Large 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.

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.

He wondered what another Ontos was doing up there. Another tank/Ontos team had already been there and done their thing. No one had said anything about another Ontos. He heard the screaming, high-revolution engine straining toward phase line black, and knew that something wasn't right. And then he saw it. It was another Ontos, all right, only this one had gotten its orders screwed up. It screamed and slammed to a stop at the intersection, pointed right at the house that the American fire team had just entered. There was no time for slow-motion cameras; before he could even scream out one word, the Ontos had fired of all six of its recoilless rounds.

He wondered what another Ontos was doing up there. Another tank/Ontos team had already been there and done their thing. No one had said anything about another Ontos. He heard the screaming, high-revolution engine straining toward phase line black, and knew that something wasn't right. And then he saw it. It was another Ontos, all right, only this one had gotten its orders screwed up. It screamed and slammed to a stop at the intersection, pointed right at the house that the American fire team had just entered. There was no time for slow-motion cameras; before he could even scream out one word, the Ontos had fired of all six of its recoilless rounds.

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.

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.

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.