Qui Nhon, 1965: Terrorism Takes a TollPosted on 1/5/16 - by email@example.com“A series of events,” occurring in February 1965, “for the first 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.MORE
Indeed, Radio Hanoi had exhorted the Viet Cong (VC) to “strike hard, very hard, at the enemy on all battlefields.” In response, the National Liberation Front’s Liberation Radio vowed GI’s would soon “pay more blood debts.” That threat was realized on February 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 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 airfield.
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 field of vision.”
117th veteran Carl Vogel recalled: “I was in a guard tower that night. At first, I heard what I thought to be machine gun 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, SP5 Robert K. Marshall was alerted by VC gunfire. He quickly took up a firing position at the drainage port on the balcony. “I fired at them, and as I did, two more figures jumped from behind a newsstand 30 feet to my left and fired 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 SSGT 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 fired his last six rounds split seconds before the blast. It took them six days to find 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, SP4 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 after all these years, but these events should be brought to light. I was one of the first 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 GI’s 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,” MSGT Laurel Ward said. “I am afraid the American people are going to see a lot more funerals before it’s settled.” [Taken from the digital edition of VFW Magazine by Richard Fournier, February 2015]
The 23 soldiers killed in the attack on the Viet Cuong Hotel included SP5 James B. Alexander, SP5 Everett L. Anderson, PFC Paul E. Bays, SP4 Tommy J. Belcher, PFC Robert J. Betz, SP5 David N. Clayton, SP5 Clarence L Coleman, SP4 Horace C. Collins, PFC Delmer L. Ferris, SP5 Glenn H. Kelley, PFC Dallas Lawson, PFC Larry B. McClanahan, SP5 Robert S Mosier, PFC Walter L. Rickard, SP5 Harry E. Rowley, SP5 Ernest M. Schultz, SP4 Robert L. Simon, SP4 Harry L. Summers, SSG Francis J. Valkos, SSG Merle O. Van Alstine, PVT Melvin L. Waters, SP4 Lavon S. Wilson, and PFC Floyd Wynn. Another 21 soldiers were wounded.
Remembering An American HeroPosted on 12/17/15 - by Curt Carter firstname.lastname@example.orgDear SP4 Tommy Joe Belcher, sirMORE
As an American, I would like to thank you for your service and for your sacrifice made on behalf of our wonderful country. The youth of today could gain much by learning of heroes such as yourself, men and women whose courage and heart can never be questioned.
May God allow you to read this, and may He allow me to someday shake your hand when I get to Heaven to personally thank you. May he also allow my father to find you and shake your hand now to say thank you; for America, and for those who love you.
With respect, Sir
Our BrotherPosted on 11/17/11 - by Michelle Belcher for Dad and Uncle Bob email@example.comIn memory of brother Tommy Joe Belcher
Thank YouPosted on 10/1/03 - by Emily Ringger firstname.lastname@example.orgDear Tommy, I am a sophomore at Gridley High School. For my history class we were assigned to post remembrances for those that have died serving our country. I would like to tell you that I am proud of your bravery you have shown toward our country. I am grateful for your time and effort. Thank you and God bless! Emily RinggerMORE
Thank YouPosted on 11/5/02 - by Donald LytleAs a fellow Buckeye, I say "THANK YOU"MORE
As a Veteran, I say "JOB WELL DONE"
As an American, "YOUR DEATH WAS NOT IN VAIN"
And as a Believer, "YOUR SPIRIT IS ALIVE--AND STRONG"
Again, thank you for your courageous and valiant service, contribution, and most holy of sacrifices given to this great country of ours! ETERNAL PEACE MY FRIEND
The Wall of Faces
Brought to you by the organization that built The Wall, the Vietnam Veterans Virtual Memorial Wall is dedicated to honoring, remembering and sharing the legacies of all those who died in the Vietnam War. Here you can go beyond the names on The Wall to see the faces, share the stories and read the remembrances posted by friends, neighbors, classmates and family members.
All of these photos will be showcased in The Education Center at The Wall on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. To learn more about the effort to collect these photos and ensure their faces will never be forgotten, visit www.buildthecenter.org.