One Wednesday evening in late
1967 the operators of MARS station N0EFA in Dong Ha were waiting for the
band to open to 'The World' so they could run some phone patches home for
Marines and other combatants near the DMZ, but the ionosphere and Father
Marconi weren't being particularly cooperative. It was near the top of
the 11 year sunspot cycle but HF (high frequency) long distance
communication was still a crapshoot of sorts. The station itself was
physically divided into three equal sections. The western most area
consisted of a waiting room and a small booth to allow some privacy for a
phone call. There was a hard wall between that area and the operating
area, with a window between the booth and the operator. The operating
room was filled civilian radio equipment designed for ham radio operators
and foreign to military communications types. That room was connected by
a door to the living quarters for the operators which was connected to a
porch with a shower and a door to the outside on the east end of the
It was a typical MARS station,
constantly visited by the troops but usually avoided (and it's existence
sometimes denied) by the brass. We might as well have been running a
whorehouse on the compound, although the service we provided was more
important and a hell of a lot more popular.
That night I was sitting at the
patch console in the operating room next to the window to the phone booth,
but the band was slow to open. There came the rumble of jungle boots on
the plywood floor from the waiting room. I looked through the window at
the surprised Marine in the booth and wondered why everyone was moving.
"Incoming?" I asked. He replied, "Incoming?" It echoed. "INCOMING?"
The station evacuated in less
than ten seconds. Our escape hatch was a small hinged door on the south
side of the operating room. It opened into the entrance of a long 'Z'
shaped trench about 5 feet deep covered with timbers, PSP (perforated
steel plate) runway matting, and about 6 feet of sand bags. We never took
a direct hit on it (although many 144mm rockets and 152mm artillery
rounds came damn close), but we had built it ourselves and were fairly
sure it could handle one. The other end of the 'Z' was the entrance near
the door to the waiting room.
Bill beat me to the bottom of the
hole and Jim was behind me and since the waiting room had been crowded,
there were a lot of Marines in a very small, dark place. Somebody said,
"I didn't hear it." Then, "must have been a dud." But some smart*ss PFC
said, "Ah don't think it was no incomin'."
"Ah think it wuz just everybody
jumped up when that General walked in." Bill eyes got big. Mine, too.
The bunker was very quiet but it echoed in my brain, "General? What
general?" Behind me, Jim chuckled.
Bruno Hochmuth, Commanding
General of the Third Marine Division, said from the other end of the
bunker, "Yes. I may have caused the commotion. Can we get on with the
Jim laughed, but The General's
voice had enough command presence to empty the bunker as fast as it had
filled and although I could see the shock on Bill's face, he levitated
himself out of our end of the hole and was at the other end helping The
General out before I got outside. He convinced General Hochmuth that it
would be in everybody's best interest if The General would come to the
operator's entrance when he wanted to call home and wait in the operating
room. Bill (an E-6 Staff Sergeant) and The General knew each other and I
could see some camaraderie between them. Seems they had worked together,
fairly closely, in the past and either I was never told the circumstances
or they escape me today. But Bill knew him well enough to tell me to fix
him a particular drink with some ingredient forbidden to enlisted men and
I did and was shaking so hard when I gave it to him that he laughed.
The General insisted he wait his
turn to make his call and that we limit him to the official three minutes,
so we put his call through as soon as the band opened and let him talk
until he was through. He then advised us he would be back every Wednesday
evening at whatever hundred hours to call home. Unless the band was
totally dead, when he knocked on the operator's door on Wednesday nights,
His Wife was on the line and his favorite beverage was next to the phone.
I understand General Hochmuth was
the highest ranking American officer to die in Vietnam, his helicopter
shot down by ARVN artillery. We were ready to place his call and make his
drink that Wednesday when we found out. I've heard a lot of stories about
what a hard-ass he was and I'm sure they are true, but everything I knew
about him was from listening to his calls to his wife every Wednesday.
Barry Weathersby's original site depicts much of
Operations in Vietnam.