A veneer of red highlands soil, ground into powder by the churning tracks of tanks, covered the men, machinery, and heavily sandbagged buildings of Fire Base Blackhawk, 20 miles east of Pleiku. The 2d Squadron, 1st Cavalry, had operated out of the firebase for nearly two years, patrolling Highway 19 from the Mang Yang Pass west to Pleiku and north on Highway 14 from Kontum to Dak To.
Now the cavalry unit prepared for a 300-mile journey to a new area of operations. The squadron was moving from the operational control of the 4th Infantry Division to Task Force South, the American command responsible for the southern area of II Corps. For the troopers of the 2d Squadron it would mean a new climate and a new terrain but a familiar mission: clear and secure a road vital both to the war effort and the civilian economy.
Tanks and armored combat assault vehicles (ACAVs) crowded the inside of the perimeter of Firebase Blackhawk. All three line troops were there, jammed into a maintenance area that usually held only one troop at a time while the others worked the roads. Within three days the first of the armored mobile homes would begin the journey. The old tensions and anxieties that went with daily ambush patrols and road security positions were replaced by the pressure of preparing for the move.
The Cav would travel east on highway 19 to the coastal city of Qui Nhon, where the vehicles and their drivers would be loaded on ships and transported more than 250 miles to the southern II Corps city of Phan Thiet. The remaining crew members would travel ahead of their vehicles by air.
The Cav's new job would be to clear and secure a treacherous 100 mile stretch of Highway 1 running from the III Corps border north to Phan Rang. For years enemy ambushes had restricted both military and civilian travel. The Blackhawks would be starting from scratch, and would no longer have the intelligence help from local villagers on whom they depended in their old area of operations. It would take time to gain the trust and respect of the Vietnamese inhabitants of the area, most of whom had little experience with American troops.
The squadron is made up of five troops: three line troops, manning tanks and ACAVs; a headquarters troop; and an air cavalry troop which had been assigned to the 1st Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division, operating out of An Khe, about 30 miles east of Firebase Blackhawk on Highway 19. The line troops would move out at one-day intervals.
Charlie Troop was the last to join the waiting squadron at Firebase Blackhawk after returning from an ambush patrol just south of Kontum. Specialist 4 Thomas R. Prince, a mortar track gunner from Ann Arbor, Mich., recalled the fight while he prepare his equipment for the move. "We lost three men and that's always bad," he said as he pulled the soot covered rag from his mortar tube. "But I guess the action was a good tune-up for what’s to come."
The men were briefed on their new AO and the country they would cover on the road to Qui Nhon. Keeping their vehicles and weapons in top battle condition is a routine operation for the Blackhawks, and now the prospect of facing unfamiliar territory made their maintenance chores seem even more important.
Charlie Troop, accompanied by the medical, communication, and maintenance sections of Headquarters Troop, was the first to move. At 8:30 a.m., May 29, they rolled out of Firebase Blackhawk for the last time. The armored column stretched along Highway 19 for two miles. The troopers pushed east over the Mang Yang Pass, a graveyard for more than 2,000 French soldiers who died in fighting along the road. Their grave markers at the summit of the pass, a familiar sight to the cavalrymen, were hidden by a low cloud cover.
As they lumbered through, the soldiers’ thoughts turned from the French tragedy to hopes for a safe arrival at the day’s destination, the camp of the 160th Heavy Equipment Maintenance Company (HEM), about 20 miles west of Qui Nhon. The territory beyond the Mang Yang Pass was new country
for the cavalrymen. Their usual visual diet of highlands bush country and simple Montagnard villages was replaced by the flat farm land and scattered Vietnamese villages along the route to the coast. Early in the afternoon, Charlie Troop pulled into the maintenance yard of the 160th HEM Company.
Within 30 minutes the men were cleaning and checking their vehicles. This was the last chance to put the Cav machines in top condition before boarding the ships that waited in Qui Nhon harbor. The tanks and ACAV’s that could not be put into shape were replaced by new or rebuilt vehicles. The mechanics of the 160th and the cavalrymen worked carefully but quickly, knowing that the success of the mission, at this point, depended on how fast they could recondition the squadron’s vehicles.
The Colonel John U. D. Page, an Army ship, and six Navy LSTs (Landing
Ship, Tank) waited in the Qui Nhon harbor to carry the Cav to Phan Thiet
before the semi-monthly high tide was lost. The heavily loaded craft needed
the deep water of the high tide to get close enough to the beach to unload
their cargo. Failure to meet this tidal deadline would delay the trip
more than two weeks. With this in mind, and knowing that Alpha and Bravo
troops would arrive within the next two days to further congest the maintenance
areas, the inspection teams and the men of Charlie Troop worked steadily
into the early morning hours.
The cavalrymen aboard the Page left the nautical problems to the ship's crew, and made themselves comfortable even though the deck of the ship was so crowded with machinery that a walk from one end of the ship to the other meant jumping from vehicle to vehicle. Poncho liners, tied to the vehicle antennas, formed a shade canopy across the rows of tracks. Cots and sleeping bags worked their way into the ship’s obscure corners, providing refuge from the hot, metal deck. The bellies of the tanks and ACAVs had been well-stocked with C-rations and soda, and meal time was whenever the men were hungry. For a day, the Blackhawks had a chance to put their feet up and let someone else worry about getting them there.
At 2:30 p.m. on June 2nd, 26½ hours after leaving Qui Nhon, the ship's loudspeaker carried the skipper's familiar voice, this time not to the crew, but to the cavalrymen: "Gentlemen, we are about 45 minutes outside of our destination. Please prepare yourselves and your vehicles for landing."
Unfavorable winds had slowed the Page to an average speed of 8.5 knots, and she had lost almost two hours of valuable high tidal time. The battle machines still chained to the ship's deck would have to be unloaded quickly, without incident, in order for the Page to back off the beach ahead of the tidal retreat.
This was the first beach landing for many of the cavalrymen, but it seemed like a well-practiced, everyday occurrence. The men and the 9,000 tons of machinery cleared the ship's deck and rolled onto the Phan Thiet beach in only 30 minutes.
The Page quickly slipped away from the beach and into deep water, as the Blackhawks moved inland to their, temporary tactical headquarters in a sandy open field south of the city. The drivers and vehicles were rejoined by the crew members who had arrived a day earlier on C-130s. Now Charlie Troop waited for Bravo and Alpha troops and prepared for their trek along the dangerous stretch of Highway 1. Maps of the new AO had been thoroughly studied before the men left Firebase Blackhawk, and with that education behind them, the Cav wanted a first-hand look at what they faced. A helicopter reconnaissance trip took two key officers north along the highway to Song Mao. The village would eventually be the Cav's tactical operations center. The visual reconnaissance confirmed earlier reports of heavy enemy activity. A roadblock of fallen trees had been set up only a short way outside Phan Thiet. A rebuilt bridge rested on the crumpled wreckage of its predecessor.
This rebuilt bridge stands above the wreckage of its predecessor north of Phan Thiet on Highway 1. The road, once vulnerable to enemy sabotage, is now patrolled daily by the troopers of the 2/1 Cavalry.
During the troop briefing that followed the reconnaissance trip, Charlie Troop's commander told his men what he had seen and what changes to expect. "We’re going to have to start this one from the hip, slow and easy," he said. Instead of the congested bamboo jungle of the highlands, the Cav would operate in flat, open shrub-covered land broken by sporadic patches of triple canopy forest. The land would be unfamiliar, the local villagers would be new to the cavalrymen and their AO would extend over three times as much road.
These thoughts of change only whetted the Cav's desire to start. The cramped living conditions of the past 10 days had made the men restless, eager to return to the freedom and challenge of the road. "It's a new country for us," said the commander, ending his briefing, "but we’ll get the job done."
And the Action Was Waiting . . .
After only two days at its new firebase 40 miles south of Phan Rang, Alpha Troop was called to reinforce an ARVN company in contact. Led by Captain Robert Witton, Park Forest, Ill., the troop responded quickly by pouring 90mm tank rounds and 50-caliber machine gun fire into the NVA positions, killing seven.
Three days later, Bravo and Charlie Troops were securing the southern sector of the squadron's AO when they drew fire from an estimated company-sized force of would-be ambushers. The enemy was ill-equipped to slug it out with the Blackhawks' tanks and armored vehicles. B40 rockets, grenades, and AK-47s were no match for the Cav's sophisticated arsenal.