Thursday, July 19, 2007
South Vietnam, The American Waterloo: 'Little Alamo' Happy To Be Surrounded
November 2, 1966
Dong Ha, South Viet Nam--From November 1965 to last February, the most remote American military base in this country was here, where the 620th Tactical Control Squadron of the Air Force was assigned the task of setting up a radar base. It has earned the location the nickname, "The Little Alamo."
Only 189 men were assigned the task of building, maintaining, and securing this base. Their only protection was a company of Vietnamese troops. For a time it seemed, the brass who believed it was important to have a base here, had forgotten it would also be necessary to protect it.
From November 1965 through March 1966, the base was attacked by mortar fire several times. The American personnel suffered no casualties in the attacks and damage to the installation was light.
A large portion of the men stationed at Dong Ha during those early months were technicians and maintenance men who were not trained for combat.
The task of defending the American base, a tiny island in the path of a major North Vietnamese infiltration route, fell to Sgt. Maj. Walter H. Smith, 43, Portsmouth, N.H., and Staff Sgt. Robert C. Hester, 27, Dublin, N.C., who, with five trained Air Policemen and Vietnamese labor, created a fortress around the radar installation.
Hester and his men manned the bunkers overlooking the barbed wire and the heavily mined fields on the perimeter, frequently working 18 and 22 hour days.
Toward the end of March the base got a major scare. The guards manning the bunkers spotted a large number of troops moving eastward along the 3,900 foot airstrip which French engineers built in the early 1950s.
Hester sounded the alarm to his commander, Maj. Lawrence C. Cummings, and the tiny crew of Air Policemen and Vietnamese troops watched quietly as the North Vietnamese soldiers marched past, within 500 yards of the base.
"We watched them go by. We didn't fire a shot and neither did they," Hester said thankfully. "They probably could have wiped us out. But if they'd tried it would have cost them plenty. We were determined to fight to the last man. Our guys would have put up a hell of a fight."
It was about this time the base earned its "Little Alamo" nickname and the brass decided they should begin protecting the vital radar site. All it took was three mortar attacks and a march through by the North Vietnamese infiltrators.
Texas Governor John Connally made all the men at the radar base honorary Texans when he heard of their plight and the nickname.
The first protection the radar base received came from a platoon of 3d Division Marines about the middle of May. Since then, the Marine strength here has grown from a platoon to the site of the advance 3d Marine Division headquarters.
The Air Force radar base is surrounded now, but according to Hester and Smith, it's the best feeling they've had for a long time, being surrounded by Marines.
Air Force personnel on the base now number more than 400. The Air Police still protect the perimeter, but they now have more than 30 men handling that chore.
With more men to work with, the Air Police have formed a special quick reaction force of six highly trained and heavily armed men who can move to any spot within the camp perimeter in less than four minutes after an alert is sounded.
While the Marines are busy clearing out infiltrators and watching the infiltration routes, the Air Force can now devote all its time to directing and controlling our bomber strikes and serve as an early warning station, in the event of an enemy air attack.
Off duty time passes slowly for the Marines and Airmen stationed here. Sgt. Smith, a veteran of 24 years service and the father of four children said, "We wish we had some checkers, or some games of some kind we could play to occupy our time."
at 8:17 AM