How the Moon Landing Felt from Phu Cuong Bridge

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.
PhuCuongBridge1968I 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.
PhuCuongBridgeWireThere 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.

27 thoughts on “How the Moon Landing Felt from Phu Cuong Bridge

  1. What a great perspective on a unique moment in human history. I’m so glad to have read this piece. Thanks for sharing Billy, and Bill Jr.

    I recall that night too, but from a very different perspective. I was 10 years old, sitting in the living room of my parents first home in East Hartford, Connecticut. The moon was visible through the small window at one end of the living room – almost full as I recall it. On the television the ghostly images of a man in a bulky space suit blurred into view, almost indistinguishable at times from the leg of the spacecraft that he was perched on.

    I have tried repeatedly to explain to my children what a remarkable moment it was. My grandfather was still alive. He was born in 1898 and was fond of sharing stories of Florida before paved roads, rush-hour traffic, and amusement parks. He was five years old when the Wright brothers flew for the first time at Kitty Hawk. Yet here he was watching a man who had launched from just down the coast from his home, walk on the moon!

    We do live in exciting times. For good or ill, life is not boring – not one bit.

  2. What a great perspective on a unique moment in human history. I’m so glad to have read this piece. Thanks for sharing Billy, and Bill Jr.

    I recall that night too, but from a very different perspective. I was 10 years old, sitting in the living room of my parents first home in East Hartford, Connecticut. The moon was visible through the small window at one end of the living room – almost full as I recall it. On the television the ghostly images of a man in a bulky space suit blurred into view, almost indistinguishable at times from the leg of the spacecraft that he was perched on.

    I have tried repeatedly to explain to my children what a remarkable moment it was. My grandfather was still alive. He was born in 1898 and was fond of sharing stories of Florida before paved roads, rush-hour traffic, and amusement parks. He was five years old when the Wright brothers flew for the first time at Kitty Hawk. Yet here he was watching a man who had launched from just down the coast from his home, walk on the moon!

    We do live in exciting times. For good or ill, life is not boring – not one bit.

  3. I worked at the Phu Cuong bridge. I was in the 41st Engineers PC.
    After the bridge was blown I helped recover the tank that was blown into the water. I left Viet Nam In April 1969. Right after the bridge was blown I worked security at the bridge until the infantry took over. I bet we crossed paths. I have many pictures to share.

  4. I worked at the Phu Cuong bridge. I was in the 41st Engineers PC.
    After the bridge was blown I helped recover the tank that was blown into the water. I left Viet Nam In April 1969. Right after the bridge was blown I worked security at the bridge until the infantry took over. I bet we crossed paths. I have many pictures to share.

  5. I was with the 41st engineers pc. i helped build the phu cuong bridge and helped repair it after it was blown up. i operated one of the cranes that helped recover the tank that was setting on the bridge when it was blown. one viet-cong blown the bridge with a 10 lb. satchel charge. he kill himself when he blew the bridge. the vet-cong was seen in the water and they brought the tank on to the bridge with it’s spot light to shine in the water to fine the viet-cong. he (the viet-cong) climb the steel peir and set the charge on a corrable and blew himself and the bridge. but we believe that if the tank had not been on the bridge it would not have fell. i seen where the charge was set and the corrable had just a small dent in it.and i also feel your description of the bridge is false. i also have many pictures
    Larry Lynch
    (REB)

  6. I was with the 41st engineers pc. i helped build the phu cuong bridge and helped repair it after it was blown up. i operated one of the cranes that helped recover the tank that was setting on the bridge when it was blown. one viet-cong blown the bridge with a 10 lb. satchel charge. he kill himself when he blew the bridge. the vet-cong was seen in the water and they brought the tank on to the bridge with it’s spot light to shine in the water to fine the viet-cong. he (the viet-cong) climb the steel peir and set the charge on a corrable and blew himself and the bridge. but we believe that if the tank had not been on the bridge it would not have fell. i seen where the charge was set and the corrable had just a small dent in it.and i also feel your description of the bridge is false. i also have many pictures
    Larry Lynch
    (REB)

  7. I was under the Phu Cuong the night it was blown , I exited on the Saigon side
    and could not cross till morning to reunite with the rest of the company, I know there were 3-4 of us we crossed the remaining portion of the bridge by catwalk under bridge. As the trucks starting crossing a guy from my home town was driving
    acroos floating bridge I road with him , it was good to see him.

    Thanks Joe Peace A2/27 25 inf. Wolfhounds

  8. I was under the Phu Cuong the night it was blown , I exited on the Saigon side
    and could not cross till morning to reunite with the rest of the company, I know there were 3-4 of us we crossed the remaining portion of the bridge by catwalk under bridge. As the trucks starting crossing a guy from my home town was driving
    acroos floating bridge I road with him , it was good to see him.

    Thanks Joe Peace A2/27 25 inf. Wolfhounds

  9. Hey all who were at the bridge when it went up-Anybody remember the searchlight jeep who just missed being blown up sitting about 10 feet from the explosion, firing into the water where our ARVN friend told us were beaucoups bubbles, blasting away when it went up. We lived under the bridge on the ARVN side, i was there 7-8 months left June 69, had weights outside bunker next to the generator powering the new lights placed after the bridge went up NOV 68. 5/2 Arty I/29 automatic weapons self propelled-dusters, quads, searchlights Sgt Jason Crook ps I also remember when one of the cranes tipped over, killing the operator or a worker,also remember two guys getting blown up when they didn’t know the C4 was lit, didn’t get it away in time, another guy got blown off the catwalk into the wire around the posts holding up the bridge, couldn’t get to him for hours it seemed.

  10. Hey all who were at the bridge when it went up-Anybody remember the searchlight jeep who just missed being blown up sitting about 10 feet from the explosion, firing into the water where our ARVN friend told us were beaucoups bubbles, blasting away when it went up. We lived under the bridge on the ARVN side, i was there 7-8 months left June 69, had weights outside bunker next to the generator powering the new lights placed after the bridge went up NOV 68. 5/2 Arty I/29 automatic weapons self propelled-dusters, quads, searchlights Sgt Jason Crook ps I also remember when one of the cranes tipped over, killing the operator or a worker,also remember two guys getting blown up when they didn’t know the C4 was lit, didn’t get it away in time, another guy got blown off the catwalk into the wire around the posts holding up the bridge, couldn’t get to him for hours it seemed.

  11. Amazing we have this many Locals who served in that area. I spent a year down the road a little at Phu Loi with the 23rd Artillery Aviation unit. Only crossed that bridge once on my way back to The World.

  12. Amazing we have this many Locals who served in that area. I spent a year down the road a little at Phu Loi with the 23rd Artillery Aviation unit. Only crossed that bridge once on my way back to The World.

  13. We’re an international / Vietnamese architect company ( office in HCM-City). We’re currently envolved in the Urban Upgrading plan for Thu Dau Mot; Phu Cuong. From my part I try to collect as much as possible information on the past of Phu Cuong. We try to conveince the current local authorities to respect what still is. How ever times are changing. The old has to pass for the present. Recently the beautifull French-style theatre was torn down. Documents like old pictures , would be very very welcome. I myself live in Thu Dau Mot, for about 4 years now. I would be very glad if I from my part can do something back to you. Who can tell me of the first bridge> When was it build? On a Staffmap of 1965, there is no sign of bridge. When our ducument will be finished, I will send you a copy. For sure.

    Yours
    Jan Vandenweghe
    jan@2plus1.asia

  14. We’re an international / Vietnamese architect company ( office in HCM-City). We’re currently envolved in the Urban Upgrading plan for Thu Dau Mot; Phu Cuong. From my part I try to collect as much as possible information on the past of Phu Cuong. We try to conveince the current local authorities to respect what still is. How ever times are changing. The old has to pass for the present. Recently the beautifull French-style theatre was torn down. Documents like old pictures , would be very very welcome. I myself live in Thu Dau Mot, for about 4 years now. I would be very glad if I from my part can do something back to you. Who can tell me of the first bridge> When was it build? On a Staffmap of 1965, there is no sign of bridge. When our ducument will be finished, I will send you a copy. For sure.

    Yours
    Jan Vandenweghe
    jan@2plus1.asia

  15. Surfing, came across your site. My time on the Bridge was before the attack, 1968; Delta Co 2/27 “Wolfhouds” I too was assigned to toss the grenades from the bridge deck, 24/7. Our unit operated out of Phu Cong for a while. I have good and bad memories of my time on the bridge. The area was a beautiul place. Benjamin

  16. Surfing, came across your site. My time on the Bridge was before the attack, 1968; Delta Co 2/27 “Wolfhouds” I too was assigned to toss the grenades from the bridge deck, 24/7. Our unit operated out of Phu Cong for a while. I have good and bad memories of my time on the bridge. The area was a beautiul place. Benjamin

  17. i worked on the bridge fom feb 68 til it was done, then helped with the rebuilding til i left in feb 69

  18. i worked on the bridge fom feb 68 til it was done, then helped with the rebuilding til i left in feb 69

  19. I was a diver with the 41st. Engineer Co. stationed at Phu Coung Bridge from my arrival in mid-March of ’69 for about six months. I dove down the crane when it tipped over. The black guy Shorty was drowned and the white guy…can’t remember his name…he drowned too. I went down the crane, black as pitch in the dark, came across a fellow diver not budging an inch further. Couldn’t figure what in hell he was trying to do just sitting there on the crane about 10 feet down. Found out later he was a Big Chicken Shit and never went to the bottom on any dives! I went all the way down to the crane’s tip end then down the cable to the bottom. I held on to the cable as I had no safety rope on me. I walked as far as I could searching in the mud. Could not find either of the two guys. Very sad day! If I remember correctly, Shorty came up a few days later downstream and the other guy was never found. Really appreciated the 25th. dropping those grenades. You’re all a great bunch. Does anyone remember that crazy-ass bridge boat driver nicknamed…Magoo!? Craziest sumbitch I ever met! Funny as hell!

  20. I was the other guy that went into the water when Shorty when in. I was tied one arms length away from him. I’m not a white guy, I’m Appache Indian. If you don’t believe me ask Larry Lynch or Reynolds. If not get hold of Ron Campbell. The crane operator Moduel.
    The Lt in charge was Lt Harper.

  21. I was the medic on the advisory team with the Vietnamese regional force that was also at the bridge when it went down. In the pictures of the bridge I was in that bunker you see on the shore where it went down. The week the bridge went was the week before I went home. It was a 14 year old kid that set the charge. He was probably shot just before the charge went off as he surfaced down river by the mine net. His body was found in the river the next day and identified as a local. I saw his body with the little bamboo snorkel he used still hanging from some cloth around his neck.

    When the charge went off we were watching television (I had just bought a portable at the PX to take home). I think we were watching Star Trek. Anyway, the force of the explosion, and the concrete from the bridge landing on the top of the bunker, knocked the television over and broke it.

  22. I WAS AN ELECTRICIAN SENT TO THE BRIDGE RIGHT AFTER IT WAS BLOWN I LIVED WITH NAVY DIVERS ON THE RIVER NEXT TO THE BRIDGE BAD MEMORIES FROM GRENAGES GOING IN THE WATER EVERY FEW MINUTES REMEBER TRYING TO GET THE LIGHTS THAT WERE MOUNTED ON THE RAIL OF THE BRIDE UNDER ATTACK FROM VIET CONG LAYING ON I SHEET OF PLYWOOD WITH SANDBAGS I WAS PRETTY MUCH DEFENCELESS BUT THE NAVY GUYS AND ARMY TOOK CARE OF THAT I DISTINCLY REMEMBER MY HANDS BEING ON THE WIRES THAT WERE HIT AND SPLICING WITH MY HEAD IN THE SAND BAGS WIRES WERE COMING FROM A GENERATOR BOTTOM OF BRIDGE NEVER THOUGHT ID TELL THAT STORY TILL I DID A WEB SEARCH ON THE PHU CONG BRIDGE

  23. I was based in DiAn from 12/65 to 7/67 (discharged 4 July LOL) but also worked out of Lia Ke and Phouc Vinh and Phou Loi primarily as a medic with Helper Taskforce, 1st Div’s Revolutionary Development effort. We often worked with the MACV advisory team based in an old French villa in Phou Cong. I remember the bridge from an earlier time. What I remember with some pleasure was hanging out with the advisors and Vietnamese counterparts and drinking beer while looking out over their “back yard” after a long day in the field.
    .
    What I recall with a lot of sadness is the death of Sgt. Ron Hildebrand who, on his last evening in-country, took the jeep out to say goodly to some of his local friends and was shot by the V.C. We raised a reward and “Halfway House” did get those responsible. Simple story like so many others – not heroic, important, or even all that interesting – just sad. He was a wonderful man, it was a horrible war.

  24. I was with the 41 engineers and helped build the bridge also and I was a Crain operator and I think you may know me Larry Lynch my name is Richard Fenn I was there until aug of 68 . I went home because my bro, went to Vietnam Larry contact me if you would at ( richf45@comcast.net ) or anyone that was there thank you

  25. NOVEMBER 6TH 1968 0100 HRS. I WAS ON THE TANK ON THE BRIDGE.
    A CO. 2ND 34TH ARMOR 2ND. PT.THE BRIDGE WAS BLOWN UP BY A
    NORTH VIETNAMESE SABOTAGE TEAM,THAT HAD TRAINED FOR 6 MONTHS
    ON A BRIDGE SIMILAR,TO THE PHU CUONG BEFORE COMING SOUTH.

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