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Tet Offensive 1968
By Andrew Rawson
The History PressCopyright © 2013 The History Press
All rights reserved.
South Vietnam's Geography and Weather
South Vietnam's varied terrain and seasonal weather affected the nature of warfare waged in the country. While battles were usually fought in rugged mountains, thick jungle, paddy fields or river deltas, a great deal of the fighting during the Tet Offensive took place in urban areas, ranging from the temples in Hue's ancient Citadel to Saigon's poorest suburbs.
South Vietnam can be split into three topographical areas: the Central Highlands, the Central Lowlands north of Saigon, and the Mekong Delta south of the capital. The Central Highlands sit astride South Vietnam's border with Cambodia and Laos, where mountain peaks range from 500–1,000m. The mountains are covered by tropical forests, with some areas covered by multi-canopy trees and elephant grass, and others covered by smaller trees and thick undergrowth. Bamboo thickets, rubber plantations and farms are scattered across the area.
The Central Lowlands is the narrow, heavily populated strip along the coast. The Mekong Delta, south of Saigon, is criss-crossed by rivers, canals and paddy fields. It floods during the monsoon season, leaving most areas underwater.
Temperatures are high all year round, apart from in the mountains along the Laotian border. Humidity is always high and monsoons and tropical cyclones alternatively sweep the northern and the southern regions. An average of nearly 3,000mm of rain falls on Hue between November and February, while Saigon has an average of nearly 1,500mm between June and September.
From French Colonial Rule to Communist Takeover
Resistance fighters fought the Japanese across French Indochina during the Second World War. US Army officers watched when Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam's independence in September 1945. In August 1950, US advisors set up the Military Assistance Advisory Group, Indochina, in Saigon to control military aid being sent to Southeast Asia.
Ho Chi Minh's troops fought a guerilla war against the French until General Henri Navarre decided to draw them into open battle in November 1953, establishing a base at Dien Bien Phu near the Laotian border. Minh's soldiers occupied the hills surrounding the base and tightened their stranglehold until the French were forced to surrender on 7 May 1954. Two months later, hostilities came to an end and French Indochina was split into two along the 17th Parallel: the Communist north and the Democratic south.
While the French handed over the south to President Ngo Dinh Diem's regime, it became clear that the South Vietnamese armed forces needed assistance to secure the country. In March 1955, more US military advisors arrived in South Vietnam and, eight months later, the Military Assistance Advisory Group, Vietnam, began running training programs.
The United States kept a close eye on developments in Southeast Asia, concerned that if one country came under Communist control, the rest would follow in a theory known as the 'Domino Effect'. Four years of increased violence across South Vietnam were followed by North Vietnam's announcement that it was changing its strategy from a political struggle to an armed struggle. President Dwight D. Eisenhower made the United States' first public commitment to support South Vietnam's fight for independence in April 1959, but the fighting continued and, three months later, two American servicemen were killed during a Viet Cong attack; they would be the first of many.
In 1960, North Vietnam introduced military conscription, sending soldiers to South Vietnam, while the National Liberation Front was established to coordinate the struggle in the south. The beginning of 1961 saw John F. Kennedy elected President of the United States and he pledged additional military assistance at the end of the year in response to a request for help from President Diem.
US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, was organised in February 1962 to manage the growing American support for the Vietnamese government as it tried to improve national defence and internal security. US field advisors and Special Forces detachments helped to direct South Vietnamese Army operations against the Viet Cong, drawing America deeper into armed conflict. The relocation of thousands of civilians into protected hamlets at the same time proved to be unpopular, creating further difficulties for a government struggling with political turmoil and corruption.
The world's attention centred on Cuba the following October, when America made a stand against the deployment of Soviet missiles close to its shores. The situation ended in a nuclear stand-off between President Kennedy and the USSR's premier, Nikita Khrushchev. Attention returned to South Vietnam on 1 November 1963 when a military coup toppled the government and soldiers executed President Diem. President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on 22 November 1963, and Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in.
North Vietnam continued sending troops into South Vietnam, looking to take advantage of the chaos caused by the coup, and the first attacks against US bases were made in July 1964. US Navy ships patrolling off North Vietnam's coast were given permission to shell targets in the Gulf of Tonkin, and the first shots were fired when North Vietnamese patrol boats attacked the destroyer USS Maddox on 2 August. Two days later, the North Vietnamese allegedly made a second attack (key witnesses later reported the second attack never took place).
President Johnson immediately ordered retalitory airstrikes against North Vietnamese naval bases, and on 7 August 1964 the US Congress and Senate passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, authorising the president to deploy US armed forces to defend the non-Communist nations of Southeast Asia. It meant there was no turning back unless the North Vietnamese backed down; and they had no intention of doing so.
President Johnson was re-elected on 3 November 1964. Two months later, the Viet Cong attacked US military installations and he authorised carrier-based US Navy planes to attack North Vietnam. The attacks escalated into Operation Rolling Thunder, the widespread bombing of targets across the country. With the threat against US installations increasing, Johnson gave the order to deploy ground troops; 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade landed at Da Nang on 8 March 1965, where they were met by government officials and women carrying flower garlands.
Two months later, 173rd Airborne Brigade arrived at Bien Hoa to the north of Saigon, the first US Army unit to deploy. It was the start of an eight-year commitment by US ground troops to South Vietnam; a commitment that would cost tens of thousands of lives, create hundreds of thousands of refugees and change the lives of everyone involved, both soldier and civilian.
The Campaigns, 1965–67
United States military involvement in Southeast Asia began when a small number of advisors were deployed to South Vietnam in March 1962. When the Tet Offensive was launched on 30/31 January 1968, the number of American troops in South Vietnam had increased to nearly half a million. What follows is a brief summary of the increasing conflict between the United States and South Vietnamese troops and their adversaries – the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong – between the spring of 1962 and the end of 1967.
The first US troops were deployed across South Vietnam in the spring of 1965. The Marine Corps set up I Corps in the north, the US Army took over II and III Corps in the centre, while the ARVN operated in IV Corps across the Mekong Delta. Operations kept the Viet Cong at bay while engineers built bases and ports. An attack against Plei Me, near the Ia Drang Valley, in October was stopped by the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), ending the NVA's attempt to reach Qui Nhon on the coast.
By the end of 1965, US and Allied troops were deployed with III Marine Amphibious Force and South Vietnamese I Corps in the north, I Field Force and South Vietnamese II Corps in the centre, and II Field Force with South Vietnamese III Corps around Saigon. In all areas, search and destroy operations were being made into areas held by the Viet Cong, denying them sanctuaries and limiting their activities.
By March 1966, 3rd Marine Division was deployed along the Demilitarized Zone, stopping North Vietnamese troops crossing into South Vietnam, while B-52s started bombing along the Laotian border in April. In the summer of 1966, the Joint Chiefs of Staff declared their objectives were to defeat the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong while helping the South Vietnamese government take control. But to meet these objectives, ground troops would be forced to fight a costly war of attrition.
By June 1967, nearly 450,000 US servicemen and women had been deployed to Southeast Asia as major operations continued unabated. South Vietnamese armed forces were also conducting their own operations, while their Special Forces were becoming involved in operations in the Central Highlands. North of the Demilitarized Zone, Navy and Air Force planes continued to strike targets across North Vietnam.CHAPTER 2
During typical campaigns in the Vietnam War, the US and ARVN armed forces were on the offensive, using their Special Forces units and intelligence leads to locate enemy units before rapidly deploying ground troops by helicopter to trap them. They then called in artillery, helicopter and fixed-wing airstrikes to decimate their enemy. More often than not, though, the Viet Cong were able to hide or slip away, using ambushes and booby traps to disorganise, confuse and delay the US and ARVN troops.
However, the traditional roles were reversed during the Tet Offensive. The NVA and Viet Cong went on the offensive and it was the Free World Forces who had to defend their bases, before deploying and counterattacking.
Free World Forces Tactics
The Americans had been on the offensive for nearly two years when the Tet Offensive began. Operations in the forests and rubber plantations around Saigon and other population centres had driven the Viet Cong from their sanctuaries, often forcing them into the rugged terrain along the border. However, for the first time in the war, the NVA and the Viet Cong came out to fight, forcing the Allied commanders on the defensive; if only for a few days in most cases.
Khe Sanh, near the DMZ, was under siege for seventy-nine days and the Marines had to be on guard around the clock, ready to stop the NVA sappers from breaking into their base. All they could do was dig deeper and use whatever materials they had to hand to create bunkers, shelters and trenches to protect themselves from shells and rockets. Meanwhile, they had to watch while the NVA dug closer and closer. Aerial observers in helicopters and small planes searched for targets while ground sensors and radars monitored troop movements. Equipment designed to detect the ammonia in human sweat and excrement was also used; the machines were known as People Sniffers.
The Marines built thick belts of barbed wire entanglements around their base and installed booby traps, flares and mines to stop the NVA sappers cutting a way through. The NVA usually attacked at night and, when the alarm was raised, it was every man to his position as machine-guns, mortars and artillery hammered the area outside the perimeter wire, and flares lit up the sky.
Elsewhere across South Vietnam, the first the Allies knew about the NVA and Viet Cong intentions was when they emerged from their hiding places to attack. In the first instance, the garrisons of military and government installations had to stand their ground, fighting from prepared positions or risk being overrun. As reports flooded into the headquarters, commanders assessed where the threats were and alerted units so they would be ready to move at daylight.
The Allies often deployed their reserves, using helicopters when possible, on the NVA and Viet Cong lines of communications, aiming to stop reinforcements and supplies getting through. Troops then worked to locate the enemy positions and, often with the help of helicopters, redeployed to surround them. Once the enemy was trapped, artillery and airstrikes were used to destroy them while helicopter gunships swooped low to catch anyone trying to escape the mayhem. The NVA and Viet Cong would split into small groups and make a run for it, hoping to break through the American lines. Helicopters were used to move Allied troops quickly in ever increasing circles to stop them escaping.
In the cities, the Allied units had to cordon off areas and then systematically work their way through them, looking to drive the enemy out; companies attacked blocks, platoons cleared streets and squads assaulted houses in intense urban combat. The Allies could not use their superior firepower because of the threat to civilians and property, and soldiers had to fight with what they could carry: rifles, machine-guns, grenades and small calibre mortars. Tanks were too cumbersome to use in narrow streets and, while the US Army made good use of armoured personnel carriers (APCs) to move troops around, the Marines used the Ontos, a small armoured vehicle mounted with six recoilless rifles, to knock out enemy positions.
Again, the object was to cut the NVA and Viet Cong off from their supplies so they could not prolong the fight. They usually responded by scattering, looking to cause as much trouble as possible with sniper fire and random attacks on buildings such as police stations. The Allies responded by setting up military roadblocks across the town or city, working alongside the National Police to limit enemy movements. At the same time, cordons would be thrown around city blocks while search parties worked their way through to flush out the remaining NVA soldiers and Viet Cong sympathisers. Overall, the aim was to restore law and order as soon as possible before the people lost faith in the government.
The battle for Hue was unique in that the prolonged fighting turned the city into a free fire zone where artillery, helicopters and ships fired into the narrow streets. The Marines devised new tactics to defeat the NVA, using recoilless rifles to blast open buildings and destroy enemy positions. They would then run across the street before the dust settled, conducting a nail biting search of the building, where their enemy might have withdrawn or might be waiting in the shadows. CS gas grenades were sometimes used to debilitate the garrison of a building and the Marines entered wearing gas masks.
NVA and Viet Cong Tactics
Before the Tet Offensive, the NVA and Viet Cong spent most of their time hiding in their jungle camps, waiting for a moment to strike an Allied patrol or fire base. They let the American and South Vietnamese forces go on the offensive, using ambushes to grind them down in a war of attrition.
However, the NVA and Viet Cong launched a large-scale offensive for the first time during the Tet celebrations at the end of January 1968. During the days before the attack, thousands of soldiers were on the move dressed as civilians, assembling just before H-Hour near their objective. Some collected their weapons from concealed arms caches, while others carried theirs hidden about their body or in carts. No one noticed that there were an unusually high number of funerals around Saigon in the days before Tet; the coffins were filled with arms and ammunition.
Many of the targets chosen by the NVA and Viet Cong were military bases, and they used two methods to inflict the maximum damage. The 'Sapper Attack' involved breaking into a base and then going on the rampage, while the 'Stand Off Attack' involved firing as many missiles as possible at a base.
Allied bases were protected by defensive perimeters comprising an open strip of land covered in barbed wire, mines, trip wires and flares. It was the job of the NVA sappers to breach the perimeter, using stealth to take the garrison by surprise.
In the weeks before Tet, targets were observed from afar while intelligence was gleaned from anyone working inside. While information was being gathered, the sapper commander developed his plan and trained his men.
Each raiding party was divided into two or more assault teams, known as 'arrows', and they were in turn divided into four- or five-man 'cells'. The 'penetration cell' dressed only in shorts and camouflaged their skin with mud, before making the long, slow crawl through the perimeter defences, marking the route with cloth strips. They did not cut the barbed wire entanglements, but used sticks to lift up the barbed wire or mats to cover it so their work would not be discovered.
Excerpted from Tet Offensive 1968 by Andrew Rawson. Copyright © 2013 The History Press. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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