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My first Bomb Damage Assessment (BDA) mission

By Manuel Beck


On June 28, 1968, B-56 Project SIGMA’s Recon Company moved forward to our new launch site in the 1st Infantry Division (1st ID) base camp at Quan Loi. We set up operations on the airfield, and we lived in a large hay and rice storage barn at the end of the airfield, when we were not on a mission.

It had been raining ever since we arrived, and I mean raining; it was coming down in buckets. With all the water around the area, the rats moved inside the barn. That barn had more big rats than hay or rice. The first night in the barn, we had two SCU soldiers bitten by rats, and they had to be medevacked to a hospital to start taking rabies shots. The rats were so bad we had someone stand guard at night with a flashlight and a .22 caliber pistol with a silencer. The second night we killed six rats. We were not only fighting the VC; we were fighting rats too.We didn’t pull any missions for the first three days because the weather was so bad the helicopters couldn’t fly. This was one big hellhole of red mud. The mud was ten inches deep in places. Quan Loi was one miserable, depressing place.

There was no place to go or anything to do except fight the rats at night and sleep during the day. I couldn’t sleep at night because of rats crawling over my body and artillery firing all night. The 1st ID had Artillery Batteries of 105 and 155 guns just outside our barn. We were also isolated from the 1st ID. We couldn’t leave, and no one could come into our area.On the morning of the third day, our S-2 major gave us a briefing on our missions.

That was the first time I had pulled a Bomb Damage Assessment (BDA) mission. I didn’t know what to expect. In the briefing, we were told the B-52s dropped 750-pound bombs in the AO, and each bomb made a crater large enough to conceal a truck. Each plane dropped forty-two bombs, and there were at least three planes in a formation, or there could have been up to twenty planes in one formation. That could be up to 840, 750-pound bombs in one area. That covered an area of two miles by six miles with bombs overlapping each other.One good thing about that, we wouldn’t have to be worried about finding an LZ in the jungle, because each bomb made an area big enough for a helicopter to land. There were six different areas in our AO that had been bombed. However, we only had four Recon Teams, so each team had their area to do their BDA.On the fourth day, the rain stopped.

It was decided to try to get all four teams in on the same day. The first team would be inserted at 0600 hours and the last team should be in by 1900 hours if none of the teams made enemy contact. I would be going in with Sergeant First Class Ed Brannan and four SCU soldiers. We would be Team Three. The mission was scheduled for five days or until we finished the length of the bomb run.As we flew over the area, I could see the damage from the air, and it was an unforgettable experience to see the devastation below. We were inserted at 1300 hours, and up to that time, the first two teams had not made enemy contact.

As we landed, I thought there is no way Charley could survive this, and we wouldn’t find anyone alive. The helicopter hovered over the center of one of the craters, and all six of us jumped off the left side of the aircraft onto the edge of the crater.The helicopter departed, and we took cover in the crater that was half-full of water from all the rain. It had been at least six days since the bombs were dropped, and it had been raining all that time.

We stayed in the crater for thirty minutes waiting to see if there were any NVA or VC in the area looking for us.As we started to move along the path of the bombs, we could see where someone had walked before us leaving boot prints in the mud. However, the prints were full of water, so it had been some time since anyone had been in that area. I couldn’t believe anyone would survive this and would be walking through the mess. We moved several hundred yards, not seeing anything, but we could smell the stench of death all around us. It was very hot, and steam was rising from the jungle floor carrying the stench.It was getting dark, so we decided to move away from the craters into the jungle and set up for the night. It was hard to believe that this was once a triple canopy jungle with no sunlight coming through to the jungle floor. Now it was open, and you could see the sky. We found an area through all the twisted trees where we would spend the night. After setting out our Claymore mines, we got together to eat and get ready for a long night. The stench was terrible, and I knew there were dead bodies close by. I put it out of my mind and decided to open a can of C-ration peaches, my favorite food.I had just opened a can of peaches and stuck my spoon in the can.

I was sitting with my back against a tree ready to enjoy my meal when something fell from the tree above me and landed in my can of peaches. It was a chunk of something black. When I looked up, I could see what was left of a human body hanging in the tree. That was disgusting, and that was the only can of peaches I had.When I told Ed what happened, he started laughing so hard and loud; I thought he could be heard a mile away. In a few seconds, all six of us were laughing. This is a story I have told before, and I always get the same reaction. I guess that is one of those situations where it is so appalling you have to laugh about it. I was tempted, but I didn’t eat my peaches.

I moved a few yards away from the body in the tree and went to sleep hungry that night. We didn’t hear any movement during the night, and that was good. The next morning I heard the Forward Air Controller (FAC) in the air, so I made a radio check with him. He didn’t say, and I didn’t ask, but I guessed all four teams were on the ground without incident.We started moving along the bombing route leaving behind footprints in the mud, and that troubled me, but there was nothing we could do about that. Ed and I didn’t like walking in the open around those craters, so we moved inside the jungle a few yards. That was rough going because of all the twisted trees and undergrowth.We moved for a few hours and didn’t see anything of importance. We could still smell death all around us.

All of a sudden, Pham, the point man, stopped and hit the ground. We did the same. Ed crawled up to where Pham was, and then he motioned for the rest of us to come forward. When I got up to them, I could see foxholes, a long trench line, and bunkers. I could also see body parts everywhere.There were several hundred boot prints in the mud. Again, they appeared to be several days old. As we moved through the area, we found more and more bunkers and trenches.

We also found several underground tunnel openings. We stopped to see if we could hear any movement. After a few minutes, Van, the tail-gunner, said he wanted to go into one of the tunnels to see what was down there. That was fine with me because I didn’t want to go in. Ed gave Van his flashlight and pistol and told him to be careful.A few minutes later, Van came out and said we needed to go down and see what he found. Ed told the other three team members to set up a defensive position in the trench and take the radio with them and if they heard gunfire coming from the tunnel to get on the radio and call the FAC.

We crawled down a two-foot-by-two-foot tunnel entrance for a few feet; then, there were several steps going further down. This led into a room about ten-feet-by-ten-feet with a six-foot ceiling. There was a bench and three chairs in that room. We could see electrical wires on the wall with a light attached. However, there was no power to it. At the end of that very dark room, there were four steps going deeper, and they led to another room about fifteen-feet-by-twenty-feet with tables and chairs in it. That room also had wires running along the wall. At the end of that room, there was a short hallway three-feet wide and four-feet tall.At the end of the hallway, there was a room about ten-feet-by-twenty-feet. That was amazing because, in the middle of that room, there was an operating table and cabinets along the walls.

There were all kinds of electrical wiring running everywhere. This had been an underground hospital, but most of their equipment had been removed. There was another hallway leading somewhere, but we were not going any further. We decided it was time to get out of there. The smell of death hung throughout those rooms. We crawled out of the tunnel and started taking pictures of the area.We could tell this was the back door of the tunnel complex, so we decided to move in the direction we thought the tunnel was running to see if we could find the front entrance. We walked a few yards and found more small holes in the ground. Ed thought they must be air holes to supply fresh air for the tunnels. We also found more bunkers and trenches along the way.

We saw all kinds of trash and equipment, like canteens, empty backpacks, web gear, and clothes. We found several pieces of white cloth used for bandages with blood on them. We followed the trail of bandages to another entrance of a larger tunnel. However, that entrance was made so you could walk down into the tunnel standing up. This was the entrance to the hospital. Just outside that tunnel, I saw part of a boot sticking up from the ground. When I checked it, I found a corpse attached to it. This was a hastily dug shallow grave. As we looked around, we found several more shallow graves.Each of us quickly uncovered the bodies to see if we could find any papers or anything of importance. Most of the bodies had NVA uniforms, but some had nothing on. We didn’t find anything on the bodies. We found several more tunnel entrances, but we only checked a few to see what was inside. Three were used as living quarters, one was an office for someone, and one was used as a Como bunker. We could tell it was a Como bunker because we could see where antennas had been tied down to the ground with wires leading into the tunnel.

Not far from the hospital, we found signs on the ground indicating several vehicles had been parked there, and several electrical wires were on the ground. This was where they had their generators set up to run power to the camp. We also found an area they were using for a Mess Hall and an area where they had been parking trucks and other vehicles.This was a large base camp. I don’t have any idea how big the tunnel complex was, but it was too big for six people to check out. Ed wanted to see if the launch site could send in the Rifle Company to search the tunnels.I got on the radio to see if the FAC was up. I didn’t get a reply from him. I had to wait until the evening radio check. That camp was not close to the area I had been in before, but it was close to where other teams had been, and those teams made contact with the NVA as soon as they hit the ground. I knew part of that camp had been hit by the bombs, but the main portion was intact.It was getting dark, and we moved outside the camp to find a place to Rest Over Night (RON.) I wouldn’t want to be in there if the NVA decided to come back to their home.At the evening radio check, I informed the FAC on what we needed and gave him the location. Because we didn’t have a company at the launch site, it would be at least two days before a company could check the tunnels. We stopped to RON around 2000 hours.To be continued, if you want to read more.The photo is my recon team and me.

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