THE DAY DANANG BLEW UP (Dan Skutack)
The date 28 Apr 69 had no special significance to me. I was returning to Danang just about sunup. With the sun rising out of the South China sea, sunshine began to hit the tops of the high hills west of the runways at Danang. As I entered the landing pattern, I didn't notice much activity, the sun's rays had not as yet slipped down to chase the darkness away. The reduced activity on the base only confirmed that Danang had not fully awakened.
This scenario gave me a good feeling...I already had a long trying night and was looking forward to a quick debriefing, a shower, and picking up some of the sleep I had missed. All in all, everything was going well for me...so much so that I didn't even mind the Tower's warning that I was taking ground fire during the base-to-final turn...it was friendly fire. Besides, it was not unusual for us to be greeted in this manner by our perimeter guards. I could only assume they, too, had had a long, trying night.
By the time I hit de-briefing, the bright morning sun was making its appearance on the base...no doubt about it...it was going to be a hot and windy day...and I was looking forward to enjoying cooling benefits from window air conditioning. My roommate, Walt, had already departed for his mission assignment...leaving me a quiet trailer in which to sleep.
Meanwhile, on the west side of the Base, other activities were in progress which would have a profound effect on virtually all personnel on this vast military complex. It would also give me cause to remember this date...28 Apr 69. It seems a recent inspection of the large ammunition dump, located on the west side of the runways, cited extensive debris being blown into the Ammo Dumps perimeter. The debris was easily blown in and once inside, the razor and concertina wires served as a catch-all. So, a lot of what was blown in was not blown out. The Ammo Dump itself was a huge complex. Each branch of the military had their own ammo dump located within the large Ammo Dump Complex...the Army, Navy/Marines, and the Air Force all had a good deal of explosives on site. To accommodate the debris problem, a group of Marines, who were restricted to the Marine compound for various disciplinary problems, were brought together and given the task of cleaning the debris from the Ammo Dump.
The detail worked rapidly...they wanted to get finished before the heat of the day made things more miserable than they were. The wind had picked up and was swirling and gusty. The debris was piled in a clear area near the entrance to the Ammo Dump. The debris consisted of a lot of dried plants, leaves, tree branches, and a considerable amount of paper. Once the pile of debris was collected, there was some speculation as to the most efficient manner of disposal. Since the debris was very dry, it was decided to dispose of by burning. It was felt the detail could use a controlled burn and keep it under control. These decisions were most profound and would have an impact on all base personnel.
The controlled burn was initiated...and it became quite clear that the swirling and gusty winds was quickly un-controlling the thing. The heat from the fire coupled with the winds served to scatter burning debris all over the Ammo Dump. Things got out of control rapidly as more fires were started inside and outside the Ammo Dump. The detail abandoned their attempts to control the fire. The detail also abandoned all attempts to fight the fires, and decided to clear the area...immediately...soon the west side of the base had to be evacuated.
My reverie was abruptly disturbed by a very large explosion and concussion wave that shook the air conditioner out of the window and the trailer was shaken off one side of it four-sided foundation. The people in the Officers' Club (DOOM) witnessed a partial collapse of the ceiling. This was no usual DANANG IS UNDER ATTACK event...someone out there was using big stuff...accurately.
Word finally reached us that the ammo dump was on fire and we were confined to the east side of the field. Hearing this, I crawled atop my tilted house trailer for a better view...the dump was cooking off...blasts and concussion waves would occur every couple of minutes. The explosions were to last for sixteen hours. I became more familiar with what was going on when Col. Guiley (our boss) and Col. (soon-to-be- General) Roberts, the Wing Commander summoned me to see if I could get an O-2 airborne and take an EOD specialist with me to survey the damage and get this info to appropriate experts to make the necessary decisions to try to minimize the damage... and possibly save some ordinance.
Accompanied by the EOD specialist, we took a jeep down as close to the flightline as we could, then dodged falling debris to work our way to a Prairie Fire O-2, which I had on Alert status...it was armed, gassed, and ready to go...no preflight necessary except for a quick run-around to see if there was any damage from debris...none noticeable. Starting the engines, I taxied over to the east taxiway and took off from there...as soon as we got airborne I headed east to avoid falling debris. We climbed to an altitude considered safe...I determined this by watching the fireballs and the concussion waves. We then headed for the Ammo Dump, and orbited the scene watching that stuff cook off, while the EOD specialist was describing the situation. Put in a right-hand orbit, the EOD specialist kept opening the window and sticking his head out to describe the events as they were occurring. His transmissions wee unreadable because of the open window...whenever I closed the window he would open it. In the end, I ended up doing all the transmissions...thinking all the time that I was giving a BDA on my home base. The EOD specialist was not used to handling the radio...besides he got a little sick, so the open window came in handy.
I took a GI-issued camera with me...200mm lens...and I was able to get some real good shots (no pun intended), also got shook up quite a bit...but, I had the best ringside seat in the house. A couple of hours later we landed at the same taxiway from which we took off, debriefed, and gave two cans of film to the debriefs for processing...all normal procedures. A couple of days later I had the opportunity to look at the pictures...they were beautiful, bit I wouldn't be able to obtain a set of pictures or negatives...this was not normal procedures. Evidently, they did not want those pictures to go public, so they kept them. I never saw them again.
It wasn't until ten years later, in the Parade Section of the Sunday newspaper, that I read a reference to the Ammo Dumps at Danang Blowing Up...dated 28 Apr 69. The article stated the actual cost was put at $78 million.
The events that occurred at Danang on 28 Apr 69 would also have a profound effect on another Covey. Shortly before Covey 289 entered the landing pattern at Danang, he was departing a quiet and calm Danang to assist in providing coverage for a Prairie Fire Team operating from FOB2 at Quang Tri.
After a long day, which included the emergency extraction of the team, Covey 294 headed for Danang. Several miles away he noticed a large column of billowing black smoke emanating from the Danang area. He called Danang tower for landing instructions. Danang Tower responded with a very weak transmission, stating the runways were closed and he could land at his own risk...they further advised he proceed to an alternate. Covey acknowledged he would land at Hue-Phu Bai.
Whenever a Covey recovered at Hue-Phu Bai, which was Prairie Fire FOB1 and the home base of Camp Eagle helicopter pilots; both these units felt obligated to provide Coveys with the best hospitality available. This, of course, was in the context of discussing tactics and strategies, while having a generous portion of cool suds. The time passed quickly and after a spirited discussion, fatigue was beginning to take its toll. The hosts, recognizing the fatigue, provided Covey 294 with a cot where he could rest his weary bones. A deep sleep came to this weary warrior quickly. Before succumbing to the ravages of heavy fatigue, he was heard to mutter...war is hell.
In the meantime, Danang was starting to get things sorted out. The TASS ops officer noted that Covey 294 should have recovered several hours earlier. A cursory radio check to ABCCC and Quant-Tri, his assigned FOB, indicated he'd checked in and out with both places; Danang tower had no record of him checking in. Covey 294 was hours overdue and was presumed down and was listed as MIA.
The Covey, freshened by his short R&R at Camp Eagle, called Danang to ascertain the status of the base and the runways...he was advised they were both OPS NORMAL. After a leisurely breakfast with his generous hosts, he departed for Danang. When the Covey called Danang tower for instructions, there was a slight pause before being cleared to enter the traffic pattern. While in the pattern he was able to view the damage and noticed a great deal of activity around the base.
As he taxied to the parking area, he was not particularly concerned about the increased activity in that area. It did seem odd that the TASS Commander, Out-of-Country Commander, OIC of Prairie Fire, TASS Ops Officer, and a representative from the Wing Commander, were all waiting for him at the parking slot. This Ad-Hoc Debriefing Committee started its detailed debriefing on the spot. The verbal carnage resulted in sufficient scar tissue forming on the Covey's butt to last him through the rest of his tour.
Each in turn wanted a detailed explanation of his whereabouts and why he was late; questioned his ancestry, and heaped all kinds of verbal abuse on him. This ritual was characteristic of the Brass, who being covertly pleased and relieved at seeing him safe and sound, were trying to mask that pleasure by overt signs of displeasure; they succeeded mightily in this task. The Covey could only remind himself that war was indeed hell, and this too shall pass.
This was not the end of the trials and tribulations for Covey 294; it seems his fellow Coveys had to escort him to the the Officer's Club (DOOM) where, in the midst of good fellowship and camaraderie, his MIA status change was celebrated. After this long and trying ordeal the Covey was again placed on a cot, this time his own, where he could rest his weary bones. Before sleep overwhelmed him he was heard to again mutter...war is hell.
In 1975, I was one of three military retirees pursuing a Doctor's Degree in the College of Education at Auburn University. Of the retirees, one was and Army veteran, the other a Marine veteran. The three of us became fast friends and colleagues. As expected, we started comparing our duty assignments. The Marine had been at Danang in l969. He was, to say the least, knowledgeable about the Ammo Dump. He was responsible for providing Marine/Navy Aviation support at Danang during the same time I was there. (His position was much like our Base Commander...who is responsible for the real estate...while a Wing Commander has control of the Air assets.) He confirmed the way the Ammo Dump fire occurred. He also provided additional info on the damage the blast caused...for instance, every building on the west side of the field was flattened. I asked him if anything good ever came out of this. He quickly replied "Oh yes, it flattened Dogpatch, and it was never rebuilt."
Dogpatch was a conglomeration of huts made of plywood and cardboard or anything else...it was a seedy hell hole that preyed on the military...Dogpatch defied the Marine Brass...it was a major pain in the butt...every once in a while the Marines would make a sweep through Dogpatch to round up more than a few errant souls.