Attack on TSN
by David E. Koopman
This is what I remember of May the 6th 1968, when a group of us from the 460th TRW - FMS helped stop the VC from over running Tan Son Nhut. This stand off attack remains among my strongest memories of Vietnam. I don't remember ever feeling more alive, but at the same time feeling closer to death. This battle changed my perception of life and caused me to mature beyond my 21 years.
I had been working the night shift in the S.O.A.P. Lab, which was located inside the Engine Shop. SOAP was an acronym for Spectrometric Oil Analysis Program; engine oil was burned in the S.O.A.P. machine to create a spectrum of colors, which corresponded to different varieties and amounts of metal content. The purpose of this was to predict engine wear.
After my shift that morning; I rode my bicycle back to my hooch and arrived there shortly after dawn. I lived in hooch number 1245, which was located south west of the main gate in the 1200 area, next to the Tan Son Nhut South perimeter fence, and across the old French cemetery from the road to Cholon.
I had just dropped into my bunk when I heard a couple of loud explosions. That was followed by the base attack siren going off. I grabbed my uniform, boots, helmet, and flack vest. And I ran for the bunker outside where I got dressed while I waited for the all clear. Obviously something was going on because I could hear occasional small arms fire when I stepped out of the bunker. I noticed that a group of airmen were standing in front of the arms locker that was placed next to my hooch. They were arguing loudly with the airman who had the key. They wanted him to pass out the M-16's. But he said he wouldn't release them with out a direct order from the base commander. Some one said to him, "We can worry about the base commander later!" "We're drawing fire; hand them out now before we all get killed!" Someone else said "Make it quick or we'll kick the crap out of you and just take them!" These statements facilitated the quick release of the weapons. The whole idea of billeting troops on the perimeter of Tan Son Nhut and then releasing firearms only by direct order of the Base Commander needed some rethinking IMHO.
Please remember folks that most airmen are not trained solders. Some of them are lucky if they know which end of an M-16 the bullet comes out of. But more about that later. Having succeeded in becoming a mob we all scattered to various positions around the hooch's seeking cover and a good field of fire.
A number of other airmen and I took cover west of hooch 1244 in a small clearing with a broken down old Vietnamese monument on it. The monument was made of concrete in the shape of a temple that was divided in half with a walk way through the middle. It seemed to offer better cover than a hooch would and it had a good field of fire to the perimeter fence.
I wanted a shot at the enemy. But because of the airmen crowded around me I needed a better place to fire from. A low wall on the monument in front of us seemed like a good bet for a barricade. I turned to Sgt. Jerry Fish beside me and said why don't we pile some of this broken down concrete on top of that low wall in front of us for better cover. We can lie down in back of it as we return fire. Jerry said it sounded like a good idea to him, so quicker than it takes to tell about it, we piled up a couple of large pieces and got down behind them. I think it became apparent to me almost immediately that there wasn't enough cover and our position was too exposed. I turned to Jerry and said we better get out of here before we get shot. Jumping up I quickly turned onto the path through the middle of the monument. Arising behind me Jerry suddenly yelled I'm hit as he fell. I quickly knelt down beside him to see what I could do. Another airman and I checked Jerry over and found that he had one entrance wound low on his right shoulder at the edge of his flack jacket with no exit wound. We didn't know what to do for him. Stopping the bleeding seemed unnecessary as he wasn't bleeding much from the location of the wound. So we tried to comfort him as we yelled for a medic. A few minutes later two corpsmen arrived with a stretcher and carried Jerry off. That's the last time I saw him. Later I found out he had been severely wounded. The bullet had hit him just below his right shoulder blade, went through his right lung, and later was removed by a Doctor from his lower back.
Soon after the corpsmen took Jerry away we started to draw heavy fire. So many bullets were hitting around us that it sounded like hail on a tin roof. I became so frightened that my bowels felt like snakes crawling around inside me. I was convinced we were all going to die. But at the same time my mind felt sharp and clear as I planed what I was going to do next. I initially hadn't taken the situation very seriously. Never having been in combat before it had seemed more like playing a children's game of cowboys and Indians. Feeling responsible now for suggesting that Jerry move forward with me, I realizing how close I had come to being shot or killed myself. We didn't have any combat training and no idea what the rules of engagement were. We also had no idea where friendly forces were situated. I didn't want to shoot a civilian, or one of our own, so I decided the best thing to do was hold my fire until I saw some one in black pajamas carrying an AK-47.
Suddenly one of the airmen in front of me opened up with his M-16 on full auto. At God knows what since the VC weren't visible. He must have wasted at least half the ammunition in his magazine and we had none to spare. I knew the VC would over run us if we didn't stop them at the outer fence, so since I out ranked him, I ordered him to stop firing until they were visible. He turned to me with tears in his eyes and said, "but they're shooting at me." I knew how he felt. I also was scared and angry. I wanted to kill as many VC as I could before they killed me. But I was more afraid of not having enough ammunition to stop the VC than the VC them selves. I thought, if we can only hold on long enough, maybe some one with combat training will come and help us.
After the battle we were told some ARVN (Army of the Republic of Viet Nam) had been hit by friendly fire. I don't know if it was true or just a story told to us because of the way we acquired our weapons. I do know that when I arrived at my hooch that morning none of the ARVN that usually guarded the perimeter were there. There was some question in our minds as to what side the ARVN were on. But I won't try to guess where they were as they may all have been dead.
The hail of fire seemed to last forever but then a VNAF A-1E flew over and dropped a couple of bombs on the VC position. I watched it as it dove and only covered my head as the bombs were about to hit. The ground seemed to rise up and hit me in the face as seconds later dirt fell on us from the sky. Shortly after that a Huey flew over launching rockets and firing its guns.
Soon some SP's with an M-60 machine gun arrived and for us the battle was over. I was never so glad to see the Security Police in my life. However, their job was just beginning because the VC continued to probe the 1200 area for the rest of the month.
We were ordered to clear our weapons and turn them in, so I did, then headed to the latrine for some badly needed relief. I was standing there relieving my self when I saw through the window an airman walking toward me clearing his weapon. Now this is the part I told you I'd come to later. This airman knew very little about firearms. He removed the magazine then pulled the trigger before clearing the chamber and sent a round right between my feet. That was too much. I had just barely avoided being killed by the enemy and now one of our own was trying to kill me. I yelled some thing unprintable at him and he yelled back that he was sorry. I thought he was sorry too, a sorry excuse for an airman! In my opinion Air Force airman need to be trained for combat as well as for what ever MOS they are trained in.
I went back to my hooch to try and get some sleep. When I got to my bunk there was a hole in my roof, a bomb fragment lying on my mattress and a spent 5.56mm bullet on the floor next to my locker. It was obvious I wasn't going to get any sleep there so I got my camera out of my locker and snapped some pictures of the battle aftermath. Then I thumbed a ride back to the S.O.A.P. Lab were a guy could get a few hours sleep. After all, even I knew when enough was enough.
Now it may seem to you that we did very little to defend the base that day. But I'm absolutely convinced. If we hadn't been there the VC would have stormed across that fence with no opposition. God only knows how many would have been killed. None of us ran. We held our position and we all can be proud of that.
Here is a letter I mailed home on the day of this attack.
Dear Mom, Dad, and Sis,
6 May 1968.
I'm writing this letter at work. The VC attacked today about 6:15 A.M. A friend of mine was wounded and I came close to getting killed. It's been a long day and I have a lot on my mind so forgive me if this letter rambles a little. The attack happened this way. I heard a loud explosion near me at about 6:15 A.M. A few seconds latter the base siren sounded. I grabbed my uniform, flack vest, and helmet and went outside to the bunker where I got dressed. When we heard the all clear announced on a portable radio we had we went back to our hooch. I was about to go inside when fighting broke out between the South Vietnamese Army and the VC. You see my hooch is along the edge of the base and the VC were trying to get through there. We were issued M16's and told to find cover. There is a big cement Vietnamese monument near my hooch. My friend and I took cover there. I made my way along side the monument to find a forward position to fire from and my friend followed. We found a position but there wasn't much cover so we tried to put some big slabs of concrete in front of us. There still wasn't enough cover so we started to fall back to our previous positions. I had just gotten behind the monument when my friend was hit right were I had been seconds before. He was wounded in the right shoulder. I'm glad to say the medics got to him in time. I learned one thing today. I'm no hero. I was half scared to death. I didn't even get a shot off. There is heavy cover just off base. Every time I'd look up to find a target; bullets would fly by my head and I couldn't find one. About that time an A1E started dropping bombs on the VC. That was really some thing to see. The A1E dived on the VC positions, released it's bombs, and then pulled up. The VC were around 100 yards from us so you can imagine the show we saw. We pretty well wiped them out. The South Vietnamese Army rounded up the rest of the VC later and took care of them. I have some pictures of the monument I took cover behind and of the damaged houses the VC were hiding in when the A1E dropped it's bombs on them. I'll send them when I get them developed. I'm totally fed up with Viet Nam. I can't wait to leave. I'll be glad when I can take my R&R and soon after that my leave for home. I only have 136 more days to go now. Just as a little added comment on the war, a piece of shrapnel from the bombs the A1E dropped on the VC blew a hole in my roof over my bunk. You should have seen the plaster lying all over the place. I guess I'll end here. Don't worry too much about me. I'm feeling well but I'm just a little war weary.