The Rocket City

Michael Do

The helicopters were hovering about four feet above the ground to drop the 2nd Platoon. Aspirant Chieu and the men of his 2nd Platoon quickly jumped out and spread thin in all directions to set up a security perimeter for the LZ. My CP and the 4th Platoon were in the 3rd round. Last was the 1st Platoon.

In this part of War Zone C. northwest of Lai Khe, our division base, no pocket of grassland was large enough for an ideal landing zone. We landed right on the pathway cleared by the Rome Plows of the 169th US Engineer Battalion. The Americans used giant armored bulldozers (a.k.a. Rome Plows) to create crossed pathways in the dense forest and jungle. From above, the forest looked like a large chest table or a grid formed by squares of the size 100 by 100 meters each.

The electronic warfare unit of the 5th ID dropped the sensors in the jungle to monitor the enemy’s activities. The sensors might be heat finders or sound detectors. They sent signals to Division J-3, where the operation officers would assess and respond effectively on time to destroy the enemies.

 Lai Khe had been the headquarters base of the US 1st ID before it was passed down to the VN 5th ID. American GIs called it “The Rocket City” since it received dozens of incoming rockets of all types daily. The shelling was less intensive this year after the GIs left. The division’s Recon Company was continuously searching for the missile launch pads and, so far, had not found any.

We were moving farther to the north when Sergeant Minh shouted,

“B-52 bombing!.”

We stopped because it was almost noon. Soldiers needed to rest and eat lunch. We looked at the clear blue sky and saw pairs of white smoke lines that followed the invisible airplanes. The B-52s were dropping bombs somewhere far from us, but we could hear the rumble of the explosions. Even the ground under our feet started shaking. Rumour has it that the shockwaves of the bomb could kill men who hid in underground bunkers within an area of a kilometer radius!

When flying from above, we could see hundreds of round craters scattered in the vast green carpet of the forest. It was like a picture of the surface of the moon. Each crater might be from 10 to 15 in diameter and five to seven meters deep. After the rain, it became a pond with murky water. Since we could not find the stream or other sources of water, we had to take the water from the craters to drink and cook. It was not unusual for soldiers to find human and animal bones in the pond. Once, we discovered a corpse in a decaying process upstream where we had just got the water to drink!

I just remembered that we were operating in the territory of Minh Thanh Village, one of the large and prosperous villages of Binh Duong, before the war. The whole area was abandoned and inhabited except for a hamlet near National Route 13. There were about two dozen houses with thatched roofs and mud walls, an elementary school next to the village administration compound with two or three young female teachers. Each time soldiers were operating in this area; the girls got excited because they must be very lonely in the middle of nowhere!

From Minh Thanh, going north, only dense forests extended to the Vietnam-Cambodian border. They were the sanctuary for the Viet Cong’s big units for decades. Although their military activities seemed to decrease in numbers, the bombards into Ben Cat and Lai Khe still occurred almost every day. They fired the high explosive 107 mm and 122 mm rockets instead of 61 mm or 82 mm mortars.

I was seriously wounded at the Bunard battle last November 1969. After three months of treatment at the Cong Hoa General Hospital, I was sent back to my battalion to continue fighting! All four companies had enough officers as COs and XOs. I stayed at the Battalion CP to be a substitute CO when needed.

In this operation, I was acting Commander of the 15th Company where my classmate, Quach Ke Nhon was the XO. Captain Nguyen Chi Hien, the Battalion CO advised me.

“You must behave wisely and treat Nhon nicely so he will not be upset. General Hieu promised to award a Gallantry Cross if anybody finds the launching pad.”

The sun now rose high to the top of our heads. The forest was so dense that we could not have a breeze. It was so hot because of the high humidity. The company paused near the creek Suoi Tau O. The point man reported seeing many footprints on the dirt not far from our spot. Nhon and I grabbed our rifles and followed the soldier for a distance. The farther the footprints were fading. I reported to the Battalion CP requesting to stay longer at this target and then ordered two platoons to search the area within a radius of 50 meters. 

“Lieutenant, I found these caps,” a soldier said, “There are many. Dozens.”

The cap was made of thick brown plastic, the size of a coffee can, more than 10 centimeters.

“We got them,” I shouted in exaltation, “cap of 122 mm casing.”

“You are right! I concur,” Nhon added.

“The launch pad must be close by,” I said, “let’s go and see for more.”

“Here, Lieutenant,” Sergeant Tri reported, “please, come here.”

“Don’t touch anything,” I said, “send your men to make sentry posts.”

At a narrow grassland, we found four tripods, each made of tree branches tied with vine rope. Although there was no rocket on the tripods, the marks of the rocket butts on the ground allowed us to conclude they were pointed in Lai Khe’s direction. Extension cables ran from the tripods to a nearby bunker half buried in the ground. In a small room of the bunker, there were all the devices needed to fire the rockets: electric wires, batteries, a water container with a drip valve attached at its bottom, and one small pan with electric wires acting as an open circuit. The whole set was the detonator!

Not bad! How smart they were!

It was easy to fire the rockets after they set up everything and went far away from the location. As the water from the big container dropped to the small pan at a certain level, it connected the circuit from the battery and fired the rockets.

Rockets were only accurately landed on desired targets when launched from a stable platform. That homemade tripod – no better than a children’s toy – explained why the rockets had never hit any important facilities in Lai Khe.

Captain Hien was very happy when he received the news. He, in turn, reported to the Regiment and Division Commanders.

“51, this is 74. Do you capture any rockets? over?” He asked

“No, Sir,” I said, “only the tripods and the caps. There must be a hundred.”

“Secure the LZ,” Hien said, “the Sun’ will be there in a moment.”

The ‘Sun” was the code name of the Division Commander.

General Nguyen Văn Hieu, from the 22nd ID, assumed the 5th ID Commander in November 1969, replacing General Pham Quoc Thuan. He brought Colonel Bui Trach Dan along and appointed him the 8th Regiment Commander. The previous Regiment Commander, Colonel Le Nguyen Vy, was a brilliant warrior. We admired him but were scared of him because of his hot temper.

General Hieu was as tall and big as a westerner. He was handsome, simple, and easy-going. When not on duty, he treated his subordinates like friends. He dined at the officer’s cafeteria. Each time visiting him at the base, his wife had to ride on a passenger bus to the gate and then on a tricycle from the entrance to his residence. General Hieu was named one of the five best generals who had never committed corruption.

Once, I was in the middle of a firefight. My radio operator handed the handset to me,

“Sir, 54 wants to talk to you.”

“I don’t know any f…g 54,” I yelled in the combination, frustrated, “don’t you see I am busy now?”

“It’s the General, Sir.” the radioman panicked, “54 is the code of the Division Commander.”

It was very rare for a division commander to talk directly to officers at the company level when in battle. It would be a big problem! We did not even remember their radio codes because they changed often. My military career would end because of this stupidity! I wished the radioman did not push the talk button when speaking. But anyway, things could not be redone.

The following month, nothing happened, and nobody said a thing about that incident.

Two helicopters landed. One of them had the sign of two white stars on a red background. The general and his staff got out of the choppers, followed by some people in civilian clothes who were news reporters.

“So, you are Lieutenant Phuc?” he asked softly, “how many caps did you find?”

“Sir, eighty-seven 122 mm caps and a whole set of homemade detonators,” Answered I, “there are twenty-three 107 mm caps.”

“Did you search and find anything in other areas?”

“No, General,” I answered, “we had just found this place and reported immediately.”

“Look at the tripods,” Colonel Dan added, “they point at Lai Khe.”

“After this place is discovered, Lai Khe will be safe for the time being!”

We destroyed the tripods, demolished the bunker, and left.

Late in the evening, Captain Hien called me and asked for the names of the soldiers to be awarded. He said,

“Nhon has not earned any medal since he was in combat. You recommend him a Gallantry Cross with silver star.”

We continued the operation for another week without any incidents. As far as I knew, no more rockets were shelling Lai Khe that year.