Journal Entries for:
February 2, 1968
Cloudy and cool
A couple of days ago, the Viet Cong launched a ground and rocket/mortar attack against our bases in Chu Lai. The attack coincided with the start of Tet and initiated a country-wide offensive.
*"Chu Lai, South Vietnam is located 56 miles south of Da Nang on the South China Sea and serves as the headquarters of the Americal Division. The sprawling base complex utilizes some 17,000 men to provide the necessary logistical support to the infantrymen in the field. " (Information Office, Americal Division)
We were asleep inside the barracks when the first round hit. It only took seconds for us to exit the barracks and head for cover. These buildings were hastily constructed plywood structures that any strong wind could topple. The sandbags piled next to the buildings provided our only protection and were designed to protect the residents from flying shrapnel while inside. It puzzled me why we were told to get out of our hovel when it looked safer inside. Looking back, I suppose the structure itself posed more of a threat than anything we might encounter outside.
Suddenly, the Chu Lai Airbase ammo dump, located only a short distance away, exploded. A sergeant came running between the barracks shouting “Everyone get down!”. “Get as close to the sandbags as your can.” At first, it seemed as though he was being overly protective. I craned my neck to take a quick look as I crouched below the sandbags. To my amazement, it looked like an atomic bomb had gone off. I watched to see a big plume of black acrid smoke with bright sparks billow into a mushroom shape. Then suddenly the ground shook. After a noticeable delay, a shockwave roared past us with the force of a late-summer east coast hurricane. It blew-in the side of our shower and knocked the screens off the barracks windows. A few other buildings were also damaged.
We came under fire from Viet Cong hidden in sampans a short distance from shore as they tried to find a soft spot in our beach defenses. Here we were, under attack and unarmed. The policy, in all the Army’s infinite wisdom, is not to supply weapons to replacement troops until they’re at their assigned unit. The sandbags were getting severely crushed as we tried to find more protection. Thank God the machine gunners in the bunkers on the beach were doing their job. The attack lasted for approximately two hours.
Later, a sergeant told us that the blast at the ammo dump was equivalent to 20,000 pounds of TNT. Sappers had thrown satchel charges in the area that stored all the ordnance for the bomber and jet aircraft that helped support the ground troops in this war. Rockets, 2000 pound bombs, napalm and other assorted armaments all erupted in one resounding explosion.
The next day, we walked on the beach and found pieces of shrapnel that had fallen from the mushroom cloud of the night before. Each piece weighed five to ten pounds and had jagged, razor-sharp edges. It was easy to see how a careening piece of bomb could take the head, arm, or leg off a soft human body. Two people were wounded in the attack, but no one killed. We are told to expect another attack soon. I now have more respect for the enemy.
(On May 9, 2013, I received an e-mail from Jack Coffey concerning the night of the attack. He was assigned to the 205th Ordnance Platoon in Chu Lai during the Tet offensive. His perspective of the evening events are slightly different than my platoon sergeant's explanation of what or who caused the ammo dump to explode. You can read Jack Coffey's recollections below.
“I was assigned to the 205th Ordnance Platoon (Ammo) there in Chu Lai during Tet 1968. The unit had two ammunition supply points. The main one was the one on your right just before you left the base camp at Chu Lai (if you turned right once you were out the main gate you were headed in the direction of Tam Ky).
The second ammunition supply point was the one there by MAG-13 (MAG = Marine Air Group).
When the ammunition supply point went up it did look like an atomic bomb had been detonated. I saw it from the reverse side of where the ammunition supply point was located. But the cause of the explosions wasn't sappers. They were caused by 122mm rockets being fired from the hills outside the base camp.
If you were on the main road headed for the main gate, the hooches for the 205th were located on the same side (right) of the road as the main ammunition dump. We were located between a swamp and the ammunition supply point. It was quite dark at night, so we could see the flash from the rockets when they were being launched.
I could be wrong, but I don't recall MAG-13 storing any of the ordnance for their F-4 Phantoms at our ammunition supply point. The 5-10 pound pieces of shrapnel you found on the beach were probably the remains of some the 8 inch projectiles we stored at that ammunition supply point. And there were a ton of those. We also had a lot of ordnance containing white phosporus stored at that ammunition supply point. That stuff burned for days after that ammunition supply point went up.
See the map below. Red square in bottom right corner is the ammunition supply point located near where MAG-12 and MAG-13 were located. The other red square is where the main ammunition supply point was located. Within the square you can see what appears to be a road with little squares on either side of it. Those were the ammunition storage pads . The perimeter fence ran parallel to Highway 1 and curved where it looks like an elbow where the road bends. Our hooches were in the vicinity of the small blue square, so we had an unrestricted view of the hills where the 122mm rockets were being launched from.
Chu Lai Airfield Ammunition Pads and Storage Points
I also recall aircraft dropping napalm in those hills day and night for about 2 weeks straight. Unfortunately I don't recall if that happened before or after Tet 1968.
 If you Google Chu Lai International Airport and then zoom in, you can still see where the ammunition storage pads were. Same for the other ammunition supply point.
As an aside, I was in Chu Lai from November 1967 to November 1968. We used to give away ammunition when units came in to draw it, e.g. instead of an allocation of a single red-star cluster flare we'd give them a box full of them.
As you know, the Tet offensive came as a complete surprise to everyone. We didn't see the flash of the rockets being fired from the hills until after there had been an explosion or maybe two. And yes, there seemed to be a delay between the big explosion and the time we felt the shock wave and heard the explosion. There were some artillery batteries located outside the main Chu Lai base camp area. We were told later the reason they didn't return fire in the direction of where the rockets were coming from is because there were friendly troops in the area.
There wasn't any damage to the main ammunition supply point (ASP) (northern supply point?) during Tet 68. In fact, between November 1967 and November 1968 the ASP didn't suffer any damage at all. The only ASP that was hit was the one near the airfield.
Again, to the best of my knowledge the Marines didn't store any of their ordnance in our ASP. We kept various types of ammunition with white phosphorus, propelling charges (cloth bags of propellant), and 155mm, 175mm and 8 inch projectiles at that ASP. The attached image shows the canister (green tubes) that the propelling charges came in. The 155mm, 175mm and 8 inch projectiles all used propelling charges, so the size of the canisters varied. I'm sure you recall seeing them. Many of the canisters were used as "piss" tubes out behind hooches. The 155mm projectiles averaged about 100 pounds. The propelling charges packed enough punch to send projectiles downrange. The propelling charges alone would make for a sizeable explosion if they were set off.
Propelling Charges and Artillery Shells
I had been reassigned from Chu Lai to Qui Nhon in November 1968. I was on temporary duty at An Khe when the first two sapper attacks happened. I was getting short (my DEROS was 13 April 1969), so I was sent back to Qui Nhon and was there for the attack on March 23, 1969. We lost 3 people in that attack:
630th Ordnance Co:
CPT William J. Ahlum
SP4 Jerry L. Peterson
820th Ordnance Co:
SP5 Michael L. Berry
Ahlum was my company commander and had only been in command for 3 days when he was killed. Peterson was his jeep driver and bunked a couple bunks down from me in the same barracks.”)
Another version of the events on January 31, 1968 follows...
"On January 31, 1968, at 0410 hours Chu Lai Airbase came under heavy enemy attack and received 48 rounds of 122mm Soviet Rocket fire and significant but unknown number of incoming mortars causing severe damage to all MAG‑12 hangers and support facilities. Base defense Condition Red was implemented. The Force Logistic Command Bomb Dump next to the runway took direct hits from the rocket fire during the attack and exploded, causing extensive damage. The force of the explosions, as well as flying metal and shrapnel, damaged nearly ever aircraft at the base, and injured many service personnel. Reported damage assessments included the loss of three aircraft, one hangar, four buildings, and the ammunition dump. Over pressure from the ammunition explosion caused considerable damage to aircraft electronic repair facilities and other base facilities and aircraft. A total of 26 aircraft were damaged on January 31, 1968. MAG-12 casualties included Cpl. R.C. Jones; Cpl. D.M. Colbert; Cpl. W.R. Thomas; Cpl. K.J. Smith; Cpl. R.D. Holloway; L Cpl. E.M. Flores; There were 1,700 enlisted men and 218 officers in MAG‑12. There were 16,097 helicopter operations from the East Runway Helicopter Pads at the Chu Lai Marine Air Base in January, 1968. Skyhawk Squadrons on station were: VMA 121 “VK”, VMA 211 “CF”, VMA 224 “WK” and VMA 311 “WL”. The A-6 Squadron, VMA(AW) 533 “ED” remained on station. The Marine Corps estimate of enemy forces within the Chu Lai TAOR, defined as being located within a 25 mile radius of the base facility, consisted of 8 Infantry Battalions; and, 3 Support Battalions for a total strength of 5,160 enemy personnel. MABS-12 Commanding Officer was LtCol. Leo J. LeBlanc, and Executive Officer was Major Charles F. Moser. Base Operations Officer was Major Richard L. Dennis. There were 472 enlisted and 23 officer marines in MABS-12. Group Guard stood approximately 70,000 hours of watch in the defense of the MAG-12 containment and aircraft operating areas. Guard provided security force for Chaplain=s run to Tam Ky. Group Guard responded to every mortar and rocket attack on the Chu Lai Air Base on January 31st. The Chu Lai Air Base perimeter was not penetrated by enemy forces."
Credit:A-4 Skyhawk Association
*Editor's Note: Regardless of who or what caused the explosion in Chu Lai that night, it was one Hell of a blast!
February 6, 1968
Tomorrow, I expect to depart for my new unit. The talk around here is that the armored cavalry has had their own share of mortar and rocket attacks and casualties are high. I'm told almost everyone in the 1st Cavalry has been wounded at least once. I pray that this is not true and just a prank used to scare new replacements. The Viet Cong also suffered heavy losses in the recent attack. Twenty-one thousand killed or wounded in the last week alone. I wonder how they can continue to fight. I am now starting to get a little nervous. I wonder if Audy Murphy ever felt this way.
Last night there was another alert. We ran for the newly constructed bunkers that had sprouted up after the start of the Tet offensive. Without weapons we are defenseless, unless you consider that we had some training in hand to hand fighting. After the uneasiness of the situation subsided and the sounds of local skirmishes faded, I slept inside the tight dark quarters for about four hours; quite uncomfortably, I might add.
Ever since I arrived in country, I’ve been writing to my parents and friends about my experience. I wrote of the recent attacks with all the gory detail of a movie director. It never occurred to me that I may be scaring everyone with too much detail. If they only knew, how much it scares me!
February 9, 1968
Yesterday, Al Cognetti, a truck driver for my new unit, arrived at the reception center to take me and the other replacements back with him to Hill 29. As we rode in the duce and a half along Highway One, I got my first look at the countryside north of Chu Lai. I must say it is beautiful. The east side of the road is flat and sandy and within a few miles, but out of sight, merges with the South China Sea. Westward, are flat lush green fields and rice paddies stretching for miles. In the distance one can see mountains rising to meet a crystal clear blue sky. Along the way we passed a few small villages that seemed to pop up quite unexpectedly. In the villages there are many open shops and an occasional food cart. The inhabitants took notice of our presents and then went about their daily routine. Al told me that every morning the engineers have to sweep Highway One for land mines. At night the VC come out of hiding and plant mines along the route to disrupt the flow of supplies and personnel. No one is allowed to travel Highway One until it is swept. The locals, however, are not bound by this rule and every now and then set off one of these destructive devices and suffer loss of life.
As we pass the town of Tam Ky, Al remarks that our camp is getting close. About 7 miles north of Tam Ky we turn west onto the access road of our base of operations. Hill 29 is in sharp contrast to the surrounding terrain. It is completely barren of anything green except for the vehicles, tents and the uniforms of personnel scattered about. Our base of operations is dotted with bunkers, hootches, and an ammo dump for the artillery. I notice a Quonset hut made out of canvas that looks as if it might be the motor pool garage. This is a very large base camp for a forward area. There is quite a bit of hustle here with tanks, armored personnel carriers, trucks, and helicopters all going somewhere.
(L/F) Al Cognetti (R/F) Suppy Sergeant PoPs
Shortly after my arrival, my platoon sergeant briefed me on my duties. It will be my job to monitor A Troop’s radios every night. My shift is from 0000 to 0600. When the troop is in the field on a mission and needs support, I will contact, via land line, the artillery fire support base nearby or headquarters to request an air strike. It is also my job to call in medical evacuation helicopters (code name “Dust-off”) to recover the wounded and or dead. The night schedule will exempt me from guard duty and KP.
Well, at least I’ve gotten a fairly important job. It sounds interesting, but I really would rather be on one of the tanks.
February 13, 1968
Warm, near 70
At night, I watch tracers go back and forth in firefights just outside our perimeter. Sometimes, the artillery opens up and I think we are under another mortar or 122 mm rocket attack (a fairly frequent occurrence).
Once in a while, our troop brings in a prisoner or two. As an APC (armored personnel carrier) carrying a few prisoners pulls up in front of our command bunker, I survey the scene and notice how small and frail the prisoners appear. They squat on top of the track vehicles wearing their black pajamas with hands tied behind their back and a rope circling their neck. I don’t think they have had a good meal in months. It troubles me that the prisoners seem to be beaten very badly. Black eyes and gashes on their arms could have come from being captured, I suppose. What troubles me most is that these injuries could have happened after being captured. I’ve heard stories of what happens to some of the prisoners that have the misfortune to ride back to the base in a helicopter. It seems that if they are uncooperative and not forthcoming with information they're given the boot at 2000 feet.
I dread the thought of being captured. If we have so little regard for human life, how can I expect to be treated any differently.
(I ask my parents for another CARE package of magazines and other stuff.)
February 16, 1968
When you're out of Schlitz...
In the letters I’ve received from home, my parents inform me that a care package is on the way. I anxiously await the goodies anticipating some desperately needed items. Letters arrive in only ten days and provide a steady stream of correspondence from my friends back home. I am now settled into a boring routine. My shift isn’t very active except when we come under rocket or mortar attack.
More prisoners brought in today; badly beaten.
February 18, 1968
The night radio shift is not very busy. Most of the activity takes place during the daylight hours when our troop is out on a mission. The more seasoned radio operators have the day shifts and rightly so.
GM stock is not doing too well. I may sell my shares if it does not improve soon.
February 25, 1968
The food on "Hawk Hill" (Hill 29) is far superior to what they served at the replacement center in Chu Lai. The one thing I can say about the Army is that I’m never hungry. We can buy soda from the supply sergeant and get C-rations for the days when nothing at the mess hall whets my appetite. I especially like the ham or chicken found in a box of C-rations. Heated over a piece of C-4 explosive they are very tasty indeed. Every couple of days the supply sergeant hands out candy, cigarettes and toiletries from the SP packs that are delivered to our camp. The PX is now more than 25km away, so being able to get these things here helps a lot.
Our base is only 5 miles inland from the South China Sea. Unfortunately, from here we can’t see the ocean. A makeshift shower stall with a 55 gallon oil drum perched on top is all we have to wash the layers of dust from our sweaty bodies. We’re fortunate that the drums are equipped with immersion water heaters that take the chill off the water and permit a more comfortable early morning lathering. We use our steel helmets to hold water for washing our face and brushing our teeth. A short distance away from the shower is a three-hole latrine set up much like the one in Long Binh.
I wrote to my buddy John Fitzgerald; he still has not replied.
We now learn that packages kept under 5 pounds will be shipped by air and will not endure a long sea voyage. The packages my parents sent from home still have not arrived.
(I sent home a sample of military script.)
February 28, 1968
Commo Bunker - 1st. Sgt. McPherson
We began building a new bunker last week. It is very heavy work but the weather is cool. Some of the inhabitants of the local village are also giving us a hand. The roof of the bunker is reinforced with wooden beam four by tens. They help to support the sandbags and dirt that is piled on top. This bunker will serve as an orderly room and radio operations center for A Troop. It will also serve as quarters for the captain, executive officer, first sergeant, and a few strays.
New company policy; I now pull KP. I guess you can call that "Andersen luck."
While on a recent patrol a troop from the battalion intercepted a reinforced company of Viet Cong. Our men killed 65 VC, and support helicopter gun-ships increased that total to 142. It was the first major battle the battalion has had in Vietnam.