Story 52 - 12 Days at FSPB Coral

By Ken Cox


Ken Cox, 104 Sig Sqn

The story of my  time at FSPB Coral derived from kept written letters and audio letter tapes to my wife Ann-Maree from Vietnam and from some still vivid memories.

I  was a signalman with 104 Signal Squadron (104 Sig Sqn) and at that time was duty signalman to the Task Force Headquarters command post at Nui Dat South Vietnam.   There was a major operation that involved the Task Force headquarters to move out of Nui Dat and to establish a forward Headquarters (HQ) with two of our three battalions.   Hence we would have a forward and a rear task force HQ.

I and two other Command Post (CP) duty Signals (Sigs) were assigned to remain at the rear HQ at Nui Dat and the other duty Sigs to the forward HQ at FSPB Coral.   Of course many other 104 Sig Sqn members deployed forward with their various attachments and with the Squadron.

After those terrible first nights from the 12th May myself and others back in the “rear” started feeling rather uncomfortable or guilty with the disparity of our mates copping it badly up forward while we sat safe back at the Dat.   After a tough two weeks for our mates up forward myself and others were finally sent to Coral to replace our weary comrades.

Fire Support Patrol Base Coral

FSPB Coral
FSPB Coral from the air late May 1968
Photo from AWM collection

At 0645 on the 25th May we departed with twenty six others from Nui Dat in a Chinook for the 35 minute flight to FSPB Coral.

I was impressed with the current CP; Ten feet deep with much overhead sandbagging, electric fans inside and with timber floors.  It obviously would be safest place to be when the incomings were happening!   It also must have been hell before that was established.

HQ 1 ATF Bunker Coral
HQ 1 ATF CP Bunker at FSPB Coral late May 1968
Photo from AWM Collection

Of course only eight hours a day were spent in this “luxury” the rest was in and around your little trench in the ground.   It was a six by four foot hole two feet deep in the muddy ground with some saplings with two layers of sandbags over them and a plastic hoochie covering.

That first day was spent watching US fighter bombers conducting air strikes on suspect VC base camps  in the area;  A “fantastic sight” as I said in a letter of the 25th May.

My first night was interesting.   At 0415 hours on Sunday morning the rockets and mortars poured in.  I was not on duty in the CP and was asleep in my ditch with another Sig.   I described it thus in my letter of the 28th:

“The first rockets landed about 50 yards from us and woke us and killed one digger.  They then came in for over an hour and that I wasn’t really worried but very pissed off at being woken up! Our guns let loose and the noise of the incoming explosions and ours was unbelievable.  The next morning when I got up I saw how effective it was.  Our little hole was 40-50 yards away from the other Sig lines and every tent and hoochie of theirs was shredded and torn with shrapnel including our Q store that took a direct hit.   A mate of mine (he was an Air TAC guy and not a Sig) had a lucky escape.   He was the only guy I saw who had a fortified hole in the ground.  Star pickets and not saplings lined his one man roof and 3 or four layers of sandbags on that.   He copped a direct hit over his face and the bags were cratered to the bent pickets.  I will always remember that sight.   If he was in any of our digs he would be dead.

Tuesday 28th May saw a relatively small rocket and mortar attack at 0230 hours that resulted in three diggers wounded but there was a heavy bombardment of FSB Balmoral only a few miles away that resulted in one digger dead and six wounded.  However it was a night that resulted in probably the most vivid of my life’s memory.  It was during this attack and I was on duty in the CP. A captain had actually taken over the radio when a message was received to get someone to  go outside and stop light from escaping from what was thought to be the RAP about 50 yards away.  I was told to do this and someone threw me my rifle (SLR), another a helmet, and then the commander Col Dunstan put a paternalistic hand on my shoulder and said “keep your head down out there son”.  (I must say that Colonel Dunstan, then the Task Force commander, emanated genuine warmth that would ensure any diggers respect.)

Well I emerged from the CP into the night and a very different world.  What an unforgettable sight!   Our whole perimeter was lit up with the flashes from explosions that were probably our own fire in case of another ground attack.  The sky above was alive with the trails of numerous rockets going overhead apparently into FSB Balmoral.   Flares and continuous tracer fire were pouring out of “Spooky” (an armed DC-3 aircraft gun ship) protecting what was a big attack on Balmoral.   You could also hear the rockets and as I have noted before you can tell an incoming is a rocket from the sound just before the explosion.   It was a chaotic sight and of course I was not sure what was incoming or outgoing but certainly Balmoral was copping it that night.

I made my way along the muddy track towards the RAP that turned out to have been shifted but it was obvious to me that the light was coming from our own radio bunker.   I made my way down the steps to the curtain and rather stupidly put the barrel of my SLR through the curtain slit and paused a second or two without announcing myself.  The poor Sig on duty, who with good reason was alarmed at this, was ashen faced and reaching for his M16.   He was at Coral from the start and experienced that fateful night when our perimeter was penetrated by enemy.  My sincere apologies go to this person.

Under ground in the 104 Sig Sqn Radio Bunker at Coral
Underground in the 104 Sig Sqn Radio bunker at FSPB Coral - Radio Sets remoted to the CP
Photo supplied by Allan Lohrisch, 104 Sig Sqn

Thursday 30th May was a busy morning in the CP.  One of our companies had a heavy contact with the enemy 1 ½ miles to the East.   They tried to flush some enemy from a bunker system and suffered one dead and seven wounded.   Enemy dead was estimated at forty.  Fighter bombers were then used. I noted that it was hoped that that bunker was to be used for attack that night but with numerous such enemy camps surrounding us we were certainly not off the hook for tonight.

Friday 31st May at 0215 hours saw only about ten rounds of mortars/rockets which lasted for only five minutes.   I did not mention any causalities.

Thursday 6th June departed FSPB Coral.  I witnessed the spectacular explosive demolition of the CP and then boarded an Albatross Iroquois chopper with four of the big brass; I was the sig for the G2 Ops Maj Maclean and was the last person to leave Coral.  We circled the base to ensure no one was left and did a scenic flight over Bien Hoa, Long  Binh and other areas before landing at Nui Dat at 1600 hours.

Blowing the CP at Coral
HQ 1 ATF CP bunker being blown up at FSPB Coral on abandonment of the Base
Photo supplied by Allan Lohrisch, 104 Sig Sqn


I only had 12 days at Coral; less than half of the time that my mates who stayed for the full operation.

Of course those twelve days were infinitely easier and safer than the first but they were twelve days that taught me a lot, and I believe I’m a better person for the experience.   How sad though was the incredible loss of life for so many brave young men.

I am fortunate in that my wife Ann-Maree, then my fiancée, kept every one of my daily letters I wrote to her from Vietnam.  She also kept hours of letter tapes.  The written letters have been mostly scanned and saved digitally and over the years the good quality audio tapes were transferred from the reel to reel tapes, to cassette tape, and then finally digitized to CD and MP3 files and in excellent shape.  These are a good resource for research and of course to remind me of my long ago youth and the Vietnam experience that was such a significant part of our lives.

Regards to all

Ken Cox

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