Illuminate! The True Tale of My WW II Searchlight in Vietnam

A WWII era searchlight used by allied forces in Caen, France.

A WWII era searchlight used by allied forces in Caen, France. AP

In which Gen. William Westmoreland plays a key walk-on role.

In April 1966, as I stood outside the heavily sandbagged command post of the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines (3/3) at the Da Nang airbase in Vietnam, a strange apparition pulled up: a five ton truck bearing what looked like a massive, World War II searchlight.

I pondered this sight for a few moments, trying to figure out what possible use such a relic would have in Vietnam, before I found out it belonged to me. Two Marines I did not know jumped off the open back of the truck, joined by the 3/3 comm chief who exited from the cab.

He confirmed that the apparition was indeed a WW II searchlight, and the two Marines from 1st Battalion, 9th Marines (1/9)  -- the outfit 3/3 was relieving in a mission to protect the airbase -- would instruct me on its operation and deployment.

I pointed out that I, as a radio operator, knew nothing about searchlights and also observed that no enemy planes had ever attacked us -- and if they did, the numerous radar installations on the airbase would detect and track them better and quicker than something used to track German bombers over London in 1941.

With great patience and military logic, the com chief explained that since both radios and searchlights operated on electricity, wise folks way up the command chain had decided it belonged to the comm platoon, with my buddy Joel Engebretsen and I selected as its lucky operators.

He acknowledged that we, of course, would not use the searchlight to detect non-existent aircraft but instead would deploy it at fixed points around the four-mile perimeter of the airbase to detect any Viet Cong trying to sneak onto the base -- and we’d have a squad of grunts to protect the light, the truck and us, in precisely that order.

That night Joel, the two 1/9 Marines, the grunts and I piled onto the truck for a training session -- replete with a manual for the searchlight manufactured by General Electric and a field radio to communicate with the command post.

This was a real beast of a searchlight -- 60 inches in diameter, powered by a 22kw generator, also mounted on the truck, with an output of 800 million candlepower, or enough concentrated light to at least temporarily blind any sneaky Viet Cong. (Here's a video of one in operation.)

It had a few quirks. Instead of a giant bulb, it used two carbon rods -- one positive and one negative -- to generate light. A tiny wheel, about two inches in diameter, mounted on the side of the light turned the positive rod as it electrically burned, reflecting the light off a mirror on the bottom which put out a powerful beam that could reach five miles into the sky.

About every two hours, we had to shut down the generator, open up the glass cover of the light, dangle inside and replace the two-foot long positive carbon rod, which had almost burned to a nub.

After one night of training, Joel and I won informal certification as the only WW II searchlight operators not only in the Marine Corps, but probably the entire Defense Department.

Owning a WW II searchlight in Vietnam in 1966 had its perks. The Da Nang airbase, with its two, 10,000-foot runways, boasted the most advanced aircraft in the U.S. military at the time, along with high-tech communications and radar systems. None of these advanced systems held a candle to our antique, Joel and I found out in our first spin around the Air Force side of the base at dusk. Airmen -- who had never seen such a thing except in movies about the Battle of Britain -- repeatedly waved down our truck to have their pictures taken with the light, bribing us with cold beer for the privilege.

In military speak, the “concept of operations” for the searchlight had more than its share of flaws -- something I did not realize until years later.  In its WW II role, the searchlight had a remote control system connected by cables to the light, with the operators far away from its massive beam. In WW II the searchlight also had a motorized system that controlled its elevation and rotation.  Joel and I operated the searchlight manually, with rotation and elevation controlled by hand as we stood behind the light.

Somewhere in the manual, Joel and I had read the command for searchlight was “Illuminate.” After parking at one of the same ten designated spots we visited every night, Joel and I would simultaneously yell, “Illuminate!” one would fire up the generator and the other would flip the switch to shine light up and down a half-mile swath of the perimeter.

Before we even began the “Illuminate” process, the grunts and truck driver disappeared. They didn’t reappear again until we had shut down and were ready to move to the next site on our nightly itinerary.

Years later, I wondered why the grunts disappeared. As I told the searchlight tale to a friend, she offered the, er, illuminating, insight I lacked in 1966. “Anyone standing near an 800 million candlepower searchlight is a target. The grunts were smarter than you and Joel.”

Yeah, but we were dedicated to the mission.

We never did manage to illuminate any VC with the searchlight.  But alas, also did nothing to win the hearts and minds of people living in houses in the path of our powerful beam, as it is hard to sleep when repeatedly hit by the beam of an 800 million candlepower light.

Over the years, I continued to try figure out what had become to me the mystery of the WW II searchlight. I finally resolved the mystery thanks to Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of all U.S. forces in Vietnam during my searchlight days.

My writing partner (and then-wife) Sydney Shaw and I visited Gen. Westmoreland at his home in Charleston, S.C., in 1985 for a series of interviews for our book Vietnam on Trial: Westmoreland vs CBS.

At a dinner party during that visit, one of Westmoreland’s friends asked what I did in Vietnam, and before I could reply, the general answered: “Bob worked for me.”

I never had thought of it that way -- he was an Army four star general in Saigon and I was a lowly Marine E3 hundreds of miles away in Da Nang and vicinity.

But, since he had cemented the command relationship, I related the searchlight tale, and wondered who sent it to me. Westmoreland answered: “I did . . . and you Marines are idiots. You were not supposed to use it as a giant flashlight. You were supposed to have a battery of them, bounce the beams off clouds and create artificial moonlight.”

Someone in the Marine Corps must have finally paid attention to Westmoreland, as it formed the 1st Searchlight Battery, equipped with an advanced 75 million candlepower searchlight, which landed in Vietnam in June 1967 and provided perimeter defense at bases near the Demilitarized Zone.

I sure hope they used the artificial moonlight tactic.