“The Lord Was Good”: Remembering a Year in Phan Rang

(Editor’s note: This story is part of an ongoing series featuring the Vietnam War veterans of St. Elmo and the surrounding area. If you or a loved one served in Vietnam and want to tell your story, get in touch with us at news@altnewsban.com or (618) 483-6176.)

50 years later, David Cox sits at his kitchen table with his wife Peggy, waiting on coffee and considering the midmorning snack of donuts laid out on a patterned plate. But despite tens of years and thousands of miles between the past and the present, he still remembers the details of his year serving at Phan Rang Air Base: the battleship New Jersey shelling the mountain behind their base, medical clinics in riverside villages, and mortars raining down in the waning days of the Vietnam War.

Cox, now a retiree in St. Elmo and a member of the American Legion, started his military career when he joined the Air Force in the summer of 1966. He trained to become a medical service specialist, and worked in the pulmonary disease center at Scott Air Force Base after he finished technical school in early 1967.

For two years, Cox remained at Scott AFB, celebrating his wedding and the birth of his oldest child, David Wayne. He and Peggy knew his name was on the deployment list to Vietnam—he’d been given a deferment off the roster during Peggy’s pregnancy—but the orders that arrived on Nov. 12, 1968 were still hard medicine to swallow. “I was deferred through Nov. 11,” Cox recalls, “and the orders came in the next day.”

Peggy Cox, in an interview on Thursday morning, March 28, chimes in from across the kitchen table. “We celebrated our first anniversary with the news he was going to Vietnam.”

Cox was slated for a single deployment, assigned to the 35th Tactical Fighter Wing at Phan Rang Air Base in southern Vietnam, just north of what is now the city of Phan Rang–Tháp Chàm and about six hours northeast of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon at the time). As a medic, his first assignment was to the dispensary, but he was moved immediately to service in the emergency room, where he worked for his entire deployment.

Coming into Vietnam only a few months after the Tet Offensive, Cox entered a base that had already been hit hard, and was still being regularly shelled. “We had mortar and rocket attacks pretty regular until March,” he recalls; Tuesday and Friday were generally when attacks occurred, regularly enough that some men went to sleep with flak jackets still on. After March, attacks came less often, largely landing near the airfield.

But in June of 1969, the mortar attacks shifted to the barracks and the base proper. Casualties increased, and attacks started becoming sporadic and unpredictable. At one point, Phan Rang went weeks without incident before a sudden mortar attack in the middle of an afternoon. Cox has been out on a patrol route in an ambulance, and was called back into the emergency room to help with the aftermath.

Recalling the incident, Cox pauses for a long moment. “When I got in, the floors were just lined with wounded.”

“You cannot unsee it,” adds Peggy.

Even after returning home, Cox remembered the many attacks on Phan Rang, experiencing the reactions and symptoms that many veterans now recognize as PTSD. At his first post-deployment job, a custodial post at a truck stop in Effingham, the sound of a slamming door brought back memories of mortars; the first time he heard it, “he came home white as a ghost,” says Peggy.

“My nightmares are not about the heat of the battle,” Cox comments. “They’re about the men we could not save.”

Even so, Cox has some fond memories of Vietnam, chiefly from his involvement with the base’s chapel and Christian Missionary Alliance. Chapel members frequently traveled off base for outreach and missionary work; Cox also participated in MEDCAP events, temporary field clinics for vaccinations, minor surgeries, and immediate care at villages of all sizes, Buddhist temples, and around the city of Phan Rang. At one point, chapel members constructed a miniature golf course for the children of Phan Rang, sticking around to play a few rounds and take photos with the kids.

Holding a carefully-preserved photo album, Cox smiles as he points out images of children crouching with golf clubs as if they were pool cues. “They’d never used a golf club. They knew how to play pool, though.”

Cox tells one last story, shortly after recounting the phone calls home through MARS, or the Military Affiliate Radio System (now Military Auxiliary Radio System), which allowed them infrequent calls back to the States through radio-enabled phone patches. Contact back home was slow and unreliable, and news came in patches.

“Someone told me about the moon landing while I was there,” Cox recalls. “We all thought it was a Hollywood hoax.”

Peggy laughs. “Some people still do.”

If you or a loved one served in Vietnam and are interested in telling your story, contact the St. Elmo Banner at (618) 483-6176 or news@altnewsban.com.

4 Comments

  1. Robert E. Wilson, on July 1, 2020 at 11:24 am

    FYI. I spent a year at Phan Rang (Called “Happy Valley”) May 69-May 70. As was mentioned in the article, we went for days without “action”, then, BOOM!, down the barracks steps to the first floor, laying there until the Deputy Base Commander gave the “all clear” signal. When I arrived, BG Walter T. Galligan was Wing Commander and I believe Colonel Mertley Base Commander. All town areas were placed off limits including the “Strip”. We did have a nice Beach Club, the “cattle car” would pick us up in front of the Barracks area, then, haul us out to the beach. There was one incident that I remember so well, even after 50 some years, It was Aug 69 I believe, One of our guys was off base, illegally, trying to sneak back on, well, he was “dusted” by a 40mike round.

    Anyway, would love to hear from anyone who might have served during my time at Phan Rang.

    God Bless to all,

    Dr. Bob Wilson
    Euless, Texas

  2. Robert E. Wilson, on July 1, 2020 at 11:29 am

    Served at Phan Rang, May 69 to May of 70. Lots of memories, the NCO Club on the hill, Beach and its Club, and, finally. each Squadron’s Patio” and gambling areas *s*. Town was always off limits during except the “Strip”; but, I believe in August 69, it too was placed off limits; Base Commander put it off limits due to VD problems.

    Anyway, again would love to hear from anyone who served at Phan Rang during my time, especially anyone who worked in the 35th TFW CBPO.

    Dr. Bob Wilson
    Euless, Texas

  3. Ronald Dean Bridges on September 4, 2020 at 7:50 pm

    Arrived at Phan Rang in April 69. All the talk was about the sapper attack in January. I was there for ten days before I experienced my first rocket attack. Over the next year we received 40 some odd rocket and mortar attacks amd only one six man sapper probe. K-9 alerted on the probe and the handler killed 2 and wounded 1 which the Aussies found in the bushes the next morning. The sapper provided info that they were part of a larger group awaiting results of the probe. That apparently convinced them that our defence was good and we never experienced a ground attack. I was a career E-5 at the time and served as a SP supervisor on the base perimeter. I could write a book about my experience as anyone who served could do. I retired as an E-7 in 1982 and now reside in Lubbock. It”s been 50 years since I left Phan Rang, UNBELIEVABLE!!!!

  4. Larry Sorenson on September 19, 2020 at 7:33 pm

    Our time in country was close to the same. I arrived April 28, 1969 and left April 29, 1970. An extra day for some reason. I remember the many rocket and mortar attacks, My barracks was near the post office and I remember when a mortar, maybe 2 or 3 hit the post office. I believe several guys were killed. Too close for comfort. I worked in the base motor pool, mostly as a dispatcher. I did some bus driving when we were short on help, I know the food was pretty good, I gained quite a bit of weight. Going off base was not allowed, so never got to the strip. I did travel to Cam Rahn Bay a couple of times for work. The motor pool operated the cattle car to the beach, I went to Hong Kong on R&R in January of 1970. I’m glad we made it home safely. We have many memories for our old age I guess.

    Larry Sorenson Spring Valley, WI

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