A 19-year-old sentry assigned to a listening post at a U.S. air base gets caught in the crossfire during a Viet Cong attack.
On January 29, 1968, the night sky above the sprawling Bien Hoa Air Base, where I was on sentry patrol, appeared to be on fire. Large numbers of flares shot high into the air and burst into brilliant light, illuminating the landscape before slowly descending to earth. The flares, accompanied by the occasional rattle of mixed rifle and machine gun fire, marked a celebration of Tet, Vietnam’s lunar New Year. I observed the sight from my post at a fuel dump and hoped the remainder of the night would be quiet.
As the hours dragged into January 30, one of our squadron’s three-man security alert teams pulled up in a vehicle and told me that the bases at Da Nang and Pleiku had been attacked at 3:30 a.m. and that Bien Hoa, about 60 miles north of Saigon, might be on the enemy’s hit list. In addition to checking on sentries, security teams patrolled their designated area. If the teams detected any attempted penetration of the barbed-wire fence around the base’s perimeter, they would greet the Viet Cong with slugs from an M60 machine gun and M16 rifles, as well as rounds from a 40mm grenade launcher.
Only minutes after the team had driven away to check the next post, an enemy rocket suddenly screamed over me and struck a nearby hangar, severely damaging the structure and the aircraft inside. Seconds later, the air-raid siren let everyone know Bien Hoa was under attack. More missiles struck randomly across the base. The unguided Chinese-made rockets (105mm and 122mm) had a limited range but caused serious damage wherever they landed. That rocket attack, however, was nothing compared to the life-and-death struggle I would face over the next 36 hours.
I had arrived at Bien Hoa early in January and was assigned to the 3rd Security Police Squadron, part of the U.S. Air Force’s overall security force in Southeast Asia. Trained as a specialist in police security after enlisting in the Air Force in September 1966, I was first assigned to Sewart Air Force Base near Nashville, Tennessee, in 1967. In the late 1960s the base had become a bustling center of intensive training for crews flying Lockheed C-130 Hercules and de Havilland DHC-7 Caribou transport planes. Many of those crews were bound for South Vietnam and Thailand, and our squadron’s job was to provide security for Sewart. Bored with what I considered to be mundane duty and ready for some excitement, I volunteered for a transfer to South Vietnam. The Air Force gladly obliged, and early in January 1968 I was winging my way across the Pacific Ocean in a Boeing 707 packed with soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines.
Within 24 hours of arriving at Bien Hoa, I began about three weeks of intensive combat training. The instruction prepared us to defend the base from an attack that intelligence sources indicated could occur any day. The squadron, a force of more than 100 men under the command of Lt. Col. Joseph A. Lynn, was part of the 3rd Combat Support Group of the Pacific Air Forces. It had been protecting the base since November 1965. In January 1968, however, the unit was generally unprepared both in manpower and weaponry for any major assault. Bien Hoa had two east-west runways (each nearly 2 miles long) that were used by the U.S. Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps, as well as the South Vietnamese Air Force, chiefly for bombing missions and close air support to assist ground troops fighting the Viet Cong.
After the combat training, I was assigned to a Quick Reaction Force, which gave me the opportunity to learn even more about the base and its security procedures. I stood my first post alone on January 8 and occasionally served as a Security Alert Team member until January 30, when the rumor mill really went into overdrive after intelligence indicated that a massive attack throughout South Vietnam was imminent. My experiences over the next 36 hours were etched so deeply in my memory that even today I can recall in detail the sights and sounds of combat. Above all, however, I remember the searing stench of death in my nostrils.
It began the afternoon of January 30 when we hurried to prepare all of the squadron’s resources, human and material. At guard post we were again told a night attack was coming. The officers and senior noncommissioned officers said we were to defend the base “at all costs”—words that generated intense fear in a 19-year-old kid from a dairy farm in South Jersey.
A staff sergeant and I were assigned to Defense Post 3 on the far east end of the base. Each of us carried an M16 with plenty of ammunition, along with a hand-held Motorola radio for communications with the 3rd Security Police Squadron’s command post on the base. Our primary purpose was to listen for any evidence of enemy troop movements just outside the perimeter, and we were given the code name “Big Ears Three.” About 2 a.m. on January 31, a truck took us to a section of the perimeter fence along the east end of the base.
Our post was about a quarter-mile from Bunker Hill 10. The bunker, inside the perimeter fence, was manned by a small group from our squadron, equipped with M60s, M16s, .38-caliber Smith & Wesson “Combat Masterpiece” revolvers and 40mm grenade launchers. The staff sergeant and I spent the early hours of the night lying on the ground and listening for any unusual activity in a village uncomfortably close to the other side of the fence. Occasionally we would check in with the command post, but the night remained relatively calm.
At 3 a.m. January 31, that calm was shattered when the first of more than 150 rockets, backed up by a barrage of mortar fire, roared across the sky to strike the base. The airborne attack lasted for one hour and was aimed chiefly at the flight line, where planes were parked within fortified walls. The aircraft included U.S. Air Force North American F-100 Super Sabres, twin-engine Cessna A-37 attack jets and piston-powered Douglas A-1 Skyraiders flown primarily by the South Vietnamese. The fusillade of rockets and mortars was the initial phase of the Viet Cong’s plan to neutralize Bien Hoa Air Base. The enemy forces reasoned (correctly) that they would have a better chance of conquering Saigon if they could prevent the base from providing effective air support to the city’s defenders.
Bien Hoa, we found out, was not the only target during the night of Jan. 30-31, 1968. A massive, well-planned and coordinated offensive was launched across South Vietnam during Tet. About 100 cities and 20 air bases were attacked by more than 80,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops, including two infantry battalions and an infantry company assigned to destroy Bien Hoa’s formidable air power. When the aerial bombardment ended at about 4 a.m., ground forces almost immediately began a direct assault on Bunker Hill 10.
Big Ears Three was ordered to hold its position and, if possible, help defend Bunker Hill 10’s right flank against the waves of enemy troops. Only a few minutes after the ground attack began, a Russian-made rocket-propelled grenade struck the road about 50 feet from where the sergeant and I were positioned. We were showered with dirt and debris from the RPG’s impact but were not hit by any flying shrapnel. That grenade, however, made it clear to me that the enemy knew where we were. Trembling with fear, I cautiously crawled out to the road to see what was happening at Bunker Hill 10. A major firefight was in progress there. It seemed surreal—screaming men, machine gun fire, RPG explosions, the staccato sound of small arms all jumbled together to create a cacophony of death and destruction.
I reported what I had seen to the sergeant, who tried to tell the command post about the hot battle at the east end of the runway, but he couldn’t get through because there was so much radio traffic. He was still trying to relay that information when a 1½-ton truck slowly drove by us, obviously headed for Bunker Hill 10. Perhaps the driver was trying to resupply the bunker with much-needed ammunition. The truck had traveled about 50 yards beyond our post when it took a direct hit from an RPG. The round blew the cab to pieces and sent the steel roof flying upward end-over-end as the flaming wreckage careened into a ditch on the side of the road.
Although I could see that a small number of the enemy had fought their way past Bunker Hill 10, many more were lying dead in front of it and along the perimeter road, victims of the ferocious fighting in and out of the bunker. The sight was made even worse by the bullet-riddled bodies of the attackers. Some were hanging in one piece across the perimeter’s barbed wire, but the bodies of others had been torn to shreds by M60s and were sprawled grotesquely on the killing field.
It was obvious that we were in no position to help Bunker Hill 10. The sergeant, finally able to reach the command post on the radio, requested permission to fall back across the road and take up a defensive stance that would give us a better field of fire. His request was denied several times before we were finally ordered to proceed across a large field behind us toward the base’s flight line.
Unfortunately, by the time we received that order, the sergeant and I had become mixed in with the enemy soldiers who had managed to bypass Bunker Hill 10. The field was dominated by grass as high as 8 to 10 feet. With the sergeant leading the way, we raced through the grass in the general direction of the flight line. The tall grass, however, was so thick that it not only slowed our progress but also wrenched the M16 out of my right hand, taking away my only weapon.
It was decision time: keep moving or go retrieve that rifle. I stopped in my tracks, wheeled around and ran back to where I hoped the M16 had fallen. I remember praying out loud, “Oh, God! Please help me!” My hands were shaking badly as I fell to my knees and frantically began to search the ground. A few seconds later my hand hit the rifle. I picked up the weapon and resumed my run toward the flight line.
I had not gone more than 50 feet when a bullet whizzed by my right ear so close the earlobe fluttered. I will never forget the distinct sound of that bullet, probably fired from an AK-47 assault rifle belonging to a Viet Cong who was catching up to me. The adrenalin kicked in and my legs shifted into high gear until I was out of the grass. Finally in the open, I was able to see the sergeant and threw myself down beside him in a small depression that afforded us only minimal cover. Our location was not good. We were still short of the flight line and in the same general area as the enemy. Thanks to a dead radio battery, the sergeant was unable to inform the command post of our new position.
By now it was about 6 a.m., and the dawn was slowly beginning to illuminate the battlefield. That allowed aircraft to take over the defense of the air base’s east end. Helicopters from the Army’s 334th Gunship Company, based at Bien Hoa, soon detected the enemy troops in the field where we were hunkered down. Their gunships, Bell UH-1 Iroquois “Hueys” and AH-1 Cobras, made repeated strafing runs, flying very low over our position and blasting rocket and machine gun fire with devastating success. Many of those rockets hit their human targets so close to where we were lying that every impact caused us to bounce a few inches off the ground and plop down again. The sergeant feared we would be killed by our own forces.
Amid all the confusion of the battle, I heard another helicopter coming in for what I assumed would be a firing pass from behind our position. I turned and looked up to see a Cobra bearing down on us. The helicopter fired a salvo of rockets I was certain were aimed at us. I remember thinking, “This is the end, and there won’t be enough body parts left to send home after those rockets blow me to smithereens.” Fortunately, the rockets struck the enemy less than 200 feet in front of our little hole in the ground. For the next few hours, the gunships continued to fire, killing dozens of attackers before returning to their landing pads to refuel and rearm. Attack helicopters from the 118th Assault Helicopter Company joined the gunships of the 334th and hammered the enemy incessantly. The close air support the Army aviators were giving the 3rd Security Police gradually began to seal the defeat of the attackers. We owed a lot to those Army pilots and their gunships.
The sergeant and I could hardly believe we were still alive. We looked up as a lone Huey passed above and to our left. The cabin side door slid open, and a senior master sergeant from our squadron was peering down at us to determine who we were—friend or foe. We were not about to stand up, so we frantically waved our hands. The message was received and acknowledged with a salute. Big Ears Three had been found at last, and we assumed that the command post would be duly informed.
As is often the case in war, no one got the word. Shortly after the Huey departed, we were shocked to suddenly receive blistering machine gun fire from one of our own Security Alert Teams spoiling for a fight. The sergeant and I could not have known that the team was a few hundred yards behind us, but we quickly recognized our predicament when they opened up with their M60s. As the bullets began whizzing closer and closer to our heads, we tried desperately to become one with the dirt in that little hollow of earth. I remember the bullets striking the ground 10 to 20 feet in front of where we were lying. They kicked up big plumes of dirt that fell down on us. I am convinced we survived only because the gunners on the truck could not angle their weapons low enough to hit us. Had they been on higher ground, we would have been killed.
By noon it became obvious that the fight was finally winding down. The enemy attack had failed. A small number of commandos with multiple charges packed in satchels had reached the places where the aircraft were parked, but they did little damage and eventually were captured or killed. Around 2 p.m. the sergeant and I were relieved by other units sent to “mop up” enemy soldiers still alive or hiding on the battlefield. As we walked out of that field of death and flagged a ride on a flatbed truck back to our squadron, both of us were trying to grasp all that had transpired during the past 24 hours.
I remember sitting down on my bunk in Hut 27 and writing a few lines in my daily journal: “I thank God that I’m alive. VC penetrated the perimeter and were all around us. Retreated from Defense Post #3 to cover. Quite a ways to go but made it OK. Not enough room here to even start describing it. Many mortars and rockets began the attack.” In the wake of the fight, I guess I suffered from the “shock and awe” of battle because I had absolutely zero appetite for three days and managed to grab only a little sleep. In the end, Big Ears Three survived the Battle of Bien Hoa and lived to tell the tale. Incredibly, throughout the entire ordeal neither the sergeant nor I had an opportunity to fire even one shot at the enemy.
In retaliation for the enemy’s ground assault, the next day a flight of F-100s flew a series of low-level bombing attacks that destroyed the villages outside the east end of the base. I watched from our barracks as the 500-pound bombs fell very near where the sergeant and I had spent nervous hours on the perimeter the night before. According to the Air Force report on the attack, one member of the 3rd Security Police Squadron was killed (at Bunker Hill 10), along with three other Air Force personnel, while 26 men were wounded. On the enemy’s side, 139 were killed (based on a body count) and 25 were captured.
My one-year tour of duty at Bien Hoa ended late in December 1968. During that time I had experienced one major ground battle and 36 rocket and mortar attacks. The Battle of Bien Hoa had not only demonstrated to me the horror of war but, more important, had awakened me to the potential brevity of life and how quickly one can die. Now, 47 years later, that battle continues to remind me to never take anyone or anything, particularly your life, for granted.
After his Vietnam tour, Edward H. Phillips was assigned to the Strategic Air Command at Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota, where he continued in the Security Police until his discharge in September 1970. He has researched and written eight books on the history of aviation in Wichita, Kansas.
Originally published in the April 2015 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.