Cam Ranh Bay
First Night - TET 1968
"Somehow this was not the way I had envisioned my first night in Nam."

by: Lawrence (Larry) Lusk
Sgt E5, D Company, 5th Btn, 7th Cav, 1st Cav Division
January 31, 1968 to June, 1968
© 2005)


First Night - TET 1968

It took only an hour or so from the time we got off the plane at Cam Ranh Bay until we were led to the "Repo Depot" at the North end of the Air Base. We were still asking anyone we could what had happened the night before.

Over eight hours into the flight from Seattle/Tacoma airport the Southwest Orient's captain announced over the planes intercom that we were diverting to Okinawa because Cam Ranh Bay was under a code red alert. While this meant little to most of the replacements on the plane the worried look and whispered words between men returning to Vietnam gave me a heightened sense of unease. I was already beginning to regret my decision to volunteer for Vietnam and with the words from the staff at Fr. Lewis still in my thoughts this was not a good sign. We had been told that "It should be a quiet time when you get there, it's the start of their New Year, 'Tet,' or something like that."

During the five hours until morning inside the almost empty MAC terminal at Kadina AFB, Okinawa Japan, there was little to curb my growing concern that something was very wrong. The returning Vietnam vets wouldn't talk to us and the one Airman at the MAC counter simply walked away when we tried to ask if he knew what was going on. A few minutes before dawn we got back on the plane and took off again for Cam Ranh Bay.

At the Cam Ranh Bay replacement depot all the men with an infantry MOS were split off from the rest of the replacements. To my surprise the man who had been sitting in the seat beside me was pulled out of line along with me and the rest of the "grunts." Dennis and I had talked about a lot of things on that long flight but he had never mentioned that he was infantry. We didn't realize then that we had started a deep friendship that would last until we last saw each other almost six months later.

One of the sergeants, an E6 that was on the flight with us, and a 1st Lieutenant gathered us together well away from the rest of the men on the flight. It was then we learned a little about what had happened on the eve of the day the Vietnamese called Tet. The Lt. said several "sappers" had penetrated the airbase last night and blown up several planes. There had also been heavy fighting in the city of Cam Ranh across the bay from the peninsula that housed the Air Base and replacement center. Since we were infantry we would stand watch on the "repo depot's" perimeter until we were assigned to a unit. The Lt. then pointed to a tent and told us to grab a bunk and try to get some sleep because it was going to be a long night.

Needless to say, I didn't get any sleep. At one point the Sergeant came into the tent and told us that last night was the first time the Air Base had been attacked and there were reports of fighting going on all over Vietnam, by late afternoon we were all very hot, tired and scared.

The Lt. showed up and took us on a tour of the perimeter we would be guarding that night. He made a point of pausing on a paved road on the far right side of the perimeter. A long beach stretched out to the South China Sea to the right of the road. In line with the barricade, across the road a triple stack of concertina wire went down the beach and into the water. The Lt. warned us not go onto the sand because during the day the beach had been mined. I could see why he made that point because even with the sun nearing the horizon it was still incredibly hot and that water looked very inviting.

The Lt. then pointed down the road past the barricade and said somewhere in that direction was the ROK Marine (Korean) White Horse Division. He said they were very touchy about being shot at, so if we saw anyone wearing a uniform, even if they seemed a little short, not to fire on them. From what I had heard about the ROK Marines that sounded like good advise.

At about the middle of the perimeter we stopped at a spot where a sloping hill rose up in front of the guard post. The Lt. told us on the other side of the hill was a scrap-yard that had it's own internal-perimeter.
They had been probed and taken some fire the night before and were also pretty jumpy. They also had a 60mm mortar and were willing to use it no matter which direction they thought they thought they were taking fire from.

I didn't know at the time but this was where my guard post was going to be that night. We were then lead back to a half tent half bunker which was the perimeter CP. We were all given a M14 rifle and one magazine of ammo and it was suggested that we work on cleaning them before it got completely dark.

While I had thought all Army personal were using M16's in Vietnam, the M14 was a relief since I had never seen a real M16. I didn't like the idea of only one magazine though. I had been in a Mech Infantry unit in Panama for eight months and knew how quickly, even in training, a single magazine could be used up. As it got dark the first of the two shifts were sent off to their posts on the perimeter. I was on the second shift that was due to start close to midnight. I think I got some sleep but if I did it wasn't much.

Close to midnight (2400 hours) the E6 paired us up with another man, more by touch than sight, in the dark of the CP tent. While I could barely see the man I was paired with I knew I had never talked with him. Dennis had been paired with someone else. The sergeant led on foot the men who were assigned to the closer positions first, then the rest of us loaded up into two jeeps and were dropped off at our positions, and the men we replaced took our places on the jeep. I remember feeling rather alone as the jeep quickly disappeared into the dark. Somehow this was not the way I had envisioned my first night in Nam.

I didn't like our guard post. It was an above ground stand up open backed structure with one layer of sand bags on the front and sides that came up to about the middle of my chest and a corrugated steel roof. We had a field phone to the CP and two parachute flares. Around 2300 hours, there had been sporadic gun fire in the distance and the smell of fear from the men in the CP tent waiting to go on duty was still in my mind. Although we were told to keep our rifles empty, I quietly chambered a round. It was pitch black in all directions around the guard post with the slope of the low hill in front of me a black hole. For the next hour and a half it was deathly quiet. As I stood there looking into the darkness, I wondered about the man beside me. I didn't know his name and as far as I could remember he hadn't spoken a word at all. Oh well, I thought, there should be a lot of men between the enemy and our primitive perimeter -- so get a grip Larry.

Staring into that darkness, scanning back and forth like I had been trained to do because at night your best vision was peripheral rather than straight ahead was getting very tiring. I was also beginning to feel the effects of getting very little sleep. I didn't know at the time that this was going to be normal for a grunt in Nam and that I just wasn't used to it yet. Suddenly a dim white disk of light appeared at what should be about half way up the slope in front of our position. At first I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me then a red pinpoint of light appeared slightly lower and to my left of the larger white light. My first thought was that the first light was a flashlight with a white filter on it and the second was a pin light with a red lens. I felt. a tingle run down my back -- suddenly I wasn't tired anymore.

I leaned over and whispered to the other man asking if he saw the lights. His answer was a hesitant "no." I whispered back "Look right in front of us, a white light and a red one." The man was silent for a moment then said, "I think I should tell you this, I'm night blind." It took a few seconds for his words to sink in. Then with a rising sense of panic my situation hit me.

I was standing in a relatively exposed position with at least two enemy infiltrators in front of me, a blindman beside me and one magazine of ammo! As calmly as I could I picked up the field phone and cranked it like I had been trained. Nothing happened so I tried again. Still no tone or answer. The line seemed as dead as the thought that I might be in the near future.

I grabbed one of the flares and realized I was going to have to step out of the slight protection to the guard position to fire it because of the roof. Now, I had been shown how to fire a parachute flare in training but I had never had the chance to actually do it. I pulled the cap off the top, put it on the bottom of the flare tube and holding the tube in my left hand cocked so the flare couldn't accidentally hit me I stepped out of the position and slapped the cap with the palm of my right hand.

This was the way I had been taught to do it in training. I can say this in all confidence now that if you ever have the need to fire this type of flare do not, I repeat, do not hit the firing cap with your hand. It felt, I would guess, like a twelve-gage shotgun shell had gone off in my hand. My right hand and arm went completely numb after a moment of intense pain.

Since the wind was blowing in from the sea at about ten miles per hour I had aimed the flare to my right so the flare would pass over as much of the slope as possible. The shock of firing the flare had caused me to forget where I was. As I watched the flare float over the hill side turning night into day, for a few seconds I realized I was standing completely out in the open and lit up as brightly as the hill side. Why no one took a shot at me is a mystery. Perhaps they ducked when the flare popped overhead or maybe they didn't want to give away their positions. I threw myself back into safety of the sand bags and grabbed my rifle before the flare went out. I asked my night blind companion if he had seen anything or one on the slope.

Nope, he answered but then he had no idea where to look. After the flare went out I waited in what I can only describe as intense anxiety for my night vision to return and my right arm and hand to become functional again. I could feel the sweat trickling down my face and back while the wind and the overdose of adrenalin made me shiver.

While it seemed like an eternity, in only a few minutes I heard the sound of a jeep and saw the headlight slits coming towards us from the direction of the CP. Both the Lt. and the Sergeant were in the jeep. They jumped out of the jeep and joined us in the guard post. The Lt. wanted to know if we fired the flare and why. I told him about the two lights on the hillside and the phone not working. The Lt. asked the other man what he saw and the answer was nothing because he was night blind. The Sergeant said a "s" word and suggested they stay with us for a little while to see if anything happens. The Lt. tried the field phone then went to the jeep and returned with a PRC 6 phone (a small radio telephone).

About five minutes I could tell that the Lt. was getting restless and a bit pissed off. Then the lights flicked back on again, one after the other. "I'll be damned," uttered the Lt. and I heard distinctive click of two M14's chambering a round. The Lt. whispered into the phone for everyone to hold their fire unless fired upon.

The lights stayed on for about five more minutes then went out and the slope became a black hole again. The Sergeant told the Lt. that he would stay the rest of the shift with me and the Lt. and the night blind grunt loaded into the jeep and went back to the CP. The Sergeant, who I learned was returning for a second tour in Vietnam, told me the VC sometimes do something like this (the lights) in hope someone will fire on them. If there are enough new troops on the perimeter the chance that they might end up shooting at each other is pretty good. Although my arm continued to ache, my fear slowly subsided now the Sergeant was with me. I could tell he was as tense as I felt for the rest of the night.

When the sun came up the Sergeant took a long look at the hillside then told me it was safe for me to walk back to the CP. He had to go the other way and relieve the other positions. Before we parted he said I should clear my weapon before I got back to the CP. Since I had chambered a round long before the Sergeant arrived. I was curious how he knew my rifle was loaded.

He just winked at me and said "Welcome to Vietnam." When I got back to the CP my night blind partner was already gone and when I later asked the Lt. what happened to him he just shook is head and said that the guy was already on a plane out of country. A short time later the Sergeant and my soon to become best friend Dennis walked into the CP. Dennis told me that on their way back to the CP they checked the hill side where I had seen the lights and found positions where five to six persons had most likely been during the night. As we were leaving the CP for the infantry tent to get some sleep the Lt. stopped me and told me that I did a good job last night.

That made me feel good then, but how could I have known the first night was going to end up as one of the easier nights I was to have in Vietnam?

The next day Dennis and I got orders to report to the First Cavalry Division. We ended up in the same squad and fire team. Whenever someone questioned how someone got through training let alone into the Infantry, Dennis and I would look at each other and laugh and I'd tell the story about the "blind" Infantryman.

Lawrence (Larry) Lusk
Sgt E5
D Company, 5th Btn, 7th Cav, 1st Cav Division January 31, 1968 to June, 1968

 

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