The April 9th Sapper Attack

My name is Mark Beeley. I was with the 526 CC&S the night it was hit by sappers.
I arrived in Vietnam in March of 1968. Within a matter of days I was assigned to the 526 CC&S ostensibly as a crane operator. When I first saw the unit, I couldn't believe I had been assigned to work in a junkyard. (So much for my dreams of working in a construction outfit.) There were already five or six crane operators in camp so there was little need for my fledgling talents. For several weeks, I operated a small forklift until I had the opportunity to volunteer as a permanent guard.

About a week before the attack, the CO informed us the permanent guard group was being disbanded. The day before the attack it was made official. However, I asked if I could pull another night's duty in order to spend the next day at Red Beach in Qui Nhon, and my request was granted.

My post had always been Tower #2. This post was actually a sand bag bunker positioned well above camp level on a black granite rock mound. In all, there were five guard posts and the gatehouse. The HQ building housed the Sergeant of the Guard and the communications center. There were three guards per tower. One person would watch the perimeter and the other two could sleep. We pulled a 12 hour shift but only had to be "on guard" for four hours. When we were relieved in the morning, we'd be free to do whatever we wanted. Many times we'd go to Red Beach for golf, swimming or water skiing. It was hard to believe this was a combat zone.

As was often the case when we were on guard, we'd spend much of our time talking to one another about anything and everything to break the tedium. Such was the case in the early morning hours of April 9th. I remember being engaged in a very lively discussion with one of my tower mates regarding his treatment of his ex-wife. I suggested to him that maybe their breakup was his fault. This attacked his macho-sexist sensibilities and our conversations took on a very heated tone. In the middle of our "conversation", I had an overwhelming urge to visit the crapper. I begged him to save his comments for my return. When we left the tower for nature breaks, we'd often leave our weapon behind in the event one of the weapons jammed. We figured that, in case of attack, we could always make our way back to the tower to provide additional support. We had always assumed any attack would come from outside the perimeter.

I was halfway down the hill when my tower mate spouted some comment that so riled me I felt compelled to respond…aching bowels or not. I was standing no more that ten feet away from the guard bunker when our conversation was interrupted by the sound of automatic weapons fire being directed towards the generator. My first thought was that, "Chief" - a native American Indian who had a reputation for locking and loading his weapon while under the influence - decided to shoot up the generator. My second thought was that the muzzle flashes of the weapon being fired looked odd. Rather than flashes of hot flames and gases, this gun looked like it was shooting sparks. I stood outside the tower staring in total disbelief. Then a series of explosions rocked the compound. Every major building in the compound seemed to explode within seconds of one another. Then there was a brief lull that lasted a couple of minutes. Suddenly, the whole compound erupted in automatic weapons fire. From our vantage point high on the hill of Tower 2, we could see tracers rounds criss-crossing the compound. The gunfire seemed to last for 30 minutes or so before stopping. In the meantime, one of the barracks burned to the ground as the result of fires caused by explosions.

One of the men killed was asleep in the barracks that burned. I heard he died immediately when a satchel charge blew up under his bunk. I remember he was Hispanic, so it could have been Pedro Valenzula. He was short and was due to leave country in a day or two.

The barracks fire spread to Tower 3 forcing the occupants to evacuate the tower by jumping. This was a considerable leap as the tower was built on telephone poles. I later heard one of the guards on duty at the time had been drinking, was stoned and was asleep at the time of the intrusion that took place just underneath his tower. When he evacuated the tower, he either broke or severely sprained his ankle (or ankles) and was awarded the Purple Heart. There was tremendous anger when news of this circulated throughout the camp. Wisely, the individual in question was reassigned and never returned to camp. I've always wondered what became of this guy.

When the attack first started, I ran back to the relative safety of Tower 2 and together we watched for any signs of...whatever. We really didn't know what we should be looking for, as it never occurred to any of us to expect an attack from within the compound. Communication with the command center was destroyed when the HQ building was blown up. We did however, have contact with Tower One. They told us to look for VC from within the compound and said they had several dead VC inside the compound and near their tower.

Inside our tower, I remember telling Dan Martinez to watch our rear and to shoot anything coming up the hill he couldn't positively identify. Dan was sound asleep when the attack first started and was in an obvious state of confusion and shock when he woke up to the sound of gunfire and explosions.

Eventually, the camp went quiet and we shot off flares once we figured it was safe to do so. Around 3:00 am or so, Huey gunships sprayed the mountainside with machine gun fire and rockets. By then, I'm sure the VC were long gone or hiding safely in one of the many caves within the mountain.

Once it was clear the attack was over, it occurred to me once again that nature was still calling. The discomfort was such that I decided to leave the safety of the tower and try to complete the act quickly and quietly. I asked Dan to keep an eye on a grassy area behind me…just in case. I then squatted over an empty soft drink box and used my rifle as a balancing post. As I hugged my rifle with my pants down around my ankles, I felt like I had every eye in the world trained on me. I then imagined my mother being notified her son was killed in action...while taking a shit on a mountainside . Stuck by the absurdity of the situation, I pulled up my pants and returned to the tower. I decided I'd just mess in my pants if I needed to. As it turned out, I don't think I relieved myself for another eight hours.

We stayed in the guard tower until daybreak which seemed to take an eternity to arrive. A sergeant (whose name escapes me but I remember he was from Michigan) hollered up to the tower to see if we needed any assistance, and told us we'd be relieved soon.

When our relief finally arrived, the three of us went our separate ways. I walked down the hill past the generator that was riddled with bullet holes (but never destroyed). I continued walking toward my barracks until I cam across the body of VC lying on the ground just feet from my barracks. He was surprisingly tall and was wearing nothing but black shorts. His skin was dark gray - probably covered with ashes as a sort of camouflage. I remember his shiny jet-black hair.

I walked a few feet to my barracks. I slept in the lower corner of the building and my bunk was located just to the right of the doorway as you entered the barracks. I slept in the top bunk. The bottom bunk was empty and the mattress was rolled. When I walked into the barracks, my bunk was nothing but twisted metal. There was a basketball-sized hole in the middle of my mattress. My wooden footlocker had disintegrated completely. My wall locker was a twisted mass of sheet metal. Most of my belongings were nothing more than splinters of fabric and material stuck in the ceiling. Boards were blown out of the entire lower corner of the barracks. It was a mess. I heard the person who bunked across the aisle from me was blown backward through the wall as a result of the blast and was severely burned. I can't recall his name. I've always wondered how he fared.

I stood in the barracks and stared at the remains of what was once my bunk. As I stood staring, one of the guys in the barracks saw me, ran to me crying and hugged me like a long lost relative. I can't remember his name either, but he was a slender yet muscular black man with piercing blue eyes. I seem to recall he was from New Orleans. He thought I was in my bed that evening and was sure I had been killed. I recall looking down at his feet. He was wearing work boots, but the toe was missing on one of his shoes and his toes were exposed as if he were wearing a single sandal. I noticed his elbows and hands were skinned and bleeding. When I asked what happened, he explained he was running to try to get out of the barracks when those persons in front of him were hit by gunfire by VC stationed outside the doors of each barracks. He said he was running back toward the center of the barracks when a satchel charge exploded at his feet. The blast ripped the steel toe out of his safety boot and the concussion tossed him down the aisle way where he landed on his hands, knees and elbows. Other than that, he said he was fine.

After a while, I walked to the barracks where the First Sergeant slept. There was another dead VC lying on the ground with his intestines blown out of his body. I heard he tried to throw a satchel charge onto the tin roof but it slid off the slippery metal surface and exploded in front of him. I don't know if the explosion killed him or if he was hit with gunfire, but I vividly recall he was wearing a wedding ring. And I thought to myself; I know he's dead but does his wife? At that moment I realized the war in Vietnam was a lost cause.

I recall having breakfast at one of the compounds next to us. I can't recall if it was the transport company or the medical station, but I remember the buzz I felt from the lack of sleep and the shock of what I had seen and experienced. I remember the mess hall being as quiet as a church.

When I returned to the compound after breakfast, the casualty numbers were starting to come in. Seven GIs were killed and over 50 wounded. I don't recall how many VC were killed, but I seem to recall the number was small (6-8?). GIs everywhere were wearing their pots, flak jackets, bandoliers of ammo, and grenades. I remember officers and NCOs going around making sure the grenade pins were bent. Most weren't as they came out of their shipping box straight and unbent. They also made sure safeties were on and people didn't have a live round in the chamber (which most did). It's amazing no one was killed by accident.

Other stories began to surface throughout the day:

  • There was a cook on duty in the mess hall when the explosions occurred. He hid in one of the freezers until it was safe to come out.

  • One GI, when trying to exit the building, was shot by a VC outside the barracks. He went back inside the building to warn everyone that VC were inside the perimeter. He went outside a second time and was shot again. Again, he returned to the barracks to warn everyone that VC were still outside. He went out a third time and was shot a third time. When he returned to the barracks a third time for yet another warning, someone tackled him and held him down.

  • Another GI was running towards his assigned perimeter bunker located near the generator when a VC jumped out in front of him. This soldier, who had no ammo, was said to have lowered his rifle into a bayonet attack position. He was killed instantly by a burst from an AK-47.

  • Another fatality occurred when one of the severely injured soldiers was taken to a bunker near the front gate. I heard he had a serious leg wound and, for whatever reason, bled to death. It seems that, in the heat of battle, no one thought to apply a tourniquet.

  • One of the guards on Tower One told me the story of a VC that was trying to gain entrance into the CO's hootch but the door was locked. Apparently, Captain Atkins yelled at the CO to stay inside because there was a gook outside his door. The CO hollered back to Atkins to kill the son-of-a bitch...which Atkins did.

  • The tall sergeant (E-6) from Michigan (Holland, MI?) was making his way towards the barracks exit when he came face to face with a VC holding a pistol. The VC pulled the trigger but the gun either misfired or was empty. The sergeant dropkicked the guy knocking him out. The sergeant then ordered another GI to stand guard over the downed VC with orders to shoot him if he moved. As the sergeant walked away, a shot rang out from the GI he left on guard. "He moved" was the guard's response.

  • I seem to recall either a tank retriever or APC firing their twin .50 cal machine guns into mountainside closest the motor pool area. I don't know if they ever saw what they were shooting at.

  • VC were positioned at each end of all barracks and would shoot whoever came through the door. Guys ultimately holed-up in their barracks by barricading the entrances with foot and wall lockers as they scrambled for ammunition or waited for help.

  • Tito (or Tino) Martinez told me he was in a bunker with some wounded and he saw sappers coming through the wire of the perimeter. He told me he had only one round but was afraid he'd miss or give away his position if he fired.

  • Later in the morning or early afternoon, an infantry recon squad swept the mountain. There were reports of caves everywhere, of finding a large rice cache and the reported smell of death, but no VC. The recon squad estimated the VC had been in the area for weeks.

  • I always wondered why this camp was built at the base of a big-ass mountain. Wasn't that a basic rule of battlefield protection: never pitch camp at the base of a mountain? Or, take the high ground? What the hell were they thinking?

  • As evening approached, regular infantry staffed the remaining guard towers. The tower that burned was replaced with an APC for perimeter protection. I also remember everyone being scared of a second attack against a company that was reduced by almost half. The next night proved uneventful, but the fear lingered for a long time. You took your weapon with you everywhere; to the shower, to the mess hall, to take the shitter, and you ALWAYS had ammo.

  • Investigations were supposedly initiated to look into the camp's ammo policy. If there was an investigation, I never heard about it. I heard there was even a Congressional investigation being planned but I doubt anything came of that. Still, some heads somewhere should have rolled as a result of this moronic policy.

  • There was a story going around that Vietnamese hootch maids and other camp workers were shown photos of those VC killed in the raid and that one of the hootch maids reacted very violently when she saw the picture of one of the dead VC. If true, I wondered if she was the wife of the VC with the ring. All of the hootch maids were fired as a security measure.

  • A search of the compound found several blood trails. One of the trails led up the hill and right into a grassy patch that was within a few feet of the area where I was squatting earlier in the morning. When I asked Dan if he recalled seeing anything at all while I was squatting outside the bunker, he said he thought he did, but thought he was seeing things because he was tired. We never found the source of the blood trail.

  • I never understood the strategic value of attacking a junkyard. On the other hand, we were sitting ducks. If it weren't for the actions of several brave (and relatively well armed) men, the 526th could have been wiped out. I'm surprised the casualties weren't a lot higher.

  • In the weeks following the attack, we'd routinely engage in harassment fire into the mountain. This usually consisted of M-79 rounds. Plus, the perimeter was reinforced with additional concertina wire and trip flares. We also used a defoliant (Agent Orange?) to eliminate the vegetation on the outer perimeter.

    More Strange Coincidences:

    About a week or so before the attack, my mother sent me a printed card with the following prayer to St. Joseph: "Oh St. Joseph, whose protection is so great, so strong, so prompt before the throne of God, I place in you all my interest and desires. Oh, St. Joseph, do assist me by your powerful intercession, and obtain for me from your divine Son all spiritual blessings, through Jesus Christ, Our Lord. So that, having engaged here below your heavenly power, I may offer my thanksgiving and homage to the most loving of Fathers. Oh, St. Joseph, I never weary contemplating you and Jesus asleep in our arms; I dare not approach while He reposes near your heart. Press Him in my name and kiss His fine head for me and ask Him to return the kiss when I draw my dying breath. St. Joseph, Patron of departing souls - Pray for me." Below the prayer, this is printed: "This prayer was found in the fiftieth year of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. In 1505 it was sent from the Pope to Emperor Charles, when he was going into battle. Whoever shall read this prayer or hear it, or keep it about themselves, shall never die a sudden death or be drowned, nor shall poison take effect on them: neither shall they fall into the hands of the enemy, or shall be burned in any fire or shall be overpowered in battle. Say this nine mornings for anything you may desire. It has never been known to fail. IMPRIMATUR: SEPTEMBER 25, 1950, HUGH C. BOYLE, Bishop of Pittsburgh."

    To this day, I keep a copy of this prayer tucked in my wallet. I truly believe it was more than luck and circumstance that I survived the events of April 9, 1968. About a week after the attack, I received a letter from my dad saying he'd read a news story in the Toledo Blade about a company in Qui Nhon that had been attacked. He wanted to know if this was anywhere near me. I wrote him back: "Dear Dad, About two feet...."

    Lingering Effects:

    Some months later, and after numerous staff and personnel changes, it was either an officer or a newer NCO who was playing bad-ass and threatening somebody with a court-martial because they had a clip in their rifle. He was turning it into quite the scene when I piped in and said, "If you're going to court-martial him, you'll have to court-martial me as well." I went on to explain - in no uncertain terms - what had transpired on April 9th. I told him that, never again would I be caught without a weapon and ammo while I was in Vietnam. He just turned and walked away. I had a similar situation arise during my second tour of duty in Vietnam. A rookie ROTC First Louie threatened me with a court martial because I had a magazine in my rifle. Once again, I was pretty vocal in my retelling of what happened on April 9, and I dared him to try to take away my weapon or my ammo. The subject was never brought up again. During my second tour I was stationed in Long Bihn. I had been with the outfit for just a few days when I was awakened by an early morning alert siren. I immediately jumped from my bunk, jumped into my boots, grabbed my rifle, helmet, ammo and flak jacket and hauled ass to the nearest bunker. When I got there, an E-7 started ripping me for being out of uniform because I was clothed in only my underwear and tee-shirt. He started with the court martial threats and demanded I return to the barracks to get dressed. Once again, I was pretty vocal about citing the events of April 9, 1968, and told him it that I wasn't going to take the risk of getting killed while getting dressed to "play war". Within a matter of weeks I was out of this guy's platoon. I've often been asked if I ever think about Vietnam, and I've always replied "every day"...............Mark Beely
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