I am not a very big fan of the way that we celebrate the Fourth of July in America. I don’t really believe that a large percentage of our population know much about the details of what they are celebrating; the creation of English colonies on the eastern shores of North America, which colonies revolted against their British masters to create an Enlightment nation-state which at last waged seven years of war to be granted it’s right to exist. Instead, many people view the Fourth as a time solely for barbecue and fireworks. In many parts of the country personal use of fireworks is illegal, but in my corner of the Pacific Northwest fireworks are easy to come by and only very loosely regulated. And that is why my neighborhood reminds me a little of the Tet Offensive on that night and on New Year’s Eve.
“Tet Offensive” is a term which is little spoken of these days, and many of my younger friends have no idea what the Tet Offensive was. Even amongst older folk the name of Tet only rings a bell with the guys who were in the military then or with that body of political activists who were very much aware of things concerning the war in Vietnam.
A little background is necessary then to understand this story. There is a long tradition of armies at war calling truces for the holy days. At Christmas during the American Civil War opposing armies would call a truce and soldiers from each side would share tobacco, coffee, food and sometimes letters to post to relatives living behind the respective lines. During the first world war an event transpired in which, on the first Christmas Eve, the German, French, and English armies in one sector of the trenches spontaneously laid down their weapons and sang, ate, played soccer and worshipped God together. They were all reprimanded severely for this of course. Many other examples of such truces, official and spontaneous, could be given.
It is therefore not surprising that during the conflict in Vietnam it was arranged that there would be a truce on Christmas for the western soldiers and their allies, and a truce for Tet, a Vietnamese holiday one month later. How this truce was arranged I have no knowledge, but I do not doubt that the U.S. military and the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese had contact in some way. This fact was made obvious to me by the collection of California ranch-style houses surrounded by a concertina barbed wire fence and guard posts which clustered just to the rear of my battalion area. I wondered about those very out-of-place houses and asked an MP once what they were for. “Oh, that’s where the senators and congressmen and other bigwigs stay when they come on a ‘fact finding’ tour. Most of the facts that they find are well stocked liquor cabinets and some very obliging company with the mostly female staff.” I believe his story to be true, because during my twenty months at that location I was never aware of a rocket, a mortar bomb, or so much as a spent AK 47 round landing in or near that compound. My guess is that there was some area in communist held parts of Vietnam which never got bombed, napalmed, strafed, or otherwise harassed in return. “The wire” my MP friend told me, “is not to keep the Cong out; it’s to keep you out.” So however the truce arrangements came to be, come to be they did, and we all enjoyed standing down just a little and forgetting for a few hours that we were in a war 12,000 miles from home.
On the eve before Tet most of my entire detachment, which consisted of about twenty five guys, and Headquarters Company which counted to another sixty, came together for a grand unit party. We had a small open trailer, which was usually pulled by a jeep, filled with ice and beer. Close by we had a grill made out of a fifty-five gallon drum cut in half lengthwise with the two ends welded together. Grenade screen, which looked like chicken wire but made of much more substantial metal, was laid over the cut drum. Charcoal was lit in the drum and steak, chicken and burgers were cooked on the grill. All of the meat and beer had been “requisitioned” at the ship terminal which we operated on the Saigon River. A pallet here and a pallet there would never be missed in the river of supplies that flowed through Newport Army Terminal.
The party went well into the night, and you may not be able to envision a pallet of beer but it is a lot, and by the end of the evening it was gone. I had put a pretty good buzz on but wouldn’t say that it was the best buzz that I ever had; the time that my good friend Joe came down to visit via helicopter from the 173rd Airborne claimed that honor. We walked on that occasion to the NCO club and began to drink rum and coke. At the table next to us sat six Australians drinking beer. Joe and I felt an alcohol assisted rush of comradeship with out brothers of the Southern Cross and bought them a round. They returned the favor, but since there were six Aussies they bought us six rounds. We were not to be outdone so we bought them twelve rounds, and then they bought us…, well, you can see how this thing went. By the end of the evening the Aussies, out of the goodness of their hearts, drove us to my battalion area and poured us out of their jeep within staggering distance of my bunk. That one took more than a day to get over. Anyway, I was just a bit less buzzed than that.
It was probably not three hours after the party ended and we had returned to our bunks that the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese introduced us to their way of celebrating a holiday. Rockets and mortar bombs began to rain down all around the perimeter of Long Binh and small arms fire was thick. As usual we hustled into our bunkers and soon our weapons were made available as we fell into trenches to await an assault which, thankfully, never came. By morning we were able to see that the infantry had secured the wire just in front of our perimeter fence and we took a little more relaxed posture. Breakfast was served in the mess hall but we ate in flack jackets and helmets.
After breakfast I was walking back to my ‘hooch’, or aluminum bunkhouse that we had constructed, when I was treated to an experience that I was completely unprepared for. On the other side of Long Binh was the largest ammunition dump in Vietnam. Ammo of all kinds, from M-16 bullets to 175 mm howitzer rounds were stored in huge, partially underground bunkers. The Cong wanted desperately to get into that section of Long Binh and torch as much of that ammo as possible. Wave after wave of attackers hit that wire and finally one guy got through. He shot a lock off of the door and died in a hail of gunfire just after he tossed a satchel charge into the depths of that explosives-filled bunker.
The resulting explosion occurred as I was walking back to my hooch, and as I saw the black cloud begin to rise I stopped and turned to face it. I watched as it grew and before very long it had expanded into something like I had never seen before. I was transfixed, and the only thought that registered in my brain was that the Cong had somehow gotten hold of a nuclear weapon. I had seen eight inch cannon go off and B-52 strikes, but nothing even came close to this. The black cloud boiled and billowed as it grew, with jets of flame erupting through it’s outer surface and ripples of concussion coursing through it as more of the ammo dump blew up.
I was strangely calm as I watch this. I had seen the films of nuclear tests and had been trained in the battlefield realities of a nuclear blast, and so I knew that there wasn’t one stinking thing that I could do, being so close to the detonation. I could only enjoy the spectacle with my last few seconds until the inevitable blast and heat wave turned me into glowing molecules. The thought that it should be instantaneous and painless was some comfort. I stood and watched, stood and watched, stood and watched, and as I saw the cloud grow to about fifteen or twenty percent of the sky and then stop I began to believe that I might survive this thing after all.
The rest of the day contained plenty of activity to keep my attention diverted from the shaking that I experienced once I realized that I would get to live at least a bit longer. No more heavy stuff fell on us and the North Vietnamese, who were dug in on a hill across from my unit, had the infantry and a C-47 gunship to keep their attention directed away from us. Tet dragged on for several more weeks and was a bloody nightmare for both sides. The war eventually settled back into a more routine grind and fifteen months later I went home. Unlike too many of my brothers I was able to leave that place behind and get on with life. But like all of those guys I still retain very vivid memories of those events, and when it happens that I run into a guy who looks my age wearing a hat or something which indicates his Vietnam Veteran status I will great him, we will ask where we served, and when I mention Long Binh he’ll usually say “were you there when the ammo bunker went up?” It happens all the time.
So when the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve fireworks go off I try not to be a grinch. I remember that these are just people who don’t really know what an explosion is. I pray that they never have to find out.