Monday, July 16, 2007

South Vietnam, The American Waterloo: 3 Hoosiers At Cu Chi-John Kelly Of Milan Jokes About Viet Duty

October 22, 1966

Cu Chi, South Viet Nam--Pvt. John Keily bit his lip and dragged the toe of his boot in the reddish brown soil, then with a grin he looked up and said, "You know this isn't so bad."

"Especially, if you like getting shot at, driving on mined roads, wallowing around in the mud and then choking on the dust, dodging mortar shells and being kept up all night by gun fire, it's really not so bad," Kelly said.

Kelly is 23 years old and hails from Milan, Ind. He's serving his second hitch in the army and has been stationed at the 25th Infantry Division camp at Cu Chi nearly five months.

Word drifted around camp quickly that there was a Hoosier newspaperman around and before long, two more boys from Indiana came up and introduced themselves.

Lt. Patrick J. McKeand is 25 and comes from Anderson. He heads the public Information Office at Cu Chi. Sp/5 David R., Fisher, is 20 and works under Lt. McKeand. Fisher makes his home in Lebanon.

McKeand and Fisher arrived at Cu Chi just in time for a Viet Cong mortar attack on July 26. The next day, the Viet Cong slipped in close again and mortared the camp.

"Boy I can't tell you how scared I was," Fisher said. "Our casualties were light but that didn't matter. There's just nothing you can do when those rounds start dropping in but hit the dirt and pray."

McKeand, a graduate of Indiana University, said the 25th Division's presence in the Cu Chi area has begun to make the Vietnamese villagers in the area feel safe again. "They are returning to their homes. When we took over there were only about 2,000 people here. Now there are more than 5,000," he said.

"But," McKeand added," the boondocks still aren't safe."

As McKeand spoke, the roar of howitzer fire from nearby artillery batteries began to shake the ground. We stepped outside the tent to investigate. In the distance, to the Northwest from the camp, jet planes were swooping down on an area known as the Fil Hil Plantation. Angry clouds of orange, red and black rose high above the trees as the fighter-bombers dropped napalm and high explosives.

The area is an old rubber plantation that has been untended many years and is once again a jungle. The undergrowth is so thick it makes excellent concealment for Viet Cong activities.

Maj. Donald Valz, Andover, Mass., soon joined the group and explained that the entire region to the north and northwest of the 25th's base camp was a network of Viet Cong tunnels and a stronghold for the Ku Regiment of the Viet Cong.

A few days ago, Maj., Valz said, patrols uncovered a 279 ton cache of rice near Quan Dau Tang. More than half of the rice was spoiled and dumped, but the remainder was brought back to Cu Chi and distributed to the hungry village people.

Maj. Valz pointed out another trouble spot, the Michelin rubber plantation. While he explained the difficulty in seeking out and destroying the VC forces in the dense thicket, Capt. Roland Lajoie, Nashua, N.H. walked up.

"Major," he said, "our boys have just captured a wounded VC in the Ho Bo Woods area. He's been burned and is in our dispensary right now for treatment."

Capt. Lajoie said the VC had been questioned and had given the Americans a heretofore unknown escape route.

Acting rapidly on the information, a reconnaissance plane spotted VC troops moving northwest as the prisoner said they would. An artillery barrage was ordered and jet aircraft began pounding the area with high explosive bombs, napalm and 20mm cannon fire. Later, 11 dead VC were found and one wounded man was captured.

Maj. Valz looked at a large map of the area his division covers and said,"We've hit them with everything—B-52 strikes, artillery, the works and it's still a hornet's nest. We're clearing them out though little by little.

The men of the 25th Division are very proud of Lt. Dale R. Crafton. He's only 19, but he's a tough platoon leader and he comes from Hanover, Ind.

Lt. Crafton was awarded the Silver Star for bravery in action last June. Crafton was out in the field and couldn't be located but Fisher, one of Crafton's Hoosier buddies, told how he won the award.

"Crafton and two of his men were pinned down by a VC machine gun," Fisher said. "Lt. Crafton got up and charged the gun and knocked it out with a grenade. The two men with him were wounded. Crafton is one heck of a soldier," Fisher added.

Another one of the 25th Division's heroes is Daniel Hernandez from Los Lunas, N.M. Hernandez was an sp/4 and only 21 years old when he threw himself on a Viet Cong hand grenade and died to save his buddies last February.

Fisher, a lean trim youth said," We've got a lot of guys like that over here. None of them want to die but we all try to do right."

During the helicopter ride from Cu Chi to Saigon, one of the gunners was wearing a flak jacket emblazoned with--INDIANA-I'M A HOOSIER.

Over the terrific din of the jet engines and the prop wash he was able to say his name was David M. Walker and Bloomington was his home town.

Walker is 20 years old and has been in the Army 11 months, six months in Viet Nam. He's been a machine gunner since he joined the 178th Support Group at Phu Ju.

"I've sure been shot at plenty," he said, "look down there on the floor by your foot. That's a bullet hole we picked up the other day. I haven't been shot down yet but I've sure been in some shot up ships," he said.

With a grin and a nod he added, "It was sure a lot safer working at RCA."

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