by David Sandgrund
I am sitting in the radio shack and as usual it is very hot, the three small windows give almost no ventilation and the door to the sleeping quarters is closed so John can get some sleep; but tonight I don’t care. Two days to go and this short-timer is outta here. Most of my stuff is stowed in my duffle. My flight is scheduled to leave Tan Son Nhut Airbase AM on the first. I have been in country for twelve months; ten of those on this radio Teletype machine. It is time to go home.
Rumors have been flying around about a countrywide offensive by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. Most of the soldiers don’t believe a word, but those of us that have been working the radio room know that something is up. For the first time since I’ve been here there have been a dozen messages in one day, most in the past three hours, now it’s midnight, Jan 30th turning to Jan 31st, the Lunar New Year.
I’m on duty and John, one of the two other operators, is asleep in our hooch attached to the radio shack. Usually I could nap, and be woken by the radio alarm if there is a message, but tonight I’m awake because the Officer of the Day requested that I monitor the radio constantly. Now he’s back to tell me we are on high alert and that Nick, the third radio operator, is at the command bunker with our portable unit.
“Oh and by the way all flights in and out were canceled until at least Feb 3rd.”
“SHIT! Does that mean I am stuck here another frigging week….SHIT!”
He just smiles and walks out.
I pick up an alert on the radio from three separate units at the same time; the marine base at Natrang, the 1st Infantry, up the road from us about 15 miles in Ben Cat and MACV headquarters in Saigon all advising they were under attack. I check my watch, its twenty minutes after midnight. I date stamp the messages and I call the command post on my hand-set and advise them of the incoming messages. The OD requests that I wake up John and send him up the hill to the radar post with the large portable radio unit to set up contact with our batteries.
About ten minutes after waking up John I begin hearing gunfire in the distance. I suspect, with the shift of the wind, that what I am hearing is the attack at Ben Cat. The firing is getting closer and I can see flashes of explosions and flares from the area of USARV HQ about 5 miles up the road. It is quiet in our immediate area. The radio is now alive with reports of attacks. The rumors are correct and the Viet Cong and the People’s Army of Viet Nam have launched a coordinated attack throughout South Viet Nam.
Our batteries at Tan Son Nhut Airport report fighting all around them, but nothing in their immediate area; the same is true for the battery at Bien Hoa Airbase. However, our battery at the 1st Infantry base is reporting heavy fighting in their immediate area and some incoming mortars and rockets. They have been advised by headquarters of the 1st to take cover and not return fire, stay out of the fight. These instructions are reinforced by the Battalion commander, through me and acknowledged by the battery commander. Shortly after that we lose contact with them.
The remainder of the night is nerve-wracking and very noisy. I hear the fighting at Ben Cat, at Long Binh Junction where USARV HQ is located and Bien Hoa. The night is quiet in the immediate are of our compound, but there is unusual activity in the Widow’s Village on the northwest edge of the compound. I report this to both our command post and the command post for the 11th Cavalry Div, which is stationed on the hill above our compound, protecting our radar center. The morning dawns sunny and hot as usual, with high alert called off.
It is also very hazy, a mixture of normal morning haze and the smoke from the overnight fighting. It is the first morning I can remember that did not dawn quiet. There is continued small arms and mortar fire. There are fewer rockets than during the night, but the constant gunfire and mortar rounds makes napping difficult and after about half an hour I give up. All three of us radio operators are on alert; only one, me, is actually on duty. About 1100 hours the OD orders all personnel on duty and re-establishes high alert. All the perimeter foxholes and watchtowers are manned and the mess and other facilities close down. Only the kitchen is open and food is hand carried to each position. I remain at the radio unit and the other operators return to their posts of the night before.
The gunfire continues all day. The gunships and helicopters were inactive in the morning, but as the afternoon wears on more and more of them can be seen and heard in the sky. By now most of the US Army and Marines and the RVN Army positions have been attacked and are either still fighting or have beaten off the attack. The Viet Cong are hitting and running as usual; although some positions have been captured, like the army bases at Hue, where the entire city has been overrun, in Saigon, Danang, Bien Hoa and other location they are attacking, being beaten off, but now, unlike the past, even when driven off, they are coming back. At about 1930 I receive a message from Saigon that they are under heavy artillery fire and ground forces have re-entered the city after the Army and Marines had driven them out. I pass the information to the command post.
As evening approaches the sound of gunfire seems louder and closer. The soldiers on the top of the hill can see that the 11th Cavalry is under attack.
It is coming from the south, the furthest point away from the compound.
As darkness closes in the shooting becomes not just noise but now also visual. I can see the red tracers and the orange flares; the fire trails from the rockets and sometimes funny-looking crooked white lines in the sky where mortars and other shells create disturbances in the atmosphere.
Suddenly, I hear the high pitched whine of incoming, the first mortar and rocket rounds explode with earth shaking violence within our compound, mostly on the south side of the hill. Sounded like a rocket. Shit! Close! I hunker down a bit and cover the window facing south with a sand bag. I hear the OD ordering everyone on firefight alert and I advise the 11th Cav. that we are under mortar attack. Suddenly I realize that the rounds are coming not just from the south, but also from right in front of us from Widows’ village. I contact command and also advise the 11th Cav.
More small arms fire, closer. Now machine gunfire, nearby. I look up, out the window, clear sky beautiful stars, tracers among the stars, red streaks among the white spot. The teletype is buzzing, flash through the window, more flares that blot out stars. This night is orange and yellow with puffs of white. Again machine gun firing, this time behind the compound. More helicopters gunships over head. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! IN COMING! Mortars, small rockets close very close. Machine gun fire from the gunships. Then quiet as the copters and gunships move off. Now I go to the window, the moon is rising but the stars are still gone lost in the white and yellow of the flares
Now the incoming is from only the east, from Widow’s Village, and we are caught in the crossfire between the 11th Cavalry and the Viet Cong in the Widows’ Village. The 11th Cavalry instructs us not to take part in the firefight, that we are to lie low and they will advise if we need to join the firefight or if we will need to evacuate. The commander of the 11th Cav. does not think there are enough troops in Widows’ Village to attack directly and so sooner or later they will give it up. If there are too many casualties in the next few hours they will send in Armored Personnel Carriers to flush the VC out.
I pass this information on to command and wonder what constitutes too many casualties.
As night two passes into day, I take the chance to stick my nose out the door and realize that the small arms fire is so low in some places along the hill that you can’t cross that part of the compound standing up, you either need to crouch or crawl. Back inside I exchange updates with USRV command, the 11th Cav and our battalion command. No sleep, one nap.
The day ends and the third night of fighting begins. The 11th Cav has starting sending more and more mortars and rockets into Widows Village. The noise is deafening. The earth and the entire radio shack shake almost non-stop.
I have never been so scared as I have been during these past days and nights, but it does seem to be less scary at night then during the day. What makes it even weirder is that I am not even involved in the actual firefight. The battle is raging around and over me mostly. I can’t help feeling that if I were fighting I would be involved and have less idle time to worry and be scared. At least working the radios in the midst of the all the firing gives a sense of being busy and less time to worry and be scared; that doesn’t happen during the day. I am convinced that before and after are the scariest parts of a battle and that during a firefight, while the most dangerous, is the time when you are least scared…no time to be, even for a radio operator.
Now following the mortar and rocket barrage the 11th Cav sends a small force of APC down the side of the hill into Widows Village were they come under heavy VC small arms fire. I can see the APC from my window and watch as they exchange fire with the VC. In the midst of the APC attack I am involved in an exchange of messages with USARV and MACV HQ and our Battalion Commander. The next time I look up the APC are moving back up the hill and light is starting to show in the sky behind Windows Village.
The day dawns hazy and hot once more. It is quieter this morning, the Teletype is not clacking away as it has been for the past three nights and days. I am awake, the alarm on the Teletype is screaming in my ear, I must have been asleep for some time because the sun is fading over the hill and the alarm is buzzing and the machine is clacking out new messages.
The messages advise that the VC have retreated from Saigon and Danang. I pass these on to command and respond to several messages from other nearby units. Suddenly I realize it is dark out. It is night four since the VC/NVN offensive began. I can hear the whoosh and scream of mortars being launched and the rumble of APCs. I look out my window and I can see at least twice many APCs in Widows Village as last night They have set up a perimeter around the village and are slowly closing the circle.
There is less firing from the VC. It is at this point that my heart skips a beat at the prospect of an end to this fighting. The machine starts clacking away and I am too busy passing message back and forth to follow what is happening out side. Suddenly I realize it is quiet, no small arms, no chugging APCs, and the teletype has gone quiet. I look out the window. Through a thick haze the sun is rising behind Widow Village.
The OD comes in with a stack of papers with information that needs to be sent to USARV and MACV. I begin typing away. John returns from the radar section with sandwiches and beers in hand. Eating and chatting we tell each other out little stories. I lie down.
I awake……it is the fifth night, silence.
Early the next morning the Communication Officer comes in to let me know my flight out is in three days. I will be leaving for Saigon the next morning to process out. Finally this short-timer is on his way home!
David Sandgrund was born on December 13, 1942, in Brooklyn, New York. In the summer of 1966, he was drafted into the army and spent most of the second year in Vietnam where he was a radio teletype operator for the 6th Hawk Missile Battalion 56th Artillery stationed near Bien Hoa. When he returned home in 1968, he married, had two kids, and a career in international shipping. In 2008, he retired, and he and his wife do a lot of traveling and spending time enjoying the grandkids. He also enjoys photography, reading novels about Asia and Asian history, listening to jazz and blues, and writing, especially poems.