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For those who were there, the offensive is simply called Tet, yet even with such a short title, this was the most complex battle of the Vietnam War.
It encompassed all four corps tactical areas inside the Republic of Vietnam, yet also included engagements to the north of the DMZ, and to the lands beyond the western borders. The fights were air, land, sea, brown water, urban, rice paddies, hillsides and under the jungle’s triple canopy. Warriors included soldiers, Marines, sailors, airmen, coastguardsmen; even a few folks in civilian dress. Besides the men, women and children who were generally called South Vietnamese, other battlefield participants included Thai, Australians, New Zealanders, Filipinos, Cambodians, Nationalist Chinese, Meo and other tribesmen, Laotians, Koreans, and of course about a half a million or so Americans.
There were others on the Allied side in Southeast Asia as well; people of Europe and elsewhere who helped so much with logistics, and with medical support. Some had small groups in-country. Together, all the Nations and lands that had joined together in the great struggle as part of a multi-national allied force waged the most intensive kind of war against those directly opposed– the South Vietnamese communists, called the Viet Cong, and their immediate allies, the North Vietnamese. The communists were backed up by volunteers from the Soviet Union, and by the North Koreans, the Cubans, and from the massive Chinese forces of Mao.
Most think of Tet as a struggle of just a few days in length; the very end of January 1968, and the first half of February, but it was actually defined by the attackers as a three-phased event. First there was the surprise attacks made during the traditional Vietnamese Tet Holiday. This included assaults of cities and hamlets, villages and towns, military encampments and airbases in all four of the tactical Corps areas.
In the far north of the Republic of Vietnam was I Corps, called “eye corps” by those who were there. In this area were such places as DaNang, Hue, Dong Ha, Khe Sanh, the valley of the Ashau, the hilltop redoubts and the special forces encampments guarding the far western border and the southern bank of the river marking in the most practical of terms the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Vietnam.
Next there was II Corps, home of Pleiku and Nha Trang, then the massive III Corps in which lay Saigon, its twin called Cholon, Tay Ninh City and other place names which Tet inscribed in the hearts and souls of all who took fire.
The IV Corps was in the far south, a land remote from the rest, the great Rat Sung Delta, through which flowed into the sea the many channels of one of the world’s great rivers, the Mekong. So in the north were mountainous regions, then jungles, then farming zones, rubber trees, three crop a year rice fields, then cities, then delta and swamp.
In all of this, in winter, spring, summer and early fall of 1968 was fought the three phase campaign of the communists called the Tet Offensive, a fight which had its beginnings in the multi battalion engagements along the borders in 1967, struggles to draw allied military power away from the intended Tet targets. In Phase One, the allies, together, lost more than nine thousand killed in action. Another 35,000 were wounded, and there were more than 1,500 who were listed as missing.
There were 14,000 or more civilians in the south who were killed by the communists in the attack, or caught in the fighting, and another 24,000 were wounded.
In Phase One alone, it is estimated that 17,000 communists were killed and another 20,000 were wounded. Exact figures are uncertain but what is known for certain is that after phase one ended, the Viet Cong force greatly was diminished and faded from most battlefields. In phase two and three, the enemy faced were primarily North Vietnamese. The communists sustained more than a hundred thousand casualties in all three phases of the campaign. More than 45,000 were killed and more than 60,000 were wounded.
On the allied side, total figures for all three phases just of Tet are unavailable, yet many lost their lives, were wounded or were missing during the 1967 fights on the fringe and then the nine months total of Tet. For America alone in the Vietnam War, more than 58,000 lost their lives, and most of those losses were in the 1967-1968-and half of 1969 period. In terms of economic loss, there was great damage done to the infrastructure of the south, and to the military resources defending the Republic. Some 123 aircraft, both fixed wing and rotary, were destroyed and more than 400 other aircraft were damaged. Installations, posts and bases had serious impacts, either from direct combat or from indirect shelling and rocket fire. Many cultural sites in the south, especially in Hue, were destroyed or heavily damaged.
Tet was brutal. It was fighting of the same or greater intensity of that experienced in World War Two and in the 1950-1953 Korean War. Keep in mind that veterans of the Tet period were, to some degree or another, also veterans of the overall Cold War, and many were also veterans of events in Libya, and in what was happening in northeast Asia with Korean War II, all going on at the same time as Tet.
It is impossible to compare experiences. What Marines had to handle at Khe Sanh was very different than the month-long urban fighting of Hue and of what allied force members faced in more than 100 towns and cities. Up and down the Republic of Vietnam, the allied forces were shocked and surprised, at least initially, with the intensity of the struggle. Of 44 provincial capitals (think “state capital” in the USA), there was serious combat in 36 of them, as well as five of the six autonomous cities, 72 of 245 district towns (think “county seats”), and in Saigon (think “Washington DC”).
This is what the Viet Cong and what more than 80,000 north Vietnamese troops brought into the lives of South Vietnam’s citizens—people in a war but not ready for the intensity of battle which was Tet. Indeed, Tet was supposed to be a holiday, the Vietnamese New Year when the first attacks took place. Instead of celebration and holiday feasting, there was an enemy surprise offensive that was the largest military operation conducted by either side up to that time in the war. Defeating such an enormous military undertaking was what Tet was truly all about – and make no mistake: That is precisely what the allied forces did, in each of the three phases of the operation.
When the smoke cleared and the dust settled, more than half of the enemy forces were destroyed, down on the ground, dead. Tet was not the victory for the communists claimed by the foolish of Kent State students and elsewhere, away from Southeast Asia. Those who were there and went through Tet just absolutely could not believe how any citizen of the United States could believe otherwise, but they did. We won the battles but Charley won the war, because they won the struggle of propaganda. Unbelievably, we have not yet seemed to grasp that information is a weapon, even though it was the ultimate weapon we used in the Cold War.
Getting back to Tet, South Vietnamese and U.S. Military intelligence estimated that the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong Forces actually inside the Republic of Vietnam before the Tet Offensive erupted included 323,000 men, a figure which included 130,000 North Vietnamese regulars, 160,000 Viet Cong South Vietnamese communists, and 33,000 troops assigned to service and support duties.
Beginning in the summer of 1967, 81,000 tons of supplies and 200,000 troops had moved south down the Ho Chi Minh Trail from North Vietnam. Many of these men were armed with AK-47 assault rifles and B-40 RPGs (rocket propelled grenade launchers). Many of these enemy soldiers were encountered by US and allied forces in the battles which took place along the borders of the Republic of Vietnam.
That fighting in 1967 was intensive and fierce, and it did cause movement of allied forces away from the cities and the coasts into the interior. At the same time this fighting was underway, there was also diplomatic activity taking place between the two sides. The allies saw massive numbers of trucks moving south through Laos and Cambodia, more than 6,000 in December 1967 alone. Many of these were destroyed by air strikes.
There were clear signs that some sort of attack against the country was soon to happen, but there was confusion and a general lack of cooperation and coordination among the various intelligence services of the allies. They all knew the enemy was growing in strength, and they knew an attack of some sort would be the result of all that logistical activity, but the leadership, both political and military, did not understand just how soon the attack would come, and they did not see that it would be activity that would just swell up inside the various communities of the south. Until Tet, History taught that military actions came in waves against strong points. That was true with D-Day in World War Two and with the North Korean attack in the summer of 1950. But it was not to be true for the defenders of Freedom in South Vietnam.
By the beginning of January 1968, the United States had 331,098 US Army soldiers and 78,013 Marines in-country; members of nine divisions, an armored cavalry regiment, and two separate brigades. The South Koreans had two divisions in-country and there were significant other allied units. The South Vietnamese strength was 350,000 regulars, supported by 151,000 regional forces and 149,000 popular forces (regional and local militias). In addition to ground forces, the allies included strong and capable air, river, gun line and over the horizon sea forces. The in-country bases which were used to project aerial attacks and support missions were well guarded. The United States Air Force, for instance, had battalion strength Security Police Squadrons that were as well armed as other ground force units, and even had indirect fire and armored fighting vehicle capabilities. It is significant that during any of the three phases of Tet there was no successful penetration of the interior of any air base, and that all attacks against the perimeters were totally repulsed.
Beginning with attacks in I Corps and II Corps which started shortly after midnight on January 30, the main Tet series of attacks began at 0300 the morning of 31 January. This included attacks against such places as Saigon and Cholon, Hue, Gia Dinh, Quang Tri, Tam Ky, Phu Bai, Can Tho, An Khe, Bien Hoa, Tuy Hoa, and many other places, stretching until a February 10th attack against Bac Lieu in IV Corps. In all 84,000 enemy troops made 155 attacks. Before and for a period of time during the initial Tet activity, the allied leadership mostly believed the enemy intent was to cut off northern I Corps from the rest of the Republic of Vietnam, and then to use the occupation of that area as a sort of bargaining chip in talks to end the war.
With the activity around Khe Sanh, and then the massive attack against Hue, this seemed to be a logical assumption by many of the allied generals; yet the efforts made against downtown Saigon seemed to almost immediately disprove the theory.
In Saigon the communists had six primary targets: the MACV and the ARVN Headquarters located on Tan Son Nhut Air Base, primarily defended by the United States Air Force Security Police; the Independence Palace; the US Embassy, the Republic of Vietnam Navy Headquarters, and the National Radio Station. Aside from the attacks against the sprawling Tan Son Nhut Air Base complex, carried out by enemy main force battalions and regiments, the other attacks were more in the nature of special operations activities. None succeeded, due to the joint and combined defenses mounted by military police and main force units.
With Tet, the enemy suffered the loss of more than 45,000 personnel. Many were killed in various kinds of ground battles, yet sea and air forces brought intensive capabilities to bear. Throughout all of 1968, it is estimated that the enemy losses were above 180,000 and that the Viet Cong ceased to be effective. 1968 was also the deadliest year for the forces of the Republic of Vietnam. They lost almost 28,000 military personnel. Another 14,000 civilians were killed, 24,000 were wounded, 630,000 new refugees joined with nearly 800,000 others displaced by the war, and many houses and much of the infrastructure of the Nation was destroyed.
Tet, in all, was a gruesome and bitter time for all involved. It is hard to see anything positive in such an event, yet this is a clear fact. The steam roller the communists had hoped to use to crush and to swamp the south with, and to then keep the traction going into other nations of the region, perhaps as far as to India and to Indonesia and even to Australia, was halted in place and then for a time was a capability mostly pushed out of the Republic. Americans suffered in the fighting but significantly did not lose the battles, and the units withdrawn after Tet went home to posts and bases with their military honors somewhat frayed yet mostly intact. The communists did not win military victories in South Vietnam when the allied forces stood with arms linked.
Seven years after Tet, though, in 1975, two years after the Americans left, the Republic of Vietnam fell and freedom was destroyed for the Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian people. This happened in great measure because of a failure of character of many of the American people who did not correctly understand the importance of America’s involvement in the unfolding events of Southeast Asia, resulting in a failure of consequences which remain to be reconciled.
Fifty years after Tet, the truth resounds that the United States of America is a Pacific Nation, and has national interests in the Pacific region as important as anywhere else. What happens in the Pacific community of Nations are events touching our own shores as well, and they are and forever will be as s important to the defense of Freedom for us, as they are for our neighbors.
As demonstrated by the courage and the sacrifices made against the aggression of the Tet Offensive, we do not stand alone.
FIFTIETH YEAR PROCLAMATION COMMEMORATING THE DEFENSE OF FREEDOM DURING THE VIETNAM WAR’S TET OFFENSIVE
WHEREAS, in 1967, the enemies of Freedom began a campaign of conventional battle to draw allied military forces away from population centers in coastal regions to the more remote jungle and mountainous areas along the borders of the Republic of Vietnam; and
WHEREAS, when 1968 began, in spite of large scale battle underway in the Khe Sanh area, there were indications by enemy leadership of a willingness for negotiations to begin towards a peaceful resolve of the escalating Vietnam War, as marked by a time of ceasefire during the upcoming traditional Tet celebrations; and
WHEREAS, enemy forces, secretly moved to overwatch positions, launched 155 large surprise attacks against the government and the people of the Republic of Vietnam, with massive barrages striking important government locations, as well as cities and hamlets, posts and bases, ranging from the DMZ in the north to the mighty MeKong River delta of the south; and
WHEREAS, enemy treachery brought unexpected death and destruction south, causing grave harm to thousands upon thousands of people caught in the triggered cauldron of war, from countryside to national capital, in a three-phased campaign of nine months duration; and
WHEREAS, Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, Coastguardsmen, other members of the defense team, Police and Civil Authority of the Republic of Vietnam, United States of America, Republic of Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, and other Allies, all joined together in a great joint and combined effort to meet the attacks, thwart them, and repulse the enemy intention to seize control of the Nation, and defeat the cause of Freedom in southeast Asia;
AND WHEREAS, The heart and spirit, the courage and resolve of proud and brave men and women stood fast against tyranny, did what was legal and right, and with the very best of battlefield leadership, broke the attack in half, sent its survivors reeling, secured another seven years of life for the Republic of Vietnam, and showed the world what was possible when free people stand together in allied effort to defeat aggression.
MAKE NO MISTAKE. The Tet Offensive was a thorough military defeat of the enemy powers who launched it.
THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED AND KNOWN, in this 50th year of Commemoration of countrymen and allies who stood together to defeat tyranny in a treacherous time, We extend congratulations and words of praise to All who served In-Country in 1968, the most intensive year of the Vietnam War. We thank you for your many sacrifices of blood, toil and loss; and for your valor and your service. We Welcome You Home.
Two Tet Vets
All of us need to remember Tet, what it meant, and what lessons for today and for tomorrow that we can draw from the event. Our times of today are as uncertain as they were in the 1960s. It is important for our nation to seek and sustain unity. The foes against us see the world very differently than we do, and they are capable of doing great harm to the Freedom we have because of the US Constitution. They learn from the past. So, too, must we. As we look fifty years back at Vietnam, we must not fall into the trap of making predictions about the future; yet we must always measure capabilities. That was not done as well as it should have been done in the mid 1960s, on until the end of the War. That is a mistake our Nation must not repeat, and that is why it is important to properly and honestly remember the lengthy battle called Tet. Speaking as a veteran of those days, thank you for presenting the information to your readers.