TET 1968 In and Around Siagon

 

TET OFFENSIVE JANUARY 31, 1968

God Bless Troop C 3/4 Cavalry 25th.Infantry Division, for with out them Tan Son Nhut Air Base would have been over run. I'm honored to have supported them at The Battle For Tan Son Nhut Air Base January 31, 1968 Ed Lyons Co. B 25th. Avn. Bn Diamond Head Gunship Door gunner.

 

U.S. 25th Infantry Division

 

            Giap's buildup and staging of the Tet Offensive was a masterpiece of deception. General instructions were sent to units in the field, but the exact timing and specific unit objectives of the attacks were withheld until the last moment. Starting in the fall of 1967, Giap staged a series of bloody but seemingly pointless battles in the border regions and in the north of the country near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). On October 29, the 273rd VC Regiment attacked the district capital of Loc Ninh, in the "Fishhook" region northwest of Saigon. On November 23, the 4th NVA Regiment launched a major attack on Dak To. In early January 1968, several NVA divisions began to converge on the isolated U.S. Marine outpost at Khe Sanh, in the northern ARVN I Corps Area, near the DMZ.

All of these actions were part of Giap's "peripheral campaign," designed to draw U.S. units out of the urban areas and toward the borders. For the most part, they were carried out by NVA troops, while VC units moved into their Tet jump-off positions, built up their supplies and rehearsed. In the case of the 273rd VC Regiment's attack at Loc Ninh, captured enemy documents later revealed that the purpose of that battle had been to give the Viet Cong experience in conventional attack formations. The Communist military leadership used the 1967 Christmas cease-fire to good advantage. Senior commanders used the truce to reconnoiter their assigned objectives. On Christmas Day, Colonel Nam Truyen, commander of the 9th VC Division, slipped into Saigon with forged papers identifying him as a student returning home for the holiday. Once inside the city, he made a thorough tour around the perimeter of Tan Son Nhut Air Base, one of his primary targets. The Communist military leadership used the 1967 Christmas cease-fire to good advantage. Senior commanders used the truce to reconnoiter their assigned objectives. On Christmas Day, Colonel Nam Truyen, commander of the 9th VC Division, slipped into Saigon with forged papers identifying him as a student returning home for the holiday. Once inside the city, he made a thorough tour around the perimeter of Tan Son Nhut Air Base, one of his primary targets.
           By December 15, 1967, the U.S. command had turned over sole responsibility for the defense of Saigon to the South Vietnamese military, a gesture of confidence in the growing reliability of the ARVN. The main task of securing Saigon was assigned to the 5th ARVN Ranger Group, supported in turn by the 2nd Battalion, 13th Artillery, the only U.S. combat unit remaining inside the city itself. Meanwhile, 39 maneuver battalions from the US. II Field Forces (an organization essentially the same as a corps) were earmarked for a campaign against the VC and NVA base camps near the Cambodian border. By the time of Tet, only 14 US. and Free World maneuver battalions were scheduled to be inside the so-called Saigon Circle, a 29-mile zone around the capital. Lieutenant General Fredrick C. Weyand, commander of 11 Field Forces, didn't like the pattern he was seeing. His troops in the border regions were experiencing too few contacts, and enemy radio traffic around Saigon was getting heavier. On January 10, 1968, Weyand (a former intelligence officer and future chief of staff of the U.S. Army) went to see his boss, General William C. Westmoreland, with his concerns. He convinced Westmoreland to allow a shift of some of 11 Field Forces' combat power back inside the Saigon Circle. (When the attacks did come, 27 maneuver battalions were back inside the Circle. Weyand's call on Westmoreland may well have been the single most decisive decision of the entire battle.) By late January, intelligence estimates placed 20,000 to 40,000 NVA troops around Khe Sanh. General Westmoreland was now convinced that the enemy would violate any Tet truce. Still believing that the main enemy effort would be in the north, he requested the US. and South Vietnamese governments to cancel the cease-fire in the ARVN I Corps tactical zone. The initial blow fell at Khe Sanh on January 21. From that point until the city attacks erupted at Tet, the attention of the entire US. military and the national command structure was riveted on the far-flung Marine outpost. The press started making comparisons between Khe Sanh and Dien Bien Phu; Khe Sanh became an obsession for President Johnson, who had a scale model of the battlefield installed in the White House Situation Room.
           When the main attacks on the cities finally came, Giap's plan didn't exactly go off without a hitch. The secrecy of his buildup cost him something in coordination. At 12:15 on the morning of January 30, Da Nang, Pleiku, Nha Trang and nine other cities in the center of Vietnam came under attack. The assaults were premature-units in the Viet Cong's Military Region 5 had jumped off one day too early. General Westmoreland's intelligence chief, Brig. Gen. Phillip B. Davidson, told him to expect the same thing country- wide by the next day. At 9:45 that morning, the Allies canceled the Tet ceasefire for the remainder of the country. At 11:25 all U.S. units were ordered to full alert. The maneuver units inside the Saigon Circle were ordered to take up blocking positions around Saigon and around the nearby Long Bin-Bien Hoa military complex. An element of surprise had been lost. At 1:30 in the morning on January 31, the presidential palace in Saigon was attacked by a 14-man platoon from the Viet Cong's C-10 Sapper Battalion. By 3:40 a.m., Hue, far in the north, was under attack. The Tet Offensive was in full swing. Before the day was over, five of six autonomous cities, 36 of 44 provincial capitals, and 64 of 245 district capitals had been attacked. Except for Khe Sahn, Hue and the Saigon Circle, however, the fighting was over in just a few days. But even after the first full day of nationwide fighting, the Allied command still didn't have a clear picture of what was happening. In a press conference late on January 31, General Westmoreland was still maintaining that the attacks on the cities and Saigon were diversions for the main effort at Khe Sanh and the DMZ, instead of the other way around
          The Communist command had eight major objectives for the Saigon Circle. With these objectives achieved, they believed, would come the crippling of the Saigon government, and with that, the General Uprising. A combined force of 35 battalions, organized into one NVA and two VC divisions, was committed. Singularly or in combination, the VC and NVA units were to seize and neutralize the key command, control and communications centers inside Saigon; seize the artillery and armor depots at Go Vap; and neutralize Tan Son Nhut Air Base and the MACV command center. Further, they would seize the Cholon section of Saigon; destroy the Newport Bridge linking Saigon to Long Bin-Bien Hoa on Highway 1; seize the massive U.S. logistics center at Long Binh; neutralize the U.S. air base at Bien Hoa; and neutralize the 11 Field Forces and III ARVN Corps command centers. Finally, they were to block any attempts by the U.S. 25th Infantry Division to reinforce Saigon from Chu Chi along Highway I and block any attempts by the U.S. 1st Infantry Division to reinforce Saigon from Lai Khe along Highway 13.
           During the early hours of January 31, General Weyand sat in his Tactical-Operations Center (TOC) at Long Binh, watching the battle sites on his operations map light up "like a pinball machine:' Between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m., he ordered the nearly 5,000 American combat troops under his immediate control into action. Later that morning, he ordered his deputy commander, Maj. Gen. Keith Ware, into Saigon to take command of all the U.S. forces Weyand was sending into the city. As a battalion commander in World War II, General Ware had received the Medal of Honor. A few months after Tet, he would assume command of the 1st Infantry Division, the "Big Red One," only to die shortly thereafter in a helicopter crash. Elsewhere in the city, another platoon of the C-10 Battalion hit gate No. 5 of the ARVN Joint General Staff (JGS) compound at 2 a.m. The first attack was driven back, and the 1st and 2nd VC Local Force battalions were brought up to continue the assault. At 4 a.m. a truckload of American MPs from the 716th MP Battalion was racing to answer a trouble call from an American officers' billet near JGS headquarters. The MPs were ambushed in an alley by a VC company on its way to the same JGS compound. The resultant fight in the alley lasted 12 hours. Sixteen American MPs were killed and 21 were wounded. Meanwhile, other VC forces managed to get inside the JGS compound about 9:30 a.m., but they were quickly ejected and routed by a reaction force of ARVN paratroopers. A few blocks north of the U.S. Embassy, yet another platoon of the ubiquitous C-10 Battalion hit the National Radio station. The station had been reinforced during the night by a platoon of ARVN paratroopers, almost all of whom were soundly asleep on the station roof when the attack started. The sappers took up positions in an adjacent apartment building where they could fire down on the ARVN soldiers. After killing all the paratroopers, the sappers had little difficulty taking over the station. They were accompanied by an NVA radio specialist who carried prerecorded broadcast tapes announcing the fall of the Saigon government and the so-called General Uprising. Their plans fell apart at the last moment, however, when the night crew at the transmission site 14 miles away shut down the link on a prearranged signal. The ARVN depot complex at Go Vap, on the northern edge of the city, was the primary objective of the 101st VC Regiment. The plan called for the capture of ARVN tanks from the Phu Dong Armored Headquarters and howitzers from the Co Lao Artillery Headquarters. These heavy weapons were then to be used to assault the east end of Tan Son Nhut Air Base, about one mile away. Troops specially trained to operate the weapons accompanied the attack forces. Both assaults were successful, but once inside Phu Dong, the VC discovered that the tanks had been moved elsewhere two months prior. At Co Lao, the VC managed to capture 12 105mm howitzers, but the weapons were disabled at the last minute when the withdrawing ARVN troops had the presence of mind to remove the firing locks. A few hours later, the Go Vap complex was retaken by the 4th Vietnamese Marine Corps Battalion.
            The following day, just north of the city, the US. 1st Infantry Division turned the tables on the force that was supposed to block the Big Red One from reinforcing Saigon. Moving southeast along Highway 13, the Americans ran into the 273rd VC Regiment, the same unit that had hit the district capital of Loc Ninh the previous October. The VC took up defensive positions near Phu Loi but were caught there by the division's artillery and sealed in the box by the infantry. Two days and 3,493 artillery rounds later, the 273rd had, been virtually destroyed as an effective fighting unit. During the evening of January 30, a large VC force infiltrated the Vinatexco textile factory across Highway I from Tan Son Nhut. At about 3:20 the next morning, three VC battalions (the D16, the 267th and a battalion from the 271st VC Regiment) stormed the western side of the air base, which also housed the command for MACV. Secondary attacks were also launched against the north and east gates. Even though the armor and artillery that were supposed to come from Go Vap never arrived, the western perimeter was breached and the Communist forces made it onto the runway. The base was defended by an oddly assorted reaction force consisting of the 377th Security Police Squadron, two platoons of MACV headquarters' guard force, the ARVN 52nd Regional Force Battalion, and Vice-President Nguyen Cao Ky's bodyguard. The base's only reserve consisted of two companies from the ARVN 8th Airborne Battalion, men who had been sitting in the Tan Son Nhut terminal awaiting air transport north, where they had been ordered to reinforce the DMZ. By 4:15 a.m. this reserve had been committedattackers and defenders were fighting hand-to-hand on the western end of the runway.------------------ Calls for help went out to the U.S. 25th Infantry Division at Cu Chi, about 15 miles northwest of Saigon. The Troop C 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry of the U.S. 25th Infantry Division , had already been alerted for a possible relief mission to Tan Son Nhut. When the call came through, the squadron commander, Lt. Col. Glenn K. Otis, was ordered to immediately commit his Troop C. As the armored cavalry troop, under the command of Captain Leo B. Virant, raced down Highway I in the dark, Otis flew overhead in his command-and-control helicopter, harassing Viet Cong ambush sites from the air and guiding the troops around the danger zones by means of flares dropped nearby. One platoon of Troop C was left to secure the Hoc Mon Bridge, just north of the base. Colonel Otis then returned to Cu Chi to rearm and refuel, and the rest of Troop C crashed into the rear of the three VC battalions at about 6 a.m. The VC responded with rocket-propelled grenades (RPG). About one-third of the armored column was destroyed and Captain Virant was seriously wounded, but the cohesion of the VC attack was badly disrupted. American troopers from the destroyed vehicles were fighting from the ditch alongside the highway and rapidly running out of ammunition. Unable to establish contact with Allied forces inside the base, Troop C radioed back to Cu Chi for help. Colonel Otis got the call and immediately headed back for Tan Son Nhut. The platoon guarding the Hoc Mon Bridge was committed first and arrived at 7:15 a.m. Otis then called in his air cavalry troop. Ammo was brought in by air, and the wounded were evacuated. Otis directed the air troop's gunships against the attackers.
           Troop B was then called in from its alert position about 30 miles away. It raced down Highway I and reached Tan Son Nhut in about 45 minutes. Otis positioned the new arrivals across the enemy's north flank, effectively putting the VC in a right angle between two armored columns. More gunships and artillery pounded the enemy, now firmly fixed in the "L." By 10 a.m., the VC attack folded. Many Viet Cong fled back into the textile mill, which was later leveled by air strikes. Around the base perimeter, mop-up operations continued well into the night. The 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry, was later awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for the fight. Four members of the squadron, including Otis, received the Distinguished Service Cross. Twenty years after the fight at Tan Son Nhut, Glenn K. Otis retired from the Army as the four-star general in command of the U.S. Army in Europe.

Thirteen miles to the east, the Long Binh-Bien Hoa complex was simultaneously attacked by the 5th VC Division. There, too, the battle was decided by armored and mechanized forces. The previous night, the 9th Division's 2nd Battalion, 47th Infantry (Mechanized), under the command of Lt. Col. John B. Tower, had moved into alert positions outside the cities ties. At 4:45 on the morning of the thirty-first, General Weyand ordered the battalion forward. Company A was sent to relieve the attack on a large Allied POW compound maintained between the two cities on Highway 1. Company B was sent to reinforce the already breached perimeter of the Long Binh ammo dump. Company C, commanded by Captain John Gross, was sent to relieve the attack on the ARVN III Corps headquarters in Bien Hoa City. Company B arrived at the ammo dump at 6:30, a.m. Some of the soldiers joined in the fight to eject the intruders, while others helped ordnance personnel remove and disarm satchel charges already placed in many bunkers by VC sappers. Company A, meanwhile, attacked from the Long Binh base across Highway I into elements of the 275th VC Regiment in Ho Nai Village and "Black Widow Village"--so called by U.S. troops because many widows of VC officers were thought to live there. To reach the ARVN III Corps headquarters, Company C had to fight its way through the middle of the 275th VC Regiment astride Highway I and through the flank of the 274th VC Regiment attacking Bien Hoa Air Base. At 5:45 a.m., it plowed into the rear of the 238th VC Battalion attacking the III Corps compound. Company C attacked from the march column and overran the besieged ARVN position. Company C continued to fan out from the III Corps compound, fighting house to house through the city. After months of jungle fighting, the men of Company C suddenly found themselves engaged in World War II-style city fighting. As disorienting as the abrupt change was for the Americans, they adapted to it much faster than their enemy. M79 grenade launchers were used with deadly effect against VC riflemen firing from the upper stories of buildings. When Bien Hoa City was finally cleared by 5:30 that evening, Company C had taken only eight walking wounded. One of the company's several pet dogs was also wounded when an RPG hit an M113 armored personnel carrier (APC). The troops later obtained a "Purple Heart" for the dog. (Company C had more than its share of dog lovers.) While Company C fought to secure Bien Hoa City, Troop A of the 9th Division's 3rd Squadron, 5th Cavalry, was sent to relieve the attack on Bien Hoa Air Base. The troop, commanded by Captain Ralph B. Garretson, had to move 18 miles down Highway I and run the same gantlet as Company C. At the town of Trang Bom, Troop A was hit by a company-size ambush, but just rolled right through it, the men firing as they went. Ten miles from Bien Hoa, they were momentarily stopped cold when the VC blew a highway bridge after Troop A's first tank rolled across. The troop's M113s could ford the stream, but the tanks could not. After a hasty fording operation, Troop A was once again on the move, but with only one of its

 

Troop A reached the air base and linked up with the 101st Airborne Division's 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry, which had been brought in by helicopter at dawn. Together they ejected the attackers from the eastern end of the field. The fight took most of the day. Troop A lost two more APCs. Its lone tank took 19 hits and lost two crews, but was still operational when the battle was over. The fight for Long Binh-Bien Hoa ended on the evening of February I with the arrival of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, after an eight-hour forced march from War Zone C. The 2nd of the 47th Infantry and Troop A of the 3rd of the 5th Cavalry were later awarded Valorous Unit Citations. The teeming Chinese section of Cholon, in the southwest corner of Saigon, was the Communists' key population objective inside the Saigon Circle. Initially, the area was attacked by the 5th and 6th VC Local Force Battalions. As the fighting dragged on into days-and then into weeks-elements of every Communist unit known to be operating in Saigon were eventually identified there.
The key to Cholon was the Phu Tho Racetrack. It was at the hub of most of the key streets in the area and, by holding it, the VC could deny its use as a landing zone. Early on the thirty-first, General Weyand ordered Brig. Gen. Robert C. Forbes, commanding general of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, to send some of his troops to reinforce ARVN rangers in Cholon. The elements from the 199th had to be shifted from their defensive positions at Long Binh, making the huge logistics complex just that much more vulnerable.The 6th VC LF Battalion had little trouble taking the racetrack. From there, a large number of Communist political cadres fanned out to work through the huge urban sprawl. Some tried to whip up support for the General Uprising. Others went to serve arrest and execution warrants on government figures and ARVN officers in the area. A month-long reign of terror in Cholon had begun.
           Company A, 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry, and the 199th's reconnaissance troop reached Cholon about 8 a.m. that morning (January 31). Six blocks from the racetrack, an RPG hit the lead APC in the column, killing the platoon leader. Communist troops began to fire down onto the column from the surrounding buildings. The infantry dismounted and continued fighting house to house, exactly as their colleagues in the 2nd Squadron of the 47th were doing in Bien Hoa at that very moment. By 1 p.m. Company A had pushed to within two blocks of the racetrack. The VC then withdrew to prepared positions behind the concrete benches at the track. Company A assaulted the position, but was repulsed. At 4:30 it tried again, this time supported by helicopter Gunships. The Americans succeeded in taking the track, but the VC troops melted away into the streets of Cholon. Shortly after dark, Companies B and C of the 3rd of the 7th were brought onto the racetrack by helicopter. The next morning, the troops at the racetrack were reinforced by two mechanized companies (B and C) of the 9th Division's 2nd Battalion, 60th Infantry, and the 33rd ARVN Ranger Battalion. Using the racetrack as a base of operations, they started working outward to clear Cholon. The VC tried to retake the racetrack later that day, but were beaten back.

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