Caught in the open during a Cam Rahn Bay rocket attack, I hit the ground and shoot this photo of a sailor running to his duty station. 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.
Grabbing for excuses, I think perhaps my bad performance was my father’s fault. I’m shell-shocked as a baby, afterall. My father gives me this woe by returning from World War Two with heroic medals on his chest, and a brave scar on his shoulder. He also has what we now call post-traumatic stress syndrome. My father would collapse shirtless on the living room floor everyday after work. As babies, my sisters and I crawl on him as he sleeps. I’m fascinated with the enormous scar on his left shoulder, and lean for a closer look. Someone drops a pan in the kitchen. Babies fly in all directions as daddy jumps up to storm the beach at Normandy.
So it is I grew up toddling behind a father who winces and jumps at car backfires, fireworks displays, and sudden movement. Such a childhood should have prepared me for my own war experience. That’s not how it turns out. My first rocket attack in Vietnam is in 1969 at the Naval Air Facility. This experience brings father’s demons to my roost.
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 the other half of our squadron aren’t having near as much fun in Philippines.
A siren blasts out loudly with rock-concert force. As if Thunder God were speaking, a voice comes from all directions and says, “This is the Giant Voice!” Electric current stabs my chest. For the rest of my life I’ll wonder, why in the hell didn’t someone tell us there was going to be a giant voice?
“This is the Giant Voice!” repeats Thunder God. I gasp as air sucks from the room. “We are under attack!” the colossal being goes on and warns ominously “Sappers are inside the perimeter!”
Sappers are suicide bombers, and our perimeter is a small air facility on Vietnam’s rocky coast. “Bunker guards to your posts!” The voice commands and I respond by running in circles, surrounded by closing walls in, like my father in The Battle of the Bulge.
Meanwhile, roommate and fellow Navy photographer Richard Cope, jumps up and makes the right moves. He throws on his heavy led-lined flack jacket and helmet and rolls under his bunk. He does this as one who had rehearsed the drill all his life. I stand in gape-mouthed panic, seeking escape from unknown danger. Cope, who would one day be a cop, orders me authoritatively to get down. Instead, I bolt for the door wondering where the voice is coming from? There must be speakers in the sky.
A strange distortion in perception causes the exit door to appear small and far, far, away. I can’t budge. The air turns to a clear Jell-o. I swim through plasma but can’t dislodge my body from cosmic glue. Many years later, I discover I’m dragging Cope down the hall attached to one of my legs. I miss this detail at the time.
Evidently I kick my way free of Cope and burst through the door into exploding night air. In smoke, fire, and great commotion, I see our Orion aircraft take to the sky. Vehicles are roaring off to various guard posts. A truck hits a telephone pole right in front of me. A panicked sailor gets out and runs off like a crazy man.
I’m in a trance. The Asian sky is marvelously dyed magenta. Floating illumination flares, like Disneyland lights, descend on cotton candy parachutes. Suddenly there’s a huge explosion and fire at the airfield. Burning jet fuel devours the Tinker Bell night, and black smoke mountains boil. Flames rise hundreds of feet above the buildings. I stand like an idiot in hell.
Unexpectedly, a wraithlike figure materializes behind a red smoke curtain. Here to reap souls the goblin sees me. He raises his gun and white fire flashes my way. My hair parts with concussion blasts. A trembling darting rabbit, I dive behind a wall of sandbags.
There’s a sharp burning pain in my right thigh. First aide training kicks in, and I reach to apply wound pressure. I find, however, I’ve landed on an upturned garden hoe—torn pants and a slight cut, but no bullet, no gaping wound. But to this day, I can still touch the very spot.
Suddenly I’m Angry. I roll off the hoe, grab it, and bring it up as if holding an M-14 rifle. At first, I see only a garden tool. In a shadowy moment, something unknown awakens. A spirit warrior turns the hoe into something dreadful and dangerous. Darkly, fear forges my plowshare into a sword. I will kill the approaching terrorist. He now shoots wildly, rounds hitting the barracks wall above my head.
Too fast for my action, a figure flies over the sandbag wall. I don’t have time to swing. He hits me with full force of his charge, and flattens me to the earth. The terrorists is shaking and crying, “Oh mama, oh mama, Jesus please, Jesus please,” as he quivers in the fetal position.
A fraction in time, it seems, saves another horrified GI, and a garden hoe warrior from a bad ending. We become foxhole buddies, mutually shameful of our cowardice. We rally and unite against the sapper. We don’t introduce ourselves. We hear voices and commotion on the other side of the sandbag wall, but are still too cautious to investigate.
We instead decide to crawl along the wall to a safer place. My weapon is not to be pried from my warm living fingers, and I duck walk along with my hoe at the ready. We round a corner and several GIs are sitting on the sandbag wall smoking pot. They “ooh and awe” in wonder as if watching the Fourth of July. I warn them of the shooter and danger. Stoned, the sailors laugh and tell us the gunman had already been caught.
“That old boy was a ‘boot,’” a man sitting on the wall says in a Southern drawl. A boot describes the gunman as a newly arrived recruit to the war. The man’s tone is of one who has just watched a good movie. “He’s so scart, boy commenced shooting at everything at moved. Jar Heads got ‘em doe,” he adds taking a deep toke of opium-cured weed. “I bet at boy’z on his way to Long Binh Jail right now,” the man adds, offering a toke from his pipe. I decline his offer to slink off and spend the rest of my life sorting things out.
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. We pass a pleasant two hours waiting for the all clear singing, "I can't hold it on the road when you’re sitting right beside me, and I'm drunk out of my mind, merely from the fact that you are here..."
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 rally us to snap to and respond. Shaking his head, Cope 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.
Still, I had always expected I would react bravely and heroically in a real battle, like my father. The only childhood games I ever played were about war. Cowboys, Indians, Army guy battles, all acted out in Anaheim orange grove fruit fights. I grew up imagining myself the hero in my father’s Second Division stories. Would I some day talk about my Battle of the Garden Hoe?
I think about my foxhole buddy who prayed to Jesus, and cried for his mother. I thank Jesus and his mother for salvation, but I wonder if he ever tells this story. I especially speculate about that foolish GI who shot up the base that night. I’d like to hear his hair-trigger story. Ironic that he never knew how lucky he was--lucky I didn’t have bullets for my hoe. - BillGann
Half of the men and aircraft in Patrol Squadron 46 are stationed at Sangley Point in the Philippines. The other, less fortunate half of the outfit, is deployed to the Naval Facility in Cam Rahn Bay, Vietnam. The squadron has four photographers. Richard Cope and I are the two “photo riggers,” as the crewmembers call us, who are assigned to the Cam Rahn side.