The country below is spread out like a giant map. There is the pure blue of the South China Sea, then a ribbon of white sand beaches interrupted in places by the jet black rock that jumps the beaches and plunges directly into the boiling water. As you continue to fly with the sun, there are grand expanses of green checkerboard - here and there lines of brown, here a dike, there a trail. Small houses, gardens, palm trees. Tiny figures moving. Quiet and peaceful, a village. Nearby, another. Then - the first outcrop of the plain, a hill with a row of houses nestled beneath it. Then - streaking north and south, a black line: Highway 1. Off to the right, a large walled city, a child's building blocks scattered around according to some plan: Hue, the Imperial City.
But now, below, the rice paddies blend into scrub land and small hills. Now there are clouds, low clouds hung from the sky, overlapping the hills. A mountain jumps out of the earth, its summit hidden in silent, mysterious mist. Another - another - more mountains. There is no sign of life now. Then - the jungle, the triple canopy, dark and green, forbidden. On the ground, you would be living in a continual half-light, ghostly - the sunlight filtering down - occassionally a clearing. Now - rows and rows of giant peaks - cloud covered. The Valley - the A Shau - the scrubby, jungled darkened plain covered with elephant grass, tangled vegetation. You don't want to go down there. Finally, somewhere below, an invisible line: Laos, a sanctuary.
This is the I Corps Tactical Zone, Thua Thien Province: Hue and environs, the coastal plains, the jungles, the mountains.
This is Eagle Country.
It was not always so. I Corps has been the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the Vietnam war. Once you were not safe in very many places on that giant map - you were not even that safe in the sky. For hidden in the jungles and mountains, hidden in the villages and towns that dot the coastal plain was - the enemy. The enemy was everywhere. Hue was held for 22 days in February 1968 by the enemy, and was recaptured only after bloody fighting by American and Vietnamemse troops.
Now the situation has changed. Thua Thien Province does not belong to the enemy any longer - it belongs to the people, and the ground troops are steadily taking a tighter hold on the property deed. During Operation Nevada Eagle, which ended Feb. 28 after 288 days, Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division, together with the 1st Division, Army of the Republic of Vietnam, and other South Vietnamese forces, have dealt the enemy fatal blows.
Here are the statistics, barren as they are:
- Paratroopers of the 101st killed 1,915 Viet Cong and 1,384 North Vietnamese Army regulars, for a total of 3,229.
- Seven hundred and ninety-eight VC were detained, along with 55 NVA.
- Seven hundred and fourteen communists rallied to the Government of Vietnam under the Chieu Hoi (Open Arms) program.
- Screaming Eagles broke into the enemy's arms room and seized 3,702 weapons, including more than 300 crew-served weapons.
- The Division raided the enemy's pantry and carried off 667.9 tons of rice.
- Enormous, almost uncounted quantities of munitions and equipment were captured.
The figures have to be translated. Screaming Eagles killed the equivalent of eight 400-man enemy battalions. Two battalions more were captured, and the men of two more battalions surrendered as Hoi Canhs. At the same time, paratroopers captured enough weapons to arm approximately nine enemy battalions. And the enemy alos went hungry - enough rice was captured to feed the men of 10 NVA battalions for about a year.
In compiling these statistics since May 17, 1968, Screaming Eagles stunned the enemy in contacts on the populated coastal plain and sent him reeling into the jungles mountains in the western part of the province and even into Laos to lick his wounds. He could not come back to the lowlands without further penalty.
But the paratroopers used their new Eagle's wings - helicopters - and pursued the enemy to his hiding places in the mountains. The enemy was kept running, kept from organizing and moving to any attack. And so, in Hue and the other cities in the lowlands, people stood up and began to rebuild.
The operation was conducted by the 1st and 2nd Brigades of the 101st and the 3rd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division until early October 1968, when the Screaming Eagle 3rd Brigade in III Corps and the All-Americans of the 82nd changed places. Nevada Eagles was under the command of Maj. Gen. O. M. Barsanti until mid-July, and thereafter of Maj. Gen. Melvin Zais, "Lucky Eagle."
Nevada Eagle started the day after Operations Carentan II and Delaware concluded. In the latter operation, Screaming Eagles of the 1st Brigade and the 1st Bn., 502nd Abn. Inf. blocked off enemy supply routes leading out of the A Shau Valley. (And, shortly after Nevada Eagle ended, Division troopers went back into the valley to initiate Operation Massachusetts Striker).
In August, as part of Nevada Eagle, two battalions - 2nd Bn., 502nd Abn. Inf. and 2nd Bn., 327th Abn. Inf. - air-assaulted back into the valley for Operation Somerset Plain. The 17-day raid netted 170 NVA killed, four suspects captured and 58 individual and crew-served weapons captured.
In another highlight of Nevada Eagle, the 2nd Brigade's 1st Bn., 501st Abn. Inf. and ARVN elements combat-assaulted onto Vinh Loc Island, a self-acclaimed haven for the enemy, and established a cordon. One hundred and fifty-four NVA and VC were killed, 370 suspects detained and 178 weapons captured. The operation was so successful that it became a model for cordon operations everywhere in Vietnam and was even added to the curriculum of the Infantry School at Ft. Benning, Ga.
Cordon operations were very frequent after the first week in June, when there was decreasing contact with platoon-size or larger enemy forces. Cordon operations were conducted in Phu Vang District at the end of September, late October and in December and January. Phu Loc and Truoi were cordoned successfully, and further cordons were established on Ving Loc Island.
The enemy was impressed by the skill shown by combined forces and the thoroughness of the tactics. Maj. Hoang Ban Trung, a Viet Cong assaigned as a troop proselytizer, wrote in despair to his superiors: "The enemy is using the 'sweep and occupy' tactics... so doing, they cause a lot of headaches to us... most of the military action cadre were killed... (after a cordon is established) they push forward the communist denunciation movement, keep pressure and watch closely our infrastructure, some of them already defected, or were detected by ralliers. This caused much trouble among the people; the people now lose confidence in the final victory of the people revolution...
"Even our secret agents surrendered to the enemy. It is very difficult to build up new agents or infrastructure now. We could not go into the hamlets to get in touch with our men because the enemy has a very effective control and checking sustem... No one is left now to carry out the military action program, and even if there are some left, it would do no good now... As to me, I have no problem with my health but I am very thin and tense every moment now..."
Three weeks after writing this, Trung was killed by paratroopers of D Co., 1st Bn., 502nd Abn. Inf., and his letter was captured.
Trung's comrades in the mountains must have been in despair also. Everywhere they went, there was the Eagle waiting for them. If they stayed too long in one place, the Eagle came down from the sky to find them. If they moved to a safer place, the Eagle found them, and called in artillery, gunships, air strikes.
Shortly after Nevada Eagle terminated, Maj. Gen. Zais paid simple tribute to his soldiers: "They are truly men to match the mountains and jungles."
The Eagle flies with the sun, westward. He passes over the churning sea, the ribbon of beach, the pattern of rice paddies and villages - the hills that become mountains, the continuous clouds. He passes over the mountains, the the valley.
His country, Eagle Country. The parts which are not his soon will be.