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JAMES R. ARNOLD
Captured .50cal machine-gun and Soviet-made rocket launcher mounted on stand. In background are two captured flags.
An MRF boat captain well understood the consequences of the Tet Offensive in the Delta: 'After Tet this whole country really changed.' Speaking of a town badly damaged in the fighting, he continued: 'The VC really tore the place up and I think the Americans more or less got blamed for it. We had to evacuate the town and when we did go back... there were quite a few Vietnamese people around who kind of looked down on us a little for leaving them.' Supporting this captain's analysis was the experience of the Mekong Delta river city of Ben Tre, which was home to some 35,000 civilians. A reinforced VC regiment numbering about 2,500 men attacked and gained substantial footholds within the city. To evict the Viet Cong, the Allies had to summon artillery and air strikes. This caused extensive damage to the city and produced one of the most memorable quotes of the war. While explaining what had taken place to a reporter, an American major said: 'It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.' The American Press played this quote to the hilt, using it to epitomize the seeming futility of the war effort.
Having suffered terrible losses, the VC reverted to more economical tactics. A Vietnamese C-47 destroyed in the artillery attack on Tan Son Shut Air Base the night of 17/18 February.
Fierce fighting also took place in the twelve central provinces. Major ground attacks struck seven provincial capitals and three other objectives. At Qui Nhon, a coastal city in II Coips area, before the attacks began, the ARVN defenders discovered the Communist plan when they captured eleven VC agents. But such was the muddle within South Vietnamese units at Tet that Communist sappers assaulted exactly as revealed and still seized their objectives. The attackers even seized the jail, where they captured the ARVN captain who had directed the successful raid that had bagged the eleven agents.
Another victim of the artillery attack at Tan Son Nhut, a F-4C Phantom II.
Typical was the battle of Ban Me Thuot in the Central Highlands. Here the 23rd ARVN Division had captured a plan for an attack on the city on about 20 January. The divisional commander, Colonel Dao Quang An, accordingly cancelled his unit's Tet leave. He put out patrols six miles from the cits', and these patrols ambushed elements of the 33rd NVA Regiment as they were moving into position. None the less, the fighting at Ban Me Thuot raged for three and a half days, with the ARVN soldiers taking heavy losses because of their inexperience in city fighting. Reluctantly, An decided he had to employ artillery and air strikes despite the resultant civilian devastation. Yet the battle continued for a solid nine days, the city centre changing hands four times before the 23rd ARVN Division regained control. An's leadership greatly impressed the Americans. An adviser commented that had he not decided to cancel Tet leaves and to deploy far-ranging ambush patrols, the city would have fallen. Further, the adviser told MACV that An's tactical handling of the battle had been flawless.
Typical soldier of the North Vietnamese Army. Illustration by Mike Chappell.
In sharp contrast was the conduct of the major general commanding in the delta. When the attack struck he was at his fortified headquarters protected by tanks and armoured infantry. He did not emerge for days, leaving his American advisers to conduct the defence. Similarly, the ARAN colonel commanding at Vinh Long cracked under the strain of events. When an American officer reported helicopters receiving fire and asked permission to return fire, all he received was a blank stare. Another adviser found the province chief wearing civilian clothes under his military uniform - just in case.
Despite heavy fighting in many places, Allied units regained control in most provincial cities within a week. On 7 February, NVA tanks spearheaded an assault that overran the Lang Vei Special Forces Camp near Khe Sanh. With hearts in their throats, the American high command wondered if this were the start of the long- expected attack on Khe Sanh. Perhaps it was just another diversionary attack against a convenient and exposed target, because the Communist high command chose not to try to exploit this success. On 17-18 February the Viet Cong created a brief stir when they made artillery assaults against Allied installations throughout the country. But in comparison with the initial operations, these were low effort/low risk harassing affairs. After the first week sustained combat took place only in Saigon and Hue.
By 21 February, the VC/NVA high command faced battlefield reality. Their assaults had been extremely costly and had failed to achieve the predicted success. Accordingly, COSVN issued orders for its units still in contact around the cities to retreat. There were to be no more ground assaults on fortified Allied installations. Instead, COSVN ordered units to revert to hit-and-run tactics characterized by mortar and rocket bombardment and sapper raids. COSVN made one exception - the units in Hue were to hold their positions.
The Imperial City of Hue was the most venerated place in Vietnam. The stone walls of its inner citadel had been built with the aid of the French in the 1800s. Peking's Forbidden City had served as the model for Hue's citadel. Thus it was a place full of gardens, moats and intricate stone buildings. Standing above the citadel was the highest flagpole in South Vietnam, as such, the most visible symbol of the South's struggle for independence. Communist planners did not overlook what was, with the clarity of hindsight, such an obvious target.
The war had not touched Hue, yet it was more than a symbolic target. A rail and highway bridge crossed the Perfume River and continued north. They served as the main land supply routes for the growing number of Allied troops along the DMZ. Hue also served as a major unloading point for waterborne supplies that were brought from Da Nang on the coast.
The attackers possessed very detailed information about Hue. They had divided the Right Bank into four tactical areas and had pinpointed nearly every civil and military installation. Viet Cong intelligence officers had prepared a priority list of 196 targets and had listed individuals to be captured. The plan called for their evacuation if possible; otherwise they were to be killed. In addition, 'Cruel tyrants and reactionary elements' - categories encompassing most South Vietnamese officials, military officers, politicians, Americans and foreigners except the French - were to be separated, taken outside the city and 'punished' - meaning killed. The Viet Cong carefully laid the groundwork for what became their most horrific atrocity.
On 30 January, a US Army radio intercept unit overheard Communist orders calling for an attack on Hue that night. Following standard procedure, it forwarded the message through channels. The Hue defenders did not receive the message in time. It was another in a long list of intelligence failures relating to the Tet Offensive.