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Apr-03-2010 21:02printcomments

Easter 1969: One Crazy Night in Vietnam

Puff the Magic Dragon Meets the Easter Bunny.

 C-47 in Vietnam
Fantastic long exposure photo of a C-47 in Vietnam flying in the "Puff the Magic Dragon" role in Pleiku, Vietnam in 1969. Photo by Tom Zanga

(SALEM, Ore.) - War stories: regular Salem-News.com visitors have viewed and read many over the years here. These are sometimes gripping and often tragic; frequently there is something to be learned.

One of the finest privileges in my life as a general assignment reporter with a penchant for military and veterans affairs, is the contact I receive from people willing to share their own experiences from the combat zone.

Of course our writer Dr. Phil Leveque, who fought in WWII, says war is 98% pure boredom and 2% sheer terror. I don't know if U.S. Army Vietnam Veteran Tom Zangla would agree with that specifically, but I know he is familiar with the 2% part.

He's also familiar with the war Dr. Leveque served in- through personal accounts. Like so many American families, his answered the call, "I had a uncle that was wounded and captured by the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge. He is no longer living." Phil Leveque's unit arrived in France shortly a short time later.

One story that Tom Zangla of Greensburg, Pennsylvania recalls each year around this time, happened Easter Sunday in 1969, when a 122mm rocket didn't blow him to smithereens, at his base in Pleiku, Vietnam.

The enemy attacked the base regularly, but one night while Tom was laying on a cot in his living quarters, the targeting skills of the communists were better than average.

Tom Zanga stands in a 122mm rocket crater that missed him by 35 yards in Pleiku, Vietnam

"That one knocked me out of bed and I was laying on the floor when a lieutenant opened the door to my hooch".

The man with the bars on his collar said, "Hey come out here and see what the Easter Bunny left you."

The enemy 122 mm rocket had left a serious hole in the ground and it nearly struck a fuel tank, all within 35 years or so from Tom's tent.

"That tank to my right was just filled with over 600 gallons of gas and did not have a mark on it because the 122mm rocket had a delayed fuse on it and went into the ground before exploding."

Close call doesn't quite describe this edgy experience.

It is a hair raising memory for Tom, but one that most of us can very likely imagine. 122mm rockets tend to play for keeps.

Tom explains that he was based at the MACV Team 21 Compound was in Pleiku, Vietnam and nearby was II (pronounced 'two') Corps headquarters.

"The II Corps headquarters was a corps of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam and it oversaw the region of the central highlands which was north of the capital of Saigon."

Not surprisingly, MACV headquarters were a prime target and many 122mm rockets and mortars were deployed by the enemy.

Tom says that in order to keep the enemy at bay 'Spooky' - an AC-47 aircraft also known as 'Puff' as in Puff the Magic Dragon, would come on the scene to keep the compound secure.

Puff the Magic Dragon is something many Vietnam era Veterans recall as a deadly and efficient weapon.

"This plane was a world war II cargo plane equipped with three mini-guns that stuck out the windows or windows and door on the pilots side of the aircraft. Large flares would be dropped out to light up the area."

He says that if you were inside a building and heard a humming sound outside you knew that "Spooky" was at work.

Tom says a good example of 'Puff' the Magic Dragon is available to view on You Tube, in a clip from the movie Green Beret. It is about 1/3 of the way into the clip: youtube.com/watch?v=PG8qb0fiR8M&NR=1

Here is the full size view of Tom's 1969 photo of 'puff' at work:


Tim King is a former U.S. Marine with twenty years of experience on the west coast as a television news producer, photojournalist, reporter and assignment editor. In addition to his role as a war correspondent, this Los Angeles native serves as Salem-News.com's Executive News Editor. Tim spent the winter of 2006/07 covering the war in Afghanistan, and he was in Iraq over the summer of 2008, reporting from the war while embedded with both the U.S. Army and the Marines.

Tim holds numerous awards for reporting, photography, writing and editing, including the Oregon AP Award for Spot News Photographer of the Year (2004), first place Electronic Media Award in Spot News, Las Vegas, (1998), Oregon AP Cooperation Award (1991); and several others including the 2005 Red Cross Good Neighborhood Award for reporting. Serving the community in very real terms, Salem-News.com is the nation's only truly independent high traffic news Website. You can send Tim an email at this address: newsroom@salem-news.com



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