Da Nang Air Base Under Attacked

By 1967, the BIG LOOK operations tempo was well established.
At least one Big Bird mission (EC-121) flew daily, supplemented by Whales (EA-3B), and/or a second Big Bird as needed. By March 1967, 54 enlisted personnel were assigned on TAD from NCSP, over half of which were designated crew. Additional personnel were TAD from Kamiseya. Living conditions were improving as well, with new barracks and other facilities under construction. Government messing became available effective 25 May 1967, and somewhere about that time NCSP Det Bravo was inaugurated, with LCDR Donald R. Larson as Officer-in-Charge.  However, much of this “forward movement” came to an abrupt halt the night of July 15.

“Shortly after midnight on 15 July, the Da Nang Air Base was struck by enemy
rockets. Eight military personnel were killed during the attack and 155 others were
wounded. The enemy barrage, which lasted approximately 45 minutes, started
numerous fires and resulted in extensive structural damage to U.S. Navy, Marine
and Air Force facilities. In addition, eight aircraft were destroyed and 45 were
damaged during the attack.” (NAVFOR Command History, July 1967, p. 45)

Note: the featured Image is a photo of the attack.

Major Casualties, but None Were CT Spooks

This rocket attack was the most extreme experienced during life of the detachment. Out of a total of 163 casualties, 44 were VQ-1 and NSG Det Bravo personnel, but none were spooks.  Luckily no one was killed, but all three VQ-1/NSG Detachment barracks were destroyed. This was not due to a direct hit on the barracks, but rather to a hit on a nearby ammo dump. The dump exploded and rained shrapnel down onto recently constructed bunkers, which at the time, did not have roofs. Additional damage/injuries were caused by the shock waves of the exploding ammo. The fires from this attack were so intense that former BLS CTR2 Gary Hughes, then stationed 40 some miles away at Phu Bai, could see the glow on the horizon. Most of the detachment was evacuated from Da Nang, with only a skeleton crew remaining behind.  When they returned, det personnel were temporarily billeted at Camp Tien Sha, located at the base of Monkey Mountain, east of the base, until new barracks could be built.  In addition to the destruction of the barracks, all the aircraft were damaged to some extent, and VQ-2 had to temporarily supply EC-121M aircraft from Rota, Spain, so that operations could continue.  Two people enroute to the det from the Philippines, Sgt G.R. Wright, USMC and CTRSN Lowell “Wilkie” Wilks, were at Clark Air Base waiting for a flight when they were told their orders were on hold. They finally arrived in Da Nang two weeks later.

In the fall of 1967, LT(jg) Ike Cole joined the detachment as an evaluator, TAD from San Miguel for several months. Ike remembers flying a lot, almost every day, and the highly-skilled enlisted operators.

The Tet Offensive

January 30, 1968, marked the start of the Tet offensive by the North Vietnamese. LCDR Carl Strobel, Det OIC at the time, recalls the planes being sent to Udorn Air Base in Thailand because of the increased rocket attacks. Flights continued over the GOT as usual, though, staged from Thailand. As always, a core team stayed behind in Da Nang. CTR3 Bill Erhardt, recognizing a deficiency in the det’s supply of weapons, took the initiative in true Spook fashion. According to his own account, Bill “…took a couple cases of booze up to Hill 327 and brought back a jeep load of rifles, ammo, and hand grenades. The Chief wanted to kill me!”

New crypto systems installed April – June 1968 further improved the capabilities of the detachment.

Two Spooks Who Made Extraordinary Contributions

Late 1968 marked the departure of two experienced operators, Chuck Dibble and Joe Wagner. Both had flown in Da Nang for over two years, and their contributions were significant. In a personal message to Commander Johnson, the NSG Department head at NCSP, Captain De Lorenzi, Commanding Officer of VQ-1, cited both Petty Officers, stating in part,

         “Both of these outstanding Petty Officers have made extraordinary contributions to
the detachment operation over a sustained period of time. Their 
professionalism, devotion to duty and perseverance has on numerous occasions resulted in the development of extremely valuable intelligence, which under other circumstances could have gone unnoticed.”

He then added in a later paragraph,

          “Regret that I did not personally have the opportunity to speak with CT2 Dibble and
Wagner prior to their departure from Da Nang. Would be most appreciative if you
would convey to each of them, on behalf of myself and all VQ-1 squadron members 
who have served with them a sincere ‘Well Done’ and best wishes for every success in
the future.”

 Thus, despite the belief of some, VQ-1 recognized the efforts of the Spooks as a vital part of its mission, and was appreciative of what we did.

Left to right: LCDR Lionel H. Olmer, CTR2 William F. Erhardt, CT3 S.P. Renken, CTR3 Jackie P. Judice, LT(jg) Robert A. Cavaluchi, LT(jg) Shaun M. Byrnes. (Photo courtesy of Rich Ellis via Bill Erhardt – taken circa Dec. 1967)

VQ-1 wasn’t the only group who appreciated our work. Joseph A. Haran, Jr., a radio intercept analysis specialist with the 6924th Security Squadron (USAFSS) at Da Nang from 1968 to 1969, stated “…the NSG linguists with whom I worked while at the 6924th Security Squadron were much more receptive to my efforts and were at the same time of immense help: “Mr. Dibble” and Ed Dobarro come to mind. The NSG guys were much more laid back and more job-as-top-priority oriented than the USAFSS turfdefenders. But, we were all in the same bunker (or roadside ditch) when the bad guys’ rocket artillery and mortars said hello.”

 By LCDR Robert E. Morrison, USN (ret.)