Smell of Battle Worst Experience For Person Moving Into Combat
(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 as he saw it will continue in The Enquirer daily.)
By CHARLES BLACK
Enquirer Military Writer
There is the greasy stench of napalm, the sickening smell of rocket explosions from the 2.75 missiles carried on helicopters, and the smell of death. It is a smell which seems to sink into your clothing and to coat your skin.
Coming into a fight on the second day is always hardest for me, anyway. The fever pitch of the initial contact, the tensions and strains of the first fighting, leave little facilities for sensing the tragedies of battle. That impact comes when there is time to recognize wounded men, to feel the grief of knowing the ones who died.
We walked through the woods toward the sounds of the fighting and I could already smell the battle ahead. I wished then I had stayed back at Pleiku or Landing Zone Columbus. There was a sudden burst of explosions ahead of us and I forgot the kind of thoughts I had been having in a rush for cover.
Lt. Col. Robert McDade had brought Company A, 2nd Battalion 7th Cavalry and one platoon of his Company B, along with Capt. Forrest’s B Company from Lt. Col. Fred Ackerman’s 1st Battalion 5th Cavalry, through the woods on this reinforcement mission without incident until now. I heard his very calm voice on Capt. Forrest’s radio in a few minutes.
“We’ve taken two casualties in all. No problem. The way is clear right on up to X-Ray now so let’s move out,” he said.
We walked ahead and I saw two men being bandaged by combat medics, the heroes of every action I witnessed in South Viet Nam. They didn’t seem to be badly wounded. (Two helicopters had come in and pounded the area with rockets to clear out some light opposition, I found out later, and fragments from this fire had wounded the soldiers, the only casualties of the incident.)
Armed helicopters kept bobbing up over the trees, I got just fleeting glimpses of them as they dove down trailing smoke from rockets and machine gun bursts. The “whoosh” of the rockets and the rattle of their guns was almost covered up in the general racket of the fight up ahead.
Landing Zone X-Ray was just another elongated clearing. It was seared with napalm, the bordering trees shattered and splintered by bullets and shrapnel, the haze of smoke, piles of equipment and supplies, the turmoil and uproar all seemed too terribly familiar to me by now. I felt that I had been around these clearings too long. I wanted to somehow get away from this one but we kept walking toward it through the thinning trees.
I left Capt. Forrest and ran across the landing zone itself. The poncho-wrapped bundles of our dead, the pile of our equipment dropped by wounded and dead soldiers, was close by the huge mound of weapons and equipment from the enemy dead.
I saw Lt. Col. Moore standing near a big ant hill, pride in his face but crying, smiling with tears on his face.
“We whipped hell out them but I’ve lost some good boys,” he said as I stopped.
“These boys are magnificent. I feel so much pride in them I can’t even express it and my God how I hate to think about the brave ones I’ve lost! You’ve got to tell the people back in the United States what these boys are like! Nobody can realize how wonderful these boys are unless they’ve seen them here. . . kids with two weeks to do in the Army fighting their hearts out like this. We’re winning a battle here, but the credit goes to those soldiers,” he said.
Air Force jets suddenly roared down and smashed at the timber to the southeast. A splinter from one of the 250 pound bombs they hurled into the woods landed between us. A roll of M-16 fire came from that area as the four F-100’s pulled out of their screaming dives.
“I’ve got a company moving in over there. That was where Charlie Company fought it out with a PAVN battalion. They were fighting in their own positions at the last. They put three mass charges in on Charlie Company and didn’t budge it. There are stacks of PAVN bodies in front of them, more than 250 right in one little area. The company you came up with from the Second of the Seventh is going in there now and they will get a fight,” he said.
We sat down by the anthill for a few minutes and he told me what had happened, pointing to the places where it happened, taking time to send out a reassuring message when sniper fire crackled from one quarter that “. . . there are men going in to clear that area, don’t worry about it, they’ll get them.”
Charlie Company had landed and cleared the landing zone.
“They were starting to open some C’s, we had been here about an hour getting our perimeter set up and ready. One platoon of Bravo Company went up that little finger of high ground to our southwest there. We caught two prisoners then, found them in the brush over there. They said they were too sick to run when the rest of their outfit pulled out of here. They said there were two battalions of PAVN’s on the mountain waiting to kill Americans and that they were coming. They hit us then.
“Charlie Company pushed out to the southeast and stopped a battalion coming on that approach. A wonderful sergeant, Sgt. Myron Savage had to take over the Bravo Company platoon. He was wonderful, just wonderful. He piled up more than 60 North Vietnamese in front of one machine gun. That platoon was cut off for 20 hours and when they came out they still had ammunition to fight with. They kept the PAVN’s from using that approach, in fact. Sgt. Savage called in air and artillery and adjusted it and kept that outfit fighting. We assaulted three times trying to get through to them the first afternoon, we just got men up there to get them out, in fact.
“The Air Force forward air controller radioed us that the other side of that mountain was alive with men coming out of the valley back there. We had everything waiting for them! We had artillery, aerial rockets, Air Force and Navy air support, and these great kids we have just outfought the enemy rifle to rifle! There are PAVN dead piled up in front of every position. We’ve counted more than 800 of them already,” Col. Moore said.
© Columbus Ledger-Enquirer
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