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JAMES R. ARNOLD
Westmoreland at the Embassy on the morning of 31 January.
A burned out M-113 on the Phu Tho racetrack. The APC was hit by VC rocket fire.
The first warning of the enemy build-up in the Phu Tho area came at 4.45am when a 716th MP jeep patrol radioed: 'The driver caught a slug in the gut and I'm under heavy automatic weapons fire. Can you give me some help?' Then the radio went dead. Before help arrived the two MPs had been killed.
As late as 10 February, US reinforcements, including these soldiers of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, were still reinforcing the Phu Tho position. The trucks arc parked on the running surface.
Dead Viet Cong on perimeter of Tan Son Nhut Air Base, 1 February.
A company from the 199th Infantry Brigade (Light) boarded trucks and APCs and headed for the racetrack at 8.00am on 31 January. Six blocks from the objective it met heavy automatic weapons fire from rooftops and buildings lining the road. A VC rocket struck the lead APC killing the platoon leader and two crew. VC rifle, machine-gun, and grenade tire hammered the column as it slowly advanced towards the racetrack. When heavy enemy fire repulsed its first charge, the infantry regrouped and tried again. Supported by helicopter gunships and recoilless rifle fire, they captured the racetrack by 4.30pm. At dusk a reinforcing company landed on the racetrack itself and the Americans prepared a defensive perimeter.
Over the next several days additional reinforcements arrived, including the 33rd ARVN Ranger Battalion, and together the Allies expanded their control to the areas adjacent to Phu Tho. It was not easy. An American mechanized company, driving through a narrow street three blocks away, suddenly was hit by a VC rocket and machine-gun ambush. The opening barrage destroyed the two rearmost APCs and heavily damaged a third. However, its crew stood by their guns to provide covering fire while the accompanying infantry dragged the dead and wounded clear of the kill zone. Then the survivors hustled back to the racetrack itself just in time to help repulse a large-scale VC counter-attack. The fighting ebbed and flowed around Phu Tho for several more days. Eventually, every Viet Cong unit that participated in the Saigon offensive contributed manpower to this battle.
As early as 1 February, COSVN, the Communist high command, realized that many elements of its grand plan had miscarried. While complimenting its soldiers for their performance, it sent out orders that called off further assaults against fortified Allied positions. Furthermore, it criticized faulty co-ordination and liasion and noted serious tactical shortcomings. None the less, not until 7 March, five weeks after the first attack, did ARVN Rangers finally clear the entire capital city of Saigon.
AVRN Ranger, Saigon. Illustration by Mike Chappell.
While the Saigon and Hue battles monopolized most attention from Allied commanders and the Press, fierce Communist assaults took place all over South Vietnam. Here ARVN and militia forces bore the brunt of the ground defence. Part of the ferocity derived from the briefings given to many of the assault troops. They were told that they were engaged in an offensive that was to lead to a general uprising. In keeping with this brave talk, about half the assault units did not receive any instructions regarding a withdrawal in the event of unforeseen circumstances.
While South Vietnamese authorities failed to disseminate word of the cancelled truce in Saigon, in the smaller provincial and district towns some units were on full alert. This made a great difference when the Communists struck. After the event, high-ranking South Vietnamese and American officers would claim that official policy called for holiday leaves for only ten per cent of all manpower. In fact, a much more liberal policy was in effect. Typical was the 7th ARVN Division, which had 4,000 men present and 3,500 on leave when the attack came.
The first assault wave utilized local VC units, sappers, and in-place agents. The Communist attacks strove to disrupt further South Vietnamese improvements by targeting headquarters, training and logistical bases. Every attack also featured an assault against the local radio station. Just as in Saigon, the attackers carried tapes to broadcast in hopes of stirring up the popular uprising. In general, the attacks' success depended upon two conditions: were the defenders alerted with leaves cancelled and in position; were the Americans able to bring their heavy firepower to bear even at the risk of civilian losses?
The abortive assault on Da Nang, the country's second largest city, demonstrated this point. A police agent who had infiltrated the local VC organization warned of the coming blow. None the less, a reinforced company briefly penetrated the headquarters of the South Vietnamese I Corps on the city outskirts. When the dashing corps commander, Lieutenant General Hoang Xuan Lam, first heard from a staff officer that an assault was under way he responded incredulously: 'Baloney, baloney!' Assured that it was true, he drove through enemy fire to reach his headquarters at dawn. Assessing the situation, Lam tapped the map with his swagger stick and spoke to his U.S. adviser, Major P.S. Milantoni:
'Milantoni, bomb here. Use big bombs.'
The adviser requested the mission only to be told by another American officer that the mission was so close to friendly positions that it would never get clearance. Milantoni replied: 'General Lam just gave it.' The bombs struck a mere 200 yards from I Corps headquarters. The VC fire diminished and Lam ordered more strikes. When the VC pulled back, the South Vietnamese general sent helicopter gunships in pursuit. The VC attack on Da Nang failed.