The 1967 Battle of Dak To (2)

The attack on Engineer Hill took me by surprise. I’d been on the front lines in combat plenty of times during my years in Vietnam, but this time we were up on a rise, high enough that we could hear all the North Vietnamese transmitters all around us. It had never occurred to me that our little camp would attract the attention of the North Vietnamese, so I had no plan of action. The soldiers with me bolted from the operations tent, donned battle gear, and took up defensive positions.

I didn’t know what to do, so I put on a flak jacket and a helmet, stayed in the operations tent, and went on typing to get that report of unidentified North Vietnamese units nearby out as fast as possible. The lights went out. I could hear the incoming rounds—a sound like a child screaming, distant and indistinct. When the shells hit, I was reminded of my earthquake days in San Francisco: the earth lurched, dust fell on my face, my ears rang.

The next shells hit so close I was thrown to the ground. There was nothing for me to do but lie there in the dirt with my teeth clinched.

After twenty minutes, the attack was over. We all went back to work. As I learned later, the only casualty was an outhouse.

The soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division and the 173rd Airborne Brigade were enormously impressed that a civilian had had the guts to go on working in the middle of an attack. I never had the nerve to explain that I didn’t know what else to do. After that I was welcomed into the officers’ club and the enlisted men’s club of the 4th Infantry. I was called in to work at al hours of the day and night. And everyone stopped calling me “sir.”

More next time.

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