in February and May 1968

                                                                                                              Written by: Colonel Hoang Tich Thong

 I. The Military Situation in 1967

1967 was a year of tumultuous fighting in South Vietnam with numerous largescale operations organized by the ARVN, the Americans and Allied Forces,especially in III Corps Tactical Zones 2,3,4. General Westmoreland’s initiativeof “Search and Destroy” was in full swing. Up against American Troops andAllied forces from Australia, Thailand, The Philippines, and South Korea, theVCs were anxious to avoid confrontation. As time went by, more and more NVAreinforcements were sent through the Ho Chi Minh Trail into the south, tosupport the VC regional forces.

Originally, North Vietnam hid their agenda behind the “National Front forthe Liberation of the South. But after the US started sending troops over, NorthVietnam blatantly entered the War under the slogan of” Fight USA to save thecountry”. In reality that was a pretext so that they could violate the GenevaPact – their aim was to always invade South Vietnam.

From then, the fighting escalated. In the early stages, the Americans nearlyalways won the big battles because of their strong airpower and superior groundand air forces. The Communists, switched tactics to a war of “attrition” -the aim was to drag on the confrontations, to wear the Americans down and sapthe US Army’s man power and supplies by subjecting them to sapper ambushes,raids and shelling. The US did in fact lose many of its men in the attempt toeradicate the NVA regulars.

Although tactical air-crafts and strategic B52 bombardments continuouslyraided the HO Chi Minh Trail day and night, the enemy continued to make therisky journey down South. Intelligence sources, deserters and released POWS fromthe North reported that about 50% of infiltrating troops were killed beforereaching the Viet-Laotian border.

On the American side, reinforcements swelled to half a million troops, butstill, the war dragged on. Back in the USA, public support for the war began towane. To force North Vietnam into negotiations, the Americans bombarded aroundthe clock, the crescendo and decrescendo of bombardment tailored to NorthVietnam’s reactions. These air raids caused heavy losses and remarkable damages.Several aircrafts, including B52s were shot down by Soviet Land to Air missiles.The pilots were captured. Despite the bombings, North Vietnam was stillunwilling to sit down for peace talks.

During that time, the ARVN and the Marines Corps took part in joint ventureswith the US or Allied Troops, which were organized by the US Army or ARVN.

The Marine Task Force “A” participated in Operation “Junction City”,which was organized by the 25th American Infantry Division led by LieutenantGeneral Weyand. This operation was the largest in 1967, with about 10,000 troopsinvolved. It took place close to the Vietnam-Cambodian border in Tay NinhProvince. The results however, were not worth the effort of such a large scaleoperation because the Communists were able to retreat across the Cambodianborder. After the operation, Lieutenant General Weyand gave an AR15 to theMarine Task Force “A”. A later model – the M16, was supplied to the ARVN toreplace the Garant M1’s, which were slow and held fewer bullets. The M16’s couldcounter the enemy’s sophisticated AK 47 much better.

II. Tet Mau Than

1. The move from Qui Nhon to Saigon

At the end of 1967, the Marine Task Force “A” reinforced the 22ndInfantry Division stationed at Mt Ba Di (Qui Nhon). Later on, the Task Force“A” was ordered to move and deploy south of District Bong Son. Helicoptersupports came from the American Air Cavalry Division positioned at Nhong Pass,which was 5km from the Task Force Headquarters. The Task Force’s area ofactivities expanded essentially east and west of District of Hoai An. TheMilitary situation was rather calm, and was well within the capacity of theregional forces. Thus the Marine Task Force “A” had a leisurely time gettingready for the coming Lunar New Year in February of 1968 (Tet Mau Than). It wasrare that the Marines had the chance to enjoy the one of the most sacredholidays with their families. Generally, they had to celebrate by themselvessomewhere out at the fronts.

Each year, no matter what the conditions were, the South Vietnamese and the“National Front for the Liberation of the South” would agree to 2-3 days ofceasefire so that the people could celebrate Tet. Units at the front would stopfighting, but were always ready to to react if the Communists violated thecease-fire. In 1968, this problem did arise.

On the very first day of the Mau Than Lunar New Year, I was aware of astrange silence which was in contrast to the other days. The Helicopters andAmerican Air Calvary were grounded, which was unusual. I had expected them to beup and about, carrying out their duties. The American advisor was himself,ignorant of what was going on.

Suddenly, the Marine Task Force received orders from the 22nd InfantryDivision to prepare truck transportation to the city of Qui Nhon. The VCs hadinfiltrated into the city and were occupying the radio station and near-byareas. At the headquarters of the 22nd Infantry Division, the Marine Task ForceA was told that a South Korean Tiger Division had intervened and had quicklydislodged the enemy. Practically all the VC involved had been captured. The TaskForce waited for new orders. At mid-day it was moved to Qui Nhon airfield to beairlifted. The 6th Battalion was airlifted first by C-130 to Camly airfield inDa Lat. The Task Force Commanding Staff and another battalion awaited furtherorders. The VC had apparently seized the area around Camly, and anti-aircraftweapons were preventing the planes from landing. Instead, they had to land atTuy Hoa Airfield . From there, the 6th Marine battalion was under orders to flyto Saigon and landed at Tan Son Nhut Air base. The situation in the Capital wasalready safe, because the Marine Task Force B, commanded by Lieutenant ColonelTon That Soan , which had been performing military activities in My Tho was sentto deal with enemy detected around the Joint General Staff Headquarters, theHang Sanh area, and the Cay Thi T junction in Gia Dinh province. The 6thBattalion was ordered by the Marine Corps Headquarters to advance to Thu DucDistrict and to the vicinity of the Marine Training Centre close to Di Andistrict. The Marine Task Force “A” Staff and the remaining battalion wereairlifted to Saigon.

The Communists were completely routed, and the security in the capital andits suburbs was guaranteed. A few VC managed to make to their sanctuaries.

2. The Marine Task Force A’s participation in liberating the ImperialCitadel.

Only two days after arriving in Saigon, the Marine Task Force A was orderedby the Marine Corps Headquarters and the Joint General Staff to reinforce ICorps’ First Infantry Division, stationed at Mang Ca, within the ImperialCitadel. With help from the US Air Force, the whole Task Force was airlifted byC-130 to Phu Bai Airbase (Hue). The force was composed of three MarineBattalions, one 105mm Howitzer Artillery Company, and supporting unit consistingof Signal, Combat Engineers and Logistics. The Artillery of the 1st InfantryDivision was to support the Marine Artillery. The number of participating troopsnumbered 3,000 soldiers. The 1st Marine Battalion was commanded by Major PhanVan Thang, the 4th by Major Vuong, the 5th by Major Pham Nha.

At Phu Bai, the Task Force temporarily stationed close to the Dong DaMilitary Training Centre. The Staff positioned inside the Training Centre werewaiting for orders form the 1st Infantry Division. During the waiting time, theTask Force let Marine Battalions practice with the new M16 and M60 machine guns.It was like sharpening swords before the duel. The weather in Hue at the timewas cold and drizzly. The sky was heavily overcast. I was told by the TrainingCenter’s Officers that the situation was rather bleak.

The Communists had occupied areas from the Government Building to the PhuCam. They were also on one side of Perfume River and the inner Citadel as well.Only the stretch from Fort Mang Ca to Lake Tinh Tam in the South and theairfield west of the Citadel were still in the hands of the 1st InfantryDivision and an Airborne Battalion. I contacted several refugees from Phu Camwho told me that the Communists had massacred many people suspected of workingfor the Government. Numerous young adults and teenagers asked me to let themfollow the Marines to fight the enemy. Everybody was happy to see our arrival asreinforcement. This time, there was non of the uncooperativeness that theMarines encountered in Hue when they came to suppress the Buddhist Rebellion inCentral Vietnam. Facing such a situation, I found that the assigned task was notthat easy to fulfill. The terrain in and around theCitadel made it difficult to attack. The enemy could utilize the wall fordefense. The bad weather was not at all favorable for aircrafts. The mainpsychological obstacle was the Citadel, which was an important historical andcultural monument. Thus fire power was held back to limit the damage to themonument.

After two days, and American Marine Chinook airlifted me to Fort Mang Ca tomeet Brigadier General Ngo quang Truong, commander of the 1st Infantry Division.The helicopter had to fly eastward out to sea, then turned in the Bao Vinhdirection. The anti-aircraft firepower wasn’t particularly strong, and so thehelicopter landed on a helipad north of Fort Mang Ca safely. Jumping out of it,I saw that another helicopter had not been as fortunate, and was grounded. Closeby were a number of wounded Airborne soldiers awaiting medevac to Phu Bai. Onseeing me, their faces lit up with joy. The Chinook then took them back to PhuBai, from which they were transported back to Saigon.

A waiting jeep took me to the Infantry Division Headquarters. Entering thetwo-storied house build by the French colonizers, I immediately met Colonel PhamVan Phu, the executive commander of the Division. An old friend, he hugged mecheerfully and said: “Now that you’ve come, I feel much more confident.”Before we could continue with the conversation, enemy 122mm rockets exploded inthe yard, a mere 100 meters away. It was a welcoming salute – or rather apreemptive slap in our faces. I went upstairs to report to Brigadier General NgoQuang Truong. He too was pleased to see me, but being the reticent type, he didnot show it. We were not strangers, as the Marines and the Airborne were veryclose and met often. It usually happened that as one group alighted fromaircrafts, the other would be ready to board it. Moreover, when he was theCommander of the 5th Airborne Division, I commanded the 2nd Marine Battalion andthe two use to rotate in areas of responsibility. We were also classmates in ThuDuc Military School for Reserve Officers.

After enquiring about my unit, he briefed me on the situation of the enemy,and gave me the order to liberate the area southwest of the Citadel from Tay Locto the Imperial Palace. Then I went to see the Division Staff to collect otherimportant information before boarding the helicopter to go back to Phu Bai. Theanti-aircraft activity was much less intense.

Back from my trip, I explained situation to the Marine Battalion Commanders.I gave them orders to move to the old French Governor’s Building the followingday, where they were to board landing-crafts that would take them to Bao VinhPort, north east of Fort Mang Ca.

The next day, the Task Force was transported by military trucks to theboarding area of the landing craft units. The enemy on the other side of thePerfume River near Dong Ba Market did not react. The Fleet sailed to sea, thenturned towards Port Bao Vinh, which was still in ARVN hands. From there, theTask Force advanced along the north of the Citadel wall to enter the North westgate of the Mang Ca Fort (next to Nguyen Tri Phuong Military Hospital), whichhad previously been occupied by the Airborne unit. The Task Force was then toexit via the fort’s main gate.   

Once through the gate, the 4th Marine Battalion turned right to thenorth-west of the Citadel – close to gate Tay Loc. The Task Force Staff and the1st and the 5th Marine Battalions moved past Tinh Tam Lake to turn right, in thedirection of the Ordnance camp, which was situated southwest of the airfieldinside the Citadel.

When we approached the South Gate of the Imperial Palace (where the King hadlived), it was my intention to use artillery to destroy the locked gate to allow a unit to enter. Ipondered over it, finally abandoning the idea as the terrain and the high wallswere in favor of the enemy. We reached the military mechanical camp withoutincident. The Task Force Staff set up camp there. The 1st Marine Battalion wasto fight along the Wall to the main target: the Palace Gate. The 5th Marine wasto fight along the Citadel Wall to occupy the southern corner which looked ontothe Thien Long T-junction. The weather was still bad – overcast and rainy,greatly hampering our movements.

When our units approached the walls, the enemy started to open fire.Simultaneously, some NVA 122mm rockets launchers positioned at Phu Cam firedsalvos at the Task Force’s Location. We answered with the Artillery, but heldourselves in check for fear of damaging the monument. Our units advanced veryslowly, as there were many open spaces. We had to traverse through citizenshouses surrounded by barb wire. The enemy hid in deep trenches under the foot ofthe wall and within fortifications. Individual rifles could not cause any harmto them, so we only used hand grenades , M72 grenade launchers, and 57mmrecoilless rifles. The artillery was ineffectual. After a short engagement, the5th Marine Battalion succeeded ion climbing up to the wall.

It was captured a number of enemy weapons including mortars and machine gunsin the first few hours. The Battle dragged on for days, during which units ofthe Task Force moved ever so slowly, held back by strong enemy resistance.

The 5th Marine Battalion was once dislodged from the upper part of the wallbut it managed to reoccupy it again. Sometimes NVA from Phu Cam fired 122mmrockets on request from their comrades inside the Citadel. Their radiocommunications were intercepted by the Marine Task Force which knew exactly whensalvos were expected and duly warned the units. To paralyze the enemy artillerybatteries positioned at the foot of the wall, a US Marine Unit which had come toreinforce in Thuong Tu and Dong Ba, sent us an “Ontos’ car equipped with six75mm cannons. As a result, we could partly limit the enemy firepower. Helicoptergunship could not intervene because of bad whether and anti-aircraft activities.On a number of occasions, American advisers suggested seeking support fromAmerican artillery positions at An lo. However, this was only sought a couple oftimes – the main reason being that the long distance led to inaccurate firing,and the Vietnamese Marines were sometimes hit by accident.

Meanwhile, at Gate Tay Loc, units of the 3rd Infantry Regiment , led byLieutenant Colonel Phan Ba Hoa, and the 4th Marine Battalion in the north-westwere in similar situations to ours. Fighting progressed like a tug of war, andthey were unable to dislodge the enemy from the wall. The number of woundedsoldiers increase day by day, overloading the Mang Ca Hospital. It wasimpossible to evacuate those killed-in-action (KIAs), so they had to be wrappedup in ponchos and buried in a cemetery outside the Citadel.

At Gate Thuong Tu and Dong Ba, US Marine forces with their strong firepowerhad partly destroyed the gates and pushed the NVA back in the direction of thepalace’s main gate (where the flagpole was). It was likely that the NVA hadreceived orders to retreat westerly to avoid being isolated if the Nha Do Gatewas occupied. Beside the US Marine forces, the Black Panther Company of the 1stInfantry Division participated in the push towards the flagpole.

After a week, the NVA at the Tay Loc Gate fought back fiercely and repulsedthe 3rd Infantry Regiment to the airstrip inside the Citadel. Eventually theregiment, supported by a reserve unit of the 5th Marine Battalion managed todrive them back to the initial position. The pressure exerted by the 4th MarineBattalion and the 3rd Infantry Regiment increased steadily, forcing the enemy toflee through the gate toward Kim Long. Under strong fire support that includedfirepower from the heavy recoilless rifles of the US Marine Forces, the 1st andthe 5th Marine Battalions tightened the encirclement, by advancing slowlytowards the wall towards the Nha Do Gate. The aim of the attack on this targetwas to block the escape route to the NVA forces, who were still strugglingagainst the US Marines in the east of the Citadel.

Finally, all enemy forces gathered to Nha Do to avoid being totallyannihilated. Early in the morning, the enemy deceitfully intensified their firesas if they were forging a counter -attack. Anticipating the trick, I had givenan order to my units to storm their positions at daybreak. Most of them had fledto the outside through the Nha Do Gate. Their rear contingent was decimated orcaptured. Many weapons were seized. When the 5th Marine Battalion overran theNha Do Gate, they saw several dead NVA still holding their machine guns, full ofunspent ammunition.

In the meantime, the Panther Company of the 1st Infantry Division and the USMarine units moved towards the Flagpole of the main gate. The Republic ofVietnam’s flag was raised to replace that of the Communists.

The battle to liberate the Citadel ended. About one enemy regiment managed toflee to Van Thanh. About 100 NVA were killed, and 15 captured. After about amonth and a half of fighting, the Marine Task Force A had more than 100 woundedand killed in action.

After, the Marine Task Force A Staff moved to a school in Quoc Tu Giam tostation. All units had a few days of rest and restoration. At the new position,the Task Force was visited by General Cao Van Vien, Chief of the Joint GeneralStaff who came all the way from Saigon. As usual the battle conditions and thelosses were related. In the presence of General Cao Van Vien, Lieutenant GeneralLam, and Brigadier General Truong, I raised the question of promotions for thesoldiers. I made this special request as the process was dreadfully slow.Sometimes, it took 5 to 6 months for the decision to be reached, by which time,many of the would-be promoted soldiers would be dead. In my opinion, the processcould be improved; soldiers ought to be promoted on the spot, the paper workcould come in due course. In that way, the fighting morale of the combatantscould be vastly improved. General Vien took it into account and promised toorder his subordinates in the Joint General Staff to rectify the process on hisreturn to Saigon.

There was a tendency for unit staff at base camps to work perfunctorily intheir bureau, while the troops at the fronts struggled and sacrificed all theyhad. The ARVN was weakened by internal dissent. It is undeniable that manypeople were promoted because they were well-connected to the right factions,rather than because of their skills, fighting capacity or valor. This caused agreat deal of discontent amongst the soldiers.

After a few days of rest, the Task Force received orders to move and searchthe area north of Phu Bai Airbase. The enemy forces there were mostly regionalones, which had thinly dispersed westward from Phu Bai when Hue was liberated.As a result., the Task Force met no resistance at all. Civilians had returned totheir daily routine. A number of mass graves were discovered, holding the bodiesof those executed by the VC when they held the position. They were only some ofthe many mass graves made by the VC. More were discovered around the Schools atDong Ba, Gia Hoi, the road between the Temple of Van Thanh and Ashau Aluoi…Civilian properties in Tran Hung Dao Street and Gia Long Street were severelydamaged. Some days later, the Task Force moved to the Temple of Van Thanh in a“Search and Destroy” operation. The enemy suffered heavy losses andretreated to the mountainous areas of Ashau Aluoi. After a week, of performingmilitary activities, the Task Force was ordered by the Marine DivisionHeadquarters to return to its base in Saigon.

III. Tet II – Second Wave Of Attack

Although the VC had suffered heavily in the Tet Offensive, the first wave ofattack, they were supported by the NVA in a second wave of attack on somecities, especially in ChoLon, Saigon in May 1968. They dis not seem to mind theoutcome of the battle, and did not seem to care about the toll on themselves atthe end.

They just wanted the world to know that the Communists were still strong andstill causing a lot of trouble on the battlefield. The aim was to contradict theassessment made by the US Army – that we were winning the war, and that theCommunists were no longer able to fight in the South.

Before the 2nd wave of attack broke out, Intelligence did not yield anyinformation, as they had in the Tet offensive. The inefficient administrationand management of the South Vietnamese Intelligence Agencies added to theirsubjectivity. Their tendency to underestimate and dismiss the craftiness of theenemy allowed the VC to easily infiltrate into Saigon. It would have been betterto detect the enemy in good time so that they could be nipped in the bud. Peoplein charge of security and intelligence services at all levels did not fulfilltheir duties from the Tet Offensive to the 2nd Wave of Attack. A number shouldhave been disciplined rather than be promoted. The result was that civiliansbecame victims, and soldiers had to sacrifice their lives.

The attack was a two-pronged drive. The first prong started from the IronTriangle, passed through Lai Thieu District (Binh Duong Province) and across theSaigon River (at Binh Loi Bridge) to invade surrounding areas of sub districtGia Dinh and Dong Ong Co. The second one began in the Pineapple Forest (Districtof Duc Hue) and headed towards Cho Lon. Exploiting the darkness, and inattentionof the defensive forces outside the capital perimeter, one prong successfullyinfiltrated deep inside Cho Lon, the other to Cay Thi T-junction in the subdistrict of Gia Dinh.

The next morning, the Marine Task Force A  was sent to repel the enemy.The Task Force Brigade A Staff had been in R & R after coming back from anoperation in Can Tho in IV Corps Tactical Zone.

The Task Force Staff was positioned in a vacant two story house, next to thepetrol station at the Cay Thi T-Junction. Helicopters could land on top of thehouse. The 1st Marine Battalion fought house to house along streets wherepremises were completely occupied by the enemy, right up to the Gia Dinh SportsStadium. All household occupants had fled the previous night. The 6th MarineBattalion pushed forward in Dong Ong Co and the Bang Ky Bridge area. To minimizehurting the civilians still trapped in the area, and to reduce damage toproperties, all units had to fight house by house without calling on the help ofthe Artillery, Armor or Air force. A unit of Special Force participated in thebattle.

This kind of warfare had been rare, and commanders and soldiers alike had tohave an understanding of urban warfare. Most of the Vietnamese marine Officerswere trained at Marine Basic School in the USA, so they overcame the situationeasily, As a result, we drove back the invaders to the outside perimeter of thecapital without much difficulty. In contrast, the enemy lacked experience andwere unfamiliar with the roads and streets in the city.

One night, some VC walked straight into the Task Force’s location . Whilethey were trying to orientate themselves, they were shot down by Marinesprotecting the Task Force Staff. None of them were heavily armed, carrying onlytheir individual AK 47 and a bandoleer of ammunition. They wore shorts withoutshirts, and had a rubber tube from a bicycle tire on their shoulders. They hadprobably been separated from their unit and were trying to rejoin it. In DongOng Co, the terrain was clear and had fewer houses, so we were able to useaircraft and helicopter gunship to destroy the enemy fortified bunkers lyingdeep under ground. Some days later, the 6th Marine Battalion managed to masterthe battlefield, forcing the enemy to retreat to a village near Bang Ky bridge.

Anticipating their intention to escape in the direction of Binh Loi bridge,the Marine Task Force, ordered the 6th Battalion to block the way and directedthe 1st battalion to besiege them. The Task Force Staff used megaphones to urgethem to surrender. Finally, after realizing that it was impossible to escape,they surrendered to us in small groups. They had to hand over their weapons. Onekid, barely a teenager, was ignorant of the protocols. On seeing him coming outto surrender, I said: ” Where is your weapon?” ” I’ll be right back.” Heran back and delivered his AK47 to the Marines.

I felt sorry for them. Interrogation revealed that all of them wereexceedingly young, and had all been recently conscripted in the North. That waswhy, they had not known what to do during the battle, and behaved in the mannerof a country bumpkin in the city. They also revealed that their superiors hadtold them to go down South to take over from the people who had alreadyoverthrown the South Vietnamese Government. Some of the 150 who surrendered werewounded.

I transferred them over to the Task Force Headquarters to be taken care of -the wound by doctors and medicos, and the rest by G2 for further interrogation.I ordered the subordinates to treat them decently, to feed them, give themcigarettes and allow them to relax. Before handing them over to the CapitalMilitary Zone Headquarters, I let them ride in the military trucks which drovealong several streets under Marine Military Police protection. South Vietnamesecivilians on both sides of the streets cheerfully applauded us.

Meanwhile, in Cho Lon, Ranger Forces and a Marine Battalion had repelled theenemy out of Phu Lam. On the same day, a tragedy occurred. An Americanhelicopter gunship accidentally fired rockets at a house where the Staff of theCapital Military Zone were attending a briefing, and killed some high-rankedofficers. Prior to the accident, Lieutenant General Le Nguyen Khang, LieutenantColonel Dao Ba Phuoc of the Rangers, and a Psywar Team visited my department. Ashe was leaving, Lieutenant Colonel Khang said to me: “You may come with me toCho Lon for the briefing if you wish…” I declined since I was too busy. ButRanger Lieutenant Colonel Dao Ba Phuoc was killed.

The 2nd Wave of attack on Saigon ended when the NVAsurrendered at Gia Dinh and Cho Lon. Marine losses were considered light afterthe week of fighting. After being routed, the Communists’ strength seemed towane, and we became masters of the battlefield.

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