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My time in Vietnam

As an Army correspondent, I spent time with the ‘Pink Team’, dined with CBS’s Bob Simon, witnessed Westmoreland’s liquor stash.


Ernie Williamson

The Bulletin


They originally were called Hunter-Killer Teams.


The Army preferred the euphemistic “Pink Teams.”


No matter what they were called, in my travels around Vietnam as an Army correspondent, the day I spent with a “Pink Team” was the most memorable.


Pink Teams were made up of two helicopters.


One was a light observation helicopter called a Loach. Its pilot acted as both a scout and as bait.


Deliberately venturing into harm’s way, a Loach would fly at treetop level looking for signs of the enemy: bunkers, trampled grass, burning cigarettes butts.


In an article in Smithsonian Magazine after the war, one Loach pilot says he flew so low he had enemy blood on his copter’s windshield after an engagement.


If the Loach drew fire or spotted enemy activity, the second helicopter would come out of hiding. The Cobra was fast and deadly with its load of rockets, grenades and a minigun.


From the safety of a command helicopter, I heard the chatter between the Loach and Cobra pilots. I marveled at how low the brave Loach pilot was flying and how calm both pilots seemed.


There was no contact with the enemy the day I went up with a team, but the day was not over. Late that afternoon, the crews attended services for a colleague shot down the day before.


I realized what a special breed these crews were. I wonder how many of us could fly off on a risky mission every morning, get reminded of the job’s dangers in the afternoon and then find a way to keep your sanity at night, knowing you had to do it again the next day.


A CLASS ACT


I spent several days helping CBS correspondent Bob Simon as he reported on the winding down of our Vietnam involvement.  


After a long day at one base, an officer asked Simon to join officers for dinner. Simon, perhaps as a way of thanking me, asked me to join him.


Since I was not an officer, however, I was not allowed in the officer’s mess.


Not wanting to make a scene, Simon did not protest much.  But he joined us enlisted men for dinner.


Simon went on to win numerous journalism rewards and became a “60 Minutes “correspondent.


He died in a Manhattan traffic accident in 2015.


COONSKIN CAP ANYONE?


I was assigned to Army Headquarters at Long Binh, a unique post in a war zone.


At its peak, Long Binh, located about 30 miles from Saigon, was the largest U.S. base in Vietnam, housing about 60,000 personnel.


Long Binh had dental clinics, craft shops, basketball and tennis courts, a driving range, bowling alley, swimming pools, many nightclubs with live music, massage parlors and University of Maryland extension classes.


If you did not like what the Army mess hall was serving, there were clean, air-conditioned restaurants with waiters, menus, cloth napkins and silverware.


Eating at a Chinese restaurant one day,  I heard Chinese singing over the restaurant sound system. I did not understand the lyrics, but the melody sounded familiar.  Then it hit me. In the middle of a war zone, I was listening to the song from Disney’s Davy Crockett television series. If you are my age, you know the one: “Born on a Mountaintop in Tennessee…”


WESTMORELAND


One of my last assignments in Vietnam was to interview Gen. William Westmoreland.  


Westmoreland had been commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968 and pushed the war of attrition policy in which enemy body count was the measure of success.


He was now Army Chief of Staff, and I flew to Danang to interview him.


I suspect - but do not know - that I was selected for the interview because I was “short” (little time left in Vietnam) and would not cause any trouble by asking tough questions about his policies.


I did not ask tough questions, but there was an amusing incident.


Westmoreland’s guest house had a well-stocked bar.


Just as we were about to start the interview, Westmoreland’s aide asked that we not take any pictures that showed the bar.


My photographer complied ...pretty much. For our personal collection only, he managed to get a picture of me, the bar, the aide, and Westmoreland’s leg.


Three weeks later I was home.


(Contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, P.O. Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516).

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