AMERICAL'S PUSH SENDS REDS TO LICK WOUNDS FROM THE PACIFIC STARS AND STRIPES FOR FEBRUARY 9, 1969.
Electronic copy of article provided by Leslie Hines
By SPEC. 5 JACK BENEDICT
S&S Staff Correspondent
CHU LAI, Vietnam — "We feel they were planning something and that we upset their timetable."
Col. John W. Donaldson of the Alexandria, Va., was looking back over more than three months during which his 11th Light Inf. Brigade/had painfully pushed the 3rd North Vietnamese Army Div. out of a long held bastion southwest of the key city of Quang Ngai.
The Americal Div. brigade had been at work since last Oct. 4. routing the Reds from the rugged countryside that lies between the Quang Ngai Province capital and the inland mountains that range through the length of I Corps, the northernmost of South Vietnam's four tactical zones.
The timetable Donaldson was speaking of is generally assumed to be the Communists expected winter-spring offensive, which could include a push on Quang Ngai, one of the most important cities in the upper third of the country.
How well the NVA had dug into the area was obvious from what the sweeping, probing Americal troopers found there.
Among the 74 enemy camps discovered and destroyed over the three months were three big headquarters installations-complete with running water and, in one instance, a barbershop - dug into the steep mountainsides just 10 miles from Quang Ngai, facing the city.
The camps were almost complete. Brigade officers on the scene said the NVA had apparently been working on them at least two weeks. The water lines, made of bamboo, were already working.
Farther back in the hills the GIs uncovered recently built facilities ranging from a bicycle factory to a hospital. One large complex appeared to have been the division headquarters.
We have destroyed their forward posture," said Donaldson in a concise summary of the damage done the Communist cause.
Lt. Col. J. Godfey Crowe, commander of the 4th Bn., 21st Inf., one of the three Americal battalions involved in Operation Vernon Lake II, likened the scouring of the rough terrain to "a big Easter egg hunt."
"We followed trails to see what was at the end," he said. "Nothing was obvious. Everything was well hidden, but our troops are pretty well acclimated to looking hard."
The pile of "eggs" accumulated by the Americal troopers included some 120 tons of rice, 116 weapons, more than 22,000 rounds of small arms ammunition and about 1,500 mortar shells, rockets and recoilless rifle rounds, as well as large quantities of medical supplies and 961 NVA uniforms.
And aside from the various caches that gave up this booty, the Americals found a total of 215 dead NVA and Viet Cong soldiers.
Aside from these usual grim trophies of war, the battered and abandoned Communist camps disgorged such mundane items as 75 bikes seven sewing machines, a couple of typewriters, five transistor radios and 176 bolts of cloth totalling about 4,000 yards of material. In one hastily-emptied mess hall the GIs found several cases of milk. The North Vietnamese had apparently moved in to stay a while.
Much of the booty has already been put to use by local Vietnamese civilians. Fifty-five surgical instruments found in the Red hospital have been donated to area medical centers and clinics. Parts from the bike factory were assembled into a dozen complete cycles by Vietnamese craftsmen at Duc Pho, a town 25 miles below Quang Ngai, and presented to students.
The NVA were difficult to shove out of their mountain redoubts. The triple canopy jungle on the steep peaks is broken only by the 6 to 8 foot high elephant grass on the summits. Between the crests are deep ravines. There are almost no natural landing zones, even for agile helicopters.
Infantrymen sometimes cut their way around a peak to find up-and-down trails to follow to the enemy lairs. Lt. Col. Gregg G. Coverdale of Long Island, N.Y., who commands the 3rd Bn., 1st Inf., told the story of one such discovery.
"Hill 893 overlooks our helicopter route up the valley to fire support base Cork. Delta Company contoured the mountain with patrols and discovered a wide trail to the top. We worked in the clouds most of the time.
"We worked our way up the trail and spotted the NVA before they saw us. We killed five in positions on the summit and next day followed a commo wire down the other side to the first of three battalion sized base camps We killed 15 more NVA in one of them."
Each unnamed peak has been a challenge to the Americal infantrymen. The mountains are honeycombed with hiding places that the VC-NVA forces built over a long time. THe Reds have been reluctant to leave the destroyed camps and the tiny paddies terraced into the slopes.
Stay-behind patrols and reconnaissance teams discovered small groups of enemy returning to the smoldering camps, searching the rubble and trying to rebuild. The patrols pre-plan artillery strikes on camps and trails, then watch from a distance. When the enemy appears he is shelled or ambushed and those who survive are chased back into the jungled mountains.
Donaldson says the NVA and VC have been badly hurt.
"They have lost most of their rice and supplies. We know they are hurt because they return in twos and threes at night to work the small rice fields, even though they know we'll shell them. Detainees complain of harsh living conditions and little to eat. The number of Chieu Hoi's is going up."
The brigade commander and his men believe that Operation Vernon Lake II has been a success. "Even the men out humping it seem to enjoy and take pride in their work despite the rugged terrain," he says. "There are no civilians out here. If they see someone, he's sure to be an enemy. We have shoved the 3rd NVA Div. out of an area they have used as a haven for a long time.