Image Credit: NATIONAL ARCHIVES January 31, 1968. U.S. troops fire on Viet Cong sappers attacking bachelor officers quarters in Saigon during the Tet Offensive.
By Dave Schott, Baltimore Vets for Peace
When the shooting outside my villa drifted away — perhaps the ARVN, South Vietnamese army, were away for the holiday! — I turned on my small radio to hear the calm voice of Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of the US forces in South Vietnam, reporting that the U.S . Embassy in downtown Saigon had been attacked and 19 sappers, VC bearing explosive charges to blast through the embassy walls, had been shot. The threat to the embassy had been resisted, and I think there were words to the effect that things were under control. I felt safe enough to unlock the front door of my villa and walk to the front gate. About 15 yards to my left on the edges of a two-lane street named Vo Dinh Nguy, I could see a constant line of peasants streaming south from the countryside. Most wore the traditional conical straw hats, women in “ao dai” dresses and lightweight clothing, carrying small sacks of belongings thrown over their shoulders. In an unusual coincidence, walking in front of my house I saw the face of a South Vietnamese government official from whom I almost had rented a room in a nearby area—a charming third-floor unit with a patio and a swaying palm tree nearby. He seemed trustworthy, and I asked him if it was safe to go to Tan Son Nhut. He said yes, and all of a sudden there were tracer rounds fired about 50 feet above us, aimed towards the central city.
I retreated into my villa and prepared for the worst. Officially, I didn’t need to be on base until the next day, so I collected what my roommates possessed in terms of firepower and prepared for a visit by the “Viet Cong Welcoming Committee.” All of my villa mates were on temporary duty in other parts of the country, so I was on own. I knew we had some weapons (we didn’t rate an M-16 — the standard field weapon), so I searched the major’s quarters and found an M-1 carbine, World War II era, and a pocket Derringer pistol. That night I realized my hiding spot under the bed on the second floor may not have been the safest location when the U.S. forces launched a counterattack with helicopter rockets being fired seemingly right above my quarters. The noise of these rockets departing the tubes on this gunship was like a giant sucking air from the sky followed by a deafening expelling of one or more rockets. I was very fortunate a rocket didn’t drop on the villa.
The next morning I put on my olive drab casual work uniform, including a baseball cap with the single gold bar of a second lieutenant, and got on my Vietnamese bicycle to pedal in the direction of the base. I think I was the only U.S. citizen among the refuges — we all had our heads down and were intent on getting to a safer place. At the intersection of Vo Dinh Nguy and Cong Le, the main street that went in the direction of Tan Son Nhut, I began parting company with my fellow safety seekers, and soon I was on my own in what looked like no man’s land. This was a broad street — a street with no joy, as the writer Bernard Fall would have described it. Around me were hundreds of bullet shells and burned out vehicles. Fortunately there were no bodies. Ahead of me was the entrance to Tan Son Nhut and something else. About 30 yards from the entrance to the base was an armored carrier with about 30 U.S. army soldiers wearing flak jackets, bullet belts, helmets and M-16s — they were prepared to take on the enemy wherever he or she may be. It could have been a moment for a 2nd Lieutenant joke, like, “Hey, lieutenant, nice day for a bike ride,” but I didn’t hear any. It could have been a lot of them, like myself , were numbed by the events of the morning. As I biked towards the main gate, I thought of those soldiers and the task ahead of them. My short bike ride was one of the longest in my life.
When I arrived at the base, some of my crew expressed some surprise at seeing me…alive. I didn’t leave the base for another week and a half. At that point my crew chief thought I might want a change of underwear and a toothbrush, so they authorized a pickup truck to take me to my villa. We got as far as the turn to Vo Dinh Nguy — the road was blocked off and a tow truck was winding through the blockade, pulling a government propaganda truck with two loud speakers on the roof, its four wheels shot flat. It would be another three days before I was able to return and stay at the villa. The charming third-floor apartment with the swaying palm tree? It had been riddled with bullets; it would have been a very restless or maybe short-lived night, had I moved there.
In early 1968, my wife and I were sharing a house on Trương Tan Buu street in Saigon with my best friend, Harry Takara and his girlfriend. Harry and I were working together at Pacific Architects & Engineers (PA&E) at Tan Son Nhat airbase. He was a veteran of the 25th Infantry Division and had separated in Saigon. I had spent 18 months with the 3rd Radio Research Unit (3rd RRU) at Tan Son Nhat and Phu Bai as a Vietnamese linguist (voice intercept) and had returned to Saigon after my separation to work for civilian defense contractors. We’d both been in Vietnam for 5+ years and considered ourselves ‘old Vietnam hands’.
Early ’68, Saigon had been rife with rumors of ‘something big’ coming around Tet, but when Harry and I went to work on the morning of January 30 we learned what the big event was likely to be. Virtually all of the major cities and provincial capitals ‘up country’, north of Saigon had been attacked in force during the night and morning by major North Vietnamese and Viet Cong units and some locations had fallen to the enemy attacks, including Hue city. Harry and I had friends at MAC-V who told us that Saigon would almost certainly be attacked on the night of the 30th, and shortly before noon, PA&E management released its entire workforce at Tan Son Nhat t with the simple advice to, ‘Just go home for the afternoon and check back tomorrow.’
The company made no mention of any expected attacks, but Harry and I were aware that our Director, who’d been briefed at MAC-V, had hastily arranged to move from his house near Tan Son Nhat to a house downtown across from the Saigon radio station and around the corner from the Ambassador’s residence; a location he suggested as ‘the safest place in Vietnam’. He intended to stay safe, but he adamantly refused to advise the workforce of any heightened risk; a choice that would put many an employee in harm’s way by the following morning.
Before we retired to home for the afternoon, Harry and I made a ‘provisioning run’ to the PX and loaded Harry’s VW beatle with a dozen cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon and Carling Black Label, ‘just in case’. Then we headed home for long naps and, later, a patio dinner of grilled steaks.
After dinner, we talked at length about the likelihood of an attack on Saigon and, while we both agreed that it looked almost certain, we couldn’t agree on how it might unfold. We both knew the city well and had experienced numerous coups, but the idea of an attack on Saigon by the VC or NVA was something we had trouble getting our heads around, possibly because of the disappearing case of beer we had on ice between our lawn chairs. In the end, we finally agreed that whatever happened, we were not going to miss it and we swore to stay up all night if necessary to insure that any attack that came wouldn’t take us by surprise.
We sat out on our front porch for eight or nine hours that evening, drinking beer and watching and listening for any sign of trouble. Nothing. By midnight the roar of fireworks around the neighborhood and city was deafening and we joked that the noise would mask the sound of an NVA tank division, but fireworks were all we heard. After midnight, by 1:00 a.m. or so, the fireworks had tapered off considerably, but continued as a background soundtrack for our sporadic conversation. At around 2:30, we climbed up to the third floor roof of one of the apartments in our compound, but saw no sign of trouble in any direction. After our trip to the roof, our resolve faded and didn’t outlast that first case of Pabst; by 3:00 we decided to turn in for the night. ‘Tell the VC if they come to the house that I’m sleeping in and don’t want to be disturbed’’, Harry joked, as he staggered off to bed. As it turned out, our timing could have been better.
I was awakened at dawn by Harry banging on my bedroom door.
“John! Get up and get out here.”
“Harry, go on to the office without me. Tell ‘em I’m taking sick leave. I’m going to sleep in today. My head is killing me.”
“We’re not going to the office. It’s 6:00. Hurry up and get out here.”
“Okay,okay. If we’re not going to the office, what’s the rush? Why so damn early?”
“The VC, goddammit! They came in after we went to bed. There’s fighting going on all around here. How can you not hear that? Come on and get out here. I’m going up on the roof to see what’s going on. Hurry it up, I’ll meet you up there.”
As I sat up in bed and tried to focus through my hangover, I slowly became aware of nearby gunfire; real nearby, small arms and automatic weapons, punctuated by mortar rounds. With that awareness, my hangover evaporated in an instant and it probably took me 6o seconds to pull on my clothes and sprint toward the apartment house roof.
Reaching the rooftop which provided a 360 degree panoramic view of the neighborhood and the city, I was struck by a series of quick realizations. The shooting in our immediate vicinity had stopped, there was absolutely no sound of traffic on the streets which were usually a wall to wall cacophony of traffic, there was such a deep silence that hung in the air I wondered for a moment if I had gone deaf and, there was a strange thin layer of fog blanketing the neighborhood which was tinted pale pink by the first light of dawn. There were columns of black smoke visible at a dozen or more points around the city, and off toward the west end of Tan Son Nhat there were helicopters in the air around what looked like a significant, but from our vantage, silent firefight. It was as though the sound volume on the scene had simply been muted. It felt more like a surreal dream than anything I have ever experienced, before or since. But the silent pause didn’t last long.
As soon as I stepped across the tiny platform of the roof to a low parapet around the edge and looked out over the scene, the neighborhood again erupted, as if on cue. Off to our right. at about 50 yards, an unseen mortar began firing at a target that appeared to be 400-500 feet to our left; from the roof we could actually follow the trajectory of the shells as they arced across in front of us. Watching the shells impact, it appeared that they were targeting into an area, maybe an alleyway, near BOQ 3 in which a ferocious firefight had flared up just as the mortars left the tube. As if to underline the fact that it was no dream, occasional, not infrequent small arms rounds splattered the back wall of the apartment below where we stood or into the low concrete block parapet, causing us to drop reflexively beneath the top of the four foot high wall.
We were soon joined by a couple of our neighbors. Someone carried up a portable radio and we learned that the enemy forces had apparently begun a series of attacks throughout the city at around 3:00 in the morning and that US and ARVN units were engaged in efforts to dislodge the enemy units in and all around the city. Someone came up and said an Air America pilot in one of the apartments had told him that the US Embassy downtown had been either blown up, captured or otherwise attacked. It did not sound credible given the fortress nature of the embassy, but all agreed that if it were true, the scope of the offensive must be even more serious than anyone had expected.
After awhile, I returned to the house, woke my wife, Kim, and suggested that she might join us and returned to the roof. I knew the roof might be dangerous, but I wanted Kim and my son, John Jr. closeby; given the mortars, there was no assurance that the house itself was any less dangerous than the roof. Kim joined the group shortly thereafter, carrying young John Jr, but after a few minutes wisely returned to the house.
One view from the roof
The fighting had by then intensified and, while the city still remained eerily quiet in terms of normal, day-to-day noise, the air was filled with the noise of firefights. Enemy mortars continued to be fired from hidden positions as close as fifty yards away, firefights were ongoing sporadically throughout the neighborhood and beyond, and planes and helicopters had joined battles at points all around the horizon; columns of oily black smoke marked the major engagements.
It wasn’t long before someone had brought up a tub of iced beer and soda, and someone else brought up an armload of bread, chips and sandwich materials; breakfast, or what passed for it, was served buffet style on a bench along one wall of the tiny parapet. The small deck took on the aspects of a sports bar, spectators watching their event even as the war roiled around them and threatened their own homes. I was reminded, in the absurdity of it all, of the crowds during the Civil War going out from Washington D.C. into the surrounding countryside with their picnic baskets and binoculars to watch the battle of Bull Run. It was insane then and I thought it insane now, but the insanity of it didn’t cause a retreat from the deck or soften our realization that many people were dying. The radio was now broadcasting warnings that everyone should remain indoors and off the streets, but there was no news or explanation of why; again, it was surreal.
For several hours we watched troops engaged in a large intense firefight in an alley less than 200 yards from our apartment compound and rooftop vantage point. As we later learned, the troops were trying to clear a company sized enemy unit that had been preparing to assault the Vietnamese Joint General Staff HQ (VNJGS) from the alleyway near the Army’s BOQ 3. The troops, working in ones and twos were engaging the enemy position by crawling across a rooftop at the edge of the alley and firing or dropping grenades onto their adversaries. It didn’t always go as planned, and a number of soldiers were shot in the process, their bodies rolling back down the roof slope away from the alley. Once we watched in nauseating slow motion as a soldier tossed a grenade from the roof into the alley only the have it thrown back up onto the roof where it detonated and blew the soldier off the back of the roof. As we learned later, some 21 American military policemen* would die in that alley along with virtually all of the one hundred enemy troops. In the end, the American losses were the greatest of any of the day’s Saigon battles.
The disabled truck is one of two vehicles in which in which 17 Military Police were killed and 28 wounded during the battle which lasted from 03:00 a.m. until early afternoon. The battle at BOQ 3 produced few prisoners, but this one made the front page of the Military Police Brigade newspaper a few months after the engagement.
Finally, around 10:30 or so, there was a news broadcast that acknowledged the offensive and confirmed the earlier reports that the Embassy had been attacked. In fact it had not only been attacked, the reports indicated that the grounds and perhaps the building itself had been partially occupied and that the enemy troops had been re-taken only after an heliborne unit had landed on the roof and cleared the building and grounds of occupiers. Clearly we were in the middle of a substantial military offensive and major enemy formations were inside the city; it seemed and looked like the war had arrived almost everywhere in the city.
Sometime after the radio announced that the Embassy had been secured, we heard the clatter of a tank echoing up nearby Cong Ly street, only a block away, headed toward Tan Son Nhat airbase. From the rooftop we could see the tank briefly as it advanced up the street, but we were surprised to hear it apparently pause after just a short distance. We could still hear the tank idling and gunning its engine closeby, but it didn’t seem to be moving. Then suddenly, the tank started moving with a roar of its engine and a loud clanking of treads, its movement accompanied by a storm of small arms fire and grenade explosions. Judging the proximity of the sounds, it was clear that the tank had stopped near the Vietnamese Armed Forces Joint General Staff Headquarters or the BOQ 3 alley, midway between our apartment compound and Tan Son Nhat.
Soon, we the unmistakeable sound of a tank turning on it’s own radius and, as the small arms fire intensified, there was a thunderous double crack as the tank fired its. main gun followed instantly by the explosion of the impacting round. The small arms fire fell silent and then resumed thinly, intermittently before another round from the tank and then heavier sustained fire from its smaller automatic weapons silenced most of the enemy fire. Even without seeing the entire sequence of events, we realized that the tank had been called in to clear enemy positions near the BOQ 3/JGS compounds and that it had advanced either through the JGS main gate or perhaps into the alley at BOQ3 before firing cannon rounds to clear the opposition.
Later, we would learn that the tank had attacked a company sized guerrilla force, the same one that had been involved in the firefight in the BOQ 3 alley, that had been assaulting the JGS compound. We would also learn that 21 Military Police and attached infantrymen had died when their convoy of two trucks and a jeep had turned into the alley in the early morning and been ambushed by the guerrilla company, a Claymore mine killing all in the lead truck. Twenty-eight others were wounded in the 16 hour engagement; the enemy company of 100 or more men was wiped out, but for a few prisoners.
dead carpet the ground
scattered like dry autumn leaves
this first day of spring.
We continued watching throughout the day, the afternoon vigils broken only by lunch and periodic trips to the house but, by late afternoon, the neighborhood had become quieter and the larger battles, in a 360 degree circle around the city dominated the horizon and the air space; Tan Son Nhat to their north, Da Kao, Newport Bridge on the east, the radio and TV stations near downtown to the south and Cho Lon, Phu Lam, the racetrack at Phu Tho to the west all clearly the sites of major battles. The fighting was all marked by towering columns of smoke, the constant dull thud of explosions, and, at most of them, alternating sorties of jet planes and attack helicopters dropping bombs and firing rockets or strafing with cannon and machine gun fire; a hellish necklace of smoke and fire circled around the city. Closer by, the battle in the alley at BOQ 3 finally ended around mid-afternoon..
The fighting in and around town lasted for several days before the city was cleared;three days before we were finally able to leave the compound and return to work and a semblance of normalcy.
(In a twist of karmic irony, our Director who’d relocated to what he thought was ‘the safest place in Vietnam’. later found himself in the middle of one of the worst as enemy troops occupied his house during the battle for the radio station and kept him hiding under his bed throughout that first day.)
*In the battle on the morning of January 31, in the alley at BOQ 3, the 716th MP Battalion (Saigon) lost 16 men plus five attached infantry assigned as security. They were:
SGT Michael A. Grieve
PFC Roland M. Bowen
PFC Thomas C. Hiley
SP4 Carey C. Anthony
SP4 Douglas W. Doody
PFC Ivan D. Homsley
PFC Danny L. Lasure
PFC Nestor Ojeda
PFC Harry F. Richardson Jr.
PFC Randall K. Schutt
PFC James Seidensticker
PFC John T. Smith
527th MP Co –
SGT Johnie B. Thomas
SP4 Charles L. Daniel
SP4 Owen E. Mebust
PFC William M. Sebast
Co C, 52nd Infantry
2LT Stephen L. Braddock
SGT Robert B. Stafford
SP4 Frank E. Faught
CPL James E. Walsh
PFC Lester G. Yarbrough