Colin F. Jones
THE CONFLICT IN VIETNAM: Part 4
THE 1968 TET OFFENSIVE
TET, the Vietnam Lunar New Year, is an annual holiday period, where the people celebrated and gathered in ancestral worship and family reunions, over a period of three weeks.
It is initiated on the eve of the New Year, this year being the year of the Monkey. In previous years both the North and South had kept limited truce over the period; limited because there had always been breaches, though not of any major consequence.
TET of 1968 however was to be unique, for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong had spent many months preparing for a general offensive that would take advantage of the holiday season of TET.
While the South Vietnamese were preparing for the festive season, Northern Vietnamese crept into the cities disguised as civilians and South Vietnamese soldiers. They had by many means been smuggling arms and equipment into the cities for many months, storing them in secret caches ready for the day when they were to take up arms. Many of the military leaders themselves infiltrated the main cities to study their targets and strategy of attack from within.
There were many intelligence reports that indicated that the North Vietnamese were planning a major offensive, but few precautions were taken by the South Vietnamese Government: most South Vietnamese units being reduced to half their normal strength, due to the festivities. Indeed even the staff of General Westmorland believed that the enemy would not launch what could only be described as suicide missions against their overwhelming military power.
There was ample evidence that the north were building their forces for an attack on Saigon. Many captured enemy documents indicated this, and some were even translated and published by the American Embassy. There was even evidence that the northern ancient city of Hue, might be under threat as aerial photographs showed that the North Vietnamese were constructing a road towards it from the A Shau valley.
A directive captured in the central highlands by the American 4th Infantry division, outlined a combined attack during TET by the NVA-95B Regiment and the Viet Cong H-15 Battalion.
There were many other indications of an offensive occurring including several out of character attacks against towns and military bases. Regardless of these attacks, which took place mostly on the 30th January, celebrations went on in Saigon as though there wasn’t a war at all.
Saigon of cause for most of the war had not been subject to any real conflict other than the odd terrorist attack. Saigon was being inundated with refugees from outlying areas, and the slum areas had grown to problematic proportions, which was another indication of the expanding conflict.
Responsibility for the defence of Saigon was in the hands of the South Vietnamese. They had a police force of some 17,000 members and there were ten battalions of ARVN troops in and around the city. The main central city force was the ARVN 5th Ranger Group. The Americans had the US 716th Military Police Battalion in the central city area and 23 Battalions of combat troops in the Saigon area. The Embassy had but a small marine guard.
General Tran Do commandeered the Communist forces in the Saigon area. Two of his Viet Cong divisions were concentrated near the city and the allied major bases, Tan Son Nhut, Bien Hoa and Long Binh; these were the 5th and 7th divisions. There was in fact an estimated 35 enemy battalions in the vicinity of Saigon.
The spearhead of the attack was to be led by the Viet Cong C-10 Sapper Battalion. This battalion was composed mostly of local Viet Cong elements of both men and women, units of which had previously infiltrated the city.
Their attacks were bloody and bitter but they failed to capture their objectives and were fighting rear guard actions after the first day: They were no match for the American firepower.
The TET offensive in 1968 was more instrumental in dividing opinion than any other period. Some in fact considered it the turning point of the war. It was the first wide-ranging effort of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong guerrillas against the allied forces. Indeed Public opinion and government policy changed considerably after TET. The attack on the American embassy was given major airplay on TV and radio, although militarily it was not a major event. However the concentration on it by the media encouraged the frustrations of the war upon American citizens to grow.
The TET offensive was an ambitious planned large-scale military manoeuvre that took into account or perhaps relied on a South Vietnamese public uprising to support it and the destruction of the foundations of the South Vietnamese army. After all, the South Vietnamese had long been disgusted by their Government’s corruption.
Prior to TET border battles were conducted to draw American concentration to those areas and the DMZ, hopefully spreading the Allied forces too thinly on the ground to be able to repel a co-ordinated nation wide military offensive. General William C Westmorland commander of the US Military forces Vietnam (MACV), assured the President that the B-52 bombings had severely hampered the enemy weakening him considerably, particularly in the cities, thus were being forced into more reckless activity.
The American forces in fact had taken a large toll of the NVA\Viet Cong, crushing every attempt to win a decisive battle. The NVA\Viet Cong, needed a victory, and Giap at a Politburo in June (1967) called for a ‘decisive blow’ against the US military forces. Yet despite their urgency to claim a decisive victory their massed attacks, which were contrary to their normal hit and run tactics, during the TET offensive, failed militarily on all fronts.
They were repulsed at Con Thien by US Marines and by the 3rd Battalion ARVN Regiment near the village of Song Be. They were again repulsed and driven back from an attack on Loc Ninh, near the Cambodian border, in an on going battle, sustaining heavy casualties.
In the central highlands region near Dak To they fought a bitter conflict for 22 days with units of the 4th Infantry Division and 173rd Airborne Brigade, with four North Vietnam Regular Regiments being forced back across the Cambodian border and into Laos.
Ten South Vietnam Battalions in the conflict had supported the American units. It was obvious that in major conflicts the US and Allied forces had the edge, though the opposite was probably true in Guerrilla type warfare in the jungle.
Evidence was growing that North Vietnam was building up her major forces, but despite the fact that Westmorland expected an aggressive appointment by them he remained optimistic, and did not expect such a conflict to occur during the holiday period of TET. Indeed it could be said that the Americans misjudged the intensity and scope of the attack that was to eventuate.
The Army had reported an increase in the number of terrorist attacks and an increase in the number of enemy contacts. Earlier in the year Senior North Vietnam diplomats had been called back to Hanoi from various places around the world and captured documents indicated that a general offensive was feasible. Westmorland did oppose the declaration of a 1968 TET truce, but Thieu insisted that the truce was necessary for the morale of the South Vietnam army. However Thieu did allow those regions Westmorland was particularly concerned about to remain on full alert, but waited six hours before the truce was to begin before informing the troops occupying those areas.
Westmorland was called back to Washington in November 1967 for consultation with the president but the more probable reason was to assure the American public that the ‘end was truly in sight’ for he believed that the enemy ranks were indeed steadily depleting, which they were.
President Johnson seemed to share this view, well publicly anyway, though out of the public arena, he advised the Australian cabinet that there were ‘dark days ahead’, a contradiction of terms, perhaps, but that was dependent on the way it was interpreted.
The truce offered the Viet Cong the opportunity to use the festivities as cover to enter the cities and prepare weapons, dressed as ordinary civilians, ready for the assaults. This was the pattern used throughout the conflict of the TET offensive. Troops would then infiltrate under rocket and mortar attack to join the others who would act as guides in the Cities.
General William C Westmorland was appointed Commander in Vietnam of the Allied military forces in 1964. He was born in South Carolina in Spartanburg County and graduated from the US Military Academy in 1936. He was an officer in the Artillery during the Second World War serving in France, Belgium, Sicily, Tunisia and Germany. After 1944 he was Chief of Staff of the 9th Infantry Division. In the Korean War he commanded a combat team, making two parachute jumps in combat. From 1960 to 1963 he was superintendent of the US Military Academy.
In South Vietnam General Westmorland, had tactical units deployed in three regional command areas. I Corps area, which included the five Northern provinces, was III Marine Amphibious force (III MAF).
In II Corps area, situated in the central highlands and the central coastal provinces was, I Field Force Vietnam and in the III Corps area and northern IV Corps area, situated in the Southern provinces, were deployed II Field force including Australian, New Zealand, Korean, and Thai troops.
There was no particular overall plan involved in the deployment of the troops; rather it was a plan that evolved over time according to events.
Westmorland had full responsibility for the conduct of the war effort though of cause subject to the chain of command instigating in Washington. The General did not have command over the South Vietnam Armed Forces, but as he was the Senior US Adviser to the South Vietnam general staff, he felt that he had effective control over South Vietnamese military strategy.
Lt Gen Fred C Weyland, commander of II Field force, was convinced that the enemy was moving in from the border bases towards Saigon and other places in small groups, indicating growing evidence of an immanent offensive in these regions. He managed to persuade Westmorland to postpone an operation in Phouc Long province, by pulling back troops to cover the Saigon area, but despite this Westmorland remained concerned with the area I Corps, with mounting evidence that there might be an offensive launched against Khe Sanh.
On Information obtained from a defector those in command at Khe Sanh believed the base to be another Dien Bien Phu. The defector described detailed plans and said that the attack would be launched at TET.
Fearing a repeat of the French experience at Dien Bien Phu, Westmorland began deploying extra forces at Khe Sanh just eight days prior to the NRVN launching its main thrust of the TET offensive. The marines occupying the base were more in favour of a withdrawal, since their objective was to maintain surveillance over the Ho Chi Minh trail which they felt could not be done while under siege.
The defence of Khe Sanh depended on Nigeria II and the establishment of a reliable supply line. Nigeria II was the second phase of the Nigeria operation, where bombers were used to destroy morale in the enemy ranks by causing high casualty rates.
Something in the vicinity of 6000 men occupied Khu Sanh, surrounded by some 30 odd thousand regular North Vietnam combat troops. Westmorland determined that their massive firepower would defeat the enemy attack.
Even though there was intense debate on weather the base was worth defending, Westmorland with the commander of III Marine Amphibious force, elected to defend it. Many attacks were made against forces in the area surrounding Khu Sanh, one base being Hill 881. Eventually an attack was launched on Khu Sanh. The battle lasted for 77 days, but the base could not officially be considered under siege, since the Marines were never prevented from patrolling the perimeter of the base.
The garrison had more than 6000 defending troops supported by 175mm Artillery guns in Camp Carol and overwhelming air superiority. They also had their own deployed artillery. Yet Westmorland still had fears that Khe Sanh would become the second Dien Bien Phu in that the marines would not be able to hold the base.
The enemy held off, and while the marines waited for the big assault, the 1968 TET offensive was launched all over South Vietnam… but not on Khe Sanh.
The two most major cities that came under attack during the TET offensive were Saigon and Hue, though cities all over Vietnam were attacked. The attack against Khe Sanh was probably a cover for the more intense battle for Hue, which was the cultural centre of Vietnam and where many of the leaders from both sides were graduates from the well-known Quoc Hoc High School.
Hue was really two Cities in one, divided by the Huong or River of Perfumes. South of the river was the more modern city while on the other side was the Citadel a fortified city built in the early nineteenth century by Emperor Gia Long.
The Citadel was surrounded by high walls and inner moats covering an area of approximately three square miles. Oriental gardens, temples and pagodas formed many landmarks under the Towers and ramparts that gave the occupants overall defensive surveillance.
Hue was the home of the Imperial Palace with its gilded dragon-structured throne room. It was here that the Thich Tri Quang began their protests, which eventually led to the overthrow of Diem.
The city had always been left alone in the war, because it was akin to being a sanctuary of peace in a land of conflict.
The communist forces were able to penetrate into hue resulting in a major conflict as the Allies fought to win it back, foot-by-foot, house-by-house.
The TET offensive was launched on 30-31 January 1968, with an estimated communist strength of more than 70000 troops. They attacked 36 Provincial capital cities, 64 district capitals, more than 50 villages and 6 autonomous cities.
Most of the attacks were against South Vietnamese forces, which was consistent with the idea that the communists expected to rally them to the revolutionary flag to cause an uprising against Diem and the US forces. Another reason might have been that they feared American firepower. The attack on Saigon however, unlike the other attacks on Cities did include an attack against the Americans.
They were well prepared, some of their leaders sneaking into the city in disguise to pinpoint main installations. Others infiltrated with weapons and provisions ready for the attack.
The main targets were the American Embassy and the Tan Son Nhut complex. There were other targets such as the MACV headquarters and Presidential Palace.
The heaviest attack was against the Tan Son Nhut air base, which was military headquarters of the Assistance command Vietnam and the 7th Air Force.
The base at Long Binh, which was only 15 miles from Saigon was also attacked and the Bien Hoa airfield both being initially hit with 122mm rockets. The American base Ben Cat was hit and Duc Hoa, as was the ARVN engineering school at Phu Cuong. Tay Ninh, Cu Chi and Ba Ria were also attacked.
In the Northern provinces the North Vietnamese regulars were more in evidence, particularly in the provinces of Quang Tri and Thua Thien. It was North Vietnamese regular forces that captured Hue in what has often been referred to as the masterstroke of the TET offensive, (if in fact a military operation that failed dramatically could be considered to contain a master stroke).
Tam Ky the capital of Quang Tin province was attacked with two Viet Cong battalions six other battalions attacking Quang Ngai city. They hit the coastal city of Bong Son, Phan Thiet and An Khe in the central highlands. Dat Lat, the site of the South Vietnamese Military Academy in the highlands was also assaulted. Ban Me Thuot, Kontum and Pleiku all came under attack.
All of the attacks were repulsed, some after bitter struggle others with relative ease, but despite these victories by the South Vietnamese forces, their leaders were not reliable and were more concerned with private matters than they were of the wider field of conflict.
In the delta regions casualties on both sides were high as well as those of the civilian populations. Many towns and cities were completely destroyed. The South Vietnamese had fought bravely, but they were reluctant to mount counter attacks therefore seldom took advantage of the initiative. They tended to rely more on the American fire power than their own ability seek out even relatively small groups of the enemy.
In Saigon the enemy stubbornly hung on in the Cholon area, sending out hit squads to exterminate “enemies of the people” among the citizens. They attacked mostly at night mingling with the people during the day, looking like ordinary citizens.
The bitter struggle for Hue continued in the north and the marines were repulsing enemy on the approaches to Da Nang. The major battle of the offensive had now been revealed. It was not at Khe Sanh, as Westmorland had feared, nor in the frontal areas of the DMZ, but in the ancient city of Hue.
Westmorland was unhappy with the Marine command in I Corps, having dubious faith in their ability to mange the situation in the area. Due to this he established a temporary MACV headquarters at Phu Bai, under his deputy, General Creighton W Abrams, to co – ordinate the conflict in the northern provinces of Quang Tri and Thua Thien.
The TET offensive subsided with the end of the battle for Hue. The communists had failed to achieve any military goals and had lost half of their attacking force in the attempt. They had also failed to start an uprising in the south. They had shown however that they could and would wage set piece battles, though not necessarily very successfully.
The offensive was a brilliant one, which probably failed due to the superior power of the defending troops. The costly losses for the north were mainly among the local Viet Cong units, which consequently had severely weakened the ability to wage guerrilla warfare, which was the foundation of their struggle.
The masterstroke (according to the media) had been the feint to draw American troops to the defence of Khe Sanh while massing their troops for an all out attack on Hue. The fact that they failed to hang on to it, the winning back of the city almost completely destroying it, the ‘master stroke ‘obviously led to failure, which was utterly pointless.
Hue was lost probably because the NVRA failed to capture two major objectives, which were the headquarters sector in the Citadel and the MACV compound in the southern city area. These areas provided a foothold for the allies to counter the attack and win back the city with some of the bitterest fighting of the war.
General Giap, after the TET offensive, claimed that the battle at Khe Sanh became the major issue due to America’s lost prominence in the world community and indeed the US believed that the French at Dien Bien Phu were weakened by this and, thus, did not want to take the risk.
Ironically the feint on Khe Sanh did cause Westmorland to move the 1st Air Cavalry Division into the northern region where it was able to reinforce the efforts at Quang Tri City and Hue.
After the recapture of hue 3000 bodies were located thrown into ‘hasty’ mass graves. Many had their hands tied behind their backs and had been beheaded. These people had been killed as ‘enemies of the people’. President Johnson in November 1969 stated that the “atrocities in Hue” were only a prelude of what would happen should the communists gain full control of Vietnam.
The TET offensive was instrumental in convincing many civilian groups and some government officials that President Johnson’s Vietnam policy was unworkable, this view being germinated among many American citizens. This gave rise to advocates of a troop withdrawal in government circles.
The NVA\VIET CONG leaders felt that US political reaction to the TET offensive offset their losses to an extent, and these political repercussions would affect US war strategy. Indeed it seemed that this instability helped Johnson with his decision not to seek a further term as President.
TET confused many Americans, for Westmorland had assured them that the communists were being defeated in the jungle – and indeed they were. The confusion was a result of irresponsible media reporting. The TET offensive raised thoughts, in their minds, about defeat by what was an inferior third world force. This was unthinkable.
Members of Congress expressed their displeasure with the progress of American troops in Vietnam and recommended that the South East Asian policy be reviewed. The writing was on the wall for Johnson for he knew that he would not be able to pass any more of his social programs.
Johnson was advised that South Vietnam must play a larger role in the war and the American role reduced. Meanwhile a peaceful settlement should be developed. The only outcome of the war it seemed would be stalemate, but all those involved knew that if the Americans withdrew, the country would quickly fall into communist hands.
Many democrats who had always had doubts about the course the war was taking took advantage of the TET offensive as an excuse to dissociate from the administration. Thus the Presidential race was affected greatly by this dissent. This was reflected in the growing support for those who campaigned under the banner of the “Peace” vote.
America was surprised by President Johnson’s announcement that he would not run for another term, but he was disillusioned; his health was not the best since he had suffered a heart attack some years before. On the day of his announcement he also announced a reduction of the bombing in North Vietnam. The Communists were not winning on the battlefield, but they had certainly made major inroads into winning it through the influence of the modern American people (and Australian) that relied on the hype of the media to formulate their ideas and thoughts.
©Copyright 2004 by Colin F. Jones