(EDITOR'S NOTE: Charles Black, Enquirer military writer, is back at the 1st Cavalry Division’s base camp after being in action with elements of the division. His articles on the cavalrymen resume today. The following article was written Nov. 14.)
By CHARLES BLACK
Enquirer Military Writer
PLEIKU, Viet Nam - The trip here from Man Yang pass, which Lt. Col. Harlowe Clark’s 1st Brigade secured with a picturesque and unopposed helicopter assault on a mountaintop covered with the graves of French soldiers killed in ambushes a decade ago, is one of the things I will not forget very quickly.
The scenic beauty of the rugged hills through which Highway 19 winds down to the open plateau in which Pleiku is centered is similar to that of the Great Smoky Mountains, but every curve and every commanding hill slope holds a threat. Men on Route 19 are less apt to survey the scenery for its beauty as with an eye calculating the potential danger in the tall elephant grass and the Viet Cong ambush possibility in a curve of the highway.
Nothing marred the technical perfection of the 1st Cavalry Division’s operation and the road beyond, which was secured by Vietnamese forces, also produced no incidents while 500 trucks rolled supplies to Pleiku for three straight days.
I came down to the road after the assault on the mountaintop at the exact spot where the first ambush was dealt French Group Mobile 100 11 years ago and saw a reassuring sight - American helmets and the berets of Vietnamese Rangers, trucks and jeeps and the flash of jets lancing down toward a distant ridge in a thundering air strike. The helicopters of the 1st Cavalry Division buzzed around in swarms and I saw the big CH47 Chinooks setting onto the ridge lines, and the howitzers of the 1st Battalion (Airborne) 19th Cavalry frowned down from those unlikely artillery positions in a matter of minutes. The commanding position of those 105 mm. howitzers, set atop a high ridge in a single surge of aerial activity, emphasized the new dimensions of the force brought against the VC here.
Lt. Col. Dutch Uhland was the first man I saw after setting foot on the asphalt of Route 19. He was at the front of the lead trucks of the convoy talking to the man who would take over security for the convoy the rest of the way, Capt. Paul Leckinger, adviser to the 21st Vietnamese Ranger Battalion, based at Pleiku. Capt. Leckinger, a darkly tanned infantryman whose red beret and tiger suit made him quite a flamboyant figure, offered me a ride down the road a ways.
He was quite proud of his little Rangers.
“Those kids are tough troopers. They have to have leadership, but they will do anything the man in charge is willing to take them into. I think a lot of those little Rangers. I’ve gotten to know them and really appreciate them,” Capt. Leckinger said.
He reminded me of all of the other advisers to Vietnamese units in this country. These men have written a chapter in American military history which should have its special place in the entire book. Not many men have had the dedication to a mission required of them as have the American field advisers in South Viet Nam.
I promised to look up Capt. Leckinger in Pleiku when he stopped at the Ranger battalion command post and caught a ride with Capt. Le Truong, the sector chief. He spoke no English but he had a fine command of gestures and he gave me a guided tour of the ambush site where the Viet Minh had dealt the French column its hardest blow. It was just another stretch of road, a small plateau with two bends in the road and a high slope above it - except the rusty hulks of armored personnel carriers and trucks could be seen in the tall elephant grass and a little white monument marker.
(The white monument was covered with the ever-present elephant grass when I saw the ambush site and the Vietnamese captain and I had to walk off the shoulder of the road to find it. Later, Bravo Co., 1st Battalion, Eighth Infantry (Airborne) came here and cut away the grass, clearing a spot around the only memento to the French soldiers except their graves on the windswept mountain in the pass.)
The Vietnamese officer let me off at the foot of a red clay drive (a deeper red than Georgia clay but near enough to cause some nostalgia) which led to a barbed-wire-enclosed Special Forces Camp. I walked up and a little Civilian Irregular Defense Group soldier wearing a tiger suit and weighed down with a Browning Automatic Rifle decided to salute, just in case, and waved me on through to a group of men by two jeeps watching Air Force Skyraiders trace a line of explosions along a slope to the north.
The group was from Advisory Team 21, which had helped plan the road clearing operation from the Man Yang Pass, which the sky soldier division had opened, to the ultimate destination of the truck caravans at Pleiku. I recognized S-Sgt. Thomas J. Hudgins who had been with the Student Brigade at Fort Benning until August. He introduced me to Capt. S. Vaughn Binzer and First Sgt. John L. Douglas, who both immediately set to work with a sales pitch about a project which seems to spring up almost universally when American soldiers get acquainted with the Vietnamese community near their station.
“We became interested in the refugee problem at Pleiku. What we’ve done is to write people and ask them to send us clothes for the little kids out there, summer clothes of course. If they will send them to me with a tag on the package telling the age, whether it is for a boy or a girl, and what is inside, we will see to it those poor kids get them,” Capt. Binzer said.
He wrote the address for me:
Capt. S. Vaughn Binzer, Adviser Team 21, APO 96295, San Francisco, Calif.
Col. Phuong, the commander of the 24th Special Forces Zone in the Pleiku-Kontum areas, who was at the camp with the advisory team, came over and simply sat on a poncho where we were talking and joined the conversation. He turned out to be one of the most impressive individuals I have met here, ranking with Col. Yen, the Marine commander, in Vietnamese leaders who have made their mark out in the field. Col. Phuong, I am told, is now in ill health and stays closer to his home base, but his history is almost a model of the story of the troubles in the country.
In 1942, as a youth, he organized a guerrilla band to fight against the Japanese occupation forces. By 1945 he had command of what amounted to a regiment and he joined with the Viet Minh to fight against France as an ardent nationalist. In 1952-53 he was imprisoned by the Viet Minh leadership because of his personal popularity and because of his implacable animosity toward the flavor of communism which he saw in the Viet Minh movement. Since 1954 he has been an active enemy of the Viet Cong.
As I was finding out his background, I realized that he was asking me questions about my own with the skill of a good police reporter.
“You must go see the Mekong Delta now if you would know more about my country. You are acquainted very well with our highlands. I have just come here from the delta and it is very different. I think a man like you wants to know about my country and you should go there,” he said finally.
I told him that I believed there were enough problems right around the next ridgetop to keep me occupied for some time and he agreed.
“Understanding just a little of what my country has to contend with is very hard, I suppose,” he said.
He offered me a ride on the final lap of the journey to Pleiku and I got into a jeep which needed a clutch job very badly. He cheerfully ignored the troubles his drivers was having in making it chug up hills and pointed out the various tribes of Montagnards as we drove along.
The highway west of An Khe as you near Pleiku is lined with Montagnard villages. The huts are built up off the ground with wood and farm implements, etc., stacked under the floor (as well as pigs, chickens, etc., who find shelter there) and the highland tribesmen walk along the highways in Stone Age costume, breech clout, a sash-like blanket over their shoulder, a packbasket usually on their backs. Some of the women wear a wrap skirt and nothing else, some add a bright cotton blouse. All wear the symbolic tribal bracelets on their right wrists. There are three main tribes here, Rhade, Jarai and Bahnar, and Col. Phuong attempted to point out the differences in costume and markings on the blankets to me but I never got the knack. A Bahnar looks like a Jarai and both look like Rhade, but I suppose if I made a project out of it I could work it all out. All of these people are darker than the Vietnamese, usually more muscular, and infinitely more primitive. They smiled and waved when I signalled them.
The tribesmen have been a lot of trouble for the Vietnamese, who refuse to give them political representation, etc., and have shown great preference for American leadership when it is available. The Rhade have been in revolt several times and have caused some fine in-country crises. The Jarai, whose tribal grounds are mainly north of Pleiku, have given some good accounts of themselves as Viet Cong fighters under American leadership (the Rhade have been valuable) while the Bahnar, living in the section near An Khe, simply don’t have anything much to do with anybody except other Montagnards and even that relationship is usually an inter-tribal brawl. They are probably the most belligerent and independent of all these tribesmen who could eventually hold the key to pacification of the mountain areas. (They can also be the start of even more complicated woes in the years ahead if their differences with the Saigon government aren’t ironed out.)
Whatever the ethnological and political circumstances, however, Montagnards provide an interesting sightseeing tour as they move along the road in single file in their native costumes and I was a little disappointed when we got to Camp Holloway at Pleiku, a place I have been intending to visit for a long time because of a contingent of the 1st Cavalry which got over here in a manner which made some more Army aviation history.
The 17th Aviation Company, which had formed up at Fort Benning in order to bring a company of CV2 Caribous over to support the division (among other chores in the Central Highlands), had been sent here while the division base at An Khe is being put into order. The company had come to Viet Nam in the first mass flight of Army aircraft to cross the Pacific and it was already setting some in-country flying marks. The amount of work which it found, in fact, saw the unit racking up 1,700 flying hours in its first 30 days work. Until the 17th came here, the venerable old 61st Aviation Company at Vung Tao had had that record with a three-month average of 1,500 hours per month. It isn’t likely that any group of pilots and crewmen can keep up the initial pace of the 1st Cavalry unit, but it was a fantastic way for a new unit to go to work in Viet Nam.
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