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Marshall Darling, First Air Cavalry
Khe Sanh Valley, 1968

The shot is facing Laos and Cambodia and was taken because there was a B-52 Arch Light in process in the middle of the light area in the center of the frame. The man on the left of the frame has his back to me because he is watching the source of the earthquake level rumble that we could feel even up on our hill. The target was a suspected staging area on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and where the NVA were tunneled in for the Khe Sanh siege. The whole area around the Combat Base looked like the moon because of all the bombs. (Marshall Darling)

"Get the hell out of here!" the door gunner yelled to his pilot. "We are taking incoming fire!" as tracers flashed past our "Sh-- Hook" helicopter. I sat on my helmet, instinctively, so I wouldn't take a round up my a-- and watched as the M-60 shell casings from our answering machinegun bounced off my boots. A hot one stung my hand and I just stared blankly at the welt as it blistered. I wasn't there! I was 12 years old and half way around the world in Andover, Ma, running through the fields with my friend, BG. What was all this noise around me? Did a bee just sting me on a hot summer day? My brain was in terror overload and I couldn't focus on my reality as our Hook thundered away from that hellhole, LZ Tom, above the Khe Sahn combat base. It was all a movie, wasn't it, but in this one I was one of the unwilling players. I watched myself looking down at the moonscape cratered hill that had been a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) bulls-eye for my last 3 weeks, with me at its center. I could see the flashes of the AK-47 fire as they tracked us away from the place that has haunted me ever since. The door gunners sprayed tracers at the receding NVA troops who had been so close last night that I could smell them -- that rotten fish paste. (We could hear them moving, talking and setting up their weapons brazenly as if they were coming over the wire at any moment. Luckily...). The choppers literally pulled us off the hill that next morning and flew us to someplace that was, thankfully, far away from Khe Sahn.

It finally flared out into a hover like a maniacal darning needle and gently dropped our radar set onto a secure " LZ Someplace? (Jane?)"--- then settled down into it's own dust storm and cut the engine. What was left of my crew shuffled down the rear ramp, found a shady oil drum and curled into a temporarily safe and quite space-staring out into nothingness. My ears and nerves were still ringing and sweat drained from every orifice. I flashed on a World War II Life Magazine photo of a shell shocked infantryman--filthy dirty, the "1,000 Yard Stare" from hollow unseeing eyes, and clutching his only reality -- his rifle. "My God!" I thought. "I'm like one of the guys in that picture!! I can't believe this is happening to me." I was now living a college dropout's worst nightmares about Vietnam. Just a few weeks before my war had been relatively safe -- hell, almost boring -- until the First Cav. was sent to LBJ's obsession -- the Khe Sanh Valley where 40 to 50,000 hardcore North Vietnamese Regulars surrounded the Marine's fire base.

"City Dump!" - I keyed the mike and spewed the inanity into the quiet January night over the First Air Cavalry's artillery Fire Direction Network. We were disgusted and bored. Christmas was past and we were in a cease-fire for the 1968 TET holiday. The radio chatter was reduced to inanities, unneeded communication checks and requests for flares from the infantry as they imagined moving shadows outside the wire. Dan McCracken and I had pulled the 11 to 7 AM shift on Shooter Radar. Our job was to locate the occasional incoming VC mortar rounds that were lobbed into LZs English and Dog in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. It was a very quite night; no snipers, no normal "Whump! Whump's!" of artillery impacts in the hills-only bugs, bad jokes and the monotony of staring at the clutter on that radar screen. The only "action" was the continuous stream of tracers that streaked skyward from the drunken South Vietnamese troops who were bivouacked about a mile away.

Suddenly the radio screamed, "Shooter, this is Birth Control 8! We have impacts inside the wire! Where the f--- is it coming from? Over --- Shooter, come back, Over---Are you guys awake over there? Give us a location, now! Over!"

Dan grabbed the radio and yelled, " We don't show any incoming! I don't know where it's coming from, over!" I frantically swung the machine in an arch, trying to find the mortars that were pasting their position. Nothing showed on my screen! It wasn't rocket fire. (We later learned that it was Viet Cong suicide squads who had tunneled into our LZ and were throwing satchel charge bombs into bunkers.) The TET offensive had begun.

We grabbed our M-16 rifles and woke up the rest of the unit. They fanned out into a perimeter around the radar to repel any attackers but luckily the action was concentrated on the big artillery guns far away from our position. The Viet Cong had breached our wire through the floors of the shops and whorehouses that had grown up around that side of the base. So much for the "friendly" Mama-sans with their toothless grins!

The night finally turned into dawn and the firing stopped--the entire enemy's force either dead or melted back into the village population. The wire around the artillery positions was littered with dead VC, some in pieces. The dirt road that passed by the base had the "leftovers" of the night's firefight. Everywhere there were scattered dead children and other civilians, blooded faces, severed arms, all strewed in the dirt like unloved and discarded dolls. The dogs licked those broken faces, disturbing the flies. People walked by, afraid and unseeing, and to the eyes of this fresh faced American "boy", uncaring. In time the carnage slowly disappeared from the road but I will never forget that child that lay frozen in her death scene for three days. I wanted to stop and...but I drove on by like the rest of the world, afraid to do any thing in that hostile environment.

My war took on a radically different direction after that day. I had spoken with my family a few months earlier on Thanksgiving and my younger brother, David, had asked me if I had seen any action? "Have you killed anyone?" he asked? I had told him "No" because my area was considered "pacified" that fall of '67. Except for a sniper or those occasional mortar rounds, it was mostly quite--but TET changed that forever. Next >>

Jim Schueckler
"Soon we were heading towards the mountains with a Huey full of mail, food, Christmas cargo, and two American young women."

Tom Fowler
"Fortunately, the firefight, such as it was, did not last long and nobody inside our company area was hurt."

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The average cost per B-52 mission during Vietnam was $41,421, with an average of 27 tons of munitions dropped.
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