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Back at the Tet Offensive
new year conjures memories of a lunar new year 40 years ago in February
1968 when some of us were covering the Tet offensive as it raged across
the land we knew as “South” Vietnam. I was in a bunk in
the U.S. Marine Press Center in Danang the day before Tet, when we heard
rockets exploding and small arms fire crackling down the street. The
rockets were all “incoming.”
A clutch of journalists gathered in the central court yard of the press
center, asking our marine minders what was going on. They reported a
firefight a mile or so away. The enemy, they said, had been repelled.
We could walk down there, with marine escorts, and see for ourselves.
We set off, accompanied by a couple of marine escorts, with a sense
of adventure. The war had come to us. We didn’t have to board
helicopters for flights to jungle bases under fire. That was a special
relief for me since I had broken my right arm just above the wrist a
couple of days earlier in a freak accident at Khe Sanh, site of a U.S.
marine combat base a few miles from the Lao border near the line with
The accident had happened this way: Cargo pallets piled high with ammo,
C-rations and other stuff rolled out of the ends of the big C-130 cargo
planes while they slowly taxied. We were supposed to run behind the
planes while they were still taxiing and jump on when we wanted to leave
Khe Sanh, where I’d spent a night or two as North Vietnamese gunners
rocketed intermittently from ridgelines.
The planes had to take off in a hurry and never halted completely. We
were told to wait until the last pallet had rolled off. No sooner had
I clambered aboard one of them, however, than I saw the last ammo pallet
coming at me. I leapt onto the pallet, tumbled out with it and landed
on my hand on the runway. I always figured a broken arm was a pretty
lucky break, considering some of the alternatives.
With my arm in a cast, provided the day before after a long wait at
the marine medical center in Danang by a U.S. Navy doctor rightly more
interested in a steady stream of marine wounded, I joined the journos
running down the road from the press center. A South Vietnamese army
major was standing beside his jeep, grinning broadly, saying “very
lucky, very lucky.” His good luck was that he was alive, unscathed,
while his driver lay slumped over the wheel, killed by gunfire through
the windshield. On the side of the road, I saw a man on his back on
the ground, a black-clad North Vietnamese soldier. South Vietnamese
soldiers were looking at him with detached interest. He had a sucking
open chest wound from which he would die in minutes. More bodies lay
in neat rows by an intersection where the South Vietnamese had dragged
South Vietnamese soldiers rather than U.S. marines seemed to have the
scene in hand. I have a memory of John Wheeler, then an ace AP correspondent,
talking about the need to “count the bodies.” Back at the
Press Center, my right hand protruding from a sling, I could hardly
write. John Laurence, the CBS correspondent, drew a star on the cast
and happily offered to type as I dictated. The story made the front
page of the next day’s Washington Star, the Washington Post’s
afternoon competitor, destined to go out of business a few years later.
The Star had hired me a few months earlier as “Asia correspondent,”
based in Hong Kong but mostly covering Vietnam, and the paper’s
hereditary publisher, Newbold Noyes, was by coincidence on a swing around
the region. “Newbie” shared the view of the Pentagon and
the White House that cynical young correspondents were undermining the
“war effort” by all their negative reporting. He could hardly
have picked a more opportune moment to see his views tested under fire.
We didn’t know it that day, but the attack on Danang was the opening
of the offensive that was to break out as South Vietnamese set about
celebrating Tet, the lunar new year holiday. Years later, in 1995, on
the 20th anniversary of “the fall” of Saigon and the South
Vietnamese surrender on April 30, 1975, I revisited Danang and the citadel
at Hue and asked a Vietnamese guide, a veteran of the North Vietnamese
offensive, why the soldiers from the North had attacked Danang first.
He said with disarming frankness that orders had been confused, the
date was read or relayed incorrectly and the North Vietnamese had jumped
off too soon. The North Vietnamese were repelled at Danang the day before
the Tet offensive opened in earnest elsewhere.
We got the news of the attack on the U.S. embassy in Saigon, and on
provincial capitals, at the marine press center the next morning. Ed
Behr, the Newsweek correspondent, announced, “They’re attacking
everywhere,” after calling a colleague in Saigon. The marines
organized a briefing at the headquarters of III MAF, Third Marine Amphibious
Force, in charge of the marine’s two divisions in “I Corps,”
the northern provinces. The briefer said there’d been fighting
at Hue but the marines were on the way to rescue the South Vietnamese
The First Division’s commanding general had told me two weeks
earlier the North Vietnamese were in nearby hills but his men were ready.
Intelligence was disturbingly vague. Outside the city, marines on patrol
had said, “The VC are everywhere.” In the compound for CORDS
– Civil Operations for Revolutionary Development Support –
across the river from the Citadel, earnest U.S. aid types had heard
the reports but were confident they were getting somewhere.
When I went to the air base at Danang in hopes of boarding a U.S. Air
Force flight to Phu Bai, the base town a few miles south of Hue, a young
airman told me nothing was flying and “Hue isn’t ours.”
I could hardly believe him. “What do you mean,” I asked.
“Well, the North Vietnamese have captured the city,” was
his laconic response.
We soon learned what the marine briefer had neglected to report, that
the enemy held the vast Citadel east of the river where the elite of
Hue had lived from the days of dynastic rule over Vietnam before the
French colonial era. By now a number of the U.S. aid people whom I’d
met had been killed along with several thousand Vietnamese.
Anxious to get to the heart of the fighting in and around Saigon, I
hitched a ride with a U.S. army general who had an extra seat in his
personal plane. I remember him telling me how moved he was by the fighting
spirit of “our young soldiers.” He seemed pretty sincere,
but I would have liked to have asked a year or two later how he felt
as U.S. forces bogged down in serious morale problems, worsened by drugs,
mostly marijuana but also heroin, for sale outside U.S. bases.
Once in Saigon, I had to figure out which way the war was going, not
altogether clear as the North Vietnamese faded under heavy fire, and
also deal with the specter of my publisher and employer, “Newbie”
Noyes. Newbie had just arrived on a U.S. military jet and was confident
by the time he’d had his first military and diplomatic briefings,
arranged in advance in Washington as a tribute to his VIP status, that
he knew all about everything. Mostly, he accepted the view of General
William Westmoreland, the U.S. commander, that “we’re winning”
and disdained my less than laudatory comments as the complaining of
“a very cynical young man” – a label he bestowed on
me while regaling me with food and drink in the Caravelle Hotel.
“Newbie,” though, was a temporary nuisance. As a VIP, he
got offered a flight to Phu Bai at the rear of a C130 laid on for Walter
Cronkite and Cronkite’s producer, Jeff Gralnick. The flight was
scheduled the very morning on which Newbie was to leave for the next
stop on his magical mystery tour – I think Bangkok. Not exactly
an image of journalistic aggressiveness, Newbie wasn’t flexible
enough to change his schedule. Instead, he relinquished his seat to
me, giving me the chance to listen to Cronkite expressing his first
veiled misgivings about the war.
The top U.S. information honcho, Barry Zorthian, was also on board –
eager to massage Cronkite’s ego though a little disappointed to
see me in place of Noyes, on whom the administration counted for editorial
sympathy. Cronkite was surrounded by fawning U.S. military officers
when we landed in Phu Bai, but his commentary several weeks later marked
a turning point in U.S. opinion regardless of the inability of the North
Vietnamese to hold the cities and towns they had overrun in Tet.
In fact, when Cronkite spoke out publicly against the war on February
27, 1968, the U.S. marines, backed up by the U.S. First Air Cavalry
division, were just finishing what had turned into a four-week battle
inside the Hue Citadel – one of the most significant engagements
in U.S. military history. I flew into the Citadel a couple of times
during the battle, picking up flak jackets and helmets stacked up by
the bodies of dead marines at the headquarters in the rear of the Citadel,
and sticking with the marines as they fought block by block –
the blocks marked by stone walls behind which troops from both sides
could conceal themselves.
I remember a marine waking up one morning, saying, “When I was
a kid, I never thought I’d be in a war like this,” before
he fully awakened and another marine asked him, a minute later, if he
knew what he’d said. And I remember a couple of young marines
rushing into the headquarters of a company commander, with whom I’d
been sticking pretty close on the ground floor of an abandoned home,
saying another marine had been cut down after rushing a block too far
on a “mule,” a springless vehicle used for moving supplies
in the field.
A little later, a marine sniper said the man beside him had stuck his
head from a balcony and been killed by a single shot, but the sniper
said he’d seen an enemy soldier and killed him. “I know
I got him,” he said when I asked how he could be sure the guy
had not just been wounded. “He fell like this” – accompanied
by a quick doubling up and pitching forward.
With marines as they moved up, I found a marine sprayed by shrapnel,
slumped on the floor of a home. “I was really lucky,” he
said, half-smiling to discover he was alive and out of danger, as he
sipped from a newly opened bottle of whiskey. There were strict orders
on looting. “If you can eat it or drink it, you can have it,”
the company commander said tersely. “Leave everything else alone”
– an edict that presumably applied to the snapshots of a nude
young woman the marines gleefully discovered in a bureau drawer overflowing
with silken scarves and ao dai, the Vietnamese national dress.
The Tet offensive was a moving target. The story was everywhere. As
the fighting moved west from the center of Saigon, I encountered little
kids by the race track, holding sticks, playing soldier, while the real
war went on blocks away.
I saw soldiers in shops and apartments calling in helicopter strikes,
and I saw a couple of mangy dogs, their ears pinned back, running for
their lives down empty streets, terrified by nearby explosions. The
first cobra gunships roared in, their guns blazing, sounding like chain
saws, blasting whatever they saw, to the disgust of a U.S. civilian
official who told me,. “That’s not winning hearts and minds.”
But what else were the troops to do? The mission was to drive out the
North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. Hearts and minds could wait.
JUSPAO, the Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office, and MACV, Military Assistance
Command Vietnam, proudly flew reporters to the scenes of their triumphs.
On a flight to Camau, the southeastern tip of Vietnam, I saw charred
enemy bodies by the landing strip. I was with Don Sider of Time
magazine and a young American woman. Sider wanted to shield the view.
“It’s the first time she’s seen dead bodies,”
he said. Somewhere in the upper delta, I ran into an American lieutenant
colonel who denied Westmoreland’s futile claim that commanders
had been warned of what might transpire. “All we got was a routine
max alert for Tet,” he said.
A week or so into the offensive, on February 7, while fighting was still
raging in Hue, JUSPAO and MACV staged a flight to Ben Tre, a charming
provincial center in the upper Mekong River delta that had been hit
hard in the first day or so of the offensive. The flight would make
for an easy dateline for journalists wanting to show they were getting
around the countryside. The junket was so easy that Joe Fried of the
New York Daily News, who covered the war mostly from the daily
five o’clock follies, was on the plane, looking distinctly uneasy
in a neatly pressed correspondent’s suit on a rare venture outside
Saigon as we flew over shell-pocked rice paddies.
JUSPAO and MACV wanted to show off Ben Tre as a success story. When
we got there, we heard the sound of hammering and sawing as energetic
townspeople began reconstruction from the rubble of buildings shot up
first by enemy rockets and then by American helicopters as they drove
out the invaders. The town by now was at peace, licking and healing
the wounds. As civilian vehicles and street markets reappeared, in the
shadows of balconied old colonial buildings, bullet-spattered but still
standing, shaded by trees and garlanded with flowers, we were driven
to the headquarters of the U.S. provincial team. A phalanx of fficials
was ready for us, standing in front of maps and a blackboard on a terrace
behind the headquarters.
An army major, in his role as military adviser on the provincial team,
described the battle to retake the town. The fighting had been tough,
he wanted us to know, but the result was a success, Ben Tre was ours.
Peter Arnett, the famous AP correspondent, grinned sardonically, asking
loudly, “You mean you had to destroy the town to save it?”
The major shrugged, “Well, you might put it that way.”
That evening, in Saigon, I got a message from the Star. The
AP was reporting a U.S. major saying it had become “necessary
to destroy the town to save it.” The major, however, had never
uttered those fateful words. The quote was Arnett’s question,
not his response. Too bad. In an information war, the quote, as Arnett
had it coming not from his own mouth but that of the major, at once
became a rallying cry for a war that was now as good as lost in a mushroom
cloud of anti-war protest and popular revulsion.
Donald Kirk, KJ contributing editor and long-time NL contributor,
covered Vietnam first for the old Washington (D.C.) Star and
then for the Chicago Tribune. He also wrote numerous articles
for The New Leader, The New York Times Magazine and others
as well as two books on the war, Wider War: The Struggle for Cambodia,
Thailand and Laos, 1971, and Tell it to the Dead: Memories
of a War, 1975, republished in expanded form in 1996 as Tell
it to the Dead: Stories of a War.
held by the author