Counting the Katyusha!

Ahhhh.  So some of you might wonder what a "Katyusha" is, and why anyone would want to count them, eh?  Assigned to the 366th SPS in 1971,  I soon learned the significance of Katyusha counting.  

As a young, 18 year old, Airman I found Vietnam a strange, wonderful and terrifyingly hostile place.  I had gotten my father to pull strings at Randolph AFB, the personnel center for the Air Force, with the intent of getting into USAF law enforcement with the  goal of a civilian police career on discharge.  I know it worked because while the rest of my Basic Military Training Squadron (BMTS) who got Security Police went on a mass order with a dozen names on it, my order came down with just one name: me.  However, dad's contact whomever he was apparently went straight down the list of Air Force Specialty Codes (AFSC) and picked the first one he found 811xx, which is Security Specialist  rather than 812xx Law Enforcement Specialist.  Thus, I spent my time in the USAF not playing cops and robbers, but rather dressing acting and working as a grunt.  I spent more time in green or camouflage  than blue on my four year enlistment.

After BMTS and Tech School (AIT for you Army guys)  I was given orders for a small Air Defense Command radar site across from the beach at Wilmington, North Carolina.  Two days later those were cancelled and I was dispatched to Mather AFB, near Sacramento, CA, and the 320th Security Police who were supporting the 320th Bomb Wing (H) operating B-52G's in the Strategic Air Command. Although Mather was a great base and the assignment wonderful, I had a desire to "see the elephant" and being it was 1971 the war in Vietnam was still raging.  So I put in a volunteer statement for South East Asia and was soon on my way to  Danang Air Base, Republic of Vietnam: Rocket City.  On arrival at DaNang I was assigned to the Air Base Defense section, Tiger Flight, where I served my entire tour. 

The Nature Of The Beast

rocket4.jpg (13163 bytes)

Captured 122mm Tripod Launcher



The nickname for DaNang was "Rocket City" garnering that appellation from the   frequent attacks on it by means of the "Katyusha" which  is the name given the Soviet BM-21 122mm artillery rocket.  In Vietnam this rocket comprised one of the primary means of inflicting standoff attacks against airfields and other facilities.  Designed by the Soviets in WW-2 to be fired in a salvo or ripple from truck launchers containing a dozen launch tubes, in Vietnam they were used by the VC and NVA without the trucks.

Though still fired in salvos in Vietnam the rockets were propped up on mounds of dirt, improvised rails (usually split bamboo) or just propped up on crossed sticks. There was a single tube launcher with tripod legs but it was rare as it meant you had to carry it in and out, and the NVA and VC didn't want to hang around or be slowed by the thing. 

Salvos varied but could range from as few as one or two to 40 or more, and were frequently launched by a timer so while fire was not corrected by spotting the artillerists were also not nearby for the counter battery fire or air strikes. NVA rocket attacks were generally larger in volume of rockets and better aimed than "VC" attacks although by 1971-72 the VC ranks, decimated by their tactical failures of TET 1968, were said to be largely back-filled with NVA.


Generally, it took two troops to man-carry each rocket to the launch site. One carries the warhead, another the motor assembly.  The rocket assembled stands about 6 feet tall, and weighs about 100lbs,  has a range of about 15,000 meters, and has a   warhead weighing about 50lbs, (approximately 14lbs explosive and 37lbs shrapnel) as I recall.   It's primary function is anti-personnel, although the little rascal can do quite a number on buildings and of course parked aircraft.

Counter-battery Response, USAF Style!

rocket7.gif (90203 bytes)At DaNang we had an AC-119K "Stinger" gunship orbiting overhead all night long with it's two 20mm "Vulcan" cannon, and four 7.62mm mini-guns, night vision "starlight" sights and "Spooky" flares capable of  making any opposition staying near the launch site distinctly uncomfortable. The cannon and mini-guns were capable of spitting out over 3,000 rounds per minute per gun creating a curtain of fire that was awesome to behold:  A waterfall-like sheet of tracer fire that was as deadly as it was beautiful.

"Rockets! Rockets! Rockets!"

The USAF Security Police night shift at DaNang was "Tiger Flight" also known as the "Rocket Watch" as most rocket attacks occurred at night until TET of 1972, when we began to get our first daylight attacks.   In addition to our base defense functions we watched the jungle on the south/south-west of the base towards the river for the telltale signs of a rocket launch.  In the dark this was usually a white to yellow red, wedge-like flash of light in the darkness, containing white spots (the rocket motor exausts) rising in it.  In daylight a cloud of dust and debris kicked into the air marked the site.  There then followed the long ,droning, "rumble" of the launch followed a moment or so later by the "shssssing" hiss of the rockets passing over --if you were lucky.  The rocket heading right at you doesn't "shssssss." 

If the launch were spotted by Security Police personnel either on the perimeter, at the off-base bomb dump (ASP) located just South of "Freedom Hill" (Hill 327 ),  or in the observation post on top of "Freedom Hill"  to the west of the main base then the call "ROCKETS, ROCKETS, ROCKETS" would go out over portable radios we carried.  Others monitoring for launches included the AC-119 crews flying overhead, and the bases flight tower who could also make the call. The radio operator at the Base Command Post, call-sign "Battleaxe," hearing the call of "rockets"  on the net would  activate the base warning sirens giving everyone some  --if very little-- advance warning to take cover.

The rockets impacted with a "krrrump", or if closer a "crack-whump," the white flash of the explosion sending an expanding ball of white hot shrapnel into the night.  Like a deadly, hauntingly beautiful, parody of 4th of July fireworks the shrapnel starts out white, and fades through shades of red until they wink out in the darkness as the fragments cool below human visual range.

Striking Back!

The response to the attack was to locate the launch site and plaster it with fire: artillery, air strikes, or more commonly Stinger gunship fire.  Locating the site of the launch was critical and could be accomplished in several ways.  If the OP on  Freedom Hill had spotted the launch they were equipped with a Night Observation Device and rangefinder that gave the exact bearing and range from their location. Stinger crews might also spot the launch or other telltale signs of the launch and fly directly  to the launch site.  But sometimes these didn't see the launch in time to orient the device or respond, so.....

After the impact of the rockets Security Police personnel in each sector of the base defense force, normally Security Alert Teams (SATS) which were two or three man teams,  would try to locate impact craters and shoot back azimuths with a compass down the probable course of the rocket.  Multiple sightings were then plotted on a grid map, the back azimuths laid out, and by triangulation the origination point of the rockets could be calculated.  The responding fires would then be directed to the grid where the rockets were calculated to have come from.

GO TO:  

Rocket Damage
Vietnam Photo's
People I Knew
Latour's Tour
RVN Humor

Back to the Home Page of course
What happens when things fall down, go BOOM.
USAF Security Police sleeping on duty, film at 11:00!!
Faces and names from the 366th SPS
Gary "Frenchy" LaTour's Photo's of the 366th SPS
Diagrams and data on the Armored Personnel Carriers used by the USAF in Vietnam
Cartoons from "Sgt Mike."


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   Last updated: 09/20/2013 00:36:48              Copyright 1998 William L. Liddell