Bien Hoa, SERTS, et al

I arrived in Vietnam on June 12th, 1969. A large group of us were sorted and I joined a smaller group to be transported from the Bien Hoa airport terminal to the main area for receiving replacements. The Screaming Eagle Replacement Training Section (SERTS) was to be my home for the next week. We started becoming accustomed to the Vietnamese weather and received cultural and survival orientations. We were told to forget much of what we had been taught in the states. It would only “get in the way”. We learned about booby traps, punji sticks, ambushes, sapper attacks, etc. We would train and, after five days, we would be assigned to our specific units.

Upon arrival at SERTS, we received an immediate safety briefing. We were told to listen for the air-raid sirens from the airbase which was close by. The airbase had radar and was able to detect incoming rounds within seven seconds of their striking the ground. So, you were told, you had seven seconds to “hit the dirt” and find any available cover or the nearest bunker. The problem was you had this overwhelming false sense of security. You were surrounded by miles and miles of military infrastructure. What could go wrong?
That evening, we were assigned to internal guard duty, i.e., not the perimeter fence line but, rather, the border between SERTS and some other outfit. We weren’t even issued live ammunition and wore only our helmet liners, not the whole steel pot. We were reminded of the 7 second warning window. At exactly midnight, etched in my memory forever because it had just become Friday, the 13th, the sirens went off at the airport. I started counting to 7 but really didn’t need to. I had already figured it all out and was lying prone in a shallow ditch at the count of 2.

At either the count of 6 or 7 or 8, I started hearing the impact of rockets. They got close really quick. I couldn’t believe the blast sound. I wondered how long the barrage would last. Then I heard a blast and felt the concussion of one relatively close by. The memory probably would have faded by now except that the next thing I heard, almost immediately after the blast, was the sound of shrapnel whizzing by. It wasn’t so close that I was thinking that I almost got hit. Rather, I was thinking why doesn’t it stop so that I don’t get hit with the next one.

Anyway, it did stop; probably a lot quicker than I imagined. I got to my feet and looked towards the airport which was well lit by this time, especially with aerial flares. There was a fire on the runway. The next morning we learned that one of the SERTS barracks was also hit and there were casualties. I thought to myself: I’ve been in-country less than 24 hours. How can you survive 365 days? The odds can’t be with you. What have I gotten into?