Sunday, April 21, 2024

 Ankhe, Now a Highlands Ghost. Town, Remains an Important Battlefield

By Malcolm W. Browne; Special to The New York Times

April 22, 1972

ANKHE, South Vietnam, April 21—With the Americans nearly all gone and the Communists confidently moving their forces ever closer, Vietnamization is turning Ankhe into a ghost town.

Stores, barbershops and bars are boarded and desert ed. Military installations along the main streets are ringed with triple coils of barbed wire, and electrically operated mines point men acingly at passers‐by.

Ankhe has lost its tawdry, boomtown luster it acquired while a division of Americans lived here, providing a livelihood for upwards of 10,000 Vietnamese and montagnards. But it has lost none of the importance it has had since the days when the French Army was bled white trying to hold it against Communist Vietminh forces.

With the North Vietnamese poised once again for an onslaught, the importance of Ankhe, which lies in mountainous country athwart Route 19 midway between the Laotian border and the South China Sea port of Quinhon, is in sharp focus once again.

Ordinarily the Central High lands of South Vietnam are supplied almost exclusively on Route 19, but on April 9 the 12th Regiment of the Third North Vietnamese Division moved in and cut the road about eight miles east of here. The invaders then dug in.

Squeeze Maneuver Fails

At first the forces defending the region decided to try to squeeze the enemy off the road, using American‐paid South Korean troops from the east and South Vietnamese from the west.

Coordination was poor and the Koreans accidentally killed a number of Vietnamese soldiers by shelling. Since then the Vietnamese have restricted their operations to the part of the road west of Ankhe and the Koreans have not made any progress.

After the Korean units had been hit by several mortar rounds, they shelled a hamlet, destroying 22 houses, wounding 2 persons and killing 14 cows.

A Vietnamese officer, evidently in a transport of fury, said: “Not only are the Koreans brutal and stupid. They are also damned bad soldiers!”

As a result of the road block, food in Ankhe and everywhere to the west, in cluding Pleiku, Kontum and outlying villages, is becoming scarce and expensive.

People throughout the area are trying to beg or pay for plane or helicopter rides over the roadblock to the east coast, where Communist forces are also strong but where there is plenty of food.

36,000 People in District

According to current military statistics, the 36,000 people of the Ankhe district live in 10 villages, 24 others having been abandoned, and 48 hamlets, 150 others having been abandoned.

Not long ago American G.I.'s, roaring past the new bars and brothels of Ankhe in their jeeps, never really blended with the nearly na ed Stone Age people of the hill tribes who had come to escape the bombing and to earn some dollars.

The last of the American combat units left in October, and things have changed radically since.

Ankhe's remaining house of prostitution has closed with the departure of the American civilian contractors who had rebuilt the highway. The staff of six girls, who made it clear they were not interested in Vietnamese clients, moved away.

Buses on Perilous Runs

As long as the Americans were here with their swarms of helicopters, Route 19 stayed open. Despite occasional incidents, it was normally perfectly safe to drive between Pleiku and Quinhon. Some experienced American officers feel now, however, that conditions were never as rosy as they seemed.

“Sure, the road was clear,” one said, “but the Americans never accomplished anything permanent.”

Whatever the merits of American pacification efforts along Route 19, they seem like ancient history, now. Even the section of the road between Pleiku and Ankhe is regarded as dangerous by civilians and military men alike.

Buses ply the road, but they carry relatively few passengers, all of whom betray nervousness, especially when Government antitank guns and machine guns start firing.

Up in the perilous, winding curves of the Mangyang Pass west of Ankhe, the drivers, ignoring the chilly fog and rain that make the pavement slick, push the buses to breakneck speed past wrecked vehicles and obvious ambush spots.

It was here that a huge French armored task force was destroyed piecemeal by Communist ambushes and at tacks in 1954, speeding the collapse of Dienbienphu and the whole French campaign.

As serious as the conditions are now, they are evidently getting worse. Intelligence sources say that at least two North Vietnamese battalions have been spotted south of Route 19 moving toward Mangyang Pass.

Along the road from Pleiku to Ankhe, South Vietnamese armored units are strung out, with tanks and armored personnel carriers spaced along the flanks of the road at long intervals. The soldiers manning them fight off boredom, sometimes snoozing in the shade.

They scarcely seem to represent serious protection for the road. The South Vietnamese armored forces have been taking sizable losses from single enemy infantry men who move in undetected and then fire tank‐destroying rockets.

The Communists continue to blow up bridges almost at will, not only on Route 19 but on other key highlands roads. The entire Central Highlands region seems on the verge of being throttled.

“One of many key tests of Vietnamization will be right here,” an American officer said. “So far I don't like the looks of it.”

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