After another hot day toiling in the large metal building that comprised the Terminal Navy Post Office (TNPO) at Camp Tiensha, the U.S. Navy had, years before, learned to provide entertainment in the form of a relatively current movie for its sailors.
In order to do so properly, during the base-building infrastructure projects, the U.S. Navy included construction, by the Seabees, of a metal building, with seats and a stage, to be used as a theater and as a useful venue to run two movies per night. In order to keep everything “fresh,” the movie schedule was flip-flopped twice in order to make it seem like there was a new movie every night. (This seemed more like a morale-building “change of underwear” ploy, except that you had to change underwear with the sailor next to you, rather than getting a clean pair of underwear from the laundry).
Anyway, watching movies was always a good way to pass a couple of hours and the movie theater unintentionally provided a couple of evenings of real excitement far beyond what was on the screen.
For example, while seated in the center of the crowded theater on one memorable eveninb, red alert sirens began to wail way too early for the customary evening incoming schedule. Normally, a red alert siren was an opportunity to rapidly find a fortified bunker in order to avoid being killed or wounded by incoming enemy munitions. However, the immediate chaos in the aisles, created by sailors looking for safety, eliminated the possibility of easily seeking a nearby bunker.
Instead, my buddy and I consciously chose to remain in our seats, taking our chances with the mathematical probabilities of a direct hit by an un-aimed Russian rocket. In doing so, I likely avoided the far greater risk of injury in competing for the narrow exit door that was instantly jammed with fleeing sailors.
Eventually, the “all clear” siren confirmed my wisdom.
On another similar evening, I heard what sounded like a metal folding chair striking the metal walls of the theater. Out of curiosity or caution, I walked out to the small lobby, only to find a bloody mass of shipmates lying on the floor, including some who had lost lower limbs from the impact of some type of munition.
Later on, we found out that a nearby Naval Advisory Detachment (NAD), a South Vietnamese military outfit with American advisers, had decided to fire an 81 mm illumination round from a mortar tube. The magnesium component which provides illumination is contained in a hardened, cement-like canister, which is launched from a mortar tube and, upon reaching its highest point, a parachute pops out and pulls the magnesium flare from the canister, which then ignites into a brief but bright mini sun.
Unfortunately, on this night, the NAD gunners did not consider where it’s cement canister might land. As a result, the canister traveled in a path, where it clipped the front roof edge of our theater and continued downward in its path, striking the ground at the front door to the theater, where it then ricocheted into the lobby to grievously wound young sailors waiting to enter the theater to watch a movie.
As the Vietnamese would often say, “Xin loi.” (Sorry ‘bout that)
In a similar incident on another night, the same naval advisory detachment fired another illumination round, where the cement canister struck our solid concrete helicopter pad adjacent to the post office, gouging a 2 inch divot out of the concrete surface, re-confirming the devastating effect of the projectile.
On a more humorous note, one of the movies provided was a “B-grade” movie starring Marshall Thompson. Thompson, who had appeared in some epic World War II movies was attempting, in his old age, to depict the Vietnam War, using some Asian actors wearing “typical” black pajamas, who were terrorizing the indigenous population, especially young-Asian females. Right on schedule, according to the movie, the landing of Marines which was filmed on the obvious beaches of Camp Pendleton in beautiful Southern California, using outdated, obsolete M1 Garands, whose firing was simulated by electronic soundtrack, saved the day for the hapless and innocent peasants.
The portrayal was so poorly received that the catcalls and muttering from the audience brought the film to a standstill. When the lights suddenly went up in the theater, the audio-visual technician took over the center of the stage. When he quieted the audience, he asked, “Would you rather watch cartoons?” Needless to say, the cheers that erupted from the audience provided the obvious answer.
Xin loi, Mr. Thompson.
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