Major Battles

North Vietnamese strategists wisely avoided large head-on confrontations with U.S. military forces. The industrially backward Vietnamese were no match against the firepower available to U.S. ground forces and had little protection from American bombers and gunships. Yet, there were exceptions. In 1965, North Vietnamese forces stood toe-to-toe with U.S. airborne infantry at Ia Drang. In 1968 they launched a full-blown offensive, with no less of a goal than to topple the South Vietnamese government.

The Battle of Hue was by far the biggest North Vietnamese success of the Tet Offensive, and it was the primary thrust of the offensive. The People's Army of Vietnam had amassed 10,000 troops outside Hue to take that city. In Saigon, which was probably the second biggest clash of the Tet Offensive, they had hundreds of troops, but nothing on the order of what they had outside of Hue on the eve of the battle. The reason for that was the cultural significance of Hue and the fact that it was vulnerable. The North Vietnamese surely knew it would be a lot harder to throw the Americans out of Saigon than it would be to take the city of Hue.

The Battle of Hue was by far the biggest North Vietnamese success of the Tet Offensive, and it was the primary thrust of the offensive. The People's Army of Vietnam had amassed 10,000 troops outside Hue to take that city. In Saigon, which was probably the second biggest clash of the Tet Offensive, they had hundreds of troops, but nothing on the order of what they had outside of Hue on the eve of the battle. The reason for that was the cultural significance of Hue and the fact that it was vulnerable. The North Vietnamese surely knew it would be a lot harder to throw the Americans out of Saigon than it would be to take the city of Hue.

The fact that Charlie Company had began fighting immediately upon its arrival had kept troops on the southern perimeter from digging good foxholes and clearing good fields of fire through the tall, surrounding grass. The men had hastily dug shallow holes that protected them only if they laid prone. Now there was time for digging better holes, but they were prevented from doing so by the strict noise discipline ordered at nightfall, to prevent the sounds of digging from giving away the American positions or to muffle the sounds of enemy movements. Reinforcements on their right flank had done what they could to dig in, but it was hard going because the tangle of tree roots and rocks just beneath the surface.

The fact that Charlie Company had began fighting immediately upon its arrival had kept troops on the southern perimeter from digging good foxholes and clearing good fields of fire through the tall, surrounding grass. The men had hastily dug shallow holes that protected them only if they laid prone. Now there was time for digging better holes, but they were prevented from doing so by the strict noise discipline ordered at nightfall, to prevent the sounds of digging from giving away the American positions or to muffle the sounds of enemy movements. Reinforcements on their right flank had done what they could to dig in, but it was hard going because the tangle of tree roots and rocks just beneath the surface.

When he learned that Americans back home believed they were losing the war, he, like others in the platoon, were incredulous. They were decimating the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army units. Before the Tet Offensive, the Viet Cong had often vanished after short, intense firefights. Now they were taking a stand to slug it out, and consequently were suffering large casualties. Some forty thousand North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers were now dead, compared to some four thousand U.S. forces. Yet, there was old Johnson himself staring into the TV camera, acting grim and giving up, quitting, kaput. He no longer wanted to be President.

When he learned that Americans back home believed they were losing the war, he, like others in the platoon, were incredulous. They were decimating the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army units. Before the Tet Offensive, the Viet Cong had often vanished after short, intense firefights. Now they were taking a stand to slug it out, and consequently were suffering large casualties. Some forty thousand North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers were now dead, compared to some four thousand U.S. forces. Yet, there was old Johnson himself staring into the TV camera, acting grim and giving up, quitting, kaput. He no longer wanted to be President.

Within seconds of his arrival, Colonel Partain learned a reality of fighting in the Central Highlands: The triple-canopy jungle prevented the commander from seeing anything on the ground. He had no idea where his men were or where the North Vietnamese units were. He could depend only on the coordinates that had been relayed. Partain called in an air strike. In order to bring in the "fast movers", the artillery had to be shifted out while the planes were in the area. Not everyone agreed that air strikes should be used. Because they were less accurate than artillery, the North Vietnamese knew that the closer they moved towards an allied unit, the safer they were.

Within seconds of his arrival, Colonel Partain learned a reality of fighting in the Central Highlands: The triple-canopy jungle prevented the commander from seeing anything on the ground. He had no idea where his men were or where the North Vietnamese units were. He could depend only on the coordinates that had been relayed. Partain called in an air strike. In order to bring in the "fast movers", the artillery had to be shifted out while the planes were in the area. Not everyone agreed that air strikes should be used. Because they were less accurate than artillery, the North Vietnamese knew that the closer they moved towards an allied unit, the safer they were.

Success of the "General Uprising" was a precondition for the success of the "General Offensive". The plan was for attacking forces in South Vietnamese urban centers to act as catalysts, not as main battle forces to seize and hold ground. The Communists were hoping that the South Vietnamese masses would either help to hold key objectives and spontaneously overthrow the government, or at least create overwhelming chaos in the cities. The Viet Cong assault teams that were told to wait for reinforcements were pinned down, waiting for troops that not only never arrived, but were never even allocated. Tet Offensive planners simply assumed that they would be mobilized from the rising masses.

Success of the "General Uprising" was a precondition for the success of the "General Offensive". The plan was for attacking forces in South Vietnamese urban centers to act as catalysts, not as main battle forces to seize and hold ground. The Communists were hoping that the South Vietnamese masses would either help to hold key objectives and spontaneously overthrow the government, or at least create overwhelming chaos in the cities. The Viet Cong assault teams that were told to wait for reinforcements were pinned down, waiting for troops that not only never arrived, but were never even allocated. Tet Offensive planners simply assumed that they would be mobilized from the rising masses.

Early in December 1967, some of the villagers started asking for sandbags. When asked what they needed sandbags for, they laughed and made some inane comments. Daylight patrols were told to enter houses to learn what was going on. Not only were the sandbags being filled and used within the houses, but the villagers were actually digging in. In every house that was checked, bunkers large enough to provide shelter for an entire family had been dug and reinforced. The USMC Sergeant had a feeling there were going to be many visitors. Their proximity to the large Marine combat base at Phu Bai made them a likely target. The new year, 1968, began with a noticeable increase in enemy activity.

Early in December 1967, some of the villagers started asking for sandbags. When asked what they needed sandbags for, they laughed and made some inane comments. Daylight patrols were told to enter houses to learn what was going on. Not only were the sandbags being filled and used within the houses, but the villagers were actually digging in. In every house that was checked, bunkers large enough to provide shelter for an entire family had been dug and reinforced. The USMC Sergeant had a feeling there were going to be many visitors. Their proximity to the large Marine combat base at Phu Bai made them a likely target. The new year, 1968, began with a noticeable increase in enemy activity.

Attack on Hill 881N, January 20, 1968: A squad was providing security for a medevac landing zone. As a CH-46 helicopter approached the zone, it was hit by an antiaircraft weapon and immediately caught fire. The pilot, apparently wanting to avoid crash-landing a burning aircraft in an LZ where several severely wounded men were staged, veered off into a gulley and made a controlled crash-landing close to the source of the antiaircraft fire. Without waiting for orders, the security force immediately and spontaneously rose and charged down the hill toward the burning aircraft, where they extricated all of the Marines from the helicopter before it burst into flames.

Attack on Hill 881N, January 20, 1968: A squad was providing security for a medevac landing zone. As a CH-46 helicopter approached the zone, it was hit by an antiaircraft weapon and immediately caught fire. The pilot, apparently wanting to avoid crash-landing a burning aircraft in an LZ where several severely wounded men were staged, veered off into a gulley and made a controlled crash-landing close to the source of the antiaircraft fire. Without waiting for orders, the security force immediately and spontaneously rose and charged down the hill toward the burning aircraft, where they extricated all of the Marines from the helicopter before it burst into flames.