Blasts & epiphanies

Apr 16, 2008 at 12:00 am

"Rockets! Rockets! Rockets!" were the dreadful words piped over loudspeakers just before a siren sounded and thunderous explosions filled the damp, hot, night air. It was August 1969 that I began my yearlong survival against fear and depression at Da Nang Air Force Base, Vietnam. In my senior year in college I was notified that I had been drafted. Having seen many veterans coming back from Vietnam without their arms, legs, along with being inflicted with other disabling wounds, I was not too anxious to join the ranks of the Army. After talking with a recruiter from the Air Force and passing all the physical and mental exams for being a pilot, I thought I now had a good chance to fly jet aircraft.

I should have known that most recruiters lie. Thinking that I might not have to go to Vietnam after spending almost three years in Denver, I got orders to go to Da Nang. I remember clearly the final segment of the long flight from the USA to Da Nang. It was late at night as the flight neared the Air Force base. No one was talking, only silence filled the cabin air as the military transport landed. Immediately after landing, we found out that the base had just been hit with several 122 millimeter Russian-made rockets. Death was in the air, and I knew immediately that I was about to experience the longest year of my life at Da Nang. Little did I know that it would be the worst of times and, also in a way, the best of times. I was immediately assigned to the 20 TASS (Tactical Air Support Squadron) right next to the "Ranch Hand" squadron that sprayed "Agent Orange" on the jungles. Seemed like the smell of agent orange and DDT, to kill malaria-carrying mosquitoes, was always in the air. Our task was to keep a squadron of small forward air control aircraft flying as "target spotters" for the faster F-4 fighter-bombers using white phosphorous rockets to mark the targets. For most of the time, I was quartered in the "Hooch" area alongside of a benzo ditch (open sewer). The "hooches" were small plywood structures that housed from eight to ten men. Sandbags were piled high, almost to the roof line, and we felt fairly safe there knowing that it would take a direct hit through the roof in order to kill us. It was much better than the previous months spent in "Rocket Alley," where our barracks stood right next to a pipeline carrying liquid oxygen from a plant that manufactured the stuff about 800 yards away. I sometimes slept with my helmet and flack jacket on because we weren't allowed to scramble down from the second floor to the bunker during rocket attacks. We were told too many were getting killed trying to get to the bunkers, so we had to stay put and hope the pipeline wouldn't get hit or shrapnel wouldn't come up through the floorboards.

The benzo ditches seemed to breed large numbers of rats that we often found living under the hooches. Some attempts were made to poison them but were later abandoned after a number decided to die and rot under the floorboards. As well as the large rats, we also contended with infestations of giant cockroaches that seemed to hide in every nook and cranny of the hooches. I was told to leave them alone but instead, I got a hold of some U.S. government-issued roach spray and sprayed the hooch. I soon learned why I was told not to mess with them, because the spray didn't kill them it just made them mad and they drove me and several guys out the door, attacking with a vengeance. The days and nights were hot, reaching well over 120 degrees on the flight line, but it was much better than what the guys in the jungle had to endure. Despite the "relative" safety of the base, a lot of Air Force personnel did get killed and wounded from many rocket attacks. All of the attacks came at night, and for the most part I didn't see them, only heard them coming in and exploding. But one night was different. I had been assigned to work at night on the "flight line." I was immediately warned by a flight line sergeant, not to run for cover if I found myself out on the tarmac when the warning came over the speakers. He told me two airmen had been killed during the last rocket attack running for a bunker. The rocket shrapnel had cut them both down. As sure as if the Sergeant's words rang in my ears, I heard the dreadful words "Rockets! Rockets! Rockets!" sound over the speaker system again, but this time I was completely exposed out on the flight line. Instead of running to a bunker about 100 yards away, I instantly recalled the sergeant's warning and hit the tarmac. Within seconds, I saw rockets exploding down the runway and heading for me. Shrapnel streaked overhead as I tried to get every inch of my body as flat to the ground as I could get it. I was scared and everything in me wanted to run to the safety of the bunker but I knew the shrapnel would cut me down. It was only seconds that I lay there in a puddle of sweat, but it felt like a lifetime.

Prior to Vietnam, I had lived a life of selfishness and sin, often getting drunk, smoking dope and living a loose moral lifestyle. I had thought about life and death before Vietnam, but now life and death stared out at me very closely, and I could no longer avoid the question: If I were to die today, where would I spend eternity? I remember one night feeling very lonely and depressed as I walked back to my hooch. That night I fell asleep in a very fretful way. In the morning all eight of us guys living in the hooch would go to the chow hall for breakfast, then to the flight line to work.

Only this next morning would be a lot different than any morning up to that time. When I woke up on the top bunk, I was alone and paralyzed. I could not move out of my bunk. It felt as if a blanket of death had fallen on me and I was dying. I couldn't see any thing on me, but I could feel something that was trying to squeeze the life out of me. I immediately called out to God, "God, God, I will do anything for you, if you will take this thing off of me." Suddenly, without warning, I saw a bright light come down through the roof of the hooch and hover above me. It was the brightest light I had ever seen, but it did not blind me. It appeared like a crystal with sharp points going out in all directions. Instantly, I felt more love and peace than I had ever experienced. It was like liquid love had been poured out on me and I was instantly free from the blanket of death that had paralyzed me. I jumped out of my bunk and hit the floor dancing, filled with joy. It was a good thing no one else was around, because I'm sure they would have thought I had gone crazy. In fact, the thought that I was now crazy did occur to me, I thought, "If this is crazy, I want more of it." I did a few simple math problems in my head, and found out my brain was still working, so I thought I was OK. Not thinking more about what just happened to me, I quickly rushed out of the hooch. I was sure that I was late to report for work, so I raced across an open field on my way to the flight line when I felt something like a hand suddenly hit me on my back almost knocking me down. I stopped, and looked around, but no one was there. I started to think about what had just happened to me in the hooch and again right then. I felt as if a voice inside of me was saying, "Go see a chaplain!" I knew there were very few chaplains on the base, and they were very busy tending to the wounded and dying. I thought to myself, that I would not have much of a chance of seeing one in the immediate future. But God makes a way where there is no way. Because when I got to a phone on the flight line and called the chaplain's office, I was told to come over right away. Immediately, I got into my truck and drove to the other side of the base and walked into the chaplain's office. When I saw the chaplain, he took one look at me and said, "What is wrong with you?" I immediately broke down and cried like a baby. I felt like I was falling apart in front of a stranger. I told him what had just happened to me, and I could hardly believe his response. He said he wasn't surprised at all by my story. He said that he had heard other unusual stories like mine and he believed what I had told him. After reading some Bible verses that I could hardly see through my tears, the phone rang suddenly. Chaplain Dane said, "Jim I hate to interrupt just now, but I have been waiting for this phone call for some time. Please take this tract and read it while I'm on the phone and we'll talk some more after I'm finished." I didn't know what a tract was, but I took it, and went out into a hallway to read it. The tract basically told me that God loved me and had a good plan for my life. "God so loved the world that He gave his only son, and who ever would believe in Him will have eternal life". I had heard this before but it never penetrated me as it did that moment. It also said that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, also, the wages of sin is death, (spiritual separation from God, an eternal life of pain and suffering in a real place called Hell). The verse went on to say that the free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord. Further, it went on to say that Jesus Christ is God's only provision for sin. He died on the Cross in my place and yours if you accept Him as savior and Lord of your life. I had heard all this before, but I never heard that it is not enough to just give approval to this belief. I needed to ask God to forgive my sins and personally ask Jesus Christ to come into my heart to be savior and Lord of my life. I did ask Jesus Christ to come into my life that day, and I can honestly say that for the first time in my life I was no longer afraid to die. For the rest of that year I saw many men die. I saw one man walk out of a burning aircraft that I could not get within 100 yards because the heat was so intense, all the other 22 crew members perished in the fire. Also, a Christian friend of mine survived a rocket explosion right next to him that left him in a crater without injury. That explosion almost blew me out of my bunk when I was more than 100 yards away from it.

The main thing I learned that year was, what He did for me, He will also do for you. It says in the Bible "if you confess that Jesus is Lord and believe God raised Him from the dead you will be saved. The following is a simple prayer like the one I prayed for salvation that morning in Vietnam that changed my life for ever. If you pray the following simple prayer from your heart, I can tell you He will save you from the fires of Hell like He saved me. Please don't hesitate, you could die this very day and where will you be? In Heaven or Hell? Please pray the following prayer: Dear God I am a sinner, and I am sorry for my sins. I ask Jesus Christ to come into my heart now as Savior and Lord of my life. I believe Jesus Christ died on the cross for my sins and that he rose again from the dead. I thank you Jesus for coming into my life and forgiving me of my sins. Friend, if you prayed that prayer, Jesus Christ came into your heart and you have been Born Again! You are now a child of God, get a Bible and read it every day starting with the Gospel of John. Go to a Bible believing church and pray to your Father in Heaven because He will guide you and answer you. May God richly bless you!