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Reporting America At War
About The Series
The Reporters
Richard Harding Davis
Martha Gellhorn
Edward R. Murrow
Ernie Pyle
Walter Cronkite
Andy Rooney
Robert Capa
Homer Bigart
David Halberstam
Malcolm W. Browne
Gloria Emerson
Morley Safer
Peter Arnett
Ward Just
Chris Hedges
Christiane Amanpour

Chronology
For Teachers
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The Reporters

WARD JUST:
Reconnaissance

In the summer of 1966 yet another monsoon offensive was predicted in Pleiku and Kontum provinces in the Central Highlands. American intelligence said the North Vietnamese were infiltrating from Laos into Pleiku and Kontum in battalion- and regimental-sized units, well fed, well trained and well and heavily armed. The theory of the enemy objective, which had been expounded in one form or another for two years, was that Giap's regulars would "cut the country in half," driving east from the Laotian border to the South China Sea. It was an implausible theory, owing as it did practically nothing to logic: the North Vietnamese did not have the men to hold a line across the waist of South Vietnam, neither did they have the weapons to ward off attacking American aircraft. Much more plausible was the theory that the North Vietnamese were invading to make the highlands so hazardous that the Americans would be forced to concentrate large numbers of troops there.

But everybody believed the scissors theory, probably because it made rich newspaper copy. An American general once admitted that what the command had in mind was that if the North Vietnamese cut the country in half they would have a marvelous propaganda victory. The reverse was also true, and therein lay the raison d'être for the theory. The operative line was given at a Westmoreland press briefing in 1966: "They tried to cut the country in half but we stopped them."

There were a few amateur strategists who insisted that the country was already cut in half, obviously so by the inability of an ordinary citizen to drive from Saigon to the Demilitarized Zone. But these objections were swept aside as the work of cranks. As far as the American command was concerned, the North Vietnamese went on trying to cut the country in half and the American Army went on stopping them. Thus was the territorial integrity of South Vietnam preserved.

No one knew what the strategy really was. Some of the military thinkers believed that all Ho and Giap had in mind was sending as many troops as they could afford, punishing the Americans to the limit of endurance, and assaulting airfields and base camps until the allies quit from exhaustion. It was, as Westmoreland often said in 1967, a war of attrition; grand strategy did not as a practical matter exist. It was tactics that counted, and what was meant by tactics were the thousands of small-unit engagements from the Camau peninsula to the DMZ. The sum of these equaled the whole, or should have.

I flew from Saigon to Pleiku and then to the Special Forces camp at Dat To early in June, 1966. I had been told in Saigon that American intelligence officers had identified new North Vietnamese units prowling the highlands. The 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division was to move out into the jungles to find the enemy. It was regarded in Saigon as an important campaign: whatever the argument on whether or not the enemy objective was to cut the country in half, there was no doubt that the highlands themselves were imperiled.

It was the North Vietnamese who drew first blood: on the night of June 6, a battalion hit an American artillery base just north of Dak To and nearly overran it. Firing at point-blank range, the Americans had managed to beat back the attack. Following normal procedure, enemy troops had carried their dead from the battlefield. Only two bodies were left behind, but the artillerymen were confident many, many more had died. No one knew how many. What was surprising was the closeness of the engagement. "You could see the enemy," said one young artillery captain, in wonder. "They saw us and we saw them." It didn't happen that way very often, which lent of the operation which would be called Hawthorne, or the campaign for the control of the Central Highlands.

The commander of the 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry of the 101st airborne Brigade, Major David Hackworth, was standing amid the ruins of the camp when I alighted from a helicopter in the company of one of the ubiquitous public relations men of the American Army. We had been flying for nearly an hour, trying to find the base which was neatly hidden in the crotch of two hills. It had been an unnerving ride, since the hills were nominally, or more than nominally, enemy territory. Hackworth briefly explained the situation, then said with a grin that he was sending one of the reconnaissance units ("recondo," in Airborne argot, meaning commando / reconnaissance) deep into the mountains to find the enemy base camp, and to try in the process to round up enemy stragglers. Hackworth was so cheerful about the prospect of heading into the mountains that I instantly asked to go along. He said fine, then introduced me to Captain Lewis Higinbotham, the commander of the 42-man Tiger Force, as the recondo platoon was known. "You'll like Higinbotham," Hackworth said. "He's a good killer."

Hackworth had words for the men of the Tiger Force, who were now assembling their weapons and gear, and the words went like this: "Goddamnit I want forty hard-charging fuckin' dicks. And if anybody ain't a hard-charging fuckin' dick I want him out."

"Fuckin'," muttered one of the men.

"Right," said Hackworth.

"Fuckin'," the trooper muttered again.

The English language, like everything else in Vietnam, became unreal after a time. Hackworth's words were — words. He might have appealed for forty soft-bellied capons or forty fine, aggressive young American solders, or forty draft dodgers, or forty journalists, or forty fat congressmen from Texas. As it was, he appealed for forty hard-charging fuckin' dicks. It did not matter. I unconsciously wrote the words in my notebook.

Then Hackworth turned to me, banging the palms of his hands together. Matters were looking up. "My God, we chased them for five days over every flipping hill in Vietnam. Five days! And they hit us back here. They kept one hill ahead of us. One hill all along the way. Well now they have had it."

The Airborne had that reputation.

A unit assembles its reputation from any sources, but mainly from its commanders. These were the commanding general, Brigadier General Willard Pearson, and the two battalion commanders, Lt. Colonel Henry Emerson, and Major Hackworth. There were others, but these were the principal ones. They were professional soldiers, none more so than Pearson, who was the architect of the Brigade's bold and successful jungle tactics. Briefly, these were to probe as far into enemy territory as possible, make contact, then reinforce by helicopter. It required using small units as bait, which you could do only if your men were anxious to fight, and had proved it by signing on as paratroopers, for more money and prestige in the services. Pearson's reputation as a solder was excellent, but he had strange lapses when dealing with men. Once approaching a particularly difficult mission, he promised a company of infantry a case of beer if the mission were successful. In those circles, a case of beer was regarded as barely adequate for one man, let alone 200. Pearson, the strategist who wanted to carry the war to the enemy on the enemy's terms, was regarded with a mixture of respect and astonishment.

Not so Hackworth and Emerson. They were quite simply admired, as men and as soldiers. Personal courage is a very attractive quality in men. It is the one quality, as someone said, which guarantees all the others. Hackworth had it, and so did Emerson. They were brave men, without being excessively reckless or self-conscious about it. Hackworth was especially appealing. He seemed to be amused at the whole apparatus of war in Vietnam; he knew that things were never what they seemed, and that you kept your sanity only by admitting a whole range of possibilities. That day, in the center of the artillery fire base, he strode around with a tiny riding crop, disheveled, unshaven and profane, and after a bet took Higinbotham aside to brief him on the mission.

Lew Higinbotham looked an unlikely killer. Slim, bony-faced Texas-accented, he was polite and grim, and the dirt deliberately smeared over his cheeks and chin did not conceal youth. He was in his middle twenties, unmarried, a career soldier. Higinbotham had been in Vietnam more than two years, most of it spent in the Delta south of Saigon as an adviser to Vietnamese troops. This was his first mission with the Tiger force. It was an elite unit and Higinbotham was anxious to do well; he liked the Vietnamese, but preferred to work with Americans. The forty-two men under his command were a rugged and motely lot, bringing to mind one of those posses assembled from the worst saloons on Main Street in the Grade B horse opera. Unshaven, dirty, unlettered, mean, nervous; one was in flight from his third wife, another (so the story went) from the police, a third was in Vietnam because he liked to kill Charlie Cong. Some of the others had the spirit of buccaneers, fugitives from a safe society. They liked the adventure, and the weapons. One of them regularly sent the ears of dead Viet Cong to his wife, through the army postal system. Half the platoon was Negro. One of these, informed that a journalist would be along on the patrol, became helpless with laughter. He doubled up, face shaking with mirth at the madness of it all. "Sheet," he said. "Shee-it."

While the men got their gear together, checked weapons and gathered up food and ammunition, I prowled around the edges of the artillery base. There were dark streaks of blood where men had been carried of the night before. Part of a torso lay just beyond the security perimeter. On the top of a small rise I looked north, and saw high hills without signs of life. There were no villages in this part of Kontum. There were some Montagnard tribesmen, but nothing else. In the old days of the French occupation, the hills were often used for tiger hunts. We loaded into helicopters and were off.

The land north of Dak To was rugged and uneven, high hills and thick jungle laced with trails. It was cool as we were dropped at four o'clock in the afternoon in a high stand of elephant grass. The trees had two growths of branches, one about six feet up the trunk and the other about twelve feet. They blotted out the sun. The light appeared to come through a great green-glass bottle without rays or beams. Higinbotham and I moved beneath one of the trees, and waited until the rest of the forty-two were accounted for. There was another captain there, and Higinbotham introduced him as Chris Verlumis, a 27-year-old career man from Oakland, California. Verlumis was the commander of headquarters company to which the Tiger Force was technically attached. It was Verlumis's first week in Vietnam, and his first patrol. Higinbotham was not happy about the arrangement, because Verlumis technically outranked him — or was, in any case, in command of a larger unit. If there was trouble, and there was bound to be trouble, Higinbotham did not want to have to worry about another captain. And he didn't want to be second-guessed. Higinbotham had told all this to Hackworth. But Verlumis wanted to come, and so Verlumis came.

We moved out along a trail north and west roughly in the direction of the Laos border. Right away we fell upon a two-man position carved into a bush. It was deserted. The trail was well-traveled, and almost immediately there was another smaller hut ("hootch," to American soldiers in Vietnam) and then a third. Then, as we wound up the trail, there was a small base camp, perhaps large enough to accommodate a squad of a dozen men. In Vietnam action usually comes with out warning. All of these installations on the trail were signs, warning signals that enemy troops were there. Higinbotham knew it and the men knew it.

We were moving quickly, winding up the trail as the light folded and noting all the signs of enemy occupation. Then there was a burst of machine-gun fire, a shout, and all of the men flopped, and scurried of the road into the shelter of the trees and bushes. The firing had come from the rear of the column, three fast bursts and now it was silent. Higinbotham urgently radioed his rear squad. One enemy soldier was dead, but one of our own men was hurt.

Private First Class Richard Garcia was lying off the trail, blood leaking from a wound in his chest. Three men stood over him while the medic punctured his arm with a morphine needle. The men moved their feet and talked quietly to Garcia, although he was nearly unconscious. He had been hit by one of our own bullets; it is difficult to see in the jungle. No one knows where the enemy is, and the frightened man sprays with his weapon. He fires it in bursts, and none too accurately. One of these had caught Garcia in the lung. The medic was working frantically, muttering and cursing under his breath. Suddenly, Garcia stands up, and looked straight at the medic: "I can't breathe. I am going home. I am going to be OK." Then he was dead.

Fifty yards away, the men of the rear squad were looking after the dead Vietnamese. He had been shot in the chest, but that was only the most recent wound. His head had been bandaged, and so had his leg. Higinbotham, looking at the body, decided that he had been on his way back to the base camp for medical attention. He was probably one of those wounded in the attack on the artillery fire base the night before. Next to the body lay a battered, damaged AK-47 submachine gun. That was the standard weapon of the North Vietnamese Army, Soviet-designed and manufactured in China.

Higinbotham reported both deaths to battalion headquarters. "We've got a KIA, one of theirs and one of ours," Higinbotham said. The G-2 (intelligence officer) on the other end of the line warned him to be on the watch for more enemy. "Maybe a battalion more," the G-2 said.

The light was going, almost visibly as lights dim in a theatre, and Higinbotham decided to stay where he was for the night. Garcia's body was taken down to the trail and three men prepared it for transport on a litter. His arms were folded on his chest, and his blouse pulled up tight over his face and head. Then the body, compact in the camouflaged uniform, hatless, was tied to the litter, and the pack was tied to the body; lying there that night Garcia looked comfortable. Higinbotham said it was possible he was killed by rifle fire from the Vietnameses, but most likely not; most likely he was killed from our lines. It was a matter of fire discipline. Higinbotham said; there was never enough of it, and too many people were killed needlessly. But you couldn't prevent all of it. With all the lead flying around, people got hurt; it was not a factor you could control.

The men arranged themselves in a star-shaped defense, three to a group. One man in each group stayed awake at all times. There would be no talking or smoking and the radio would be off. The jungle in Kontum goes dark before seven. The wetness comes as it grows black, and except for the chattering of the small birds and animals it is silent; after a while the bird and animal sounds become part of the silence. Because of the rot which turns the plants to phosphorous, the jungle floor is brilliant with light, enough light to see your fingernail or read the dials on a wrist watch. I had a small flask of whiskey, which I passed to Higinbotham and Verlumis and the radio operator, Terry Grey. We talked quietly of one thing and another, colleges, life on the West Coast, and then tried to sleep. I recalled a line from A. J. Liebling that when he was in an uncomfortable spot during World War 11, and he was trying to sleep, he thought about women.

We awoke slowly and crawled quietly from beneath the bushes to stretch as daylight came. With it came the second omen. There was a shout, a rattle of gunfire, and we were all on our bellies in that awful initial confusion. Suddenly a sheepish private stood before Higinbotham. There were three armed Vietnamese, uniformed and not alert, the private said. They stumbled into camp, saw the Americans, and fled. The GI's, equally startled, had time for only a half-dozen rounds. The three enemy soldiers scampered across a small stream and disappeared into the bush. Higinbotham shook his head, and smiled. "Oh hell, they probably spent the night with us," he said. "They probably thought we were the 226th North Vietnamese Regiment, for crissakes." Higinbotham reported the incident to G-2, which received the information without comment.

A long-range reconnaissance patrol cannot operate once its presence is known to the enemy. Twice the Tigers had been forced to fire. Now three Vietnamese had seen them and had escaped, and were certainly bound for their headquarters. None of this could have been foreseen, and there was nothing to be done about it. But it was terrible luck. Security, to the extent that there was any in the middle of a jungle in the middle of enemy territory, was compromised. It had to be considered compromised, although the mission itself was not in doubt. The mission went on. There was no place to go but forward, deeper and higher into the hills, discovering enemy base camps and rounding up stragglers. The patrol was still well within the range of the brigade's artillery, and the operations officer was keeping careful check on our precise location. Word has been fed back that the enemy was known to be operating in the area; but Higinbotham knew that.

The objective now was to find a landing zone for a helicopter to come in and "extract" Garcia. Garcia was a burden and there was no room now for burdens. "I don't like any part of it," Higinbotham said.

Kontum that day was marvelously cool, and we crossed half a dozen small streams on our way up the hill. There was no movement except for an occasional exquisitely colored butterfly. The men moved very quietly and carefully. A clearing was found, and Garcia lifted out; the helicopter crew left a dozen cases of C rations behind. The men dug into the cases labeled, in the weird army phraseology, MEAL, COMBAT, INDIVIDUAL — like that, with commas. They were looking for cigarette packages and fruit. Each meal carton contained a little package of condiments: salt, pepper, suger, powdered cream, coffee, gum, toilet paper, matches, and a package of five cigarettes; the brands were Camels, Chesterfields, Salems, Newports, Winstons, or Pall Malls. At least two of the large cases were untouched, so a hole was dug and they were buried. We moved out again.

The trail meandered into deeper jungle, with base camp following base camp. Higinbotham decided by one in the afternoon that his band had uncovered a staging area capable of accommodating a regiment of 1,000 men. The knowledge was not comforting. The men, in soft hats, their faces smeared with mud, carefully cradling weapons, kept silently climbing, turning their eyes off the trail and into the bush.

In two years in the Delta, Higinbotham had acquired a passable knowledge of Vietnamese. When his lead squad found a small arrow-shaped sign with the words Anh Ban Di Trang, he knew we were on the right trail, the pigeons among the cats. The words translated, "friends go straight"; it was obviously an enemy message. And with the Vietnamese talent for confusion, at the point of the sign the trail forked, with no clear indication which trail was meant. One branch led upward, along the small stream. The other moved left, down the hill. At the fork there were two huts where the command group waited: Higinbotham sent patrols down each trail. The first, led by Sergeant Pellum Bryant, almost immediately saw three enemy soldiers in the khaki uniforms of the North Vietnamese Army. Bryant opened fire with his M-16 gun, and began heaving grenades. Everyone in the command post was flat on his stomach, waiting. The firing went on for five minutes, then ceased and Bryant returned to Higinbotham. He had got one but the others had fled. Now from the other trail the radio crackled that there was resistance, that one Tiger was seriously wounded and the others pinned down.

Strung out in a long, thin line, the men moved down the trail and up to the ridge line. The patrol that had been hit was on the other side of the hill, which was not sharp but rolling, covered by deep jungle and ending in a steep ravine. At the top of the hill the men shed their packs, and a six-man patrol headed downslope to learn the American casualties and assess the strength of the enemy. It was impossible to judge distances because of the thickness of the cover.

The patrol reported back that the enemy had moved out; there was no more firing. Higinbotham nodded and, leaving six men behind to guard the rear, began to move down the trail to the ravine. It was a two-foot wide trail that wound down and into a tiny cleft between the two hills. It then curled up the next hill. Edgy, edgy enough that a man snarled if you stumbled and stepped on his heel, the platoon moved down. There was a wounded GI in the crotch of the hills. He had been shot through the neck beside a cache of enemy rockets and grenades. The grenades were in a cave, carefully covered with tarpaulin. Four men went down to get the wounded man, crawling past the body of an enemy soldier whose head had been blown off in the firing ten minutes before. The wounded man was hurting, and scared. The hill was very steep, and the four found it difficult to slide down.

"You don't feel no pain, baby," the medic said, putting a needle into the man's arm. "You gonna be all right, baby. You gonna see that girl." The talk was all nonsense, meant to distract. The medic was wrapping a bandage around his comrade's neck. Another medic put a plasma needle into his right arm. The man's shirt was soaked with blood from the wound.

"I knew it," the wounded man said. "I knew that my chip was cashed in."

"We gonna get the MedEvac," the medic said.

"Well, that pilot better be there when I get there." Then, "You think I got a Stateside wound?"

The medic was worrying about the stretcher.

"Litter?"

"Litter!"

"Bring the litter, goddamnit."

"I wonder why my stomach hurts so much."

"Don't worry. This happens to everybody."

The wounded man, Private First Class Frank Wills, was at the base of a 45-degree incline. But the litter was there now, and the four men struggled and worried him up to the trail which led down from the ridge line.

It was very quiet, and no movement from anything. There were no birds or animals or butterflies, and the men were still and silent. Wills had become half-delirious from pain and fear. He asked again why his stomach hurt so much. Then he told the medic he had one hundred dollars in his pocket. "Take it and hold it for me," he said. Wills was thinking about going back home to Miami.

But the medic wasn't listening. No one was. Higinbotham was worried about Wills and whether a landing zone could be carved out of the hillside. It couldn't, and Higinbotham knew that. He also knew that his patrol was deep inside enemy lines with no way to get out, except to walk out. The patrol had found what it had come to find; the problem was what to do with it now. Enemy troops were obviously all around, and they knew that the Americans were there. Higinbotham squatted on the trail and wondered what to do.

The trail wound down from the ridge line perhaps one hundred yards. There were foxholes and bunkers all along it. Six men were at the top, guarding the packs, six more at the base. Higinbotham, Verlumis, Wills, the radio operator, Terry Grey; and twenty-five regulars were strung out along about fifty yards of the trail. There were plenty of grenades and plenty of ammunition. But Higinbotham thought about the deployment, and shuddered. They were not enough, not nearly enough if the enemy attacked from the ridge line; and the assumption had to be that that was what they would do.

"Hey, Mr. Reporter!" It was the trooper who found my presence so mirth provoking. He began to laugh again, and so did I. It was an absurd predicament.

"You picked a great patrol," Higinbotham said.

"Mr. Reporter, how much you get paid for this?" the trooper asked.

"Not enough," I said. "Damn," Higinbotham said, looking again at his maps.

Higinbotham's worries were not mine. Since the death of Garcia the night before, I had tried to concentrate on journalism. I had worked at taking careful notes and photographs, and now reflected on the similarity of the soldier and the war correspondent, the basic text for which comes from Joseph Heller's novel, Catch-22. On the one hand, no one wants to get ambushed or to be where bullets are fired in anger. On the other, if nothing happens there is no story. If the patrol does not meet the enemy, there is nothing to write about. It becomes a pointless exercise, a long walk under a hot sun. If the patrol does meet the enemy you are likely to be killed or wounded, or at the very least scared to death. Catch-23.

It was a bad catch. I worked at disbelief. You switch off, and pull all the plugs, severing connections. Your movements become slow and deliberate, and your consciousness seems to move back in time. The point is to maintain control. With forty-one men in the middle of a clearing in the middle of Kontum in the middle of a war, you are standing — nowhere. For distraction, think about women or squat down and pick blades of grass, chew them and put a film in the camera. Focus the lens. Make pictures of the American infantry. Transcribe dialogue:

"Sheet, I wrote her back she do anything she want."

"Well, we over here and they're there."

"Fuck that noise."

"Yeah."

"You hear Tomkins get killed?"

"Yeah?"

"Sheet, a mine blew him up and there was nuthin' left but nuthin'."

"Sheet."

"I tell you, Man, this is some kind of war."

"Sumthin' else!"

"Crise, I was in a platoon and there's nuthin' left of that platoon now. I'm the only one left."

"Gimme some fruit."

"Trayja fruit for some butts."

"Fuck you."

"Three butts."

"Whyn't you pick up the butts back there when we got 'em?"

"'Cause I was on point savin' your ass in case old Charlie come along."

"Gimme the fuckin' fruit."

"Three butts."

"Sheet, man, I ain't got but half a pack."

"Goddamn I got to get this weapon fixed."

"Hey, Mr. Reporter. What the fuck you doing here?"

At two-thirty in the afternoon the first grenade crashed down the ridge line. It went wide with a thump. Then thump! Thumpthump! Again, closer.

In the first fifteen minutes, three died and six fell wounded. The firing came from three sides, hitting the Americans at all points on the trail. The men guarding the packs at the top of the trail scattered under a hail of machine-gun fire. Only a few actually saw the enemy, who were maneuvering and firing as they maneuvered. Higinbotham at his command post halfway down the line knew the danger of the situation better than anyone else. He collected the first reports from his sergeants. The reports were only that there were a lot of enemy, and it was impossible to tell how many. Higinbotham called Hackworth at battalion headquarters and requested artillery fire and air support. It would come in the next four hours, 1,100 rounds of 105 and 90 rounds of 155 artillery. There would be air strikes, and the noise would be as if the world were coming apart.

No one knew then and no one knows now how many North Vietnamese there were. They did not have mortars, so the unit was probably company-sized or smaller. But they had grenades and small arms and automatic weapons, and good cover to shoot from. They fought from concealed positions and they had the element of surprise and knowledge of the terrain. It was, after all, their base camp.

American artillery shells fell in a wide semicircle just beyond the American positions. They were hitting at the ridge line and beyond, but the Vietnamese fire did not lessen. The planes attacked with a roar and without warning; because of the heavy cover they could not be seen. One fist-sized piece of shrapnel landed two feet from Higinbotham, but he did not cease talking into the field phone, precisely locating the positions of heaviest enemy fire. While the shells were landing, Americans were dying; a half dozen in the first half hour, another six in the five succeeding hours of combat.

In the command post, enemy rifle fire was hitting five feet high. We were all down, scanning the jungle and watching that part of the trail we could see. Behind us, down the line, men were maneuvering and shouting at each other. Higinbotham was superbly cool, talking quietly and easily into the field telephone which was the only link with safety. As long as the artillery held out the Vietnamese could not advance; that was our theory, desperately clung to. Meanwhile the rifle fire got heavier and closer. The bullets were sounding: Pop!

Verlumis had left the command post to crawl up the trail toward the heaviest fighting. Pellum Bryant, the senior non-commissioned officer, was below rallying the dozen or so who had fallen under his command. One of the other sergeants was dead. Bryant was the only unwounded man in his eight-man squad. Pinned down by an enfilade of fire, he had huddled in an enemy foxhole. When the fire slackened, he poked up his head and fired bursts. It was Bryant alone who was protecting the rear flank.

By four-thirty in the afternoon, after two hours of fire, the situation was almost lost. The fight had been following a rhythm, with heavy bursts of fire and then silence except for an occasional rattle of a machine gun. The Americans had been pushed back into a tiny area about the size of a basketball court, with Higinbotham and the radio as its nucleus. Bryant was now fighting just a dozen yards to the rear. Hackworth, speaking with Higinbotham, said there was a full company of infantry a mile away. He was ordering them to reinforce.

"You've got to try it," Higinbotham said over the radio. For the first time, his voice cracked and became unsure. There was a 26-year-old advertising account executive or civil servant or department store clerk, or a good old boy at the night baseball game, but not a captain of infantry in the U.S. Army. "If you don't get up here soon, we're all gonna die. If you don't get up here soon, I'm gonna melt."

There was another crackling over the telephone; Hackworth had gone off. Then barely audibly, but precisely, as if he were reading from a piece of paper, Higinbotham said: "Dear God, please help me save these men's lives."

It got worse after that, and for Higinbotham it was the worst time of all. It was his first patrol with the Tigers. He didn't know the men, either their names or where they came from or how long they had been in Vietnam. Now he had gotten them into this. Higinbotham sat with the radio, his back against a tree, and prayed that it wouldn't be as bad as he thought it was.

The sniper fire came closer, nipping the tops of the branches of the bushes. The artillery seemed to be hitting indiscriminately, as Higinbotham called it closer to the American lines. But there were no lines any more. There was only a group of men huddled silently on a trail that led nowhere down from a ridge line that did not even shown on the map. Bryant was on his own, and so was Verlumis. Higinbotham was worried about the artillery, and the tactics were taking care of themselves.

A wounded infantryman, his voice loud as a bullhorn, was calling from the left flank. "You've got to get me out of here!" He was repeating it. The voice was strong and deep, but it cracked with agony and pain. He repeated it again and again. As he screamed and moaned I moved forward. I went forward about five feet and then stopped, still safe. The wounded man was probably twenty yards away, although the jungle was so thick it was impossible to tell. I had the idea that I might save his life.

I looked around at the others and then the wounded man screamed, and was silent. I waited for a minute and then crawled back the five feet. I had spent twenty minutes deciding whether to get the wounded, who had been screaming and pleading for help. Now I didn't have to think about it. He was dead. Verlumis had given me a .45 pistol and now I took it out of its holster for the first time. I was lying on my stomach handling the .45, having dismissed the wounded man from mind. It was easier holding a .45 pistol.

Fifteen yards in front of the command post there was a dip that plunged almost straight down into the ravine. From that direction a voice came: "Airborne!" No one answered. Higinbotham and the radio operator and I looked at the spot where the voice came from. The radioman unhitched a grenade from his ammunition belt, and cradled it like an apple. The voice could belong to anyone, but the odds were better than even that it belonged to a North Vietnamese. I thought of identifying questions to ask. The only two that came to mind was the name of the manager of the New York Yankees, and whether or not Marilyn Monroe was dead or alive. My mind wouldn't work. I thought of asking who wrote the Declaration of Independence, but then figured that a trooper probably wouldn't know the answer. Then I remembered that I didn't know the name of the Yankee manager. Stengel was dead. Or not dead, retired someplace. These thoughts were moving so slowly I could almost see them in my mind's eye. I was closest to the dip and now aimed the pistol straight at it, or just above it. The radioman had not thrown the grenade and all of us were in a state of suspended animation. But then a voice said, "Christ, don't shoot," and a sweat-drenched head appeared over the lip of the ravine. The head belonged to an American.

There were now seven in the command post, and a 360-degree defense. We had been joined by a young rifleman. Still inexplicably careful about journalism, I asked his name; it was Private First Class Sam Washburn, of Indianapolis. Washburn had dived over a bush and told Higinbotham: "I got two Charlies and the captain got one. The captain's dead. We were lying on the trail firing at the Charlies and I looked over and asked him how his ammo was and he was dead." Higinbotham said nothing, did not comment on Verlumis, and continued to talk the artillery in. "I don't think there's anybody else back there," Washburn said. "I mean, any Americans."

That meant that the command post, and the seven of us, were the front. There was no protection up the trail. The cries of the wounded were getting louder as the men pulled back into a tighter circle. The command post was filling up with wounded, those who could crawl back or who were carried back by the medics. I would hear only secondhand the horrors endured by the men up the trail; they had been under heavy bombardment for more than three hours. There was no firing from the command post because the enemy could not be seen.

But then came the grenades. They were coming closer, just off the mark. That was when the awful fear set in. It was the fear of sudden realization that the North Vietnamese were lobbing grenades and there was no way to stop them.

The faces were all drawn up tight, and there was no talking. A company of reinforcements was on its way, but had got lost. No one knew whether it would arrive in time. Hollow-eyed and distracted, the men moved slowly as in a dream; or perhaps it was me, clammed up and lying flat in that taut circle. In Vietnam if you are thirty years old you feel an old man among youngsters. I was thinking about being thirty, and holding an automatic pistol I didn't know how to fire, when Washburn leaned over and very quietly, very precisely, whispered "grenade." He probably yelled it, but I was switched off, half-deaf from the pounding of the artillery and the 500-pound bombs and it seemed to me that the warning came in a whisper. Then he gave me a push. There was a flash and a furious burst of fire; the grenade had landed a yard away.

I couldn't get my feet down. I was lying on my back, almost standing on my head, and my feet wouldn't come down. Through the numbness and the red haze, I could see Washburn firing, although his hand was blown to pieces, and the radioman using his grenade launcher. Higinbotham was firing, too; but my legs wouldn't come down. Then they were down and I yelled for a medic. "I'm hit!"

"You're OK," Higinbotham said.

"The hell I am," I said. "I'm hit."

"I mean it," he said.

"Christ almighty there's blood everywhere," I said.

"You're all right."

"Goddamnit I'm not."

There was very little pain, just shock and a terrible feeling of relief. I was out of it. The terror was in the knowledge that you might lose control. You had to keep control, and you could feel it slipping away. You were half-crazy looking at the firing. The medic had scrambled up and I called for morphine. My arms and legs were shaking uncontrollably. The medic tackled me and punched the needle into my arm and began to bandage my head and back. The morphine restored the control. My hands and legs were still shaking but I was all right. Higinbotham was grinning. The medic said to take it easy. When the shaking stopped fatigue came.

"You're all right," Higinbotham said.

"I'm not all right, goddamnit," I said.

But we were both laughing, me from shock and Higinbotham from the fact that the attack had been thrown back. The grenades fired by Terry Grey, the radioman, had done it.

"Where are the VC?" I asked.

"We stopped the bastards," Higinbotham said.

I thought that line was in the best MGM tradition, and told Higinbotham so. None of it seemed real, lying in a godforsaken jungle in the middle of a godforsaken war. There were five dead North Vietnamese on the trail a dozen yards away. That was the point of farthest enemy advance. Higinbotham told me of this, and then the firing began once more. He ducked down to work the field telephone and I crawled of beneath a tree as the rat-a-tat-tat of explosions started again. I had lost the pistol and my pack, but I had the camera and my notebook. I thought it would be all right, and anyway I was out of it. There were nineteen wounded men and a dozen dead, and I was one of the wounded. The next two hours were very slow hours. Then the company of reinforcements arrived, crashing through the jungle with banshee whoops and rifle fire.

And that black humorist.

"Where's that newspaper fella?" he asked Higinbotham.

"He got hurt," Higinbotham said.

"Hurt? Sonovabitch."

I thought it would be all right until I saw the helicopters which would take the wounded out; some, like Wills, had lain on the jungle floor for five hours. There was no landing zone, so the helicopters hovered at 100 feet and lowered a T-bar. Strobe lights illuminated the jungle as arc lights illuminate a stadium. The first helicopter took three wounded. A man was strapped onto the T-bar and slowly lifted 100 feet. You ascended alone into the eye of the light, and heard the crack and thwup of bullets, and realized that the enemy, still entrenched on the ridge line, were shooting. They were shooting at the wounded men being pulled into the helicopter. You heard the bullets as you were rising and your body went stiff and you pulled out all the plugs. You gripped the T-bar and made a number of very difficult promises if God got you safely into the helicopter. But when you got there, you said instinctively, I made it. And over and over again, Jesus Christ.

There is no real epilogue to the reconnaissance patrol of the Tiger Force. Its activities that day went unnoticed in the American press because that same afternoon, on a hill only two miles away, Captain William S. Carpenter called napalm on his position after his company had been overrun. Operation Hawthorne, which lasted the better part of a month, was said to be a success. The Americans claimed 1,200 enemy dead, to 250 of their own. In the succeeding twelve months infiltration would continue. Almost eleven months to the day after the opening round of Hawthorne, a battalion of the 173rd Airborne Brigade would get ambushed and badly mauled by a force of North Vietnamese infantry. Lew Higinbotham, who by then had transferred from the 101st to the 173rd Airborne, was operation officer that day. "How is it?" Higinbotham asked the platoon leader. "Good clean fun," the lieutenant replied. That was at 10 A.M. At ten-twenty the radio went dead; every man in the platoon was killed, or badly wounded. The wire services said the engagement took place a few miles north of Dak To, the Special Forces camp in Kontum province.


From To What End: Report from Vietnam by Ward S. Just, published by Houghton Mifflin, 1966. Copyright ©, Ward S. Just. Reprinted with permission.

Ward Just in South Vietnam, 1966. Photo credit: Ward Just collection Reporter's Notebook
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