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.]
Two Vietnamese mortar teams of the 1st ARVN Division fired at points in the surrounding mountains.
Eardrums hurt. Inside his command bunker, Lt. Colonel Le-Huan lit a menthol-tipped cigarette.
"Let everybody know. We hold this hill. If enemy come, we have big victory."
Le-Huan, 26, is the youngest Colonel in Vietnam. He is small but sturdy, intense, in constant motion, and has a flat, reddish nose. His eyes can be stern and emotional. He has spent too much time in jungle fighting---about four years---to know Saigon well. He is brave, non-political and has learned the cunning of his opponents. Men like him are unsually dangerous for Hanoi. They are perhaps symbolic of a new trend in the South Vietnamese Army: military leadership.
Lt. Huan's command post, Fire Support Base O'Reilly, is an embattled jungle edge of hilltop, hovering high in these dangerous mountains which you can see extending into Laos and North Vietnam. The panorama is vast. Even on a fairly cloudy day you can see the DMZ (De-militarized Zone), the Gulf of Tonkin and that sandy stretch of what the French knew as the notorious Street Without Joy, running along the South China Sea. That dim hill in the sea is Con Co, an island belonging to North Vietnam.
Lt. Col. Huan's defiance is not based on any US ground troops. None are here. He has only a couple American advisers and one Australian. Everybody here is sitting right on top of a major NVA infiltration route and knows it. Helicopters in this area often receive ground fire. Some have been shot down. You can almost see the infiltration route by facing Laos, turning your head slowly across the valleys, peaks and ravines till you see the lowlands down by the sea.
In "O'Reilly's" neighborhood is Fire Support Base Ripcord, evacuated recently by US troops after taking heavy shelling and heavy casualties. That episode only makes Lt. Colonel Le-Huan try harder. He has never been to the US for training, but his English is rapid.
"After the Americans withdraw from Ripcord," he said. "the enemy plan to take 'O'Reilly' between August 5 and August 19. They think they finish us off easy, no sweat. They choose August 19 because it big holiday for them. But our troops and US air support break their plan. We still here."
While the NVA is probably not planning a big drive into the lowlands at this moment it undoubtedly could gain an important political and psychological victory by doing to this Vietnamese O'Reilly what it did to the American Ripcord.
Lt. Col Huan says that the NVA 321 B Division, which used one or two battalions against Ripcord, may decide to throw five or six battalions against O'Reilly. The Americans left Ripcord under heavy enemy fire because they decided not to accept a continued high casualty rate there. But it appears that the First ARVN Division (often called the country's finest) will not follow this example. Lt. Colonel Huan has served notice that O'Reilly will not be abandoned. In fact, he has a message for the enemy.
"I want to tell them. We are ready. Bring two or three battalions right now. If you only bring two or three companies, that mean we only get about 60 body count."
One reason that enemy body count is not easy to get, according to the Australian advisor, Warrant Officer Ray Oliver: "When artillery or air strikes hit them, there's usually nothing left except pieces in the trees."
When you learn a little more about Le-Huan's past and Communist methods in Vietnam, the man's almost fanatical drive becomes more understandable. His background helps expain why, despite a milieu of politics and corruption, he is one of those ARVN senior officers who will fight with a grim determination perhaps unmatched even by North Vietnamese who have been indoctrinated all their lives.
"During '68 Tet," Huan said, (referring to the big anti-Saigon offensive),"the Communists kill my 70-year old father. My father never harm them. They push bayonet through his head. He die after 1 1/2 months. They kill him because me, his son, was ARVN Battalion Commander."
Most military men who live, fight and sometimes die at these hauntingly beautiful, dangerous, ugly outposts, have commented on the conventional press. Lt. Colonel Huan is no exception. He tried to find words for his disappointment.
"Newspaper reporter write true about us, but not complete. They say 200 mortars fired at O'Reilly. Sure, true. But not complete. They no tell how our men fight out in the field."
I was not going to explain, I would not tell the young Colonel in this stark outpost that the big news media have decided that the world in general and the US public in particular do not want to hear about it anymore. I would not tell him that the way these men ar living, fighting and dying in three or four dimensions is not considered very newsworthy by the Media Establishment. I would not quote for him the veteran American correspondent who told me:
"All they want to hear about now is, how do we get out of here?"
I would not tell him that the media were more interested in the politicians and demonstrators. They paid their people to get statistics, analyses, trends, controversies, opinions and so-called battle reports. They reported how everybody was concerned about the boys and men who were doing it in Vietnam. But they rarely ever gave you the real life of these men and boys, except by accident. That would not be 'objective,' It would not be 'newsworthy' either. It was more 'objective' to let people remain statistics, trends and dummies for somebody's armchair opinion of the war. It paid better too. Ask the media.
(to be continued)