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JAMES R. ARNOLD
TET OFFENSIVE 1968. TURNING POINT IN VIETNAM

Paratroopers of the élite ARVN Airborne served as a fire brigade force. The 1st and 8th Battalions, intended for movement north as part of Westmoreland's counter to the NVA buildup along the DMZ, were still in Saigon when the Communists struck. Their fortuitous presence gave the Allied commanders an invaluable hard-lighting reaction force. During Tet, airborne troopers rushed from one emergency to the next.

At the bottom of the pecking order of Allied units were the 42,000 men comprising the Civilian Irregular Defence Groups (CIDG). The task of Training and leading these groups fell to the American and Vietnamese Special Forces. There were two categories of CIDG: Camp Strike Forces (CSF) and Mobile Strike Forces (MSF, familiarly known as 'Mike Forces'). The former garrisoned the Special Forces' camps while the latter comprised the better trained soldiers (a relative term) capable of active patrolling. A battalion of CSF soldiers, three to five 132-man companies, guarded each camp. Their families usually lived in an adjacent American-built slum put together with nipa palm and stolen materials. In remote situations these camps existed in isolation from normal regional life; in more populous areas they became a centre for people seeking a safe haven. Since one of the goals of the coming offensive was to prove to the people that the South Vietnamese government and its allies could not protect its citizens, the CIDG camps were included on the target list.

South Vietnam Military Regions

A soldier of the 5th Marine Battalion holds a VC 75mm recoilless rifle round.

1st ARVN Division radiomen and their American advisers coordinate operations with a nearby American Fire Support Base.

The CIDG had limited capabilities. They were at the bottom of the hierarchy for supplies, medical evacuation, fire support, and everything else. Most of their training came from field experience facing 'real' training aids who shot back with superior weapons. However, moulded by the Green Berets, they sometimes accomplished surprising feats. A Special Forces officer has left a description of his men on the eve of Tet:

'These CIDGs were soldiers who would cut up their canteen covers to make green fur collars for their uniforms; who could struggle all day through thigh-deep mud, carrying half their own weight on their backs without complaint... who would bang two B-40 rockets together like indian clubs to see if they would explode... who might run under fire; or who might ignore it to carry a wounded American to safety.'

The M-16 was the basic and controversial firearm of the US foot soldier. In automatic rifle, on full automatic it delivered its 20-round magazine in three seconds. To reduce the likelihood of jamming, many soldiers only loaded 18 rounds. Still the M-16 had to be meticulously maintained or else it jammed. The relative merits of the rival automatic rifles were much debated. One VC company commander stated: 'The AK-47 was a good weapon, but most of us carried M-16s.' Asked why, he responded: 'It was so much easier to get ammunition. You were always dropping magazines full of it, or we could buy it from the puppet (South Vietnamese) forces.' A Marine belonging to 'A' Company, 1/1 Marine Regiment, during the Battle of Hue, 9 February 1968.

Even squad included a soldier armed with the M-79 grenade launcher. The M-79 was a single-shot, break-open, breech-loaded shoulder weapon. When loaded it weighed 6.5 pounds. It fired a 40mm grenade to an effective range of 400 yards (while the maximum range of a hand-lobbed grenade was 40 yards). It had a sustained rate of aimed fire of five to seven rounds per minute. Grenadiers carried ammunition in specially designed, pouch-lined jackets. The effectiveness of the 'blooper' gunners made them, along with the radiomen, the first targets in an ambush. A VC captain commented: 'We were very frightened of it... A terrible weapon.'

Except for selected CIDG camps, the Communist assault tended to bypass rural areas in favour of city assaults. Thus, the 151,376-man Regional Forces and 148,789-man Popular Forces played a limited part in the Tet Offensive. In the cities the attackers confronted the 70,000-man Vietnamese national police who were forced to play a combat role with which they were unfamiliar and for which they were ill-prepared.

A CIDG platoon at its base in the II Corps hinterland. Note the many young teenagers that make up this force.

The American Infantry

On the eve of Tet, US forces comprised nine divisions, one armoured cavalry regiment, and two independent brigades. This force had 100 infantry and mechanized battalions numbering 331,098 Army soldiers and 78,013 Marines. The most aggressive of these troops, the Marines, 1st Cavalry Division, 173rd Airborne Brigade, and 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, were the equal of any of the crack American formations that participated in the two World Wars. The balance were dependable, if unexceptional, soldiers willing to perform their duty.

Writing with the advantage of hindsight, an American officer commented that his country did not acquire ten years' experience in Vietnam, but rather had 'one year's experience ten times'. The reason for this was the rotation system under which a soldier served a twelve-month tour of duty. Every soldier knew to the day his personal DEROS (Date Expected Return Overseas). Most soldiers' prime motivation was to survive until that day. The Vietnam rotation policy differed from previous wars. During the two World Wars soldiers served for the duration. In Korea, rear-echelon troops served longer than those in combat units. In Vietnam, every one served the same tour. Typically, for several weeks following arrival in country, a soldier was excited and perhaps looked forward to combat, lie lost this enthusiasm after his first engagement. From about the second to the eighth month he performed his combat role dutifully. Then he began to consider himself an 'old soldier' and, like all such, became reluctant to take risks. Often, as a soldier neared his DEROS, sympathetic officers gave him a more secure assignment.

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