VFW Magazine January 2018 : Page 14
AP PHOTO ÔTHE TURNING P LEFT: A map of South Vietnam in 1968 shows key areas, such as Saigon and Hue, attacked by the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong during the Tet Offensive. According to the VFW-produced book Brutal Battles of Vietnam , some 81,000 lives were lost during this time in Vietnam. UNITED STATES ARMY CENTER OF MILITARY HISTORY 14 • VFW • JANUARY 2018
THIS MONTH MARKS THE 50-YEAR ANNIVERSARY OF THE TET OFFENSIVE, NORTH VIETNAM’S AMBITIOUS PLAN TO CONQUER ITS SOUTHERN NEIGHBOR. U.S. TROOPS CRUSHED THAT HOPE, DEALING THE COMMUNISTS A RESOUNDING MILITARY DEFEAT.
The first two months of 1968 proved to be a watershed point of the Vietnam War. Up until January 1968, U.S. troops had maintained a strong presence in South Vietnam. Afterward, troop levels would begin to decrease as political opposition to the war mounted.
Militarily, though, the Americans fighting in Vietnam continued to perform admirably. Throughout the war, U.S. troops inflicted far greater casualties on the communists than they suffered on the battlefield.
The same holds true for the Tet Offensive, North Vietnam’s grand plan to overrun the south. The campaign thrust more than 80,000 North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong troops — the exact number is unclear — in coordinated attacks throughout South Vietnam.
The NVA and Viet Cong received heavy casualties during the offensive. More than half who took part in the Tet Offensive were killed, wounded or captured, according to The Vietnam War: An Intimate History, by Geoffrey Ward and Ken Burns.
And although it was a massive military defeat for North Vietnam, the ferocity and scope of the operation stunned the American public. More importantly, a majority of Americans had begun to lose faith in how U.S. politicians were prosecuting the war.
According to a February 1968 Gallup poll, 57 percent of respondents disapproved of the Johnson Administration’s handling of the war.
“It was the [political] turning point of the war,” said Otto Lehrack, an author and former Marine officer who served two deployments in the Vietnam War.
Tet was a costly fight for Americans, too. In fact, more U.S. servicemen were killed — 246 KIA — on Jan. 31, 1968, at the beginning of the offensive, than any other day of the war. The deadliest week of the Tet Offensive — and at that point of the Vietnam War — was Feb. 10-17, 1968, which had 543 KIA and 2,547 WIA throughout South Vietnam, according to VFW magazine’s Combat. Being the most popular holiday in Vietnam, Tet symbolizes the solidarity of the Vietnamese people, regardless of their religion. The holiday was traditionally observed as a ceasefire, called the Tet Truce. But communist forces broke tradition in 1968.
The communist armies planned coordinated attacks on more than 100 cities and military bases in South Vietnam on the Lunar New Year. And the attacks were perhaps not as coordinated as their planners had originally intended.
In August 1967, North Vietnam’s time zone changed to coincide with Beijing’s, which is one hour ahead. As a result, North Vietnam’s Tet occurred one day before South Vietnam’s holiday, which possibly confused some communist troops who planned to attack in the south.
Whether it was confusion or a distraction from the main offensive, many attacks happened after midnight on Jan. 30, the day before the South Vietnam holiday. Most of the Tet Offensive attacks, however, came the next day, with the U.S. Embassy in Saigon as one of the targets.
SECURITY FORCES BATTLE IN SAIGON
The fight in Saigon was one of the more well-known battles of the Tet Offensive. Thousands of Viet Cong entered South Vietnam’s capital in the weeks leading up to the holiday. In one of its first attacks, Viet Cong breached the Mac Dinh Chi entrance of the U.S. Embassy, according to Brutal Battles of Vietnam: America’s Deadliest Days 1965-1972, VFW’s official account of Vietnam’s major land battles.
Spec. 4 Charles Daniel and Pfc. William Sebast, of the 527th MP Company, were among the first killed at the embassy. A few hours later, men of B Co., 716th MP Bn., launched a counterattack to retake the embassy from the invaders.
Security forces were the only U.S. military units allowed in Saigon due to the prevailing status-of-forces-agreement. This included no U.S. combat units allowed in the South Vietnam capital. As a result, when called upon, the MPs and security guards were ready to fight as infantrymen.
“We converted from an MP battalion to a tactical infantry battalion in less than three hours, and, in essence, we were unassisted for the first 12 to 18 hours,” said Lt. Col. Gordon D. Rowe, commander of the 716th Battalion, according to Brutal Battles of Vietnam.
Also according to the book, military police and security guards attached to the 716th MP Bn., 89th MP Grp., 18th MP Bde., were the “eyes and ears in the opening stages of the battle for Saigon,” said Lt. Col. Richard E. George, provost marshal in Saigon on Jan. 31.
During the embassy attack, four soldiers of the 527th MP Company and a Marine security guard were killed. A total of 27 Americans died and 44 were wounded. Though the Battle of Saigon was significant and covered extensively by Saigon-based American media, more casualties were sustained in a battle that had already been underway in Khe Sanh.
VIETNAMÕS LONGEST BATTLE
More than a week before the Tet Offensive, NVA troops began their siege on Khe Sanh. Located some 15 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and about six miles east of Laos, Khe Sanh was the site of the longest battle of the Vietnam War.
According to Brutal Battles of Vietnam, about 6,000 Marines defended Khe Sanh, including 5,000 Leathernecks of the 26th Marine Regiment, the 1st Bn., 9th Marines, and the 1st Bn., 13th Marines. There, Marines faced off against some 20,000 NVA troops.
An interrogator who was based at the Cam Lo Combat Base less than five miles south of the DMZ during the first days of the battle at Khe Sanh said there were ominous warnings in the days leading up to Tet. Marine Staff Sgt. Allen “Gunner” Kent said that through the interrogation subteam in Khe Sanh he learned that communist forces were preparing an attack.
“We were getting indications that something was going to happen — we just didn’t know when,” said Kent, who at the time was a part of the 17th Interrogation and Translation Team.
Kent, the VFW Commander-in-Chief from 1994-95 and Adjutant General from 2005-13, said he transferred to Phu Bai Combat Base for the Tet Offensive. “We had interrogation subteams all over northern I Corps and throughout South Vietnam,” explained Kent, the current quartermaster of VFW Post 9972 in Sierra Vista, Ariz.
For 77 days, Marines slugged it out with communist troops at Khe Sanh and suffered 205 KIA and 852 WIA. On July 5, a few months after the battle, MACV commander Army Gen. Creighton Abrams ordered the Marines at Khe Sanh to abandon the base.
“The whole purpose of [the attack at] Khe Sanh for the NVA was to tie up the United States Marine Corps [during the Tet Offensive],” Kent said.
FIGHTING NEAR THE DMZ
While some of the best known confrontations of the Tet Offensive happened in the urban areas of Vietnam, U.S. troops also fought extensively in the countryside.
Marines of India Co., 3rd Bn., 3rd Marines, were situated on the McNamara Line near the DMZ at a strongpoint called Alpha 3. To the east was Gio Linh, location of Alpha 2, and to the west was Alpha 4 at Con Thien.
“It was the closest outpost to the DMZ in all of South Vietnam,” said Lehrack, a former Army captain who was the commander of India Company. “We caught [NVA troops] coming into and out of South Vietnam all the time.”
Lehrack said that toward the end of January 1968, he and his men started seeing “a lot of increased activity” near the DMZ.
“We intercepted a lot of formations of North Vietnamese heading south towards Hue,” said Lehrack, a member of VFW Post 11575 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
'A BEAUTIFUL CITY'
The scale of fighting in Hue exceeded all other urban battles of the Vietnam War. Hue, just 65 miles south of the DMZ and six miles west of the South China Sea, was the former imperial capital and cultural epicenter of Vietnam. The city had about 140,000 inhabitants and didn’t experience much of the war until the Tet Offensive.
Then-Marine Lance Cpl. Robert Wallace, a 106mm gunner with Headquarters and Support Co., 1st Bn., 1st Marines, said he traveled through Hue on a truck caravan heading from Quang Tri to Phu Bai about a week before the battle.
“I remember us remarking what a beautiful city it was,” Wallace said. “That all changed. Just a few days later, we were back in the truck caravan heading into Hue.”
Wallace, who was VFW’s Commanderin- Chief in 1991-92 and is currently the VFW Washington Office executive director, hustled back to Hue after communist troops assaulted the city on Jan. 31.
Wallace said once they arrived, “The shit hit the fan. As we started to go into the city, all that was heard was the sound of weapons being shot.”
THE ‘FALLUJAH’ OF VIETNAM
Initially, U.S. troops were ordered not to bomb or shell the city due to its religious and historical structures. However, that later changed due to the American casualties suffered in the battle.
Wallace said the 106mm recoilless rifle was “indispensable” in Hue. He said the rifle was typically mounted on a mule, but “to be effective, we had to carry it.”
“It was very heavy to haul around,” Wallace said. “It took a few of us to carry it. The shells also weighed 40 pounds.”
Wallace said Hue was the first time Marines had fought in a city in a long time and referred to the battle as the Vietnam War’s “Battle of Fallujah” (the famous November 2004 fight in Iraq) for the Marine Corps.
After 26 days of intense fighting, American troops, after suffering 216 KIA and 1,364 WIA, recaptured Hue. The 5th Marines accounted for more than half of those killed in the battle.
THE WAKE OF TET
According to Brutal Battles of Vietnam, at least 4,756 Vietnamese civilians were killed or went missing at the hands of the communists in Hue. In total, during the Tet Offensive, 81,000 people died, including 3,895 U.S. troops and 14,300 Vietnamese civilians. Hue was one of the places that saw the most death and destruction.
“Hue was a very defining moment for a lot of us,” Wallace said. “We saw a lot of things that we didn’t think we would ever see. It was just a life-changing experience.”
Wallace, who earned two Purple Hearts while fighting in Hue, credits his experience in Vietnam and in the Marine Corps for inspiring him to be an advocate for veterans who “had it worse” than him.
Wallace said he gives thanks to the Navy corpsmen who assisted him and his fellow wounded Marines. Wallace credits those corpsmen for giving him a “second chance on life.”
“They are the true heroes of Hue and Tet, as well as all the battles in Vietnam and other wars,” Wallace said.
Lehrack said his time in Vietnam also was “the defining experience” of his life.
“I mostly wish I had done a better job, brought more of my Marines home,” Lehrack said. “I think that’s the reason I volunteered for another tour two years after I got back. I felt guilty ... I still feel that to this day.”
Kent said he doesn’t agree with the common notion that the U.S. lost the Vietnam War because of the Tet Offensive. He added that “Congress” lost the war — “not the military.”
“When all the smoke cleared, the American flag flew over every place that it had before Tet,” Kent said. “The NVA and Viet Cong didn’t control one piece of ground [in South Vietnam] when Tet was over. How in the hell did we lose?”
Defense of Saigon Merits Recognition
The 716th Military Police (MP) Battalion, 89th MP Group, 18th MP Brigade distinguished itself on Jan. 31, 1968, in Saigon. Living up to its mission to “fight as infantry when required,” the battalion earned a Presidential Unit Citation for its defense of the U.S. Embassy and other locations around the city. Listed below are MPs, infantrymen and airmen who earned individual awards in the 13-hour fight.
Distinguished Service Cross
• Army Pfc. Paul V. Healey, B Co., 716th MP Bn., 89th MP Group, 18th MP Bde.
Eight from the Army’s 716th MP Bn.
• Pfc. Roland Bowen*, A Co.
• Sgt. Michael Grieve*, A Co.
• Spec. 4 Ronald Kendall, C Co.
• Spec. 4 Charles Miller, B Co.
• Pfc. Steven Sears, C Co.
• Sgt. John Shook, B Co.
• Spec. 4 Alvin Troyer, C Co.
• 1st Lt. Gerald Waltman, C Co.
Four from C Company of the Army’s 52nd Infantry Regiment, which was attached to the 716th MP Bn.
• Spec. 4 Vincent Giovannelli
• Staff Sgt. Herman Holness
• Sgt. 1st Class James R. Lobato
• Spec. 4 Bruce McCartney
Six from the Air Force’s 377th Security Police Squadron, which defended the Tan Son Nhut Air Base on Saigon’s outskirts.
• Maj. Carl Bender
• Sgt. Alonzo Coggins
• Sgt. William Cyr*
• Sgt. Louis Fischer*
• Sgt. Edward C. Hebron*
• Sgt. Roger Mills*
Marines Earn Navy Crosses at Khe Sanh
The nearly three-month long siege of the Marine base at Khe Sanh actually started more than a week before the Tet Offensive. The Leathernecks’ stout defense resulted in two Navy Crosses, the military’s
second-highest award for valor in combat.
• Marine 2nd Lt. Thomas Brindley*, India Co., 3rd Bn., 26th Marines
• Marine Col. David E. Lownds, commander, 26th Marines.
Operation Hue City
Marines and soldiers tenaciously defended Vietnam’s ancient capital of Hue from the onset of Tet through much of February 1968. Heroic actions during the brutal house-to-house urban fighting produced recipients of the military’s most prestigious awards.
Medal of Honor
• Marine Sgt. Alfredo Gonzalez*, A Co., 1st Bn., 1st Marines
• Army Chief Warrant Officer Frederick Ferguson, C Co., 227th Aviation Bn., 1st Cav Div.
• Army Staff Sgt. Joe Hooper, D Co., 2nd Bn., 501st Inf., 101st Abn. Div.
• Army Staff Sgt. Clifford Sims,* D Co., 2nd Bn., 501st Inf., 101st Abn. Div.
Distinguished Service Cross
• Army 2nd Lt. Thomas Dobrinska*, B Co., 2nd Bn., 12th Cav, 1st Cav Div.
• Army Maj. Charles Krohn, 2nd Bn., 12th Cav, 1st Cav Div.
Read the full article at http://digitaledition.qwinc.com/article/Tet+Offensive/2951472/457684/article.html.
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