MY THOUGHTLESS COMFORT
On the day that I, Robert L Howard, arrived at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Vietnam in September 1967, I was told that several departing airmen had been killed during an earlier 120 millimeter rocket attack.
January 31, 1968 was another one of those days filled with the possibility that airmen living off base would be restricted to the base until enemy threats had lessened. I didn’t relish reclining on a cot in a Quonset Hut on my soon to arrive birthday, so I hurried off base after work before the gates were closed.
I had rented one of two efficiency units attached to a ranch type dwelling occupied by my Vietnamese landlord. The property was bordered on the right by a large five story hotel occupied by many Army and Air Force personnel. To our left, just across the street, was a moderately sized Vietnamese cemetery.
The moods of the people I encountered on the way to my dwelling were festive and I was entertained by numerous firework displays, similar to our Fourth of July. As for my mood, I couldn’t have been more satisfied with my TV, private shower, well stocked refrigerator and ‘Oh’ so comfortable bed.
As I prepared for work on February 1st, it startled me to hear what seemed to be fireworks. Then, as I was about to open the hallway door facing the graveyard, my landlord was there excitedly warning me in French that there were VC everywhere. I was now behind Viet Cong lines during the TET OFFENSIVE.
Airmen who had left the hotel earlier were unaware of the danger and since weapons were not issued to the Air Force, as a matter of local policy, they were unable to defend themselves. Luckily, the Army personnel still in the hotel had weapons and quickly set up a defensive perimeter.
Later in the day, another NCO and I made our way to the roof of the hotel where we thought we could better assess our options. As we peeked down into the graveyard we saw more than a dozen men opening gravesites and removing what appeared to be previously buried boxes of weapons and ammunition.
Suddenly, as if on cue, we saw and heard the sound of a Huey helicopter above the hotel and behind us. We could see the gunner in the opened rear door of the helicopter manning his weapon. In short order the helicopter turned for an attack and actually, to my surprise, strafed the cemetery. Although the grave diggers scattered, in all directions, some were hit.
Strangely, as I witnessed this scene, my mind returned to a period in time when I was a child. On Saturdays, my mother would give each of us ten cents and we would go to the movie and stay all day. In the many cowboy movies that we saw, when the bad guys were hit, they appeared to be thrust backward and off their feet by the impact of the bullets. However, on this day, three VC appeared to have been struck. I don’t know if any of them died, but they simply stopped in their tracks and collapsed to the ground awkwardly without any further movement. Reality in real life doesn’t mimic movie drama.
Much later, in my room, I celebrated being alive on my birthday while listening to the very loud and repeatedly shouted threats from the street which said, in English, “G. I. We’re going to kill you”!
Thanks to the valiant efforts of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), our military police and our 101st Airborne forces (We called them the Big Red One) the siege of Saigon and its nearby areas was soon broken. I was able to safely return to my NCOIC position on February 3, 1968 with one added duty. I was tasked with issuing weapons to myself and other Air Force office personnel. I now strutted around with a 45 on my hip coupled with a significantly increased determination to fulfill our overall mission to the best of my ability with or without comfort.