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JAMES R. ARNOLD
Downtown Saigon on the eve of the decisive Tet Offensive.
The Americans did little better. During the day of 30 January Westmoreland's headquarters issued a warning directing that 'Troops will be placed on maximum alert with particular attention to the defense of headquarters complexes, logistical installations, airfields, population centers and billets.' This warning covered the prime targets of the impending assault, yet it either came too late or was largely ignored.
So, heedless of coming crisis, the South Vietnamese prepared to celebrate their lunar New Year. The celebration's peak would come on the night of 30 January. The official ARVN history describes the nation's mood:
'A relative lull seemed to be prevailing all over South Vietnam... leaves were readily granted the troops for the lunar New Year and measures were taken by the Administration to give the common people as normal a Tet as possible... The people had forgotten about the dying war. They wanted to celebrate Tet with as much fervor as in the old days.'
During the night of 30 January revellers swarmed the streets of Saigon to greet the New Year of the Monkey. Soldiers belonging to the local garrison had not received word the authorities had cancelled the truce. But everyone knew that the ban on fireworks had been lifted for the holidays, so the explosions of thousands of traditional fire-crackers rocked the air. Slowly, as Viet Cong assault forces moved from their safehouses into attack position - some of the 67,000 committed nationwide in the first wave - the sounds of combat replaced the sounds of festival.
The Communist plan sent 35 battalions against six primary targets in the Saigon area. Their objectives were the headquarters of the South Vietnamese Joint General Staff (JGS); the Independence Palace, which served as President Thieu's office; the American Embassy; Tan Son Nhut Air Base; the Vietnamese Navy headquarters; and the National Broadcasting Station. Eleven battalions, comprising about 4,000 mostly local men and women, assaulted the city's urban centre. The C- 10 Saigon Sapper Battalion, numbering about 250 men and women who were very familiar with Saigon - many worked as cyclopousse or taxicab drivers - spearheaded the attacks. They were to hold the objectives until additional local force battalions arrived to reinforce them.
Shortly before 3am, the guard outside the government radio station saw a small convoy stop and disgorge a group of armed men dressed in South Vietnamese Riot Police uniforms. An officer briskly approached him and announced the rein-forcements had arrived. The guard responded: 'I haven't heard anything about it.' Then the officer shot him.
Years earlier, Viet Cong agents had purchased a house 200 yards from the radio station. There they had stockpiled arms and ammunition for future operations. When the soldiers, assigned to attack the radio station broke out the stored weapons they found termites had eaten through the wooden gun-stocks. Undeterred, they improvised by wrapping rags around the weapons and proceeded with the mission. The well-organized attackers broke into the station while a machine- gunner provided covering fire from a nearby apartment building. His accurate first sweep killed most of the platoon of ARVN paratroopers who lay sleeping on the roof. A North Vietnamese radio specialist followed the assault wave into the station. His job was to play a pre-recorded tape of Ho Chi Minh announcing the liberation of Saigon and the beginning of the General Uprising. He had detailed diagrams of the station layout and duplicate keys provided bv an agent on the station's staff.
A wounded VC fighter and a female nurse captured by ARVN rangers in Saigon during the 'Mini-Tet' attacks in the summer of 1968. Similar civilian-clad local VC spearheaded the attacks at Tet.
The foresight of the ARVN lieutenant colonel in charge of the station thwarted these plans. The previous afternoon this officer had arranged to take the station off the air if an attack came. Upon hearing gunshots, a technician sent the coded signal and power to the station was cut off. The attackers held their objective for six hours, but were unable to broadcast Ho's message.
The 34 sappers assigned the Independence Palace employed the same commando-style tactics as would be used against the American Embassy. At 1.30am a B-40 rocket exploded on the staff entrance gate. The sappers rushed toward the objective. However, the Palace was one of the best defended sites in all of South Vietnam. The Palace security force, comprising the presidential guard, national and military police and two tanks, were far too strong for the attackers. Repulsed, they retreated into a nearby building. Such was their discipline that they held out for two days in a futile last-ditch stand. Thirty-two died during this operation.
The Assault on Saigon
Against Navy headquarters the Communist high command had devised a complicated plan intended to capture both headquarters and nearby docked ships. The ships would then be used to transport people from rural areas to Saigon to participate in the General Uprising. In pursuit of this ambitious scheme, twelve sappers blew a hole in the security wall but were unable to make more than a brief penetration. Within five minutes, ten were dead. Here, as often the case nationwide, the attackers had been told to seize the objective and hold until reinforcements arrived. Also, as frequently proved the case, the reinforcements did not exist.
The attack against the JGS compound began at 2.00am. Just as the sappers began their assault on Gate Number 5, an American Military Police patrol jeep appeared. The attackers engaged the jeep, and this pause allowed the ARVN guard to close the gate and prepare a defence. Additional American MPs assisted the defenders and the first assault collapsed. The Communists intended a local force unit, the 2nd (Go Mon) Battalion, to attack Gate Number 4 at the same time, but the assault units were delayed during the approach march. They were not in position until 7.00am. Amazingly, against a thoroughly alert defence they managed to penetrate the JGS compound. But these attackers made the same mistake committed by the sappers who assaulted the American Embassy. Instead of capitalizing on their success - which in this case meant overrunning the virtually undefended nerve centre of the entire South Vietnamese military - they dug in and awaited reinforcements. As prisoners later revealed, the attackers blindly adhered to the pre-battle plan and thought they had accomplished their mission when they seized a building clearly marked 'General Headquarters'. In fact, this building was only one of several command buildings, and not the most important.