Saturday, August 9, 2014

A boy goes to war. Part 5

The Tet Offensive of 1968:

Tet is the Vietnamese holiday that celebrates the coming of the New Year.

A picture of the Mekong Delta from Highway 1 between Saigon and Long Binh.

A picture of Tan Son Nhut Airbase.

I accompanied my friend Ski on a trip to Saigon to pick up something, I can’t remember what exactly. I think it may have been a pouch or box of papers. It was at a small fenced compound just inside the city. We got there a little while after dark on January 30, 1968. We were standing in the office talking when we heard explosions and gunfire in the distance. The person in charge at the base found out within minutes that Tan Son Nhut airport was under heavy attack. There were probably no more than seven of us at the place and we were all nervous about being attacked there.   

Ski and I decided to take our chances on highway 1 and head back to Long Binh about 20 miles away. We didn’t have a lot of choices with Tan Son Nhut being under attack. I only had one clip of ammunition for my M-16 (20 rounds). Ski had his M-14 rifle in the truck . We asked if there was any ammo to spare and we picked up 40 more rounds of M-14 ammo.  

It was a short distance to highway one. People were starting to disappear off the streets. The smell of smoke permeated the night air. Explosions and automatic weapon fire continued from different directions but mostly from the west where Tan Son Nhut was located. We pulled onto highway 1 and headed toward Long Binh about 20 miles away. We saw a few army vehicles headed west and some cars and motorbikes here and there but there was hardly any traffic on the road. Soon we were the only ones on the road. Ski put his foot to the floor but the old truck would only do about 50 mph.

A picture of the pagoda temple along highway 1 about half way between Long Binh and Saigon.

We had already passed the pagoda temple and were more than half way to Long Binh when we saw flashes of gunfire off to our right toward highway 15. We could hear the bullets hitting our truck. We scrunched down in our seats and kept driving. Our plan was to just keep going. As we neared the main gate we passed armored personal carriers lining up along the highway. The guard at the gate asked us where we were coming from and then told us the road was closed all the way to Saigon due to heavy Viet Cong activity in the area.  

The entire post was awake and on the move. We stopped in front of our orderly room where about 40 people were gathered trying to figure out what was going on and what they should do. We told everyone about Tan Son Nhut being under attack.

I don’t know how long we stood there but all of a sudden it looked like the sun came out. You could read the small print in a newspaper under a bright white light. Someone yelled hit the ground and about the time we all dropped a deafening explosion shook the ground, shattering windows everywhere. More flashing and explosions followed. Someone yelled, “Ammo dump” and we all knew he was right.

I went with most of our company to the perimeter near our maintenance buildings. Ski stayed to drive the captain. Choppers filled the air over Long Binh and our Artillery companies were shelling constantly. Mortar rounds from 122 mm rockets were ‘in coming’ all over the base. There was heavy fighting along the south and southwest part of Long Binh. Just before dawn a trip flare exposed four VC outside the wire near us and we opened fire killing them. We took turns closing our eyes and dosing but no one slept all night.

The next morning we listened intently as information was shared about what happened and what was still happening. Except for the sappers that infiltrated the base our perimeter was not breached.

The first thing we heard was that our barber was killed with the sappers that planted the satchel charges at our ammo dump. He must have led them right to it. The thought of our friendly barber working for the Viet Cong all along was unnerving.

This is a picture I had taken a few weeks before the attack of our Vietnamese barber cutting hair. This was the person that guided the attack on our ammo dump.

Numerous battles took place in the area that day. Combat units cleaned out the village across highway 1 to our north from where some of the rocket attacks were launched. Bien Hoa had been hit hard and troops swept the town from house to house to make it secure. At Tan Son Nhut I heard we used 50 caliber machine guns to clear additional ground outside the perimeter, literally cutting down the vegetation with bullets. Jets dropped bombs constantly on the entrenched enemy strongholds between us and Saigon. Our base spent a second night on lock down. It was not until late on February 1, that the eleventh armored cavalry regiment secured the area at last. Over 600 Viet Cong dead were counted close to our base.

There is much written about the 1968 Tet offensive below is a recap of the reports.

Early on the morning of January 30 1968 the Viet Cong struck along a 600-mile front. More than 100,000 NVA and Viet Cong attacked cities and military installations with Saigon, Phu Bai, Hue, Bien Hoa, and Long Binh taking the brunt of the attacks.

The two main force units of the Viet Cong 5th Division, the 274th and 275th Viet Cong regiments attacked the Bien Hoa Air Base and the Field Forces headquarters at the Long Binh compound. Both sites were hit with heavy rocket and mortar fire, automatic-weapons fire and intense small-arms fire.

A separate Viet Cong battalion infiltrated the area near the 3rd Ordnance at Long Binh ammunition dump. In a few moments later, the huge dump became a fireball, the shock of the explosion echoing over an area of 50 miles. As the ammo dump burst into flames, secondary explosions erupted in other storage areas, and for the next three days, fires burned out of control. The 199th LIB let each storage area explode until the entire dump blew itself up and out.

Several battalions of the 275rh Viet Cong Regiment had been hiding in tunnels and foxholes in the area for about two weeks, awaiting orders from Hanoi to start their attack on the compound.

One of the true surprises of the 1968 Tet Offensive was the extent to which the Viet Cong had infiltrated Widow’s Village across the road from USARV Headquarters at Long Binh.

Widow’s Village was home to many of the women and children of the Vietnamese serving in the Army of South Vietnam (ARVN). Although most were not technically widows, few ever saw their husbands even though they were still alive. Thus, the name “Widow’s Village” stuck. Viet Cong had taken up residence among the widows and orphans, and tunneled extensively beneath their homes where they stored arms and ammunition to attack Long Binh. They kept the widows silent through threats and intimidation. 

I got this black and white picture off the internet. This was near the Widow's Village the day after the attack.

This blog will continue with part 6 next time I post.

You can click NEWER posts at the bottom of this page to go to the next each time in a series.

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