July 1969-VC mortar attack on Marble Mountain Naval Hospital
After completing my weeks-long recuperation from my near-death experience with a perforated appendix, and since I would be ending my tour of duty in Vietnam in September 1969, the Chief Petty Officer (CPO) at the Terminal Naval Post Office (TNPO) decided to permanently reassign me to the Post office detachment serving the Marble Mountain Navy Hospital as well as the Marines of the Marine Air Group 16 (MAG 16) and the occasional Green Beret from the nearby Green Beret B Camp.
The Marble Mountain Naval Hospital was located on the opposite side of the sprawling Danang airbase complex from the primary US Navy lodging site on Camp Tiensha, putting Navy Postal Clerks, such as myself, within the reach of smaller VC units operating against the various US military attachments in and around Danang.
The sounds and cadence of enemy activity were far different from what I had been used to.
During a warm July night, at approximately 2:00 AM, I was asleep in my cot inside the metal World War II-era Quonset hut that contained all of the equipment and apparatus required to conduct business on behalf of sailors, marines and soldiers operating in the area. A small portion of the back end of the Quonset hut was our living quarters, which amounted to a government-issue cot and an upright metallic navy locker for our personal gear.
Suddenly, I was awakened from my sleep by unfamiliar sounds. It was a repeated and hollow whumpfh whumpfh sound. I yelled across the room to my buddy George Mills Grant, who was fast asleep in his own rack.
“That sounds like mortars!?
In response, George simply said, “Hell yes!”
Never one to hesitate in the face of “incoming,” and without any thought of pulling on my jungle boots, I rapidly exited the back of the Quonset, heading for the entry hole to our underground bunker, which was just outside the rear door of the Quonset.
I had previously explored the bunker to familiarize myself with the bunker design, making note of the six stair treads that provided easy access to the sandy safety of the floor of the bunker. In true Navy preparedness, there was even a light switch that would provide some illumination for those utilizing the bunker once inside.
However, upon hearing the repetitive launching of high-arcing enemy mortar rounds, when I reached the top stairs at the entrance to the underground bunker, I simply dove headfirst into the darkness below, presuming that whatever physical pain that I might suffer for my headlong dive would be far less than what I might experience from what potentially awaited me above ground.
In the next few seconds, George joined me in the safety of the bunker, although I believe he took the time to properly use the stairs to join me.
Over the next 15-20 seconds, we listened to, and counted, the impact and explosion of 11 VC mortars. Apparently, the VC mortar squad, which was operating from the far bank of the nearby river, after infiltrating from what we called “Indian country,” dropped their mortars in their mortar tube and quickly readjusted their aiming point.
As a result, the VC were able to fire 11 mortars before the first 60 mm mortar landed on the northern end of the hospital facility compound. Each mortar that followed then landed south of the last mortar, until the last one impacted and exploded approximately 50 feet to the north of the bunker that we occupied.
Shortly thereafter, a U.S. Navy gunfire support ship, reportedly the USS Boston, a cruiser, conducted a retaliatory fire mission, their 8 inch shells flying overhead and impacting approximately 400 yards to the west of our position. Later, during the daylight, we were able to see the scorched and burnt grasses which had apparently been the launch site for the attack.
I recall hoping that the Navy gunners, who may have been roused from their sleep for general quarters, were properly counting the powder bags used to propel their 8 inch shells, as a “short round” would be far more devastating than a VC mortar attack. Fortunately, the Navy gunners were on their game and every round landed where it was intended.
Approximately 3-4 minutes after the mortar attack, the rear door of the adjacent Quonset hut flew open and the “reaction team,” designated senior Chief Petty Officers, suddenly appeared in boots, un-buttoned flak jackets failing to cover their large abdomens, and helmets, apparently ready to take a position on the western perimeter, if ordered to do so, in order to repel any ground assault. Fortunately, the mortar attack was not accompanied by a ground assault.
I later learned that an individual sailor, who had been brought to Receiving I, our emergency room, earlier that day had pulled the trigger on his .45 cal. side arm while sitting in his jeep, accidently shooting himself in the right foot. Fatefully, he had been injured again when one of the mortars struck the metal roof of the Quonset hut medical ward in which he was admitted earlier that day, spraying and wounding him with shards of the interior metal of the Quonset, causing additional injuries.
At the very least, he did earn and deserve a Purple Heart medal as result of the enemy action, but not for his accidental wound.
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