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Number 1 Shimbun

Tet, Half a Century Later

No1-2018-02 War

 Photo credit: David Terry


Tet, Half a Century Later
By Donald Kirk

This lunar new year conjures memories of a lunar new year 50 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 courtyard 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 escorts, and see for ourselves. We set off, accompanied by a couple of marines, 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. Marines combat base a few miles from the Lao border near the line with North Vietnam.

I was trying to catch a ride out of Khe Sanh, where I’d spent a night or two as North Vietnamese gunners rocketed intermittently from ridgelines. The big C130 cargo planes landing there would have to take off in a hurry so they never halted completely but slowly taxied while ammo, C-rations and other stuff rolled out of their ends onto the tarmac. When we wanted to leave, we were supposed to run behind the planes while they were still taxiing and jump on. 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’ve 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 them.

South Vietnamese soldiers, rather than American 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. The man who had inherited the job of 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” with 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, after calling a colleague in Saigon, told us, “They’re attacking everywhere.” The marines organized a briefing at the headquarters of III MAF, 3d Marine Amphibious Force, which consisted of two marine divisions and a marine aircraft wing assigned to I Corps Tactical Zone, whose area of operations was the northern provinces. The briefer said there’d been fighting at Hue but the marines were on the way to rescue the South Vietnamese First Division.

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 a couple of years later I would have liked to able to ask how he felt as U.S. forces bogged down in serious morale problems, worsened by drugs, mostly marijuana but also heroin, that were for sale outside U.S. bases.

Once in Saigon, I had to figure out which way the war was going – which was not altogether clear as the North Vietnamese faded under heavy fire. At the same time I had to deal with the specter of my publisher and employer. Newbie Noyes had just arrived on a U.S. military jet and by the time he’d had his first military and diplomatic briefings, arranged in advance in Washington as a tribute to his VIP status, was confident that he knew all about everything. Mostly, he accepted the view of General William Westmoreland, the U.S. commander, that “We’re winning.” He disdained my less than laudatory comments as the complaints of “a very cynical young man” – a label he bestowed on me while plying me with food and drink in the Caravelle Hotel.

Newbie, though, was but a temporary nuisance. As a VIP, he got offered a flight to Phu Bai on a C130 laid on for Walter Cronkite and Cronkite’s producer, Jeff Gralnick. The flight was scheduled the very morning. That conflicted with his existing schedule, which called for him to leave then for the next stop on his magical mystery tour – I think Bangkok. Not exactly the image of journalistic aggressiveness, Newbie relinquished his C130 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 – despite 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 groggily starting to wake up one morning and saying, “When I was a kid, I never thought I’d be in a war like this.” After he’d fully awakened, another marine asked him if he knew what he’d said. And I remember a couple of young marines rushing into the headquarters of a company commander, to 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.

Joining as marines moved up, I found one, who’d been 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 Cà Mau, at the southeastern tip of Vietnam, I saw charred enemy bodies by the landing strip. I was with Don Sider of Time 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 officials 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 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.

Published in: February 2018

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