Close Calls

Looking west from my barracks. Our communal latrine and showers were in the low building between us and the VQ-1 barracks. Rockets came at us from just beyond the nearby hills. Photo by Scooter Smith.

During the Vietnam War, the nickname for Da Nang Air Base was “Rocket City.” I flew in on one of our squadron’s C-2s during Tet, 1970. For the next three days, the base suffered numerous rocket attacks. The benefit of that explosive initiation was that I could tell by their sound if they were going to hit near us. However, I discovered the truth in the old war movie cliche, “it’s the one you don’t hear that gets you.”

Technically, the base had a warning system: a siren that sounded after the first two rockets hit. After the first impact you may rest assured that a siren informing you of that fact is of no use whatsoever.

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. Photo by an anonymous VQ-1 airman.

For the next few months, I joined American, South Korean, and South Vietnamese personnel at the base dodging Chinese 107mm rockets, and Russian 122mm and 144mm Katyusha rockets. Mostly they just kept us awake at night as the North Vietnamese Army targeted Air Force attack jets across the airstrip.

Every now and then, they would target VQ-1, an intelligence-gathering squadron. My squadron, VRC-50, shared a defensive ring on the western side of the airstrip with them. Without VQ-1 attracting attention from the NVA, my time in Da Nang would have been almost like any other duty station.

VQ-1 barracks damage from 122mm rockets. Photo by William B. Leggert

Over a year before I arrived in country, the VQ-1 barracks got hit bad. Forty-five men were injured, although none were killed. Nineteen of the injuries occurred to men hunkering down in an open-top blast bunker. By the time I arrived, our facility had been reinforced according to the lessons learned from that attack. A wall of sandbags protected the first floor of our barracks and our bunker had a timber roof with sandbags sitting on top. These improvements ensured that many of us in my squadron returned home in one piece.

In my entire tour, I really only had two narrow misses from rocket fire. Surviving both induced giddy elation.

The first encounter was not so severe. Airman Neale and I had just taken a smoke break out on the ramp while working late. On our way back to the hangar, a volley of 107mm rockets started landing nearby. We were already old hands at this and merely took cover in a shallow roadside ditch.

As we flattened ourselves into the sand, Neale cracked me up by feigning terror, screaming, “These buttons are too thick!”. 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 impact was 40 yards away, there wasn’t all that much damage, and, OK, we were pretty stoned.

The second encounter was different. I vividly recall the sudden panic of being awakened by the immense blast of a 144mm 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. As more rockets hit, we joined the entire squadron 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 getting jammed up in the doorway seemed to me like a bunch of terrified roaches caught in the open at a square dance. It would have been hilariously slapstick had we not all been so frightened.

The warning siren went off, mocking us.

Crowded together in the inky black bunker, we verbally checked on each other to make sure we were all safely inside. Once everyone was accounted for we went silent. Thoughtful.

After the barrage, our adrenaline began to abate. Eventually, someone giggled. I felt it well up inside me, too. A few of us began to chuckle in response. Then we all erupted in laughter.

It just felt that good to be alive.

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