A Night to Remember

In my early Air Force career as a 20 year-old Buck Sergeant, I was assigned as a power lineman with the Exterior Electric Shop of the 483rd Civil Engineering Squadron at Cam Ranh Bay Air Base, Republic of Vietnam during the drawdown of 1971-1972. Principal duties included high voltage maintenance, perimeter and security lighting management, and airfield lighting operations. During this assignment, one of the most memorable events of my career occurred when our ammunition dump (known as the Tri-Service Ammunition Storage Area) was attacked by sappers. The clandestine attack resulted in a gigantic fireworks display and generated considerable post-attack involvement by our shop. In addition, until recently, I knew little of the attack other than reminiscences gained in photos of the explosions and my fading memories. Recently, however, I ran across a detailed report of what happened, how the sappers penetrated our defenses, and the aftermath of the attack.

Cam Ranh Bay AB was located midway up the East side of the Cam Ranh peninsula situated on the East coast of South Vietnam. The peninsula itself was nested between the major U.S. coastal air base at Phan Rang and the big U.S. air base at Nha Trang. The Cam Ranh peninsula was of strategic importance since it afforded a deep harbor. It was also home to U.S. and Vietnamese Navy units, and U.S. Army, South Korean, and South Vietnamese troops. The peninsula itself was divided into four sections. The Southernmost section (Section I) was controlled by the U.S. Navy Support Facility, Section II was controlled by the U.S. Army Support Command, Section III (where the Tri-Service Ammunition Storage Area was located) was managed by the 483rd Tactical Airlift Wing, and the Northernmost section (Sector IV) was the responsibility of the U.S. Army’s 22nd Replacement Battalion. Each Section was responsible for contributing to a comprehensive joint security arrangement. In addition, rules of engagement had to be coordinated through the local Vietnamese government structure. (IMAGE 1)

Within the Tri-Service Ammunition Storage Area (T-SASA), there were 32 U-shaped berms (storage revetments) arranged in six rows (five berms each) and one row with two berms. Roads along each row allowed access to the berms. The three sides of each berm were constructed of sand mounds covered with a black sealant to retard erosion. Within each berm was a concrete slab, 57 feet by 128 feet, on which the munition pallets rested. Although the berms were rated to contain up to 500,000 pounds of net explosive weight, I recall many berms housed a single 15,000 pound “cheeseburger” used to instantly create landing zones that could accommodate up to four helicopters at a time.

According to the after action report, prior to the attack, intelligence data indicated potential enemy activity in the Cam Ranh area between 19-31 August 1971. These indicators included discovery of rocket launch sites, pending Vietnamese elections (scheduled for 29 August), low lunar illumination during this period, and increased sampan activity. As a result, security at the base, including the T-SASA was enhanced but it was not impenetrable.

The attack itself occurred during the early morning hours of Wednesday, 25 August 1971. The first explosion occurred at approximately 0230. This initial explosion was followed by numerous others which lasted throughout the day. In addition, two volleys of 107mm rockets were fired as a diversionary tactic by the enemy at about 0330. The rocket volleys detonated at the far side of the air base but did little damage. Miraculously, there were no fatalities as a result of the attacks but five security policemen received minor wounds. According to the after action report, the combined sapper and standoff rocket attack was one of the most successful enemy assaults of the Vietnam War: over 6,000 tons of munitions (valued at $10M) were destroyed, almost $200K of damage was sustained by the ammunition storage area, and $100K damage affected the base proper. A majority of damage was done by the actual explosions but significant damage was caused by the concussion’s shock wave. Regarding the power of a shock wave, I recall sitting on a revetment outside our hootch watching the fireworks when I saw a huge explosion. Shortly afterwards, I saw an atmospheric distortion coming towards me bending trees and curling metallic roofs…next thing I knew I was thrown down to the ground by the concussion. Testament to the power of the explosions was our hootch was two miles away from the T-SASA. (IMAGE 2 and IMAGE 3)

Post-attack analyses estimated the well-planned attack was carried out by six sappers attached to the 407th Sapper Battalion. The sappers probably approached the area by sampan in order to transport the necessary supplies. The sappers were concealed by darkness (low lunar illumination), dense vegetation adjacent to the T-SASA, lack of perimeter security lighting, and absence of an intrusion detection system (mines, trip flares, concertina wire). This attack was well-planned, flawlessly executed, and well-coordinated. None of the infiltrating sappers were captured, injured, or killed.

Prior to the attack, requests from the 483rd Civil Engineering Squadron, the 483rd Security Police Squadron, and the 483rd Tactical Airlift Wing leadership for additional security measures for the T-SASA were denied by Seventh Air Force. In defense of 7th Air Force, this was a time of “Vietnamization” and drawdown of U.S. forces. There was little appetite for investing thousands of dollars for additional security measures in a drawdown environment. Had the 7th Air Force known an attack was imminent and sufficient time was available, I’m sure the support for additional security measures would have been there.

Nevertheless, as soon as the explosions died down, Civil Engineering went to work. The Roads and Grounds folks did a terrific job by quickly clearing a 100 yard-wide swath of vegetation around the T-SASA. Our shop, the Exterior Electric guys, found every inch of cable we could muster and installed perimeter lighting around the entire T-SASA. Interestingly, during our pre-brief by the Explosive Ordnance Disposal team, they cautioned us to call them should we uncover anything of danger. I subsequently inquired about the thousands of alka-seltzer looking tablets scattered everywhere…EOD told us they are not a big deal but we should not step by on them: “worst that could happen is you’d lose a toe.” It was an interesting experience digging holes in an ammo dump with alka selter tablets all around! Fortunately, no one got hurt and the lights looked great when we hit the switch. As far as disposition of damaged munitions, I was told these munitions were loaded on barges, taken out to the South China Sea, and discharged into the water. I presume the munitions are still there waiting for an unfortunate inquisitive diver to find! (IMAGE 4)

Much of the information for this article was derived from a Project CHECO Report. Project CHECO (Contemporary Historical Examination of Current Operations) was a Headquarters Air Force initiative to document Air Force operations by conducting thorough and scholarly analyses of “lessons learned” for future use. This Project CHECO Report is available on line and I encourage every Cam Ranh vet to take a few moments to read the report in its entirety. It is very detailed and very comprehensive. Finally, I’d be interested in hearing from fellow veterans who were at Cam Ranh who may have additional photographs of the event. My photos are few and faded so any pictures would be greatly appreciated. BOTTOM LINE: It was quite “A Night to Remember” and puts to shame any fireworks show I have observed since!