PLEI ME, Vietnam — Elements of the 1st Cav. Div. have been defeating hordes of hard-core north Vietnamese troops in the Plei Me area for more than a month. But there's no sweet smell of victory in the camps of the 1st Cav. — only smells of C rations, sweat and gunpowder.
"We're clobbering hell out of them all right, but they also got our platoon leader," said a young cavalryman.
The soldier's attitude is shared by the rest of his comrades.
"Oh, my God," said Lt. Col. Frederick Ackerson, commanding officer of the 1st Bn., 5th Cav., when he learned that the first sergeant of one of his companies had been, killed. "He had a wife and four children back home," Ackerson said, shaking his head.
Ackerson sent two of his companies on a search and destroy mission and they had made contact with an estimated two or three battalions of north Vietnamese troops. The fighting was fierce.
Ackerson and members of his staff were huddled inside the small command post tent, listening to running reports of the battle.
Outside the tent, another man was pacing back and forth — listening to the radio. He was Lt. David Sigler of Silver Spring, Md. Sigler, executive officer of one of the companies engaged in the fight, had been sent to Pleiku for supplies and didn't make it back in time to join his company.
"You know, most of the boys out there have only 15 to 25 days left in the Army. I should be out there with them," he said.
The fighting began in mid-afternoon and continued well into the night. Helicopters brought some of the walking wounded into the command post's landing zone just before darkness. The men were helped from the Hueys and assisted across the open field to a larger Chinook helicopter, which took them to Pleiku for further treatment.
Although ground reinforcements could not yet be sent in to support the beleaguered companies, A-1E Skyraidcrs were already on the scene. The aircraft swooped down on the enemy positions with their rockets and 20mm cannons blazing and were literally knocking the snipers out of the trees.
Ground artillery, F-105 aircraft and B-52 bombers continued to hammer the communist positions during the night. Battalion doctor Capt. Ted E. Lofton and medic SP6 Andrew Jones made two attempts to get into the battle zone, but their helicopter was unable to land because of the heavy ground fire.
The camp was buzzing with relief the next .morning when two cavalrymen who had been reported missing staggered in, tired but unharmed.
SP5 Loyal Temple of Wichita, Kan., and SP4 William Conter of St. Paul, Minn., had become separated from their company and lost when Temple, a medic, dropped behind to treat Conter for heat exhaustion.
The two men had spent the night on a hill five miles away. "We didn't sleep and didn't dare speak because we didn't know where we were," Temple said. He said they were able to find their way back by following in the direction of Chinooks which were constantly landing and taking off at the command post.
Back at camp, the last casualties were being brought in. One soldier was conspicuous in his eagerness to help make the wounded more comfortable. PFC Gary Wescott, 20, of Faulkton, S.D. was moving among the men with canteens of water, cigarettes and blankets.
"You know something?" asked Wescott after the men had been evacuated. "I used to be a real kid, but since coming over here three months ago, I've matured a heck of a lot."