This article appeared in "Nam Magazine" June, 2005.
THE DAY THE DA NANG AMMO DUMP BLEW
After almost twenty months overseas my short-timer’s calendar was down to one day and a wake-up. It was Sunday morning, 27 April, 1969, and being as short as I was, the Gunny had left me off of any duty rosters. My only remaining responsibilities were to check out, survey my gear, and climb aboard that Freedom Bird out of Da Nang the next afternoon. I didn’t have far to go as I was stationed on the western side of the air base with 1st FSR, 1st FLC, 1st Marine Division.
A truck driver buddy of mine was on a routine convoy to Marble Mountain that morning, so I decided to take my camera and go along for the ride. The view of the Da Nang area on that clear sunny morning was magnificent as we worked our way to the top of the mountain. At around 0800 a tremendous explosion to the northwest got our immediate attention. We could see a large column of gray and black smoke rising from the area on the other side of the city, southeast of Hill 327 in the vicinity of our compound. The blast was followed by a series of more explosions. Word came over the radio for the convoy to return immediately, at which time the trucks found a place to turn around and headed back.
We didn’t know exactly what was going on as the explosions didn’t look the same as the incoming VC rockets which were accustomed to, and were much too big for mortars. Our unit was responsible for the security of the western perimeter of the air base, so that was our immediate destination. As we headed back down the steep mountain road at white-knuckle speed, word came that the ammo dump had been hit. It was located just across the road from our compound and west of the little village of Dog Patch. As we worked our way closer, the intensity of the explosions increased, filling the air with gray smoke and burning pungent aromas to go with it. All along the road locals had stopped whatever they were doing and were watching the once in a lifetime show. The convoy worked its way around the stopped vehicles and continued on.
We entered the main gate on the eastern side of the air base and turned left to go around the south end of the airstrips. The two-lane road was filled with a stream of Army, Navy, and Marine Corps vehicles, all going in the opposite direction we were. There was nothing to slow us down now and the drivers drove even faster. As we came around the south end of the air strips, we saw truck after truck loaded with personnel headed away from the massive wall of fire and smoke that covered the horizon only a couple of miles away. We could really feel the heat on our faces by that time.
We pulled into the rear gate near the motor pool and stood beside bunkers while waiting for orders. Massive blasts shook the ground and the tin buildings around us as we watched in awe the huge mushroom shaped clouds that billowed hundreds of feet into the sky. We were so close now that we were looking up to see them. Small pieces of rock and metal dinged off our helmets and the hoods of the trucks. We didn’t have to wait long. We were told to proceed to our assigned bunkers along the outer perimeter wire. By that time it must have been around 0900, and the intensity of the explosions showed no sign of letting up. As a matter of fact they seemed to be getting bigger and more frequent, which in reality they were.
We stooped low and hurriedly ran across the open company formation area which had pieces of jagged metal lying around on the ground, some of which were still red hot and smoking. As we ran through the hooch area we could hear rocks and pieces of metal hitting the tin roofs. My assigned bunker was on the perimeter near the main entrance gate and just across the road, Highway 1, from Dog Patch. The other members of my squad were already there, peering out the open port of the sandbag covered emplacement with M16s, and an M60 machine gun locked and loaded not knowing what to expect. We figured if any VC were brave enough or bad enough to come through that fire and metal hail storm and attack the perimeter, we would certainly have a fight on our hands.
As the day went on the intensity grew even more severe. Somebody had a transistor radio tuned in to Armed Forces Radio, and the news report said that the situation was so dangerous that all military and civilian personnel in the area had been evacuated. Well, not exactly, we thought as we all laughed at that and tried to relax to the music of the Beatles, the Animals, and Elvis that continued to play. It was certainly exciting, but a scary place to be.
Every few minutes one of those big explosions that produced the mushroom clouds would occur. We guessed they were 1,000-pound bombs but never did know for sure. When they went off we could see the shock waves rolling toward us across the ground like ripples on water. As they passed through the village, roofs of houses would fly into the air like in disaster film footage of tornadoes and hurricanes.
We would watch until the wave got to the road and then we would hit the ground face down and cover our heads. The ground and the sandbag bunker would shake and the concussion would raise us off the ground and slam us back down. We would then jump up and look out the rear porthole and watch the waves roll across our compound sending big metal shop buildings and roofs of hooches flying through the air.
The show continued on through the day and all night long. Once darkness fell it was really a sight to see. Talk about a fireworks show. The explosions finally began to let up about twenty-four hours after they began. As we exited the safety of our bunkers we could see the damage that had occurred and it was extensive. Huge metals buildings that had been fourth echelon heavy equipment repair shops were now just piles of metal and tin lying on the ground, or gone altogether. Most of the damage was from concussions, with the hooches being the least damaged as they had sides made of screen wire. All the wood buildings were in bad shape: the mess hall, chapel, sick bay, Battalion HQ, and our shower building. An ambulance that was sitting next to sick bay had a live artillery round lying in the floor that had gone through its metal roof. Dangerous live rounds and large jagged pieces of shrapnel littered the area. Up on Hill 327 the damage was also extensive at the PX and the R&R center.
I was able to check out and turn in my gear that Monday afternoon, and by 1500, was on my way out of there. The view of ground zero from the plane was something to see. Just a large patch of blackened smoldering earth. That night I was at transit barracks at Camp Hansen, Okinawa, and watched the footage on the TV news. It was totally awesome. Once again they erroneously reported that all personnel in the area had been evacuated. I didn’t even bother to tell anyone else in that room that I had been there, very close. I just didn’t think anyone would believe me. It certainly looked unbelievable.
Two weeks later I was back in my hometown of McKinney, Texas, a civilian once again. I never heard what caused the ammo dump to blow, if there were any casualties, nor what happened to that compound or the village of Dog Patch after I left. In the past couple of years I have begun to surf the Internet and have learned a lot of stuff about my time in Vietnam. I have seen a few mentions of that day but not much. One of the things I just recently found was a warning that anyone who was in that Marine compound across the road from the ammo dump at the time should get an Agent Orange Test. I am being tested next month.
Witnessing the Da Nang Ammo Dump blow up, first hand from a ringside seat, was without a doubt the most awesome thing I have ever seen in my life. My hearing has never been the same, however. But I’ll bet I will never witness another fireworks show like that one again. What a show!
CAPT. ED MC
DANIEL, USMC, RET.
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