“Operation Duke” – 1966 in Vietnam
By Dean Contover
It was 3:00 a.m. in Qui Nhon, Vietnam when we were awakened by the staff sergeant to go to the mess hall for breakfast and to be briefed. One hundred and eighty-seven engineers were hand-picked for this operation which was to take place near the town of Bong Son on the coast of South Viet Nam. Our mission was to build an airfield there. Rumor had it that Operations Duke was top priority and the word had come from headquarters in Saigon.
I was one of about forty-five engineers that had come to Qui Nhon from An Khe, which was forty-seven miles to the west. Qui Nhon is the third largest city in South Viet Nam. Since it is on the coast, it is considered a very important seaport.
After our briefing, we moved to the port in five convoys. The week before we had prepared our equipment; we were ready to move out at any time. I drove a five-ton dump truck that had two rubber fuel bladders containing six hundred gallons of gasoline apiece. There were six other dump trucks that carried fuel enough for our vehicles to run on the field. Other equipment included: six earth-scrapers, two bulldozers, four graders, and many assorted vehicles. All this had to be loaded on a ship; a convoy over land was impossible since the Viet Cong had blown up most of the bridges to Bong Son.
My convoy was the first to arrive on the beach at about 6:30 a.m. on September 1, 1967. We waited until 11:00 a.m. before we could load up on the landing craft. This would take us to the U.S.S Gunston Hall (LSD-5), a landing ship dock. Once on board, our equipmep.t was put on the upper deck by cables which were exceptionally manipulated by the sailors. It took all day for our gear to be placed on board. We lashed down our vehicles so they would not hit anything when the ship pitched and rolled at sea. After a couple hours of this tiring work, we went to the ship’s mess and had a wonderful meal. It was the first time in six months that I had eaten red tomatoes! I filled a soup bowl with as much as I could and ate one red, juicy piece at a time. What a delicious treat.
The sailors on board were fairly friendly towards us; I could tell they did not wish to be in our shoes. We departed Qui Nhon that evening and hit the rack early because we were so tired. It had been a long day and there would be longer days ahead. My room had air conditioning and for the first time, I thought to myself, I was in a room with four walls, a ceiling and a floor. It was heaven like and very cool. The next morning, we were off the coast of Tam Quap, about nine miles north of Bong Son. We were on board the Gunston Mall for two nights before we landed. I’ll never for l it: the surf was bad and on the beach our unit was receiving harassing fire from the Viet Cong. I can clearly remember watching the jets bomb areas to our right. Looking out to sea, I could see one destroyer on the horizon, peppering the beach with its guns. I was on the last landing craft that final morning and to be honest with you, I didn’t want to leave. We waited on the beach until noon to move inland. Four days before we landed, three bridge companies and one combat engineer company (to provide security for the bridge companies) had landed. They were there to build bridges for our heavy equipment. The completion of the bridges caused the delay.
We finally moved to a South Vietnamese army compound for the night. This position was four miles from the beach. An attack was expected that night but it never happened. For some reason, our officers would not give us hand grenades that night. Instead, about twenty of us borrowed hand grenades from the U.S. Army for the day. We all cleaned our M-14’s and dug in deep. The next morning, most of us woke up to a fire fight about a quarter of a mile from our position. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) had come in contact with a squad of Viet Cong. Early that morning, the mine sweeping team moved out to clear the road while we all waited. This gave time to nearly a dozen G.I.’s to talk to the ARVN second lieutenant. He was the executive officer of the armed personnel carrier that had escorted us from the beach. They were also our rear security. The second lieutenant knew how to speak English fairly well. He showed us on the map just where the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army strongholds were in the area. P.F.C. Nelson asked him why and for how long he had been fighting the Viet Cong. He told us that he had been fighting them for fifteen years. He said, “I was a young boy when the Viet Minh had come to my village. They told my father to go with them. He refused and they left, only to return later and take my father away.” His father never came back and was never heard from again.
The lieutenant asked P.F.C. Nelson what we were going to build. He said that we were going to construct an air strip in two weeks. P.F.C. Devlin said we’d be working around the clock to finish it using lights in the dark. The lieutenant looked at us as if we were crazy because it was unheard of to use lights in this area at night. After a little noon chow, word came to motivate. Two miles down the road, we started to get hit by sniper fire on the right. I told my shotgun, P.F.C. Devlin, to let them know we were here. He started to fire at the tree line on the other side of the rice patties. We came to our destination and no one was wounded or killed. Luck was with us.
We took a position on a knob of a ridge, dug fox holes, pitched our tents, and put barbed wire around the perimeter. Operation Duke took two months though it was expected to be completed in two weeks. C rations kept us going for all that time and four hot meals that were brought by helicopter near the end of our mission were real reinforcement for our hard work. We appreciated our work even more when we saw the first large transport plane (a Lockheed C-130 Hercules) land at English Airfield.