Pete Barra and I were on stand-down in Nha Trang--headquarters for Special Forces. We had been out on the frontier, the border camps where the real war was going on. The rear seemed comical by contrast. We made fun of the REMFs and the seriousness with which they dealt with the threat of enemy mortar and rocket attacks.
They had no idea what a real attack was like. Nha Trang was so heavily defended with sophisticated counter-mortar radar that Chuck was lucky to get three rounds down the tube before he had to haul ass. Mortars are great if you can adjust rounds onto the target; otherwise, they are just noisemakers. The 122mm rockets, the scud missile of the Vietnam war, had to be fired from max range so as not to overshoot the air base and fall in the sea. They fired them from deep within the Dong Bo valley, set up on planks laid together in a 'V' and launched by a flashlight battery. One was all Nha Trang could expect, and it usually fell short of the wire.
Nha Trang was constantly under some form of alert: Yellow, Gray, Red. Visiting personnel had assigned areas during a red alert. Pete and I had to take a gun jeep and drive to the gate between our compound and the air base. We didn't care much for that assignment as there were no bunkers in that open area, and mortars seemed to love the open areas. Nevertheless, we went there and parked, laid our steel helmets on the hood beside our propped-up feet, leaned back in our seats, and talked about REMFs and the human wave assault they were expecting. We laughed in the noon sun.
Pete was a funny guy. He did a great Gabby Hayes. His oldtimer, toothless drawl could lay guys out with a line like, "You young wippersnappers, why I was a Green Beret back when the Green Beret was the Green Beret," or after a great pool shot, "Mighty fancy shootin, Sonny...mighty fancy!"
He had just slipped into his Gabby mode and had me in stitches telling me about the time he held off an NVA battalion with his pocket knife. Out of nowhere, a screaming 122mm rocket, its propellent charge expended, came directly over our heads. We actually saw the six-foot body streak over not fifty feet off the ground. We both rolled out and crawled under the jeep facing the front in the direction of the explosion.
The rocket hit a 500,000 gallon jet fuel storage tank dead center. The tank was 500 feet away--a football field and a half. A huge fireball warmed our faces as a thick black cloud obscured the sun, turning day to night. We gazed in awe for several long seconds, then Gabby said, "Why, I seen sharp shooters, and I seen sharp shooters...but ole' Charlie...he's a sharp shooter!"
Pete was a funny guy.