By the beginning of 1971, the US policy of “Vietnamization” was in full swing, and troop strengths were being rapidly reduced.
The net result for Da Nang and the Det was a relatively quiet year, with only 13 rocket attacks against Da Nang recorded, for a total of 58 rockets impacting throughout the airbase. These attacks resulted in 44 casualties, five of which were KIA. Although some of the rockets were targeted at the west side of the base occupied by Spooks, there were no recorded casualties among them..
Despite the relative quiet, flight operations continued at about the same pace. In addition to flying, Spooks were assigned other duties outside of flight operations. On his arrival the first week of February, 1971, Tom O’Brien (“OB”), like others who were new to the detachment, was referred to as a “new guy”, or “nug” for short. While not flying, OB recalls being assigned to more mundane duties, including duty driver, courier, and sand-bag filler.
The duty driver was assigned on a daily basis, and was responsible for driving the detachment’s vehicles (usually a pickup truck, jeep, or covered, stake-sided truck), to deliver flight crews from the barracks area to the operational spaces near the flight line, and to return the crews back to the barracks at the end of their flights. Between flights, the duty driver would make runs west, through Dog Patch, to the Army compound at Hill 327, also known as Freedom Hill. Located at Freedom Hill was a large Army-run Post Exchange (PX) where we could purchase a variety of items with Military Payment Certificates (MPC or script, substitute money also known as funny money which was used in lieu of US currency).
Another common task was courier duty, which involved hand-carrying classified material to other intelligence entities at and near the airbase. These included the USMC First Radio Battalion, the Army Security Agency (ASA), and AFSS. Occasionally they made runs to Marble Mountain and the USMC Combat Base at An Hoa, both of which were located just southeast and south of the airbase, respectively. Additional trips were made to Camp Tien Sha at the base of Monkey Mountain, and Cua Viet. As the US began to pull its combat troops from Vietnam, they ran fewer courier trips, particularly to Marine and Army units outside of the airbase.
Nearly everyone, but especially the lower-ranking enlisted Spooks, experienced the joy of filling sandbags and also 55 gallon oil drums that were set against the Spook barracks and the operations spaces as protection against rocket and mortar shrapnel. This duty, never a favorite among Spooks, was particularly unpleasant during the hottest months of May through September. Invariably, after a “sandbag party”, cold beer was available in trash cans filled with ice. Sometimes, we “obtained” steaks from the mess hall, and, together with the beer, we then had a deserved, lively party. Re-doing sandbags was routine since the plastic or cloth bags would deteriorate in the heat and sun.
Standing the Fire Point Watch
The Spooks were responsible for Fire Point 13, a defensive bunker located just outside of the Spook spaces near the flight line. It was a two-tiered wood frame and steel revetment structure with sandbags packed around its walls and on the roof. During rocket attacks, the lower part of the bunker would offer some protection. Fire Point watch was assigned by the CO for periods beginning at sunset and ending at sunrise. The watch periods changed according to the CO, but generally, covered four to six hour periods. The assigned Spook would check out an M16 with bandolier, “hand-launchable” illumination flares, helmet, and flak jacket. At the start of a watch period or shift, the Spook would do a communications check using the field telephone provided at the fire point. The field telephone was connected to the security unit, which was responsible for the larger compound security. To most, the shifts seemed longer than they actually were, especially during the rainy season, when the roof would leak, and the only company you had were mosquitoes and the sound of jets taking off. When the rain would stop, the sound of frogs would compete with the sound of flight Operations.
Typically, there were many fewer flights during the wee hours (0000-0400). Except for the frogs and mosquitoes, it became eerily quiet. Those on watch would strain to see movement across the wire fence and concrete ditch bordering the fire point, and across the open grounds defining the cement plant beyond. The fire point had a spot light located atop the bunker, which could be swung around to light up areas where movement might be suspected. From time to time, the sentry would “pop a flare” sending an illumination round into the sky. The sentry also had an M-79 grenade launcher with a variety of ordnance rounds including antipersonnel grenades, flechette, and illumination rounds. Typically, the watch-stander would listen to the outgoing artillery that would respond to frequent calls for fire, from outlying units near Hill 327, watch as napalm dumps would burn from recent rocket or mortar hits, or simply stare into the dark. Otherwise, time was spent watching and listening for enemy sappers.
Another additional duty was the burn detail. Here, a designated individual would gather bags that had been stuffed with shredded, classified material and take them to an incinerator just outside the operations spaces. As the bags were burned, they would be recorded as destroyed as a matter of record.
Spooks Honing Their Skills
During downtime, particularly during the monsoons when air strikes against the north subsided, Spooks took the opportunity to hone their cryptologic skills. Linguists would improve their language skills by reviewing and transcribing previously recorded tapes of North Vietnamese target communications. Likewise, R-branchers would practice Morse code intercept by intercepting actual target signals with an R-390A receiver they had set up at the R-branch desk.
LCDR George Purring relieved LCDR Pelot as OIC in June of 1971, shortly after NAVFAC was decommissioned. One of the reasons for the decommissioning was to reduce the overall number of billets in Vietnam. In fact, this was an act on paper to show fewer numbers of in-country combat and combat support personnel, in keeping with President Nixon’s plan for reducing US troop strength. It was also meant to force more of the responsibility of the war onto the Vietnamese. This actually benefited Fleet Support Detachment, which gained eight billets from NAVFAC. All cryptologic operations at Da Nang were now consolidated at the air base where security was assumed to be better.
Like 1971, the first three months of 1972 were rather peaceful (for Da Nang) with only a few rocket attacks noted. Despite the seeming lull, flight tempo was heavy, with 200 missions flown by March 20. As Tet approached, there were indications the North Vietnamese were planning an offensive, and so on February 12, two aircrews were deployed from Da Nang to Cubi Point, Philippines. Missions were flown from Cubi for about two weeks, using PR-31 and PR-32. The rumored threat never materialized and the crews returned to Da Nang about March 1.
On March 10, 1972, CTIC Charles “Chuck” DeCourley relieved CTICS Huff as the leading chief. Chief DeCourley was the Det’s last leading chief, leaving when the Det closed February 12, 1973.
The Easter Offensive
Despite the peace initiatives in Paris, the war escalated on March 30, 1972 with the start of the long-anticipated North Vietnamese offensive. This offensive, known as the Easter Offensive or 1972 Spring Offensive, was launched by the North in an attempt to gain a better bargaining position at the peace talks. The two northernmost provinces of South Vietnam fell quickly, but despite these initial successes, the offensive was contained. In reaction to this offensive, RVN and US forces countered with a serious resumption of the air war over the north, including bombing and mining of Hai Phong harbor in May. Rocket attacks increased and were numerous throughout the remainder of 1972. Ninety seven impacts were recorded between April 13 and December 26 of that year.
Of the many rocket attacks, one in particular was unusual, in that the rocket did not explode. The rocket landed between the spook bunker and the VQ-1 barracks, and stuck in the concrete pad outside the door of the barracks. No one was injured seriously, but one VQ-1 sailor got a chunk of concrete in his back.
VADM Mack Flys VQ-1 for a Mission!
Shortly before his relief as Commander Seventh Fleet, Vice Admiral William Mack arrived at Da Nang to participate in a mission with VQ-1. PR-32 was the bird chosen for the mission, and the crew members were issued blue dickeys to wear along with their normal flight suits. This flight has often been referred to since as “the blue dickey flight,” and it was significant because VADM Mack was probably the most senior officer to ever fly on a VQ-1 mission.
Ops tempo only got heavier toward the end of the year, as the US increased bombing over North Vietnam in an attempt to force an accord in Paris. By the end of the year, over 1,000 missions had been flown in 1972. Chief DeCourley met the crew of the 1,000th mission with a bottle of champagne.
SECNAV Recognize VQ-1 (MUC)
The significant contribution of VQ-1 and FSD was recognized by none less than the Secretary of the Navy, who awarded VQ-1 Detachment Da Nang the Meritorious Unit Commendation (MUC) for the period of 1 April 1972 to 27 January 1973. The citation accompanying the award, quoted below, provides a capsule description of the contribution we made not only during the period of the award, but during the entire Vietnam conflict.
“For meritorious service from 1 April 1972 to 27 January 1973 while providing electronic intelligence surveillance missions in support of units of Task Force 77, during intensive aerial warfare operations against the enemy in Southeast Asia. Expertly utilizing their complex, sophisticated airborne electronic equipment to identify hostile locations, units of Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron ONE, Detachment DANANG (TE18.104.22.168) significantly assisted various inter service agencies in compiling and maintaining an accurate order of battle of North Vietnam. Monthly listings of locations, produced by Task Element 22.214.171.124, were of invaluable assistance to aircraft strike leaders in determining the optimum ingress and egress routes to targets. Warnings of airborne hostile aircraft provided air controllers aboard surface units with timely information with which they were able to conduct engagements more efficiently. The sustained professional performance of personnel of Task Element 126.96.36.199 reflected credit upon each individual team member and was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”
By LCDR Robert E. Morrison, USN (ret.)