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I have clear memories of that night, the 30th. November 1969. At first, time seemed to slow down. This often happens to people in life and death situations. A person’s reflexes become abnormally acute. After experiencing life and death, a person’s mind sometimes enters a kind of mental fog, which in my case lasted about a week.
I shouldn’t be in this situation. I was trained as a clerk and assigned behind the front lines at Dong Ba Thin base camp, near Cam Ranh Bay, about 320 km north of Saigon. The infantry, artillery and armoured units at the front had the most to endure and suffered the most losses. However, they did not fight all the battles. Seven months after joining the Army, I found myself behind an M60 machine gun when the enemy invaded our camp while I was on guard as a Private First Class in the 18th Engineer Brigade (Combat).
We were attacked by bomb disposal squads, the best trained forces of the North Vietnamese and Vietcong armies, as tough as our special forces. The sappers (dak cong in Vietnamese, meaning special order) reported only to the sapper command, which in turn reported to the governing body of the North Vietnamese Politburo.
Their specialty was explosives and covert infiltration tactics. The clearance team built models of each target base and rehearsed each mission in great detail. Each pioneer knew exactly what to do on a mission and always had a specific goal in mind. The miners were not there to be killed. They were there to accomplish their mission and get out quickly. In our case, they wanted to plant a devastating bomb on the base.
The main units in Dong Ba Thin were the headquarters of the 18th Army. Engineer Brigade, headquarters of the 35. Pioneer Group, the headquarters of the 10. Combat Aviation Battalion, 183rd. Aviation Company, the 243rd. Assault Air Company, the 92nd. On the 18th. The Pioneer Battalion consisted of approximately 225 soldiers and 53 officers. Other units counted between 50 and 70 people.
Randy Bullock, a staff officer in the 18th. Pioneer Sapper Brigade, normally works behind a desk, but on call he must go to the front lines of battle.
The sappers who broke into our base carried a Bangalore torpedo (explosive tube) about 1.5 to 2 meters long with 75 pieces of high explosive plastic C-4 attached to a twist. The C-4, a valuable commodity to our communist opponents, was regularly stolen by American troops.
Many of us think that the bombers on 30… November this powerful explosive under the Brig’s trailer. General. John W. Morris, commanding officer of the 18th. Pioneer Sapper Brigade, who slept 100 yards behind my watchtower. That bomb was powerful enough to flatten half the block. Three experts, including Sergeant Tony Lawson, a combat engineer well trained in C-4, told me that the bomb would have had an effective lateral range of about 100 yards, especially from a position under the trailer.
Jerry Laws, a captain in the aviation section of the 18th Air Force. Engineer Brigade (and future Brigadier General), told me: That bomb would have wiped out our entire officer’s unit. The explosion would have killed Morris and most, if not all, of the 53 officers who slept in our neighborhood and many of the 225 soldiers who slept nearby.
That night was an important night in everyone’s life. We remember it like it was yesterday. The bomb disposal squad struck at 23:30 in Dong Ba Thin. The moon was two-thirds lit. These are not ideal conditions for a successful bombing. The moon was shining too brightly. You could clearly see the speaker cable. And the time was early. Many of our men were still awake, alert, and able to see the intruders before they could place the explosives.
In the watchtower, I played with the Starlight night sights on my rifle, which hypnotized me. I kept focusing on the area around my tower. The bombers had been trained to slip between the guard towers and move when the two guards looked away. When the guard turned in their direction, they stiffened. A sapper lying motionless cannot be seen by a guard from a hundred yards away – unless the guard uses his Starlight binoculars.
The next morning I learned that a whole team of bombers had cleared the elephant grass about 100 yards to my right and were planning to invade a barren, dark place where there was no shelter for the troops. Instead, they decided to go 300 meters to the right. Maybe they saw I was using the scope and went out of my line of sight.
This turned out to be a bad choice. The bomb disposal crew came directly behind the dormitories and showers of the 183rd Aviation Regiment. Spc. 5 Jim Benoit was showering late when the bomb squad went to Morris’ trailer. Benedict made a sound that startled one of the invisible sappers and caused him to load a bullet into the chamber of his AK-47 rifle. Spc. 4 Butch Graefe, an airline mechanic who stood to my right on the lookout, immediately recognized the unmistakable sound of the double click as the gun lock opened and closed. He immediately turned the spotlight on the sound.
The starlight sight, usually mounted on rifles, magnified star and moonlight and illuminated objects hundreds of feet away. They were introduced in Vietnam in 1965. / HistoryNet Archive
The bombers knew their mission was deadly, but they had a plan to escape quickly. They threw a hand grenade at Graef, fired a grenade launcher into the latrine next to Benedict’s shower, and immediately detonated charges (several pounds of explosives in a canvas bag) in several hatches and under the generator of the 183rd Airline. They injured the two guards on duty at Count Spc. 4 James Dorough and the Spc. 4 Frank Robertson, and Captain Allen Hodgson of the 183rd Aviation Company and two others.
At first, my comrades and I thought we were being shot at with mortars. The explosion of the satchel charge looks like a mortar shell. On the night of the attack, the sappers used charges of destruction, not only to kill and injure, but also to make us believe that there was another mortar attack. So many mortar shells were fired at us that we were deafened by the sound of the explosions. We were often targeted because our base was close to the hills, which meant the enemy could quickly fire mortars at the base and then disappear.
Thin Dong Ba was a particularly attractive target because it was full of helicopters, which the enemy hated because of their firepower. The communists sometimes fired up to 50 mortars and 6 rockets simultaneously. In at least one case, we got hit twice in one night.
But most of all, we were afraid of missiles. One night a rocket destroyed the canteen of the 92nd Combat Helicopter Company. This attack would kill and injure many people if the mess was occupied. On other occasions we were less lucky. We have often lost men to rockets and mortars and many have been wounded.
Morris recalls in his memoirs that the Viet Cong fired a few shots in our direction every few nights, and he wrote We suffered more casualties in three of my 12 months in Vietnam than any other unit there.
I had only been in Vietnam for a week when I was hit by a mortar shell on my first night of duty. A few minutes before 6 o’clock. I was watching my case when I saw the first mortar shot, about half a second before I heard it. The grenade hit the canteen, not far from where some soldiers were walking.
On another evening, the visiting lieutenant general was having dinner with Morris in the officers’ mess when the Viet Cong fired six missiles at the mess. I was standing nearby. The rockets flew straight over my head and exploded at a distance of about 30 meters. Fortunately, they missed the general. If you’ve ever heard a rocket whistle, you can’t forget that sound. To this day, my heart races every time I hear the sound of a car starting or the first flash of lightning, and I often get chills.
Among the damage done by the bombing of Dong Ba Thin was the destruction of living quarters where two captains of the 183rd Aviation Company lived. / Courtesy of Jim McHaney
The sappers, who were on the 30th. November attacked Dong Ba Thin, knowing that if we came under mortar fire, we would dive to the ground and hug the concrete until the sirens gave the green light and we could run to the surrounding positions. That night, the bomb squad wanted us to hold onto the concrete for a few minutes to give them a chance to escape through the holes in the wire they had cut earlier.
I heard gunshots but thought it was fireworks. Lowes, our captain, immediately recognized the sound as AK-47 fire. Although the sirens were still calling for all soldiers to hold on to the concrete during the mortar fire, he knew we were under direct attack from enemy infantrymen. Lowes puts on his bulletproof vest, grabs his rifle and helmet, and runs to the watchtower to my left. He started firing the machine gun from the turret, making it clear that we were under fire and not under mortar fire. Thanks to Lowe’s quick action, our helicopters were able to take off quickly.
Graef, sitting in his turret, also fired a machine gun. When it jammed, he went into the gun turret with an M14 rifle (we didn’t get the new M16s until two months later) and shot 10 sappers. Anyone who has ever been in combat knows how much courage it takes. Graefe’s exceptionally courageous decision to join the pioneers and fight with them saved the lives of many American soldiers.
The bomb squad that had penetrated the base broke through the perimeter wire and ran to the elephant grass. Grave injured one of them in the knee before the explosive ordnance disposal unit reached the wire. Traces of blood indicate that others were eliminated before they reached the elephant grass.
The man wounded in the knee was a head deminer. He was also a captain in the South Vietnamese army. Probably one of our allies! He learned to be a pilot. He had been to the base many times and knew the location well. He has now revealed his treacherous intentions.
Other sappers tried to drag him to hidden motorcycles a short distance from the base to quickly hide at a nearby creek. The efforts of the deminers to rescue their leader and the injuries of the others delayed their escape. Two more minutes and they disappear into the hills.
But the rescue attempt took too much time. Lois, Gref, esp. 6 Leo Farrell, Spc. 4 Mike Buttolph, Spc. 4 Mark Mitchell, esp. 5 Terry Hackney, esp. 4 Wesley Smith and many others were shooting rifles and machine guns into the elephant grass.
Another highlight of that night was when two of our attack helicopters spotted the enemy and fired their miniguns over a small area for about five minutes.
I knew then that the fight was over, and I was very happy. But I also knew that we had just killed people who would never go home again. Nine sappers died that night. Their wounded leader was found the next morning. Three of our men killed him.
The bombers carried weapons such as coiled explosive blocks that could be carried in a satchel and tubular Bangalore torpedoes, shown here in a different place. / HistoryNet Archive
Several soldiers from the 183rd Aviation Company, including Benoit, Mitchell and Hackney, volunteered to clear the area. During the search, Mitchell stumbled upon a huge Bangalore torpedo hidden under invasive ivory grass. The bomb squad wanted to take him out after a failed mission on our base. If Graef hadn’t broken their leader’s knee and delayed their quick escape to the hills, the attackers could have escaped with all that C-4 to use elsewhere against the American soldiers.
Had the bombers been successful, they could have killed our general and perhaps killed or wounded 53 officers and 100 or more soldiers, making the battle at Dong Ba Tonh the worst attack on an American base in 1969. Families back home would be devastated. Those of us who were in aid stations and not combat units were considered behind the front lines. Our families thought we were relatively safe.
Because we foiled the bombers’ plans, the battle of Dong Ba Thin is not very well known today, even to historians. However, I think it is a significant event of the war, based on the research I did to answer the questions I had.
Why did the bomb squad attack at 11:30 p.m. and not at 2 a.m., when the moon was waning and most residents were asleep? Especially when they were outnumbered 100 to 1. They were clearly at a tactical disadvantage. And why did they, or rather their North Vietnamese leaders, choose the 30th? November 1969 for such a risky attack?
This groundbreaking view of the base, protected by wire fences and watchtowers similar to those at Don Ba Thin, shows the challenges the attackers faced and what they had to overcome to get in. / Courtesy of Daryl Fowtz
I analyzed 25 bombings during the Vietnam War and compared them using an astronomy website that provides data on past moon phases. Only one of these bombings took place under a bright moon. Moreover, none of the 25 attacks occurred as early as ours.
Many of us in Dong Ba Thin that night believe that the date and time were chosen to coincide with an event on the other side of the world. On 1. In December 1969, the U.S. Election Service System held the first lottery for Vietnam at its headquarters in Washington, D.C., a major event in the history of the war. The lottery was an attempt by President Richard Nixon to make military service more equitable and quell anti-war protests. Anti-war protests peaked in November 1969, and North Vietnam did not want them to decline.
It seems clear that North Vietnam intended to carry out a high mortality attack that would have attracted more media attention than the introduction of a more equitable conscription procedure, and thus would have provoked more anti-war protests. The bombers probably struck earlier than usual because it took about 14 hours for the message to reach the United States, be printed, and delivered to the doors of homes. Despite the Vietnam War’s reputation as the first war to be televised, newspapers remained the primary source of information for the American public.
In two long phone conversations, Laws described what he thought was another reason for the attack on the 30th. The November catch. The North Vietnamese wanted to use it as leverage in the Paris peace negotiations. North Vietnam may have believed that a furious attack on a U.S. base would force Nixon to abandon his hard line and make a deal to withdraw all U.S. troops from Vietnam. They also knew that Nixon could do the exact opposite: Respond with overwhelming force and escalate the war. However, the North Vietnamese leaders decided to resist any force that Nixon might use against them.
We were lucky that night. I spent 65 nights, a total of 780 hours, on a watchtower in Vietnam, and I know how lucky we are. Good soldiers and luck prevented a major tragedy in November 1969.
Captain Paul Walker, information officer of the 183rd Aviation Company, ended his combat report this way: Charlie [the bombers] was repulsed, but not by the forces of the infantry. He was stopped by the cooks, the supplies, the mechanics, the clerks and the courage. Yes, raw courage, for great courage was shown in the face of the enemy.
Walker’s comment reminds me of what we were told in basic training. The NCOs said that if we went to war, each of us would do one of three F’s – freeze, flee or fight. They added that their job is to teach us how to fight. Our NCOs did a good job.
Graef was awarded the Bronze Star for bravery. There was talk of him winning a Silver Star. I couldn’t agree with you more. Although more than 50 years have passed, he can still be nominated for the Silver Star award.
Buttolph also received a Bronze Star. He was rewarded for exposing himself to enemy fire by carrying a machine gun to Graef’s tower after the guard’s machine gun jammed.
Walker’s assessment was correct. Lowes, Graef, Benoit, Mitchell, Buttolph and many other men showed great courage on that full moon night. Although we didn’t know it at the time, we may have also helped prevent the escalation of that terrible war. V
Randy Bullock served in Vietnam from the 15th. November 1969 to 4. November 1970 as Private First Class, then Specialist Fourth Class. For the first three months he was a staff officer with the 18. Pioneer and Sapper Brigade and then transferred to the flying unit of the Brigade, where his duties included radio maintenance and occasional flying as a door gunner on Huey helicopters. After the war he was a contractor of houses and garages. He lives in Killen, Alabama.
This article was published in the June 2021 issue of Vietnam Magazine. For more articles from Vietnam Magazine, subscribe here and visit us on Facebook :
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