Between the flat, metallic blasts of occasional mortar shells, the only sound in the camp was the rustle of rats shuffling over sleeping men. In the rifle pits behind the sandbagged perimeter of Plei Me, weary defenders sniffed the sour stench of cordite and unwashed clothes and grumbled about the duty. "Shut up," said a grizzled major. "This is what we're getting paid for." An enlisted man chuckled in the darkness. "Yeah, anybody who don't like the cooking can go right out the gate."
As eloquently as the gunfire or casualty lists, the G.I. gallows humor vented at the low point of Plei Me's siege last week, expressed the professionalism and grim resolve of the U.S. fighting man in Viet Nam. In the beleaguered camp, American soldiers weathered 178 hours of constant mortar and recoilless rifle barrage, fanatical assaults by wave on wave of mustard-uniformed North Vietnamese regulars, the endless thrum and thunder of close air support ("The Skyraiders looked like they were wired nose to tail," marveled one survivor), night after night in which land flares and blazing napalm turned the landscape into a Bosch-like rendering of the pit. By the end of the siege, only three of Plei Me's dozen Special Forces men were unwounded and on their feet. But the Americans were all ready to fight some more. "Are you a tiger, Swanson?" a doctor asked a gut-shot trooper at the hospital in nearby Danang. The man grinned weakly: "Yes, sir."
The Meat Grinder. The siege of Plei Me began two unsuspected days before the first shot was fired. Up to the triangle-shaped fort 20 miles from the Cambodian border crept sappers from two recently infiltrated North Vietnamese regiments. Working in darkness just 40 yards from the camp's wire-strung perimeter (see aerial photo), the cautious bo doi (infantrymen) cut trenches and L-shaped firing pits, hauled the dirt away in baskets and camouflaged their labors with brush. Though the camp's 400 montagnard defenders were patrolling assiduously up to ten miles away, no one thought to poke around his own front yard. Into each Communist pit went tidy stacks of ammo, a Chinese automatic rifle at one end, an ugly, snub-snouted 12.5-mm. antiaircraft machine gun at the other. Every emplacement was manned by a single gunner and designed so that he could scuttle quickly between his submachine-gun, trained on the camp, and the antiaircraft gun whenever fighter-bombers appeared.
With the siegeworks complete, fully 6,000 fresh Communist troops waited silently in the jungles around Plei Me. They had carefully set up another Dong Xoai-style battle, hoping to draw relief force after relief force into a merciless meat grinder. At 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 19, the Reds turned the handle.
First hit was a montagnard patrol—it was decimated by a scythe of small-arms fire. Then a 20-man outpost in a clearing below the fort was overrun—the defenders died in their bunkers. At the main fort, U.S. Special Forces Captain Harold M. Moore radioed for help. Soon flare ships were splashing naked light over enemy positions as the Reds' recoilless rifles slammed round after round through the camp's longhouses. The 2,300-odd montagnard women and children living at Plei Me disappeared underground for a week-long hibernation. All, that is, but the older boys-twelve years and more—who grabbed carbines nearly as tall as themselves, strapped grenades to their frail waists, and ran to the rifle pits.
At II Corps headquarters in Pleiku, a government relief force was quickly assembled but more cautiously dispatched. While its tanks, M-113 armored personnel carriers, artillery and a thousand infantrymen crept in by road, a helicopter landing force of 250 Vietnamese Rangers dropped boldly into Plei Me at first light. Commanded by burly, boulder-bellied U.S. Army Major Charles H. Beckwith, 36, of Atlanta, the Rangers quickly filled the vacuum caused by the Reds' initial assault.
Old Charlie. Some six miles away on the road to Plei Me, the tank-led relief column was braced for ambush. When it erupted from a thorn thicket, the tanks wheeled into something resembling the old wild West wagon-train circle—but there the similarity ended. Loaded with heavy canister (finned, inch-long small shot), the tank guns blazed away point-blank at the jungle, mowing the brush to stubble as if a huge rotary mower had cut a 40-yd. swath on each side of the road. Dozens of shredded enemy bodies—arms, legs, heads, viscera—were plastered against the shattered tree trunks beyond.
U.S. Air Force planes then swept in to strafe and bomb. "It was awesome," said an American officer. "Through it all, the Communists never quit firing. Not one pilot got a free run." And it was accurate fire: during 600 sorties, 20 planes were hit, three shot down.
Back at Plei Me, the besieged defenders were also learning to respect the attackers' endurance. "Old Charlie just stands up in his hole and shoots back at the whole Air Force," said one man. An American officer saw a single Red soldier charge a squad of montagnards—"yards" in G.I. parlance—brandishing grenades and screaming fiercely. The yards broke and ran, while the U.S. officer dropped to one knee, adjusted his sights, and in six rounds felled the sprinting Viet Minh attacker. "Damn," he said later. "Give me 200 men that well disciplined, and I'll capture this whole country."
Coffee Baths. As the camp's supplies and ammo dwindled, U.S. C-123s roared in—flaps down—to drop load after load of parachuted packages. Two men were killed by one pallet of supplies; another load crashed through the mess-hall roof; colored parachute silk festooned the camp, giving it an incongruously festive air. The whole place took on a paramnesic air of unreality: men sipped soup bowls of steaming coffee or washed their feet in cold coffee as water ran short; lice swarmed through every man's uniform; in the steamy sky over the fort, a tiny, gold-fringed, souvenir American flag fluttered bravely. "If we're going to get zapped," cracked Sergeant Joseph Bailey, of Lebanon, Tenn., "let's get zapped under our own flag." An hour later, pushing toward a downed U.S. helicopter, Bailey was zapped—dead.
Not until Wednesday, Oct. 27—after more than seven days—was the siege finally broken. Then, as elements of the U.S. 1st Cavalry (Airmobile) swarmed in by low-flying helicopter, the Viet Minh faded reluctantly away from Plei Me. "They're headed west, straight for Cambodia," groaned one Aircav platoon leader. "I suppose we'll have to chase the bastards all the way there." At Plei Me itself, where the stomach-wrenching task of burial was going on, the women and children emerged from their bunkers. A pretty little girl in a blue store-bought dress pranced among the corpses while the defenders counted captured Communist arms. There were 300 in all—Chinese-made weapons ranging from wicked 12.5-mm. antiaircraft guns to palm-size pistols, dozens of satchel charges, mines, hand carts with solid-iron wheels, a machine gun stripped from a downed U.S. helicopter.
The Communists' losses in lives were even more disastrous. Of the 6,000 Viet Minh and Viet Cong who besieged Plei Me, fully 850 died; another 1,700 were wounded. Desperate for a victory, the Reds had fought hard and long—but not quite well enough. "Man," said one American Special Forces private, "if those were supposed to be the underfed and diseased Communist troops I've been reading about, I'd hate to tangle with them when they're healthy." That, thanks to the defenders of Plei Me, may be quite a while.