An unnerving experience, not unexpected, but still a surprise. At approximately 2:30 am on Wednesday morning, 26 February 1969, the 1/92nd Field Artillery base camp on Artillery Hill was hit by enemy mortar fire.
I was on perimeter guard duty that night, stationed in Tower Three and was in the tower when the rounds came in. Perimeter guard duty every other night was base camp routine for those of us not working nights or in exempt jobs. Some guys pulled guard duty every night several nights in a row since there were not enough people in base camp to man the tower line. Most nights were quiet. We in the towers had been watching bursts of light from explosions and tracer fire from a village under attack far out in the distance in front of our perimeter for about fifteen minutes leading up to the start of the incoming on us. They took much more stuff than we did that night.
Mike Swasta - then
Then we saw flashes of light in or near the small village located just beyond and to the left of our perimeter. Nervously and half joking I got on the telephone 'Looks as if it's getting closer, huh?' No joking, it did, as seconds later rounds started to come in. Youthful inexperience on my part, my first time under fire I had mistaken mortar tube flashes for small explosions.
As the first four or five rounds exploded, my thoughts were total disbelief that it was actually happening. The next minutes flew by in seconds, but seemed to last forever. The mortar rounds started landing near Tower One and marched down the tower line to Tower Four. A guard tower is probably one of the worst places to be during a mortar attack. But it does offer some protection compared to being on the ground in the open. I still had the telephone handset in my hand but my flack jacket and steel helmet rested in a corner along with my M14 rifle. I dropped the phone, threw on my gear and crouched low behind the tower parapet wall as rounds hit all around the tower. That was all we could do, powerless to strike back. Hawkins, the tower commander, had been sleeping in the bunker down below and clambered up into the tower as explosions rained all around, smoke and dust filling the air. I can still see him leaping through the opening in the tower wall, explosions lighting up the night, with dirt and shrap-metal hitting the roof and walls. There is a sense of heightened awareness when such things happen, of sights, sounds and smells. Events do unfold as if in slow motion. Then it was over, quiet again, the welcome quiet, too quiet.
Mike Swasta - now
In all, we took 28 rounds of 82mm mortar inside the perimeter. One man received a minor injury. There were no fatalities. A small amount of damage was done in the motor pool. The next morning we discovered how lucky we had been. No tower or bunker had been hit. Rounds had landed all around the towers and up and down the line. One mortar round struck a POL trailer directly behind Tower Three. A trailer tank normally holds about 500 gallons of gas or diesel when full. For some reason this one did not explode or burn.
Due to the proximity of the "friendly" village there was no return fire from either our positions or the 105 SP Howitzers of the 3/6th Artillery on top of the hill. Each tower had an M60 machine gun and an M79 grenade launcher. Tower Four or Five had the 50-caliber machine gun. Base camp guard posts did not get a night vision scope until late 1969. Each tower had an azimuth wheel. In the surprise and confusion, no one in any of the towers had sighted an azimuth to try to pinpoint the origin of the attack. There were many small villages out there beyond our perimeter wire. We were always cautioned to be careful with weapons discharges. It was not a free fire zone. Utilizing hit and run tactics, the enemy would have been long gone from the area before any return fire could be authorized. The morning after, a crater analysis survey team discovered the location from where the mortars had been fired. It confirmed the flashes we had seen were enemy mortar tube flashes.
The only alarm sounded that night was the sound of the explosions. As the attack started I remember someone shouting over the telephone 'Incoming! Incoming! Location? I don't know where the hell it's coming from!' The battalion siren mounted on a utility pole above the TOC and usually activated from the TOC, malfunctioned that night. It was later discovered that the batteries that powered the siren were dead and the wiring was badly frayed. Everyone in base camp was awakened by the noise of the explosions and was soon in the trenches. They remained in the trenches for about an hour, watching and waiting, but nothing more happened.
The men in Tower Three resumed guard duty routine, watching the wire and the darkness beyond our perimeter lights. The three of us remained awake in the tower talking quietly, unable to sleep, waiting for the sunrise. The natural adrenaline high would last well into the coming day.
It was a small incident. We were lucky. The hill had not sustained an attack in about three months. For many of us it was the first time we experienced enemy fire. It is something I will never forget. It brought the war closer and more personal. There really was a war going on here. It touched deep emotions, of fear, of anger, of hate and afterward, relief.
I was told I slept through my first mortar attack during my first night with the 1/92nd on Artillery Hill. The B Battery barracks was up the hill and away from the perimeter. That night several mortar rounds landed in the motor pool causing minor damage. Most incoming during my one year two months on the hill seemed to land in or near the motor pool. Perhaps they were aiming at the radio antennae above the Battalion TOC and were just poor shots.
The date of the mortar attack, February 26th, is my Mother's birthday. She told me later that she awoke during that night and could not sleep sensing some sort of danger. And least I forget, at the time I was only three months into my tour with some 245 days remaining. I was shorter than some but not nearly short enough.
Photos courtesy of Mike Swasta - (Mike served with HHB 1/92d from Nov '68 to Jan '70)