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

Few American units operated in the heavily populated Delta region south of Saigon. The notable exception was the joint Army/Navy Mobile Riverine Force (MRF). Built around two brigades of the 9th Infantry Division, the MRF had unique assets suitable for the labyrinth of rivers, canals and rice paddies characteristic of the Delta. In most of Vietnam, the Allies used helicopters to reach the enemy in otherwise inaccessible terrain. In the waterlogged Delta, the Allies employed specially designed water-craft. They included armoured troop carriers known as Tango boats after their call sign. The Tango boat featured stand-off armour designed to detonate RPG or recoilless rocket rounds before they hit the boat's armour. Used as assault craft, the Tango boats glided through the shallows to land infantry on dikes and levees.

Battle in the Delta

The Mobile Riverine Force (MRF) was a special American brigade-sized outfit equipped for the unique combat conditions in the Mekong Delta. It moved through the myriad rivers and canals aboard assault boats and possessed numerous improvised weapons such as 60-foot long monitors armed with a revolving armoured turret housing a 40mm cannon intended for close fire support. It had specially designed floating artillery barges to provide heavier firepower. All of these weapons and more were attempts to solve the constant problem of the Vietnam War, how to find and fight an elusive enemy who usually revealed himself only when his first shots announced an ambush. When the Tet Offensive exploded in the Delta, the problem was not locating the enemy. The Viet Cong seemed to be everywhere.

In the Mekong Delta, the Communists assaulted thirteen of sixteen provincial cities. Such was the ferocity of their attacks that Allied intelligence soon identified all except one battalion listed on its order of battle. In other words, the Communists were sending in all their men. Furthermore, captured plans revealed a notable absence of the customary contingency plans for retreat. Apparently the attackers planned to hold their ground. The MRF, on the other hand, manned dispersed positions along waterways in an effort to interdict VC supply lines. Units had to concentrate hastily before counter-attacking VC penetrations in various urban settings.

Their first call was to My Tho, south of Saigon. Three VC battalions and a sapper company had entered the city while one battalion remained on the outskirts. Two MRF battalions hastened to the city to support the units of the embattled 7th ARVN Division. It took three days to recapture My Tho. The battle featured tough house-to-house fighting, a type of combat very different from the MRF's normal mission and one unsuited to its special weaponry. Like a fire brigade, once it had secured My Tho, MRF units rushed to other threatened positions including Saigon itself.

Targets of the Tet Offensive

The heavy lighting during Tet strained the sen ices of the living ambulances. Using the famous call sign 'DUST OFF', pilots time and again took extreme risks to rescue the wounded. Their dedication, coupled with superior hospital facilities gave wounded Americans and their allies an unprecedented survival rate. Over the entire war, the average time-lapse between wounding and hospitalization was less than one hour. Consequently, 99 per cent of all American wounded who survived the first 24 hours lived. Pilots and crew paid a stiff price for their gallantly. During let's 12-day period of nationwide fighting, they evacuated more than 8,000 wounded. Forty of the total of 64 operational 'DUST OFF' helicopters were hit.

The VC made the mistake of attacking Chau Phu, a provincial capital on the Cambodian border. Opposing them were some of the roughest fighters in all South Vietnam. They included small but deadly teams of the Special Forces Detachment B-42, a Project PHOENIX recon unit, and Navy SEALs shown here. These élite men recaptured Chau Phu in a bitter 36-hour combat that caused many civilian losses and destroyed a quarter of the city.

A scout dog team belonging to the 4th Infantry Division Hushes out enemy snipers still clinging to Kontum five days after the Communists attacked the city ].

In the war against the French, the Vietminh had successfully recruited sympathizers by entering urban areas and forcing the French to employ heavy weapons to drive them out. They then blamed the civilian losses on the French. By occupying churches, pagodas, schools and hospitals, the Communists created the same dilemma for the Americans during the 1968 Tet Offensive. Vietnamese civilians return to their destroyed homes near Bien Hoa on 2 February.

For an unprecedented thirty consecutive days the Mobile Riverine Force fought without rest. Its contributions were key to the many tactical successes gained in the Delta. General Westmoreland, taking a typical American view that undervalued ARVN fighting, said afterwards: 'The MRF saved the Delta.' Indeed, its stout fighting justified the Presidential Unit Citation it earned. Still, here as elsewhere, tactical success could not conceal the hard truth that the Viet Cong had demonstrated to the civilian population of the Delta that, despite American support, they could strike anywhere, anytime. Since ultimately the war would have to be won or lost through the effort of the South Vietnamese, this demonstration contributed to Communist strategic victory.

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