"They don't like us.1" - Colonel Ira Hunt
Rocket Attack - 23 FEB 69 Ammunition Stores Depot Explosion - 26 MAR 69 Night Probes & Mortar Attacks
The evening of February 23, 1969, had begun peacefully with some of the guys jawing outside on the DISCOM bleachers. A couple of flares popped over the east perimeter, which wasn't at all unusual. Several more pops soon followed and in a short time the entire length of the perimeter was aglow in incendiary illumination. All of the east perimeter bunkers were sending up flares! This was very unusual. The parachutes suspending the flares caught the wind and drifted back over the berm above our heads. I ran into the barracks and got my camera. As I stepped back out of the barracks I heard a whoosh and then a horrific detonation. Without thinking much about exposure or focus I snapped a few frames in the direction of the explosion. The southwest corner of Dong Tam was enveloped in a firestorm! The Viet Cong had managed to put a 122mm rocket over the top of the berm  into one of the fuel storage tanks at the POL depot near the fixed-wing airfield. The intensity of the ensuing fire ignited other tanks. All we could do was watch the flames and pray no one was too close.
Communist bombardment of Dong Tam was not unusual. Between January and May 1969, prior to the monsoon season, Dong Tam was mortared with great regularity, typically three times a night for weeks on end. It was like the Doctor Pepper slogan: 10 - 2 - 4. The VC wanted to keep us awake and edgy. Tired soldiers made mistakes and had poor attitudes. Charlie would thrown in three rounds, wake everybody up, and off we'd go to the bunkers with flak vest, helmet, and rifle. It got so intense at times that some fellows opted to sleep in the stuffy bunkers along with the hyper cautious short-timers (those with 30 days or less to serve in-country). On the evening of March 26, 1969, at 2230 hours (10:30 PM civilian time) Dong Tam took no less than 13 120mm mortar hits. We were already exhausted from lack of sleep. After the All-Clear sounded many of us returned to our bunks. At midnight we were again awakened by the sound of incoming ordinance. We grabbed our gear and dragged our feet to the bunkers. Then came a single, indescribable, KA BOOM! At that point in time the world as we knew it had ceased. Over 500 tons of ammunition detonated in one horrific, incomprehensible, 4th of July fireworks finale. Several more huge, gut jarring, teeth rattling explosions were followed by the continual popping of small arms ammo cooking off and the ever-present whizzing of shrapnel through the air. DISCOM was situated the breadth of Dong Tam's Harbor away from the chaos. We caught Hell that night. Sadly, the US Navy caught worse. They were across the street from the ammunition bunkers.


The most common way the Communist got our attention was to toss in a few mortar rounds. They did this often, typically with no specific target. Their purpose was to cause mayhem throughout the base and instill fear in US troops. At other times they would probe the perimeters, creating a diversion to launch some other attack. They would also send lone sappers past the roving security patrols, past the LPs (listening posts), under the wire, and over the mine fields in an attempt to penetrate Dong Tam's security defenses. Whether rumor by fact or by design, every now and then we would hear of a perimeter guard post found with all the guards killed - the message being keep alert and stay alive. A popular sentiment often reiterated by lifers trying to make an impression on troops was: There are only two kinds of soldiers in this war - the quick and the dead! Well, there was also a third type of soldier in Vietnam who was neither quick nor dead but, rather, morally disillusioned, too terrorized to be afraid, and too tired to care about Esprit de Corps. These were the fellows with hollow eyes that stared but did not see. They didn't have to. All of their senses functioned in harmony to create a perception of their environment. They didn't have to see Charlie to know that he was there. The divine spark of their life was lit but no longer glowed much warmth. Very effective troops if you stayed out of their way. They didn't always distinguish the good guys from the bad, kind of like short-timers and FNGs!

Associated Press International reported in US newspapers that Red mortars blew up 500 tons of small arms ammunition at the HQ base of the 9th Infantry Division. It was further reported that 3 Americans were killed, over 60 wounded, scores of buildings destroyed, and three helicopters wrecked. After the last of the ammunition cooked off and it was relatively safe to venture from the personnel shelters, we found sharp, jagged, heavy chunks of burst artillery shells the length of a man's forearm. The entire southern flank of Dong Tam was littered with the stuff.
Even the House of the Lord did not escape the wrath of the Communists. During a devastatingly active period of VC mortar shelling between January and March 1969 (Second Tet), the swimming pool, Class-Six liquor store, EM Club, Blessed Sacrament Chapel, Reliable Academy barracks, and a civilian run gift shop (affectionately called Charlie the Gook) all received direct hits. The most popular VC target seemed to be the heliport. It was a large, hard to miss target, full of expensive things, and not far from Division headquarters.
Sniper Attack

Every now and then an industrious Victor Charles with a long barreled rifle would climb up into a tree and send a few rounds over the berm. Although this was not a major problem - in as much as hardly anyone was ever hit - it was disconcerting because one never knew who the fellow was shooting at. All you heard was a muffled pop in the distance. The sniper hidden in tree-line off the east berm in this view obviously succeeded in getting someone's attention. The newspaper article discusses a similar incident that occurred at Vinh Long Army  Airfield.



WHAT COLOR ALERT IS THIS? During the month of July headquarters, 9th Infantry Division, instituted a new policy forbidding soldiers to have ammunition in their possession while on Dong Tam. The defense of the base now relied on the perimeter guard and roving security patrols out in the bush. All of the new company-size personnel shelters were being built without firing ports. The threat of Dong Tam being overrun was, apparently, over. There was, however, a sinister underlying rationale behind taking the ammunition away from soldiers in camp. The long term psychological effects of five years of escalating combat, an officer cadre saturated with career-oriented commanders, an unclear military objective, and dwindling support for both the war and soldiers on the home front had transformed the USARV into a very mean and disillusioned army. Too many quick tempered troops were hurting themselves and others. Along with the ammunition restrictions came a new protocol to observe during alerts. Four colors coded the degree and severity of attack. A GRAY ALERT was the mildest kind, indicating that there was plenty of time to get things done, stop at the mess hall for a refreshing Kool-Aid, grab your rifle, helmet, flak vest, and shuffle over to the armory to wait in line for ammunition. A YELLOW ALERT meant you had to cut out the refreshments and walk faster to the armory line. An ORANGE ALERT meant an attack was imminent. Now you had to hastily grab what you needed from your hootch, run like Hell to the armory, and wait in line for bullets. I never quite understood the significance of a RED ALERT. With that long line at the armory you might just as well have bent over and kissed your rosy red goodbye. Now when things went BOOM in the night, amidst the confusion and fear, the cry of - What color alert is this? - could be heard! I opted to hide a loaded magazine under a loose board in the side wall of the hootch. I also accented the front of my flak vest with a few decorative, copper tipped, brass cartridges in the stretch webbing. No one that mattered ever seemed to notice, which was a good thing for me. Getting court marshaled for having bullets in a war wouldn't have read well in my 201 file, nor improved my already cynical attitude toward our commanders. After six months in the Delta, I just didn't have the patience for lunatics who lived in bunkers while their troops slept outside and wore gold spaghetti braid on the beak of their baseball caps (actually most really didn't have officer's brocade on their baseball caps - it was probably tattooed to their butts).

Dong Tam's ammunition depot was situated on the south perimeter between the Song My Tho and Dong Tam harbor. The US Navy shared the area south of the basin with the ammunition depot and, subsequently, suffered the worst causalities and greatest property damage. The ammunition dump had been perfectly placed by 9th Infantry Division engineers. Their wisdom saved many lives the night of March 26, 1969.

1Quoted in Associated Press International news release syndicated in the March 26, 1969, Evening News, Newark, NJ.                                       RETURN TO DONG TAM

Background Sound: "Ship Explosion" - Microsoft Clip Gallery