The Giddy Elation of a Close Call

This memoir focuses on the feeling of close calls in a combat zone. They were relatively rare, as I was in a situation where I did not go looking for trouble; I just waited for it to come to me. And it did. However, I was in no way a combat soldier and did not live the constant terror of being hung out to dry while being in the field. Compassion and respect for those that did. The photo at the left is the scene looking west from my barracks at Da Nang Air Base. Rockets came at us from the nearby hills. Photo by Scooter Smith.


 

During the Vietnam War, the nickname for Da Nang Air Base was “Rocket City.” I flew into it on one of my squadron’s C-2s during Tet, 1970. Tet was the Vietnamese Lunar New Year celebration that seemed to stir up the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), although never as intensely as in the Tet Offensive of 1968.

For the next three days following my arrival, the base suffered numerous rocket attacks. The benefit of that explosive initiation was that I quickly learned to tell by their sound if they were going to hit nearby. Unfortunately, you did not hear that sound signature from the rocket that was landing right on top of you.

The same view as the other photo, except at night during an attack. The dotted lights on the left are from a Cobra gunship. The big glow in the center is a flare over the perimeter of the 3rd Marine Division camp. Smaller bright lights are flares from individual Marines. The yellow dot on the upper right and the bluish streak to its lower left is most probably an F-100 Super Sabre firing a rocket, a normal occurrence due to ambushes at the twisty pass on the highway that led to Hué. Photo by an anonymous VQ-1 airman from the barracks next to mine.

The base did have a warning system, though: a siren that sounded after the first two rockets hit. Just to be clear, being informed of an attack after the attack has begun is of little use.

For the next few months, I joined American, South Korean, and South Vietnamese personnel dodging Chinese 107mm rockets, and Russian 122mm and 144mm Katyusha rockets. Mostly they just kept those of us on the west side of the airstrip awake at night as the NVA targeted Air Force and Marine attack jets on the east side.

Every now and then, they would target VQ-1, an intelligence-gathering squadron. VRC-50, my squadron, shared barracks and hangar space with them. Without VQ-1 attracting attention from the NVA, I think my time in Da Nang would have been almost as calm as a non-combat zone duty station.

A year before I arrived in country, the VQ-1 barracks took a hit. Forty-five men were injured. Amazingly, none were killed. Nineteen of the injuries, however, occurred to men hunkering down in an open-top blast bunker. By the time I arrived, our squadron’s barracks had been reinforced according to the lessons learned from that attack. A wall of sandbags now protected the first floor and our bunker had a timber roof with sandbags sitting on top.

VQ-1 barracks. Photo by William B. Leggert

We did get to test those improvements. Even so, luckily, in my entire tour, I only had two narrow misses from rocket fire.

Surviving both induced giddy elation.

The first encounter was a rare attack during a relatively calm stretch that lasted two and a half months. An airman sent up from Cam Ranh Bay named Neale and I had just taken a smoke break out on the tarmac while working late. On our way back to the hangar, a volley of rockets started hitting on our side of the airstrip.

We made a dash for a shallow roadside ditch. As we flattened ourselves into the sand, Neale cracked me up by feigning terror, screaming, “These buttons are too thick!”

As you might imagine, we sobered up pretty damn fast when one of the rockets hit the corner of our nearby hangar.

After the attack was over, Neale and I had an involuntary reaction: we began to laugh insanely. I guarantee you it was a scary enough event, but the nearest impact was over 40 yards away, there wasn’t all that much damage from the relatively small rocket, and, OK, we were pretty stoned.

My second close encounter during an intense series of attacks in late April and early May was different. Much different. I still vividly recall the sudden panic of being awakened by the deafening blast of a large rocket striking immediately outside our barracks. In the brief yellow light of the explosion, I saw myself and the guy in the neighboring bunk scratching our way through mosquito netting as dust and debris spun around us. I assume my eyes were as wide and round with fear as his were.

More rockets hit nearby and we became part of a squadron-sized mob madly scrambling through the dark for a bunker that was suddenly way too far away.

All these young men stumbling, bumping into each other, and jamming up in the doorway gave me the impression of a bunch of terrified roaches getting caught in the open at a square dance. It could have been hilariously slapstick had we not been so seriously intent upon saving our lives.

Of course, about then the warning siren went off. Just to mock us.

Electricity had been knocked out, so we crowded together in the inky black bunker. With the assistance of a few Zippo’s, we made sure everyone who should be there really was there before we all turned silent. And, thoughtful.

After the barrage, our adrenaline levels began to abate. Eventually, someone giggled. I felt it well up inside me, too, and with others, chuckled in response.

Then our dark, little dungeon filled with riotous laughter.

Weird, I know, but I think it just felt that good to be alive.