Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
The Viet Nam Generation Big Book
Volume 5 Number 1-4
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Attack! Part I
Tet, January 31st, 1968, the beginning of the Lunar New Year: The Year of the Monkey. It is by far the most important Vietnamese holiday of the year, yet Westerners cannot possibly comprehend its significance. Tet is Christmas, Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, and your birthday all rolled into one.
During the evening of January 30th, a large VC force infiltrated the Vinatexco textile factory across Highway One from Tan Son Nhut. At 0300 hours the following morning, the western side of the base, which housed the command for MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) came under attack from three VC battalions; the 267th, the 269th and the 271st. They also launched attacks against the north and southeast gates. The western perimeter was breached and the communist forces reached the runway. As luck would have it, I lived near the southeast gate, just outside Saigon city limits.
We were defended by the 377th Security Police Squadron, the ARVN 52nd Regional Force Battalion and two platoons of MACV Headquarters' guard force. Hand to hand fighting occurred on the western end of the runway. We watched the attacking aircraft and heard the sounds of battle throughout the afternoon.
The 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry, commanded by Lt. Col. Glenn K. Otis was responsible for driving the VC back into the textile mill, which was then leveled by air strikes.
That morning the base was heavily rocketed and headquarters issued a statement that they were being launched from the southwest. That particular piece of military intelligence was of little comfort to us GIs. What the hell did we care what direction those damn things came from? We were much more interested in learning when they were going to stop.
February was a bitch. Tan Son Nhut was pounded hard on the 18th by over a hundred 122mm rockets. Five men were killed, one-hundred-and-fifty-one wounded. We were hit again on the 20th, and on the 26th we had four more killed and thirty-five wounded. We were rocketed a few more times that month but during March and April it quieted down.
Around the first part of May rumors of another impending large-scale attack started circulating. Two NVA battalions were moving in and preparing to attack Saigon and TSN.
Attempts to locate hidden enemy arsenals and launch areas were fairly successful. Had it been otherwise, the outcome of Tet would have been a rather different story. The directional information was, of course, extremely useful to the searchers. Stars and Stripes reported that on that day alone, forty-six crew-served and 216 individual weapons were seized.
The enemy often calculated firing coordinates with information received from civilians employed on the base. You had to be careful not to piss off your mamasan. If you did, you might soon observe her pacing back and forth outside your hooch. She wouldn't be trying out a new pair of sandals. She'd be counting the paces from a known landmark to your bunk.
The rocket-firing positions were tough to find. The VC would dig a slanting trench at night, aimed toward the designated target. A rocket would then be placed in the upward angled ditch ready to fire. A pair of wires would be attached to the igniter and then to a simple switch and battery several yards away. This makeshift but very effective launch pad would be concealed under leaves and temporarily abandoned. When the enemy felt it was time to kick ass on the American Warmongers and their warplanes, they would simply sneak back in, flip the switch, and send the rocket on its way, then dissolve into the darkness.
The attack on Saigon was badly coordinated, basically due to the enemy's poor communication. Our EC47s contained electronic surveillance equipment that could pinpoint their radio transmissions to within a few feet. Seventy-five percent of all enemy engagements in South Vietnam were initiated or supported by a handful of old Gooneybirds left over from World War II, but this was privileged information.
I helped to maintain the APN-82 Doppler Radar Navigation system on those aircraft. It was an integral part of the Electronic Counter Measure system which was, of course, top secret and rarely was anyone but the flight crew allowed on the aircraft when the ECM equipment was turned on, even for testing.
All Charlie had to do was press his radio transmit button, and within two and a half minutes all the aircraft in the world would unleash their ordnance upon his head. If the resultant horrendous tumult of explosions and destruction didn't reduce him and his radio to a blood stain, at least it made it difficult for his voice to be heard over the background noise.
On Sunday May 5th, the entire population of Tan Son Nhut began preparing for the worst. The bunkers had been inspected, sandbags repaired or replaced and the rats kicked out. The barracks were cleared for quick egress. The residents of barracks 1230 were getting their shit together. There were no actual orders given to perform these precautionary measures, being in readiness was simply the smart thing to do.
I had recently purchased a reel-to-reel stereo tape recorder at the BX. It was an excellent machine and could record or playback up to six hours. I hooked up two microphones and hung them on the wall just inside the window screen. I wanted to record the beginning sounds of the morning rocket attack that was sure to come. Around midnight I put it in "record" mode and hit the rack.
At 0550 hours, AIC Al Leister was returning from the latrine. He was halfway up the stairs when he saw tracers angling skyward toward a Cobra gunship passing overhead. The firing originated less than a hundred yards away, near some civilian houses directly across the perimeter. The perimeter consisted of a thirty-foot-wide minefield running completely around the base between two twelve-foot-high rusty barbed wire fences.
The gunship immediately swung around and fired a salvo of a dozen rockets into the attackers' position. The record level meters on my recorder instantly pegged at maximum and the barracks shook.
The impatient enemy soldier, greedy for what he must have thought was an easy chopper kill, was history. The all-important element of surprise was lost. As so often happens, a mere handful of bullets quickly erupted into a hellish free-for-all in a matter of heart-thumping moments. The enemy decided to go for broke and started launching rockets and mortars all across the base. Al and I were soon huddled in the bunker doing what we usually did during those stressful moments.
Fear can be handled many different ways. Twenty-seven times during my time in-country, I had experienced total fear. Twenty-seven times I knew I was going to die a horrible death.
I have seen men weep. I have seen men wet their pants. I have watched men shake or become paralyzed from fear. I have also seen men appear unaffected during these terrifying moments when death thunders and crashes all around. My reaction to overwhelming fear consisted of losing conscious control over my breathing.
I would immediately suck in a full breath of air then hold it for several minutes at a time until I calmed down. That is not to say I did not breathe, but I was only able to expel a tiny amount of air at a time. I often tried to force the air out, but no matter how hard I tried I could not succeed. It was difficult to talk during those moments. I would squeeze out one or two words, then expand my lungs to the limit, try a couple more words, then take in more air. I gave up trying to conquer this after a while. At least it was better than wetting my pants.
The rocket attack waned after twenty minutes or so, but though we waited impatiently, the comforting "All clear" siren remained silent. This was unusual and caused us some concern. An occasional, "What the fuck to we do now?" was murmured back and forth in the dark, sweat-saturated air of the bunker.
Bob Hurley was the first to make a move. He lived on the second floor with Al and I and his bunk was at the end of the building that faced the perimeter fence.
Bob continuously pissed us off. Every time there was a rocket attack he would always be the last one out of the barracks. We'd be jammed in that bunker all prepared to give that one big sacrifice to our country, when the asshole would saunter up to the entrance and mutter something about how much sleep he was missing, or about getting rat shit on his shower clogs. Hell, sometimes he didn't even bother to get out of his bunk.
He was a dumpy little bastard. He wore his hair long for an enlisted man, sort of cocker spaniel blond. His skin was pallid as plaster, except for the pimply terrain of his face which he kept fresh by constant picking and squeezing. His eyes were horseshit brown as was his personality. Other than that, he wasn't a bad guy.
"Fuckabunchathisshit!" Bob complained. "I'm goin' back to bed."
That started the ball rolling and we all departed the relative safety of the bunker to make our way back to our areas. "Hero Bob" (we had a lot of nicknames for him) had once again demonstrated his superiority over his peers and now things could get back to normal.
We didn't know it at the time but that rocket attack was merely the prelude to a full-scale attempt to capture the South Vietnamese Armed Forces Headquarters near the Phu Tho racetrack, less than a quarter-mile away. Those preliminary rounds were merely to soften us up.
Soon we heard our 105mm howitzer batteries commence firing. This was a familiar sound, only now there was a difference. We seldom heard 105mm shells explode on their targets because they were miles away. This time the report of the shells was louder than the sound of them being fired. A lot louder. They were exploding just the other side of the fence.
We were getting a little nervous and kept to the ground floor. That's because there were sandbags stacked four feet high all around the building. After a few hours, with little ordinance hitting our building, those of us who lived on the second floor decided to return to our cubicles.
Ah yes, all this time "Sleepy" Bob lay sprawled out on his bunk reading comic books. He angrily denounced the noise outside claiming it was interfering with his sleep.
Deep down we realized Bob was as frightened as the rest of us, he just lacked the ability to show it. He was basically insecure and masked his fear with a phony display of bravado. It was something he had no control over. He was human after all. One night a few of us got together to discuss "Rectal" Bob's actions. We decided that Bob Hurley was simply a victim of unmitigated circumstances and that he was, indeed, an asshole.
The rest of the morning our imaginations were continuously stimulated by the small arms fire traveling back and forth from the barracks area and the civilian houses across the fence. Though starting with an occasional pop, pop, pop of an M-16 around 0600 hours with only brief flare-ups, it had reached epidemic proportions by noon.
Since arriving in-country I had become a crazed photographer, record keeper and souvenir hunter. I had used up my ration card (and plundered cards belonging to two other guys) buying photo and stereo equipment at the BX. I photographed everything. I carried a little Minolta 16mm spy camera everywhere I went because the Air Police and army MPs wouldn't allow photographs to be taken in certain sensitive areas. I took hundreds of feet of Super-8 movies and had by this time accumulated a substantial visual record of my "war days."
When the proverbial shit hit the fan, I was out of film! I tried to dash over to the Base Exchange a few blocks away but the apes (Air Police) turned me back. No one was permitted out of the barracks area.
Now that was a truly brilliant defensive strategy. VC are running around the barracks, bullets and shrapnel flying everywhere. Frightened men ducking for cover. I should have thought of such an ingenious solution: keep the unarmed troops inside where the action is. Why let them out where they might get run over by a goddamn jeep or bus?
I had half a roll of film left in my movie camera but that was it. One guy had a roll of 35mm slide film and was willing to donate it to me for ten bucks. Payday was last Friday, but now it was Monday, and like everybody else, I was broke.
Around 1400 hours, we heard a large truck pull up adjacent to the side of the building. It was in fact directly outside my window.
I was threading another tape reel onto my recorder when I noticed Al rise up from his chair to peer down at the street through the screen. He had been involved with his own recorder, taping a letter to his wife Nancy. He always did this when there was suitable background noise, such as outgoing 105s or small-arms fire in the distance. Great sound effects. Al had a flare for the dramatic.
"I don't believe this shit!" Al yelled. I couldn't hear the rest because a quad-fifty mounted on the back of that 4-by-4 truck started shooting through the fence at the NVA. Four rapidly firing barrels blasting away. The heavy.50 caliber slugs, nearly the size of my thumb, peppered the buildings which splintered and shook. The seriousness of our situation was starting to sink in.
I glanced down the aisle and noticed "Numbnuts" Bob Hurley was, to all appearances, engrossed in a Superman comic book. I was leery of that end of the building, but decided to walk over and discuss the situation and perhaps reason with him.
Bob was still in his skivvies. Some of us were also in our skivvies, but we were at least wearing our helmets and flak jackets over them.
"How thick is that wall behind your bunk?" I asked thinly. He was laying on his right side with his back to the end wall. It consisted of siding nailed to 2-by-4 studs, nothing more. Outside that wall, a hundred yards away, was a whole shit-pot full of enemy soldiers that couldn't wait to kill every American pig in sight. His head was propped up on his right palm, and he was holding onto the magazine with the other. He'd had a lot of practice... looking at magazines with one hand.
"FuckifIknow," he answered, somewhat distractedly.
"Think it'll stop a bullet?" I asked sarcastically.
This conversation was destined to be short-lived at any rate, but just as his beady eyes swiveled toward me, readying a clever reply, there was a loud clack against the half inch siding. Simultaneously the comic book jerked. Superman's indestructible face shredded as a 7.62mm round from an AK-47 punched its way through the wall, past Bob's thick neck, through the magazine and then hummed over my shoulder.
"Guess I'll find me a poker game somewhere," said "Intelligent" Bob. He tried to execute a casual stroll to the other end of the barracks but the quivering of his flabby ass ruined the illusion. His luck was on the wane, but that's another story.
I turned in the same direction and returned to my cubicle to check my supply of fresh underwear.
Soon everybody heard what happened and they came over to finger the hole in the wall and inspect Superman's acne. Searching vainly, we were unable to find where the bullet had gone. Bob still had the magazine for a souvenir but I wanted that bullet. I visualized how I would hold it up in front of my friends and relatives and say, "Yep! This little fucker damn near blew my head off over there in Vietnam." I didn't know it at the time, of course, but there was one more bullet with my name on it yet to come.
The quad-fifty finally withdrew about an hour later. The firing died down and I eventually shut off my tape recorder.
We thought the war was over for a while and tried to leave the barracks for the chow hall. We were hungry as hell but were still restricted to the area.
Our little "pop business" did one hell of a job that day. We sold over four cases of various soft drinks plus two cases of beer. By the time they let us leave the area for dinner the price of a can of pop had gone from twenty to fifty cents. I believe that little refrigerator paid Al and I back in full with just that one day's take.
I wasn't long before we heard a lot of yelling coming from the direction of the chow hall down the street, in the opposite direction from the fighting going on all day. Directly across the road from that mystery food emporium was a huge radar dome at least a hundred feet high. As I peered out from the second floor doorway I saw troops below scurrying for cover in all directions.
A shot or two rang out from that general direction but the shooter was hard to pinpoint. People were yelling about a sniper up on the walkway that surrounded the dome perimeter. Now the chow hall would remain closed for sure. It took two hours to straighten out this organized mayhem. After several hundred rounds were fired towards the suspected sniper, it was finally discovered that he was an AP that climbed up there to get a better shot at the gooks across the fence. Someone thought he was an infiltrator and wounded him. Unable to identify himself, he nearly died from loss of blood until someone finally got close enough to see him and managed to call off the target practice.
A few minutes after the "sniper" incident, 4th Cavalry troops trudged down the road towards us with their M-16s unslung. They approached cautiously and looked as though they meant business. They crossed over to an empty field of waist-high grass near our barracks. They spread out on all sides of the field and one of them shouted over to us to go inside our buildings. We would hear none of that shit. This was, after all, our damn barracks area, and by God it was our war, too.