Vietnam: My Most Memorable Experience Caught on Film

Stephen F. Dennstedt – Sergeant USMC (1965-1971, Vietnam 1967-1968)

At 0430 hours on 30 January 1968 Chu Lai came under heavy enemy attack during the Têt Offensive. I was there and saw and experienced the devastation firsthand. We had two KIA (Killed in Action) including Navy Lieutenant Stanley (Stan) Lewis our Flight Surgeon and a young Marine Corps Second Lieutenant. We also had a number of WIA (Wounded in Action). A recent commenter on this blog provided actual footage of the attack and its aftermath. This first clip (8mm film footage) was taken 10-hours after the attack and shows the bomb dump still burning (it burned for almost a week).

The second clip shows scenes of the aftermath. Two aircraft were completely  destroyed: they were Phantom F-4B II Fighter/Attack jets from my squadron VMFA-314 The Black Knights. You can see the VW (Victor Whiskey) tail insignia and the red lance running down the fuselage. Ninety percent of our planes were unable to fly the next day due to battle damage and/or runway and hangar damage. One of my squadron mates (a Corporal) was awarded the Bronze Star for heroically trying to move aircraft out of harm’s way during the attack. Purple Hearts and other commendations were awarded in the days following the attack.

It was later learned that over fifty 122mm rockets impacted around our flight line and living quarters that morning and mortar rounds beyond count. Two coordinated ground attacks were attempted from Dong Binh II village in the south and An Tan village outside our main gate. Both were repelled by our Marine perimeter defenses and Reaction Platoons. Thirty-six  years later my son and I returned to Vietnam and viewed the old air base from the top of Hill 43 (across from National Highway 1). It was a bittersweet experience and we burned incense and drank a toast (a fine single-malt Scotch Whisky) to fallen comrades.

Len Corsetti a soldier with the 198th Infantry Brigade (AMERICAL Division U.S. Army) provided this footage. I had no idea there was any footage available so you can imagine my utter surprise when he sent this to me. Thank you very much Len. Like me Len was there that fateful morning. In 2008 I again returned to Vietnam (this time with my brother) to see more of that beautiful country. You have to look really hard to see any traces of the war—but I did have the opportunity to speak to a few Vietnamese veterans on both sides: Veterans of the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and even former Viet Cong (VC). Meeting Colonel Tiger (former Viet Minh and Viet Cong) in Can Thō (the Mekong Delta) is a special memory.

 

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15 responses to “Vietnam: My Most Memorable Experience Caught on Film

  1. I was also there that night. As a matter I was on guard duty and was wondering just how I was going to stay awake then the first mortar round hit the hit the airfield, and I knew. Our bunkers were on the behind the airfield facing rice paddies. I will tell you that when the 1000 lb dump was hit the blast knocked off of our feet. Where I was we could see the rockets coming off of their tubes. Almost 50 years later the memory of that night is still something I will never forget.

    In 2015 I also return to Vietnam mainly to kill all of the ghost I had from my year, and I am very I when. The hatred that kept all disappeared the first day in Saigon, even the people there still call it Saigon.

    • Yep, that was my experience too in going back to Vietnam in 2004 and 2008 Joe. People were very friendly and the country was once again beautiful. I look forward to another trip back soon. Thanks for your comments Joe.

  2. Steve
    Do you remember the name of the Corporal who was awarded the Bronze Star for moving aircraft away from burning ones? He is one of my troops and I would love to reach out to him. Thanks
    Semper Fi
    Jay

  3. Thank you for sharing your story. My husband still won’t watch a Vietnam movie, much like my mother refused to watch a WWII movie. Yet, he gets together with his squadron, Black Aces, and they are a wonderful band of brothers. Never forget.

      • You are welcome. It is such a good thing for his Squadron. I wish all our military had such a good and positive post war contact with their buddies. Oh, the stories!

      • Trying to re-connect with any of my VMFA-314 Squadron mates who were on the flight line during the Tet Rocket Attack on 1/31/68.
        Semper Fi

    • Yes, 50 years is a long time. I’ve travelled back to Vietnam twice since the war (2004 & 2008). On my last trip I actually spoke with former Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army soldiers . . . I think we had a lot in common (we were more a like than different). None of us seemed to be angry, we were just curious about each others experiences. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

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