Ammunition Storage at Camp Evans
in the afternoon and through the night
19 May 1968.
The following stories are recollections of members of the Vietnam Helicopter Flight Crewmembers Network who were present when North Vietnamese Army rockets slammed into the ammunition storage area.
My name is John A. Santer, I served with Company B 227th Aviation Battalion from September 1967 to October 1968.1 first arrived in South Viet Nam on January 6, 1967, my MOS was 11B10 Infantry and 1 was a PFC E-3.1 was station at Cat Lai on the Dong Nai and Nha Be River, about 12 miles northeast of Saigon. After serving nine months there. I volunteered to be a door gunner with the First Air Cavalry Division [Air Mobile], for another 12 months. September 20, 1967,1 was assigned to Company B 227th Aviation Battalion. My MOS was 11B20 Infantry, and rank was SP-4 E-4.1 was assigned to the 3rd flight platoon. I was at LZ Dog at Bong Son and also at Hue, Khe Sanh, and the A Shau Valley during the 1968 Tet Offensive. I was also a LZ Evans when the ammunition dump blew up. I also flew with you on some of the missions.
I declare under penalty of perjury that these are the true fact and all the information is true. Here is my eyewitness account of what happened that day. The information is from my letters I wrote to my Mother, on what happened that day.
May 19, 1968, Ho Chi Minh Birth Day, The lst Cavalry main ammunition dump blew up. That evening, three people from our Company B 227th Avn. Assault Helicopter had battalion guard duty that night. They were Staff Sergeant Aston, Crew Chief SP-4 Darrel W. Bagel, from the helicopter maintenance team, and Door gunner SP-4 John A. Sinter, from 3lh flight platoon. Staff Sergeant Aston went to Battalion CP [Command Post], he was the Sergeant in charge of guard duty on the Green Line Perimeter. Bage and I were assigned the closest bunker on the Green Line Perimeter to the run way, at Camp Evans. We were sitting on top of the bunker wearing our flak jackets, steel helmets, carrying our M-16 rifle with four clips with 20 rounds each, and our gas mask. About 6:30 p.m. five 122 millimeter Russian rockets came whistling in, three hit the runway and the other two, hit two trucks loaded with ammunition park at the outer edge of the runway. Setting off a chain reaction that blew up the huge ammunition dump, belong to the 1st Cavalry Division. About 10,800,000 pounds of ammunition were destroyed that night.
The ammunition dump contained high explosives like: C-4, artillery rounds, mortar rounds, aerial flares, 50 caliber rounds, M-60 machine gun rounds, and aerial rockets for the Huey Cobra and gunships. It also contained tons of captured NVA ammo and guns from the A Shau Valley. They all blew up!
As the ammunition dump began exploding, Bage and I automatically dove for our two man bunker. But since the bunker entrance was facing the ammunition dump, about 50 yards away. We started tearing the front wall down, and placed sandbags in the entrance rear wall to keep shrapnel out. As the ammunition exploded, shrapnel and live rounds were thrown everywhere.
Three other people from Charlie and Delta Company 227th Avn., ran from their bunkers on LZ Evans outer Green Line Perimeter to our bunker, because their bunker fell apart due to the impacts.
I remember feeling the vibrations from the first blast, and you could see the huge mushroom fireball cloud rising up to about 2,000 feet in the air. For most of the night the roof of are bunker seemed to lift up from each explosion. You could hear the shrapnel hitting our bunker, rounds cracking and exploding over head. The front of our bunker was completely open, you could see bright flash of light like fireworks lighting up the sky. And you can smell the strong scent of gun powder and CS gas in the air.
Sometime during the night our bunker began to weaken from all of the massive explosions. One person in our bunker was hurt badly, by the shrapnel. So we immediately evacuated our banker, and made a stretcher out of a poncho liner. The four of us carried him through all the devastation and CS gas, to battalion medical station, about 150 yards way. I left the four guys there, and found the Guard C.P. [Command Post], about 100 feet away. I reported to the commanding offices and Staff Sergeant Aston, and told them what happened. That all of the bunkers in the ammunition dump fell in, and the field phones at the bunkers were knocked out.
The huge explosions and fired lasted for twelve hours that night. I stayed in the CP bunker till morning. We were all scared that night. I must have said about 500 Hail Mary's prayers that night.
In the morning everything was quit, no explosion, and the fires were all out. I found out about the guy we carried in the poncho liner stretcher, he was OK. Our Company Commander Major Ginner was coming down the road, going to 227th Aviation Battalion Headquarters, and I was coming up from battalion guard duty. He told me to keeping going up the road, passing our company, and up to our sister company Alpha Company.
Our hole company was burned out and destroyed, along with all of our clothing and personal items. Twenty of our company helicopters were also destroyed. All together a total of 40 helicopter were lost that night. And everyone came out OK! All our personal from our company moved in with our sister Company Alpha. Alpha Company was about 50 feet up the hill from us.
Our Bravo Company was located 100 feet away from the ammunition dump, only a dirt road separated us. The 227th Aviation Battalion Head Quarters, and our other sister company Charlie and Delta Company were on the out edge of the ammunition dump when it blew.
At Alpha Company, everyone from Bravo Company were order to stay out of are old area. So that the demolition team could search the area for unexploded ammunitions, with metal detectors. After the demolition team went through, and gave us the Ok. We were allowed in our old area to take pictures of the destruction.
That night we had a thunder storm, lightning, and severe winds. During the night our tent came down while we were all sleeping. In the morning the tent was draped over our mosquito netting. All eight of us in the tent had a heck of a time fine our way out. All of our duffel bags, with are new clothes were soaking wet. Most of the tent stakes were pulled out of the ground by the wind because of the ground being soak. But everybody in our tent was OK.
We started building new helicopter revetment and repairing the damage ones. The revetments provide protection for the helicopters while they are sitting on our flight line, at night or on standby alert during the day.
Two weeks later, the Navy Seabees began to dozer out our burned out area with their bulldozes, sandbags and all. They fill in the bunkers that failed. They also built raised wooden platforms for our new medium 16' x 32' tents. After they built all the platforms, and the tents put up. Everyone in our company started to put sandbags around the tents. The filling of sandbag was done by the local South Vietnamese people. All we had to do is pay them for the sandbags. Then load them in our Duce and half 2.5 ton truck and take them back to our company. We stacked rows of sand bags on each other, to a height of four feet. Leaving openings for the entrance in the front and back of the tents.
All of our company pilots and crew chief went to pick up the new helicopters. With the new helicopters and M-60 machine guns, our company was back flying again. So I am back in the air doing CA's, log missions, and getting shot at again.
The following stories are recollections of members of the Vietnam Helicopter Flight Crewmembers Network who were present when North Vietnamese Army rockets slammed into the ammunition storage area. Russ Warriner The date was 5/19/68 and this is when C 2/20th area got really messed up and most A/C were so messed up that they all were grounded for repairs. When things first started to happen Jim Krull and Tommie Rolf and one crew chief were on the flight line. Jim Krull had just done a preflight to the A/C he was to fly and Rolf was getting his gear into the one he was to fly in Krull yelled to him to get over and help him get at least one A/C off the ground. They cranked and took off with the crew chief that was there. When things slowed down they landed and had just gone to the bunker when the Ammo dump went up. A 155mm round was blown from the dump across the compound and came through the bunker roof hitting Tommie Allen Rolf in the head (may he rest in peace) and fell over onto Jim Krulls leg. No one else was hurt although there were several pilots there at the time. Some where I have a photo of this round after in lay in the bunker a while. Tommie Allen Rolf was a new Warrant Officer straight out of flight school and charm school. Had been in C Battery for only a day or two. Ed Donovan(C/2-20 ARA) I was one of I think only two aircraft to take off during the ammo dump blow. Not sure who the second a/c belonged to but it appeared to be from the 227th's area. Interesting attempted take off by that huey, I could see it come up & head towards the perimeter fence when a blow occurred & the a/c went straight into the ground. Did not explode but no more movement was seen. My rotor was not turning yet. The decision to launch a BlueMax a/c came from Div Arty. down to C-Btry, I was the unit IP and so was the volunteer to try the launch. Obviously I made it, what a sight from the air! What a rush getting to the a/c, & started, & off the ground It rates way up there on the non-shooting pucker trips. Stayed up in the air all night refueling North at B-Btry I believe that was at Sharon (possible crs on the name of the LZ.) I was relaying data back to our commo as to if any incoming was also a fact. Never saw any flashes out of the ammo dump area. Were the biggest explosions I have ever seen. As I understand it only one American fatality occurred. It was a Warrant in our unit that was the victim; I had not yet even finished his in country checkout. A 155 round w/nose plug still in came down through the B-Btry pilots bunker (we thought it was 122 proofed) and as I understand the round just broke thru and fell on his head killing him instantly. Sad way to go; in a "safe bunker" Have to tell you I definitely had a different view of the "Big Blow" Joe Potvin (A/227) We were directly across the flight line from the dump so we took a real beating, I remember right after the two? rockets came in that when we got out of the bunkers we looked over to the dump and noticed smoke and some small arms cooking off. About five minutes later a fire truck went racing down the road to the dump and got within a few hundred feet when something bigger cooked off. That truck went faster in reverse back up the road than it came forward down the road. I spent the evening in the COs bunker with Jay Dirnberger Clyde French the ops officer. The CO and XO were stuck in the Battalion Bunker as they were attending the daily Bn briefing at the time the party started. They deedeed those bunkers and hotfooted it across the flight line about 11:00PM when they started to cave in, Bn was surrounded by the ammo dump and MoGas POL so it really got creamed. Maj. Peterson, our CO picked up a piece of shrapnel running across the flight line, pretty lethal environment outside. The command bunker had curved entrances and grenade traps built in, I was sitting halfway up the entrance when the big one went up...got blown down into the bottom of the bunker by the concussion, lit up like daylight in the bottom of the bunker. Next day when we crawled out there was a split open 8" shell laying on top of the bunker, crap everywhere. Biggest problem were the M-79 rounds laying all over the place...couldn't tell whether they were armed or not. B Co pilot kick an armed one thru his tent the next day, got a ticket home. ` Met him 10-12 years ago...he was flying for the Indiana NG but needed a cane due to the foot injury. I found a smoldering M106 recoilless rifle round laying in my bunk Quite a night. My brother Bob Potvin) said they watched us cook off all night from up in Quang Tri, thought we were all dead. Larry Russell(B/227):
I managed to get shot down earlier that day, east of Quang Tri, CA'n some Arvns. Took one round up the tailpipe. Due to superb PT :-))) set it down with only a broken hinge when I pulled the emergency handle on the door. My side was near the tree line!! Later that day when good ole 228th brought it back, we were surprised at how little damage there was. (I wasn't) One round had wiped out the turbine blades. Maint said they'd have it up the next day! HA! Left it parked on top of the flight line OUTSIDE of a revetment - broadside to the ammo dump! Guess what............I have some photos of Evans the next morning, I plan to put them on the homepage as I work on the 227th pages. If you check out that page now you'll see a photo of about 15 shell shocked pilots from B-227th the next day. Of my two tours in Nam - that night (day) stands out the most. (goto b227.org) After getting blown from a trench line, sucking CS gas for a couple of hours, crawling over a dead ARVN (thought it was a sapper!!! as NO indigenous people were allowed on Evans at night!) Watching all of B/227ths tents burn down (cept mine and I think the ole mans), I finally wound up in the 228th TOC. Then as I was sitting there in nothing but fatigue pants and ho chi minh sandals............some Major came in asking for RLOs as we might have to defend the base camp.................damn.....and I thought I had finally found safety. A toast to you Pat Murphy and your 228th pals. Saved my life TWICE! Dave Greene: We (B/227th) were right next to the division ammo dump (about 75 yds.). When the CS got blown upwind by the first big boom, it was coming back through our area. I HATED that stuff, so I ended up going out into that firestorm to get everybody's gas mask. Visibility was real good since the first blast took away all of our tents. Got mine, then started rounding up everyone else's. I was at the end of the GP medium temt closest to the fire when the second blast went off. It blew me through the air to the other end of the tent. (Does anyone know how big a GP Medium tent is? I felt that I was in the air for about two years, but it probably wasn't quite that long. I remember thinking that it was a real pisser that I- a helicopter pilot - was going to die on the ground. It was long enough) I landed on the sandbag wall around the other end of the tent. That broke my reentry speed. When I came to, (about 10 seconds later), I was lying on my back, looking up at the fireball rising in the air. Someone told me later that the fireball topped out at 15,000 ft. and was quite beautiful. From underneath, it certainly was spectacular. Multicolor, with stuff flying out in all directions. I admired it for a time, then the old brain turns over once. It says to me "Everything that goes up must come down. Get under something." So I pulled a square of tent canvas lying nearby (about two square feet) over me. Brain turns over one more time about 30 seconds later and says "No, that isn't going to be enough!" So, with diminished brain power (I've only had two consecutive thoughts so far) I stand up and walk back to the bunker with all that stuff whizzing by me. I still had the gas masks in my hand! I toss them down into the bunker and sort of fall face first into the bunker myself. Everybody is pissed at me! What? What? Oh, I forgot to mention, I am stone deaf now too, in addition to being stone stupid! They are mad because they think I am dead, since I didn't respond when they were shouting at me. Well, I was busy, admiring the fireball at that time. All the gas masks are now being used. Where's mine, damn it. Shared a gas mask with George Smith. That is a really stupid thing to try and ends up being totally useless to both people. Steve Harper has taken a piece of shrapnel in the leg, and when someone comes by to tell us to evacuate, we take him with us (at his insistence), and drop him off at an aid station farther away. Finally felt safe somewhere down in the 228ths area, about 1/2 mile from the fire. I heard estimates that the big blasts (7 of them) were entire revetments being cooked off after being surrounded by fire. They said that each blast was about 200,000 lbs of explosive going off at once, with the second blast being the largest. It was certainly my personal favorite. 10,800,000 pounds of ammunition were destroyed that night. We had NO helicopters the next morning. The entire Cav was just about brought to its knees by one (or two or three) rockets that night. When they rebuilt the ammo dump they put it away from most of the inhabited areas of Camp Evans. Good thinking, Why didn't I think of that. Mel Canon (B/227): I remember the night of May 19th, '68 very well. As mentioned by either Larry Russell or Steve Harper earlier...I was in the shower when the first rocket impacted at Camp Evans. I dee dee'd to the tent and by the time I got there all hell had broken loose. I bypassed my bunk and went directly into the bunker with just the towel and shower shoes on. Spent the whole damn night that way...well, almost, lost the towel a time or two. I remember David Green being deafened by the explosion that took out our tent, I remember Steve Harper going outside for some reason and taking a piece of shrapnel in the leg...but the most vivid memory that night...besides the stinging crotch from the CS that infiltrated the bunker...was Terry Glendy taking out an ARVN SGT. We were inundated with explosion after explosion for most of the night. Sometime during the early part of the night we heard the guns on the perimeter open up and later heard gooks talking in gook outside the bunker. A couple of us went into the trench of the bunker with weapons to check things out. I remember an ominous figure stepping into the entrance of the tent (that was no longer there...but the sandbags around the entrance were). Terry yelled something as I recalled that this figure went into a crouch. Then Terry cut loose with, what I believe was, a Thompson .45. The figure fell backwards and lay in front of the tent entrance the rest of the night. Sometime during the night our bunker began to weaken from the massive explosions and we evacuated, moving to other bunkers in the area. I still had only the towel and shower shoes and by this time my living area in the tent had totally disappeared. We all hauled ass out of the bunker and I don't know where any of the others went. I ran south to some sort of command bunker and there was someone else with me. I remember sitting on the floor of this well fortified hotel of a bunker with it's ammo box walls and PSP/Sandbag roof feeling like it was just a matter of time before I died. I remember sitting on the floor of the bunker and feeling the vibration in my butt as each explosion rocked the compound. Pallets of 8" powder bags were exploding all at once and when the things would go off I could feel the ground shake against my ass before the concussion invaded the bunker. The roof seemed to lift up with each explosion and dirt would fall all over the place. I was never so damn scared in all my life as I was that night. At first light I ambled out of the bunker and made it back to the B/227th area looking for something to wear besides the towel that was mostly caked mud by that time. The whole place was one eerie junk pile of fragments of shell casings and mangled helicopters. The ground was so covered with spent and unspent ordinance that merely walking around was dangerous. Several people from the camp were injured from exploding devices as the tried to walk around...setting stuff off as they walked near it. I made my way back to the place where my tent had been and there by the entrance was an ARVN SGT...cut nearly in two by the impact of the .45 rounds he taken when Terry popped him. I remember that he laid there amongst all the shrapnel and mangled tents for what seemed like hours before anyone removed the body. Terry just came up online, by the way and will be joining our net soon. He'll have just a vivid a memory of that night as any of us that went through it. I'd never been that close to ground zero of such a large explosion before and it was a long time before I got over the impact of that night. Someone indicated that it might have been me that tried to take off that night and was blown into the ground...it wasn't but if I'd not been in the shower when it all started...if I'd had some clothes on...I'd have certainly made a dash for a ship and tried like hell to get off the ground. That was a living hell for too many hours. I'd have opted for a chance to get airborne, given the opportunity. Don't remember how many of us were in the bunker that night before we evacuated it but I do remember that we had only enough gas masks for about half of us and we were passing them around to share. They must have been the masks that David Green managed to bring back into the bunker. The same explosion that deafened him caught me in the bunker entrance trying to get to some clothing from my bunk. I was blown through the trench and across the entire bunker by that explosion. When I had enough courage to stick my head out again...there was no tent...nor much of anything that had been in it either. B/227 lost all their tents that night...and all their aircraft. We managed to get one up and running next day and Jerry Colonna and I flew down to DaNang and conned the Marines out of some GP Medium tents. Then commenced the rebuilding of Camp Evans. I was about 45 days from DEROS at that time. Pat Murphy(C/228) Well, it just so happened that my ship was the furthest from the dump, and I had minor damage to one rotor blade and some holes in the sheet metal in a few places. The next morning we repaired her and I got airborne. However, the rest of the company did not fare so well. We had 4 birds totally destroyed, as I remember, and the rest of the ships (except for mine) were damaged enough that they took some time to repair. I believe that I was the only airworthy Hook in C Co. for the next three days or so. I have a distinct recollection of that 1st BIG blast. I remember that we were sitting on our helmets just outside a bunker in the dark. Suddenly, it lit up so bright that I could see the whiskers on the face of the man across from me, and almost simultaneously, we were picked up by the concussion and thrown to the ground. I remember looking up at the rising column of fire and seeing large black objects tumbling over and over high above me. Being familiar with with the theory of "What goes up must come down.", I lost little time visiting that nearby bunker I mentioned. You must remember the debris lying all around the next day. You could not take a step without stepping on a piece of shrapnel. When asked how it was "over there", I always tell people, "Noisy!".