No Front Lines

In Vietnam there was no such thing as a safe place

Story by Randy Bullock and Robert Porter. Photos courtesy of Daryl Foutz.

bullockaerialview
The U.S. Army base at Dong Ba Thin, South Vietnam, takes up a lot of space, and looks relatively safe in this day-time aerial view.

Vietnam was a war with no front lines. No place was safe. Though almost all the fighting was done by about 20 percent of the soldiers, sometimes support personnel, such as clerks, cooks, and mechanics, were handed a share of the action. As we were told in basic training, “You are all infantry first.” I was trained to be a clerk, but seven months after entering the Army, I found myself behind an M-60 machine gun when our perimeter was penetrated by enemy sappers.

Sappers were the elite of the enemy’s forces, and sometimes they sneaked into our bases to set off explosives and kill as many of us as possible. They received their orders from the highest North Vietnamese commands, and each mission was of great importance to the enemy’s overall military plan. Every sapper attack was meticulously planned and deadly. They were extraordinarily brave and highly trained soldiers, very similar to our own special forces. We respected them and feared them.

The guards were all fully alert, and a few soldiers in the camp were still awake and moving around. It was too early in the evening for a sapper attack, and the moon was too bright.

The attack occurred on November 30, 1969, against the U.S. Army base at Dong Ba Thin, South Vietnam. Dong Ba Thin was near Cam Ranh Bay on Highway 1. There were at least ten sappers, and seven of them sneaked under and cut through our concertina wire, crossed our perimeter, and were completely inside the base before they were discovered. They carried with them a five-foot-long Bangalore torpedo containing seventy-five cakes of C-4 plastic explosive – a bomb powerful enough to flatten half a city block. A bomb designed to kill many American soldiers.

I was on guard duty that night, and fifty-three officers, including Brigadier General John W. Morris, were sleeping a hundred yards behind my guard tower. In the tower next to mine was Jerry Laws, who later became a brigadier general, but was then an aviation captain with the 18th Combat Engineer Brigade. Four hundred yards to my right was Specialist Butch Graef who was manning the 183rd Aviation’s tower.

It was obvious that the sappers intended to strike my company’s officer quarters. Only the chance crossing of good luck and good soldiers prevented this night from becoming a story of massive tragedy.

It was 11:30 p.m., the moon was in its “waning gibbous” stage at about 66 percent visibility, and we could see the perimeter clearly. The guards were all fully alert, and a few soldiers in the camp were still awake and moving around. It was too early in the evening for a sapper attack, and the moon was too bright. So why did they choose that night and that time? That decision cost them their lives.

I was a green PFC, and had been in Vietnam only fifteen days. It was only my second night on guard duty, and I was on the tower that faced the elephant grass to the south. I had third shift, from 10 p.m. until midnight, and then again from 4 a.m. until 6 a.m.

Dong Ba Thin at night.
Everything changes as the sun sinks below the horizon, darkness approaches, and the view through the concertina wire becomes a bit more sinister.

The sappers completely breached our perimeter, and were behind the 183rd tower and on their way to the officers sleeping behind my tower – carrying their massive bomb. Fortunately, Specialist Jim Benoit happened to be drying off after showering, and Jim did something that startled the sappers and caused one of the them to chamber a round into his Chinese-made AK-47 rifle. The guard on the 183rd tower, Specialist Butch Graef, who was a mechanic by day, heard that distinctive click, and threw a spotlight on the sapper. The sappers knew they had been discovered, and almost immediately aborted their mission and went into their plan of escape.

I heard the AK-47 volley first, as they immediately pinned down Specialist Graef with a flurry of AK-47 fire. The sound of automatic weapons was new to me. I initially thought someone had set off firecrackers. A more experienced guard would have known it was AK-47 fire, which has a distinctive sound. A few minutes later there were several explosions. At that point I still did not realize that we were under sapper attack. I thought the 183rd corner of the base had just taken a few mortars again. It happened so quickly that the incongruity of firecrackers going off shortly before mortars exploding didn’t enter my mind.

The next day, my friends, all of whom had been in Vietnam longer than I had, got a laugh when I told them I had thought of firecrackers. “No, Randy,” one told me, “you won’t hear any firecrackers at Dong Ba Thin. That would put the whole base on alert, and the sirens would go off. We would all have had to get up and run to our positions on the perimeter.”

After a short silence, the sappers loosed a round from an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) that demolished the latrine next to the shower that Jim was in. The sappers then threw a few satchel charges at the 183rd Officer and NCO quarters, and tossed grenades at the guard tower and a bunker. Specialist Leo Farrell happened to be walking to the latrine, the same latrine demolished by the RPG, and saw the sappers as they were throwing satchel charges. Specialist Farrell quickly grabbed his rifle and fired a few rounds at them.

The sirens went off, and the main flood lights inside the base flashed on. The two guards on duty with me, who had been sleeping in the small bunker at the base of our tower, quickly joined me on top.

At some point, Specialist Graef shot one of the sappers in the knee with his rifle, and that sapper turned out to be an ARVN (Army Republic of Vietnam) captain who had been on our base many times, learning to fly. He was supposedly on our side, and had eaten in the 183rd mess hall. The enemy was everywhere. There were no front lines. The sappers then escaped through the holes in the wire they had cut just a few minutes earlier. In the process, the sappers wounded several of our men. Both guards who were on duty with Specialist Graef – Specialists James Dorough and Frank Robertson – received purple heart medals. Captain Hodgson also received a purple heart.

Captain Laws immediately recognized that the AK-47 blitz meant we were under enemy attack, since AK-47s were only used by our enemy, and that rifle has a very distinctive and recognizable sound. Captain Law’s response was instantaneous. His quarters were only a few yards from my company’s other guard tower, and he was half way up the ladder when the first satchel charges exploded. He soon sent fire from that tower’s M-60 onto the perimeter. Captain Laws knew his machine-gun fire might hit some of the sappers, and just as importantly, it let everyone on the base quickly realize that “This is not another mortar attack!”

The sirens went off, and the main flood lights inside the base flashed on. The two guards on duty with me, who had been sleeping in the small bunker at the base of our tower, quickly joined me on top. Specialist Graef’s machine gun was inoperable, though it was quickly replaced by another one carried up by Specialist Michael Buttolph. That tower soon began spitting hundreds of rounds into the perimeter, and I now had machine guns blazing on both sides of me. In short order I received a call on the field phone from our captain of the guard. He inquired if I had seen any enemy or done any shooting. When I answered “No,” he asked, “Well, you hear all that machine-gun fire, don’t you?” His tone was a little impatient. He told me that our perimeter had been penetrated, and he gave us permission to open fire into the elephant grass.

My heart raced, time seemed to slow down, and my mind focused to an extraordinary degree. It felt unreal. After the sappers had escaped, but were still within rifle range, Specialists Terry Hackney, Wesley Smith, Markus Mitchell, and others added their own flurries of rifle fire into the perimeter, possibly wounding or killing more of the enemy. All the sappers, including their wounded leader, made it outside the wire, but the wounded leader slowed them down, and they abandoned him a few yards outside the perimeter.

Within a few minutes, the captain of the guard called again to tell us that helicopters would soon be in the air, and that we were to hold fire. Almost immediately a number of attack helicopters were scouring the elephant grass with search lights. With ten minutes to escape, the sappers should have been able to get under the road through a culvert, and already have scattered into the nearby village or into the mountains, but they had been slowed down by their wounded leader, and it seems likely that the early machine-gun fire and other fire slowed them down even more – maybe wounding or killing more of them.

I knew that men were dead and dying out in that grass. Men just like us, men with families who wanted them to come home. I knew the fight was over, and I was glad for that, but I was also sad and felt detached.

Two of the helicopters soon hovered over a small area about 300 yards in front of and to the right of my tower. They blasted into a concentrated area for fully five minutes. I knew they had found the sappers. According to John Bradley, who was a staff sergeant with the 183rd, and is now a Baptist minister, a total of nine sappers were killed that night. The sapper wounded by Specialist Graef was found the next morning hiding in a row of bushes on the eastern berm of the road. Three of our soldiers killed him, which made for a total of ten enemy dead.

My emotions were mixed. It was the moment when the realization of what had just taken place became real. I knew that men were dead and dying out in that grass. Men just like us, men with families who wanted them to come home. I knew the fight was over, and I was glad for that, but I was also sad and felt detached. It was a surreal feeling that lasted more than a week.

Everything settled down after an hour and a half. More than a thousand Dong Ba Thin soldiers left their positions on the perimeter and went back to bed, and those of us still on guard duty went on with our shifts. Although my shift had ended an hour earlier, I remained on top with the other two guards. I did not sleep much, if at all, for the rest of the night.

To read a longer version of this story and to see more photos, go to Randy Bullock’s web site at www.nofrontlines.com.

 

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Randy BullockRandy Bullock served for a few days less than a year with the Army in Vietnam, as a clerk, perimeter guard, base radio operator, courier, and as a replacement door gunner on helicopters.