I returned from Chu Lai to Phu Bai by hitch-hiking on an aircraft again. This time there were no dramatic rocket explosions in Chu Lai after I left. The rocket explosions were inside the Phu Bai air base, not long after I returned.
I'm not really sure whether I woke up at the fizz or the ka chunk. I was just completely awake in a dimly lit barracks where moments before I had been sound asleep. I am not really a person who wakes up easily. It was the distinctive sound that woke me.
There's a lot of noise and sounds on an airbase. Loud noises are not that uncommon. However, you learned to know sounds in Nam rather quickly, even while unconscious. This sound was unmistakable, a B-20 rocket exploding: a wakeup call from Victor Charlie inviting you to run outside in the warm Vietnamese night.
I immediately shouted "Everybody outside." The sounds of movement began somewhere between the two words. Springs squeaked. Wooden boards groaned and clattered. After a few seconds a loud siren sounded from across the airfield, spiraling upward from a low wail into a strong whine.
The quiet darkness became a scurrying bustle of people leaving their bunks and yelling to each other to travel hastily outside and down the wooden stairs. The pattern was familiar. I had been in country six months now, senior sergeant of the barracks, a two story wooden, open slatted, barn style building set next to another that sat next to another in a row of identical wooden habitats on the sandy coastal plain near Hue.
In between each barracks were dark green, low slung, mound like bunkers made of corrugated steel protected by nylon sandbags piled into thick walls and atop a metal roof just high enough for men to sit inside during rocket attacks. A separate wall of sandbags protected the openings at either end from the shrapnel of near misses. It wasn't really clear to any of us whether the bunker itself could survive a direct hit.
Running from the barracks to crawl into the small entrances of the bunkers, people filled the bunkers within a minute or two. So the second story of the barracks was emptied and quiet again within a minute of the first rocket impact. During that minute a second rocket hit ten or fifteen seconds after the first and others struck in similar intervals while the barracks emptied.
From the first sound I knew they were landing about five hundred yards away on the airfield. I felt aggravated rather than afraid. Maybe you'll think I was stupid, but I watched as everyone else ran outside.
Then I looked down the row of empty bunks to ensure everyone had gotten out. As senior sergeant, that was a duty I had assigned myself. It was a duty easy to assume because I had enough confidence in the enemy's aim to expect that if they were shooting at where the first rocket landed the other rockets would land there too, barring malfunctions or mess ups.
Knowledge born of experience is the first of two essential qualities necessary to overcome fear. That cockiness came with being in country a while.
My first rocket attack had been different. I was running outside the barracks when it suddenly dawned on me I did not know why I was outside. I stopped and immediately somebody slammed into me from behind. "Keep going," he yelled, "it's a rocket attack!" Then I had heard the siren and quickly ran into the bunker. I had apparently gotten out of my bunk, run down the stairs and was on my way to the bunker before I had even awakened. Being a newby, my fear had preceded consciousness.
Now looking down the row of bunks I could see a lump on a top bunk in the middle of the barracks. A newby was sleeping through the rockets and siren. I walked alongside his bunk and shook him gently. He opened his eyes sleepily and looked at my face only inches from his. The barracks had a night light over each door that provided dim illumination.
"There's things going boom and sirens screaming so I thought you might want to scurry." I spoke calmly, gesturing to form an explosion with my hands.
The newby looked at me quizzically, "What?"
I started again: "You know, things falling out of the sky, going boom, people running around, sirens wailing."
He became perturbed and snapped "What are you talking about?"
I looked away, then back at him and said simply, "It's a rocket attack."
His face contorted and he lurched out of the bunk, onto the floor, and in seconds he was out of the barracks. I smiled. By then about twenty seconds had elapsed since the last rocket explosion. I knew from experience that the all clear would sound after a couple of minutes.
We flew helicopter gunships around the clock over the base. The enemy knew enough to slip in, launch the rockets and get out before the gunships found them. The rocket attacks almost always lasted only a minute or two. It seemed longer when you were afraid, but after a few attacks missed you, the reality begins to sink in.
Besides, these were B-20 rockets. You could tell by the "ka chunk" sound. They were far more powerful than mortars with their "pfift (pause) cush" sound, but neither had anyhere near the power of the B-40s they threw at us occasionally. The ground shaking "ka whump" of the B-40s gained them more respect than the ka chunky B-20s. That was stupid, though, because even the mortars were quite capable of trashing the barracks. Still, I doubt I would have jested with a newby during a B-40 attack.