Stories of Da Nang
by Greg Dunlap, Sentry Dog Handler January1968-January 1969
THE FIRST 4 DAYS IN VIETNAM,
or what the hell is this?
Every journey is an adventure, little did I realize that Vietnam was going to be more than just a normal one. From the start, dark clouds on the horizon should have tipped me off, but being young and dumb at the time, I didn't have a clue.
We gathered at a base in Southern California for the flight over. Tearful good-bye's and "I'll promise to write/not forget you/be waiting when you come home's" were being exchanged. There were quite a few of us young and eager men going off into what we couldn't imagine. Southern California was a pleasant place to be then, low 60's in temperature, clear, crisp days. We were dressed in the light tan uniform expecting a tropical climate as our destination.
FIRST DARK CLOUD
The call to load up into the aircraft came and everyone gathered their carry on luggage and walked down the ramp. We had been looking out the window at the airplane. waiting and wondering, "Flying Tiger Airlines", who ever heard of that one? Asking around it was found out that it was a contract carrier the military used. Flying Tiger Airlines was normally a freight carrier but had won a contract to ferry troops to Asia for the War. Different freight, same idea. No assigned seating just get in and fill it up. When all of us were seated we had the usual drill, seatbelt, air masks, flotation devices etc and then buttoned it up. The engines started and just as they were winding up, they stopped! Should have gotten off then and there and caught the ferry but we had to just sit there, on the ramp, waiting for them to fix whatever was wrong. The problem with this is that you have a 707 packed with people, sitting on the ramp without the engines going and thus no air conditioning operating, and no doors and windows open. It got real warm and damp in a hurry. After about 5 minutes they opened the doors to allow the air to flow through. Minor problem they said, be fixed in no time. I considered again taking the ferry but now they were closing the doors and this time the engines started and held.
Has anyone experienced a Lehman's start with a 707 packed with people? Normal air lines you would taxi up the side runway, turn onto the main runway, stop, rev up the engines, pop the clutch and away you'd go right? Flying Tigers had a surprise for us. Taxi up the side runway, start to turn onto the main runway, and half way through the turn
. . . . . . . . put the pedal to the metal and off we went. You have this sensation of pressing back into the seat, and being pulled to the right at the same time. Accelerating and turning in a airplane on the ground, must say I hadn't done that before. After they got the plane on the main runway, accelerating all the time, they had to get it straightened out for the take off. This was accomplished while rolling down the runway and accelerating at the same time. You felt the plane swerve left and right as the corrections were being made, straighten out and then the uplifting sensation you get as the plane leaves the ground. Goodbye California and civilization, what's in store for me?
After a while we were told that there were going to be a stop over in Anchorage, Tokyo, and Okinawa before we got to Da Nang. Anchorage was interesting. By now it was 1 AM and it looked dark and wicked out there. Anchorage in January, imagine it. When we touched down the plane stopped out in the middle of no where. Nothing around us to be seen. Just like parking out in the middle of a field. The intercom came on and we were informed that there was a blizzard happening in Anchorage at the m moment and that the snow drifts had prevented us from parking next to the terminal. We were to look for a light right in front of us as we got out of the plane and run for it. It was the terminal, about 100 yards away, and we were to wait there for them to finish servicing the plane. The temperature outside was minus 20, so don't get lost because you'll freeze to death before we find you. Remember, everyone is all dressed in tropicals (Light weight summer uniform) , we're going to Vietnam, not Alaska. Talk about a blast of juxtaposition, Anchorage in January wearing what amounts to nothing. Who said military intelligence was an oxymoron? Everyone must have made it because I don't remember any panic or search parties being organized. Or else they just didn't count all of us and there is still some poor soul up in Anchorage, locked in the permafrost. The rest of the journey was uneventful, except for the take offs, fly for hours, land, wait in the terminal, load up and take off again. Hurry up and wait, we've all done that.
IN COUNTRY, THE SECOND DARK CLOUD:
Coming into Da Nang for the first time!! I had a window seat and got a first hand view of it. Lovely, green, lush looking country. Having lived in the Philippines for 3 years as a military dependent I knew what the native housing was going to look like so no surprise there. The base looked dismal however. Red clay dirt everywhere, where is the grass and trees? Oh well I thought. They pulled us up to the terminal and opened the doors, and we were hit by the blast furnace of Vietnam. I thought that it can't be this warm, it must be the inside of the plane and all the bodies again. No, it was that warm. Robin Williams in his role as a radio disk jockey in "Good Morning Vietnam" says on the weather report that today it's going to be HOT, HOT, HOT!!!! And tonight it will only be HOT, HOT!! He's not kidding. I was looking for the return stub of my round trip ticket, can I use this now?
Everyone was unloaded and checked off, put on the bus and taken over to the main complex. At Da Nang there was a center section to the base where everything was headquartered. We were left off here and told where to go to check in at our units. I found my way over to the Security Police section and reported in. A call down to the kennels that they had fresh meat waiting for them (me) got someone up to show me around. I was taken over to supply, received sheets and uniforms, the armory for my M-16 and ammo belt, and the hut for bunk assignment. I was told to get settled in and I'd be picked up in about an hour to go to the kennels to get my dog. It was afternoon so a lot of people were up already and I was greeted warmly. "Hi fresh food for the puppies, Hell Charlie will have this guy for breakfast, Did your parents have any normal children, Did you bring any nude pictures of your wife or girlfriend with you, want to buy some?" the normal banter among those who have been there a while and a new person. I took it in good nature and then it was time to go to the kennels.
GETTING MY DOG, DARK CLOUDS WITH A SILVER LINING
The kennels were located on the South end of the base, right off of the flight line, next to another barracks area. Reporting in I met the kennel master, SSgt Wolfe. He asked me about my qualifications as a dog handler, and after finding out that I was experienced, said that he only had one unassigned dog and that I was going to get him. I asked what he was like and he said, "You'll see". I knew then that something was going to happen to me, but what? One of the day kennel workers was told to take me to my dog. Walking down the row of kennels I was told that my dog, Blackie, had been locked up in his kennel for the past 2 or 3 weeks and that I shouldn't have any trouble getting in on him. I remember mentioning that it seemed a bit much to do that to a dog and I was told, "wait till you meet him".
Now I was becoming apprehensive, but I had come this far so there was no turning back at this point. Besides, we had stopped in front of a kennel, marked Blackie. Now mind you, when you walk down a row of kennels at a sentry dog unit, most of the dogs are standing at the gate, barking at you. You get to where you ignore it, they bark, you walk on by. No big thing. Walking up to Blackie's kennel the first time was different. This was the dog you were going to be working with for your tour of duty. This was the animal you were going to develop a relationship with, and this was the individual you were going to trust and depend on. Not like stateside, you were in Vietnam, and this was different. I looked in on a black and tan dog, laying there in the back of his kennel, not scared of us at all. Just watching us. Something about him suggested raw power and barely controlled fury. He looked at us and a low growl came from deep in his chest. When he saw that we were just standing there looking at him, and not going to move on, he uncoiled and hit the gate full force!!
"Did we mention that he's the nastiest dog here?" I heard the remark from the day worker at the same time my head was filled with the thought that this can't be happening to me! I looked at the day worker and weakly said, "You want me to take him?" I was laughed at, both by the person I was with, and by this black and tan monster trying to eat his way through the gate to get to us. Blackie, I was informed, was mine.
It took me 2 days to get into his kennel and take him out. I ended up taking a chair out and sitting down in front of his gate talking to him. I got his leash and muzzle out and let him smell it through the wire. He could smell himself on it and he knew that it was his. I hoped that he would get the idea that I would take him out of the kennel if he just calmed down long enough for me to do it. I'd stick my finger between the wire and touch him as he walked by, pulling it out quickly because he'd go for it. Eventually he would calm down, and then go lie in the back of his kennel. I guess he figured that I wasn't going to leave so he tried to ignore me. Being young and dumb, I thought he had accepted me and would then tell everyone that I was going to try to go into his kennel and take him out. Now mind you, I was told to make sure everyone knew when I was going to go in on him because they would have one of the day time people standing by, out of sight with an M-16. The plan being that if he nailed me, they were going to shoot him before they went in to get me. Back at the hooch the word went around how many times I tried to go in on him that day, and the bets were favoring him nailing me before I managed to take him out. Talk about moral support.
Now for those of you who don't know, when ever a handler goes into a kennel to bring a dog out, there is a procedure to follow. This is for safety reasons and is designed to prevent the dog from getting out and escaping. You open the door, there are generally two latches, one unlocks them and pushes the door inwards, blocking off the opening with your body and slipping inside. Once inside you close the door and throw the latches, but don't lock them. Inside there is a strap attached to the door and you take it and clip it inside the cage. Now you are locked inside with the dog. He can't get out, but more importantly, as in this case, it is harder for anyone else to get in if there is a problem.
He chased me out 4 times before he let me in. Tell you what, opening that door a 5th time, on the second day, and walking in with him sniffing up and down my legs and around my groin was an experience I have never forgotten. I just stood there, scared, my testicles trying to climb back up inside my body. The whole time I was telling him that we were going to be good friends and if he didn't bite me, I promised that I would not bleed all over his face. As I said before, he had been locked up for about 2 or 3 weeks and was just about stir crazy enough to let anyone take him out. I got the choke chain around his neck and the leash on him.
When I went to put on the muzzle that drew a growl so I figured that we could do without the muzzle right now. I announced that we were coming out and that he was un-muzzled, the day person backed away. He and I walked out and went into the exercise area. For the next 3 hours we just played in the yard getting to know each other. I had been warned not to try to give him any commands but to just let him do whatever he wanted, but not to let him off the leash in case he forgot who I was. Afterwards I put him away, fed him, gave him fresh water, all the male bonding things except get drunk and laid and guess what?
The next time I went to get him, which was only a few hours later, he chased me out again! Had to sit down and start talking to him all over again. After a few seconds I could see his face sort of say, "Oh yeah, he's the fool who takes me out to play." Had two days with him and on the night of the second day, we went to work-----January 30, 1968, Tet of 68. How's that for timing?
THE NIGHT OF TET 68, LARGE DARK CLOUDS
Being the new guy, and having gained some respect by being Blackie's new handler, and still in possession of all my extremities with no new openings in my body, I thought things may improve now. For my first working night they had even gone to the trouble of having someone who would have normally have had the night off, accompany me on post the first time out. Hey first night working and an old timer to show me the ropes, what more could I ask for? His name was Chuck and I remember his face to this day. He had about a month left before he rotated back home to the states and he was looking forward to it. The first assignment I drew was in Alpha Company, around kilo 5 or 6, just at the edge of the perimeter where the fence swings around to the right on the south side of the base. It was one of the walkout posts in that it was close enough to the kennels that right after guardmount (roll call held for Security Police before going to work), we got the dogs and walked out to go to work.
Alpha Company's command post was on one side and 100 or so yards south was the other perimeter bunker. My post that night was between the two of them. The area I patrolled was flat, sandy, and had one fighting bunker, consisting of a hole dug in the ground and 3 layers of sandbags piled up around it, for us to occupy if things hit the fan. I found out that we shared perimeter duty with three companies of 3rd Marines, Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie Company. Other important words of wisdom which were passed on that night were items such as never, never, never get ham and lima beans C-rations for your midnight snack. They are inedible. Blackie wouldn't even eat them, and he'd eat almost anything else. All night long Chuck had this premonition of doom, it being Tet and all, and he kept saying that he was sure that we were going to get hit that night. Me being the new kid on the block and full of hopeful mindless euthanasia, kept reassuring him that he was just worried because he was so short in his time left in country.
At midnight Chuck made me muzzle Blackie and get into the bunker. I thought he was being overly cautious but went along with his instructions. Sure enough, midnight came and all around us outside the fence, the Vietnamese were celebrating Tet. Guns going off all over the place. At one time the sky was full of tracers everywhere you looked. None of this was directed at us but we were apprehensive all the same. Blackie got a little stirred up and I had to take him on a walk around the area to calm him down. He practically insisted on doing this in that he kept on walking away and pulling at the leash. I later found out that he knew a lot about what was going on around him and what his job was supposed to be. He must have known that I was a dummy at the time and was asserting his authority accordingly.
Right after 3 AM Chuck went to check with Alpha Company if anything may be in the wind, leaving me alone with Blackie. It was the first time we had really been just together by ourselves that evening and as handlers do, I found myself talking to him. Trying to see what he responded to and what made him tick.
I recall that there was an unnatural quite that seemed to descend on us, and then I heard something north of my position. It is hard to describe, a whooshing, whistling in the air type of sound. Something moving very fast through the air, and something with a little weight to it. Looking north I saw the first two incoming rockets explode about 100 yards away from where I was standing. Right at that time the radio went berserk.
"INCOMING, DA NANG!!
THIS IS MARINE ONE, YOU HAVE INCOMING" !!!!!"
Marine One was a post on Marble Mountain, just West of the base. It looked over Happy Valley where most of the incoming rocket and mortar attacks came from. Their job was to look over the valley and give us the warning when they saw launchings that may be headed our way. Most times they were right on the money and caught them leaving the tubes, giving us up to 5 or so seconds warning. And sometimes, they missed seeing them until they were going off all around us. This was one of those times. Right then and there I decided that yes, I was in Vietnam and sometimes things may not be all fun and games. Blackie was going nuts. I had to pull him back into the bunker and hold him down. I was remembering everything I had been taught and followed that teachings. Keep your head down, get down etc. I doubt if paper was any thicker than I was trying to make myself at the moment.
Things got real exciting then. The sirens were going off all over the base, those first two rockets had landed in a warehouse and set it aflame. I could see the flames from the bottom of my bunker. More incoming rounds were heard, followed by the explosions and flashes in the sky to accent them. I kept thinking that behind me was these massive fuel bladders filled with JP4, laying on the ground and wondering what an incoming round could do to them. And the radio. I had to turn it down with all the noise it was making.
" INCOMING, INCOMING, DA NANG, THIS IS MARINE ONE, YOU HAVE INCOMING!!!!! "
On top of this the desk Sergeant was yelling for everyone to get down, as if we would have to be told. This attack probably only lasted 10 minutes. I was told later that 125 rockets hit the base that night, but at the time it sure seemed to go on longer than that. When I figured that it was over, or that there was a long enough lull, I stuck my head back up and started checking around me.
Now during the whole time I would occasionally look up out of the bunker and make sure that the fence was still in one piece and nothing was going on in that direction. Then the noise would start up and I was back in my hole, keeping my head down. Looking around now, there were still sirens going off all over the base. Flames and smoke was coming from several places, none close enough to me to cause any concern. What caught my immediate attention was this large glow, coming from what I later found out was the bomb dump. It seemed that at least one rocket had landed in the area where the flares "Spooky" used were stored and they were going off. Each of these would put out 2 million candlelight, so imagine several hundred going off at once. The handler in this area had to abandon his post because of the heat, his gas mask had melted.
However the most impressive thing was that the amount of light coming from this drove back the night. In Vietnam there wasn't that much ambient light and you could see a lot of stars at night. This night there was so much light coming from the bomb dump, the sky was blue and there were few stars to be seen at the moment. An occasional second explosion would cause me to duck back down but for the moment, Blackie and I were content to stay put in the bunker and watch the action from there.
The marine bunker to our right fired off a flare and that sent us both scurrying down in our bunker like scared rabbits but other than that, and the fires, the excitement was over for the night
Chuck joined us again and there were no I told you so's to be said. I first apologized to him for doubting his judgment and we both agreed that this was one hell of a first night for me. We stayed close to the bunker for the remainder of the evening, Chuck filling me in on things like, "That's the bomb dump burning, hope they can contain it". Good thought I remember thinking. The remainder ' of the evening was uneventful, if anything could be described as such. The sun came up and we got the call to come in off post for the night. Walking back we passed the warehouse I could see burning from the bottom of my bunker.
THE SUN COMES OUT
Everyone all had different reactions to what had happened and all was a gaggle back; at the kennels. The dogs were put away and watered. I told Blackie thanks for the evening, and I meant it. He yawned and went to the back of his kennel and curled up to go to sleep. Nice to know he was impressed. All of us ended up getting on the duce and a half and getting dropped off at the chow hall. After breakfast quite a few of us found ourselves outside the hooch. It seems that there had been a large ground force that was supposed to come up on the base during the attack and hit it from the side I was on. They had gotten bogged down, the sun had come up, and were retreating now, with the Vietnamese Air Force hounding them in the Al E's. Someone had turned on a radio to the pilots frequency and although no one could understand what they were saying, everyone knew the intent of their words as we watched them fly down and strafe or bomb these poor stragglers. Every time they dropped a bomb a cheer went up. Someone passed a beer into my hand and I was initiated into the party group. New guy, first time out, and a hell of an attack to boot. Did I mess my pants? You can't keep the banter down between guys who share what you do. I was to find out that they were a group, like the marines who were on post with us every night, that I could count on.
In the future I will attempt to recall all of the flavor and scents, of being where I was, and this incredible animal that I was fortunate to have share all of this with me. For those of you who have made it this far, I applaud you.
"History does not entrust the care of freedom to the weak or
timid." - Dwight D. Eisenhower