Just another night/day operation
The alleged massacre of 21 Vietnamese civilians by a Navy SEAL team led by then Lt. Bob Kerrey brings to mind a similar operation conducted by Delta Company, 2d Battalion, 5th Cavalry. The point of this recounting is merely to recall the professionalism of the 1st Air Cavalry Division.
Intelligence reports from the Montanyard tribesmen of the Central Highlands said North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers were slipping into a certain Montanyard village at night to steal food and to try to force the “Yards,” as the GIs called them, to fight for the NVA instead of for our side.
Delta Company was ordered to helicopter to a landing zone in the Ia Drang Valley, conduct a night march to a point just short of the village and, at dawn, surround the village to flush out the NVA soldiers and kill or capture them. Following that, Army physicians and nurses would be flown in to conduct a MEDCAP – which meant all the villagers would be given medical examinations, be treated for their conditions, be given some health-care instruction and then left with a modest amount of medicines.
Moving a company of five officers and 120 men through the jungle at night without making noise is extremely difficult. But Delta Company must have been good at it because, about midnight, a young Montanyard, who had either been out hunting or visiting a girl friend in another village, blundered into Delta Company’s reconn platoon.
He was quickly subdued, his knife taken from him and his hands bound behind his back. While the company took a rest break, the Montanyard was brought to the company commander. The company interpreter, a Vietnamese who spoke some Montanyard and some French, quizzed the Montanyard -- but with negative results.
The company commander thought this lack of cooperation was uncharacteristic of Montanyards who, as a people, liked the Americans better than the Vietnamese, north or south. It occurred to the commander that two problems were working against the gaining of vital intelligence about the young Montanyard’s village and its NVA occupiers.
Step one: The commander ordered the Montanyard’s hands untied. Step two: With great ceremony the commander returned the Montanyard’s knife to him. The company first sergeant and the radio operators thought this was crazy. They expected the Montanyard to stab their Old Man with the knife.
Instead, a big smile broke out on the young man’s face. He immediately squatted down and drew a crude map showing how to get to his village and even made a little model out sticks and grass showing which of the raised huts were being used as sleeping quarters by the NVA.
By now, it was about 0100 hours and the village was only an hour away. The commander ordered a 50 percent alert so half the men could sleep while the other 50 percent stood watch. At 0230 hours, they would reverse roles. Meanwhile, the armed Montanyard and the company commander lay down side-by-side and slept.
By dawn, the village was completely surrounded. The commander ordered a shot fired in the air. Almost immediately, a half dozen partially clothed NVA soldiers started leaping from the raised huts identified by the young Montanyard and ran toward the jungle. Challenged to surrender, the NVA opened fire instead and were sent to an earlier-than-expected meeting with their honorable ancestors. An AK-47 was recovered from each of the “step-ons.”
As planned, the MEDCAP arrived in a small landing zone cleared by Delta Company. The villagers were delighted. Those who were not standing in line for sick call began the preparation of a “thank-you” feast. Unfortunately, this included an earthen jar of rice wine. Protocol demanded the consumption of the noontime feast. The MEDCAP team departed and Delta Company pushed off for the Ia Drang only slightly bothered by rice wine headaches. No medals were awarded. For Delta Company, it was just another operation.
William Hamilton, a nationally syndicated columnist, served two years in the Central Highlands with the 1st Air Cavalry Division.
©2001. William Hamilton.