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March/april 2010

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BY JOHN PRADOS

Most accounts of the Tet Offensive of 1968 focus on the fighting in Saigon, at Hue, or at Khe Sanh. The drama of the siege in the hills, the fighting outside the U.S. Embassy, or the fall of the old Imperial capital and the bitter battle to regain Hue are irresistible. But some of the most important events during Tet, including ones that could have tipped off Saigon and Washington to what was about to happen, took place in the central portion of South Vietnam, including the Central Highlands and several foothill or lowland provinces.

The South Vietnamese Army knew this zone as II Corps. Americans with MACV had a different sector name, I Field Force, for the corps-size formation deployed there (II Corps will be used in this article). In 1968, ARVN Lt. Gen. Vinh Loc and American Lt. Gen. Stanley R. Larsen led a combat force of tens of thousands of men.

The American forces in II Corps included the 4th Infantry Division in the Highlands, two brigades of the 1st Air Cavalry Division, the 173rd Airborne Brigade, the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, armored cavalry, mechanized units, and engineer troops, and a substantial portion of the 5th Special Forces Group with its mountain camps garrisoned by Montagnard strikers. This was the operating area of most of the South Korean troops in Vietnam, and II Corps had a strong ARVN contingent.

In all, there were roughly twenty American battalions—118,000 U.S. Army trooplus 30,000 from other services), more than 24,000 Koreans, and about 142,000 South Vietnamese, evenly split between regulars and Regional Forces/Popular Forces (RF/PFs). By any standard, Gens. Larsen and Loc deployed powerful ground forces, and they had substantial support from some three dozen artillery battalions of the several nationalities.

The NVA and the National Liberation Front (NLF) referred to this area as the B-3 Front in the Central Highlands and Military Regions 5, 6, and 10 along the Vietnamese coast and in the foothills. Intelligence assessed their strength at more than 57,000, including 17,000 North Vietnamese and 11,000 NLF troops in main force units and 23,000 guerrillas. Gen. Hoang Minh Thao’s B-3 Front fielded half a dozen North Vietnamese infantry regiments plus four artillery and several sapper battalions and several more NLF main force units. Military Region 5 comprised four of Hanoi’s veteran regiments with the NLF adding a regiment of its own and six independent infantry battalions. This force staged attacks throughout the region.

 

Saigon and its American allies had their best opportunity to avoid the surprise of Tet in II Corps. For several reasons—but most importantly because of Hanoi’s major foul-up of not ensuring all its forces in the South were on the same timetable—their forces in II Corps moved prematurely, a day ahead of the main Tet offensive. In addition, the forces of Military Region 5 had never before operated under central command to launch widely scattered thrusts. So there were coordination errors in the lowlands.

There also were problems due to the sluggish movement of units to their assembly areas. With preparation of the troops a key concern for North Vietnamese political cadres, Vo Chi Cong of MR 5 bore some responsibility here. The B-3 Front was better off in that regard, coming off the big fight with the Americans at Dak To the previous November. But there was some doubt whether the wounds of the earlier battle had fully healed.

Several of Gen. Thao’s regiments never participated at Tet. Americans like to think that is because of the pounding they took at Dak To. The Front’s political committee chief, Senior Col. Tran The Mon, would no doubt argue that it was a matter of strategy. Available evidence does not answer the question, but the Tet challenge was serious enough as it was.

There were other, more direct reasons why surprise might have been avoided. It was near Dak To, in fact, during the final throes of the battle there, that ARVN troops captured a document that turned out to be Gen. Thao’s directive for the winter-spring offensive—that is, Tet. A more specific directive that included target lists and movement assignments for units in Pleiku province was taken by U.S. 4th Infantry Division troops in early January.

There were other indications as well. American radio intelligence intercepted traffic indicating the gathering of enemy troops to assault Nha Trang, a city on the central coast. Just after Christmas at Qui Nhon, the capital of Bind Dinh province, the National Police chief was wounded in a raid a few kilometers west of town that recovered many documents and cached weapons that seemed to point to an attack.

It took more than a week to get all the materials translated. They contained much information, including the names of all the NLF committee members in the city. Exploiting the intelligence less than forty-eight hours before the Tet attacks, South Vietnamese security broke up a meeting of an NLF cell, taking audio tapes that called for a popular uprising and were clearly intended to be broadcast on the government radio station once captured. One tape indicated that the Liberation Front intended to force the ARVN province chief to say he was changing sides to support the enemy. Prisoners admitted that they expected their side to attack during the Tet holiday. Presidential aide Walt W. Rostow informed Lyndon Johnson on January 29 (at about 6:30 p.m., Vietnam time), that the North Vietnamese were completing battle preparations in Pleiku and Kontum provinces, and that “the beginning of a well-coordinated series of large-scale attacks may be imminent.”

This is not the place to address issues of intelligence failure at Tet. But despite the warnings, there was no general alert in II Corps. Some local commanders took matters into their own hands, which helped counter several attacks. At Qui Nhon, Lt. Col. Pham Minh Tho, the province chief, put his area on guard. In Ban Me Thuot, at the foot of the Central Highlands, Gen. Truong Quang An cancelled Tet leaves for the men of his ARVN 23rd Division. At Pleiku, II Corps headquarters, chief of staff Col. Le Trung Truong informed province chiefs that the NLF might not comply with the truce anticipated for Tet, and he ordered a section of tanks to deploy downtown despite the holiday. Corps commander Vinh Loc, however, was absent, celebrating in Saigon. 


At Ban Me Thuot, the Montagnard metropolis in Darlac province, firecrackers heralded the new year, marked at midnight, January 30, when South Vietnamese soldiers began discharging their weapons into the air. American revelers were still on the street. Col. Reed, the U.S. commander, ordered Military Police to corral them and get them back to camp. MP Ron McCollar cleared the block of bars frequented by GIs. Others partied on their own.

Michael Benge, a former Marine and deputy chief for the Agency for International Development in Darlac, was hosting a feast at his home. One guest was anthropologist and RAND Corporation Vietnam analyst Gerald Hickey, in town to help identify prominent Montagnards who could be appointed to a new national council. Benge had been warned of possible attacks but thought the reports were merely communist disinformation. He joined Hickey on his porch to watch the fireworks and offered a toast: “Well, they just missed another good chance to take over.”

The words were barely out of his mouth when an 82mm mortar round exploded in Benge’s front yard. It was about 1:35 a.m. Benge had not been the target, but his block contained the town’s CIA compound, a Military Intelligence unit, and the U.S. senior advisor’s house. The base of the ARVN 8th Armored Cavalry was just over a block away, and that of U.S. Special Forces Detachment B-23 about 500 meters beyond that (the Green Berets took the warnings seriously and had prepared entrenchments earlier that day).

In short order, the telephones went down and NLF troops could be seen running through the streets. Benge set his Montagnard security guards in a defensive perimeter. The enemy blew up the ammunition dump and attacked the province chief’s residence, the treasury office, police station, and the marketplace. The ARVN 39th and 232nd Artillery were pinned down. The NLF, according to Special Forces, employed CS tear gas hand grenades, small arms, and B-40 rockets. Captured enemy soldiers turned out to be from the North Vietnamese 33rd Regiment and the 301E NLF Local Force Battalion.

Meanwhile, Benge could find no U.S. officer responsible for the evacuation of noncombatants, and he began to make the rounds of American civilians. At the house of some American missionaries on the edge of town, the NLF captured Benge and the others (he remained a prisoner until 1973; two of the missionaries died).

Gerald Hickey joined up with the U.S. Special Forces and manned a bunker with a carbine he’d been given. Vietnamese refugees gathered at the cathedral and in a gulley behind the B-23 compound, where NLF troops infiltrated among them. Gunships of the 155th Assault Helicopter Company ranged over the town, joined by mid-morning by U.S. strike aircraft. By afternoon, all available assets had been committed. That included B-23’s Montagnard strikers of the Civilian Irregular Defense Groups (CIDGs), and a couple of companies of Montagnard Mobile Strike (Mike) Forces, who became the mainstay of the counterattacks.

 

By February 4, the remaining NLF had been pushed into the northwestern quarter of the city. A couple of days later, the CIDGs threatened to mutiny because much of the burden of the fighting had been put on them. That was actually not accurate. By then, I Field Force had committed the 1/503 Airborne Infantry and the ARVN divisional command its 45th Regiment.

Kontum, in the Central Highlands, was next to be assaulted, at 2:00 a.m. At the Ben Het Special Forces camp and nearby ARVN firebases, there had been constant harassment by enemy rocket and mortar fire. The ARVN 6th Airborne Battalion encountered an estimated battalion of the North Vietnamese 66th Regiment on January 27, a firefight in which they claimed a body count of 137, plus subsequent contacts that continued right into the morning of the Tet attacks.

Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese 174th Regiment simultaneously attacked the ARVN base and district headquarters, and the police station at Tan Canh, northwest of Kontum. Both regiments were among those considered to have been neutralized at Dak To the previous November. GIs of the 4th Infantry Division also reported contacts throughout these days.

After midnight on the 30th came a coordinated assault on Kontum City and Dak To base. Enemy troops included the 24th Regiment—another of those “neutralized” units—both the 66th and 174th, the North Vietnamese 40th Artillery, and the NLF 394th Main Force Battalion. The 406th Sapper and 304th NLF Battalions alsoparticipated. Kontum airfield and every important installation in the city were attacked by troops or subjected to bombardments. A pair of CIDG companies could not stop the attackers, but they were quickly reinforced by the 2/42nd ARVN Regiment and the U.S. 1/22 Infantry. A tank company of the 1st Battalion, 69th Armor furnished needed heavy firepower.

The ARVN here were reported as having been highly effective. Initial reports admitted to no more than seven dead and five wounded, but as late as February 2 Gen. Westmoreland said that Kontum was the worst situation in II Corps. By February 4, the city had largely been cleared and I Field Force casualty counters estimated the body count at 758.

Also attacked at 2:00 a.m. was Nha Trang, the II Corps rear base and nerve center for U.S. Special Forces and the I Field Force. While gunners of Hanoi’s 95th Artillery Battalion lobbed mortars into the U.S. Recondo school and Col. Fred Ladd’s 5th Special Forces compound, more than 1,3100 enemy troops launched ground assaults at the MACV compound, sector and province headquarters, and the hooches of the 272nd Military Police.

The attackers were from several battalions of the North Vietnamese 18B Regiment and five assorted NLF sapper companies, plus local guerrillas who served as guides. It might have been worse except that a key North Vietnamese column faced the wrong direction and ended up aborting its mission.

 

Fighting raged through the day and into January 31, the real Tet. The radio station, briefly occupied by the NLF, was demolished. Mike Force companies began a sweep north of the city in the morning. The enemy reserves were thought to be located there. Shells hit Nha Trang airfield and the 5th Special Forces camp. There was fierce fighting on Buddha Hill, overlooking the city and named for a huge Buddha statue upon it, where the North Vietnamese had placed heavy machine guns and mortars.

Capt. Carl McCarden led the Mike Force company that spearheaded the counterattack onto Buddha Hill. But the NVA had pulled out its support weapons when fresh ammunition did not arrive, so there was not much to show for the assault. Gerald Hickey escaped from Ban Me Thuot only to reach Nha Trang in the middle of its own battle. Col. Ladd, a friend of Hickey’s, took him to see South Vietnamese Special Forces commander Gen. Dan Van Quang to describe conditions in the other battle.

In the early morning hours of Tet, loud explosions awakened Hickey, who was staying with Ladd. Gunfire and the eerie light of flares punctuated the enemy assault on the Special Forces’ own position as well as the I Field Force compound. There were heavy casualties, especially at I Field Force. By February 2, the Pentagon reported 64 friendly dead and 5th Special Forces had recorded 104 wounded. Enemy losses were estimated at 200 dead and 50 captured. By February 3, Nha Trang was reported quiet.

Qui Nhon was next on the “hit parade,” struck less than an hour after Kontum and Nha Trang. Long a sleepy port nestled on the coast below the Highlands, Qui Nhon had become an important supply base for II Corps because it was the origin of the road to Pleiku. The city lay in the South Korean tactical area of responsibility and was hit by at least two Liberation Front units, the E2B Local Force Battalion and the H-36 Sappers, with a North Vietnamese infantry battalion echeloned outside the city.

Targeted were the compound of the Military Security Servicvie, the rail yard, and the radio station. Police chief Capt. Bui Van Lan had made preparations and had five platoons on alert, turning aside the initial attacks, though the NLF captured the radio station (but was unable to broadcast any tapes). The police killed the commander of the VC sapper battalion, though in the morning the province chief called them off in order to commit his RF/PF forces. The sappers’ political officer was captured, among more than 50 others, and more than 150 enemy were killed.

A ROK battalion and two U.S.-led CIDG companies of Lt. Col. Robert N. Longfellow’s B-22 Detachment took up the gauntlet, among other things hitting the North Vietnamese outside the city. Sgt. Michael R. Deed’s CIDGs played a key role in recapturing the rail yards, supported by a Green Beret 106mm recoilless rifle placed atop a nearby hotel. The situation was substantially cleared up by the next day and the battle declared over on February 5.

 

Pleiku, in Richard Nixon’s phrase, remained the big enchilada. It was attacked at 4:40 a.m. Shortly before the battle erupted, ARVN officers on their way to II Corps headquarters noticed soldiers in South Vietnamese uniforms standing suspiciously around on some street corners. They turned out to be among the first killed when the People’s Army attacked. Their primary targets were the city’s POW camp, the regional National Police Directorate, and the compound of the U.S. 524th Military Intelligence Detachment.

The POW camp begged for help. A Mike Force company responded. Tanks of the U.S. 1/69th Armor were the key to the defense, showing up all over, hitting Gen. Thao’s North Vietnamese with force they could not counter. But Thao had most of two regiments, the 32nd and 95B, and four assorted NLF infantry, sapper, and artillery battalions—more than 4,600 troops.

Prisoners indicated that the Northerners had orders to capture Pleiku or not come back. The Mike Forces and the ARVN 11th and 22nd Ranger battalions remained hard pressed. In fact, the CIA’s Provincial Reconnaissance Unit ended up defending the U.S. advisor’s compound and Montagnard training center. Outside the city, the Americans had the 3rd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, a mixed force with an infantry battalion (the 1/14), a mechanized battalion (2/8), and an air cavalry squadron (2/1), plus the tanks of 1/69. But except for the armor they initially focused on defending Camp Holloway and only gradually reached into the surrounding area. At least one GI veteran of Pleiku remembers spending ten days straight crouched in his bunker.

Meanwhile, downtown the Mike Force slugged it out with the 966th Battalion of the People’s Army 32nd Regiment. They used M79 grenade launchers and LAWs for “heavy” fire support to to eject the North Vietnamese from a Chinese school. Tanks of the 1/69 settled the matter.

Then an ARVN Ranger company got pinned down in the same area, on Pleiku’s outskirts. Mike Force strikers fought across an opemeters wide to hit the North Vietnamese, who were dug in, and free the Rangers. Gen. Vinh Loc returned to Pleiku in his personal aircraft at about 9:00 a.m. He immediately proceeded to his home—occupied by the enemy—and devoted himself to commanding a platoon-size action to clear it. American senior advisor Col. J. W. Barnes sent word to Gen. Loc that emergencies throughout II Corps required his presence at HQ. Loc chewed out the messenger.

When he made his way to headquarters, he went atCol. Barnes the same way. “I am not an American corporal, I am the II Corps general in command!” Loc screamed. Afterward, he refused to deal with Barnes and ignored him whenever the two were together.

Despite command friction, American aerial firepower and allied artillery began to tell, and the Americans of the 3/4 Infantry Brigade steadily shifted the balance. On February 1, the ARVN 3rd Cavalry Squadron fought a pitched battle with the Liberation Front’s H-15 Local Force Battalion. By February 3, Pleiku was mostly quiet and the next day the battle was over. Of course, attention almost immediately shifted to Dak To where II Corps feared Gen. Thao was about to mount a further assault.

 

These were not all the battles in II Corps. Tuy Hoa was hit hard and the fight there went on for six days. The U.S. 4th Battalion, 503rd Infantry (Airborne) plus troops of the Korean 28th Regiment drove back the Liberation Front forces.

Ninh Hoa was another enemy objective. Some attacks actually began on time, on the first night of Tet, January 31. Then the U.S. bases at An Khe and Bong Son were struck by fire. Stosh Commisiak, a trooper of the 1st Air Cav’s brigade that was still at Bong Son, was in a watchtower that night and watched the flares, tracers, and explosions in amazement. Phan Thiet became the scene of an extended cat-and-mouse game with the NLF that went on for several weeks. The fighting began late at Dalat, the mountain resort and ARVN military academy, which had never before undergone a significant attack but now endured a bloody fight that went on for ten days.

By then, even the Saigon fighting had died down, and the world’s attention had focused on Hue and Khe Sanh, where some of the biggest scenes of Tet played out. But as is clear from this account, II Corps was no backwater at Tet, and Hanoi might have stoked up the pressure considerably if coordination failures had not occurred and its initial gambits had been more successful.

On February 10, Gen. Westmoreland came to I Field Force to confer with Gen. Larsen about how to proceed in the Highlands. But Westmoreland kept his eyes, above all, on Hue and Khe Sanh. By March 5, American casualties in II Corps were reported as 218 dead, 1,087 wounded, and seven missing, about a third the level in the Saigon region. The ARVN had lost 817 killed and 1,901 wounded, and the Koreans 43 dead plus 89 wounded. Hanoi and the Liberation Front, by U.S. body count, had suffered 8,877 combat deaths while 2,370 suspected insurgents had been detained.

South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu waited a decent interval, then fired Gen. Vinh Loc. Gen. Larsen was replaced by Ray Peers, formerly the 4th Division commander. The war in II Corps went on.

Eminent historian John Prados is a long-time contributor to The VVA Veteran. His most recent book, Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945-1975, was awarded the Henry Adams Prize of the Society for History in the Federal Government.

 

 

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