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JAMES R. ARNOLD
M35A2 'gun truck' of 27th Transportation Battalion. Illustration by Peter Sarson and Tony Bryan.
Its presence at Bien Hoa provided the narrow margin between victory and defeat. Along with the 2nd Battalion/506th Infantry, it repulsed all assaults. By day's end its one tank had been hit nineteen times and the crew replaced twice. Of the twelve ACAVs that began the mission, only six still ran by nightfall. The troop had suffered heavily, but the survivors felt elation that after months of being the target of ambushes without being able to hit back, it had finally met a stand-up enemy and inflicted terrible losses upon him.
A cavalry officer describes his unit's feelings on the first day of February:
'I can still remember the feeling of pride we had in our operations center the next morning when we heard the squadron commander's initial report... that Saigon, Bien Hoa, and Long Binh were literally ringed in steel... Five cavalry squadrons had moved through the previous day and night, converging on the Saigon area. When dawn broke, they formed an almost-continuous chain of more than five hundred fighting vehicles... We actually cheered... from that morning the outcome was never in doubt. We knew that our enemy could never match our mobility, flexibility, and firepower.'
Within fifteen minutes of the first attack, an Associated Press (AP) reporter had typed out the first bulletin announcing the attack. By a twist of fate that was to have immense consequences, the embassy was close to the quarters housing the Western Press. This allowed reporters to rush to the scene of the action. The resultant concentration of the Press undoubtedly distorted the significance of the combat. Because they could not see over the walls, neither they nor the soldiers knew what was going on inside. Consequently they relied upon the excited comments of one of the MPs who was outside the walls. This MP stated: 'They're in the embassy.' When a reporter asked an MP captain for confirmation, he replied: 'My God, yes... we arc taking fire from up there... keep your head down.' This information was sufficient for AP to send a bulletin stating:
'The Vietcong seized part of the US Embassy in Saigon early Wednessday... Communist commandos penetrated the supposedly attack-proof building in the climax of a combined artillery- and guerrilla assault that brought limited warfare to Saigon itself.' This bulletin arrived just before the first-edition deadlines for very influential morning newpapers in the eastern USA. Headline writers quickly updated their papers and spread the shocking message that the enemy had captured the symbol of American prestige.
In Saigon, the American command failed to appreciate the importance of the embassy combat. The commander on the spot was quite content to wait for daylight before proceeding. He knew he had the VC cornered. At higher command levels the numerous actions exploding all over the country seemed to demand more attention. Responding to pressure from Washington, around 5am Westmoreland had Weyand send a helicopter with a platoon of airborne soldiers to land on the embassy roof. Automatic weapons fire from the surviving VC drove it off. To avoid unnecessary risks, the higher command decided to wait for daylight before trying again. By the time the helicopter returned, MPs had forced the embassy gate. They easily killed the few surviving VC. What an American participant called 'a piddling platoon action' was over after a six hour combat.
A dead VC next to a landscape planter inside the embassy compound. His rocket launcher and equipment lie nearby.
Reporters swarmed the grounds as military spokesmen tried to explain what had happened. Controversy centred on whether the VC had actually entered the embassy. Although they had not technically entered the embassy building, the AP stood by their opposing claim. Too often reporters had been deceived by official pronouncements. AP's insistence that the VC had entered the embassy further undercut the credibility of official statements and set the stage for one of the most memorable visual images in this, the world's first television war.
At 9.20am, Westmoreland arrived at the just-secured compound dressed in an immaculately pressed and starched uniform and held a hastily arranged Press conference. In America viewers saw a scene of carnage. Dead VC sappers littered the embassy grounds, their bodies sprawled around the flower pots. Blood, death, and battle damage abounded. In the midst of an embassy apparently under siege, the general explained that the enemy never penetrated the embassy itself. He exuded confidence and claimed the allies were returning to the offensive.
A Washington Post reporter recalls: 'The reporters could hardly believe their ears. Westmoreland was standing in the ruins and saying everything was great.' An AP reporter later explained that, given the record over the years, 'we had little faith in what General Westmoreland stated.' When the American public read their morning papers they received two impressions: the Viet Cong had seized the embassy itself; and Westmoreland was lying when he said they had not. The pyschological damage done to the American war effort would become clearer in the coming weeks.
In spite of complete surprise and the initial success of many of the opening assaults, on the Communist side events were not proceeding as desired. There was no general uprising and little active civilian support in Saigon. In order to preserve secrecy, the VC units that attacked Saigon had little knowledge of the overall picture. Most had received the briefing that they were to take part in an attack of unspecified dimensions. However necessary for security reasons, this secrecy prevented all unit co-ordination. Thus, while achieving numerous isolated initial successes, once in position the VC had to fend for themselves against a growing Allied counter-attack.
Repulsed or evicted from their six prime objectives, the attackers broke down into small units and took shelter in buildings throughout Saigon. In particular, the attackers clung to the Phu Tho racetrack area. The 6th BT VC Battalion had seized the racetrack during its opening assault. Communist planners valued this objective because it was the hub of several major roads, possession of its open terrain denied the Allies a potential landing zone for helicopters bringing reinforcements, and it provided an easily recognized rallying place for rural VC unfamiliar with Saigon.