The sound of impact inside the barracks often accompanied the siren warning of a rocket or mortar attack on the Bien Hoa airbase in South Vietnam.
“The top guys were jumping out of their bunks,” recalled Dennis Harmon, an Air Force veteran living in North Middleton Township. “You heard one big thump when everybody hit the floor at one time. Then the mad dash to the stairs at the end of the barracks.”
Timing was crucial. Airmen on the unprotected second floor had to race out the entrance on the first floor to seek the shelter of plywood and sandbag bunkers that shielded the barracks on two sides.
Harmon was one of those men desperate for an escape. He was on duty in Vietnam the day shrapnel from a rocket came up through the second floor of a nearby barracks killing two men and injuring several others.
The base was attacked 26 times in the 52 weeks Harmon was in country from January 1969 to January 1970. The enemy soldiers were poor shots at best who often set the rockets to launch on a timer in an attempt to hit the aircraft parked on the runways, taxi aprons and ramps of the installation.
Every so often a cheaply made rocket would damage a building or destroy a multi-million dollar attack plane, fighter jet or utility helicopter. An electronics repair specialist, Harmon was on the ground crew that worked on the aircraft directly. Other men were busy in the base repair shop.
Six months of his tour was spent working shifts of 12 hours on, 12 hours off, seven days a week troubleshooting and repairing radios and communications equipment.
“All you did was work and sleep. It made the time go fast,” said Harmon who was a 21-year-old sergeant assigned mostly to the night shift when the majority of the attacks took place.
“There were bunkers spread out around the flight line. You hoped you were near one,” Harmon said. In a pitch, he could duck inside a revetment – a concrete capped enclosure designed to shelter U.S. and South Vietnamese aircraft. Each rocket left behind a decent sized crater while mortar shells took away chunks of airfield.
Once the enemy launched a daylight ground assault on the airbase that was stopped a quarter of a mile away by formations of planes dropping bombs and napalm. Harmon saw the airstrikes from the safety of the base compound. If an attack warning came in while he was off-duty, Harmon was among the airmen tasked with perimeter defense as a “Minuteman.”
That assignment required him to be trained in the use of various machine guns. During one alert, Harmon spent the whole night loading clips for the M-16 assault rifle in case the enemy somehow made it through.
Bien Hoa was a major airbase located about 18 miles north of Saigon, capital of South Vietnam. It was a frequent destination of “Freedom Birds” from the United States – commercial airliners carrying Army troops in and out of the country. Soldiers being deployed often stopped at Long Binh, an important staging area for ground forces about four to five miles away.
“The year I was there Bien Hoa was the busiest airport in the world as far as take-offs and landings,” Harmon said. “We supported all the in-country troops. I worked on a little bit of everything.”
The work included fine-tuning speakers and stereo equipment mounted on helicopters assigned to psychological warfare. Harmon managed one time to fly on a mission to drop propaganda leaflets on the enemy while blaring out funeral music over a sound system that could be heard out to a five-mile radius. Expecting to see hostiles, Harmon was disappointed that his only view from the air was of bomb craters partially filled with water.
“One plane I worked on is in the Air Force Museum,” Harmon said. Nicknamed “Patches,” the C-123 Provider was among the aircraft tasked with spraying the defoliant Agent Orange on the jungle growth of Vietnam.
Because they flew low, slow and level, these planes were vulnerable to ground fire. “Patches” got its name because its fuselage was hit and repaired hundreds of times over the course of its service in Southeast Asia.
Many times Harmon had to repair battle damage in an aircraft’s communication system by splicing together damaged wires cut by bullets coming through the airframe.
Bien Hoa was home to a contingent of AC-47s that were transport planes converted to heavily armed gunships designed to provide close air support to friendly troops.
One day an enemy mortar shell hit a gunship in midair tearing out a 3-foot diameter hole in one wing and sending red hot shrapnel into the fuselage. The plane made it back to base and landed at night. The next day Harmon took a peek inside and saw sunlight filtering in from the many holes caused by the explosion.
The base also had a formation of A-37 light attack aircraft that were developed from trainers. Called Tweety Birds, this aircraft sat so low to the ground Harmon could feel the engine intake sucking in his pants legs.
To access the communications system, Harmon had to lie down on a mechanic’s creeper to slide under the fuselage, open a compartment and let the radio drop on his chest.
Bien Hoa also played host to what may have been the fastest vehicle in South Vietnam – a Chevrolet El Camino tasked with chasing U-2 spy planes down the runway as they were landing.
The wings of this aircraft were so thin they could not support landing gear separate from the central fuselage. The purpose of the chase vehicle was to transport airmen to the U-2 so they could prop temporary wheels under each wing. Otherwise the wings would scrap the ground as the plane was being taxied from the runway to the flight line.
Life at Bien Hoa included an almost daily visit by Mama-san, an elderly Vietnamese woman hired by Harmon and his bunkmates to do laundry polish shoes and sweep the floor of the barracks.
“She was always very nice,” Harmon said. “She knew the routine.”