Contributed by Mike Donahue, DEVASTATE DELTA (firstname.lastname@example.org) who was stationed at Dong Ha from October 1966 to October 1967.
The decade of the sixties had many events take place and most of them will be forever etched in time. The launching of Sputnik, the Cuban Missile crisis, the assassination of JFK, the beginning of the Vietnam Conflict, and man landing on the moon are perhaps the best remembered. This story begins in 1966 and has never ended; it has not ended because the memories carried by the people involved will not let it end.
In 1966,Myrtle Beach Air Force Base was perhaps the best duty a young USAF airman could hope to receive. The base was beautiful, had excellent housing, food, and recreation while Myrtle Beach and the Grand Strand lie just outside the main gates offering "fun in the sun" and off-duty jobs. January saw an influx begin of young airman arriving who had recently graduated from an initial 8 week school in radar operations. These men were ordered here to receive training in the Tactical Air Command mode of mobile radar operations which is about as close as you can get to actual combat. During the months at Myrtle Beach, this training was carried out in the pine forests surrounding the base where they learned to erect the large S-80 operations tents and set into motion their radar operations inside. They were sent TDY to another base to receive survival training, qualify with the M-16 rifle, undergo one "simulated" night ground attack, and traverse an obstacle course filled with water and explosions. This was about as close as the Air Force got in their combat training to the other branches .Little did these young men know that this limited training would be cut short by new orders sending them "in harms way" and Vietnam. In August, they would leave Myrtle Beach taking their training and the bonds they formed with them.
Early October saw us arriving at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in small groups; we all had orders for this place. When we reported for duty, we were given word that the quota of personnel here was filled and we would be assigned to another radar installation. Ironically, our re-assignments were handled by CMS Dixon who had came from Myrtle Beach earlier in the year. Rather than break us up with orders, Dixon gave us three choices and let us decide where we wanted to go. The three sites open were an island radar unit located up the coast, Monkey Mountain located at Danang, and a remote radar site in the I Corps. We talked the choices over; being young and bonded, ignorant of war, and trained by TAC, we decided that this remote, northern radar site was for us. CMS Dixon cut orders sending us to Dong Ha Combat Base; getting there would be our first adventure.
In-country transportation in 1966 was a nightmare. This was the year of the big build-up in Vietnam and 500,000 in-country was the objective. We had to wait about a week before any of us could board a transport heading north. Finally one night at about 1100PM,several of us got on a C-130 and climbed into the clouds with our minds and bodies pointed 000 degrees for about 400 miles. We made several stops during the night dropping military people off at each place and climbing back into the night sky on our way north. Early in the morning we arrived at Danang Air Base and were told that we would have to wait for another transport to reach Dong Ha; this wait turned into the better part of two days. We lived in the little Vietnamese building, which served as the air terminal because the tents they had for transit people were ankle-deep with water from the monsoon rains. We ate our meals at the chow hall and then returned to our "hotel" at the old air terminal; each time we ate, one of us stayed with our gear. After spending about two days at the air terminal at Danang, we finally boarded a transport and landed at Dong Ha that evening. We began to settle into our new surroundings and adapt to our to new home; little did we know that this transition would be in two equal parts which I simply call the good and the bad. The good part covered the first six months which was not unlike Myrtle Beach. We worked an 8-hour day and had a good bit of spare time. We played basketball on a court we made behind the chow hall we took walks around the base and made many pictures of the sights there, and we watched movies in the theater. Of course we had our beer-drinking parties and occasionally had a USO show to watch. The war to us seemed distant during this first six months; the noises of our artillery being fired out-bound was a distraction but a reminder of what could happen if those shells were aimed at us. We would see the bases facilities improve while we were working toward our first half-year in country and our "safe" and routine world seemed permanent.
Our mission at Dong Ha was mainly mid-air refueling of fighter jets, search and rescue, and watching the north for enemy aircraft; this work was performed twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week. After we got this extra training not received at Myrtle Beach, we began to settle into our jobs with confidence and quality work. The days passed and we continued to grow as a crew; we shared our lives with each other on and off-duty.
Being confined to a remote base with limited diversity can lead to boredom, thoughtlessness, and stupidity. There were a few opportunities to go off base on work details and we took some of these. Once we took a 6x6 north of the village to get a load of sand; another time we took some trucks 13 miles south to Quang Tri to get cinder blocks for the base. For young airman who have fired an M-1 carbine in basic and an M-16 in survival school with no combat training, this could be called stupid. We were lucky on both uneventful trips. These trips were important because we were building our new bathhouse and needed the supplies. One day, we used our AF 6x6 hauling 8"rounds for the Marines from the docking area at the village to the Marine ammo dump ;we worked from 8:00AM to 10:00PM that day. Some of my "C" crew buddies helped me dig up a banana tree I had found near the edge of our base and replant it beside our hooch. Later on, someone robbed all the bananas off it. For six months, this war kept itself away from us but we would anger it and pay the price.
In April, an operation began to eliminate any enemy forces in and around Dong Ha and the DMZ; for several weeks, we watched the war in Vietnam, and particularly around our base, draw more near us. Our operations tent was more active than normal due to this operation, and after several days, we were given a crew briefing on what we were to do if attacked. This briefing was given by the officers in charge of our crew and was no surprise to any of us. Basically, we were told if attacked while on duty, stay on duty until ordered otherwise. If the attack came while in bed, pull your mattress over top your body. We knew that our safe and routine world was shortly coming to an abrupt end and this was made public on Radio Hanoi by "Hanoi Hannah" who promised these young men at Dong Ha seven days of hell; the seven days of hell and the second half of our year began on April 28,1967.
The morning of April 28 found me having a terrible dream in which I was on a hill in the DMZ watching a battle between Marines and the NVA. There were rockets and mortars exploding all over this area and the noises were so loud that it woke me up. I remember rubbing my eyes and trying to erase the dream so I could go back to sleep; as I laid back down, the noises of the explosions were still going off and were louder than ever. All of this happened in a few seconds but that was all the time this young man needed to know that we were in serious, serious trouble. I jumped to my window to take a quick look at the outside and saw several fires burning; after a second or two more, I was on the floor with my mattress over my body yelling out that we were being shelled. Everyone ended up on the floor, under their mattress, yelling at each shells impact. We were being shelled by the enemy who was sending in volleys of mortar rounds and 122mm rockets. This attack lasted for sometime and someone who was counting explosions quit after 400.
As dawn gave way to morning, we began to see some of the damage we had incurred. Several of our living quarters [hooch's] were destroyed and other structures were shredded with shrapnel. The worst result of this attack was the loss of one of our radar maintenance men whose body was found in his bed surrounded by his burned-down hooch. After having this war so distant but so near for six months; we were now shown the reality of our position and we had major adjusting ahead of us in order to survive.
To make this article short, we spent our last half year being shelled all hours of the day or night. We did our best to perform our work and to make the best of a very grave situation. This war could hurt you physically in many ways and it certainly could hurt you mentally living on a bull's-eye for the enemy gunners. We fired not one shot at our enemy because we never saw him; we could not fire because we were unarmed for the most part. Our war zone was inside the perimeters of Dong Ha Combat Base handling aircraft on their missions and then waiting for the next aerial attack directed upon us.
We were not heroes but there were many, many heroes in Vietnam; if it were not for having several thousand 3rd Marine Division guys next door to us, our radar unit would have lost a lot more men. The young men from Myrtle Beach stuck it out, performed their jobs, held each other up, and most of them made it back; the ones who did not are not forgotten. I saw your names on the wall this year and I have not forgotten.
Mike Donahue (Devastate Delta)
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Last Updated: 03/03/07