A Viet Nam Experience: May 1967 – May 1968
U.S. Air Force
Entering active duty in August 1965, I immediately volunteered to go to South Viet Nam. The Air Force accepted the volunteer statement, but I had to complete that first assignment before going, which included some 19 months (two winters – brrrrr!) in Maine.
When one is attacked by artillery, there are several aspects that become immediately apparent. First, when the initial round explodes you literally “hit the dirt,” as the last place you want to be in an artillery barrage is in an upright position. The flatter you can be on the ground, the better. Due to incoming speed, shrapnel from the exploding round literally goes forward and up. Only a few pieces of shrapnel will blow back in the direction of the firing gun. If a round lands just a few feet beyond your location, you are relatively safe. Also, if you are fortunate enough to drop in a ground depression, a round has practically got to hit you in order to do damage. This doesn’t make the attack any less terrifying, but it does greatly increase survivability. Somewhat humorously when lying flat on the ground, there is an urge to yell or scream, but you don’t, because sucking in the air to yell will raise your back another inch or two off the ground! Also, when lying there, you can feel your belt buckle and shirt buttons keeping you up off the ground!
Second, the sound of incoming rounds, where everyone recognizes the sound and takes cover is the stuff of which movies are made. While you can hear and react to an incoming round that will impact to your right or left at say ¼ mile or more, a round coming at you is traveling so fast it will explode by the time your mind recognizes what’s happening. It is similar to a lightning strike that hits closer than 50 yards. Ironically, since the round travels in an arc, and the firing sound travels in a straight line, the sound will arrive approximately 1-2 seconds before the round itself. One never hears the first firing, but as you lie flat on the ground, you will hear a very soft “poom,” telling you another round is on the way.
Third, there is almost no excuse for being injured or killed by any incoming round except the first one. As the above paragraph indicates, being flat on the ground should prevent injury or death from later rounds. Unfortunately, every artillery-caused death that occurred at the Dong Ha Air Force radar site from October 1967 to April 1968 occurred after that first round. Why? Because being caught out in the open during an artillery barrage is absolutely terrifying, and the temptation to get up and “run for cover” is very powerful. Far too many Airmen paid the ultimate price for yielding to this temptation.
So, the only viable option is to lie there and take it. Fighting back is impossible. For someone who had not been allowed to fight after sixth grade, because the other kid’s parents might take away their insurance from our family’s agency and put us in the poor house, I was much better prepared than those raised without such restrictions. My most vivid memory here was of a Captain who played first-string backfield at a large university. He was very powerfully built and could probably have taken on a pack of alligators and won. Unable to fight back when under artillery attack turned him into a virtual alcoholic in a matter of weeks. Regrettably, he was one of many who chose to bury their fears in alcohol, which was readily available.
At the end of March 1968, I left Dong Ha and returned to the safety of Monkey Mountain, and stayed until leaving Viet Nam in May. Those of us returning to Monkey Mountain occasionally provided humor for other individuals, such as when a truck backfired while carrying a lunch tray to my seat. I dove to the floor, and the tray, hot food and all, landed on two Colonels visiting the site! Another time, I was sitting on a bench outside reading a newspaper in the late afternoon when an F4 broke the sound barrier. The paper went up, I dove forward for the ground, and made the best “football clip” of my life on a Marine who happened to be standing about four feet away with his back to me! Fortunately, he wasn’t armed at the time!
As most veterans will tell you, those six months of trial at Dong Ha, as with any trying experience forged some of the strongest friendships of our lives. I still have the names addresses of nearly 20 friends with whom I served during those six months at Dong Ha. The experience? I wouldn’t trade it for all the tea in China, but I wouldn’t wish it on a dog.
Thank you, brother, for your service and Welcome Home!
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