February 12, 1970
ROUTE 19, Vietnam (UPI)-It has been widened and even paved in the last few years, but in the high mountain passes you can still hear whispering in the wind the ghosts of past battles that have been fought along this road.
For those who insist that ghosts do not exist, there is the angry rattle of gunfire or the heavy blast of a road mine almost daily somewhere along the length of Route 19 as a reminder that neither side in the war has been able to claim firm ownership in years of fighting.
"They tell me the French got massacred someplace along here once", said Ray Royer from behind the wheel of his truck as it strained up toward the crest of the Mang Yang Pass east of Pleiku. "Well, let me tell you, you got to watch yourself going through there these days."
Royer, 43, of Rohnert Park, Calif., was more concerned about getting his load of spare generator parts to Qui Nhon on the South China Sea Coast than about the details of bygone battles.
As he told of what it was like to drive Route 19 nowadays as an employe for an American contracting outfit, Royer's truck hit the top of the pass between barren windswept hillsand rolled past a lone American tank standing guard, it's cannon pointing out over the highlands countryside below.
Royer shifted to a higher gear and talked of a recent North Vietnamese attack on an American outpost along the highway. The truck picked up speed downhill past the spot where a small stone marker was removed a few years back by U.S. Army engineers widening the road for heavy American supply trucks.
Now unmarked, it was the site where a French task force numbering about 3,000 men was ambushed and annihilated by Communist Viet Minh troops in June, 1954. It was the last major battle of the Indochina War and put the capstone on French military defeat in Southeast Asia.
Some 10 years later, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops who succeeded the Viet Minh sought to split South Vietnam in two along the length of Route 19 from the Cambodian border to Qui Nhon.
South Vietnamese and the American soldiers who had succeeded the French fought back, and there were more bloody battles with the biggest at the Duc Co Special Forces camp about six miles from the Cambodian frontier.
It is about 105 air miles from the border to Qui Nhon. The road probably runs twice that far on it's snaky course through the highlands. It passes isolated mountain tribe villages and hill country where the wind through the knife-edged elephant grass is the only sound, prompting the French to call fighting there "the war for the vast empty spaces."
Route 19 is also as strategically important today as it has ever been, forming the supply link between U.S. and Vietnamese bases inland and the coast.
With emphasis in the fighting now away from the Central Highlands, Communist tactics against the highway usually take the form of small ambushes and minings with an occasional bigger attack, according to U.S. military sources.
For the Americans, this means that a battalion of infantry troops plus a cavalry squadron of tanks and armored personnel carriers is tied down keeping the road open.
In addition, U.S. planes have sowed the jungle along each side of the road with antipersonnel bombs set to explode when triggered by passing troops. The Communists can breach the barrier by moving troops through it and taking casualties until all the bombs in the area have exploded.
According to the sources, Americans have monitored sensitive electronic devices sown along with the bombs and actually "watched" the Communists punching through the barrier with a battalion sized force in an attack.