OP Ba Na

May 23 - 24, 1968 - Camp Reasoner, 1st Recon Battalion Area

Only a two day turn around between patrols; another OP (Observation Post) patrol to a mountain top called Ba Na. One day of rest, one day of training, rubberboating at China Beach (Real hard stuff), hell, at least we got steak and beer afterwards.

May 25 - June 4, 1968 - Observation Post Ba Na

On Saturday morning we were set down on Ba Na. As the dust cleared away from the departing helicopter, I got a good look at the hill and suddenly I thought I was in a World War II newsreel. There were bombed out ruins there that looked like a French town. It was puzzling and appealing, was I in the Twilight Zone?

After getting our assignments, I explored and talked to the "old hands". To my amazement, I found out that Ba Na WAS a resort built by the French during the colonial era. It was once the Gran Hotel de Tourane. The plantation owners would travel up there to escape the oppressive heat and the squalor of humanity packed together back down there in Da Nang. I found out that the hotel had a restaurant, an indoor pool in the basement, a gaming room and a grand ballroom, a wine cellar, tennis courts and a number of what looked to be palatial suites. From the way it looked, it must have been a very majestic place in its' day, the Gran Hotel. But artillery fire and concussion bombs had destroyed its' majesty.

I constructed a "study" in the rubble behind my bunker, where I could sit and view the sea off to my right and Laos off to my left. I made a comfortable table and chair from a few pieces of stone slabs. There, between watches, I finished reading "Animal Farm" by George Orwell, a satire on communism written 20 years before my boring encounter with it then and there.

Our second night there, I experienced (from 10 miles away) the astonishing power of an "ARC LIGHT". That is the code name for a B-52 (our biggest bomber aircraft) bombing strike. There are usually 6 bombers in a flight, each can carry a total of 108 two hundred and fifty pound bombs. Two bombs are capable of destroying a whole city block and a whole flight or "ARC LIGHT" carries 156,000 pounds or 78 tons of explosives. They drop the bombs in sequence, one . . . after . . . another. The planes fly so high that you cannot see or hear them.

It was night and the strike began as a low rumbling like thunder, but it came under a starlit sky. The world began to gently rock and it felt like someone was forcefully pushing me in the chest. Then the distant ridge line ignited with red blossoms of death. It seemed to continue indefinitely, then abruptly stopped. The next morning, the bare backbone of the mountain protruded naked in the sun, still smoldering from the pounding it took. I still shudder to think of being beneath those wings of Armageddon.

The rest of that day was spent in the boredom which is the fate of soldiers everywhere, wait, wait and wait some more. The next morning, the sun hung (like the song used to say) like a "red rubber ball" above a platinum sea. The sea seemed to be thick as paint, as if you could stick a spoon in it like pudding. The outlying islands of volcanic rock sat like chocolate drops upon the mirror reflecting pool of the sea.

That afternoon it turned foggy, rainy and cold, yes, COLD, at 10,000 feet above sea level the temperature can drop into the fifties. And if you are used to 100 to 110, then the 50Ús is cold. A miserable night, shivering, watching, waiting . . . always waiting, waiting and watching.

I began to believe that the test of courage may really be how you handle the boring, monotonous times waiting and watching for something to happen rather than in those instant situations in which you just react and don't think about the consequences. We never got enough sleep and we were on watch 4 to 6 hours each night, two hours at a time. We got stationed at Observation Posts (OP's) like this sometimes for 12 days to a month. Stuck on top of the mountains which ringed the city of Da Nang.

Anyway, it was very difficult to stay awake on watch and, if you fell asleep, well, then old Luke the Gook (Charlie, the VC, the Viet Cong, the enemy) was just as likely as not to sneak through all that fancy barbed wire and booby trap nonsense surrounding you and cut your throat. I had a particularly good way to keep myself awake during the wee hours of the night. I would take out a hand grenade and pull the pin and hold it to my chest. As long as you didn't let go of the handle, the grenade would not go off and you could return the pin into the hole in the handle and make the grenade safe again.

I would do this when I felt sleepy, and I would dare myself to fall asleep sitting there with the grenade in my right hand against my chest and the pin on my index finger of the left hand. Needless to say, I never fell asleep holding a grenade, but you know what? It's very difficult to put the pin back into a grenade at night when your hands are shaking.

The following morning broke with an indescribable sunrise, far below the earth appeared as a large paint-by-numbers set whose colors and brush strokes mean nothing close up, but at a distance, ah a thing of real beauty. We spent another BORING day protecting the communications station. So boring, in fact, I finished another book, the "Ugly American" (Oh how true) and started reading "The Secret of Santa Vittoria" by Robert Chrichton. It is a story of a mayor of an Italian town in World War II who hides the towns treasure (Aged wine) from the Nazis.

That afternoon, we were aroused by one of those long torrential thunderstorms, water literally fell in sheets and ran into the bunkers and filled them knee-deep. We abandoned the bunkers for the damp, gloomy and chilly sanctuary of the ruins. The next few days were endured with a stoic persistence.

Finally, the rain stopped one morning, the hill top dried by afternoon, but the bunkers did not. I slept in my bunker anyway, until I got a very uneasy feeling, a prodding. I went up and stood watch, not wanting to go back to bed. A good thing? Who knows? Nothing happened, maybe just being irritable got me up.

I sat there, smoking the first cigarette of the day, feeling the warmth of the sun begin to dry out my uniform, the word came. Get your shit together, we were leaving. I packed and staged my gear and waited, waited some more, smoked some more and waited. Then finally the helicopter came and we left . . . up, up and away.

This time I had a chance to say good-bye. Good-bye to Ba Na, temporarily. And at the same time I said good-bye to the waiting and the boredom, temporarily.

Copyright 1995 by Robert Baird. All rights reserved.