Caught in the open during a Cam Rahn Bay rocket attack, I hit the ground and shoot. On the deck is the safest place to be when the air is full of red hot razors and exploding mortars. This picture is taken during one of the few rocket attacks on the Naval Air Facility I recall happening during the day. In this case I’m walking across a field with a loaded camera in my hand when in-coming rounds rocked my day. In the seven eventful months Patrol Squadron 46 is stationed in Vietnam, I count 15 such assaults, and most occur during the middle of the night.
But it’s the first rocket attack that is the most memorable and shameful. Richard Cope and I are lying around barracks on our bunks telling each other that Vietnam duty isn’t all that bad. We pretend the men in other half of our squadron aren’t having near as much fun in Philippines. Suddenly a siren blasts out loudly with rock-concert force. I’m completely unprepared for this. Cope, who would one day become a cop and an investigator, jumps up, throws on his heavy led-lined flack jacket and helmet. I panic and look for escape from unknown danger as Cope hits the deck and rolls under his bunk. He does all this as if he had rehearsed such moves all his life. I, on the other hand, stand there frozen in fear and do nothing.
Cope yells for me to get down. I can only think of escape and foolishly bolt for the door. In the hallway, a strange distortion in perception causes the exit door to appear small and far away. I can’t budge. The air turns to a clear thick Jell-o. I swim through plasma to escape but can’t seem to budge. A voice coming from all directions fills the air saying, “This is the Giant Voice--this is the Giant Voice. We are under attack. Sappers are inside the perimeter. Bunker guards to your posts!” Where is that voice coming from? There must be speakers all over the air facility. Not expecting to hear a giant voice only adds to my terror. Sappers are suicide bombers there to kill me. I want to run but I can’t, and only find out years later that I’m dragging Cope who is attached to one of my legs trying his best to bring me down to safety.
Evidently I kick my way free of Cope and burst through the door into the exploding night air. There’s smoke, fire, and great commotion. Vehicles are roaring off to various guard posts, and a truck hits a telephone pole right in front of the barracks. A man gets out and runs into the night like a mad man. The sky is magenta painted by floating illumination flares that descend slowly on parachutes. Something near the airfield is on fire. I’m standing in a movie set version of hell.
A ghostly figure runs right at me out of a curtain of orange, black, and red smoke. We had been told suicide sappers have a goal of killing as many GIs as possible before they are killed. I’m digesting this fact when, the approaching goblin brings his rifle to the ready and fires. I dive like a scared rabbit behind a wall of sandbags that surrounds the barracks. I feel a sharp burning pain in my right thigh. First aide classes tell me there was a major vein in my upper leg that will quickly bleed me dry. I reach to apply pressure to the wound. I find I’m not shot but had landed on an upturned garden hoe—torn pants and a slight cut but no gaping wound.
I roll off the hoe, grab it, and bring it up as if holding an M-14. I look at the garden tool and try to magically will it into being a gun. In that second something evil inside me awakens. I will kill the approaching sapper who now shoots wildly rounds hitting the barracks wall above my head. The dark side of my spirit turns the blade of the hoe into a meat cleaver. Suddenly a sinister figure flies over the sandbag wall so quickly I don’t have time to swing. He hits me with full force of his charge, and flattens me to the earth. The attacker is shaking, crying for his mother, and asking the Lord to please save him. “Oh mama, oh mama, Jesus please, Jesus please,” he cries and quivers in the fetal position. A horrified GI is almost killed by the garden hoe warrior. We become foxhole buddies in our shameful cowardice, and unite against the sapper. We hear voices and commotion on the other side of the sandbag wall but are both too scared to investigate.
After waiting quite a while, the sapper doesn’t come for us. The other sailor and I decide now is the time to crawl along the wall to a safer place. I’m not ready to give up my only weapon, and do a duck walk holding my hoe at the ready. We round a corner and several GIs are sitting on the sandbag wall smoking pot and watching the fireworks. I warn them there is a shooter out there and that they are in danger. Stoned, they laugh and say the shooter had already been caught. “That fool was a ‘boot,’” the man sitting on the wall said, describing the shooter as a newly arrived GI. “He’s scared out of his mind, shooting at everything that moves. Jar Heads got him. I bet he’s on his way to Long Binh Jail right now,” the man said offering a toke from his pipe. I decline and spend the rest of the evening sorting out my shameful reaction to my first combat action.
So my first Rocket attack is not exactly a showcase of bravery. As a hero in many orange grove fruit fights growing up in Anaheim, I actually always expected I would react bravely and heroically in a real battle. In time, though, rocket attacks at Can Rahn become almost mundane. Usually the sirens and Giant Voice would send me under my bed, and I would wake in the morning under my mattress. Once, Hank Thompson, nephew and namesake of the famous country singer, and I sat out a long attack. We had both brought our guitars to the bunker. That night old Hank taught me to play John Stewart’s “July You’re a Woman.” He said his uncle planned to record the song, and we pass a pleasant two hours waiting for the all clear.
Another time the photo lab crew spends a rocket attack watching a porn movie in the darkroom. Someone had brought the movie from Australia. Everyone is absorbed in the film, and no one moves as sirens call and explosions shake the ground. In that pornographic attack, Cope tries to get us to snap to, and he finally opens the lab door to check out the situation. He finds an unexploded rocket had landed just outside our room full of film critics.
Even today I wince, thinking about the night I battled the false sapper with a garden hoe. I think about my foxhole buddy who prayed to Jesus and cried for his mother. I especially wonder about that foolish GI who shot up Cam Rahn Bay Naval Air Facility that night. I had a hoe, he and a gun. I wonder if he thinks of that night. I conclude he’s lucky the Marines disarmed him and took him off to the Long Binh Jail. He’d be dead today, if only I had bullets for my hoe. - BillGann
Photos shown here are selected examples for a project called "Navy Tour." These frozen bits of time played before my camera from 1966 to 1970 when I served as a Navy photographer. An on-going project to decorate California Veterans Homes unexpectedly brings memories to light. Below, I've organized images into location-based galleries that follow my Navy travels. Over the years, these old negatives have called to me like whispering ghosts from closed boxes and dark places where they've languished for 40 years. It’s as if my old photographs have something they wish to say. I say, let them speak.