A Viet Nam Experience: May 1967 – May 1968
By David K. Wall
U.S. Air Force

Entering active duty in August 1965, I immediately volunteered to go to South Viet Nam. The Air Force accepted the volunteer statement, but I had to complete that first assignment before going, which included some 19 months (two winters – brrrrr!) in Maine.
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In May 1967, I arrived in Saigon and was immediately flown to Da Nang. My assignment was to a radar site on Monkey Mountain, some 7 miles NE of Da Nang, perhaps one of the safest locations in all of South Viet Nam. At Monkey Mountain, as with other long range radar sites, we primarily provided flight following to fighter and transport aircraft, joined fighters with tankers for mid-air refueling on their way to and from the Hanoi and Haiphong areas of North Viet Nam, assisted in downed pilot rescues, and provided other support as necessary.
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In mid-October, I volunteered for and was reassigned to the radar site at Dong Ha, 70 some-odd miles NW of Da Nang. Dong Ha was located in Quang Tri Province, 6 miles northwest of Quang Tri, and 24 miles northeast of Khe Sanh. Being only six miles below the so-called demilitarized zone (DMZ), it was an inviting, stationary target for North Viet Nam military forces, who moved rockets and artillery guns into the DMZ. While an Air Force tour in Viet Nam was 12 months, the maximum tour at Dong Ha was six months due to continuing artillery barrages. The attacks were sporadic but often. One might go two weeks with no incoming shells or “rounds” followed by a similar period of several barrages a day. During my approximately 180 days at Dong Ha, we endured 113 barrages. While taking a sporadic (never more than) 150 rounds a day was nerve wracking, it small potatoes compared to Khe Sanh where, during the Tet Offensive of 1968, as many as 1,500 rounds a day were endured. We thought we had it pretty rough, but Marines coming out of Khe Sanh felt Dong Ha was almost an R&R site!

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When one is attacked by artillery, there are several aspects that become immediately apparent.  First, when the initial round explodes you literally “hit the dirt,” as the last place you want to be in an artillery barrage is in an upright position. The flatter you can be on the ground, the better. Due to incoming speed, shrapnel from the exploding round literally goes forward and up. Only a few pieces of shrapnel will blow back in the direction of the firing gun. If a round lands just a few feet beyond your location, you are relatively safe.  Also, if you are fortunate enough to drop in a ground depression, a round has practically got to hit you in order to do damage. This doesn’t make the attack any less terrifying, but it does greatly increase survivability. Somewhat humorously when lying flat on the ground, there is an urge to yell or scream, but you don’t, because sucking in the air to yell will raise your back another inch or two off the ground! Also, when lying there, you can feel your belt buckle and shirt buttons keeping you up off the ground!

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Second, the sound of incoming rounds, where everyone recognizes the sound and takes cover is the stuff of which movies are made. While you can hear and react to an incoming round that will impact to your right or left at say ¼ mile or more, a round coming at you is traveling so fast it will explode by the time your mind recognizes what’s happening. It is similar to a lightning strike that hits closer than 50 yards. Ironically, since the round travels in an arc, and the firing sound travels in a straight line, the sound will arrive approximately 1-2 seconds before the round itself. One never hears the first firing, but as you lie flat on the ground, you will hear a very soft “poom,” telling you another round is on the way.

 

Third, there is almost no excuse for being injured or killed by any incoming round except the first one. As the above paragraph indicates, being flat on the ground should prevent injury or death from later rounds. Unfortunately, every artillery-caused death that occurred at the Dong Ha Air Force radar site from October 1967 to April 1968 occurred after that first round. Why? Because being caught out in the open during an artillery barrage is absolutely terrifying, and the temptation to get up and “run for cover” is very powerful. Far too many Airmen paid the ultimate price for yielding to this temptation.

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So, the only viable option is to lie there and take it. Fighting back is impossible. For someone who had not been allowed to fight after sixth grade, because the other kid’s parents might take away their insurance from our family’s agency and put us in the poor house, I was much better prepared than those raised without such restrictions. My most vivid memory here was of a Captain who played first-string backfield at a large university. He was very powerfully built and could probably have taken on a pack of alligators and won. Unable to fight back when under artillery attack turned him into a virtual alcoholic in a matter of weeks. Regrettably, he was one of many who chose to bury their fears in alcohol, which was readily available.
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A Navy Triage located next to our radar site, was the initial receiving point for anyone injured in Quang Tri Province. Often, when not controlling aircraft, many of us could be found at the Triage carrying stretchers from the incoming helicopters to the first treatment location. Between our own compound and the triage, we saw enough injury and death to last many lifetimes. As for what we saw at these side-by-side locations, just think of the opening D-Day scenes in “Saving Private Ryan.”  When I and others who served at Dong Ha think of the Purple Heart, injuries seen in our compound and the Triage come to mind. For this reason, none of us at the radar site who received minor cuts and scratches from shrapnel ever put in for the Purple Heart. We all felt we just didn’t deserve it.
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At the end of March 1968, I left Dong Ha and returned to the safety of Monkey Mountain, and stayed until leaving Viet Nam in May. Those of us returning to Monkey Mountain occasionally provided humor for other individuals, such as when a truck backfired while carrying a lunch tray to my seat. I dove to the floor, and the tray, hot food and all, landed on two Colonels visiting the site! Another time, I was sitting on a bench outside reading a newspaper in the late afternoon when an F4 broke the sound barrier. The paper went up, I dove forward for the ground, and made the best “football clip” of my life on a Marine who happened to be standing about four feet away with his back to me! Fortunately, he wasn’t armed at the time!
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There were several after effects from experiences at Dong Ha, and everyone changed, some for the better, and some for the worse. Many became alcoholics. Some later overcame the disease, while others did not. Second, after observing so much maiming and killing, many lost the desire to ever again have anything to do with guns. Outside of mandatory proficiency training, I hadn’t fired a gun since leaving Viet Nam until 2005 when I bought a shotgun to kill turtles eating fish in our stocked pond. Third, any sudden loud noise would, for several years, cause us to duck, often to the point of hitting the ground. To remain standing after a nearby lightning strike was virtually unknown! Even today, if a loud noise occurs when talking about war in general or Viet Nam in particular, the result is the same. Fortunately, I haven’t “hit the ground” since a lightning strike in the summer of 2004. As for PTSD, I thought I never had it until my late wife told me I periodically woke up screaming at night during the first 20 years of our marriage (we married 17 Aug 69). I can’t confirm this, as I have no recollection of it ever happening.
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Lest one think Viet Nam was nothing but despair, most radar controllers received numerous, very proud moments when they helped save lives and equipment. Joining a fighter with a tanker after the fighter has run out of gas and is gliding down; running a ground controlled approach (GCA) which “the book” says can’t be done with long range radar, in near zero visibility and a fighter pilot who is injured and can’t change frequencies; and guiding a rescue helicopter to a downed pilot before he can be captured all leave one with a satisfaction that cannot be described. There were many times in Viet Nam when we felt we were needed more than at any other time in their lives, before and since.
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As most veterans will tell you, those six months of trial at Dong Ha, as with any trying experience forged some of the strongest friendships of our lives. I still have the names addresses of nearly 20 friends with whom I served during those six months at Dong Ha. The experience? I wouldn’t trade it for all the tea in China, but I wouldn’t wish it on a dog.
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In 1998, one of my children asked if I ever suffered from PTSD, to which I responded that I had no such suffering and felt very lucky about that. My wife Nancy immediately said that if I didn’t have PTSD, then why did I wake up screaming at night for the first 20 years of our marriage? To this day, I have no memory of that ever happening!

Thank you, brother, for your service and Welcome Home!

This article was also published on TogetherWeServed Dispatches – August 2016.  To read more articles or join, visit http://togetherweserved.com/.

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