Jul
14
2016
Eyewitness To Vietnam’s Most Famous Battle

Benny_C_001Benny Carbo graduated from high school in Houston, Texas; married his high school sweetheart and then it was off to the Air Force and Viet Nam. Here is his story, as he tells it from the Khe Sanh Marine Combat Base:

Sleeping quarters this week was an Air Force concrete bunker buried beneath the red earth of the Khe Sanh Marine Combat Base. On this particular night I had been in a fitful sleep laid out on a G.I. stretcher just inches off the floor because there were not enough bunks for all of us. Stretchers are designed for carrying the dead and wounded, not for sleeping. The only position this torture rack allowed me was flat on my back with my arms folded across my chest to keep from being bitten by rats which would come out after lights out. I was jolted from my awkward slumber each time my arms would fall to floor by the big hairy creatures as they nibbled on my fingertips. Now I regret not washing my hands thoroughly after partaking of that all time G.I.  favorite, canned lima beans and ham from the C- Rations I had for supper. It was a long night with the rats, the incessant ground shaking of incoming rockets, artillery shells and mortar rounds compliments of the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) regiments which surrounded the small fire base and by the incessant close in bombing by our U.S. Air Force B-52 bombers to slow the enemy’s tunneling effort to break our perimeter.

I was aroused again, not by rats or by bombs bursting in air but, this time by the crackling of frantic radio traffic on the large base station radio in our bunker at 0042 hours, 7 February 68. “We have tanks in the wire”, the big black box barked. I struggled to make sense of what was happening, completely exhausted after spending my fourth dawn to dusk day dodging incoming mortar fire, 120 mm and 140 mm rockets, and artillery fire on the aircraft ramp while unloading Air Force C-130 Hercules cargo planes carrying precious ammunition, medical supplies and rations to the besieged U.S. Marine defenders. This was followed by another two hours digging fighting trenches just outside of the entrance to our bunker.

c-130

I later read in the “Stars and Stripes,” the U.S. Armed Forces in Vietnam weekly newspaper, that the Marine combat base at Khe Sanh received an average of 1500 incoming rounds a day during the siege. I can’t verify this because I was too busy just trying to stay alive, but I can testify that every time a C-130 would land “all hell would bust lose” until the “Herky Birds” were offloaded and back in the air.

My buddy, A. David Bird (he hated his first name Alvin), informed me that the radio traffic was coming from Lang Vei, a U.S. Special Forces camp just seven miles down the road. The voice I was later to learn was that of Captain Frank C. Willoughby, the camp commander. “Tanks, Charlie doesn’t have tanks”, I mumbled as I was shocked into full wakefulness by the alarming news. Well, Charlie, a.k.a. Victor Charlie, a.k.a. Viet Cong as the South Vietnamese communist guerrillas loyal to the North Vietnamese cause were known did not have tanks true enough, but this wasn’t Charlie. This was Mr. Charles, the North Vietnamese regular army in division strength supported by eleven Russian amphibious tanks that made quick work of penetrating the perimeter of this lightly armed Special Forces “A” camp. We all huddled around the radio listening to Willoughby’s pleas for aerial support from the Air Force’s AC-47 gunships equipped with 20 mm cannons and F4C Phantom fighter jets laden with napalm. The desperately needed support, however, was not forthcoming.

VCCaptain Willoughby and his brave band of warriors were own their own. A dense fog which the North Vietnamese used to cover their advance had ruled out air support and General William C. Westmoreland, commander of all U.S. forces in Vietnam, ruled out ground relief because there were other known North Vietnamese divisions in the area waiting in ambush for the anticipated relief. Westmoreland chose instead to hold present positions in and around Khe Sanh and bring in reinforcements from other I Corp Marine and Army units.

These reinforcements, however, did not materialize until mid-March due to a coordinated effort by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong which came to be known as the Tet Offensive. During this offensive, every American position in-country was targeted. These were “hit and evade” attacks which inflicted the heaviest U.S. casualties in the war. While the Vietnam war would rage on for another six years, the siege at Khe Sanh and the Tet Offensive was an early indication that this was not a winnable war.

We lost radio contact with Willoughby at 0310 hours. In his last transmission, Captain Willoughby reported tanks on top of the command bunker rocking back and forth in an attempt to cave it in. The close proximity of the Lang Vei camp to the Khe Sanh combat base caused everyone in our bunker to fear the worst as we sat listening for the sound of tanks approaching our own perimeter.  Not being one who was prone to waiting for anything I impulsively grabbed my M-16, turned toward the entrance of the bunker and chambered a round. The ranking officer in the bunker, a lieutenant colonel, not being able to determine who chambered a live round addressed all of us saying, “if a round goes off in here we will all go deaf.”

VN3

I immediately thought of the valiant men in Lang Vei who at that very moment were fighting for their lives or had perhaps already lost their lives in a bunker similar to the one we were huddled in and wondered if they were as concerned about hearing loss as was our colonel. I suddenly felt very confined in the tomb-like structure of the bunker, so I went outside to the fighting trenches we had been digging every evening since our arrival on 4 Feb 68.  David Bird joined me.

I felt better in the trenches with David alongside. He and I arrived in Vietnam on the same day, 7 March 67 and were tent mates and Mobility Team members during our entire tour of duty in Vietnam. He was about five years older than I and had already graduated from college. I appreciated his mature judgment (most of the time), adventurous spirit, and love of photography which I shared. At 0400 hours Mr. Charles started a concentrated mortar, rocket, and artillery barrage, but our trench was deep and narrow and offered good protection and the fresh night air felt much better than the stuffy smell of fear in the bunker. The fog was so thick that I could not see more than a few feet. The Marines were firing parachute flares from mortars which had the same effect as driving down a highway with your high beams on in a dense fog. After a while it became apparent that Mr. Charles was not coming to pay us a visit just yet, so during a lull in the incoming I got some sleep.

Later that morning while we were offloading a continuous flow of C-130s, David, the college graduate, deducted that driving big yellow forklifts on the ramp and offloading Class “A” explosives from the back of a C-130 was not conducive to our general health and welfare. He observed that every time one of the Hercules would land the incoming would become more intense. Charles loved shooting at the C-130 because it was a nice big target and made a real mess on the runway or the loading ramp when he hit his mark. So, when our colonel appeared on the ramp asking for two volunteers to set up radar deflectors at both ends of the runway David and I volunteered. Our rationale for bravely volunteering for this dangerous mission was that the enemy was directing his fire at airplanes, not the ends of the runway so we thought we were volunteering to go away from the field of fire.

muleWe were assigned two Marines who each had a mechanical mule; a four wheeled gas powered platform measuring about 3’x 5’ with a steering wheel hanging off the front. The radar deflectors were four shiny metal pyramids about three-foot-high, to be placed at each corner of both ends of the runway. The purpose of the radar deflectors was to allow the pilots of the C-130s to pinpoint precisely the end of the runway when landing allowing them to touch down sooner giving them time to slow sufficiently to make the turn directly onto the offloading ramp without having to turn around and offer themselves as a slow moving target while taxiing back to the ramp entrance.

All we had to do was get on the mules with the Marines, drive down to each end of the runway and place the pyramids at the four corners. We placed the deflectors at one end of the runway without incident. The other end of the runway offered a much different experience. When we got to the end of the runway that the C-130s used for their final approach we were greeted with machine gun fire that appeared to be coming from just beyond the perimeter about 300 feet from us while artillery fire whistled overhead. We abandoned the mules and ran as fast as we could be following the Marines to a fighting trench which we dove into head first finding out too late that a previous occupant had defecated in the trench which supports one myth, “scared the —— out of me” while dispelling another, “scared ——less.” I couldn’t tell if the unnerving shrill of the artillery rounds whistling as they passed overhead was inbound or outbound, but it was not hitting the ground around our position so it didn’t concern me as much as the machine gun fire that was kicking up dust all around our trench. While huddling in the fighting trench with our heads down I began to reassess the thought process that prompted us to volunteer for this assignment.

F4CAfter twenty minutes three Marine F-4C fighter jets came in low, fast and loud, dropping napalm canisters just outside of the perimeter, which was scarier than the machine gun fire which then ceased. We took our cue from the Marines that it was now safe to set out the radar deflectors and David and I each grabbed a pyramid and placed them at the corners of the runway.  We then jumped on the mules with the Marines and headed back to the relative safety of the offloading ramp. The next day the colonel advised that the radar deflectors needed to be realigned, but no one volunteered to reset them. The colonel then left and we did not hear any more about it. I guess the colonel reassessed the situation and decided that the radar deflectors were just fine where they were.

After seven days as an eyewitness to the greatest battle of the Vietnam war for which both sides claimed victory, David and I boarded a C-130 and flew back to our home base at Danang. As we stepped off the Hercules on to the 15th Aerial Port Squadron ramp, where we worked every day when we weren’t on assignment as Mobility team members, we noticed something peculiar. The airmen that we worked with everyday did not speak to us or acknowledge our presence in any way. That is when I realized how we looked. Our faces were caked with dirt except for the round circles of white skin that our goggles protected from the prop wash of C-130s running at full mechanical while on the ground at Khe Sanh, ready in an instant to pull away as soon as we jettisoned their cargo to the ground using speed offload ramps. Our jungle fatigues were caked with a week’s worth of red dirt, with helmet and flak jacket, gas masks strapped to our legs and backpacks slung over one shoulder, and a full bandoleer of ammo and M-16 slung over the other shoulder we looked like grunts straight from a jungle firefight.

A second lieutenant approached us on the ramp with five squeaky clean airmen who just stood and stared at us.  The lieutenant was moving his lips, but I couldn’t understand him because my hearing was affected by the noise of war I just left behind. He placed his hand on my shoulder and yelled in my ear, “Carbo, I need you to get back on that C-130 to Khe Sanh with these replacements. They will need someone who has been there to keep them from getting killed.” I informed the second lieutenant in his clean and pressed 1505s that I had volunteered for the Air Force and had volunteered for Vietnam and I had volunteered for service on the mobility team that put me in harm’s way at Khe Sanh and other places. However, I was way too short (an expression used in Vietnam meaning a short timer counting down the days left in country) with twenty-four days left in country to keep anyone from getting killed but myself.  And with that said, Bird and I turned without as much as a salute and headed to the USO tent for a hamburger and fries.  Oh, I forgot to tell the lieutenant that I also volunteered to put out radar deflectors.

lapesLater that same day C-130 landings were discontinued at Khe Sanh because a Marine C- 130 loaded with a large fuel bladder in its cargo bay took a hit as it was landing at Khe Sanh. The fuel bladder ignited and the plane blew up as it touched down on the runway. From that point forward the Air Force C-130s resorted to supplying the Marines at Khe Sanh using LAPES (Low Altitude Parachute Extraction) never touching down again until the siege was over in early April.

The siege of Khe Sanh started with the North Vietnam Army building up a force around the town and the nearby Marine combat base in January 1968. General Westmoreland believed that the NVA were planning another Deinbeinphu, a French army outpost overrun by the Viet Minh which led to the French pulling out of Vietnam in 1954. Westmoreland reinforced the Marine combat base with the largest display of air power in military history. This included B-52 bomb runs within a thousand feet of the perimeter along with Air Force and Marine F-4C Phantom fighter jets dropping napalm and firing missiles just outside of the perimeter. Marine A-6 Avengers dropped 500 pound bombs on enemy positions and AC-130 gun ships with their 20 mm cannons strafed the hills surrounding the base in support of the Marines whose job was to hold the hills at all costs.

war

Well, I guess by now you have determined that David and I were not exactly war heroes. I didn’t get to know many war heroes that year. Most of them were Marines and Army grunts resting quietly in body bags or those still alive in the field fighting desperately at times not so much for God or country, but for each other. These were the miserably dirty, hot and wet heroes who trudged day after day through the muddy rice paddies and jungles of a once beautiful country counting down the days in-country on his FIGMO (Farewell I Got My Orders) calendar, a calendar every Vietnam veteran remembers that started at 120 days and each day was crossed out until the date you were headed back home.

As for the Airmen on the ground in Khe Sanh, we were rotated on a weekly basis unlike the Marines who were stuck there for the duration of the siege. For the most part we were just nineteen to twenty-year old’s who believed in our country and did what we were told, most of the time. Even with the foot fungus, boredom, long days/nights and occasionally being scared out of my wits I would not have missed that year in Vietnam.  Some will say it was an unjust war and we should have never been there. Perhaps this is why we won all of the battles, but ultimately lost the war. Whatever history finally concludes about this war, I will always be proud that I served my country and I am and always will be proud to be an American.

On 6 March 68, I boarded a Flying Tigers Boeing 707 for Los Angeles, California to be met at the airport not by cheering crowds, but by a jeering mob of war protesters. This is why in 1991 I was there on the courthouse square in Dyersburg, Tennessee with the rest of the townspeople cheering wildly for the National Guard unit on parade who had just returned from the victory of Dessert Storm with tears in my eyes for them and for my Vietnam comrades who never received anything but condemnation or at best no response at all for having served our country. At the time this did not really bother me because all I wanted was return to my bride, Kay, who I had only lived with for ten months of our 22 months of marriage. She met me at Houston International Airport (now Hobby) and we drove in our new 1967 Malibu Sport Coupe, the down payment of which was made possible from my monthly $65 combat pay stipend. After a short leave allowing some reunion time with friends and family, Kay and I headed to Dyess AFB Abilene, Texas to serve out the remaining two years of my enlistment in the SAC (Strategic Air Command) at a quiet armament and electronics warehouse on the B-52 flight line.

SACI lost contact with David after a brief reunion with him when he was in Houston on business in 1973. After years of internet searches and checking out California phone books while visiting my son and his family in Mountain View I finally found him in 2005 living in Honolulu.  He is retired now, but is still that adventurous guy I knew some forty years ago. He has traveled the world and recently returned from a trip to Cambodia and is planning on a visit to the I Corp and II Corp bases in Vietnam we called home for a year.

As for Captain Willoughby and his Special Forces warriors at Lang Vei, I never knew if any of them survived the attack that night until I ran across a book in a second hand book store entitled, The End of the Line, The Siege of Khe Sanh by Robert Pisor.  It was from this source I learned some forty years after the event that Captain Willoughby and thirteen of his twenty-four men survived the attack at Lang Vei although eleven of the thirteen suffered wounds while dodging the enemy until a small relief force was able to evacuate them to safety.

To Captain Willoughby and his men and the Marines and G.I.s who paid the ultimate price so long ago, I say thank you and God bless you.  And to boys like Bill Dougan and Dick Wynn, my wife’s first cousins, who came home from Vietnam as men forever changed from the horrors of combat: you may not be a part of the “Greatest Generation” that fought in WWII or a celebrated hero of the Iraq wars, but you did your part for your country when you were called upon and no one can expect more than that from any generation.

Thank you, Benny Carbo, for your service to our country. We would disagree with you on one point: We certainly recognize you and David as two of our heroes for freedom.