Back in the transient barracks, Watkins continued crawling toward the end of the hallway. He froze. Silhouetted by flare light in the open doorway, a NVA soldier cautiously peered in to determine if anyone inside was still alive. He was also trying to ignite a satchel charge, but was having some difficulty. The sapper gave up on the satchel and Watkins saw a hand grenade rolling down the hall towards him. Watkins quickly fired two rounds at the sapper and shouted, “Grenade!” Instinctively, he covered his head with his hands. The force of the explosion pushed Watkins backward down the hall, peppering his hands, arms, and back with shrapnel. He figured this was it; he was as good as dead.
In his barracks, Pugh saw a VC sapper wearing tan shorts silhouetted in the doorway. Pugh opened fire and the VC sapper promptly returned fire. “I could feel the round snap the air around my eardrum,” Pugh said. “I raised my weapon just a tad and fired again. This time there was a thud-like sound as the VC fell to the ground.”
The entire compound was now a swirling battleground, with dozens of small but deadly firefights in progress. It was difficult to tell the scantily clad Americans and indigenous personnel from the enemy. And there was no command coordination, just a lot of individuals struggling against uncertain and overwhelming odds. The air was filled with enough chaos to overload the senses: screams, shouts, bullets, dust, smoke, and the smells of cordite, burning wood, rubber, fuel, and seared flesh.
The enemy launched an intense barrage of 82mm mortar fire at FOB 4 from somewhere behind ST Rattler. At the same time, enemy forces crawled close to the bottom of the ledge where ST Rattler was positioned and threw hand grenades up at the ledge. The Nungs responded quickly, killed the NVA sappers below them with American frag grenades and small-arms fire, as Trimble joined them in defending the side of the ledge where the ropes hung to climb to the top.
As soon as the situation permitted, Trimble made his way toward the south side of the mountain with several of his Nung team members. The Nung, who had an uncanny ability to ferret out an enemy’s location, even in darkness, pointed silently to the place where the mortar and its crew were hidden. On Trimble’s command, he and one of the Nungs fired a volley of HE (high-explosive) M-79 grenades at the target while the others poured CAR-15 rounds into the brush. In short order, both the attack on ST Rattler and the mortar fire came to an abrupt and permanent halt. Silencing this well-positioned mortar saved a number of lives and relieved some pressure on those in the Da Nang compound who were fighting hand-to-hand in a frenzied effort to keep from being totally annihilated.
From his new vantage point, Peters could observe a steady crisscrossing of enemy troops. Some had their bodies wrapped with explosives and many carried satchel charges and baskets of grenades, along with their AK-47s. It was clear they had come prepared for a long night. Like many of those around him, Peters had operated in the chaos of jungle warfare, where unexpected things happened quickly and at close quarters, but he had never seen a large-scale battle like the one currently raging around him.
Peters was brought out of his daze by a sapper who was running across in front of him, firing his AK-47 as he ran. Peters fired a short burst from Bric’s CAR-15, and the sapper pitched forward to his knees, his forehead resting in the sand like a Muslim in prayer. He never fell over, and for the rest of the night, Peters could see his nearly naked body bowed over as if offering a final homage to whatever brought him to this place on this night.
In their semi-exposed position, Peters and his group made inviting targets and so drew their share of attention, including periodic volleys of grenades that had to be returned. In a bizarre twist of fate that none of them had anticipated, their protective enclosure began dribbling away around them. At first they couldn’t figure out what was going on, and then it hit them; as more and more rounds hit the sandbags, the bags steadily deflated as the sand ran out. Time to find new cover.
There is absolutely no doubt that, without the hundreds of illumination rounds provided that night, the carnage would have been much worse and FOB 4 would in all probability have been overrun. Much of the initial illumination was supplied by the American-run POW camp, situated just beyond the northern perimeter of FOB 4.
A good bit of it was also supplied internally by an unidentified Special Forces soldier and a nine-year-old orphan boy the troops at FOB 4 had nicknamed ‘Spike.’ The American and his young Vietnamese sidekick worked all night from a mortar pit near the U.S. mess hall. Spike worked tirelessly setting time-delay fuses on the mortar rounds. He would then pass them to the American, who would make any necessary aiming adjustments and drop the rounds down the mortar tube. Spike’s bravery and skill proved extremely beneficial.
Ironically, the brightest bit of much-needed illumination was provided when several sappers ran into the complex of supply buildings and set off the explosives they had wrapped around their bodies.
The tremendous blast caused by the stored munitions and explosives slammed Jungling to the ground. When he looked up, he watched in horror as Sergeant First Class Gilbert A. Secor was crushed by an entire section of wall that had been blown off its foundation by the force of the blast. Secor had been running toward the supply complex, perhaps in an effort to intercept the sappers. Jungling ran over to help Secor, but he was too late.
More than 100 meters away, Barclay, too, was knocked to the ground. He watched as the three huge supply buildings literally melted to the ground in huge fireballs that roared into the air. The flames and heat ignited several of the metal, torpedo-shaped propane and oxy-acetylene tanks. Some simply exploded, but others were launched like rockets or sent skimming along the ground. Fireball after fireball billowed into the air as ammunition, hand grenades, C-4, and millions of dollars worth of supplies were consumed.
At almost the same time that the supply complex was being attacked, another tragedy was unfolding, this time in the old TOC bunker. It had been abandoned just two days earlier upon completion of the new facility, so there was nothing of strategic importance inside. Unfortunately, the camp map the NVA planners had relied upon identified the old bunker as the active TOC. Four sappers ran inside the virtually undefended structure and blew themselves up. The blast instantly killed Sergeant Robert J. Uyesaka. Earlier that day, Sergeant Uyesaka had missed the flight that was scheduled to take him home to his wife and family in Hawaii.
Watkins and Conlon could see blood everywhere around the doorway to the transient barracks, but no sign of the sapper who had rolled the grenade down the hall. As they made their way past debris and crawled outside the building, they could see NVA troops pouring heavy fire in and around the new TOC, while a group of Special Forces troops furiously defended it. It was a raging battle that Watkins figured he could contribute little to, so he headed toward another set of barracks where he thought he could do some good. As he did so, a sapper suddenly appeared just a few meters away from him. Instead of shooting, the sapper threw a grenade. Watkins rolled behind some cover and the sand absorbed most of the blast. When the sapper saw that Watkins was still alive, he again ignored his AK-47 and threw a hand grenade. Watkins couldn’t believe it.
He responded with his nearly useless .45 pistol. He had never been particularly good with a pistol, but he remembered his training and aimed low, firing several rounds at the sapper’s crotch. At least one of the bullets found its target. Watkins moved on. He picked up an AK-47 off of a dead NVA. He watched as Staff Sergeant R.L. Hoffman stood up to go rescue a troop crying for help. Hoffman only made it a few steps before he was hit. Watkins continued moving. Another man was seriously wounded and he too, screamed for help, but as Watkins knew, the NVA used them as bait. Anyone who went to help them was shot, or shot at, pronto.
As Watkins approached one of the officer latrines, he saw a body lying next to it. Whoever it was, he could tell he had been severely injured. It turned out to be Sergeant First Class Robert L. Scully. Scully had been the chief medic at FOB 3 when Watkins was running recon there earlier in 1968, so Watkins knew and liked him. As Watkins moved in closer, he could see how bad the damage was. The sergeant had an open head wound; gray matter was lying in the sand. Scully was in severe shock, his breathing rapid and shallow. If he was to have any hope for survival, Watkins desperately needed to get him to the dispensary.
As Watkins checked Scully’s condition, a grenade was tossed toward them. Unable to reach it, Watkins threw his body over his friend. Again the sand absorbed most of the blast, but both Watkins and Scully received shrapnel wounds to their legs. Watkins rose to his knees and shot the NVA with the AK-47.
A second medic appeared on the scene. Sergeant First Class Roscoe D. Henderson first made sure the NVA sapper was dead and then joined Watkins. He and Scully had been roaming the camp looking for wounded when the sapper Watkins had just killed had thrown a grenade at them, inflicting the head wound on Scully.
Realizing they had no other alternative, Henderson put Scully on his back and began moving towards the dispensary. It was going to be a long and painful haul for Scully; help was on the far south side of the camp. He cried out in such anguish that Watkins was forced to put his hand over his mouth in an attempt to avoid drawing unwanted attention. They had only gone a few meters when a jeep pulled up. It was driven by a first lieutenant who had been directed to them by Pigpen Conlon. Once Scully was placed in the jeep and the lieutenant drove away, Conlon, Watkins, and Henderson made their way back toward the still-burning barracks.
Jungling was catching his breath in a bunker in the recon area when Captain Charlie Pfeiffer and Master Sergeant Leo Simpson dashed over to join him. Simpson handed Jungling a cold beer and nonchalantly asked if he’d like to join him and the good captain in their efforts to deal with three sappers that were holed up behind the mess hall, giving everyone a lot of trouble. Jungling said he’d be happy to oblige. The trio quietly approached the mess hall. Pfeiffer tossed a few grenades into the midst of the sappers while Jungling and Simpson finished them off with their M-16s.
Once this little mission was accomplished, Jungling began running back toward the recon area. As he zigzagged his way along, he came across an unidentified American whose body was partially under a door that had been blown off a nearby hootch. He was peppered with shrapnel from head to toe. Jungling started checking him for potentially fatal wounds when the man suddenly spoke. “I don’t care about that shit. Are my nuts still there?” It was obvious where his priorities were, so the medic lifted him up by the belt and told him it appeared as though his family jewels were still in place. But the troop wasn’t satisfied. “Doc, check good, pull my pants down and make real sure they’re okay.” He had a death grip on Jungling’s arm, so he loosened the man’s belt, pulled down his pants, and reported that everything was in place. Only then did the soldier relax. “Thanks, Doc,” was all he said.
At some point, a mystery helicopter gunship appeared out of nowhere and began making gun runs down the middle of the compound. Then Spooky, also known as ‘Puff the Magic Dragon,’ showed up. Spooky was the codename for an old C-47 that had been equipped with a very formidable array of firepower, most notably the M134 Minigun. The M134 was a six-barreled, electronically fired Gatling gun that could put out up to 6,000 rounds of 7.62mm per minute.
After Trimble identified himself to the pilot and crew, the airmen asked him to light his strobe light in order to pinpoint the team’s location for them. Unfortunately, the aircrew members couldn’t locate the strobe light, so Trimble cut off a hunk of C-4, placed it on top of the highest rock he could find, and ignited it. It gave off an intense white light that the pilot had no trouble spotting.
Once the pilot had acknowledged visual contact, Trimble pulled all of his team members into a tight perimeter, hugging the rock. He then told Spooky to work his Minigun fire in a 360-degree circle around the rock. As ST Rattler hunkered down, Spooky opened up and performed his magic dragon routine. The initial rounds were so close to the team that they were struck by stones and debris. Spooky continued to walk its fire in an ever-increasing radius around the team, exterminating anything that was unfortunate enough to be in its path.
Enemy troops were still moving over the beach and through the barbed wire from that side, and they were clearly visible against the sugar-white sands. As Spooky adjusted his aim, the thin filament of tracers undulated in waves, like a length of rope being snapped. As they hit the ground, the tracers ricocheted like sparks from a welder’s torch. Once Spooky expended its ordnance, the aircrew continued to circle over FOB 4 and drop flares.
Trimble said, “We asked for continuous flares over Marble Mountain so we could observe any more mortars or enemy movement in the area. This worked out because we were able to stop any further enemy mortar fire from Marble Mountain into FOB 4 for the rest of the night. The M-79 grenadier on the team would fire into any area that looked like a mortar could be located, or at any enemy troops moving for the rest of the night.” Also, team members could spot any new enemy force moving into FOB 4 from either the South China Sea or from Marble Mountain area, and “we could alert the base about those enemy sappers,” he said.
Under this constant source of illumination, Watkins, Conlon, and Henderson steadily made their way back to the barracks to see if anyone was trapped inside. As they approached, a voice called out to them, “Look out, there’s a VC in there firing at me.” Suddenly a sapper stood up in the midst of the wreckage and opened fire. Both Watkins and Conlon returned fire while charging the startled soldier. Watkins’s AK-47 ran out of ammo as he charged, so he tackled the sapper. As they rolled into the smoldering barracks, Watkins wrestled the AK-47 away from the smaller man and killed him with it.
When they examined him afterward, the men could see he had an earlier wound in his throat and he’d lost a lot of blood. Given where they found him, Watkins figured he was the same sapper from earlier in the barracks, the one he’d shot at with his pistol. Apparently he’d hit him after all. Henderson called out to the unseen American that all was clear, and Staff Sergeant George T. Holland emerged from his hiding place, weaponless and wearing only his underwear. The sapper had had him pinned down for a long time and he thanked them for saving his hide. Watkins handed him his pistol and told him to remain in the damaged barracks until sunrise.
Watkins and Henderson then moved on to the officer barracks, where they met Lieutenant Colonel D.L. Smith, the commander of FOB 2 at Kontum, and his sergeant major, R.G. Stratton, who were trying to find a safe area for three wounded soldiers. Watkins and Henderson helped them move the wounded troops to the latrine area that sat atop the northernmost rise of the camp, a location that gave them cover and a good vantage point. From the rise, Watkins could see people heaving hand grenades into the TOC area.
One of those on the receiving end of the grenades was Bill Barclay, who along with an unidentified American, were catching them and throwing them back. Both men were still outside the bunker itself. One landed about three feet from Barclay’s head and he couldn’t reach it fast enough. He buried his head and whatever else in the sand, remembering to keep his mouth open to equalize the blast pressure. Miraculously, the only thing Barclay received was a ringing headache and a blanket of sand.
Of the SF troops who began the night with Barclay, most were wounded. The enemy had pushed an air conditioner off its outside support brackets and through the hole into the operations center. Once the unit hit the floor, the NVA used the opening to pour weapons fire and hand grenades into the new TOC. The SF men fought back ferociously, keeping the NVA sappers from entering the TOC and finally forcing them to move on to other targets. They then tended each other’s wounds and began making radio contact with FOB 1 and Nha Trang in order to report the details and the severity of the attack.
(Lead picture: John Peters with Trong, the indigenous team leader of RT Rhode Island.)