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

Shortly after the first alert, the commander of the 716th implemented the 'disaster plan'. Designed for such emergencies as riots or isolated bombings, it was woefully inappropriate for the chaos of combat sweeping through Saigon. Jeeps and open-topped trucks, such as those mentioned in the 0407 and 0408 entries above, rushed to respond to the dozens of emergencies. Their bravery mattered less than their lack of firepower and training. By dawn the VC had made major penetrations into western and southern Saigon and controlled large areas in the suburb of Cholon.

The widespread attacks such as those described in the 716th's Message Log typically featured a handful of attackers. However, initial reports could not assess the size of the enemy forces. To the American officer commanding the Saigon area, General Weyand, it was difficult to make sense of the multiple enemy thrusts. The fact his own headquarters was under rocket and ground attack also hampered tactical judgment. The map showing the reported attacks around Saigon reminded him of 'a pinball machine, one light after another going on as it was hit'. Between 3am and 5am he shifted some 5,000 mechanized and airborne troops to defend the various installations under assault. His rapid, yet considered reactions limited enemy success.

The Bien Hoa - Long Binh Area

Allied casualties from the fighting. Sixteen MPs died and 21 were wounded in the fighting around BOQ No. 3.

Soldiers of the 2/47th Battalion (mechanized) assault I C positions in the Long Binh area.

Cavalry to the Rescue

Fifteen miles north of Saigon was the Long Binh logistical and command complex. This sprawling base area, which extended to the enormous Bien Hoa Air Base, was a target too big to overlook by Communist planners. At 3.00am an intense rocket and mortar barrage pelted the area. The veteran 275th VC Regiment assaulted Long Binh's northern perimeter while a local VC battalion launched a diversionary attack against the eastern bunker line. Meanwhile VC sappers infiltrated the huge ammunition dump just north of Long Binh. Simultaneously, the 274th VC Regiment attacked Bien Hoa.

Some of the VC killed by the APCs of the 9th Infantry Division.

While well-coordinated and bravely driven home, these attacks fell victim to superb American mobility and firepower. Half an hour after the opening barrage, the 2/47th Battalion (mechanized) began a speed march from Bear Cat toward Long Binh. At first light the 2nd Battalion/560th Infantry airlifted into Bien Hoa Air Base. The élite 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, the Blackhorse Regiment, made a twelve-hour forced march to arrive at Long Binh during the day. Once in position, the multiple machine-guns of the mechanized units' APCs shot apart all Vict Cong- attacks. Perhaps above them all was the performance of the mechanized cavalry troop of the 9th Infantry Division.

At bases north-east of Saigon, the radio net of 1/5 Armored Cavalry, 9th Infantry Division, came alive at 6am on 31 January. The squadron learned that large enemy forces were attacking Tan Son Nhut, Bien Hoa, Long Binh, and Saigon itself. Officers paid particular attention to news from Long Binh, where one of the Division's mechanized battalions had been sent the night before. By listening to that battalion's tactical radios, the squadron anticipated that soon it would be needed. One hour later came the order for Troop A to move out.

Amid great confusion, the squadron commander ordered the troop, minus one-third of its strength left behind to garrison a fire-support base, to begin a speed march to Bien Hoa. Hardly had the troop left its base than it ran into an ambush. The VC had skilfully anticipated American reactions, but they underestimated the cavalry's mobility and firepower. The troop drove through the ambush while laying down a carpet of lire from their ACAVs. Without suffering serious damage, Troop A cleared the fire zone only to encounter a mile-long strip of houses each one of which seemed to conceal an enemy gunner. Beginning to take losses, the troop managed to speed through the gauntlet.

The column's lead tank came to a small concrete bridge and rolled across it without incident. Suddenly an explosion rocked the air and the bridge collapsed in fragments. The troop's ACAVs managed to ford the stream, but the balance of the heavier tanks had to remain behind. Troop A entered the city of Bien Hoa where it found the central square crowded with people. It pushed through the throng, but suddenly the troopers realized that the 'crowd' was actually several companies of enemy soldiers. The enemy simultaneously realized that they confronted American armour. The Viet Cong's initial volleys disabled two ACAVs. More ACAVs entered the square and opened fire with all their weapons. They drove the VC to cover, pushed the knocked- out vehicles aside, rescued their crews, and pressed on for the airbase. The column now comprised one tank and eight ACAVs.

Descended from Second World War tanks, the M-48 medium tank served as the mainstay of the American armour during the Vietnam War. A crew of four, comprising a commander, gunner, loader and driver manned the tank. Its armament consisted of a 90mm gun, a 7.62mm machine-gun by the commander's cupola, and a.50cal machine-gun by the loader's cupola. With a top speed of 30mph, it had surprising 'jungle busting' cross-country ability. Although heavily armoured, tanks sacrificed their mobility and thus proved vulnerable in urban combat. A Patton belonging to the 11th Armored Cavalry supports operations on 2 February around Bien Hoa.

The reassuring words of the squadron commander filled the radio. From an overhead helicopter he directed the cavalry through the byzantine labryinth of narrow streets. Nearing the air base he spotted hundreds of enemy soldiers belonging to the 274th VC Regiment lining Highway 1, apparently deployed to stop any relieving column. His warning saved the column. Exploiting its mobility, the cavalry left the highway and drove a parallel route. The ACAVs' machine- guns shot up the unsuspecting enemy from the rear and finally reached the beleaguered air base.

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