Benewah Stories

One night in a long war: The ammo dump incident: Mekong Delta, 1968
by Michael Omohundro

I had just relieved my predecessor as Weapons Officer of Benewah only days before. It was between midnight and 0300. I was OOD at anchor on the Co Chien River, a distinctly unfriendly place. We were scheduled to shoot about 18 rounds of 40MM APIT (armor-piercing, incendiary tracers) into a free-fire zone off our starboard beam, randomly over a 20-minute period. H&I (harassment and interdiction) fire was designed to keep Charlie awake, and to let him know that we were, too.

After firing about seven of our scheduled H&I rounds, I noticed a stream of red machine gun tracers originating at about the point of impact of the last one we fired, about 300-400 yards from our anchor point, and headed in our general direction. Even though they were visibly arcing, I was concerned that someone might be answering our fire.

I called the Joint Tactical Operations Center (JTOC), and asked if there were any known friendlies in the area. Free-fire zones were supposed to be just that: bad guys only. Anything that moved was fair game. The initial response was no. I was nervous. I quickly shot a line of bearing on the tracers from our bridge's gyrocompass, and translated that into relative bearing for our gunners on Mount 41 (our forward, four-barrelled 40MM gun mount). I wanted to knock these clowns down if they tried it again, and if I was convinced that they weren't our people on the ground. I called the skipper to the bridge, and my brief Naval career flashed before my eyes, as I envisaged getting into a firefight with friendly forces only a few days into my new job.

By the time our captain, LCDR Marshall Stowell, arrived on the bridge, we noticed another stream of machine gun tracers about five degrees farther to the left, apparently responding, not to our 40MM's, but to the initial machine gun fire. Here I was, well trained in antisubmarine warfare and nuclear weapons, but with no formal experience or training in conventional gunnery, and I had before me a rapidly-developing and confusing situation, which looked like it had the potential of getting somebody killed.

Just then, we received a radio report from the naval side of the operation that we had at least one ASPB (Assault Support Patrol Boat) in that general area. Actually, we had two of them, and, with the added confusion of our H&I fire, they'd gotten into a machine gun duel with each other! Suddenly, there was a blue streak of plain-language expletives over the tactical net, as they settled the misunderstanding without casualties.  Captain Stowell headed back down to his cabin. I thought the evening's entertainment was over.

As a green gunnery officer, I was glad to return to the rest of our H&I mission, which I purposely aimed about ten more degrees to the right for safety. Within five minutes, I noticed a red flare, launched from about the impact point of our latest 40MM round, followed closely by another, then another. Now, red flares were the standard signal for a friendly unit under ground or mortar attack. Had I managed to realize my nighmares and finally hit friendlies? I nervously called JTOC again, to make sure we had no U.S. units in that area. Another anxious call to the skipper brought him back to the bridge. Our ASPB's, within their rules of engagement, began to hose down the area with 7.62MM machine guns and rapid-fire grenade launchers. They apparently didn't see anything friendly about the situation or its source.

These flares didn't seem normal, somehow, since they seemed to launch in a helical pattern off the ground rather than a regular arch, as I was accustomed to seeing.  Just as I started to ask the captain what he thought of what we were both seeing, a series of small explosions rocked the area around the "flares".  These wern't flares: they were detonating ordnance, and we seemed to have touched them off! We poured about 35 more 40MM rounds into the growing conflagration, as we began to see tracers taking off from the center of the area, which looked to be about 25 yds. square in the moonless night. I recall being proud of Mount 41's accuracy and speed of
response. I reminded myself to congratulate the gun crew later.

I dashed into the armored conning station, in the center of the open bridge, and slammed the general quarters alarm fully to the right. "Now, general quarters, general quarters, all hands man your battle stations." I noticed that the words weren't fully out of my mouth before I could hear the urgent pounding of shoes on steel decks and ladders, followed by sleepy curses as sailors struggled to sprint and dress at the same time.

Soon, the tracers were arcing into the water about 80 yards off the starboard beam, then skipping off the water in our direction. My jaw dropped as it occurred to me at that point that most machine gun ammo was loaded in a 4:1 ratio of regular rounds to tracers, meaning that there were actually five times as many bullets flying around as we could see in the dark! Captain Stowell and I dived simultaneously under a pile of flack jackets just aft of the bridge. We must have looked comical, but discretion seemed the better part of valor at the moment!

A few seconds earlier, I had sent the quartermaster and bridge phone talker into the armored conning station, where they'd had the good sense to get down below the windows, and take the best cover they could find. I now saw tracers arcing over the ship, and skipping off the water on our port side, as I became aware of bullets ricocheting off the bridge's superstructure and the helicopter landing pad amidships, with some of those impacts only a few feet away from me. I felt strangely detached from the scene of which I was a part; the noise was so deafening that I couldn't hear anything, if that seems possible. I functioned, rather than really thought, in this silent ballet which my shipmates and I were stumbling through. (I later learned of the same phenomenon from veterans of Korea and WWII).

Within 90 seconds of sounding GQ, the skipper sent me back to the 1MC to secure the crew from battle stations. He reasoned that there was really nothing to shoot back at, and exposing people on the weather decks would probably result in casualties. He was right. I remember looking through my binoculars at the explosions: poisonous, violent flowers, blossoming almost in our faces, consuming themselves and everything around them, as they rumbled and roared for another six minutes. I was fascinated, dumbstruck.

In the noise and confusion, we were unaware on the bridge that our starboard hull had been hit by at least three rockets or mortar rounds, and some 34 other projectiles of various sizes, plus numerous dings and chips in the rigging and superstructure. The next morning we assessed the damage.

We were lucky. The impact points were at about the best places possible: only a few feet from ready ammunition storage, a berthing compartment, and our only emergency surgical area. One of the big rounds struck at a point opposite where the 9th Division's 2nd Brigade staff assembled for GQ, but didn't penetrate as it was designed, probably because of its unguided trajectory.

It looked like it would be a long tour.


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