Monday marks the 40th anniversary of the moon landing of Apollo 11. For my father, Bill Townsend Jr., this entire summer marks the 40th anniversary of his service in Vietnam. In about three weeks, he’ll mark the 40th anniversary of the wound he suffered that ended his tour after about four months. Over the years, the story I heard Dad tell most often recounted the strange duty he was performing when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. My mother, my sister, and I convinced him to finally write it down. I think it will speak for itself. Enjoy.
The moon landing would occur at 4:17 PM Eastern Daylight Time on July 20th, 1969, according to the spate of old news reruns and modern specials I’ve seen as part of the 40th anniversary. Not only the US but the whole earth, we were assured back then, was agog at the upcoming triumph. It was the first time man would touch another world.
In my world, the touchdown happened at 0317 military time–just past three o’clock in the morning–on July 21st. As momentous as the event was, the earth did not stop its turning, and half a world away the next day had inexorably come. The waning moon had set, and the meager lights of a nearby town were almost nonexistent. It was very dark.
The bridge after damage with temporary pontoon bridge.
I was sitting comfortably behind a waist-high wall of sandbags that served as a bunker among the twisted girders of an old steel bridge that crossed the Saigon River near the town of Phu Cuong from which the bridge took its name among the troops. It probably had a real name, but to us it was always just the Phu Cuong Bridge. At least once–some said twice–Viet Cong had blown up the bridge by floating down the river and breathing through snorkels until they reached the pilings. There was much speculation about how they could have carried enough explosives to do the damage we could see. The favorite story was that they buoyed a large American bomb they had recovered until it could float with buoy almost submerged, covered it with one of the large rafts of vegetation (which really did float down the river) and using straws for snorkels swam invisibly beneath the plant mats until they could tie the bombs against the pilings. Whether only one bomb had been used was frequently debated.
Whatever they did, it worked. Every piece of metal in the original bridge was twisted or broken and the engineers had propped it up with a crazy quilt of beams and buttresses that looked like the product of a madman with an erector set, the tinkertoys of that long ago time.
Being at the bridge was good duty since it was almost never attacked by land. One infantry company at a time would protect it, and a much smaller bridge across a creek about a mile away, for thirty days. Given the bridge’s history, our sole job was to continually throw hand grenades and a plastic explosive known as C-4 into the water. The idea was to keep up continuous random concussions to discourage enterprising VC aquanauts.
Three hours after midnight on the 21st I was using a flack jacket as a lounge chair and throwing my explosives. My feet were propped on an empty grenade crate. Boxes of grenades and explosives that had not been emptied were stacked around me, much higher than the sandbags. (We joked about them as our “bunker” walls.) The tinny sound of armed forces radio drifted from the small portable perched behind me. The Beatles had just come out with Get Back! And the song was much loved. Its line: “Get back, get back, get back to where you once belonged…” became a mantra for a while. The rainy season had started a couple of weeks before but this night was calm and clear. I think I remember “Get Back” drifting from the radio just before the moon landing coverage broke in.
Concertina wire waiting to be installed on the bridge.
There was an incredible surreality about our Vietnam nights. The land was entirely flat with rice paddies and the remnants of defoliated jungle. At night, you could see for many miles, and the horizon was lit up in all its circle. Like distant carnivals, streams of tracers from ricochets or apparently pointless firing into the air lit the sky, usually too far away for any sound. Distant explosions also flickered like heat lightening. We could usually recognize the types and could tell an RPG from a 105 with casual expertise. Sometimes we would see the solid tracer line going down from American gunships like a hose of fire with no separation between the individual rounds. On many nights, far away to the west in Cambodia, the B-52’s would endlessly bomb the supposed transit routes of the Ho Chi Min Trail. The flickers of light would seem continuous, and usually we could feel–though not hear–the vibration in the ground. On this night they were bombing, and I thought I could feel the faintest rumble pass through the torn metal of the bridge.
The feed from NASA through the radio was live and direct. I suppose we heard the same feed as those back home. The astronauts neared their rendezvous with something incredible, the first human touch of another world in history, and their voices were proudly professional and in charge as they counted out the approach in distance units. I remember I thrilled when they called their approach in miles and feet. Like many of our soldiers, I met metric units for the first time in the army and it still seemed traitorous to speak in “hundreds of meters” and “clicks” (kilometers). I hope my memory runs true.
As Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin closed on their landing site I made up another charge. C-4 came in sticks of 2.2 pounds–a kilo–and I pulled one from the crate. While listening to the radio I prided myself in how expert I had become. I perfectly made the hole in the modeling clay-like substance with my knife, crimped the blasting cap to the fuse, inserted the fused cap in the hole and squeezed the clay tight around the cap. I did each of the steps professionally, expertly, and felt my pride there in the dark at the adroit movements of my fingers, handling the caps where an explosion would set off the whole bridge. Only a few months before, I would have been totally inept in the darkness. Now I had mastered a dangerous task and did it with sureness and calm.
Behind me Aldrin, obviously reading an instrument, spoke in a voice that crackled slightly on the cheap radio: “twenty feet…fifteen…ten…seven,” in a tone like he was counting toothpicks. “Touchdown.” The sky was completely dark except for a faraway explosion or two. I wished the moon had not set, leaving no crescent in the sky to look at in honor of the occasion. Then, close to the river, a much longer string of tracers rippled the sky. For an instant I thought it might be a gesture in honor of the moment, like fireworks at New Years, but the colors quickly showed they were not ours.
I somehow lost time for a moment, and the radio had returned to music when I became aware. A faint smell of pot mixed with the odor of cooking blew softly down the bridge. I split the fuse end with my knife exposing the powder and lit it with my lighter. The fuse made the faintest red glow as it circled through the air into the water. The explosion was solid but somehow unsatisfying, as was the one that followed from two bunkers down the bridge. The radio kept playing music. I reached in the crate and took out another stick.