Despite the repeated assurances uttered by our senior non-commissioned petty officers that Camp Tiensha’s location on the peninsula that juts out from the City of Danang, and with the location of the Danang airbase on the opposite side of the city itself, generally put our base beyond the purported 7 mile range of the Russian-made 122 millimeter Katyusha rockets, as we approached the upcoming Tet holiday, the Chinese new year, and the first anniversary of the Communist Tet Offensive in February 1968, base security conducted numerous “red alert” drills. The drill consisted of a dreadful wail of an old-fashioned air raid siren, whose changing pattern could also indicate a looming ground attack, rather than an attack through the air.
The purpose of the red alert siren is to provide a few seconds of opportunity to move from one’s duty station, or if at night, one’s bunk to an aboveground bunker, which consisted of approximately 2 feet of sand sandwiched between sheets of plywood and which would presumably protect any fortunate occupants from the lethal effects of shrapnel from a nearby impact. A direct hit on the bunker itself provided little advantage whatsoever, due to the lethality of the attached warhead.
Generally speaking, the Danang airbase was the primary target for the Communist rocketeers, as the presence of expensive military aircraft, such as the F4 Phantoms belonging to the 366th Tactical Fighter Squadron, who called themselves, “The Gunfighters” was an added inducement to the prospect of maiming and killing American personnel. In fact, we understood that the radar systems operating at the airbase could often pick up the presence of rockets just after they were launched, and a radio call to all military commands in the immediate area of the air base would be advised “rockets in the air, rockets in the air,” resulting in most commands going on immediate red alert status.
However, as fate would have it, the NVA rocketeers were able to re-position their launch sites in February 1969 in such a manner that their 7 mile range included Camp Tiensha and the entire warning system did not function whatsoever. The enemy troops were able to launch five or six rockets during the early morning (2:00 AM) attack without ever being discovered by the radar system at the Danang airbase.
As a result, that night, there was no red alert warning.
I was suddenly awakened by the sound of a very large explosion. Sitting upright in my rack, my initial confusion was ended by the shouting and screaming of a nearby postal clerk, who had recently transferred from the post office detachment on the Cua Viet river, which was located in the DMZ and subjected to repeated artillery barrages so he was familiar with such sounds.
The shouting and screaming postal clerk began to enunciate more clearly until I could hear a distinct shout of the very motivating word, “incoming,” which made immediate sense to my sleep-numbed brain.
Needing little additional clarification or motivation, I jumped from my rack and ran out the back door of the barracks to where the above ground bunker was located.
As I stood on the bunker, barefoot and naked, save for my underwear, now fully alert, my hearing naturally focussed up the whooshing sound of additional rockets approaching our location. As each rocket slammed into the ground, the sound of the very loud explosions pushed my “fight or flight” level beyond the concept of fear into the as yet unexplored level of terror. They close proximity of the impacts caused of each of us in the bunker to throw ourselves flat onto the dirt “floor” of the bunker, in an attempt to present as little of a soft, fleshy target for the metal shrapnel that would spread out from the center of the impact.
I recall (as if it were last night) lying facedown on the ground, being very scared and hoping that, if I were to be killed by one of these missiles, that my death would be instantaneous, and not painful.
In that moment, I thought to resort to prayer (then quite a devout Christian), but I could instead only repeatedly scream the name of God into the soil beneath my face. (Afterward, I wondered to myself if I had been praying or cursing. To this day, I’m not sure there’s any difference, in moments like that).
After approximately 20 seconds, the “incoming” portion of the evening was over, as the NVA rocketeers, had learned to “scoot and shoot” before there was any retaliatory 155 howitzer artillery fire from the Marine units stationed to the southwest of the Danang airbase on Hill 55.
Unable to calm down sufficiently to go back to sleep, most of the postal clerks dressed and then congregated at the Terminal Naval Post Office, where we discovered a 6 foot deep crater in the asphalt roadway immediately behind the metal post office bulding. The shrapnel from the impact of the first rocket had put most of our trucks out of commission, by damaging the radiators with shrapnel. We watched as the Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) team climbed down into the crater and removed the remains of a rocket. The size of the crater instantly confirmed the lethality of the rockets.
While standing nearby, I found a twisted “bolt” that was a part of the shrapnel pattern from the impact and put the souvenir into my pocket, which I retain to this day.
From that evening forward, and for the next six months, until I rotated home in September 1969, Camp Tiensha sailors experienced up to four red alerts per evening, as the Danang airbase radar operators improved their capabilities. Once we were in our bunkers, we could tell from the sound of impact explosions, which element of the base of being struck.
Eventually, once we presumed that Camp Tiensha was not being struck, we returned to our racks and resumed our sleep.
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I salute those who experienced Tet 1968.