Vietnam, 1968: Recalling The Tet Offensive


On the night of Jan. 30, 1968, Bucky Burruss watched fireworks soar over the coastal city of Nha Trang to welcome the Vietnamese New Year known as Tet. Burruss, a young Army special forces officer, was witnessing his first such celebration. Old-timers told him to expect a good show. As he sat on sandbags looking toward the town, the fireworks died down and appeared to start up again. “But there were explosions mixed in with it,” recalled Burruss, now 76, a resident of Hayes. “Not just firecrackers, but a lot of green tracers. We thought, ‘Hmm. This ain’t good.’ ” (Fifty years later, Vietnam veterans recall the Tet Offensive)

rvn 67-1On that same evening 53 years ago, I was a scant half mile away in the Long Van area. The Vietnamese had begun their Lunar New Year with celebrations and the traditional entreaties to the Jade Emperor and his Heavenly Cohorts for peace, love, and universal concord. But–as a barrage of incoming mortar and rocket fire would soon make apparent–not all of ’em were that interested.

By two a.m., there were spotter planes circling the city with loudspeakers beseeching the celebrants to 86 the pyrotechnics so the good guys could locate the direction of the enemy fire. Meanwhile, our supply sergeant and his minions busied themselves ferrying cases of ammunition to those of us nervously manning our perimeter. Viet Cong sappers had come ashore from sampans in Nha Trang Bay, and were assaulting the 1st Field Force and other compounds along the Beach Road, while elements of the 18B NVA regiment had commandeered Long Son Pagoda and Buddha Hill, and were creating mayhem in the city proper.

“…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…

[…] 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.” (John Prados, Tet In II Corps)

tetAs the new day dawned and the widespread scope of the attacks became clear, we were ordered to prepare for a full scale enemy assault that evening.  Evacuations of nearby ARVN dependents were underway, and the military was relocating its large transport planes to more secure runways at Cam Rahn Bay, about 30 klicks south. Rumors abounded, the most disconcerting of which posited a million Red Chinese troops salivating at the DMZ over the opportunity to start massacring Yankees. It was time to start reviewing the wisdom of my decision to relocate here from Germany. There was no such thing as a secure area in this country anymore. As my partner in the gun tower, a drafted grunt from the 196th Light Infantry, who’d been TDY’d to us while recovering from a minor wound incurred in the Bad Bush, bitterly remarked, “Man, they told me it was gonna be safe here! Now half the f**kin’ North Vietnamese Army’s out there!”

Anticipation is a marvelous thing when you’re contemplating food or fornication. It ain’t so great when you’ve been told that large numbers of strangers are on their way to kill you. I was supposed to be “in the rear with the gear”, not peering down the barrel of an M-60 machine gun, a weapon I’d fired only once in my life–a year earlier–during a training exercise at the big NATO base in Grafenwohr.

Tracer rounds were starting to zip by overhead. Red ones. Red tracers were supposed to be ours!  Xin lỗi, buddy–sorry ’bout that.

Our gunships were out stalking, their weapons growling and lethal, ricochets sparking up into the dark like angry fireflies. To our front, a relentless cacophony of automatic weapons fire and explosions was drawing closer. My nerves were jangling. I was 19 years old, and I very much wanted to see 20.

As it transpired, much of the frightful din was being caused by soldiers from the Korean White Horse Division, a blocking force from which was efficiently exterminating the approaching enemy, an enemy handicapped by the fact that one of their supporting columns had gotten turned around near the Song Cai causeway and never made it into the fray. The Koreans were hardened and ruthless, and they did not much like the Vietnamese. In the smoke-shrouded morning, they beat an NVA prisoner to death with sandbags they had swiped from our berm. On the slopes of the Dong Bo mountains, and in the paddy fields fronting 5th Special Forces, enterprising civilians were already out 5SFGsalvaging parachutes from the previous night’s flare drops. In Nha Trang City, the communist political cadres who had ordered the executions of dozens of citizens they deemed collaborators began their withdrawal, leaving behind the corpses of barbers and bar girls and cyclo drivers and laundresses. The Reds were retreating. Their revolution had failed, but their war would be won by default.

See also:

The Midnight Ride of the South China Sea Surfing Association

Tet ’68

Walter Cronkite And The Way It Wasn’t

The Tet Offensive Revisited: Media’s Big Lie

About Bob Mack

Retired since 2003. Military Service: U.S. Army, 36th Artillery Group, Babenhausen, Germany 1966-67; 1st Signal Brigade, Republic of Vietnam, 1967-68 Attended University of Miami, 1969-73
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