40 Years – Remembering Tet 1968

(another powerful essay… – promoted by pfiore8)

In August of 1967 General William Westmoreland claimed to have hurt the enemy so badly that “their major efforts” were limited to the periphery of South Vietnam.

“We have reached an important point when the end becomes to come into view,”  General Westmoreland said in his speech to the National Press Club in Washington on November 21, 1967. “We are making progress…it (success) lies within our grasp, the enemy’s hopes are bankrupt.”

Meanwhile –

General Vo Nguyen Giap explained how and why the Hanoi leders had enticed the American forces to the borders of the South in an extended two-part article published in Quan Doi Nhan Dan (The Army of the People) published in September 1967. Giap cited the fighting along the DMZ and in the Central Highlands as principal examples of Hanoi’s strategy at work.

Quoted from A Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan

The Offensive began on the eve of the lunar new year, 30 January 1968. In it’s early hours Westmoreland still contended that the Tet attacks were a diversion and that the real objective was Khe Sanh.

MAG-16 (Marble Mtn.) near Da Nang – 3 February 1968



waitingHurry up and wait. There were about thirty of us, all volunteers, some willing, others not so much. We were surrounded by our helmets, flak jackets, packs, canteens, bandoleers of magazines, grenades and our M-16’s. We had no idea where we were going. “You’ll know soon enough,” we were told.

Some of the Marines sat in small groups laughing, joking and exchanging boasts and friendly banter as they picked through boxes of C-rations in search of a can of chicken noodle soup or the special treat of canned peaches and a small tin of pound cake. Still others sat alone in silence, smoking and staring out at nothing in particular.

Artillery fire boomed off to the southwest. F4 Phantom jets whined and roared into the skies from the Da Nang airbase a few kilometers to our west.

swviewJust south of us, stretching inland from the South China Sea lies the rich rice growing region of Quang Nam Province. Further yet to the west and south, beyond the lowlands, the Annamite Mountains rise forebodingly. We were going to fight “the other war”, the war for hearts and minds in the villages and hamlets among the rice fields, hedgerows, bamboo thickets, winding rivers and tree-lines in an area the Marines had nicknamed “Dodge City”. Little did we know, the Vietnamese referred to the region as “The Cradle of the Revolution”.

Names were called. Twelve of us “saddled up” and were herded to a nearby staging area. We watched as the Chinook arrived from the south sending a wind-whipped cloud of dirt and debris swirling around the small landing pad. The rear ramp of the plane was lowered and we leaned into the swirling dust cloud and entered the belly of the helicopter. Once strapped in we were quickly airborne. The air became refreshingly cool as we gained altitude. Sweat dried on our dusty faces. Noise and vibration made conversation impossible. We could only keep our thoughts to ourselves and wait to see what fate had to offer.

Only minutes had passed until we banked and dropped quickly. A glance through the porthole on the opposite side of the Chinook provided a momentary escape from reality. The countryside was lush from months of monsoon rains and as beautiful as any I had ever seen.

On the ground, in a cloud of red dust, an M-60 machine gun was chattering away, firing from a sandbagged fighting hole. The unmistakable pop, pop, pop of incoming filled the air as the rear door dropped and several of us, crouching low, ran out of the plane. Cases of ammo and C-rations were kicked out and we were waved back through the dust and onto the helicopter for another brief up and down ride.

In less than ten minutes we were in another spiraling decent. Three of us were signaled to disembark. There was incoming fire when we landed but it stopped once the Chinook lifted off again.

On the Ground Again

tetmorningWe were greeted with smiles and cheers from a half dozen or so Vietnamese counterparts, Regional Forces Soldiers, a province level force similar to a State National Guard unit in the US.

We found ourselves in a small compound. It took the appearance of a dilapidated fortification from the French colonial era. The fortified area was not large, perhaps 175 feet by 125 feet. There were sandbagged fighting holes and sleeping bunkers around the perimeter. The sandbags were weathered and torn and portions of the contents had leaked out.

A small river bordered our compound on the north side and the remains of a highway bridge, recently blown up by the Viet Cong, now lay in crumbling ruins on both banks of the river. There was no time to explore our new home. A group of 3 or 4 Marines, none wearing rank insignia, directed the three of us to the north perimeter of the compound. We were told to find a fighting hole, get down in it and shoot anything that moved on the opposite bank. I took up a position overlooking the river and a smiling RF counterpart with an M-1 Carbine soon joined me. The other two replacements slid into an adjacent fighting hole.

Within an hour one my two replacement buddies had been killed during a brief barrage of B-40 rockets (RPGs). In retaliation, I assume, a napalm strike was called on one of the hamlets across the river. There were two hamlets, divided by a narrow road. The napalm strike was not delivered on the hamlet from where the rocket fire originated.

This was the time period which was to become the turning point in the American phase of the wars in Viet Nam. This was the time which would be remembered as “The Tet Offensive”.

After Tet

comb1It’s not easy sorting it all out years after the fact. My memory is mostly a blur for all of February 1968. I still picture a faded collage of casualties, civilian and our own. Too many local villagers wearing white, the color of mourning in Viet Nam. If we caused any grief for the enemy it was by way of indirect fire and we never knew about it. Our counterparts did detain a few people and we received one badly wounded Marine POW who been left behind by his NVA captors and had wandered across a large open paddy and into a nearby hamlet.

In late February just beyond the southwest corner of our AO the South Korean Marines committed an atrocity in the area around the hamlet of Phong Nhi. I don’t recall the incident itself but remember the mass burials that followed.

I don’t recall feeling anything through that period, no fear, no sadness only numbness and simple acceptance of fate. We lived on subsistence level C-rats and drinking water that left a diesel fuel after taste. By late February it was safe enough to bathe in the river if we had an armed guard.

We were led by sergeants and senior corporals there were no officers in our unit or other combined units similar to ours. As low ranking enlisted men we knew little of what was happening outside of our own AO and in our nearby sister units.

By early March we received a permanent unit leader and began patrolling on a regular basis. Our days were spent patrolling, taking part in joint operations with other units in our area and acting as guides for line units whose troops were not familiar with our AO. We either went on patrols or stood bunker watch during the day and either went on ambushes or stood bunker watch at night. Our food and living conditions improved. New bunkers were built and if we could hitch a ride to Hill 55 and back we could return with a vat of hot food.

compos2We enjoyed relative freedom in our units. In the absence of officers and staff NCOs we escaped the harassment and bullshit that enlisted men frequently endured elsewhere, even in a war zone. On the other hand our numbers were small and we were relatively isolated.

In our free time we made sure our weapons were clean – no one needed to remind us of that. We filled sandbags and improved our bunkers and fighting positions. We wrote letters home and visited in the nearest quarter of the closest hamlet talking to the local people. There were too many fire-fights to keep track of. Most of them were at night. There were probably as many friendly fire casualties as there were casualties inflicted by the enemy.

I was promoted to Lance Corporal in April and began leading patrols and ambushes myself. It might seem strange but I enjoyed the responsibility of taking care of my squad members and the adventure and the rush that came with combat and living among the peasants. It became addictive. It was easy to see the plight of the rural people. I thought we were helping them. My heart was in the right place but the indoctrination and training would not allow me to see beyond our side of the situation. The peasants suffered heavily in the battles of Tet and those that would follow throughout most of 1968.

For more details and information please visit this essay.

In July I would be heading back to the US. I was saddened to be leaving and would voluntarily return to Viet Nam again in less than a year to serve as a combined unit leader in Thua Thien Province, but that’s another story.

Looking Back

comp3Most military historians agree that the Tet Offensive was a military victory and yet a political defeat, a tactical victory and yet a strategic defeat. In America political support for the war began to wane. After being told that there was a “light at the end of the tunnel,” the public was shocked that the NLF and the NVA could carry out such a large coordinated offensive throughout South Vietnam and hold the former Royal City of Hue until late February. LBJ announced that he would not seek a second term as president.

From our, admittedly limited perspective up close on the ground, among the peasantry, it was perceived as a draw at best. Yes, the attacks on most provincial seats and district towns were beaten back after several days. The situation in the countryside however, received very little coverage at all.

A formerly “secret” but now declassified CIA document (PDF) dated 19 March 1968 which reports on the post-Tet status in each province in South Vietnam revealed that:

Although the evidence is still incomplete, the evidence that is now available indicates that the pacification program has received a severe setback in the majority of South Vietnam’s 44 provinces as a result of enemy activities since the initiation of the Tet offensive on 30 January. In some areas, many of the gains made by the allies since 1965 were apparently negated.

Areas where only a slight to moderate setback occurred appear to be those of least significance from the standpoint of population density and strategic location. It is probable, moreover, that as the gaps in the information are filled, the extent of personnel and material losses will grow.

In the long run, the most damaging aspect of the offensive may well prove to be its adverse impact on popular attitudes toward pacification. Evidence already indicates that the enemy action has greatly increased the apathy and passivity of many rural residents toward government programs and personnel.

For our province, Quang Nam, it is reported in 1 of the 19 paragraphs:

The enemy, meanwhile, has been hyperactive in the rural areas of Quang Nam recruiting, propagandizing and maintaining military pressure against the district towns and scattered outposts (that would have been us). The Viet Cong are alleged to have been recruiting…and each district has been instructed to form a new battalion. Hieu Nhon and Dai Loc Districts have reportedly already done so.

There are many who believe the oft repeated revisionist history that the VC ceased to exist as a fighting force after Tet. They have been misled.

There is also this report from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the President.

…Wheeler’s (JCS Chairman) report to President Johnson was filled with bad news. On February 27, he told the president, “There is no doubt that the enemy launched a major, powerful nationwide assault. This offensive has by no means run its course.” In fact the battle for Khe Sanh was still underway. Wheeler went on to say that the ARVN had suffered huge losses, and “the communists” were largely in control of the countryside. He added that Tet “was a very near thing… We suffered a loss, there can be no doubt about it.” Wheeler predicted a renewed Communist offensive and contended that more troops were necessary unless the United States was “prepared to accept some reverses.”

from The Tet Offensive: A Concise History – by James H. Willbanks  (emphasis mine)

As a final comment especially for those who claim that “we were never defeated on the battlefield”. Those people most certainly never spent much time on the “battlefields” of this, a mostly unreported small-unit war. Not that it mattered anyway, for as General Giap said, “We were prepared to lose for longer than you were prepared to win.”

19 comments

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  1. The Vietnamese call it Tet Mau Than.

    This year the lunar New Year begins on 7 January here in Asia. This is the year of the brown earth rat. As per a traditional form of New Year greeting, here’s wishing everyone a year of happiness, good health, prosperity and peace.

    Photobucket

    Other than the first photo, which was clipped from one provided by a friend and was taken pre-Tet at An Hoa, the others are my own and were all taken between February and July 1968 in our compound or in our AO that surrounded it.

  2. writing this Truong Son Traveler and for sharing the photos. I was in a meeting this week where someone reminded us of this 40 year anniversary and the importance of remembering.

    It also makes me feel an odd sort of “deja vu” when I hear people getting complacent about Iraq and talk about “victory.” Sometimes I fear another shoe about to drop like it did in 1968. Lets hope and pray that this part of the history does not repeat itself like so many others already have.  

    • kj on January 25, 2008 at 3:23 pm

    Truong Son Traveler.  Also for the links to your previous diaries.

    Read Sheehan’s “A Bright Shining Lie” years ago, although i don’t remember much but the sense of him leaving his ‘blood on the pages,’ the sign of an author who gave everything to the writing.

    • OPOL on January 25, 2008 at 4:21 pm

    I gave it a quick read (I’m at work) but will re-read and savor it after I get home this evening.  I loved Sheehan’s book which I still have on my bookshelf.

    This history is now more important than it’s ever been.  If more people were familiar with it, Bushco would never have gotten away with the invasion of Iraq.  Thanks for helping to keep the history alive.  I’m very grateful for your efforts.

    Later my friend.

  3. who went before those going now.  Many Vietnam vets taught our current pilots how to fly and a few still teach our youngsters how to do it working for LSI here at Fort Rucker.  They are gray haired skinny dudes who can’t seem to live without flying so they figured out how to get paid and do it until they die I guess.  They call them stick pigs I’m assuming because you control the helicopter cyclic using a stick control and one of them even has the call sign stick pig 😉

    They are having a helicopter gunnery conference right now.  People have changed so much.  Once they thought themselves the most professional fighting force and few had ever seen anyone actually die.  They talked about Vietnam with a great sadness in their voice about the losses.

    Yesterday though the conversation graduated to who is/was the stupidest cannon fodder.  Apparently in Vietnam something called a fat huey flew after a scout copter and on it was a huge spotlight manned by a soldier along with a large caliber machine gun manned by another soldier.  The guy on the light had about a two week lifespan and when the light got shot out you had found the enemy.  They all laugh about this now because it seems dumber than the other ways they have seen each other get killed.  I suppose we are all nuts now.

    • documel on January 25, 2008 at 4:34 pm

    People died for nothing–as they are today.  As to the price we pay, during Vietnam, a friend worked for Sperry–but was on loan to the Dept of Defense.  His job was to calculate–in dollar terms–the cost per kill.  He calculated $355,000 per confirmed dead VC.  It might be useful to figure the cost per kill per confirmed killed al qaeda in Iraq.

    If using just the al qaeda that caused 9/11, we might be looking at infifnity.  Where’s Osama?

  4. because we do not learn from our own nature to avoid recreating suffering…..

    and we are doing it again in afghanistan and iraq….

    it is a gift that you share here and I very much appreciate your contributions……

    • Viet71 on January 25, 2008 at 5:16 pm

    Truong son,

    Chao ong (minus inflection marks).

    From what I saw as an intelligence collection officer in III Corps September 1971-72, the Viet Cong did not exist as a major military force, although they were active politically.

    It was all NVA in and around III Corps.  Even the famed 9th VC Division was made up of NVA regulars.

    My take has always been that Tet ’68 did largely destroy the Viet Cong military forces and that those forces were never reconstituted with indigenous South Vietnamese.

    By the way, how did you get all the way from Quang Nam Province to Vung Tau?  In-country R&R?

    • Viet71 on January 25, 2008 at 6:50 pm

    You really got into it.  Two tours as a marine in I Corps in the late 1960s.

    The Cu Chi tunnels were (are) in III Corps.  A few nights, without knowing it, I slept on top of the tunnel complex, hiding out at the 25th Division basecamp in Cu Chi.

    I went through part of the tunnels with a high level official from Hanoi and his children and grandchildren in 1994, when I went back.  It was memory lane for him.  I didn’t have ANY trouble when I went back.  I think Vietnam was much more ready for American vet visitors in 1994 than in 1989.

    I’ll check out the link.  Cam on, ong.

  5. Truong Son Traveler.  

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