(from on-going digital Vietnam Legacy Project)
The Saigon Post
August 30, 1971
Defiance at O'Reilly
Fire Support Base O'Reilly, Central Highlands, South Vietnam
[He was the youngest Colonel in Vietnam, in or out of combat.]
In mountain positions out there the enemy had mortar tubes, propped up by bamboo stakes, zeroed in on this place. Sometimes we casually step outside a bunker, only to be rushed back inside by Lt. Colonel Huan or the Aussie Warrant Officer Ray Oliver or Lieutenant Kelley who is one of the two American advisors. Politely but urgently they would say, "Not now," or "Better stay in here a while."
Out here it is still very much a war. We watched a Cobra helicopter air strike in the direction of the evacuated, ill-fated Fire Support Base Ripcord. A little later we saw another on a hilltop in the opposite direction, being prepped for a heliborne insertion of 1st ARVN Division troops. One of O'Reillys 'light' teams is somewhere in the jungle right now, looking for enemy positions and movements. Lt Colonel Huan has just described a tactic of keeping an enemy element pinned down by gunships while several of his men maneuver around and surprise them from behind with a volley of hand grenades. It sounded like Iwo Jima or something, but tactics have to change constantly. The enemy gets to learn your new tricks. It is cunning against cunning.
At 1:10 pm we receive two rounds of .82mm mortars. They fall a little short, landing down at the base's barbed wire edge.
"They're probably adjusting their range at a new position," says Ray Oliver, matter of factly. It's like a building and wrecking crew here. We find a base camp, destroy it. They build another somewhere else."
"And they better not go wrecking this place," Lieutenant Kelly says at the radio, and, pointing at himself, "because this little boy only has twenty-five days left in-country."
Ray Oliver is probably almost old enough to be Kelly's father. Kelly kids him but listens to him.
W.O. Oliver, who spends most of his time in the jungle with the ARVNs, eating the same rations, is a member of the Australian Army Training Team which has 200 men in Vietnam. His left shoulder patch bears a British crown. He points out that the Australian Army Training Team won four Victoria Crosses in Vietnam after winning nine in Malaya and Korea. He rates his ARVN troops highly. Their speed and stamina in the jungle surpasses that of the bigger Western troops.
"The ground fighting here has been all Vietnamese," he says. "That's the whole point of it. And you won't find many Western soldiers who can carry their own weight in the jungle and keep up with these guys. We Westerners are too spoiled."
Oliver and Lt. Col. Huan agree.
"The enemy always knew exactly where the Americans were around Ripcord. All they had to do was watch where the helicopters dropped supplies every day. But our ARVN troops around here don't have this problem. We only re-supply every five or six days and move at night. The enemy doesn't know where our field units are."
Oliver favors greater self-sufficiency in a soldier.
"The NVA does what we used to do in other wars. The principle is simple: If you want it, you carry it. You don't play with choppers."
Lt. Kelley comes through the doorway in flak jacket. He had gone out to pick up a mailbag from a helicopter that landed for two minutes. Unlike Oliver and Huan, he always wears a flak jacket now when stepping outside. Only twenty-five days left in country. And helicopters attract enemy fire. He's got mail today and a box of chocolate cookies from home. The door in this bunker is cracked open a wee bit, seemingly harmless, but he calculates that a mortar, landing perfectly, from the right angle, could get us if the door stays open like that. It's a longshot, but not impossible. Where the shell would have to land is almost the same spot where Major Nguyen Van Van, Commander of the 1st Battalion, 1st Regiment, was killed suddenly in August 12. Van and Huan had graduated together from the Military Academy in Dalat.
"It is fate," the young Colonel said. "Lucky or no lucky decided by God. I lucky. Five times wounded, five red stars." (the Vietnamese equivalent of purple hearts)."It is fate."
A soldier fires the .106 recoilless gun, sending a dust cloud over our bunkers. An ARVN squad below is climbing the steep slope into camp. One soldier is carrying a human skull. He found it in a field.
Back in the bunker we hear that two more enemy mortars have landed near the camp on the side facing Laos. Ray Oliver has an unopened bottle of Southern Comfort. Would we care for some? Yes, we would, thank you. Ray Oliver pours. Lt. Kelley doesn't like Southern Comfort. He stays with his coffee.
At the radio he hears that our helicopter won't be arriving. The Huey was just shot up on a prior mission. It's returning to Camp Evans or Camp Eagle. It took .51 caliber anti-aircraft fire.
"We'll get you another one," the young lieutenant says.
We finish the Southern Comfort.
Lt. Kelley is fairly small and thin-chested and looks like he comes from a very nice middle class family. His voice is hollow and bland. Even his profanity sounds bland, but he was at Fire Support Base Ripcord the day the Americans went in there. He spent that whole bad month there.
"I counted beaucoup bodies."
He opens an official letter, hoping it's his order to go back to the rear. Instead it's a Bronze Star citation for action during his first day at Ripcord. He tosses it aside among the books, magazines and cookies. General Truong, the 1st Arvin Division Commander, spent the night here two days ago. Truong, an under-forty two-star General, had only two days to go before being sent down to the Delta as the new IV Corps Commander.
"We didn't even know he was coming till his chopper landed," Kelley said. "I look up and there's a two-star coming through the door. He's a damn good man and a real morale booster, but I'm glad the enemy didn't know about this visit. We'd have taken a ground attack for sure. They know his value."
We had a Vietnamese dinner with Lt. Colonel Huan and Ray Oliver. Later, Lt. Kelley reported that a Huey slick was coming our way, bringing an American Colonel for a brief visit. We could leave on the Colonel's ship.
"Better get your things ready," Ray Oliver said. I did.
Lt. Kelley, bare-chested, was relaxing now by the radio. As we were leaving, he dropped his glib tone. He got up and shook hands, seriously and sincerely.
"Good luck, old buddy."