SAN DIEGO – Many years ago, I had a part in a bizarre incident in a year of bizarre incidents, both large and small.
Last week, I recalled this particular incident amidst a business meeting in the Southwest corner. Small arms ranges were in discussion when someone asked if a 50-caliber machine gun or sniper rifle could be used in an indoor range. The answer was yes, once. That generated my memory.
In 1970, a couple of 50-caliber machine guns and I got to know each other better than I would have preferred.
I was executive officer of an 18-man Navy unit aboard Merchant Marine transport ships of the Military Sealift Command, which carried Republic of Korea (ROK) troops to Vietnam and back to Pusan, Korea. We would pick up 1500 troops and sail to Nha Trang and Qui Nhon, swapping incoming and outgoing Tiger division (Korean marines) personnel in Nha Trang and repeat the process for the Palm (supply) Division in Qui Nhon.
Nha Trang was a beautiful location. Then, it was undeveloped. We would snorkel in the crystal clear waters in view of the president’s summer palace. Pictures of Nha Trang today suggest it has become a tourist mecca, as I predicted then.
Qui Nhon is also a tourist resort today, something I did not predict.
The sea entry to Qui Nhon is a narrow channel surrounded by densely forested, steep peaks. The “USNS Geiger (T-AP 197)” would stand in to the harbor dropping percussion grenades over the side to discourage Viet Cong sappers from sabotage while ROK troops in resident would water ski past us, a bizarre sight.
In 1970, the small habitable areas except for the seaport on the south side of the bay were fishing villages. Directly across the bay from the port was “Market Time,” including a guard post atop a peak. “Market Time was the Navy’s anti-interdiction force.
A small Army officers club stood on a point west of the pier near the end of the U.S. base. Our five officers, including me, found it quickly. It was about half the size of Rose’s Diner, the eatery on South Cumberland Street from the late 1950s until its demise sometime after I left Lebanon.
Our little officer’s club was on a point directly between the Army’s guard post and the Market Time guard post. The officers club was a rudimentary bar, but it met our needs.
Late, one evening as we departed the club after some serious imbibing, a fisherman in his small boat was returning from a coastal fishing venture. The army perimeter post somehow decided the fisherman was a security threat and opened fire.
Their aim was off.
When the Army’s 50-caliber machine gun opened fire, the sentinels at Market Time apparently thought the fire was directed at them, or also spotted the poor fisherman with a similar conclusion to the Army guards. Regardless, they returned fire. The fisherman and our group were caught in the crossfire.
We dove for cover beside a pile of wood railings conveniently left after some construction project. The firing continued, a brilliant fireworks display to exceed any Fourth of July extravaganza, if for no other reason than this one was for real.
As we lay huddled with tracers and sincere 50-caliber bullets whizzing over our heads, we watched the fisherman slowly move down the bay, past the Army tower and calmly tie up to a small wooden pier at his village. He chucked his string of fish over his shoulder and disappeared quietly into the village.
Shortly afterward, the fireworks display on both sides ceased. I still do not know why. But I am glad it did.
Toward the end of spring, I connected with Jim (Beetle) Harding in Qui Nhon. Jim, then an Army captain, was running a medevac operation for the 101st, one of the more dangerous operations in the conflict. Growing up, Beetle and I had spent many hours water skiing on Old Hickory Lake with his father and mother, George and Virginia, and his brother and my best friend Henry.
It was a wonderful morale booster to see someone from Lebanon, especially an old friend. I suspect it was just as good for him.
I did not ask him if he ever thought of water skiing or fishing in the bay at Qui Nhon.