By David Freeman
The compound at Navy Binh Thuy was seldom bothered by the VC. There were open fields all around and the fact that the airfield was home to both the Sea Wolves and the Black Ponies was obviously a deterrent to would-be aggressors.
We did experience one attempt to breach the perimeter in mid-December 1971. The attack was easily thwarted by a visit from Puff the Magic Dragon and subsequent night patrols by the Black Ponies. For several nights after that attempt, we were harassed with rocket and mortar attacks. The compound was large, with numerous open areas, so the incoming rounds did very little damage. Whenever a barrage would start, we would make our way to the nearest bunker and wait it out.
One night, when I was on Second-Up duty, we were in the crew lounge playing cards when the mortars started coming in. First-Up had a heavy mission load that night and were out flying. Operations had advised the Second-Up crew to stay close in case we were needed to back them up.
Spades, Hearts, and Rummy were among the things we did to pass the time away when on standby. On this particular night, the second up crew consisted of Steve Hamman and I as pilots, Pete Petersen as the medic, and Robert Hellman as the crew chief. The four of us had flown together almost every day for two weeks. During that time we had spent several evenings playing cards and the competition between us was heated.
Petersen and I were partners. We were in the third game of a best-two-out-of-three series and the score was 473 to 421, their favor. The cards had been dealt for what would probably be the last hand. I looked at my cards; Pete looked at his. We both shrugged. We might as well bid aggressively. Maybe we could set them and win the game.
I bid first-six. Steve bid three. Petersen looked at me with a sly grin and bid five. I nearly choked, but had to admit that Petersen was a good card player. He could remember every card that was played, and on every round that he didn't have the lead, he would pull out the card he was going to play before the hand even started. Nine times out of ten, that was the card he ended up playing. He wouldn't have bid five on top of my six unless he had an exceptionally good hand. Mine was no slouch, but I began to doubt I could pull in six tricks if Pete thought he could pull in five. We were bound to cross each other up.
Robert passed. We were halfway into playing out this hand when the mortars started. They didn't impact way down in the southeast corner by the ammo dump, nor did they impact on the north end by the Navy hangar. But, they didn't hit right outside Dustoff Operations, either. The first impacts were somewhere close, but whether or not they were walking our way, we couldn't tell.
We played on. There would be time to head for the bunker after we found out who won the hand. They took a couple of tricks, then we started taking them. With a bid of eleven to three, the odds were pretty small that we could take all the rest, but that was what we had to do to win the game.
Two more mortars hit outside, one close to the helicopters, the other closer to our building. It was close enough that the walls shook and we could hear the pool balls rattling in the pockets of the pool table. We should have been in the bunker or moving the helicopters . . . just a few seconds more.
We took ten tricks in a row. Tension was high--because of the card game and because the next mortar round might come crashing through the thin roof over our heads. I had never played a game this close before. I don't think any of us had. In fact, I had never seen an eleven hand bid in Spades--certainly not ever won.
Pete had the lead. He played the nine of hearts. Steve played the jack of hearts. I played the eight of spades. We all turned to see what card Robert had left. It was a seven of diamonds. I couldn't believe it! We actually beat them with an eleven bid!
The cards forgotten, we ran outside and into the bunker. The next round hit on the far side of Dustoff Operations. The mortars were walking toward the Navy ramp. Another round hit the water tower and exploded, leaving the tank leaking water. Then everything grew quiet. The attack was over. What a game!