever ideas on how we
can get through a battalion into a perimeter defense with everybody
shooting at us?"
Nobody spoke and he folded up the map.
I turned to the man beside me, I believe
it was Sgt. Ashmore, and we both stuck our hands out at the same solemn
"We probably won't see much more of each
other but it sure has been nice knowing you," he said, just half
Everybody shook hands with the men he
could reach then because it didn't take much effort to think it out.
We were moving out, 29 of us in all, to
cross through woods full of enemy, sneak through a battalion more of
them, and then to try to get inside of the fierce barrage put down by
our own forces.
When we finally accomplished all of that
we would simply have reached the place where 400 men were trying to
kill a few cut-off Americans.
Capt. Oliver grabbed the radio handset
as his radioman tapped his shoulder and listened, whispering a
reply. He whispered to us again.
"You guys won't believe it, but somehow
those helicopters set down in the little field in the middle of the
fight, took out some casualties, threw off ammo and water, and brought
in Capt. Danielsen and two platoons of his company for reinforcements!
"They did it without landing lights and
with the gunships shooting right along the perimeter. That hadn't
ever been done in world history, boys. If you want to know if we
have luck with us tonight, that ought to be your answer! There
are just two choppers down. They got hit on the ground, but there
are 75 more infantrymen there now. If we get there, we've got a
chance to see the sun come up again!" he said.