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

M50A1 Ontos of 3rd Anti-Tank Battalion, US Marine Corps. Illustration by Peter Sarson and Tony Bryan.

The difficulty of the first assaults against the Citadel equalled anything in Marine Corps history. Tanks could barely manage to operate in the narrow alleys near the Citadel's high walls and towers. Wide scale use of debilitating CS gas helped, but a day's advance frequently did not exceed 200 yards. The Marines paid in blood for most of these gains. During the week of 13-20 February, four Marine companies suffered 47 killed, 240 seriously wounded, and another 60 wounded who remained in combat. Casualties were so high that the Marines sent replacements directly from their instructional camps in the United States. Hopelessly maladroit for the complex city fighting, they died far too often. Yet the relentless advance by the flak-vested grunts forced the defenders to face the inevitable. On 16 February, radio intercept technicians decoded a message from the NY A commander inside Hue. It spoke of heavy losses, including the senior officer, and requested permission to withdraw. Communist HQ sent the reply to remain and fight.

By 21 February the Allies could see the end. The 1st Cavalry had managed to close the enemy supply lines into Hue. By the following day the US Marines could prepare for a final push and reported lighter enemy contact than on any previous day. Similarly, ARA N forces resumed the advance. By order of the high command, the Marines allowed the 1st ARVN Division's Black Panther Company - a unit that had fought long and hard, an exception, most Marines thought - to make the final assault. The Black Panthers charged right at the Imperial Palace, yelling and firing as they advanced, some carrying scaling ladders to get over the walls. NVA resistance had collapsed. The ARVN soldiers hauled down the Viet Cong flag that had flown for 25 days. Unaware of the ARVN contribution at Hue, a Marine officer bitterly observed: 'The MACV records will reflect that the ARVN... took the Citadel. That was strictly public relations hogwash... The 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, took the Citadel. The ARVN were spectators.'

Hue was the longest sustained infantry battle the war had so far seen. By Vietnam standards, losses had been high. During 26 days of combat ARVN units lost 384 killed and more than 1,800 wounded; US Army casualties were 74 dead and 507 wounded; the three Marine battalions, 142 and 857, respectively. The Allies claimed to have killed over 5,000 and captured 89. Civilian losses, both victims of Communist atrocity and hapless targets caught in the urban crossfire, amounted to some 5,800 killed. Much of the once-beautiful city of Hue lay in rubble.

Grunts belonging to 'A' Company, 1/1 Marines, leave a recaptured church on 9 February.

ASSESSMENT

During the preceding 25 years, the American military had made a habit of playing the victim for enemy surprise attacks. Pearl Harbor, Kasserine Pass, the Battle of the Bulge and the Chinese intervention along the Yalu River had all caught the Americans unawares. The synchronized violence of the Tet Offensive was matched perhaps only by the Germans' Ardennes Offensive. Of all these surprise attacks, only the Tet Offensive achieved decisive results.

Yet, by conventional military calculation, Tet was an enormous Allied success. At a cost of some 4,000 Americans killed and wounded and between 4,000 and 8,000 ARVN soldiers killed, the Communists suffered 40,000 to 50,000 battlefield deaths. Most importantly, large numbers of irreplaceable local Viet Cong fighters and cadres had died. Simply put, the enemy had concentrated, and his masses had been consumed by American firepower. This battlefield success has been obscured by the more important political consequences of the Tet Offensive. However, Tet was part of an unbroken record forged by the American soldier from 1965 to 1973 of not losing a single important battle. As Douglas Pike, one of the few experts to study and comprehend the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese, notes: 'Had the Vietnam War been another conventional war, had it been decided on the basis of past wars, it would have been over by mid-1968 with the defeat of the Communist forces.' Indeed, the way the public perceived the battle astonished many American veterans. Standing next to enemy corpses stacked like cordwood outside his unit's headquarters, a cavalry officer wondered how: 'To our complete bewilderment in the weeks that followed, nobody ever publicized this feat of battlefield triumph. Instead, we read that we had been defeated!'

President Nguyen Van Thieu places a commemorative plaque for the victims of the Hue massacre in 1971.

It is also important to remember that the Communist strategists had designed the offensive to impress the South Vietnamese rather than the American public. A top North Vietnamese General, Tran Do, commented after the war:

'We didn't achieve our main objective, which was to spur uprisings throughout the south. Still, we inflicted heavy casualties... As for making an impact in the United States, it had not been our intention - but it turned out to be a fortunate result.'

In many ways the embassy battle was a microcosm of the entire war. The weapons and explosives used during the attack easily slipped past the hopelessly inadequate South Vietnamese security cordon around the capital. The guerrillas mustered in a building owned by a female Viet Cong agent of thirteen years' standing who had been arrested several times for subversive activities. Yet her building was not under surveillance. The attackers received help from an embassy driver, whom the Americans had often jokingly said 'must be a VC' because he was so smart. They drove past South Vietnamese police who ran rather than sound the alarm. In the attack the VC hardly proved supermen. They were inadequately briefed, opened fire too soon, and showed no initiative once their leaders fell.

Interestingly enough, the Communist high command had not appreciated the potential psychological impact of the embassy assault. It was just one, rather minor, target among many. In fact, the general who commanded the Saigon offensives criticized the embassy attack several days after it took place. He believed it had been poorly conceived. Only when they understood the attack's impact on the American public did the Communists begin to propagandize it. Here was the paradox of the war: a small, ill-conceived, tactically flawed attack against an insignificant military objective, designed to impress the South Vietnamese, proved the decisive action of the war because of its impact on the American public.

Communist planners had timed the offensive for a holiday period when the South Vietnamese and Americans would be less vigilant. Conveniently, it was also at a critical time in the United States. It was just before the first presidential primaries and thus, in the words of Don Oberdorfer, 'caught the American political system at its moment of greatest irresolution and potential for change'. Incomplete, inaccurate, and biased Press coverage of the combat influenced the public's perception. However, even if this type of coverage were discounted, the public recognized by the widespread and ferocious nature of the Tet Offensive that the enemy remained much stronger than their politicians and generals had led them to believe. The choice seemed to be to escalate yet again or to seek terms.

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