0300, Danang Air Base, Republic South Viet Nam
Despite the infernal, breath smothering 120 plus degree heat, I remained covered by my wool olive-drab security blanket, pulled up tightly around my neck. I was sleeping peacefully in my upper-bunk, dreaming about California beaches and some really bitchin’ southern California sunlit beach glowing over glassed off waves. The first rocket woke me up. I didn’t recognize the sound, foreign of course, yet familiar as if from some war movie or TV show, like “Combat.” It wasn’t a wave breaking. “Sir, No Sir,” it was all of the above and not a movie.
In Viet Nam accidents happen. One night, back in ‘66, during the outdoor movie at Phan Rang Air Base our Army Support Group, Artillery Battery accidentally exploded a 105-mm Howitzer shell over us, so tonight it was probably the “Same-o-same-o” accident. The army called it a ‘short shot’ but we called it ‘incoming’.
We were young and inexperienced at war. Besides, we were Air Force, not grunts. None of our Sergeants had even been in Korea, so you could expect some new-booty had dropped a bomb or grenade close by in the early morning dark, but it was certainly nothing to lose any sleep over. I drifted back to Southern California and a really boss, three-foot, glassed-off tube breaking under my board.
This was the perfect wave, perfect form and the best ride I’d had all summer, until a humungous explosion blew me off my Hobie and slammed me into the tent’s floor. Wipeout! Forget California Dreaming*; my eyes were wide open now. The sky was alit with stroboscopic phosphorescence lights dancing to the beat of red flames, crossing the east end of the louvered pine wood hooch I called home. Explosions were ripping up and down the perimeter road, across the barbed wire fence and one meter on the other side of the hooch’s wall.
Even in the pitch black night I could see the other guys; Bud Streeter, Helmke, Chi-town-TJ, and Pineapple, scrambling for their steel helmets and whatever else would be considered sandbag bunker “fashion of the night” in February, ‘67.
Danang had never been attacked before, unless “Charlie” hit the French there, back in the 50s. None of us knew what to do. Soon common sense prevailed: we panicked, tripping over each other in an orderly military fashion and ran out through the rattan and nylon screened door to the bunker. Running across the field to our bunker I could see fires and explosions around the huge parabolic antenna at the Army’s 37th Signal Battalion.
We all ran into the bunker, bumping into each other in the dark, each echoing the others, “Did you see this or that,” or “Do you think it’s the VC or the NVA?” as if at that moment it really mattered who the hell was trying to kill you.
I stood there listening to this bullshit, half stooped over, half-kneeling, in the low-roofed bunker, thinking how exciting the moment was, the day I rehearsed for ten years in my back yard with the neighbor kids while we replayed World War Two by killing all the Japs and Krauts hid out in Southside LA—and now I was huddled inside a sand bag prison with no window, missing the whole show. I told myself, ‘Alan, this is history and you’re going to get some of it’.
So, like Jesse Owens going for the gold medal, I bolted from the bunker. My “gold” was my new 35-millimeter Pentax camera in the hootch with a fresh roll of Kodachrome. I waited in the hootch, camera in hand until I heard a large explosion. Then I ran back towards the bunker only stopping to take a photo, but I couldn’t see much from my vantage point. From where I stood I could see a concrete pole. When the light flashed again I noticed that it was a telephone pole. I figured it would make the perfect observation point. I quickly slipped my camera strap over my head, around my neck, and ran to the pole. I started climbing as fast as I could until a shattering explosion shook the pole and stopped me near the top. I grabbed on for life.
Near the top, I held on to the concrete pole with one arm while pointing, clicking, fast winding, and taken authentic war photos. This was quite an adventure. All my buddies were huddled in the bunker, safe and sound in the dark. Except for the frequent explosions, it was dead quiet.
“Hey, get off that pole,” a voice yelled from the dark, punctuating the silence between blasts. Looking down I couldn’t see anyone, so I kept taking pictures. After two more shots I heard the voice again, “Get off the pole.”
“I’m just about done,” I yelled back.
“You are done. Get off the goddamn pole or I shoot you off it.”
I thought that was odd. I’m in a war, I’m with the good guys, and one of the other good guys says he’s going to shoot me if I don’t get off a pole. Boy, war is hell! I pretended to start down, but every time I took a step I wound and clicked, snapping away as fast as I could while slowly moving down the pole.
When I was about ten feet from the ground, a gigantic explosion ripped open the street just in front of me, blacktop and shrapnel flying like pieces of hot tar and white-hot meteors, into the side of the hooch, just off to my left. All I heard was yelling and then the muffled screams of wounded and maybe dying men. I did as ordered and climbed down the pole, but no one was there. I went into the bunker and waited with the others.
They asked me a million questions about what I saw and I told them I’d show them the pictures later. It was some hours later when I found out that the airman yelling at me was killed in the explosion. The Air Police told me he lived in the hooch next to ours and as if to let me off the hook added, “If he’d been off duty he’d probably been killed since the rocket that got him threw shrapnel into the bunk where he slept.” They added, I was lucky because, “If you’d come down when he ordered, you’d have been killed too.”
I lowered my head in respect knowing this man died while I was photographing the “real war.” I thought of Virgil having Aeneas call out to his fallen countrymen: “Three, four times blest, my comrades/lucky to die beneath the soaring walls of Troy—/before their parents’ eyes! If only I’d gone down/and poured out my life on the battlegrounds…” Reflecting in the Nam-vernacular of the time, from one warrior to another, I respectfully whispered “Love you long time, GI.”
In two-inch bold-type the Stars and Stripes reported, “VC Mortar Danang, Kill 50 Viets.” At the end of the front-page article, in small pica type, it said, “U.S. casualties light.”
I wondered about the brave, young airman, dying while doing his duty; protecting the base and me? Who was he, what was his name and where was he from? More importantly, did his mother think “U.S. casualties were light?”
*California Dreaming, © MCA MUSIC PUBLISHING
Alan Goodin © 6-19-99, rev. 5.28.10
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