Hovering Off, Down in Vietnam


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Dragon Mountain, Pleiku: THE MEN of the Fourth Division are modern marcher lords, guarding the Cambodian border and fighting the North Vietnamese invaders from Cambodian sanctuary as the Percys and their men guarded the Scottish march and fought the rough, kilted raiders in the English North in the Middle Ages.

There is very little hint of the Middle Ages, it must be admitted, in the Fourth Division’s base camp here at Dragon Mountain. The orderly, somewhat cumbersome yet overwhelming primary deployment of American power has nothing medieval about It. But go forward for a bit to the high jungle along the frontier where the companies and battalions are engaging the enemy.

The. helicopter soars aloft, gaining altitude until it Is downright chilly, and then follows the road constructed by a miracle of engineering, and a miraculous number of vast machines to supply the brigade’s "fire support base" in a jungle region where Elijah’s ravens would have been hard put to nourish the old prophet.

HOVER-DOWN is on a pimple in the highest mountain jungle which has been scraped bare by the miraculous machines to receive an almost equally miraculous number of grim-looking artillery pieces. Grimly, almost incessantly they fire. But the brigade commander, a weathered, wise old colonel, explains that "There’s nothing much going on, anyway, compared to a day or so ago."

He leads the way to the CP dugout where there is a young major who appears to have been borrowed from Central Casting. The major belongs to the 25th Division which has a battalion "getting the feel" of this area with the colonel’s brigade.

The colonel asks him to tell about the time "a couple of days ago when there really was something going on" —meaning the time when a company stood off a night ambush by a North Vietnamese battalion.

THE YOUNG major Is not uncritical, for it appears that the company’s three platoons were not positioned to give each other fully effective support. One lone platoon had to take the brunt of the fighting. "But they stood up to a human-wave charge of more than 250 men," says the major with considerable pride.

The colonel adds what the major left out. Long after dark, when his division’s outfit ran into trouble, the major landed blind in the only helicopter landing zone anyone knew about in that particular bit of jungle. In order to carry out the wounded he then managed to guide 17 successive helicopter landings In pitch darkness, among high trees, with no aids but a radio and a "survival light."

"Hell, it worked," says the major. And on the way back to the base’s precarious helipad the colonel jerks his thumb at a beardless warrant officer and muses, "That boy made four of those landings. He really flew a milk run."

REFLECTIONS on the nature of this sort of milk run make the hover-off all but unnoticeable. But now the helicopter is hedgehopping, for this is enemy country and flying just above the treetops gives the other side a poorer chance to shoot. Flying thus, the jungle Is unimaginably lovely—trees green; trees scarlet, trees maroon, feathery emerald bamboos in clearings and leafless trees of purest silver filigree.

THE BATTALION commander, a Hawaiian colonel who looks a bit like Duke Kahanamoku in his middle years, said, "There’s nothing much to interest you here. We moved up two days ago because two of my companies are so far forward."

Around the artillery pieces, in this newly opened patch in the jungle, there are soldiers digging like moles — which did not used to be a habit In the U.S. Army. The Hawaiian colonel has an impressive Negro operations officer and an exec with a German name and a Wilhelm II handlebar mustache.

In this tropical back-of-beyond, with enemy forces lurking everywhere and "two more days needed to get dug in real good," everyone is sweaty, but everyone seems utterly unconcerned.

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