If the Viet Cong bombers missed at my hotel, however, they didn’t fail at AFRS. The radio station occupied a ground floor section of the Brink Hotel, a billet for command grade (mid-level) officers. The hotel lobby occupied another section of the ground floor. Between these two sections the ground level was an open space where cars parked – something that should not have been allowed. Above the ground floor were about five or six floors of officers’ hotel rooms.
On Christmas Eve, 1964, I was in the main studio going over my copy in preparation for the 6:00 p.m. newscast. It was a few minutes until air time and I was expecting Don Busser to come in any second. Through the glass between the studio and the control room I could see the guy who would engineer the newscast, setting up the tape cartridges he would play when we signaled. As a song was finishing and the engineer was getting ready to start a recorded information tape that would take us up to the introduction to our newscast, the station suddenly went black, the music stopped and I felt a vibration and heard a muffled roar, like a heavy thump. For a moment I thought the electrical power to the building had been cut but then I realized that wouldn’t account for the noise and vibration.
In the next instant the awful truth dawned, there had been an explosion in the building. I sat stock still in the black silence for some seconds, unsure what I should do, half expecting the ceiling, and maybe a few floors of hotel rooms, to come crashing down on me at any moment. Slowly, I decided I should find my way out of the building. Being familiar with the station layout, I had little trouble feeling my way along a wall to the studio door and then down the hall to the station lobby. There, I could see a small square of pale light through a frosted panel in the lobby entrance door. Bumping into furniture as I went, I headed for that dim beacon of light and opened the door. The soft light of late afternoon poured into the lobby.
In the parking lot I looked back at the building and was alarmed to see the entire parking area under the building was burning fiercely. Many of the windows of the rooms above the fire were blown out. I stood and stared for half a minute or so until Don Busser came out the lobby door. On one of the balconies above the station an officer appeared in his underwear, blood on his face and undershirt. He asked us if the building was burning. Busser told him it was and he should get out quickly. In the next few minutes the others who had been in the station came out and everyone was accounted for. The only one injured was a Vietnamese employee who had been in the transmitter room, closest to the blast. He had eardrum damage from the concussive wave coming off the end wall.
As firefighting, rescue and medical teams began arriving we decided we should get out of their way. We sent the Vietnamese employees home and walked the several blocks to the central post office where we could send telegrams to our families back in the states. We knew the explosion would be reported by the media in the U. S. and wanted to let loved ones know we were okay.
Somehow, I don’t remember how, we were rounded up by the Assistant Officer in Charge and driven to the Vietnamese government broadcast center. It had been arranged for us to borrow some facilities there to get back on the air. It was considered important to limit the psychological impact of being put off the air by getting back on as soon as possible. We had little to work with, without our music library or our own news wire teletypes. But we were back on the air by 8:00 p.m. and kept it going until the regular sign-off time at midnight. We worked from there the next two days.
A Navy Seabee team was brought in. They hooked up a mobile generator to supply power to the station and put in enough shoring and bracing to make the station safe to occupy. Three days after Christmas we were back to business as usual in our own facilities. The Viet Cong only got us off the air for two hours.
It was just a quirk of fate that the radio station wasn’t extensively damaged and some of us killed or injured. A few weeks before, the Navy Exchange store in a billet hotel across the plaza from the Brink needed more storage space because of all the merchandise they brought in for holiday shopping by the troops. Somebody came up with the idea of taking part of the parking spaces under the Brink. Wire mesh fencing was installed to create an enclosure against the end wall of the station. It was filled to the overhead with cartons of merchandise, providing about a 50-foot-thick “cushion” protecting our end wall. When the bomb exploded (it had been hidden in a jeep parked under the hotel) it demolished the merchandise and cracked, but didn’t knock down, our wall. Without that cushion, the blast might have blown through the station, laying waste to people and equipment.
What the blast did do was gouge out a sizable crater in the ground and cut up through four floors of hotel rooms above it, killing a few officers and wounding several others. But many residents of the Brink had not yet returned from work. If the Viet Cong had set the timer for 7:00 p.m., instead of 6:00, they might have killed and wounded a lot more American officers. Working late on Christmas Eve probably saved a lot of lives.
The blast also served to embarrass the MACV briefer at the “Five O’Clock Follies,” the daily press conference at the United States Information Agency library a few blocks from the Brink. As the press conference was winding down a reporter asked if there was likely to be some spectacular action by the Viet Cong to coincide with the holiday. A couple minutes after the briefer said there was no indication of such an attack, the briefing room was rattled by the nearby explosion.