Monday, 4 February 2008
A night forty years ago. The place Phan Thiet, South Vietnam. The year 1968.
It was about 9 o'clock in the evening when the mortar rounds started coming in. Everybody rushed to their positions. I found myself, alone, behind a low wall. We had no helmets or flak jackets. I had my trusty sub-machine gun. The Viet Cong sometimes sent teams of saboteurs in under cover of these attacks. One of there points of entry was up the cliff at our back.
Suddenly there was a massive explosion and a sheet of flame shot hundreds of feet into the air. I thought to myself what a marvellous firework display. I knew the ammunition dump, situated about 150 yards away, had been hit but my mind refused to register the fact. It was a retreat into one of my shades of fear I have talked about. I took out my pipe and started to calmly smoke it. It was always most comforting under such circumstances. The night accentuated the repeated explosions, but luckily hid from me the mass of unexploded shells and shrapnel that were falling back down to earth. In the morning I would find the base littered with them. At the time I was mercifully ignorant.
Our sergeant however decided it was time to withdraw to a bunker so I rejoined the others. As we made our way there was another almighty explosion and everybody dived for cover. It is strange that a few minutes before, alone, I had not thought of cover, but now the herd instinct was beginning to take over. A 155 shell landed close by but did not explode. I was trying to crawl under a flimsy building; there was a six inch space between the floor and the ground, all fear of cobras dispelled by a greater one. The corporal next to me was wounded by shrapnel, but not too badly.
We made it to the bunker. The sergeant took off somewhere. The military were in theory responsible for our security but I preferred to remember my Black Watch training. The others kept inside the bunker which was below ground. I stayed half out of the entrance. Somebody had to keep an eye open for Viet Cong. The thought of huddling in the dark not knowing what was going on didn't appeal to me either.
I was now aware that objects were falling out of the sky and every time the ammo dump exploded I ducked back down into the bunker. Then up again. My earlier calm had been replaced by a state of high alertness. There are times when I have really loved Americans. When those first helicopter gun ships appeared was one. I remember asking them to zap hell out of the Viet Cong. After a while the camp was protected by dozens of them circling around in the sky. I was joined from time to time by one of the more adventurous of our soldiers with his M14. The others, including the machine gunner, remained in the bottom of the bunker.
The sergeant was still off somewhere doing what I don't know.
This went on until perhaps 2.30 or 3 o'clock in the morning when things calmed down . The US army habit of suddenly laying down massive bursts of machine gun and automatic rifle fire at nothing in particular from time to time kept one's nerves on edge.
I was able to get an hour or two's sleep where I lay and in the morning looked around at the debris scattered everywhere. It really was a wonder nothing had hit me on the head. The airfield was a complete mess with damaged or destroyed buildings everywhere. About a dozen aircraft had been put out of action and after this none stayed on the base over night. Our water storage shed was destroyed and as the town’s water supply had been contaminated earlier the only thing left to drink was beer.
Our major flew up from Saigon and we all got new flak jackets and helmets. We also had a proper new bunker built just outside our door controlling also the access from the cliffs. The previous bunker we had spent most of the night had been a miserable affair. This one was really first class.