Thursday, July 19, 2007

South Vietnam, The American Waterloo: Luckily, Montagnard Tribesmen Are Friendly-Major's Job Rough As Viet Terrain He Defends

November 1, 1966

Khe Sanh, South Viet Nam--As commander of the 1,500 men of the First Battalion of the Third Marines, Maj. Peter Wickwire has a job as rugged as the terrain the Marines defend.

The 38-year old career Marine from Woodbridge, Conn., father of four children, must keep his men ready for attack, maintain high morale, prevent disease and jungle rot, and provide drinking water and food and clothing for his men.

Luckily, the majority of the inhabitants of the area, Montagnard tribesmen, are friendly to the American forces. So far, the Montagnards of this area have not been suspects in sabotage, and the area is comparatively booby-trap-free.

It was necessary, in the defense of the airfield, to deploy troops in many of the rice fields surrounding the strip. The rice in the region is grown in highland fields instead of rice paddies.

"We don't allow these people in our positions," Wickwire said. "And it works a hardship on them. Because they do not wait and harvest their rice all at once, they take a little each day for their needs. They plant their crops at intervals so they always will be able to harvest sections of it.

"Money is of no use to these people. They have nowhere to spend it. Food is their only concern," he said.

Wickwire said he believed that a program was underway to replace the Montagnard's rice crop with other rice, after evaluations are made of the rice fields his troops now occupy.

"Something will be done for these people," he said. "The other day, we had a few Marines who were doping off and we put them on a little work detail—cutting rice. We must have cut an acre or more and we turned it over to the Montagnards. We may do more of this."

In a tour of the area surrounding the airstrip, it became clear that any force which wants to attack will pay a steep price. Artillery, mortars, tanks, and automatic weapons of all sorts protect the area. In addition, long-range 175 millimeter cannons on Artillery Plateau, 12 miles northwest of Don Ha, can be zeroed in on any hostile forces on request. And, good weather will allow close air support.

But the 1/3s aren't going to have to slug it out alone. It is estimated that two battalions of Marines and their equipment can be brought to their support from Dong Ha at a moment's notice.

"We are prepared. We have out own water supply, we are dug in, and we know if we need help we'll get it." Wickwire said.

Wickwire is devoted to the welfare of his men. He is concerned about jungle rot and malaria in this climate, not to mention the numerous infections caused by minor cuts, snakebites, rat bites, and non-combat injuries such as broken ankles and leg sprains and other injuries caused by falls on the slick hillsides.

The Marine's diet at Khe Sanh is C-rations. There are enough men stationed here to rate the construction and operation of a mess hall, but the major nixed the idea. "The boys on the perimeter are in there 24 hours a day. They couldn't get back to the rear to eat, and only those at the rear would benefit from a mess hall.

"If the boys on the lines can't go to a mess hall, no one goes," he said.

He shows concern over the fact that the terrain is so hard on clothing.

"This place just eats up boots and clothing. I've got 1,000 uniforms, boots, and socks on order, and I can't wait to get them. Some of these guys are really hanging out. "

A company Commander, Richard C. Ossenfort, 31, St. Louis, Mo., and Gunnery Sgt. Donlad R. Courtney, 37, Jacksonville, S.C., showed how their men live while guarding the perimeter.

They are entrenched on steep hillsides and live in either bunkers or tents. All of them are youngsters, but they are tough and make the best of living in the mud, the rain, and the heat.

Captain Ossenfort said, "We have some unusual things happen around here. We've shot and killed a few apes who came charging into our lines, thinking they were infiltrators. We've got a lot of elephants around here, and one of the boys even killed a tiger just a little south of here."

The captain yelled down the hill to a Marine, "Show him what you got on the trap lines last night." The Marine held up the stretched hide of an ocelot.

In a jeep ride from one company position to another, we went through a large coffee plantation and saw several people walking towards us on the road.

Wickwire said, "These are Montagnards. They are very shy people and they have a wonderful idea working here. The women do all the work while the men stay at home and contemplate their ancestors. It would never work in the States."

When we pulled even with the Montagnards a few of them smiled and waved to us. The rest turned their backs. All were women and were carrying baskets of greens they had picked in the coffee plantation.

It was noticeable on the women who smiled that their teeth were almost black. Wickwire said, "They get that way by chewing betel. It's an herb or a root that they chew which is a mild depressant. Something like nicotine. The black teeth are beauty marks over here," he said.

At another position, D Company Commander Captain Daniel E. Mullally, 30, Minneapolis, Minn., said he formerly lived in Indianapolis and attended Holy Trinity Catholic Church.

A Hoosier on the base is Pfc. George M. Smith of Fort Wayne. Smith, 18, arrived in Viet Nam in August and has been a Marine since February.

Asked how he liked sunny South Viet Nam, he said, "That's not a question to be asked. Because if I told you what I thought of this place you couldn't print it anyhow. Just tell my folks hello for me, please."

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