It was 10:30pm on 2-17-70. There was little activity in the camp of the 269th Signal Company, US Army, at Bien Hoa airbase in Vietnam. A typical muggy night. Boredom prevailed. There was a mixup and the nightly movie wasn't being shown. Suddenly and without warning, two artillery shells slammed into the camp well inside the sanctuary of the massive US installation. One rocket hit the normally crowded Day Room. The other demolished the latrine. Phillip Roger Coleman, now of Torrance, remembers how he had just showered and was getting ready for bed after working his 12-hour shift as a radio communication specialist. "I was the first one out of hootch. I thought it was Charlie (Viet Cong). I headed for the latrine, or what was left of it. When I got there, two guys covered with white soot from the blasted cement were carrying a dead guy whose chest was demolished by a two-by-four," said Coleman. "As soon as I got there, a sergeant sent me to a bunker. He was right. I was trying to be some fool baby hero by running out like that. Coleman said he and the other men waited in the bunker for 15 minutes before being ordered back to their hootches. No one slept much after that, he said. The unit was made up of communications personnel, and none had been in combat - unless you counted diving in the bunkers when there were occasional mortar attacks from the perimeter of the sprawling base. Two men were killed and ten wounded during the shelling. Coleman said he was lying in bed, one eye open and a hand on his throat, when the second attack came.
"It was 1:52 am I could hear the bombs coming in. A stick of shells being walked through the camp. There were five rounds. One was a dud. They hit the Day Room again and three hootches, including the one next to mine, It blew me down, but I didn't get hit. It was just luck," he said. two more men were killed. The total number wounded from the two shellings was 30. " It was chaos after that. People yelling, screaming. None of the guys were used to combat. We didn't even have our M-16s (rifles). They were locked in a storeroom, he said.
The company spent the night in the bunkers as the analysis team checked the area. It was then, Coleman said, when he and the others learned the artillery was "friendly fire," from a South Vietnamese unit miles away. The initial report was that a Viet Cong had given the Army of the Republic of Vietnam artillery platoon the coordinates of the camp, but Coleman says he doubts that. There were too many better targets around. Later, Coleman says word went around that a US Army officer gave the coordinates to the ARVN platoon in retaliation for someone in the company fouling up an important radio message. Whatever the reason, Coleman says memories of the incident are always with him. So others will be reminded, the bought a $500 full-page ad in an area weekly newspaper to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the shelling.
"I really don't know completely why I put the ad in, I just remember these were guys like me. If I had died, I think about what I would have wanted to happen," he says. "And I feel this rage about the wounded. The many guys lying in vets hospitals, and those dead. "I think they deserve something more than a posthumous title on a tomb stone."
Now attending college, Coleman looks back on his military career with trepidation. He was 18 and had just moved to Los Angeles from Chicago when he enlisted in 1968. He had a morbid fear of crowds and didn't want to go through with his high school graduation ceremony, so he joined on a Monday and on Thursday was on his way to Basic Training in Northern California. "I'd seen the movie "Green Berets" and wanted to join immediately. I wanted to be a 30-year man and become a general, but that changed," he said.
Coleman said his disenchantment started in basic training when the was given a disciplinary citation for not having his poncho in his backpack. The citation cost him a chance to be in a more elite unit. Once he was in Vietnam in July of 1969, his concerns mounted. "Being there was a waste. It was a free-for-all. It's unfortunate, sad, so many things have been forgotten. Incredible things happened that have never been told. and the VA hospitals are filled with people who are reminders," he said.
His Torrance apartment is extensively decorated, much of it with pictures of Vietnam. Newspaper clippings rporting the "friendly fire" incident are in a handy notebook.
"It's incredible to think of Americans firing on their own units. But you have to remember people were out of their minds over there," he said. "There was a real bad drug problem in our company. People were stoned all the time. Morale was bad. "The three top officers had been pulled out of the company camp that night. "We never got a confirmed report on what happened. We'll probably never know. The company disbanded shortly thereafter and I came back to Ft. MacArthur."
The final words in Coleman's memorial ad are for "All those who remember the anguish of war and the Wasted Paths of Glory." "I took the last words from a Stanley Kubrick film "Paths of Glory," It was about a French General in World War I who called in fire on his own people who didn't want to fight," he said.
Vietnam War Friendly Fire Deaths
The 269th Signal Company (Company A/44, 36th Signal Bn, 1st Signal Bde)
Company A-44 Members Forum
A book about the attack
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Please refer to 94th Year, Number 312 - 11 November 1988
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