DaNang harbor was a natural home place for Navy supply ships hauling everything from tanks to cheese slices from U.S. ports into the Vietnam war zone. At its peak in the late 1960’s, the Naval Support Activity (NSA) there was supplying millions of tons of goods to soldiers, marines and sailors across the north. Supplies went by boat, truck, and helicopter to firebases and airfields, to small navy outposts, and countless other remote locations, most of them deep in the heart of “indian country’ that stretched from the South China Sea west to Laos and Cambodia and north almost as far as the DMZ, the demilitarized zone that separated North Vietnam from the south. It was dangerous, dirty, backbreaking work that went on day and night, around the clock, every day of the year. All to fulfill the slogan of NSA DaNang, “They Shall Not Want.” They never did that I knew of, despite the enemy’s relentless attacks on our supply vessels, trucks, ramps, and fuel storage facilities. A lot of good sailors were killed driving forklifts. One night the VC stepped over the line and shot up the ice cream plant in DaNang. It was fudge ripple night.
NSA’s biggest customer was the Third Marine Amphibious Force – known as “III MAF” – fighting throughout the region. To supply these forces that were strung out in fire bases and other locations from Hoi An to Contien, more than 10,000 Navy men were attached to NSA DaNang. And, like the Marines, many of them were in harm’s way much of the time. The white hats, now dressed in cammo greens, were mostly housed in a compound near the end of a spit of land at the base of Monkey Mountain. Camp Tien Sha was nothing fancy, mind you, but it was a helluva lot better than plenty of places in I Corps. Whenever we complained, which was about every day, we thought of the ground-pounders out beyond the wire for whom a night out of the rain was a luxury.
The barracks for officers and enlisted men were low-slung or two-story, metal-roofed affairs with screened windows. Sand bags were stacked against the sides of most, but they were more for show than safety. VC rockets and mortar rounds easily blew through the corrugated metal roofs whenever they felt like it. No one ever knew when the late-night attacks were coming and thankfully most were hit-or-miss affairs.
In all, Tien Sha resembled a large summer camp with barbed wire and guard towers. There were chow halls, playing fields, and clubs for officers and enlisted men where the music was loud and the beer was cold and cheap. There were movies each night in a makeshift outdoor theater. An occasional sniper would fire a few pot shots at the audience, but never hit anybody that I know of. The standing joke was that one of the primates thought to inhabit Monkey Mountain had stolen an AK-47 from a VC and liked to shoot at humans at night. Some speculated it might be the marines. Neither made sense, but nothing in Vietnam did.
Entertainment at Tien Sha was ample and simple. Movies. Touch football. Frequent off-key bands from the Philippines belting out their ragged, off-key versions of the latest pop tunes from the states – the most popular title: “We Gotta Get Out of this Place” followed by “These Boots Were Made for Walking”a Nancy Sinatra hit. Drinking was far and above the most popular activity and unlike our brothers in the field we could drink ourselves onto our hands and knees any night we wanted. And usually did. Beer sold for a dime and mixed drinks were a quarter. So for a dollar, you could get commode-hugging plastered. I reckon more alcoholics were created in Vietnam than anywhere else in history. Now, alcohol had its advantages.
By drinking yourself into a coma, it was easy to forget that you were in a hot, crappy little dangerous place for a year where people wanted to kill you. The bad news was, we worked seven days a week and many of us had to head out into the real war frequently and going into a combat zone with a hangover is not normally a good idea. The biggest danger in drinking too much and too often was that it put you to bed in a state where red alert sirens go unheeded. My roommate and I used to laugh when the sirens went off and often rolled off our cots and hid underneath them in case a VC rocket landed in our building. People got killed doing stuff like that. A two-inch mattress doesn’t offer a lot of protection against an eight-foot rocket packed with TNT that could blow the living crap of a hootch, spraying jagged red-hot metal fragments for 50 yards or more.
Every building at Tien Sha had a bunker about 25 yards away. A bunker was essentially a shallow hole in the ground with built-up sandbag walls and a heavy-timber roof also covered with sandbags. Safe enough, but hell the get to during an attack. Imagine fifty half-drunk navy men stumbling across a muddy field trying to make their way into a rat-infested underground structure the size of a dumpster in the dark, with stuff going off all around you. The VC’s 122mm rockets, which were about five feet in length and as big around as a drain pipe, made a hissing-kaboom as they came in. Their damage was random, but they were scary as hell to a bunch of 20-something college boys who were supposed to on a ship in the Caribbean. Anyhow, most of us staggered or crawled our way to safety when the fireworks went off and lived to drink another day. Although most of the time we ignored the sirens, said “screw it” and bundled up in our poncho liners knowing they’d protect us from harm. This was not a safe bet. As a reminder, one night a VC rocket took out the top floor of a neighboring BOQ, killing three and wounding six more. Still, we subscribed to the theory that people are killed by rockets randomly and the odds were definitely in our favor. Sing loi.