Philadelphia native and current Hampden Township native Lou Frank was once stuck for three nights straight in what he described as a potentially lethal Fourth of July fireworks display.
“There were tracers going back and forth all the time ... All kinds of flares and rockets,” the Vietnam War veteran said. “I got my front row seat for the battle. I saw the fighter bombers. They would drop bombs and napalm.”
It was April 1968 and Airman First Class Frank was on temporary assignment at a forward base in the A Shau Valley of South Vietnam close to the border with Laos.
A mix-up in orders caused the Army Chinook helicopter to land Air Force personnel at a dirt strip in an unsecured area of the countryside. An air cargo specialist, Frank thought he was there to load and unload supply planes as they came in.
He was told instead to hunker down and wait for a plane to arrive that could take him back to Da Nang, the major U.S. airbase in the northern part of South Vietnam.
“It was pretty scary,” said Frank, now 66. “I was not trained for that kind of stuff. The soldiers kept us safe.”
Frank first arrived at Da Nang on Feb. 15, 1968 about two weeks after North Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive – a coordinated strike against multiple targets in the South.
“Three hours after I landed, we were hit with rockets,” Frank said. “That’s when I found out that Da Nang was called Rocket City.”
He quickly learned not to take a shower in the crude wood frame building near the base security fence. The building only had walls high enough for privacy but was sturdy enough to withstand bullets from enemy snipers. Frank took no chances and switched to the Quonset hut near the base hospital that was more secure, offered better protection and had individual shower stalls with curtains.
His job in the service was to operate a forklift and other equipment tasked with hauling all kinds of supplies in and out of transport planes. Sometimes the work involved breaking down the payloads of larger aircraft coming in from the U.S. into smaller loads for tactical aircraft bound for bases out in the field.
“The cargo could be anything the soldiers and Marines needed to get the job done,” Frank recalled. This included food, ammunition, weapons, vehicles and even artillery.
Home for Frank was an eight-man shelter in a vast tent city on an airbase subjected to occasional rocket attack from Viet Cong insurgents. He worked at night and slept by day on a top bunk where the heat and humidity was so bad at times that Frank woke up soaked in sweat.
Because he was the youngest among them, Frank was called “sand box” by the seven other guys in his tent. They had a birthday party when he turned 20 on Nov. 23, 1968.
Frank could have served his entire 18 months in Vietnam in the relative safety of Da Nang working 12-hour shifts six days a week from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. But instead he volunteered for at least 20 supply missions at different forward bases spending two days to two weeks in the field at a time.
He volunteered because he wanted to break away from the tedium of working night shifts at Da Nang and because he wanted to make a more direct contribution to the war effort. Frank worked during the day when on field assignments.
“Once it started to get dark, we were free to hang around,” he recalled. “Being Air Force, we didn’t have to go out on patrols. We had it easy because the soldiers and Marines were doing their jobs.”
That didn’t make it safe. Frank recalled a time when he was loading leftover cargo onto a transport plane that was about to take off from a small dirt airstrip. Enemy mortar shells started to explode behind the aircraft as it was moving down the runway.
“They were zeroing in on us,” Frank said. “If they would have slowed down the aircraft, we would have been hit.”
Growing up in Philadelphia, a soldier to Frank was a veteran from World War II or Korea. Yet in Vietnam, there were “kids” his own age heading out to fight.
“To me, those soldiers and Marines did everything they possibly could to keep South Vietnam as a country,” Frank said. “They could not do their jobs properly because they had restraints all the time.”
He added one lesson to be learned from Vietnam was for politicians to allow soldiers and Marines to do their jobs. “It was just crazy,” Frank said. “I saw a lot of men who should not have died. I loaded the body bags in the field. We took them to Da Nang and put them into silver coffins to send home.”
Da Nang was one of the main mortuary points for the U.S. military during the war. Remains were brought to this airbase for processing before being shipped stateside.
“It was kind of hard at first,” Frank said, recalling what it was like to handle the fallen. “I just treated them with as much respect as I possibly could. When I loaded the bodies, I would just say a quick little prayer ... Something out of respect for the guys. They were guys my age. They were dead and I was alive. The best I could do for them was to make sure they got home.”