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Monday, 0300, Da Nang, Republic South Vietnam
By Alan Goodin
It was a dark, hot and humid winter night and I still had my olive-drab wool blanket, my security blanket, with US painted in the middle pulled up around my neck. I was sleeping peacefully in my upper-bunk, probably dreaming some "Beach Boy" song-scene like "California Girls," a really 'bitchin' southern California Sunset Beach aglow in glassed off waves. When the first rocket hit I awoke, not recognizing the sound, foreign of course, but yet I thought I knew it from some movie or TV show, like "Combat." It wasn't a wave breaking. Sir, No Sir, it was all of the above and not a movie.
I figured that in Vietnam accidents happen. One night, back in '66, during the outdoor movie at Phan Rang Air Base our Army Support Group, Artillery Battery accidentally exploded a hundred and five millimeter Howitzer shell over us, so, it was probably the "Same-o-same-o here." They called it a "short shot," but we called it "incoming." We were young and quite inexperienced at war. Besides, we were Air Force, not grunts. None of our Sergeants had even been in Korea, so it could be expected that some new-booty dropped a bomb, close by, in the early morning dark, but it was certainly nothing to lose any sleep over. I drifted back to Malibu or Zuma Beach with a really 'boss' three-foot, glassed-off tube, breaking under my surfboard.
This was the perfect wave, perfect form and the best ride I'd had all summer until a humongous explosion blew me off my Hobie and slammed me into the tent's floor. Wipeout! My eyes were wide open now. Forget California dreaming. The sky was lit up with stroboscopic phosphorescence lights dancing to the beat of red flames, crossing the east-end of the louvered pine wood hooch I called home. Explosions were ripping up and down the perimeter road, across the barbed wire fence and one meter on the other side of the hooch's wall.
Even in the pitch black night, I could see the other guys—Bud Streeter, Helmke, Chi-town-TJ, Donley and "Pineapple"—scrambling for their steel helmets and whatever else would be considered sandbag bunker "fashion of the day" in late February 1967.
Da Nang had never been attacked before, unless "Charlie" hit the French there, back in '54. None of us knew what to do. Soon common sense prevailed. We panicked, tripping over each other in an orderly military fashion and ran out through the rattan and nylon screened door to the bunker. From outside the door, across the field from our bunker, I could see fires and explosions around the huge parabolic antenna at the Army's 37th Signal Battalion.
Hurriedly, we all ran into the bunker, bumping into each other in the dark, each echoing the others, "Did you see this or that," or "Do you think it's the VC or the NVA?" as if it mattered who was trying to kill us.
I stood there listening to this shit, half stooped over, half-kneeling, in the low-roofed bunker, thinking how exciting the moment was, the day I had practiced for, for ten years in my backyard with the neighbor kids while we rehearsed World War II by killing all the Japs and Krauts hiding in Southside LA—and now I was huddled inside a sandbag prison with no windows missing the whole show. I told myself, Alan, this is history, and you're going to get some of it.
I bolted from the bunker, running like Jesse Owens going for the gold. My "gold" was my new Pentax Spotmatic camera, sitting in the tent with a fresh roll of Kodak film. I waited until I heard a large explosion and ran back towards the bunker, stopping to take a photo, but I couldn't see much from my vantage point, and except for the fire light sky, it was pitch black. From where I stood, I could see a concrete pole. When the light flashed again, I noticed that it was a telephone pole, and I figured that it would make the perfect observation point. I quickly slipped my camera strap over my head, around my neck and ran to the pole. I started climbing as fast as I could until a shattering explosion shook the pole, and stopped me, near the top. Shaken, I grabbed on for life.
I held on to the concrete pole with one arm while pointing, clicking, winding and taking authentic war pictures, with my Spotmatic. This was quite an adventure. All my buddies were huddled in the bunker, safe and sound in the dark night. Except for the frequent enough explosions, it was dead quiet.
"Hey, get off that pole," a voice yelled from the dark, shattering the brief silence between the blasts. I couldn't see anyone, so I kept taking pictures. After two more shots, I heard the voice again, "Get off the pole."
"I'm just about done," I yelled down.
"You are done. Get off the fuckin' pole or I'll shoot you off it."
I thought that was odd. I'm in a war, I'm with the "good" guys, and one of the good guys says he's going to shoot me if I don't get off a pole. Boy, war is hell! I pretended to start down, but every time I took a step I wound and clicked, snapping away as fast as I could.
When I was about ten feet from the ground, a gigantic explosion ripped the street in front of me wide open, blacktop and shrapnel flying like pieces of hot coal and white-hot meteors, into the side of the bunker, just off to my right. All I heard was yelling, and next, the muffled screams of wounded men. I did as ordered and climbed down the pole, but no one was there. I went into the bunker and waited with the others.
They asked me a million questions. What did you see? I told them I'd show them the pictures. It was some hours later when I found out that the soldier yelling at me was killed in the explosion. If I had come down when ordered it would have been me. I owed him. On a more personal note, "Love you long time, GI."
In two-inch bold-type, Stars and Stripes reported, "VC Mortar Da Nang, Kill 50 Viets." At the end of the front page article, in small pica type, it said, "US casualties light." I wondered if that Air Policeman yelling at me knew that casualties were "light" but more importantly I wondered if his mother thought, "US casualties were light."
Alan Goodin is an Air Force veteran who served from 1963-1967. He is a lifetime member of VVAW.