Commander Arthur R. Lee Recalls a Sapper Attack at Cam Ranh Bay During the Vietnam War

6/12/2006 • Vietnam

I had been in Vietnam for only a few days when I experienced my first rocket attack. I had just returned from a short trip to the U.S. Army’s base at Dong Ba Thin, where a contingent of Vertol CH-47 helicopters was located. While there, I was amazed to see that so many helos had been shot up. Some were blackened by fire, their crumpled fuselages pushed into a central pile. Those not damaged were widely dispersed. The bleached and faded jungle-green of the paint schemes was dusty with red dirt from their many trips to the Central Highlands near Dalat and Pleiku. A 20-foot-high chain-link fence surrounded the perimeter, in an effort to screen the base against shoulder-fired rockets.

The sun was low on the horizon when I safely crossed the bridge leading to Cam Ranh Bay. I sighed with relief as I passed the air base’s heavily sandbagged guard posts, with their protruding .50-caliber machine guns. Being new to Vietnam, I found the thought of being off base after dark highly unnerving.

As I stepped out of my jeep in front of the officers’ barracks, I heard a strange whistling sound. Immediately, there were thunderous explosions nearby. Two Army warrant officers of the ‘Crazy Cat’ squadron who had been pitching horseshoes stopped their game and dropped to the ground. They yelled ‘Incoming!’ as I knelt by my vehicle. Off to my right, I saw white flashes and heard ‘Crack! Crack! Crack!’ like the sound of lightning strikes, in rapid succession. Clouds of sand, rocks and smoke flew up from the impact area, only 100 meters from us, and close to the base control tower.

The attack was over as quickly as it had begun. There wasn’t time to be afraid or nervous. The two officers resumed their horseshoe game as if nothing had happened. Somewhat shaken, I went into the barracks to clean up for dinner. The rockets had come from the hills overlooking the base. We assumed they had probably been electrically fired from a timing device; there were no enemy gunners to shoot at — even if we had the capability, which we did not. We were an air base without artillery support.

When new arrivals got off the airplane at the 14th Aerial Port, the briefing officer began by saying: ‘You are now in a combat zone and subject to enemy action at any moment. If you hear the alarm, seek shelter immediately.’

Those words positively caught our attention. Not yet having been issued helmets, flak jackets or weapons, we felt a bit helpless — but being at a large installation such as Cam Ranh Bay gave us a false sense of security. I was told that a nearby Army field hospital had been attacked a year earlier, and that the U.S. casualties had been high. The method of attack was simplicity itself: Sappers had slipped through the barbed-wire perimeter at night, dashed down the rows of barracks and thrown explosive charges at their targets.

We saw our movies in an outside amphitheater. Some of the older hands refused to gather in groups, fearing grenade attacks. Since I enjoyed movies and looked forward to the escape they offered, I considered the risk worth taking. One clear, starlit night, there was a showing of The Battle of Britain, with its vivid scenes of German bombers attacking London and fighting off British fighter planes. While bombs were exploding on-screen, Army artillery was laying down harassment and interdiction (H&I) fire on the jungles of the adjacent hills. When the on-screen explosions ceased, the H&I fire continued.

As I was sleeping that night in transient quarters, the door suddenly was flung open. Wide awake, bolting upright in my bunk and fearing the worst, I brought my pistol up to the firing position and faced what I thought was a sapper. The figure silhouetted in the doorway stopped as I tried to get the words ‘Who’s there?’ out of my throat. I could only get the words up as far as my throat, and managed a coughing stutter, more like ‘Uh, uh, uh.’ It was only after he said ‘Friend!’ in English that my heartbeat returned to normal. He was a visiting pilot who had been to our officers’ club for a nightcap.

After two weeks in-country, I began to relax in my job as the Naval Air Facility assistant aircraft intermediate maintenance officer. We supported Navy Lockheed P-3 aircraft of patrol squadrons flying in Operation Market Time, which involved joint operations between the U.S. Navy and the South Vietnamese navy — chiefly coastal surveillance and anti-infiltration patrols. These planes patrolled the coasts of North and South Vietnam, tracking enemy shipping. Our facility had recently received six Vertol CH-46 helicopters, which had flown in from a carrier one evening and were supposed to move to the South to support the Swift boats and other naval units in the delta region south of Saigon.

On the night of June 12, 1970, I was standing an indoctrination watch as command duty officer. A day earlier, as I was unfamiliar with the security layout of the base, I had asked the operations officer, Lt. Cmdr. Bob Kehoe, about his thoughts on possible future enemy attacks. ‘Our weak point,’ he had said, as he pointed out features on a map of the base, ‘is sappers getting through our wire and running down the taxi strip to our flight line and hangars.’ With his finger, he had traced the probable infiltration route, parallel to our main gate.

Fascinated, I had asked him what plans we had to repel the enemy. ‘Basically, none,’ he replied. ‘The probability of an attack is slight on a base of this size. That’s my best guess.’

His ‘best guess’ had left me with an uneasy feeling. Bob, a quiet officer not given to heroics, had been at the Naval Air Facility for a year. I respected his opinion.

While I was in my room, I kept my security radio on. At about midnight that night I went to bed and cut the volume down on the receiver. I had just closed my eyes when a loud explosion shook the bachelor officers’ quarters. This was followed by several more close at hand. In a rush, I pulled on my shirt and trousers, slid into my heavy flak jacket and helmet, and began to lace up my boots. The next sound I heard was unnerving — the ‘pop, pop, pop’ of an AK-47 being fired on our base! What I feared and dreaded most was happening. ‘Pop, pop, pop!’ again. Rapid fire! There followed more explosions in our hangar area, and then more rapid small-arms fire. My heart was pounding as I grabbed my M-16 and strapped on my pistol. Someone was screaming over the radio from the command post as I jumped into my jeep and headed toward the firing.

By that time, there was so much small-arms fire that I could not determine who was firing at whom. Reaching the command post, I was aghast to see that it had been overrun. The gate guard post had been blown up, along with a security jeep. Sappers had blasted through our main gate and run past the command post, throwing satchel charges into the sandbagged doorway as they passed. Smoke and the strong smell of cordite hung in the air, as more firing came from my left and right. But where was the enemy?

A satchel charge had knocked out our generators, and we were in darkness. I ran to the gate and found only one man defending the base — and he was unarmed. He crouched behind a low wall. Next to him was a box of hand-held’slap flares.’ He had fired several, illuminating the gate area. He slapped the base of another, which shot up into the air.

‘We need more light, sir!’ he yelled.

I grabbed a flare and slapped at its base. The hot gasses of the flare shot up into my face, and the ball of fire bounced off the low wall. Burning powder fragments stung my face and eye.

Over my radio, I heard the cries of a wounded man in the guard tower above. It had been hit by the very first round from a B-40 rocket launcher. The round had exploded, instantly killing one of the two men on watch. Our defenses had been knocked out before the firefight had even begun.

‘We need help!’ the caller screamed. ‘We’re bleeding to death.’ I grabbed my radio and yelled back, ‘Hang on, we’re doing everything we can!’

I looked up the 30-foot ladder leading to the damaged tower. The last thing I wanted to do was to climb that exposed ladder to be picked off by the enemy. My face burned, and I could not see out of my left eye. ‘There goes that eye,’ I thought, but staying alive was more important. Peering over the wall into the road beyond, in the flickering orange light of the flares, I could not see any enemy soldiers. Firing continued from both sides of me.

‘Cease fire!’ I ordered, ‘cease fire!’ My main concern at that point was that I didn’t want any of us to shoot each other. The firing stopped.

I ran into the command post to see if there were any casualties. Protected by a wall of sandbags, the inside had been spared from the direct blast of a satchel charge. The command duty officer, Lieutenant Wilkerson, lay on the wooden floor in fetal position, calling over his radio for a medic. A large, stainless steel coffee jug had been blown off a bench, and hot black coffee gurgled from its open top. Several M-16s and spare radios lay in a jumble, where they had been blown from their racks. Wilkerson was unharmed, but it had been close. The man in the guard post had also been unharmed by the exploding charges when he ducked behind the sandbags. It was he who had punched the button for the alarm siren, alerting the base.

The picture of what had happened slowly emerged. At 0130 hours, a team of a dozen NVA sappers had come over the low-lying sand hill separating us from the village of My Ca. After the rocket knocked out our only defense, one of the team opened fire down the main street of our small base. ‘I saw green tracers flying past my face,’ one sailor later recalled.

This covering fire prevented anyone from interfering with the sappers. The rest of the team rushed through the open gate, tossing satchel charges as they ran for the hangar, flight line and aircraft. In fact, they ran down the exact route that Commander Kehoe had traced out and described to me as our weak point.

One sapper threw his charge into our diesel generator, knocking out the base power. Another sapper ran into our hangar, trying to blow up our newly arrived CH-46s. He threw his charge wildly, however, blowing up the head and the maintenance officer’s office. Water sprayed out of broken waterlines from shattered toilets and wash basins. Other sappers scurried past the parked aircraft, throwing their charges into the revetments. One charge landed on top of a revetment, damaging the vertical fin of an aircraft. Other charges landed in the open or in empty revetments.

Two chief petty officers were crouched behind a flight-line tractor when a satchel charge bounced off the fender. The blast deafened one of them, and a flying piece of the tractor hit the other. A petty officer first class ran into his shop and came out with an M-16. As a sapper ran by, he opened fire. The entire magazine of 20 rounds went at one squeeze of the trigger, killing the sapper.

‘I slammed in another clip,’ the petty officer later recalled, ‘and another sapper came at me. I pulled the trigger again, and the whole second clip fired, but I missed the sapper. I had no more ammunition, as sappers ran all around me.’

As an afterthought, he added, ‘But you have to remember, I was pretty nervous at the time.’ He explained that he had had no time to play around to change the fire selector switch on the rifle.

A corpsman on duty in the administration building heard the firing. He grabbed a rifle out of the rack next to him and stood on the steps, firing at the NVA intruders. A sailor from the supply department was bringing an armload of computer sheets to the building. Dropping those, he, too, grabbed a rifle from the rack and started shooting. The screeching siren wailed and wailed as the shooting went on. The sapper who had blown up the generator was cut down just outside the hangar.

‘I saw him run past me and smack into the fence surrounding the power plant,’ said one sailor. ‘He bounced off and tried to run, when someone shot him.’

The sapper lay face-down in a pool of blood in the sand. Another sapper, probably wounded by the petty officer, did not hesitate as he hurried past his fallen comrade. Blood poured from his body, too, and filled every footprint he made in the sand. He ran out the gate and into the darkness beyond. The corpsman and the supply clerk, firing from standing positions, kept aiming at the fleeing sappers, killing one as he passed just outside the wall at the gate. Dozens of their bullets punched big holes in the hollow-brick wall.

Medics climbed the ladder to the tower to attend the wounded there. The blast from the rocket had done its job when it hit the corrugated tin roof above the men’s heads. They were not wearing their helmets or flak jackets. One man had a bloody, deep gash across his chest. Wilkerson called the Seabees, who arrived with a crane. Two corpsmen carefully lifted the casualties out.

Altogether, we suffered one dead and several wounded. We had killed two sappers, and had probably fatally wounded a third man.

At that juncture we got a radio call from our small picket boat in the bay, just offshore from My Ca. The boat, which patrolled each night, was crewed by a coxswain and a gunner for the M-60 machine gun.

‘We have a swimmer coming toward us,’ the coxswain informed us.

‘Capture him if you can,’ was our order.

The boat pulled alongside the swimmer, and they dragged him aboard. It was one of our raiding sappers. He was docile enough, until they got him into the boat.

‘Then he came alive, and tried to take over the boat,’ the coxswain later recalled. ‘We struggled with him, and he tried to jam the throttle forward to dump us. We managed to subdue him by clubbing him over the head. He was a powerful man who wore nothing but a black bathing suit. I’ll tell you, we had our hands full.’

Around his ankle, the sapper wore a rubber strap with a single round of AK-47 ammunition. We deduced that this was the man who had provided covering fire from the sand hill at the start of the attack. He had that one round left — for what? Suicide? Perhaps. Maybe he had been swimming with his rifle, and had lost it before boarding the boat.

An explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) team came to retrieve the bodies of the sappers. The one near our generator had not thrown all his charges before he was killed. I approached the body cautiously. Was he still alive, and would he roll over and pull the pin on a grenade? Did he have a weapon? Although he appeared quite dead and had lain in the same position throughout the firefight, I didn’t want to take unnecessary chances. I examined the body with my flashlight. He was larger than the South Vietnamese men I had seen. He was taller, perhaps my size, and with well-developed muscles in his arms, legs and shoulders. He wore only a black bathing suit, but around his waist was a black belt of heavy material. Affixed to the belt were about a dozen charges of explosives in solid 6-inch packs. At the top end of each charge was a thin copper-colored wire attached to the belt. All the sapper had to do was to pull the charge downward from the belt. The wire, as it pulled loose, armed the charge. Several bare wires, extending downward from the belt, gave a count of the number of charges he had already thrown. I had the strangest urge to reach down to touch the dead man — but I knew better than to tempt fate. What if the least movement would set off an armed charge?

The EOD personnel approached the body with caution. They tied a line around the wrist of the dead sapper and, from a safe distance, rolled him over gently. I stood back even farther as they proceeded to remove his charges.

Fearing that some of the sappers might be hiding in our hangar, we conducted a room-by-room search. Power had been restored by that time, so we now had lights. Sailors searched the flight line, and others poked around the damaged office spaces. The helos in the hangars were carefully checked as well. Miraculously, they had not been damaged.

Three or four of us entered the maintenance shops. A loft over the hydraulics bench, we realized, would have been a likely hiding place for a sapper. While one of my men stood by with an M-16, I climbed the ladder. With pistol drawn and cocked, I stuck my head up over the rim of the loft. What would I find? A wounded sapper ready to blow himself and anyone who discovered him to kingdom come? Would he have a weapon and shoot me? Would I be able to shoot him first? My heart pounded as I scanned the empty space. There was nobody there.

Our search continued until dawn. Commander Schaub, the aircraft maintenance officer, and I searched the blown-up portion of the hangar. Moving cautiously, with drawn pistols, we both pulled away the splintered boards. First he, then I, would stand back, ready to shoot if necessary. Fortunately, there was nobody there, either.

An Air Force security team searched the area around and in My Ca. A weapons carrier was parked on the road overlooking the village. I was standing nearby when the gunner atop the vehicle, a sergeant, yelled out, ‘There’s one now!’

In the weak light of dawn, we saw the figure of a man in a black bathing suit running toward the bay. Over his shoulder was slung a rocket launcher. The sergeant drew the bolt back on the .50-caliber machine gun, putting a round in the chamber. ‘I can get him, Lieutenant,’ he said to one of his officers.

‘Hold your fire,’ was his order. ‘We’ve got men of our own down there and I don’t want to hit them by mistake.’

The lieutenant got on his radio to his search team, but they were still in the village. ‘Let me get him,’ the sergeant begged, with his finger on the trigger of the machine gun.

‘Dammit, I said no!’ the lieutenant answered. I was all for the sergeant opening up, and was hoping that he would, but the lieutenant was in charge of this part of the operation. They were all his men. We watched as the sapper hid behind some sand dunes. When the search team got there, he and his rocket launcher had disappeared.

In the excitement of the battle, I had nearly forgotten my own injuries. With the sun up, I was very distressed to find that I still couldn’t see from my left eye. Black spots blocked my vision. Everything looked foggy and blurred. Chunks of powder were deeply imbedded in my cheek and forehead.

I returned to my room, unloaded and stowed my weapons, then went to the mess hall for breakfast. I was famished. Commander Schaub looked at me closely and ordered me to sick bay. For about an hour I lay on the examining table while a corpsman plucked powder fragments out of my face.

‘I think I got most of it, sir, but you will have some beautiful tattoos for a while,’ said the corpsman when he had finished. My face was pockmarked with black dots. ‘Can’t do much about your eye, though. You’re going to have to go over to the base hospital.’

At the hospital, an Air Force ophthalmologist removed most of the fragments from my eye. ‘You can be thankful you were close to us when this happened,’ he said. ‘If we didn’t get this stuff out today, the chances of your seeing again would be bad.’

He bandaged my face and told me he would look at it again in a week. ‘Keep your fingers crossed,’ he told me. ‘Maybe we saved your eye.’

I once read that wounded soldiers go into a state of depression. It is true. I had no drive or energy for a week after that. I sat at my desk and could not concentrate. I dozed a lot and lost interest in what was going on around me. I was morose. One of our Vietnamese cleaning women came to the hangar the day after the attack. A likable young woman, she lived in My Ca and was a day worker on the base. She let out a gasp when she saw my face in bandages.

As an odd sidelight to this story, it happened that a 17-year-old sailor from the supply department had a girlfriend in the village. He had slipped over to My Ca that evening to stay with her. Although we were restricted to the base, this young sailor found a way to get ‘ashore.’

That night the sappers entered the village. The villagers saw them arrive and stayed in their houses. The Vietnamese girl, knowing that her sailor friend would be killed if he was found by the sappers, hid him inside her hut. The sailor peered out through the cracks in the wall of her bedroom as the NVA passed quietly through the village, in preparation for their raid on the base.

‘I was close enough to touch them,’ he said later, ‘but I was told to be quiet by my girlfriend, so I did. She was scared, and so was I.’ As the sappers moved out to launch their attack, he watched, unable to get back to the base to warn us.

After they had mounted their assault, the surviving NVA ran back into the village. Again, the girlfriend hid her lover from the enemy troops. He spent the rest of the night lying under her bed. Before dawn, the sappers slipped out of the village. When the Air Force security teams searched the village, the girl hid him again, this time from the Air Police, to keep him out of trouble. He was discovered missing during muster at morning quarters, and was listed as missing in action until he came back, slipping back under the fence he had crawled through the night before.

After the attack, we strengthened the defensive perimeter of our air base. A dozen more sandbagged bunkers were built and manned at night to discourage intruders. The rocket attacks continued sporadically, but we were not attacked by sappers again during the rest of my tour.

This article was written by Commander Arthur R. Lee, U.S. Navy (ret.) and originally published in the December 2001 issue of Vietnam Magazine.

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