October 29, 1966
Saigon, South Viet Nam--The night sky was lit up with a huge red ball of flame. Smoke rose several thousand feet northeast of Tan San Nhut airport as our C-130 entered the landing pattern one night last week.
Everyone on board knew something serious had happened, but no one knew what until we landed. Even then, only sketchy information was available.
The first details released stated that the Viet Cong instigated a fire fight with members of the 1st Infantry Division, who were guarding an ammunition dump at Long Bien. During the action, a VC mortar round struck a pile of artillery shells and set them off.
It was reported that the blast shook the ground like an earthquake. Tremors of the explosion were felt for 15 miles in all directions. People in downtown Saigon said they initially believed a giant claymore mine had exploded.
Later it was reported that a mortar round had not touched off the blast. Military sources said they believe the ammunition was blown up by a planted bomb. The brief battle which took place before the explosion was a staged VC diversion to allow them time to plant the bomb.
Two Americans were reported killed and seven others were wounded when an estimated 10,000 rounds of eight inch artillery shells were detonated.
To many people here, it was just another incident to be fastened to the long chain of bombings, mortar attacks, and terrorist incidents which the VC commit daily.
Only a mile and a half from Tan Son Nhut, an airport which handles and maintains millions of dollars worth of military aircraft a day, VC troops are known to be operating, but they haven't been caught.
One of the men who patrols the airport area is Vietnamese Marine First Lieutenant Nguyen Phat Roanh. He believes there is at least a 10-man platoon of VC in his area. And even though many villagers in the area inform Roanh regarding movements of a few of the VC, Roanh's patrols have not caught them.
For Lt. Roanh and the Americans, the Viet Cong are faceless enemies. While he diligently patrols, as he approaches populated areas, the VC hide their weapons and walk through military lines posing as harmless villagers.
Roanh persists in chasing this so far phantom platoon of VC each night. He wonders how many of the people who ride by him on bicycles or walk carrying their small bundles are villagers or the demons he and his men have been pursuing.
For Lt. Roanh and his men, the only way they are going to learn who the enemy is, is for them to begin shooting.