Naval Facility Da Nang Det Delta, Monkey Mountain:
I subsequently reported to Travis AFB, CA for my flight to the Philippines, via stops in Hawaii and Wake Island. I met another fellow CT in the terminal at Travis and he also had orders to Da Nang. His name was Bruce Coughlin and he was from Minnesota.
He had been married only six months and was worried about leaving his wife behind. Bruce and I passed the time on the flight by playing cribbage – more than twenty games. We were only on the ground in Hawaii and Wake Island for brief periods for refueling, but I do remember drinking a couple of beers in the terminal bar in Hawaii. The approach to the airport on Wake was a little exciting – nothing but water on both sides of the plane and then the shock of slamming onto the runway. The atoll was very small but strategically located. The US had built a military base there in January 1941, but Wake was attacked by the Japanese at the same time as Pearl Harbor and remained in Japanese hands throughout World War II. Many flight-hours later we landed at Clark Air Base, the Philippines, about 40 miles northwest of Manila. We would spend the night in the transient barracks at Clark awaiting ground transportation to San Miguel the next day.
As we boarded the small jeep-like vehicles the next afternoon for our trip to San Miguel, we were cautioned that the trip would be very rough in certain segments as the road followed the trail of the Bataan Death March for a time. I thought they were just jerking our chains, but the trip lived up to the advanced billing. We were whipped from one direction to another as we made our way down segments of the “road” that cut across the Bataan peninsula, made famous by the WWII death march for the US and allied prisoners captured at Corregidor and the Battle of Bataan. We were exhausted by the trip in jeeps. I just cannot imagine the suffering endured by those on their way to the Japanese prison camps. Twenty-five years later the area was the location of a joint US-Philippines base and US Naval Communications Station where I spent two days being outfitted with clothes for my year in Vietnam and being briefed on the mission.
Within two days I was on a flight from Clark Air Base to Da Nang Air Base, South Vietnam. It was the week before Christmas 1969 and I remember the nervous excitement as the plane touched down in Da Nang, and I remember the heat. A truck was waiting for several of us and the trip to Camp Tien Sha took only about fifteen minutes. The camp was at the base of Monkey Mountain which jutted up from the South China Sea. After checking in at the compound for Detachment Delta, the administrative headquarters and small club for those attached CT’s, we were taken to the open bay barracks nearby and given a quick tour of the camp and its’ facilities. We would be given a couple of days to in-process and then be assigned to watch sections up at the receiver site on top of Monkey Mountain.
An old friend from Rota, Spain, Terry “Mac” McDaniel, was assigned to the detachment and was on watch that night up on the mountain. He told me to catch a ride up the mountain that evening with the chow truck, noting that there was an extra bunk in the workspaces. I didn’t know it but I was being set up for the “new guy” treatment. The trip up the mountain was about five miles of winding asphalt road. When I got in the truck, I was given an M-16 and a flak jacket and told to chamber a round as soon as we cleared the guard gate. It was dusk as we started up the road and as we rounded a curve, I noticed flares in the sky high on the mountain. Then I heard muffled explosions and sporadic gunfire. I looked at the driver and asked if this was “normal” and he said with a straight face that it happened occasionally as the Viet Cong would probe the various facilities in the vicinity. Now I was getting concerned. I thought to myself that I was a glorified typist, a “Remington Raider” and master of the keyboard, not a combatant, and that there must be some kind of mistake. As we drew near the summit of the mountain and the receiver site, there were more flares in the night sky. The driver shouted to me not to begin shooting until we could be certain what was going on. We pulled into the compound as more gunfire boomed around us. My friend Mac came running up to the truck and told me to follow him. We went in a door next to a row of anti-mortar walls and were soon in the operation spaces. My heart was pounding as I stood in the center of a group of fellows who acted like this was nothing out of the ordinary.
I was told that it would be best if I stayed inside with them and let the base defense guys deal with the situation outside. No problem! Introductions were made and I noticed that the gunfire had stopped and activity outside seemed to be returning to normal. As I asked questions about the apparent attack, I was told that it wasn’t that unusual and that I would get used to it. Bullshit. This was not at all what I anticipated. After my heart rate returned to normal, I asked if this was some stunt to scare the crap out of me, but they all assured me that it was not and that there was occasional VC activity in the area. I was given a quick tour of the small compound and drank a couple of beers with the off-duty people before going to sleep in the spare bunk. I remember thinking that the Christmas decorations in the ops spaces seemed oddly out of place.
Next morning, I caught the chow truck back down the mountain with the fellows getting off the mid-watch and after a shower began my remaining check-in procedures, including an interview with our executive officer. As I sat down with him, I said that my first night in country was a little more exciting than I had bargained for. He asked me why I said that, and I replied “Why, the attack on the receiver site last night.” The exec got a funny look on his face and said that he wasn’t aware of any attack on the mountain the previous night and suggested that he certainly would have been informed if that were the case. Then it hit me that I had been treated to a theatrical performance. Those bastards! The other fellows in the detachment had a good laugh at my expense and I admitted that I had taken the bait hook, line and sinker. I later learned that Marine sappers had been using explosives to clear some base defense bunkers near the receiver site the previous evening and the fellows, with McDaniel’s urging, just put on a little show for my benefit.
I soon settled into the watch schedule up on the mountain and the other activities at Camp Tien Sha. Our mission was communications security, and we monitored the HF / VHF / UHF voice communications associated with Operation Market Time in the “I” Corps area of northern South Vietnam and the adjoining waters. Market Time’s goal was to patrol the South China Sea and the inland and coastal waters to prevent the supply and resupply of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces. Part of the mission also was providing naval gunfire support of coastal operations and providing search and rescue capabilities for the attack aircraft that were launching raids into North Vietnam from the aircraft carriers on Yankee Station – the name given the position occupied by the duty carrier in the South China Sea.
The units we listened to on Monkey Mountain were primarily the swift boats (PCFs) and river patrol craft (PBRs) that attempted to interdict the supply chain for the enemy in the region. The North Vietnamese used trawlers and coastal sampans to attempt to by-pass the Market Time patrols on and over the South China Sea. By late 1969 Operation Market Time was largely succeeding in choking off the water supply network, but the supplies traveling down the land route to the west – the Ho Chi Minh Trail – remained at a high level. As a result, the voice traffic that we monitored was very light. Watches (our time on duty) were long and tedious, and I quickly had a sense that the level of activity could not possibly justify our presence at this location for very long. We passed the time by reading, playing cards or board games, or writing letters home.
One evening in January up on the mountain I was sitting at a desk back in the maintenance room where various tools were mounted on a peg board in front of me. As I wrote a letter, I became aware of dull vibrations which gradually increased to a point where I thought we were experiencing an earthquake. The entire building shook as wave after wave of vibrations rattled the tools on the wall, knocking some screwdrivers from their mounts. I put on a helmet to protect my head. I was experiencing the effects of an Operation Arc Light raid on the Ho Chi Minh Trail 75 to 100 miles west of Da Nang. B-52 bombers flying from Andersen Air Base Guam were pounding the supply trails on the border of Laos and Vietnam and I was surprised that the ground shook so violently so far from the impact area.
Duty up on the mountain had a certain surreal quality about it. With our radio receivers we could tune into the war at any time, but we had a refrigerator stocked with T-bone steaks and beer, and when we were off watch we would often put on our bathing suits and sunbathe on the roof of the operations building. We had pets – our dog “Little Shit” and our cat “Jude” (from the Beatles) – who entertained us and kept us company. I remember one evening several of us were playing Monopoly when the speaker monitoring the Da Nang Air Base security forces began to get really active. We quickly were able to determine that the air base was being attacked and like most facilities in the area, when one went on alert, all went on alert. Each of us had a base defense position to man. Ours was a sandbagged bunker that had a beautiful view down the mountain to the Army tropo-scatter site, China Beach and to the city of Da Nang and the airfield in the background to the southwest. As we stood in the bunker and listened to the chatter on the base defense net radio, we could look down the mountain in the early evening light and see the gunfire being exchanged. The red tracers from the base defense forces and the incoming green tracers from the VC were almost beautiful. The attack did not last long, and the perimeter was not breached, but I remember standing there and thinking that it was almost like watching the war on television.
Featured Photo: Monkey Mountain Receiver Site
Written by Fred Bumgarner