VFW Magazine — February 2015
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Qui Nhon, 1965: Terrorism Takes A Toll
Richard Fournier

Aseries of events,” occurring in February 1965, “for the frst time in the three years since U.S. troops went to Vietnam in force shocked the American people into some sense of being at war,” proclaimed Newsweek late in that month.

Indeed, Radio Hanoi had exhorted the Viet Cong (VC) to “strike hard, very hard, at the enemy on all battlefelds.” In response, the National Liberation Front’s Liberation Radio vowed Gis would soon “pay more blood debts.” That threat was realized on Feb. 10, 1965, in the coastal city of Qui Nhon.

The target: the bachelor’s enlisted men’s quarters. It was billed as the Viet Cuong (“Strength of Vietnam”) Hotel. But structurally the newly constructed four-story building was anything but that. With no reinforced concrete or reinforcing bars, it Q U I N H O N , 1 9 6 5 TAKES A TOLL mostly was made of hollow red bricks held together by mortar and plaster.

Nevertheless, the U.S. government leased the billet for a helicopter maintenance unit. The 140th Transportation Detachment (Cargo Helicopter Field Maintenance), nicknamed the “Phantom Regulators,” serviced the aircraft of the 117th Aviation Company (Assault Helicopter). Its 273 men in 1964 were based at the city’s airfeld.

The 117th’s commanding officer, retired colonel James E. Rogers, was against placing the detachment in the hotel. “For both safety and security reasons, I voiced opposition to this arrangement,” he said in an October 2014 interview.

CONFRONTING THE VC

At the time of the bombing, 43 men were in their rooms or in a bar on the ground floor. Coordinated attacks on the city began at 8:05 p.m. Two VC killed the South Vietnamese guards posted outside the building while two other VC planted two satchel charges at the main door. A 100-pound plastic charge destroyed the central staircase supporting the hotel.

Four stories were immediately reduced to one as the building crumbled into a pile of rubble more than 30 feet high. Alex Brassert was a U.S. adviser who happened to be in Qui Nhon at the time. “There was a loud explosion, then a second; the lights went out in the whole town,” he said. “I saw red fashes in a back window that I think was near the stairwell. Then the Viet Cuong Hotel sank out of my feld of vision.”

117th vet Carl Vogel recalled: “I was in a guard tower that night. At frst, I heard what I thought to be machine gun fre from the downtown area. The next thing I heard was an explosion; looked again and saw the hotel that housed the 140th lift into the air and settle to the ground. It was the worst night of my life.”

Just before the attack, Spec. 5 Robert K. Marshall was alerted by VC gunfre. He quickly took up a fring position at the drainage port on the balcony. “I fred at them, and as I did, two more fgures jumped from behind a newsstand 30 feet to my left and fred at me with submachine guns,” Marshall said. “I shoved another clip into my rife and emptied it, and one more, into them. I hit them both and saw them fall.” Some 60 rounds of ammo assured that.


“Then the hotel simply disintegrated beneath me,” Marshall recalled. Marshall was not the only American to engage the Communists that evening.

Special Forces Staff Sgt. Merle O. Van Alstine, a rotational replacement on his third tour, was in the bar that night. According to a vet nicknamed “Iggy” in an account given to Ray Bows in Vietnam Military Lore, Van Alstine pulled his sidearm. “Merle nailed them [two VC on a motorbike]. He fred his last six rounds split seconds before the blast. It took them six days to fnd Merle. His was the last body they found.”

RESCUING SURVIVORS, RETRIEVING THE DEAD

Rescue operations were delayed until dawn because the VC took out the local power station, causing a blackout. On duty in the fight operations center when the explosion occurred, Spec. 4 Raul D. Serrano participated in the rescue and recovery.

“When we arrived at the hotel, I couldn’t believe the devastation,” he says. “We could hear men yelling for help. Digging out was very slow because we did not have proper equipment. We dug for eight straight hours. Men cried out for their mothers, as some of us cried searching for them.”

Rummaging through the rubble required nerve, and it was displayed by John F. Huske. His Silver Star citation says that he “immediately, and without regard for his own safety, set about the task of crawling through the twisted wreckage searching for survivors. Throughout the night and early hours of the following day [he] continued rescuing survivors from the shifting and settling wreckage.”

Today, says Huske, “I have tried to put those events behind me all these years, but these events should be brought to light. I was one of the frst responders as part of a quasi-search and rescue team. I spent over 12 hours digging to a man trapped under tons of debris. When I reached him, I discovered that one of his legs was mangled and I was able to free him. I assisted a Korean doctor to amputate his leg where he crawled out of a hole.”

Arthur Abendschein was the last American taken out of the hotel alive after 35 hours being trapped. As quoted in Vietnam Military Lore, he related: “The big blast inside the hotel blew out all of the windows in my room and made the walls shake and start to crumble. The rubble tumbled around me. It was just liked riding a fast elevator.”

That the experience left a permanent psychological impact on the survivors is beyond doubt. “It was very traumatic and had a profound effect on those who offered immediate assistance to the injured in the collapsed building,” said Rogers. Lasting more than a week, “the task was very difficult and emotional for those involved in the recovery effort.”

TALLYING THE TOLL

Indeed, it was. The detachment had to be reconstituted from scratch. “At the memorial service, I counted 22 pairs of empty boots,” Serrano sadly remembers. “It is something that has stuck with me for 50 years.”

No Viet Cong terrorist attack took a greater toll in American lives during the Vietnam War than the Viet Cuong Hotel tragedy. A total of 23 Gis died that night: All but one belonged to the 140th Transportation Detachment. The other was a Green Beret.

In addition, seven South Vietnamese women and children in the area of the explosion were killed, too. All 21 of the surviving 140th members were so badly wounded that they required evacuation stateside.

At this stage of the war, U.S. troops in country were mostly regulars. Of the 22 140th members killed, 19 had enlisted; just three were drafted. They ranged in age from 18 to 39; 55% were married.

But Qui Nhon was only a harbinger of things to come. At the funeral of Special Forces soldier Van Alstine in February 1965, one of the pallbearers was most prophetic. “It’s a seven-day-a-week, 24-hour-a-day war going on over there, although a lot of people don’t seem to be aware of it yet,” Master Sgt. Laurel Ward said. “I am afraid the American people are going to see a lot more funerals before it’s settled.”
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