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U.S. AIR FORCE
EXPLOSIVE ORDNANCE DISPOSAL (EOD)
A YEAR IN VIETNAM, 1966-1967
Lieutenant Colonel Ted A. Morris, USAF, Retired
What follows are some remembrances of mine about my tour in Vietnam as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) officer. First, I’d like to provide a little background on EOD in the mid-1960s. The world had seen the invention of tens of thousands of different kinds explosive devices since the invention of gun powder. Some of these were used for peaceful purposes in construction, civil engineering, even avalanche control. But most of these inventions were designed and used for war. Although most of these munitions worked as advertised when employed against the enemy, there are those that malfunction, or are never used, and just sat, rusting away and waiting for degrading, unstable chemical compounds to be disturbed resulting in an explosion. Although you could say all explosives are “hazardous,” when a munition fails to explode as planned, or is damaged due to rough handling, exposure, even just from age, they become what explosives experts call “hazardous,” and hazardous explosives are very dangerous indeed.
Training men specifically for the job of disposing of hazardous explosive devices began during World War II. In the U.S., the job and career field became known as Explosive Ordnance Disposal, commonly called EOD. The career field expanded during the Korean conflict, and when the U.S. presence in Vietnam grew rapidly in the mid-1960s, many hundreds of EOD personnel were needed in a hurry, and they were exposed to a very dangerous job in very difficult conditions in a very short period. Today, EOD is one of the smallest, most interesting and, when needed, indispensable career fields in the U.S. Air Force. In EOD, the task is to make hazardous explosives harmless, either by disarming them, or exploding them where they can do no damage. Any hazardous explosive is properly the responsibility of the EOD. This means everything from small arms ammunition, to missile propellant, to hydrogen bombs.
One of the key concepts in handling hazards is that all explosive munitions use some type of fuse, which in turn contain their own very sensitive explosive charge. Detonating the fuse causes the main explosive charge in turn to detonate. Detonation can be “fused” for impact, or set in many ways (such as electrically, electronically, magnetically, barometrically, or chemically) for a timed explosion. For larger pieces of ordnance, especially for those dropped or fired from aircraft, fuses and main charges (the bomb, missile warhead, etc.) are normally stored separately until they were hung from their hard points or loaded into the gun, dispenser, or bomb bay. When launching takes place, the fuse becomes armed, and ready to work almost immediately. New munitions even have non-visible fuses that must always be considered armed. Because of their function, fuses are far more “delicate” than the bomb, warhead, or shell to which they are attached. An explosion nearby, a fire, or a shock, such as being dropped, can cause fuses to become very touchy and hazardous.
During my years in EOD, we had many ways to deal with a hazardous explosive munition. One was to “gag” the fuse to prevent any change or movement, separate it from the main explosive charge, and take both hazards to a safe place for detonation or proper disposal. Another technique was to detonate-in-place, if such could be accomplished without harm. When a hazardous munition was really suspicious, even after gagging the fuse, EOD would jar it remotely, and if it didn’t explode, proceed with removal. Each situation was different and required a professional approach to solve the problem and live to tell about it.
We always considered all explosive items armed and waiting to function. A good EOD troop treated all explosives as though his and his comrades lives depended on his actions, because they did. Each “EOD incident” posed a great danger to the EOD troop, and his defenses were knowledge, training, repeated practice, an ability to improvise, a large dose of common sense, a thick skin, and the ability to work continuously under very stressful conditions. It was rare for an EOD team to deal with truly safe or routine situations, especially when working with home-made, unfamiliar foreign, or clandestine explosives, such as was often the case in Vietnam.
Even when dealing with common U.S. explosives, any call could be deadly, and trained, professional EOD troops were in constant danger on the job. On May 16, 1965, Bien Hoa Air Base, Republic of Vietnam, was mortar attacked, and several U.S. Air Force B-57 “Canberra” light bombers were blown up, scattering their loads of 500-pound bombs around the flight line. The bombs had armed fuses, and had been damaged by fire, explosion, and jarring as they flew around the flight line. These were truly hazardous munitions. As the base EOD team, consisting of Captain E. McFeron, and Sergeants C. Bunch, A. Fidiam, and D. Hubbard, worked to disarm them, a 500 pounder detonated, killing all four men.
In the 1960’s, the Department of Defense trained all EOD personnel at the U.S. Navy School, Explosive Ordnance Disposal, Naval Ordnance Station, Indian Head, Maryland, on the Potomac River about forty miles south of Washington D.C. Not only were the students from the Navy, Army, Marine Corps and Air Force, but each service provided instructors for the school as well. The goal of the school was to prepare EOD troops to deals with, literally, explosive situations. The basic course was 20 weeks long, and covered both conventional and nuclear weapons. It involved eight hours a day of instruction and practical application, and to graduate, a student also needed to study an hour or two a day on his own. Since much of the information was classified to some degree, individual study normally took place in the secure class rooms or “practical problem areas.” The course attempted to prepare students to properly deal with tens of thousands of different explosives and munitions, foreign and domestic, modern, and not so new. Because munitions can lie about for-seemingly-ever and still explode, the course even included instruction on Civil War ordnance. Even after graduation, the education did not stop, as new ordnance was developed almost daily. Graduates were required to return to Indian Head every three years for a refresher course, usually six weeks in length.
In those days, Air Force students in the basic course first had to volunteer for this hazardous duty as well as have experience in a munitions field. Enlisted men came from Conventional Munitions, Air Force Specialty Code (AFSC) 461X0, Weapons Systems, AFSC 462X0, or Nuclear Weapons, AFSC 463X0. Officers were either experienced with conventional or nuclear weapons, or both, and held an AFSC of 4625. Upon graduation, enlisted personnel were awarded the AFSC of 46430, and officers added a “B” suffix to their AFSC (4625B). The graduates were also qualified for “hazardous duty pay.” Enlisted men received $55.00 per month, and officers received $110.00.
I earned my B-suffix in July, 1965, and was assigned to Homestead Air Force Base, Florida for a year, where a wide range of EOD “challenges” helped prepare me for my assignment to Vietnam in October, 1966. What follow are a sampling of some of my EOD experiences during those early days of the U.S. experience in South East Asia.
The author at Thu Duc Explosive
Disposal Area, Republic of Vietnam, 1966.
I began my tour as Commander, 375th Munitions Maintenance Squadron (MMS), Tan Son Nhut (TSN) Air Field, on the northwest edge of the city of Saigon, Republic of Vietnam (RVN). Within weeks of my arrival, the 375th was redesignated the 377th MMS. Almost immediately thereafter, the USAF decided to end missions involving munitions at TSN, and dedicate operations there to reconnaissance and airlift. My last duty as commander was to ship all the remaining serviceable munitions and most of the squadron personnel to other USAF bases in the RVN.
Another officer and I and 15 enlisted EOD personnel remained at TSN. We formed the 7th Air Force Mobile EOD Team. Although relatively autonomous by virtue of our mission, organizationally we were assigned to the 377th Supply Squadron. Our Team was responsible for all EOD activity at TSN, as well as supporting the EOD teams at the other USAF bases in Vietnam - Bien Hoa, Tuy Hoa, Na Trang, Pleiku, Da Nang, Phu Cat, Cam Rahn Bay, Bien Thuy, and Phan Rang. Each of these bases had an eight man EOD team, but if an incident required more capability than the base could provide, our 7th AF team would send the men and equipment required.
We were also responsible for providing EOD support to the Tactical Air Support Squadron (TASS) detachments located throughout the RVN. These detachments flew O-1 “Bird Dog” and O-2 “Duck” observation and Forward Air Control (FAC) aircraft from small airfields in support of U.S., Republic of Korea, and RVN ground combat units. The FACs used a variety of munitions to mark targets for fighters, or just to try to get a shot in at the enemy themselves. They used everything they could lay their hands on, including 2.75 inch Folding Fin Aerial Rockets (FFAR) with several different types of explosive warheads, 40mm grenades and launchers, machine guns and small arms. They were even known to drop hand grenades with the pins pulled and placed in jars, which would arm and detonate when the jar broke on impact! As you might imagine with these collections of all sorts of munitions, at one time or another, each of these TASS detachment sites presented an interesting EOD “challenge.”
Shortly after my arrival in country, in late October, 1966, we were notified of an EOD “challenge” at a TASS site near Nam Cam near the southern tip of Vietnam. A U.S. Navy A-1 “Sky Raider” aircraft had a hung bomb which defied repeated attempts to release or jettison, and then an engine malfunction forced an emergency landing at the small strip. The pilot stated that the ordnance was in an “unsafe condition!” We dispatched Technical Sergeant (TSgt) S. Jefferson and two other men to the site on priority airlift. The problem was that the hung-up 500-pound general purpose high explosive bomb was fused with a chemical long-delay fuse equipped with an anti-withdrawal device. This device would cause the bomb to detonate if the fuse were removed in the normal fashion - that is by simply unscrewing it from the nose of the bomb. As the aircraft had been catapult-launched from its aircraft carrier, flown an attack mission, and made a very rough emergency landing, TSgt Jefferson correctly determined that the fuse must be considered armed. Having suffered many physical shocks, the chemical had undoubtedly eaten its way through the safety features in the fuse, and the firing pin could be released (fired) by the slightest disturbance, causing the bomb to detonate.
There is an EOD procedure in such cases, and that is to hold the fuse immobile and unscrew the bomb, but this bomb presented a problem - it was still hung up on its rack on the wing of the Sky Raider. Sergeant Jefferson and his team finally solved the problem by removing the bomb and rack from the wing of the aircraft, manhandling (gently of course) the assembly onto a truck and moving it to a ravine at the far end of the air strip. There it was removed from the truck and detonated using an explosive demolition charge placed on the bomb. The use of this type of fuse was discontinued shortly after this incident.
The final EOD problem TSgt Jefferson and his team encountered on this mission was scrounging airlift back to Ton Son Nhut! We always got priority airlift to an incident site, but almost always had to make our own arrangements for transportation back.
On another occasion, we were called to a forward TASS location near Cau Mau in the Mekong Delta. The base had been over run by the VC, and then recaptured by friendly forces. During their brief occupation of the airfield, the Viet Cong (VC) had poured fuel on several hundred 2.75 inch FFAR rockets tipped with white phosphorus (often called “Willie Peter” - WP) warheads, and set fire to them. Those that did not explode were in very hazardous condition. Many had cracked open allowing air to reach the WP. This was very dangerous, as WP exposed to oxygen immediately begins to burn and cannot be extinguished easily. This in turn would cause the fuse to detonate, detonating the warhead and spreading WP everywhere. One of the bad effects of WP is that if it gets on you, it sticks and produces very bad burns. To prevent this from happening, Master Sergeant (MSgt) E. Lambert and Staff Sergeant (SSgt) L. Brown placed most of the damaged warheads in a crater that had filled with water to insulate the WP from the air thus preventing ignition. We then spent several days collecting the rocket motors, stripping the ballistite propellant from the tubes and disposing of it by burning it. The numerous WP warheads, many still under water in the crater, presented quite an interesting disposal problem.
Normally, when disposing of high-explosive munitions by detonation, we tried to position them is such a way so as to contain and direct the explosion into the ground, to reduce the amount of shrapnel flying about. However, with WP the idea was to explode it into the air, where it all ignites and burns itself out. If exploded into the ground, some of the WP would blow into the soil, not burn, and later work its way to the surface and ignite. In this instance, we finally solved the problem by placing the warheads along the side of a large crater and exploding them sideways across the crater, thereby keeping the amount of shrapnel at a minimum while exposing the WP to the air. We could only do small numbers of warheads at a time, and it took quite a while to clean up the mess. Our biggest problem was that exploding WP is quite spectacular, leaving long white trails of smoke in the air, even when done sideways across a crater, and we found it difficult to keep spectators away, especially Vietnamese children, who never seemed to realize the danger of exploding munitions.
Soon, we found work closer to home. Late on October 29, 1966, a very loud explosion sounded throughout TSN, which everyone thought occurred on or near the base itself, though there were no reports of any activity, hostile or otherwise, on the airfield. We finally got word that the VC had placed and detonated an explosive charge in a storage stack of nearly 12,000 eight-inch, high-explosive artillery projectiles at the thousand-acre U.S. Army ammunition depot at Long Binh, about 25 miles away, and that was the explosion we had heard. The explosion destroyed about half of the projectiles, and scattered the other half over a very large area - some up to half a mile away from the original explosion. The recovery and disposal of these munitions promised to be very difficult, and we offered our help to the U.S. Army EOD team based at Long Binh to clean up the mess.
We proceeded to Long Binh, and joined in retrieving and then destroying several thousand of the damaged eight inch projectiles, many of which had been broken open by the tremendous heat and shock of the initial explosion. This kind of treatment caused the explosive in the shell to chemically rearrange, making it very hazardous and easily detonated.
Staff Sergeant L. Brown, SSgt R. Hunt and I were assigned to clear a U.S. Army communications antenna farm where quite a few projectiles had landed, many buried eight to ten feet deep in the ground by the force of their fall. We obtained a “High Speed Entrenching Tool, Combat,” the Army nomenclature for a truck mounted ditch digger, and got to work. Our recovery method was to first measure how deep the projectile was buried by shoving a probe (a metal rod) through the entry hole, then dig to within a foot of the shell with our high speed entrenching tool and finally dig the remainder of the way to the projectile by hand. We would then secure a rope sling around the projectile and pull it to the surface, place it on a cargo trailer, and, when we had a full load, transport them to an explosive disposal site for detonation. We dug out and disposed of over 200 projectiles in this way in the antenna field alone, and our 7th AF Team recovered and destroyed over 2,500 of these “hazards” around Long Binh over the next several days.
One thing I always liked about EOD was the fact that when you were doing your job, there was rarely anyone from the I.G. Team looking over your shoulder evaluating your work. However, we occasionally did get spectators. One day during the clearing of the antenna field, SSgt Brown and I were down in a deep hole affixing a sling to a projectile, when some Army troops showed up unexpectedly at the edge of our hole. Sergeant Hunt yelled down that someone wanted to speak to the senior man, so I came up out of the hole, and there before me stood General William C. Westmoreland, Commanding General, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (CG MACV). Seeing we were Air Force by our blue and white name tags and insignia (which barely showed through the grime and sweat saturating our fatigues), he shook my hand and said, “This is what I call splendid cooperation, thank you very much.” He followed this up with a letter of appreciation to all of us working on the Long Binh recovery.
Eventually, we got the site secured, and returned to our modest quarters at Tan Son Nhut. At TSN our EOD team had a barracks “hootch” and a smaller classroom building. We used the classroom building to conduct orientation for all incoming EOD personnel of all services in USAF munitions and clandestine VC munitions. We also gave training to fire fighters and security policemen assigned to Tan Son Nhut in identification and reporting of explosive hazards. The entire team lived together as a unit in the hootch, where we also kept our equipment, personal gear, and tools. We were each issued a .38 caliber revolver and M-16 rifle, which we kept in a heated storage locker, to cut down on corrosion and rust. We used Styrofoam packing material from MK 24 flare cases to insulate about half the hootch and all the classroom, and the men had also obtained several air conditioning units, making the enlisted quarters relatively comfortable. I slept in an 8 X 10 foot corner next to our office at the opposite end of the building.
For transportation our team had a Dodge 4 X 4 crew cab pick up truck (normally called a six-pack), and an International 2 1/2 ton commercial cargo truck (this was not an M-series “deuce and a half”). We used the vehicles to proceed to our field assignments on and around TSN, and kept the myriad of unserviceable and hazardous munitions that we collected around the base in a bunker in the old MMS storage area. We kept our demolition explosives (C-4 and TNT) in a separate bunker. The storage area had been originally built by the French in the 1930s, improved by the Japanese during WWII, reclaimed by the French after their reoccupation of the country, and was at the time used by the Vietnam Air Force (VNAF). It was in deplorable shape.
Each week, or more often if needed, we loaded the unserviceable munitions into the 2 1/2 ton truck and transported them about 20 miles through the Gia Din area of Saigon to an explosive disposal area on the training ranges at the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) Officer Training School at Thu Duc. We normally made this run on the same day each week, and spent several hours destroying hazardous or unserviceable munitions including bombs, rockets, missiles, artillery rounds, and captured VC mines and booby traps.
The disposal site at Thu Duc was controlled and guarded by the ARVN. On one occasion, six of us arrived to dispose of about fifty 120-pound “Photo Flash” bombs, which had been stored outdoors at TSN, along with several hundred others. These were WWII-vintage bombs used to provide a brilliant flash for reconnaissance aerial photography, but were no longer used by anyone and were becoming quite hazardous from age and exposure to the elements. On this occasion, as we drove down the narrow dirt road to the range control shack we suddenly found ourselves in the midst of a minor fire fight between the three ARVN guards and an unknown number of what had to be VC. The VC had attacked using a 60mm mortar, grenades and AK-47 assault rifles. We bailed out of our explosive-loaded trucks and helped drive off the attackers, who had wounded all three ARVN soldiers. Soon other ARVN troops arrived, took the wounded soldiers away, and made sure our range and the others in the complex were clear, after which we proceeded to dispose of our photo flash bombs.
Several months later, while on another disposal mission to Thu Duc, the VC attacked our EOD team from a nearby rubber tree grove as we prepared our munitions for demolition. As we had no means of communication with anyone, we were pinned down by small arms fire and rocket propelled grenades (RPG) for quite some time before a U.S. Army helicopter gunship passing overhead noticed our situation and called in help while firing into the rubber trees. This apparently drove off the attackers, but it was a distinctly unpleasant experience to be working with a large amount of already hazardous munitions with an enemy intent on trying to assist in causing it to detonate before we were ready! Not wishing to engage in a third fire fight from trucks loaded with explosives, we shortly thereafter changed our weekly schedule to Thu Duc to one a little more random.
In December, 1966 I was reassigned to Headquarters 7th Air Force as Staff EOD Officer, although I still remained as Officer in Charge (OIC) of our mobile team. As Staff Officer, I traveled often to the other Air Force bases throughout Vietnam, learning quite a bit about each base-level EOD team, their responsibilities, and the problems peculiar to the aircraft weapon systems they supported.
For example, Cam Rahn Bay, located on the coast of the South China Sea about 175 miles northeast of Saigon, had F-4 “Phantom” aircraft assigned, and had a very large munitions storage area (MSA). The MSA served not only for the base, but as a storage location for USAF munitions delivered to Cam Rahn Bay by ship but ultimately destined for other locations in RVN. The base also had the responsibility for, and the problems related to, a specialty munition designed especially for local conditions - the multi-ton Fuel Air Explosive (FAE) bomb. These huge bombs were used to clear helicopter landing sites in the jungle. The bombs looked like sheet-metal water tanks, and worked by spreading a vapor in all directions upon impact, which was then detonated by a delay fuse, and the resulting over-pressure explosion flattened everything for hundreds of yards. Although later designed to be dropped from fighter aircraft, at the time they were so unwieldy they had to be dropped from the cargo compartment of C-130 “Hercules” 4-engined cargo aircraft.
The VC made a habit of attacking MSAs, and one of these attacks on the Cam Rahn Bay MSA destroyed or made hazardous many tons of conventional munitions, and damaged several of these new FAE bombs, which had been stored outside. The FAE bomb skins had been breached, and the contents were leaking out. This created a situation where EOD personnel had to think on their feet - the FAE was so new, no procedures for safe disposal had been developed prior to its deployment to Cam Rahn Bay! The base EOD team had to clear the area of the conventional bombs, rockets, and missiles, then develop a method to disarm the damaged FAE bombs.
Pleiku Air Base was located in the Central Highlands about 225 miles north-northeast of Saigon. The base had A-1 propeller-driven close air support aircraft, similar to the Navy’s “Sky Raider.” However, since A-1s were the last piston-engined attack planes in the inventory, Air Force crews called them “SPADS,” after the WWI fighter. SPADS were also used as “Sandys,” which was the call-sign for the escort aircraft which provided cover for rescue operations conducted by helicopters such as the HH-3 “Jolly Green Giants.” The A-1 was a very flexible weapons platform as it had a great many hard-points, and could carry several different kinds of munitions at the same time on a mission. Many of these munitions lacked the aerodynamics needed for high speeds, and could not be carried on the faster jet aircraft. One of these was a CS (tear) gas canister that would “skidder” or scoot all over the area when dropped, instead of just lying on the ground emitting the gas. These canisters were delivered from a “dispenser” hung from a hard point on a SPAD. One day, a dispenser malfunctioned as an A-1 was taxing for takeoff, unloading its canisters all over the flight line. The area was saturated with tear gas canisters skiddering in every direction. Some of the canisters did not function, and had to be “rendered safe” so they could be disposed of.
Pleiku also had some interesting new munitions. One was dispenser-carried anti-personnel “Gravel Mines,” which armed as they were ejected from the dispenser. Gravel Mines were camouflaged triangular shaped cloth covered mines resembling “bean bags,” and were used to mine known VC trails and controlled areas. One night, a dispenser malfunctioned during takeoff and covered the runway with hundreds of armed Gravel Mines. Like the FAE bombs, these were so new that there were no procedures to render them safe. Senior Master Sergeant R. Bramini of the base EOD team developed one on the spot using motor oil to saturate the explosive mixture and make it inert. First he poured oil on the bean bag, soaking the outer layer of explosive, after which he - very carefully - injected oil into the mine using a jury-rigged hand pump. He got the runway back into operation after several hours of this dangerous work in the dark.
At Da Nang the Air Force shared the base with the U.S. Marines and VNAF. Da Nang was located on the coast about 100 miles south of the “Demilitarized Zone,” and about 150 miles north of Pleiku. Stationed at the base were Phantoms, A-1s, and A-6 “Intruders,” and an occasional B-52 made an emergency landing as well. The high terrain around the base made it relatively easy for the VC to attack Da Nang regularly with mortars and rockets, and one night “Charlie” chose it as the first base to be attacked using 140mm unguided rockets. These rockets had a warhead about 6.5 inches in diameter, and the attack resulted in widespread damage and death throughout the F-4 parking revetments, where many aircraft were loaded with munitions. Bombs, AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, AIM-7 Sparrow missiles, and AIM-45 Shrike missiles were scattered all over, all in hazardous condition. One of the 140mm rockets had landed in the VNAF munitions storage bunker, detonating or scattering more than five hundred 500-pound bombs throughout the base. Captain L. Bobbit and his base team worked for many hours to clear the hazardous munitions to enable flying operations to resume. He also collected pieces of several 140mm rockets with Russian markings for intelligence analysis.
Bien Hoa, located just north of Saigon and east of Tan Son Nhut, had USAF F-100 “Super Sabers,” VNAF A-1s and TASS aircraft. Master Sergeant P. Webb of the base team had his hands full just trying to convince the VNAF munitions personnel to adhere to basic explosive storage procedures. All VNAF units handled and stored explosives and munitions in very hazardous ways, and this caused many accidents. Plus there was the constant VC threat - during my tour, Bien Hoa was attacked several times with 122mm fin-stabilized Russian-made rockets.
Bien Thuy, located about 100 miles southwest of Saigon, had VNAF A-1s and lots of O-1s and O-2s. On one visit to the base, I was quartered in a military-operated hotel downtown in Can Tho. One morning, while waiting for transportation to the base, I was planning to wait for my ride out on the street, but was cautioned by the GIs managing the hotel to remain inside the sand-bagged lobby of the hotel, as “you never knew what might happen outside.” As I waited, I noticed a Vietnamese man pedal up on his bicycle and try to lean it against a lamp post across the street. He seemed to be having some trouble keeping the bike from falling over, and eventually it and he fell over, and a very large explosion shattered all the windows in the area and blew over the sand-bagged wall in the hotel. When the dust settled, the man, bicycle, and lamp post were nothing but a large hole in the street. Remembering this event, on my next visit I stayed on base in the EOD Quonset Hut, only to have the VC shell the base with 75mm recoilless rifle fire. These projectiles would hit the ground on a rather horizontal trajectory, then skid along until they hit something, and explode. Two of these skipped up against the EOD hut where I had been sleeping, and exploded while I was trying to dig through the floor! I guess the VC always knew where I was at Bien Thuy.
Even though each base had its own individual set of problems, we all had many in common. Our biggest problems was communicating with the right people when working an EOD incident. The base EOD teams were usually part of the Munitions Maintenance Squadron, and their radios were tuned to the aircraft maintenance network. However, when working an EOD problem, the majority of our communications were with the Security Police. Most base teams resolved this problem by “borrowing” or otherwise obtaining a portable radio from the SPs. We also had no way to communicate with aircraft or gunship helicopters when operating off-base. Since from the air people on the ground all look alike, we needed to make sure we weren’t mistaken for bad guys. EOD teams once again “borrowed” or obtained PRC-25 portable FM radios that permitted communications with the Army helos and FACs, and that helped.
Officially, it took quite some effort in my role as 7th AF Staff EOD officer to convince the Powers-That-Be that these temporary communications “solutions” were an unsatisfactory way to do business, and required a permanent fix. An example of the typical response was one I got from Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) Headquarters at Hickam AFB in Hawaii - they reported that they had no trouble communicating with units in Vietnam! With my staff “hat” on, I was exposed to a lot of that sort of response to what I believed was my work at the headquarters level - identifying and solving the problems for the “worker bees.” Although I felt I understood a lot of the problems quite well, the troops felt I needed plenty of hands-on “recurring training” and were always arranging for me to get down in the dirt and really get to know their problems first hand. In fact on several occasions the sergeants told me to get off my duff and join them on field mission. Not having any particular excuse not to, I did.
Sometimes, the field missions occurred right at home. Very early in the morning of December 4, 1966, the VC launched a rather large attack on Tan Son Nhut, which up until that night had been considered secure and immune from attack. The enemy apparently planned to damage or destroy as many aircraft as possible, and although they attacked many areas of the base, a concerted effort was made against parked aircraft and helicopters. The Security Police did an outstanding job of defending the base, and killed or captured many of the attackers. Our EOD team mustered and reported in the command post and waited for the calls for assistance we knew would come in shortly. We didn’t have long to wait.
About 0300 hours, Staff Sergeants R. Hunt, G. Issacs, and I, accompanied by TSgt Phac (on loan to us from the VNAF), responded to a call at the junction of the main runway and W-5 taxiway. There, lying in the intersection, were nine dead and three wounded VC, all carrying large amounts of explosive demolition charges, home made grenades, and RPG launchers and projectiles.
Our immediate job was to examine each VC for booby traps, especially the wounded, and remove the explosives from their reach. Most of the VC were laying face down with their arms under them, and this often indicated booby traps. Our method of checking the bodies was to tie a “remote jarring device” (a 100 foot long rope) to one arm and pull the body over face up from a distance. If there was no explosion, chances were there was no booby trap.
One of the wounded VC was moaning and saying something as we approached. We closed on him carefully, and TSgt Phac told him to lie still. He didn’t seem capable of an attack, but playing ‘possum was a widely known trick, so I kicked him quite hard in the thigh to see if he would do anything dangerous - and he did! He rolled himself over, fumbling with a grenade in his hands. An SP with our team shot him before he could pull the pin as the rest of us dove for the cover that doesn’t exist in the middle of a runway! After that episode, we remotely turned over the remaining wounded and the dead, but there were no further deceptions from the wounded or explosions from the bodies, though several were booby trapped. We removed the explosives from the bodies and piled the dead beside the taxiway. Our job was made difficult as we came under fire several times during this operation. The SPs would return the fire while the rest of us tried to dig holes in the pavement with our belly buttons! Eventually, a VNAF ambulance arrived and removed the wounded VC.
The next task for our team was to check the nearby aircraft parking apron where we “rendered safe” five more dead VC, following the same remote turn over procedure. By dawn we had stripped over 100 explosive devices from 15 dead and two wounded VC, and cleared the prime attack area of all explosives.
Meanwhile, TSgt G. Brinkley accompanied a team of SPs on a sweep along that section of the perimeter fence where the VC had penetrated the base. They came upon a wounded VC, and as Brinkley searched the body for explosives, he heard a metallic click and knew immediately this VC was booby trapped - a hand grenade release had functioned and without fast action, Brinkley was sure to witness an explosion first hand! He grabbed the grenade from the wounded VC, and yelling for everybody to take cover, tossed the grenade over the fence into a water filled ditch where it went off. His quick thinking saved many lives.
Another team, with TSgt T. Messier and SSgt R. Stark, were checking an area near the west perimeter when they came under intense small arms fire from the withdrawing VC survivors. After this fire-fight, they discovered a 15-pound directional anti-personnel mine together with eight grenades and mines, all wired, armed and booby trapped to cause much “hate and discontent” to any pursuing troops. Sergeants Messier and Stark disarmed and collected these explosives to end their night’s excitement.
Each of the teams finished their immediate tasks and returned to our staging area. When it was light enough to see, we went out to sweep the parking areas, taxiways, runways, and flight line buildings for explosives, so the base could resume flying operations. In total, we recovered over 135 explosive devices, four RPG launchers, and 10 AK-47 assault rifles.
As a result of the night’s activities, I recommended all the above named EOD enlisted troops for Bronze Star Medals for their actions, but learned the hard way not to rely on the paper-shufflers to produce the results a commander wants for his troops. I failed to monitor the progress of my recommendations, and the medals were down graded by the admin-types to Air Force Commendation Medals for Outstanding Achievement. After that, I drafted and submitted all recommendations and followed up on them through to presentation.
It wasn’t long before Charlie struck again and gave us more work to do. Before dawn on February 4, 1967, those of us at TSN could hear and feel the vibrations of several large explosions. The VC had once again penetrated into the U.S. Army Ammunition Depot at Long Binh. This time, it was not just one stack of projectiles they hit. They had detonated charges on nearly 100 storage pads, containing almost every type of ordnance used by the Army in Vietnam, including small arms ammunition, powder charges, projectiles and fuses for 75mm, 90mm, 105mm, 120mm, 155mm, 175mm and 8-inch artillery, mortar rounds, anti-armor rocket projectiles, and mines of all types. Many tens of thousands of items had exploded and were destroyed, while tens of thousands of others were in hazardous condition and scattered throughout the depot.
Our 7th AF EOD Team arrived at Long Binh at first light and joined the Army EOD Team in searching for any unexploded VC charges. Several were found, all of which had been booby-trapped to cause delay and problems. These we carefully disarmed and removed from their locations.
The next priority was the 66mm Light Anti-Armor Weapons (LAW) that lay scattered about in the hundreds. Many LAWs had fuses that when armed, either by launching or by being blasted about such as these had, could explode simply by a change in temperature as slight as having a shadow cast over them. These had to be cleared out before we could get to the rest of the hazards. Our major concern was ensuring close coordination between teams so one team did not remotely jar a suspect explosive while another team was in an exposed position. My bowels still tighten as I recall taking cover behind stacks of explosives (the only cover available) as we worked through the depot jarring LAWs.
Each day thereafter, for two months, six to eight members of our 7th AF EOD Team worked with our Army counterparts to clear the hazardous explosives scattered throughout the depot. The work was arduous and stressful, but the troops performed in a very professional and safe manner. Our team alone put in over 4,500 man hours of very hot, hazardous labor. In recognition, Lieutenant General J. E. Engler, Commanding General, U.S. Army, Vietnam (CG USARV) had a Letter of Appreciation placed in each man’s personnel file.
All the excitement didn’t happen inside the depot, however. On 16 February, TSgt H. Cooper, SSgt R. Hunt, Army Sergeants Olson and Labracco, and I had collected a 6 X 6 Army Truck full of hazardous explosives, transported them to the remote disposal site outside the depot, unloaded the truck and were preparing the explosive demolition charges, when a gunship helicopter began circling overhead while the crew pointed to a distant group of trees.
As we had no means of communicating with the gunship, we assumed they were warning us of some problem, possibly VC in the trees. Since we were not equipped to engage the enemy, we immediately abandoned our very large pile of explosives, loaded into the truck and were preparing to leave when the gunship collided with some high voltage overhead transmission lines and crashed in flames on the perimeter of the depot. We immediately drove through the jungle to the crash site and despite explosions in the burning helicopter, were able to extract one seriously injured crew member. One of our team administered first aid to the injured man, while the others searched for and recovered the other three crew members, who were dead. Meanwhile, the fire had spread to the jungle, causing a serious threat to the depot, and an HH-43 “Pedro” rescue helicopter from nearby Bien Hoa Air Base arrived with a fire suppression kit and a fireman. We transferred the injured crew member into the chopper, and it departed for the hospital. Two of our team then aided the fireman to fight the spreading fire, while the other three began removing the 48 2.75-inch FFAR and other explosives from the crashed gunship to prevent their detonation, or worse, being launched into the depot, possibly causing further explosions.
Meanwhile, the fire continued. When our fire-fighting capabilities were exhausted, we loaded the explosives and bodies of the dead crewmen onto our truck, and departed the area. On the way out we were met by an arriving Army Disaster Control Teams from the depot, sent to control the fire. They also assumed responsibility for the dead crewmen. As we prepared to leave, they also told us we needed to be careful around the transmission towers and overhead lines, as the area was mined! Relieved of the bodies, and thankful we had not discovered any of the mines while at the crash site, we decided to return to our abandoned pile of explosives and finish our original job, which we did without further incident. For our actions that day at the helicopter crash, we were all recommended for, and received, the Airman’s Medal, which is the highest non-combat award for heroism in the armed forces.
Often, we had to go way out in the field to do our jobs. During the monsoon season, when it was normal for it to rain very hard 20 hours a day, a C-130 was shot down near Moc Hoa in the Central Highlands. As cargo, it had been carrying seven pallets of 2.75 inch FFAR with explosive and WP warheads. Although the aircraft was largely destroyed by fire, many of these munitions had not exploded. As the VC made a practice of recovering munitions from downed aircraft and using them to make clandestine munitions, such as mines, grenades, and booby traps for use against U.S. troops and facilities, we were sent to destroy the unexploded cargo. We were also to burn the aircraft tires, so the VC couldn’t make sandals out of them.
At the crash site, we recovered several bodies of the aircrew, and began the disposal of the munitions. There was supposed to be an ARVN company in the area surrounding the site to provide us some protection, but we never did see any of them, and at night there were many strange noises in the surrounding jungle. We spent two days and nights destroying the munitions using the C-4 and TNT demolition explosives we had brought with us, and then awaited our helicopter pick up. I might add that it was a very hungry mission. Upon our arrival, we had placed our rations under a piece of the aircraft to keep them out of the rain, and on one of our “detonate-in-place” shots, we had managed to blow up our rations with the surrounding hazardous munitions.
One EOD job no one liked was checking bodies at the morgue at Tan Son Nhut. All U.S. dead were processed through that morgue, and part of that processing including an X-Ray scan of the bodies to check for lodged unexploded munitions or booby traps. When the X-Ray turned up anything suspicious, our team was called in to render the explosive safe, and this usually meant digging it out of a badly mutilated body. Our standard practice in these cases was to pack our nostrils with Vicks to block out the odors, and then not eat for a while following the procedure. Master Sergeant B. Farthing and I responded one time to recover an unexploded 60mm mortar round from a body. Morgue personnel had placed the body in a sand-bagged enclosure, and we went to work. We had to cut through skin, muscle and bone to reach the round in the lower body cavity. Although not insensitive, Sergeant Farthing was a hunter and outdoorsman, and didn’t seem to share my problem, which was keeping down my last meal. We successfully removed the round, separated the fuse, and transported the explosives in a sand filled box to our storage bunker for later disposal.
Just about everyone on our team preferred a trip in the field over a day at the morgue. We often went to non-Air Force locations to assist with tough recoveries and disposals. On one occasion, a fortified ARVN hamlet on the river in the Mekong Delta was attacked with mortars, RPGs and rifle fired grenades. The VC had been driven off, but left many unexploded munitions behind, including booby trapped mines. Master Sergeant E. Lambert and three others were helicoptered to the site and began disarming and collecting the explosives. They had to drain a large pond in which to ARVN moored their rubber river patrol craft in order to get at one device. Working in the mud, they used their “remote jarring device” to remove the partially buried unexploded munitions.
Many of the grenades launched from rifle grenade launchers had failed to explode and buried themselves in the soft earth. Each had to be dug out and then jarred and removed “remotely.” Sergeant Lambert and his crew recovered more than 30 of these grenades, of which two exploded during their remote removal, necessitating obtaining new remote jarring devices! All recovered items were collected and disposed of by detonation in a safe area.
Mines were a constant problem in Vietnam, especially those “lost” and not clearly marked on a map. There was a barbed wire enclosure about the size of a city lot on TSN that was needed for the building of some new structure. As the enclosure was mined, our team was called in to clear the mines so construction could begin. We were given a map and shown where there were six plastic anti-personnel mines in the enclosure, placed there by the ARVN or VNAF. Using our map, we located them fairly quickly, but you know what is left of U and ME when you ASSUME! We swept the area with a mine detector and on our hands and knees with bayonet probes, and Sergeants H. Cooper, F. Bartram, C. Stone and M. Urban recovered an additional 18 mines! There were French, Japanese, Russian and U.S. made mines, some of which had obviously been there since WWII; they were badly rusted and very hazardous. Its a wonder a lot of people hadn’t been killed over the years as they entered the area to lay down new mines.
In Vietnam, people were always “losing” land mines. One night a civilian drove a large truck into an area where someone had “lost” several mines. The truck struck a mine and blew out a tire. The driver bailed out and quickly left the area, luckily without locating any other mines with his feet. Naturally, we were called out, and TSgt H. Cooper backed the truck out of the area and then located two more lost mines without further damage.
Even when you knew about where the mines were, there were sure to be incidents. One day, Staff Sergeants R. Hunt, O. Springsgouth and L. Bailey responded to a call from between the twin rows of barbed wire perimeter fence on Tan Son Nhut. An ARVN security team with a guard dog had blundered into a mined area, and detonated one of the mines, wounding the dog and his handler. The injured dog was uncontrolled and could have easily set off another mine. Sergeant Hunt entered the area and was successful in calming the dog, placing a muzzle on it and carrying it out of the area. The team then got the wounded guard out and showed the remaining guards how to exit the area. All three team members were awarded the Airman’s Medal for their heroism in this incident.
Although the USAF had ended tactical missions from TSN, the VNAF still had several A-1H squadrons operating out of TSN on bombing missions. During the miserably hot and wet monsoon season, a taxiing VNAF A1-H accidentally dropped a 250-pound high explosive bomb onto the taxiway. The pilot had been taxiing at a relatively high rate of speed, and the bomb tumbled end over end and skidded along the pavement, finally coming to a halt against the landing gear of a USAF C-123 “Provider” transport aircraft waiting to take off. The crew promptly shut down the engines and rapidly exited the aircraft!
Staff Sergeant R. Hunt and I were in our EOD truck waiting for tower clearance to cross the taxiway, and saw the event take place. We notified the SPs on our “borrowed” radio, and proceeded to the C-123, while air traffic control shut down operations in the vicinity. The bomb nose fuse had shed all its external safety devices, and the firing pin striker plate was in the fired position. This meant that the slightest movement could cause the firing pin to move in the fuse, causing the bomb to detonate. Our job was to prevent this from happening, if we could.
The SPs established a large cleared perimeter to prevent possible injury to outside personnel, and we went to work in the rain to gag the fuse. We used quick-set plaster of paris to freeze the possible movement of the firing pin, and gingerly removed the fuse from the nose. It was a very delicate operation, and as we got the fuse free, we were shocked to hear a voice behind us say, “I wouldn’t have your job for anything in the world!” The voice, which scared us half to death, came from a young SP who had moved in from the perimeter and had been watching us from about 10 feet away. I guess he didn’t realize he was in as much danger as we had been!
Though it seemed like an eternity that we worked on that fuse, the entire operation had only taken about 20 minutes, and the tower personnel told us on the radio that they couldn’t believe we had taken care of the problem in such a short time. Neither could we. That was the way I remember my tour in Vietnam. While I was there, it seemed I had been there forever. Then, quite suddenly, my tour was over, and I was in the States. My next assignment was to my “parent command,” Strategic Air Command, as the Commander, 51st MMS, Vandenburg AFB, California, servicing both Titan II and Minute Man missile systems, and as the EOD Team Leader for the Air Force Western Test Range. Over the next 18 months, I had many additional EOD adventures, though perhaps none as intense as those in Vietnam. In July, 1969, the Air Force decided to use my experience to prepare others for the EOD “challenge,” transferring me to the same EOD School at Indian Head I had completed just four years earlier, where I served first as director of training and finally as Commander, 3429th Technical Training Squadron, and where I finished out my 30-year career.