Phu Cat, South Viet Nam--In mid-morning last week, a starving teen-age Vietnamese boy stumbled into the First Cavalry camp here and through an interpreter, told of the tortures he and others had undergone in a clandestine prison camp at the hands of the Viet Cong.
One of the first persons to hear the child's story was Sgt. John Terrell, Magnum, Okla.
"The boy had several wounds. The more serious ones were on one foot and both of his knees. Both his hands and wrists had deep rope burns on them. He was in pretty bad shape," Terrell said.
The youngster told his questioners that when the Americans got too close to the VC camp during Operation Irving, the VC hurled hand grenades into the makeshift prison compound and then opened fire on the prisoners with automatic weapons.
At first, no one believed the child's story. Then, First Cavalry patrols picked up a Viet Cong Soldier who was attempting to defect and an ARVN soldier who had been held prisoner in the camp.
Under questioning, both men told stories almost identical to the tale of horror the child related.
The VC prisoner offered to lead First Cavalry scouts to the site of the prison camp. Even the battle hardened men of the First Cavalry were not prepared for what they found.
Using a natural ravine, the VC had forced the prisoners to dig a pit, about 30 feet deep from level ground. They placed 12 captives in the hole and executed them. Each prisoner had been shot several times and their bodies showed signs of grenade fragments.
Another deep hole uncovered by the First Cavalry scouts revealed a network of tunnels, but most of the complex was filled with water. It is believed the site may once have held more than 60 prisoners.
The camp here at Phu Cat is a base camp for the First Cavalry and the Republic of Korea's Tiger Division, which are conducting one of the most successful operations yet in Viet Nam--Operation Irving.
The camp perimeter is protected by a double barriers of barbed wire and a variety of mines are sown all through the "no man's land" between the jagged fences.
The First Cavalry and ROK troops were particularly on edge during midweek because Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, was scheduled to arrive with Gen. William C. Westmoreland, for a briefing on Operation Irving.
Troops were stationed every 15 feet around the entire camp. The tension did not ease until McNamara and Westmoreland boarded their helicopter and took off for DaNang.
Last week, a Vietnamese soldier strayed into the minefield and was killed. A short while later a cow ambled into the mine field and was blown up.
Despite the precautions, the area is by no means secure. "I sure wouldn't want to travel any of the roads around here at night," a sergeant said. "It would be a good way to get shot."
The intensity of the fighting in the Phu Cat area was described by Army Capt. William Dick of Spokane, Wash., a helicopter pilot with the First Cavalry.
"The First Cavalry and the ROK troops chopped them up so bad they didn't have time to drag off their dead like they usually do. We've spotted several bodies in the rice paddies and open fields that the Cong have left behind."
With an enthusiastic nod the Capt. said, “Those ROK troops are some of the best soldiers I've seen."
Capt. Dick also told of the discovery of more than 1,200 refugees from the Viet Cong who were found huddled in a clearing a few miles northwest of Phu Cat.
The terrified refugees had been rounded up by the VC during a rampage through several villages.
As a result of American and ROK military pressure, the VC gradually moved away and the villagers began to congregate in the clearing, the Capt. said.
"We sent boats up the river and moved the refugees to a more secure area. They were pretty hungry," Capt. Dick said.
But the refugees found huddled in the clearing weren't the only hungry people to be found in this hot, mountainous countryside.
Just outside the strands of barbed wire, dozens of small children and old women come as close as they dare, to beg the soldiers for food.
Periodically, some big tough soldier who can't take it any more, will heave a case of rations over the fence. The soldiers stand and shake their head in sorrow as the starving villagers rip the case apart and begin eating.
One soldier, Pfc. Karl Calhoun of Lubbock, Tx.,standing his post, was eating a can of pork and beans. He kept his eyes darting back and forth over his area. He finished the beans, removed the cigarettes from the box, and heaved the rest over the fence.
Instantly, two youngsters grabbed the box and ripped it in half as they fought for the leftovers.
"Theah's always somethin' in a ration box ya don't really want," Calhoun drawled. "An it'd be a shame to just throw it away when someone's hungry fer it."