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War Stories

A Day Late and A Nickel Short

First Mortar Attack, 12 October 1966

Charles A. “Tony” Robinson

Centaur 40, 1966 – 1967

Follow on comments by Bill Hull, John Alto, Carl Burns

We had finally returned from our in-country training with various units in III and IV Corps. Combat operations were taking place on a daily basis. We would fly the morning convoy control or support of one of the infantry units or one the 3/4 Cav troops.

pspVietnamese civilians were hired to fill sandbags and drop them off in piles near where we were going to build our bunkers. We would stack the sandbags, flatten them by beating them with 2X4s and construct our bunkers and helicopter revetments. When it came time to put an overhead cover on our bunkers, we were told that there was not enough PSP (Perforated Steel Planking). (The PSP is about 10 feet long by 2.5 feet wide with holes to let water drain through. The PSP was developed during WWII to use to construct hasty forward area airfields where rain and mud would have prevented using the runways.) So, it came down from division headquarters that since not enough PSP was available, no one was to have overhead cover. Only 4 walls 3 to 4 foot high, with an entrance way in and out. We were to pray that a mortar round didn’t make a direct hit in one of the bunkers. (I recently read one of my letters in which I said that it took about 4,500 sandbags to make a helicopter revetment and about 2,500 to make a bunker.)

bunkerFor several months, our nights were quiet. However, in October, prior to the general elections in the states, the rumor spread that the Viet Cong (VC) were up to something and a mortar or rocket attack was imminent.

On 12 October, I was sitting in the mess hall tent out near the flight line having a coup of coffee with Mr. Bustamonte (CW3 Enrique Bustamonte had been Hubert Humphrey’s pilot in the Presidential Flight Detachment). It was about 1930 (7:30 P.M.) and the sun was setting. The crew chiefs and door gunners were working on their ships getting ready for the next day’s mission. Everything seemed peaceful. Suddenly, a loud “whooshing” sound screamed by the mess tent and an explosion went of near our aircraft maintenance tent on the flight line. I said to Bustamonte, “Oh shit, a crew chief must have punched off a rocket by mistake”. We could see the dust settling where the round had landed. All of a sudden explosions started to erupt all along the flight line. Right then, we knew it was no accidental rocket firing. We looked at each other and ran out of the mess tent door and dived into the nearest bunker, which was right next to the mess tent. There were 3 or 4 young troops already in the bunker when we got there. We could hear the mortar rounds working their way up the flight line towards division headquarters. One of the young men was whimpering and I said we would be okay, just stay put. (I was shaking like a leaf.)

Then the mortar rounds started coming back towards our positions. Closer and closer. With no overhead cover, I yelled “Pull as many sandbags down on top you as you can, so that if we get hit, maybe the some of the shrapnel will be absorbed by the sandbags”. The rounds got closer and closer and I began to shake even harder. I couldn’t control the shaking. A round hit right next to the bunker, making a deafening explosion. The concussion was tremendous. The explosion caved in one side of our sandbagged bunker. The young troops were screaming. I yelled at them to check each other out to see if anyone was hit. My shaking had now stopped and I played the cool and calm officer, showing good leadership while wondering if I had pissed my pants. I didn’t, but I don’t know why. (I could now relate to those books about combat where the soldier looses complete control of his body.) We buried ourselves in what was left of the bunker and listened to the quietness – no more mortar rounds coming in. Of course our artillery was firing in all directions.

oh23crashOne of our scout helicopters tried to get airborne during the attack. The pilot had been in the shower which was across the dirt road from his aircraft. He ran naked to the ship and started it up. On this model of the scout ship, the pilot had to let the transmission fully engage before attempting a take-off. The pilot was so excited that he pulled pitch, went straight up about 20 feet, and, with the main rotor not fully engaged, came back down for a very hard landing, missing the control tower truck by a few feet. Needless to say, seeing a naked pilot with his helmet on walk away from his ship was a wonderful comic relief to the mortar attack.

After a formation to see where everyone was and to assess any damage to the troops and equipment, the troops went back to what they usually did, i.e. write letters or make tape recordings to tell everyone at home about the attack. The evening movie started and everyone pulled out their lawn chairs to sit in the open air around the big white board screen. We watched “Combat”. You would think that after fighting all day, we would have had enough of war stories.

spookyI was in my tent and could see the screen about 50 feet away. I was making a tape of our experience with the mortar attack. The Air Force “Spooky” ship had come up from Saigon and had lit up the area with its fire dance. Tongues of fire (tracers) streaming down on the suspected mortar position the VC had used. Needless to say, I am sure “Charlie” had been long gone. But, it was a morale booster for the troops who were standing on the bunkers cheering “Spooky”.

At about 2315 hours (11:15 P.M.), explosions suddenly hit all around our tent area. My roommate and I dived out of our tent into the open bunker across our pathway. We joined 10 to 15 others and just piled on top of each other. A round hit directly behind the tent next to mine. It threw shrapnel into the tent hitting CPT Alred as he was diving out the door. He took a large piece in his arm and was knocked to the ground and bleeding badly. A call for “Medic” went out and he was on the scene within minutes. Alred was taken to the Evac hospital. He came back to the troop about a week later, his arm all stitched up. (What a lousy job of stitching. We called him “Spaulding” because his wound looked like stitching on a baseball.) This attack was more intense then the first one. Several ships on the flight line were hit. Division Headquarters received several hits. The division post office was hit and set on fire.

One of the saddest things was that most the senior NCOs in the division headquarters were in one of the open bunkers. A round landed right inside the bunker, killing and wounding many of the NCOs. The outgoing Command Sergeant Major for the division and his replacement were both killed. The next day, engineer trucks began delivering PSP and heavy timbers to the units so that overhead cover could be added to all of the bunkers. “A day late and a nickel short.”


Bill Hull:

I was on guard duty on the flight line that night and watched the bird come back down. As I started toward the downed ship something hit me in the face, knocking out two teeth and lacerating my lower lip. I do recall getting up and thinking that I saw a white naked guy 'streaking' the flight line during a mortor attack.
About 6 months later, after I transferred to USAR-V the commander of PACEX-VN presented with a Purple Heart, that I had no idea how I deserved. Shortly after I received a letter from my parents who were extremely upset because I never told them that I was 'wounded'. It seems the PAO guys sent new releases to my home town news paper.


John Alto:

OrderlyRmDuring the October 12 mortar attack Carl Burns came flying over the edge or "our" bunker, landing on me. Carl was fresh out of the shower, apologizing for his lack of clothing.

My reply was I hope there were more people landing in our bunker to help replace the nonexistent roof.

One round landed about 15 feet away, just in front of the troop command tent. At that point I jumped up and dove under our hooch. Not so smart.

Photo on the right shows where the round landed that really spooked me, and motivated me to flee the comfort and protection of the bunker and hootch mates

You can barely see our topless bunker in the back ground. The VC had "walked" the rounds down the flight line and then over to our hootch's.

Do we think the indigenous workers had paced it off?   I think so.


Carl Burns:

Page 71 in the Centaurs In Vietnam book, has the story called “Last Man In”, telling about this event. Also, Alto bailed out of the bunker and “hid” under our hootch, staring wide eyed at the approaching rounds.