By: Commander Ed Bookhardt, USN Retired
The war in Southeast Asia continued to escalate. The United States commitment “in country” was nearing a half-million men. Saigon with its backdrop of sandbags, bunkers, spirals of barbwire laced in unending menacing patterns was overrun with milling multitudes of locals and displaced refugees. An overbearing stench created by exhaust fumes mixed with the filth piled in the overcrowded streets and gutters lay the city in a putrid haze…
USAID [U.S. Aid for International Development] in its infinite wisdom had added to the problem by aiding in flooding the Saigon market with small Japanese motorcycles. Every draft-dodging, wealthy or politically deferred young stud that should have been in the RVN Army was speeding aimlessly through the tree-lined streets reflecting a carefree uninvolved attitude…whose damn war was it anyway?
Small blue French made taxi cabs darted about as convoys of olive drab military trucks rumbled through the main routes their diesel stacks belching acidic smoke. The mayhem occasionally pleasantly punctuated by raven-haired beauties whose Ao dai [long dresses] billowed like multi-colored clouds as they lazily biked through the maze with seemingly little concern.
White Mice, [National Police] recognized by their white uniform shirts and general fearfulness had given up on traffic control and stood helplessly by on the sidewalks overwhelmed by the chaotic situation. Once beautifully shaded sidewalks were now impassable as they were lined with local black marketers selling everything from C-rations to combat-boots and other wares pilfered from U.S. shipments into the port of Saigon. The homeless occupied every sheltered nook and alleyway along the thoroughfares. Dirty faced naked children wandered or played about unattended…
Yet, with all this misery there was a general upbeat atmosphere among the Vietnamese as well as many of the GIs stationed in the immediate Saigon area. Even staff members in my own command seemed to have a passive attitude. Saigon considered “secure,” showing few physical scars of actual warfare. This feeling of security was further confirmed and reassured by General Westmoreland’s frequent announcements that great strides were being made in winning the war against North Vietnam and the Viet Cong.
I had flown back into Tan Son Nhut from the Air Force fighter base at Phu Cat nestled in the Central Highlands. I made my way into Saigon through the aforementioned maze to our Headquarters near the Embassy in mid-town. The Navy’s OICC was the Department of Defense’s construction agent throughout Southeast Asia administering construction contracts for all Services. There was some additional construction required at the Phu Cat airfield and I was coordinating the effort with our design staff, the Air Force and RMK-BRJ the in-country contractors.
I walked into Headquarters, checked in at the quarterdeck and then proceeded to the design and engineering office. Dropping my worn clay-covered tote bag in the corner I leaned my carbine against it. I kept my sidearm and other field gear on. A half-dozen staff officers puttering over drafting tables in their clean pressed khakis saw me enter. They waved, as did some of the Vietnamese engineers that I knew casually.
Mockingly, Lieutenant Commander Bill Davis a drinking buddy got up and did a little slow Duke Wayne shuffle as he ambled toward me. He hollered out with a drawl for all to hear, “Well, well, if it ain’t our hero, Big Ed back to the head-shed after an all-expense paid vacation in exotic Phu Cat. Did you shoot any VC, Pilgrim?” “Yea, Ed!” echoed others sarcastically, “Tell us about those black pajama bad guys along the Ho Chi Minh, we need some stars for our campaign ribbons!” They followed in unison with several guttural grunts!
Laughter and backslapping followed. My running mates had an ongoing thing of teasing me about carrying weapons. They continually got their jollies at my expense, which at times got to me. As Senior Project Coordinator, I had to travel on a moment’s notice to hot spots so I stayed armed with my tote bag packed. However, since it was not in vogue in Saigon at the time, the headquarters’ types did not carry arms and probably couldn’t operate a weapon if they had one as many came to Vietnam with zilch weapons familiarization training. It made one wonder what criteria our higher-ups were using in preparing personnel for assignment to a combat zone? In fairness to my buddies their billets were engineering-administration in nature with low risk to hostilities.
In retaliation to the razzing, I took off my fatigue cap and deliberately beat the dirt off my greens with it. The residue covered drawings spread out on the tables, backing my hecklers away from the cloud of dust. I shot back, “Well, if you friggin’ Tu Do Street Commandos would quit chasing those almond-eyed sweeties and getting shit-faced on “33” you might get your candy-asses out of Saigon long enough to see what this damn war is all about.” I was tired from the traveling grind and became a little thin-skinned.
“I’ll take you on vacation with me anytime just say the word. Really, you do need to see what the fruits of your labor have accomplished in the field, you would be very proud. And since you’re all apparently VC proof you wouldn’t have to carry any nasty old guns! In fact you could fly bare-ass. Come to think of it, flying naked might not be a bad idea…if you go down in the jungle the VC will probably think you’re Adam foraging around in the Garden of Eden!” Laughing, I thought for a moment, “No, I take that back, they are Buddhists not Baptist…they would just shoot your pimply butts!”
Hot damn! I was on a roll! Now that I had the upper hand which was a rarity, I continued, “When old Eddy flies over this gook-infested country in those forty year old albatrosses of ours, he is gonna carry more than a jack-knife and a Boy Scout compass! It gets scary out there! So come on guys humor me a little… as a poor underprivileged kid I didn’t have pearl-handled cap pistols to play with…now, let’s get down to business.”
We gathered around a table and went over the specifications and changes the Air Force wanted on the airfield turnouts and parking aprons. Then thanking them for their cooperation, I smiled and said, “Now, you engineering geniuses get your heads together and let me know when you have something for me to take back north. The Air Force is anxious. I’m going to quarters for my first shower in four days…don’t want to offend the Mess.”
I picked up my gear; “By the way, you each own me a shot of J&B for being your leg-man with the Phu Cat fly-boys. It’s the least you can do. I wouldn’t want you warrior-gods to spoil your image with the Tu Do sweeties by having to go out of town and get your khakis messed up. So in parting my illustrious friends…May the lice of a thousand VC camps infest your scrawny private parts… see you in the mess pilgrims!” I stomped the dried mud off my boots in the doorway as I turned and left the building…
The tempo of military activity slowed as we approached Christmas and the New Year. The holiday were sad for many first timers, but for most career personnel who had spent other Christmases and holidays away from family it was more or less taken in stride. Of course, a drop or two of the sauce helped sooth over the blues. We exchanged gifts and some of us put on some comical skits and “roasts” to raise our comrades’ spirits. Speaking of gifts, the Admiral got an early Christmas present in the form of one Lieutenant Jeffery “Red” [an unruly shock of red hair] Hamilton. Red, was a Reserve officer with a Public Affairs designator from the upper-crust of Boston. He was called to active duty for this special assignment.
With the OICC having placed over a billion dollars in roads, bridges, camps, deep-water ports, airfields and support facilities in place since the U.S. involvement in Vietnam began and was well into the second billion of tax-payer’s money, the Congressional junkets to our headquarters were unending. The Admiral had requested an officer trained in PR work to help relieve him of some of the Washington VIP onslaught. Red was a very personable young man, liked by the staff and eagerly pursued his job. He had one major flaw which is yet to be revealed…
The staff was berthed in a leased old apartment building a mile or so from the headquarters complex. Security for the facility consisted of an outer perimeter of sandbags, chain-link fences and barbwire, with a manned bunker inside the wire guarding the glass front entrance. To save military personnel for more critical assignments, uniformed Korean civilians contracted from a Saigon based Korean company were used for outside perimeter security. There was no security inside the building.
On January 29, 1968 the Vietnamese observing the “Tet” truce, began celebrating the lunar New Year. It was the “Year of the Monkey.” Taking advantage of the truce, the Viet Cong began a massive offensive in the predawn hours almost over-running Saigon. They penetrated to within a block or so of our compound by early in the day. This incident would abruptly change our billet and compound security for the rest of the war. As the initial attack continued, the Chief of Staff called an emergency meeting of all officers. An inventory of weapons was conducted and a plan to defend the billet was developed.
As the Senior Enlisted assistant to a Marine Major for weapons training of the Seabees before my commission, I was directed to check each officer out on the basic operation of our available weapons. However, being confined to the building we could only practice dry firing. We wired a central alarm system to a small “U” shaped sandbag enclosure we erected in the foyer, ten feet from the building entrance. The Korean contract guards, a tough bunch, were doubled up and maintained the outside defenses.
We then setup two-man four-hour watches in the sandbagged foyer enclosure. Due to the close proximity and the lack of marksmanship skills, shotguns with buckshot loads were the most practical to repel intruders. This was my recommendation, which was approved by the Admiral. Most staff members were unfamiliar with the shotgun, but soon became confident with repeated practice. However, our PR man Red Hamilton was a basket case. His fear was so great; he would turn ashen and tremble when handling the weapons.
I tried repeatedly to calm his fears but with little success. I relayed my deep concerns. I thought Red was more of a threat to us that any VC Sappers that might try to breach the billet entrance. The Chief of Staff was adamant; “Each officer will share the security responsibilities equally. We are in one serious situation and there will be no slackers. Lieutenant Hamilton will just have to adapt and overcome his fears and damn quick!”
Several days went by without incident or serious threat to our compound. The thrust of VC’s Tet initiative was beginning to wane. Red had stood his watches in rotation without any major mishaps, though he would only touch the shotgun during the change of the watch, and then place it in the corner against the sandbags. One evening, about 2100 while Red and Lieutenant Junior Grade Fred Bennett were on watch, one of the randomly launched VC rockets landed in the next block.
The explosion caused the front glass windows and doors to shutter violently, shattering one of the panels. Sensing an attack, Red, responded with a blood-curdling scream, grabbed his shotgun and put two rounds in the overhead before empting it on the foyer doors! Fred sounded the alarm as he too began capping rounds at the perceived attackers!
Responding to the alarm and gunfire, a number of us grabbed our weapons and bounded down the stairs hearts pounding with fear of what we were about to confront. Each wondering would he measure up? On reaching the landing we found our gallant defenders hunkered down behind the sandbags peering wild-eyed out through the mangled metal framing and shards of broken glass into the dark emptiness beyond, the barrels of their guns still smoking…
At dinner the following evening in the finest traditions of Naval Service our gallant gladiators were toasted and affectionately dubbed “Shotgun Red” and “Boom-Boom Bennett.” Their heroic actions against the phantom intruders were duly recognized by the mess president and enthusiastically “OOH-RAHed” by all!
Two weeks later after being in country only two months, Shotgun Red was assigned to make the monthly courier run to NAVFAC Headquarters in Washington. He never returned. Boom-Boom good-naturedly endured the ribbing of his shipmates for the remainder of his tour. However, at the same time he enjoyed a certain celebrity status…hell; he blew out the whole entrance to the building, damn near killing the Korean guards!
By the way, a very important element of this little saga remains. Remember the two rounds Shotgun Red put in the foyer overhead? The room directly above was the Chief of Staff’s. Word leaked out buckshot pellets had penetrated the four-striper’s cubical!
Hmmm, one wonders, could that incident have had anything to do with Shotgun’s short Nam tour?