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Viet Cong attack U.S. Embassy

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On this day in 1968, as part of the Tet Offensive, a squad of Viet Cong guerillas attacks the U.S. The soldiers seized the embassy and held it for six hours until an assault force of U.S. paratroopers landed by helicopter on the building’s roof and routed the Viet Cong.

The Tet Offensive was planned as a massive, simultaneous attack on the major cities and provincial capitals of South Vietnam. It was scheduled to take place during Tet, the Vietnamese lunar New Year celebration, which was traditionally a time of decreased fighting. In December 1967, following an attack on the U.S. Marine base at Khe Sanh, 50,000 American troops were sent in to defend the area, thereby weakening U.S. positions elsewhere. This American response played into the Viet Cong’s strategy to clear the way for the surprise Tet Offensive, in which Communist forces attacked Saigon, Hue (the imperial capital) and over 100 other urban areas.

The timing and magnitude of the attacks caught the South Vietnamese and American forces off guard, although they quickly recovered and recaptured the occupied areas. Militarily, the Tet Offensive was a disaster for the Communists, who suffered devastating losses. However, while the offensive was a crushing military defeat, the Communists scored a huge psychological victory that would ultimately help them win the war. The graphic images of U.S. casualties suffered during the offensive helped stoke anti-war sentiment among the American people, who had grown tired of the long conflict (active U.S. combat troops had been in Vietnam since 1965; the U.S. first sent in military advisers in 1961). The public was disillusioned by earlier overly optimistic reports of progress in the war and disenchanted with President Lyndon Johnson’s handling of it.

Johnson, frustrated with his inability to reach a solution in Vietnam, announced on March 31, 1968, that he would neither seek nor accept the nomination of his party for re-election. General William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, requested an additional 206,000 troops to finish off the weakened enemy forces. Johnson denied Westmoreland’s request and replaced him with General Creighton Abrams. In May 1968, the U.S. and North Vietnamese began peace talks in Paris and reached a formal agreement in January 1973. Fighting between the North and South continued in Vietnam before the war finally ended on April 30, 1975, when Saigon fell to the Communists and the last Americans left Vietnam.

READ MORE: Vietnam War Timeline

Viet Cong

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Viet Cong (VC), in full Viet Nam Cong San, English Vietnamese Communists, the guerrilla force that, with the support of the North Vietnamese Army, fought against South Vietnam (late 1950s–1975) and the United States (early 1960s–1973). The name is said to have first been used by South Vietnamese Pres. Ngo Dinh Diem to belittle the rebels.

Though beginning in the mid-1950s as a collection of various groups opposed to the government of President Diem, the Viet Cong became in 1960 the military arm of the National Liberation Front (NLF). In 1969 the NLF joined other groups in the areas of South Vietnam that were controlled by the Viet Cong to form the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG). The movement’s principal objectives were the overthrow of the South Vietnamese government and the reunification of Vietnam.

The early insurgent activity in South Vietnam against Diem’s government was initially conducted by elements of the Hoa Hao and Cao Dai religious sects. After 1954 they were joined by former elements of the southern Viet Minh, a communist-oriented nationalist group. The overwhelming majority of the Viet Cong were subsequently recruited in the South, but they received weapons, guidance, and reinforcements from North Vietnamese Army soldiers who had infiltrated into South Vietnam. During the Tet Offensive of 1968, the Viet Cong suffered devastating losses, and their ranks were later filled primarily by North Vietnamese soldiers. For the most part, the Viet Cong fought essentially a guerrilla war of ambush, terrorism, and sabotage they used small units to maintain a hold on the countryside, leaving the main population centres to government authorities.

Under terms of the agreement reached at the peace negotiations held in Paris in 1971–73, the PRG won acknowledgment of its authority in areas under its control, pending general elections to determine the future of South Vietnam. The peace agreement soon broke down, however, as both the South Vietnamese government and the PRG began trying to improve their military and territorial positions at each other’s expense. Following the full-scale North Vietnamese invasion of South Vietnam and the subsequent rapid collapse of the government of South Vietnamese Pres. Nguyen Van Thieu in the spring of 1975, the PRG assumed power as the government of South Vietnam. The following year, when reunification of the country was accomplished, the PRG joined other political groups in forming a National United Front. Real governmental power was subsequently exercised by the Vietnamese Communist Party and its North Vietnamese leadership.

Under Attack and on the Line

Despite an atmosphere of extreme tension, I found I was able to communicate with the outside world. From the fourth floor communications room, I placed and received innumerable telephone calls to and from the White House Situation Room, the State Department Operations Center (where I had previously worked) and the U.S. Military Assistance Command Center near Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Airport.

An American civilian telephone operator skillfully weeded out nuisance and nonessential calls. I spoke regularly to embassy officers at the offsite command post set up for Amb. Bunker. Civilian and military callers from near and far wanted to know the exact state of play. Were there any enemy fighters inside the building? How close could hovering helicopters get to the embassy roof (designed as a helipad), and how much ground fire were they drawing? At one point I just held up the phone so the caller could hear the rockets crashing into the building.

As the siege wore on, we pleaded with the U.S. military command for relief. We were told an armored column was on its way. It never arrived. One helicopter finally managed to land on the roof and evacuate the wounded Marine, whom we had carried up to the helipad.

The same chopper also off-loaded two cases of M-16 tracer ammunition, a move I assumed had some purpose I had not divined: there were no M-16s in the building. To my consternation I also discovered that two armed American military personnel, including a Marine whose presence on the roof I had not previously detected, took off in the helicopter—leaving the lone Marine on the ground floor and us few civilians to fend for ourselves.

Almost six hours after the attack had begun, I went again to the roof and was greeted unexpectedly by a platoon of heavily armed paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division. They insisted their orders were to secure the embassy floor by floor, starting at the top, despite my assurances that there were no Viet Cong in the building. By the time they reached the ground floor, the shooting had stopped—18 of the Viet Cong sappers had been killed by military policemen, Marine guards and civilian security personnel firing into the compound, and two were taken prisoner. Dead bodies littered the compound.

“Viet Cong Invade American Embassy” — The 1968 Tet Offensive

On Jan. 30, 1968, Vietnamese communists attacked the American embassy in Saigon. For several hours they held the embassy grounds, inflicting injury and damage and trapping a small group of U.S. military and diplomatic personnel within the embassy. The assailants failed ever to enter the building, and all of them ultimately were killed or captured. This was part of the broader Tet offensive, a military campaign that carried the Vietnam War from the countryside into cities and towns.

In strictly military terms the assault on the embassy, and indeed the broader offensive failed. The attackers occupied the embassy compound and caused considerable damage but never succeeded in entering the building itself. All of the attackers were killed or captured. But the Vietnam War never was entirely military. Americans had been told — and many then still believed — that the war was being won. How, then, could a supposedly ragtag guerrilla army suddenly assault the citadel and symbol of America’s presence in Vietnam, the very building from which the daily war- progress reports flowed?

“Viet Cong Invade American Embassy.” That incident (and those headlines and TV images) stuck in the American public consciousness, and no future body counts, pacification plans, presidential promises of victory, or even genuine military gains could ever quite dislodge it. The Vietnam War had been waged through much of the 1960s and was to bleed on for another seven years before Saigon’s final collapse. But the U.S. war effort may well have been doomed — politically and psychologically — by the events of that January night.

What follows is the account of E. Allan Wendt, a Foreign Service officer who was on duty at the embassy that night. His report, written soon after the attack and then classified for years was originally published by The Wall Street Journal (which also wrote this introduction and the opening paragraphs below) on November 3-4, 1981. It is reprinted with their permission.

The account was written merely as one participant’s chronology of the night’s events at the embassy. But it also raises broader issues: the unpreparedness of the U.S. military machine for the Tet offensive the seeming chaos of a command structure in which generals (and the White House) were able to obtain instant situation reports from the embassy while the embattled defenders couldn’t get military support from colonels and majors a few miles away the very human reactions- from clear heroism to considerably less- of individuals caught up in crisis and the plaintive, perhaps symbolic, Vietnamese voice – that of the code clerk who, in the midst of battle, reported that he was on overtime and asked to go home.

This report, of course, is history. But history has a way of remaining relevant. The protection of American government facilities overseas, the reaction speed of U.S. military forces, the quality of American Intelligence, the play of politics and psychology in warfare- there are controversial issues in 1981, just as they were in 1968. Parenthetical notes of explanation and identification have been inserted by the [Wall Street Journal] editors. You can see a CBS video on Tet here.

You can read about how one FSO had to dress up as a priest to avoid killed during the Tet offensive and how he eventually reunited with his Vietnamese bride-to-be on Valentine’s Day.

Endangered Lives

I was asleep in room 433, the duty officer’s quarters, when the building was shaken by a loud explosion just before 3 a.m. I rolled out of bed and reached for the telephone. Automatic- weapons fire broke out. I called Mr. Calhoun at his home and told him the embassy was under attack. [John A. Calhoun was a political officer in the embassy.] As I was speaking, another explosion tore into the building. Recalling the need for shelter from falling debris in the event of a bomb explosion, I crawled under the bed while talking to Mr. Calhoun.

I emerged from under the bed just as [James A.] Griffin, who was on duty in the communications, came in and asked what was happening. I said I was not sure but I presumed the embassy was being attacked. I quickly dressed, gathered up my few personal possessions, and withdrew into the communications room next door, which was safer than the duty room and had more telephones. Neither of us could know the extent of the attack or whether the Viet Cong were already in the building. One of our first reactions, therefore, was to close the vault door to the communications room.

I called Mr. Calhoun’s residence, and by that time Mr. [David J.] Carpenter of the political section and Mr. [Gilbert H.] Sheinbaum, the ambassador’s aide, had reached the residence and set up a command post. I reported that I had moved into the communications room and should be called on extension 321 or 322. I told them I would pass information on to them as soon as I obtained it. I understood they would undertake to alert others, both in Saigon and elsewhere. It is worth noting that I had left the duty officer’s manual in Ambassador [Ellsworth Bunker’s] outer office on the third floor. I was not in the habit of taking it with me to the duty officer’s quarters, for I knew that much of the information in it was out of date. Even had this not been so, it contained little that would have helped in the crisis that had suddenly burst upon us.

Automatic weapons fire continued, interspersed with periodic louder explosions that we took to be rockets or mortars. All of the shooting and explosions seemed very near, so much so that we feared not only that penetration of the embassy was inevitable but that our lives were in imminent danger. Indeed, we thought our only hope lay in securing the vault door to the code room and simply staying inside. We knew it would take a very heavy charge to blow that door, but we did not exclude the possibility that the Viet Cong were capable of doing it.

We next called the extension of the Marine guard on the ground floor inside the embassy. I personally thought he must be dead. To my surprise, he answered, and although he was obviously very harassed, he was quite coherent. This was to be the first of many conversations with Sgt. [Ronald W.] Harper, who, despite his predicament, remained virtually our only source of information on what was happening in the compound.

Harper told us the VC [Viet Cong] were inside the compound but not in the embassy building itself. He said he could hear them talking outside the building. He did not know how many of them there were. A few minutes later Harper told us he had a wounded Marine on the ground floor. He asked us to come and get him.

Considerable Damage

With trepidation, I went downstairs in the elevator and stepped onto the ground floor. With the aid of Sgt. Harper, I picked up the wounded Marine and put him on the elevator. Griffin then came down and helped me assist him to the fourth floor. (Then, and always thereafter, we locked the elevators in place so that they could not be called down to the ground floor had the VC gotten into the building.) A hurried and fearful glance at the ground floor revealed that considerable damage had already been done. The situation of the one remaining Marine looked bleak. We carried the wounded man into the fourth floor duty room and placed him on the bed I had been sleeping in. He was covered in blood but did not appear to be critically wounded. His leg seemed broken and he was obviously suffering from shock. Unfortunately, none of us had any usable knowledge of first aid, and there was little we could do for him. He kept asking for a corpsman. We tried to call the 17 th field hospital but could not get through. We gave the wounded man some water and two Bufferin tablets, and I took his .38 revolver. It was the only weapon I had and I was to carry it with me for the next 5 1/2 hours.

I called Calhoun’s residence and passed on the above. I should note here that our communications all were working normally. I called Calhoun’s residence on many occasions and always got through except when the line was busy, which it frequently was.

I next called Dr. [Harold J.] Holleran, the embassy physician, and told him we needed medical assistance. He said that in view of all the shooting the best thing he could do was stay home.

At this point, to my knowledge, the following people were in the building: myself, Griffin, Sgt. Harper, Fisher [an Army communications man] and three OSA communications personnel, a total of seven, not including the wounded Marine. [OSA, which stands for Office of the Special Assistant, was the name the Central Intelligence Agency went under in Vietnam.]

About 4 a.m., Maj. Hudson, called. We gave him an account of the situation as we saw it. He had already heard about the wounded Marine and said a Medevac helicopter would arrive shortly to evacuate him. We were to take him to the roof and wait for the chopper. Only the Marine guard on the ground floor, however, had keys to the two doors through which one must pass to get from the sixth floor, where the elevators end, to the roof. We called Harper and told him we needed the keys. He said someone should ride the elevator downstairs, stay in the corner of it so as not to be directly in the line of fire, and he would throw the keys in. Fisher accomplished this task and was back in a few minutes.

For greater security, we had in the meantime moved the wounded Marine into the code room. Had the VC broken into the building, as we expected they might at any time, we would not have had enough time to rescue him in room 433.

We then set about the cumbersome job of getting the wounded man up to the roof. Fisher, who was armed with a .38 revolver and a shotgun, opened the doors to the roof, while I had not seen before and who turned out to be the OSA duty officer, carried the Marine into the elevator, up to the sixth floor and then up two more flights of stairs to the roof. When the Medevac chopper failed to appear, we took him back to the sixth floor and placed him next to the stairwell on the blood- soaked mattress that had been in room 433. The Marine resisted leaving. He was still in shock and insisted on talking to the captain of the Marine guard unit. We let him talk to Maj. Hudson, of MACV [Military Assistance Command Vietnam] COC [Command Operations Center], who ordered him to leave.

At this point, two men, Fisher and the one OSA communicator, remained in a stairwell just below the roof waiting for the chopper. The OSA communicator had a snub-nosed .38 revolver and a two-way radio to the OSA duty officer, who, I noted later, carried a 9 mm. Beretta sub-machine gun.

Maj. Hudson had said the chopper would arrive in about 15 minutes. After a half-hour, we called Maj. Hudson and told him there was no sign of the chopper. He said it had been driven away, and even hit, by enemy fire. This event occurred about 5:30 a.m., and it was the first time any chopper had even tried to land. Sending another chopper would take more time, the major said, since it would have to come from Long Binh. Tan Son Nhut’s operations had been curtailed by the military activity there.

A Request for Lights

Maj. Hudson then informed us that two choppers were on the way, one Medevac and one chopper carrying ammunition. It was essential, he said, that someone be on the roof with the wounded Marine to guide in the choppers. Maj. Hudson also said the pilots were having trouble finding the roof in the dark and asked that the lights be turned on. None of us knew where the lights were. Griffin called Harper downstairs who explained where the switches were. Griffin and I both went to the roof, so that the code room was empty and its inner cage door locked. We were no longer locking the vault door, inasmuch as the VC, so far as we knew, were not in the building. Had the enemy broken into the building with the specific purpose of entering the code room as soon as possible, they might have succeeded. It would have been possible to enter the stairwell from the ground floor, go up to the fourth floor, and blow the steel door providing access to that floor. They would then have had to break open the wooden door inside the vault area. We assumed the enemy had no such precise objective but rather would have attempted to blow up the whole building.

We were relying on Harper’s periodic assurance that the VC were not in the building, and we assumed they could not have gotten in without his knowing it. The main reason we left the vault door open, however, was that we could not have kept MACV COC regularly informed of the situation on the roof, both with regard to enemy fire and the whereabouts of the choppers, had we had to lock the vault every time we left the code room.

While we both were on the roof, Griffin put on the lights. It took a while to locate the right switches and see exactly what was lit up. We flashed the lights several times, while Fisher sat in the middle of the roof and described an arc with an electric lantern. These activities were according to Maj. Hudson’s instructions. He also had warned us to get off the roof itself as a chopper came near, since if the first one was carrying ammunition and drew enemy fire, it would hover, drop its ammunition, and move out. The lights we had turned on were red, white, and blue runway-type lights and described the exact area of the roof. We called Maj. Hudson and so informed him. He instructed us to leave the lights on. We did. Nonetheless, according to the major, the choppers were having some trouble finding their way in. It still was dark, despite the flares that filled the skies.

I estimate that the wounded Marine was kept on a mattress on the sixth floor for about an hour. Once we were told that the Medevac and ammunition choppers were on their way, we carried him to the roof itself, where he waited another 45 minutes until the first chopper finally arrived.

“Stay Till the Shooting Stops”

On one of my many trips to the roof –I would say at about 6:15 a.m. -– I saw an armed Marine guard on the floor below the roof crawling around on his belly with a rifle. I asked him how he had gotten there, since I had assumed there was only one functioning Marine guard in the building, namely, the one on the ground floor. He replied that he had been there all the time. Not feeling inclined to ask him what he had been doing, I hurried back to the fourth floor code room to report on the situation to MACV [Military Assistance Command Vietnam] COC [Command Operations Center] and Mr. Calhoun’s residence. A half-hour later, when I returned to the roof, I was told a chopper finally had arrived, offloaded three cases of M-16 tracer ammunition, and evacuated the wounded Marine.

Griffin and the OSA communicator discovered the chopper had left the ammunition in the middle of the helipad. Realizing that its presence there would hamper the arrival of other choppers, Griffin and the OSA communicator crawled out to the middle of the helipad and retrieved the ammunition. While they were in the middle of the roof, a chopper came in as if to land but could not because of enemy ground fire.

I might have questioned the emphasis on ammunition, since we had only the few weapons described above and, in any case, no M-16s. In my preoccupation, however, I simply assumed this move had some rational, though as yet unfathomed, purpose. I considered that the ammunition might be for later troop arrivals, but I rejected this idea, thinking they would certainly bring more than enough of their own. I place these events at about 6:45 a.m., nearly four hours after our ordeal had begun. To my consternation, I also discovered upon returning to the roof that both the armed Marine guard and the Army soldier had left with the chopper. The OSA man on the roof had no idea why they had done so. Neither did we.

We were thus reduced effectively to three men — Griffin, the OSA communicator, who remained just below the roof practically the entire time, and me. The OSA duty officer was also in the building, but I had only seen him when he helped me carry the wounded Marine from the code room to the sixth floor. There were also two other OSA communicators, one of whom I once saw in the hall of the fourth floor. Later I learned he had been handling incoming and outgoing calls, and I wish to say he was doing it very skillfully, even to the point of weeding out the nuisance calls.

Calls Received

At this point, I should mention some of the many calls we received. They are not in sequence, and I do not remember exactly when they came in. They were handled by Griffin and by me. Frequently, we were both talking at the same time on extensions 321 and 322.

Philip Habib [then Deputy Assistant Secretary of State] called twice from the White House Situation Room. The first time, I gave him a full account of what was happening as we saw it. I recall having told him, among other things, that the VC had surrounded the building inside the compound, which was in turn surrounded by U.S. MPs [Military Police] and the Vietnamese police, none of whom, however, had broken into the compound. (The VC thus were protected from the outside by the wall around the compound.) I said we had been promised a reaction force but none had arrived, nor, at that time, had any choppers arrived. This was about 5 a.m.

Later, the senior watch officer at the State Department Operations Center called and asked for a sitrep [situation report], which I provided.

Mr. Habib called on another occasion trying to reach Mr. Calhoun. All we could do was provide the operator with Calhoun’s PTT [telephone] number. On still another occasion, Mr. Habib called and spoke first to Griffin and then to me. As we were speaking, another rocket thudded into the building.

A Vietnamese policeman called and asked for one of the OSA men. I could not find him. When I called over to OSA communications from inside the code room, no one answered. I told the policeman to call another number Griffin had given me.

An American called and asked for Saigon Control, an OSA number that I did not know. The same person, I believe, also asked about the destruction of cryptographic equipment.

A Request to Leave

About 7:30, Mr. Kidston of USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development] called on the phone in room 433. I had an urgent call from MACV at the time and could not continue the conversation. An American female communications employee called and asked about the destruction of communications equipment. She was appalled to learn that I was in the code room by myself and knew nothing about the equipment. I explained I had been asked by MACV COC and Mr. Calhoun to remain there and handle the incoming and outgoing calls, which were numerous. Griffin was then up on the roof. We took turns at these activities. Sometimes we were both on the roof, leaving no one in the code room.

A Vietnamese employee marooned in the unclassified communications room on the ground floor called and asked for permission to go home. He said he had been working many hours and was tired. I told him I was sorry but he would have to stay where he was until the shooting stopped.

About 5:30 a.m., more than an hour before the arrival of the ammunition chopper, Col. Garrison called to announce a plan to land a rifle platoon of infantry on the roof. Shortly afterwards, Colonel Fuller called from Second Field Force Victor in Long Binh to inform us of a plan to land a platoon from the 101 st airborne. In subsequent conversations with Maj. Hudson, to whom we described the calls from Garrison and Fuller, we learned that the two colonels were talking about the same force.

Many conversations with Maj. Hudson ensued. In fact, we asked him to keep one line open, so that we could always get through to him to report on the latest developments. Long after the ammunition chopper had arrived and evacuated the three men, no other chopper came near, despite Maj. Hudson’s assurances that they had to be there, since they had been dispatched some time previously. Frequently, the major was surprised to learn that none had landed. We called him regularly to say no choppers had come, although they could be seen orbiting a considerable distance away. Often, he asked us to hold the line while he checked on the choppers. Unfortunately, he could not call them directly, so coordinating all our information in one conversation proved nearly impossible.

Sometime after the air rifle platoon was to have landed, we called Maj. Hudson and pleaded with him somewhat despairingly for relief from the ground. Finally, he said a mechanized infantry unit with heavy armor was on its way. We asked how long it would take. He said the unit was on the outskirts of the city and moved slowly. It never arrived.

In the meantime, we kept passing out this information to Mr. Calhoun’s residence, to the Marine guard downstairs, and occasionally to Washington. Twice Gen. [John H.] Cushman [Commanding Officer, Second Brigade, 101st airborne] called and asked for a report, which we provided as best we could.

Between 6:30 and 7, Maj. Hudson called to say that there could be no landing before daylight because of poor visibility, despite the roof lights being on.

Is the Cavalry Coming?

Eventually, dawn broke. Maj. Hudson said the situation had become critical. We readily agreed. He said the latest plan was to gas the VC inside the compound and then land troops on the roof. The gas choppers were to be sent right away. We immediately called Sgt. Harper and told him of this plan. He pleaded with us to stop the use of gas, since by this time (about 7:30), the U.S. MPs had fought their way into the compound. We would be gassing our own men. I called Maj. Hudson back at once. After a 15-minute delay, he said the gas probably would be used anyway. At one point, he said not to worry, that the cavalry was coming. I had heard so much about the air cavalry that I thought he was being serious.

In the meantime, Mr. Sheinbaum, who had been receiving regular reports from us, had told us of [Col. George] Jacobson’s presence in his house at the rear of the compound. (He was mission coordinator at the embassy.) Vietcong were either in or near the house. We assured him we would inform the paratroopers as soon as they arrived on the roof.

Maj. Hudson, apparently based on conversations with Sgt. Harper, had drawn up a battle plan that he said we were to convey to the platoon commander immediately upon the arrival of troops on the roof.

The plan was for the troops to deploy down the stairwells on each side of the building rather than go down the elevators, which were in the line of fire. Upon reaching the ground floor, they were to go out the side entrances and into the compound. These doors were locked from the outside and could be pushed open outwards.

The atmosphere in the code room was one of generally unrelieved tension mixed with frustration and helplessness. Sometimes the tensions would ease, but periodically, another rocket round would hit the wall to remind us of our plight. There were lulls in the firing, but they never lasted long.

Greeted by Paratroopers

Well after daybreak, trips to the roof revealed several orbiting helicopters, though none with any discernible intention of landing. We waited, always wondering why there was still no landing. About 8:15, I headed back up to the roof. The OSA communicator had gone back to his code room, so the roof was unattended. As I stepped off the elevator on the sixth floor, I was greeted by a strange site. Standing before me were five paratroopers in full battle dress from the 101st airborne division. They carried M-16s, M-79 grenade launchers, hand grenades, and knives. I asked for the platoon commander. Maj. [Hillel] Schwartz stepped forward, and I told him I was the duty officer. He offered me a hand grenade, which I declined. He said 30 more men would land soon. I explained that we knew of no VC in the building. While the major took some notes, I described the building briefly, repeated MACV’s deployment instructions, and informed him of Col. Jacobson’s situation in the rear of the compound. I also urged him to watch for the one Vietnamese employee on the ground floor. Maj. Schwartz, fearing there actually might be VC in the building, deployed his men so as to secure it floor by floor, beginning with the sixth.

I took Schwartz to the fourth floor so that he could call the Marine guard on the ground and obtain the very latest information. He then rejoined his men. I called Sheinbaum to say the troops had landed and were deploying through the building. Two or three calls then came through from Bien Hoa Army. In each case, a general officer of the Army wanted urgently to speak with Maj. Schwartz. I said he was engaged in securing the embassy and could not be reached but that I would have him call back as soon as I could. Carpenter called and said he needed to know exactly how many VC had been inside the compound.

I then made several more trips to the roof to receive incoming paratroopers. About 45 minutes after Maj. Schwartz had landed, I went down to the ground floor. There had been no shooting for a while.

I was told all the VC were dead and that there were 19 of them. I went upstairs and relayed this information to Carpenter. I then went back downstairs.

As I was surveying the damage to the ground floor, someone told me Gen. [William C.] Westmoreland [Commander of the U.S. Military Assistance Command] wanted to see me in the Marine guard’s office. I went there, and Gen. Westmoreland said his advice was that the embassy be cleaned up as soon as possible and that its staff be at work by noon. He then said he wished to speak to Mr. Habib.

I returned to the fourth floor and put through a flash call to Mr. Habib in the White House situation room. As soon as Mr. Habib was on the line, Griffin went downstairs to fetch Gen. Westmoreland. In the meantime, I told Mr. Habib the embassy had been relieved and there were 19 dead VC in the compound. I also relayed Gen. Westmoreland’s advice. After several minutes Gen. Westmoreland arrived and spoke for about 10 minutes with Mr. Habib.

Everything that happened after the paratroopers reached the ground floor, by which time all the Viet Cong had already been killed (or captured), is well known to many others. The above account is written from the vantage point of those inside the embassy. There are, of course, other accounts, each one conveying a different part of the picture. The only thing I would like to add is high praise for those with whom I worked inside the embassy through the siege. Griffin, in particular, shared all the tasks and never flinched or failed throughout the ordeal. Sgt. Harper’s heroic stand on the ground floor needs no elaboration.

Plaque commemorating the Marine and Four MPs who died defending U.S. Embassy Saigon


The term Việt Cộng appeared in Saigon newspapers beginning in 1956. [5] It is a contraction of Việt Nam Cộng-sản (Vietnamese communist), [5] or alternatively Việt gian cộng sản ("Communist Traitor to Vietnam"). [6] The earliest citation for Viet Cong in English is from 1957. [7] American soldiers referred to the Viet Cong as Victor Charlie or V-C. "Victor" and "Charlie" are both letters in the NATO phonetic alphabet. "Charlie" referred to communist forces in general, both Viet Cong and North Vietnamese.

The official Vietnamese history gives the group's name as the Liberation Army of South Vietnam or the National Liberation Front for South Vietnam (NLFSV Mặt trận Dân tộc Giải phóng miền Nam Việt Nam. [8] [nb 1] Many writers shorten this to National Liberation Front (NLF). [nb 2] In 1969, the Viet Cong created the "Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam" (Chính Phủ Cách Mạng Lâm Thời Cộng Hòa Miền Nam Việt Nam, abbreviated PRG. [nb 3] Although the NLF was not officially abolished until 1977, the Viet Cong no longer used the name after the PRG was created. Members generally referred to the Viet Cong as "the Front" (Mặt trận). [5] Today's Vietnamese media most frequently refers to the group as the "Liberation Army of South Vietnam" (Quân Giải phóng Miền Nam Việt Nam) . [9]


By the terms of the Geneva Accord (1954), which ended the Indochina War, France and the Viet Minh agreed to a truce and to a separation of forces. The Viet Minh had become the government of Democratic Republic of Vietnam since the Vietnamese 1946 general election, and military forces of the communists regrouped there. Military forces of the non-communists regrouped in South Vietnam, which became a separate state. Elections on reunification were scheduled for July 1956. A divided Vietnam angered Vietnamese nationalists, but it made the country less of a threat to China. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the past and Vietnam in the present did not and do not recognize the division of Vietnam into two countries. Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai negotiated the terms of the ceasefire with France and then imposed them on the Viet Minh.

About 90,000 Viet Minh were evacuated to the North while 5,000 to 10,000 cadre remained in the South, most of them with orders to refocus on political activity and agitation. [5] The Saigon-Cholon Peace Committee, the first Viet Cong front, was founded in 1954 to provide leadership for this group. [5] Other front names used by the Viet Cong in the 1950s implied that members were fighting for religious causes, for example, "Executive Committee of the Fatherland Front", which suggested affiliation with the Hòa Hảo sect, or "Vietnam-Cambodia Buddhist Association". [5] Front groups were favored by the Viet Cong to such an extent that its real leadership remained shadowy until long after the war was over, prompting the expression "the faceless Viet Cong". [5]

Led by Ngô Đình Diệm, South Vietnam refused to sign the Geneva Accord. Arguing that a free election was impossible under the conditions that existed in communist-held territory, Diệm announced in July 1955 that the scheduled election on reunification would not be held. After subduing the Bình Xuyên organized crime gang in the Battle for Saigon in 1955, and the Hòa Hảo and other militant religious sects in early 1956, Diệm turned his attention to the Viet Cong. [10] Within a few months, the Viet Cong had been driven into remote swamps. [11] The success of this campaign inspired U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower to dub Diệm the "miracle man" when he visited the U.S. in May 1957. [11] France withdrew its last soldiers from Vietnam in April 1956. [12]

In March 1956, southern communist leader Lê Duẩn presented a plan to revive the insurgency entitled "The Road to the South" to the other members of the Politburo in Hanoi. [13] He argued adamantly that war with the United States was necessary to achieve unification. [14] But as China and the Soviets both opposed confrontation at this time, Lê Duẩn's plan was rejected and communists in the South were ordered to limit themselves to economic struggle. [13] Leadership divided into a "North first", or pro-Beijing, faction led by Trường Chinh, and a "South first" faction led by Lê Duẩn.

As the Sino-Soviet split widened in the following months, Hanoi began to play the two communist giants off against each other. The North Vietnamese leadership approved tentative measures to revive the southern insurgency in December 1956. [15] Lê Duẩn's blueprint for revolution in the South was approved in principle, but implementation was conditional on winning international support and on modernizing the army, which was expected to take at least until 1959. [16] President Hồ Chí Minh stressed that violence was still a last resort. [17] Nguyễn Hữu Xuyên was assigned military command in the South, [18] replacing Lê Duẩn, who was appointed North Vietnam's acting party boss. This represented a loss of power for Hồ, who preferred the more moderate Võ Nguyên Giáp, who was defense minister. [14]

An assassination campaign, referred to as "extermination of traitors" [20] or "armed propaganda" in communist literature, began in April 1957. Tales of sensational murder and mayhem soon crowded the headlines. [5] Seventeen civilians were killed by machine gun fire at a bar in Châu Đốc in July and in September a district chief was killed with his entire family on a main highway in broad daylight. [5] In October 1957, a series of bombs exploded in Saigon and left 13 Americans wounded. [5]

In a speech given on September 2, 1957, Hồ reiterated the "North first" line of economic struggle. [21] The launch of Sputnik in October boosted Soviet confidence and led to a reassessment of policy regarding Indochina, long treated as a Chinese sphere of influence. In November, Hồ traveled to Moscow with Lê Duẩn and gained approval for a more militant line. [22] In early 1958, Lê Duẩn met with the leaders of "Inter-zone V" (northern South Vietnam) and ordered the establishment of patrols and safe areas to provide logistical support for activity in the Mekong Delta and in urban areas. [22] In June 1958, the Viet Cong created a command structure for the eastern Mekong Delta. [23] French scholar Bernard Fall published an influential article in July 1958 which analyzed the pattern of rising violence and concluded that a new war had begun. [5]

Launches "armed struggle"

The Vietnam Workers Party approved a "people's war" on the South at a session in January 1959 and this decision was confirmed by the Politburo in March. [12] In May 1959, Group 559 was established to maintain and upgrade the Ho Chi Minh trail, at this time a six-month mountain trek through Laos. About 500 of the "regroupees" of 1954 were sent south on the trail during its first year of operation. [24] The first arms delivery via the trail, a few dozen rifles, was completed in August 1959. [25]

Two regional command centers were merged to create the Central Office for South Vietnam (Trung ương Cục miền Nam), a unified communist party headquarters for the South. [12] COSVN was initially located in Tây Ninh Province near the Cambodian border. On July 8, the Viet Cong killed two U.S. military advisors at Biên Hòa, the first American dead of the Vietnam War. [nb 4] The "2d Liberation Battalion" ambushed two companies of South Vietnamese soldiers in September 1959, the first large unit military action of the war. [5] This was considered the beginning of the "armed struggle" in communist accounts. [5] A series of uprisings beginning in the Mekong Delta province of Bến Tre in January 1960 created "liberated zones", models of Viet Cong-style government. Propagandists celebrated their creation of battalions of "long-hair troops" (women). [26] The fiery declarations of 1959 were followed by a lull while Hanoi focused on events in Laos (1960–61). [27] Moscow favored reducing international tensions in 1960, as it was election year for the U.S. presidency. [nb 5] Despite this, 1960 was a year of unrest in South Vietnam, with pro-democracy demonstrations inspired by the South Korean student uprising that year and a failed military coup in November. [5]

To counter the accusation that North Vietnam was violating the Geneva Accord, the independence of the Viet Cong was stressed in communist propaganda. The Viet Cong created the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam in December 1960 at Tân Lập village in Tây Ninh as a "united front", or political branch intended to encourage the participation of non-communists. [28] The group's formation was announced by Radio Hanoi and its ten-point manifesto called for, "overthrow the disguised colonial regime of the imperialists and the dictatorial administration, and to form a national and democratic coalition administration." [5] Thọ, a lawyer and the Viet Cong's "neutralist" chairman, was an isolated figure among cadres and soldiers. South Vietnam's Law 10/59, approved in May 1959, authorized the death penalty for crimes "against the security of the state" and featured prominently in Viet Cong propaganda. [29] Violence between the Viet Cong and government forces soon increased drastically from 180 clashes in January 1960 to 545 clashes in September. [30] [31]

By 1960, the Sino-Soviet split was a public rivalry, making China more supportive of Hanoi's war effort. [32] For Chinese leader Mao Zedong, aid to North Vietnam was a way to enhance his "anti-imperialist" credentials for both domestic and international audiences. [33] About 40,000 communist soldiers infiltrated the South in 1961–63. [34] The Viet Cong grew rapidly an estimated 300,000 members were enrolled in "liberation associations" (affiliated groups) by early 1962. [5] The ratio of Viet Cong to government soldiers jumped from 1:10 in 1961 to 1:5 a year later. [35]

The level of violence in the South jumped dramatically in the fall of 1961, from 50 guerrilla attacks in September to 150 in October. [36] U.S. President John F. Kennedy decided in November 1961 to substantially increase American military aid to South Vietnam. [37] The USS Core arrived in Saigon with 35 helicopters in December 1961. By mid-1962, there were 12,000 U.S. military advisors in Vietnam. [38] The "special war" and "strategic hamlets" policies allowed Saigon to push back in 1962, but in 1963 the Viet Cong regained the military initiative. [35] The Viet Cong won its first military victory against South Vietnamese forces at Ấp Bắc in January 1963.

A landmark party meeting was held in December 1963, shortly after a military coup in Saigon in which Diệm was assassinated. North Vietnamese leaders debated the issue of "quick victory" vs "protracted war" (guerrilla warfare). [39] After this meeting, the communist side geared up for a maximum military effort and the troop strength of the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) increased from 174,000 at the end of 1963 to 300,000 in 1964. [39] The Soviets cut aid in 1964 as an expression of annoyance with Hanoi's ties to China. [40] [nb 6] Even as Hanoi embraced China's international line, it continued to follow the Soviet model of reliance on technical specialists and bureaucratic management, as opposed to mass mobilization. [40] The winter of 1964–1965 was a high-water mark for the Viet Cong, with the Saigon government on the verge of collapse. [41] Soviet aid soared following a visit to Hanoi by Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin in February 1965. [42] Hanoi was soon receiving up-to-date surface-to-air missiles. [42] The U.S. would have 200,000 soldiers in South Vietnam by the end of the year. [43]

In January 1966, Australian troops uncovered a tunnel complex which had been used by COSVN. [44] Six thousand documents were captured, revealing the inner workings of the Viet Cong. COSVN retreated to Mimot in Cambodia. As a result of an agreement with the Cambodian government made in 1966, weapons for the Viet Cong were shipped to the Cambodian port of Sihanoukville and then trucked to Viet Cong bases near the border along the "Sihanouk Trail", which replaced the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Many Liberation Army of South Vietnam units operated at night, [45] and employed terror as a standard tactic. [46] Rice procured at gunpoint sustained the Viet Cong. [47] Squads were assigned monthly assassination quotas. [48] Government employees, especially village and district heads, were the most common targets. But there were a wide variety of targets, including clinics and medical personnel. [49] Notable Viet Cong atrocities include the massacre of over 3,000 unarmed civilians at Huế, 48 killed in the bombing of My Canh floating restaurant in Saigon in June 1965 [50] and a massacre of 252 Montagnards in the village of Đắk Sơn in December 1967 using flamethrowers. [51] Viet Cong death squads assassinated at least 37,000 civilians in South Vietnam the real figure was far higher since the data mostly cover 1967–72. They also waged a mass murder campaign against civilian hamlets and refugee camps in the peak war years, nearly a third of all civilian deaths were the result of Viet Cong atrocities. [52] Ami Pedahzur has written that "the overall volume and lethality of Vietcong terrorism rivals or exceeds all but a handful of terrorist campaigns waged over the last third of the twentieth century". [53]

Logistics and equipment

Tet Offensive

Major reversals in 1966 and 1967, as well as the growing American presence in Vietnam, inspired Hanoi to consult its allies and reassess strategy in April 1967. While Beijing urged a fight to the finish, Moscow suggested a negotiated settlement. [54] Convinced that 1968 could be the last chance for decisive victory, General Nguyễn Chí Thanh, suggested an all-out offensive against urban centers. [55] [nb 7] He submitted a plan to Hanoi in May 1967. [55] After Thanh's death in July, Giáp was assigned to implement this plan, now known as the Tet Offensive. The Parrot's Beak, an area in Cambodia only 30 miles from Saigon, was prepared as a base of operations. [56] Funeral processions were used to smuggle weapons into Saigon. [56] Viet Cong entered the cities concealed among civilians returning home for Tết. [56] The U.S. and South Vietnamese expected that an announced seven-day truce would be observed during Vietnam's main holiday.

At this point, there were about 500,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam, [43] as well as 900,000 allied forces. [56] General William Westmoreland, the U.S. commander, received reports of heavy troop movements and understood that an offensive was being planned, but his attention was focused on Khe Sanh, a remote U.S. base near the DMZ. [57] In January and February 1968, some 80,000 Viet Cong struck more than 100 towns with orders to "crack the sky" and "shake the Earth." [58] The offensive included a commando raid on the U.S. Embassy in Saigon and a massacre at Huế of about 3,500 residents. [59] House-to-house fighting between Viet Cong and South Vietnamese Rangers left much of Cholon, a section of Saigon, in ruins. The Viet Cong used any available tactic to demoralize and intimidate the population, including the assassination of South Vietnamese commanders. [60] A photo by Eddie Adams showing the summary execution of a Viet Cong in Saigon on February 1 became a symbol of the brutality of the war. [61] In an influential broadcast on February 27, newsman Walter Cronkite stated that the war was a "stalemate" and could be ended only by negotiation. [62]

The offensive was undertaken in the hope of triggering a general uprising, but urban Vietnamese did not respond as the Viet Cong anticipated. About 75,000 communist soldiers were killed or wounded, according to Trần Văn Trà, commander of the "B-2" district, which consisted of southern South Vietnam. [63] "We did not base ourselves on scientific calculation or a careful weighing of all factors, but. on an illusion based on our subjective desires", Trà concluded. [64] Earle G. Wheeler, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, estimated that Tet resulted in 40,000 communist dead [65] (compared to about 10,600 U.S. and South Vietnamese dead). "It is a major irony of the Vietnam War that our propaganda transformed this debacle into a brilliant victory. The truth was that Tet cost us half our forces. Our losses were so immense that we were unable to replace them with new recruits", said PRG Justice Minister Trương Như Tảng. [65] Tet had a profound psychological impact because South Vietnamese cities were otherwise safe areas during the war. [66] U.S. President Lyndon Johnson and Westmoreland argued that panicky news coverage gave the public the unfair perception that America had been defeated. [67]

Aside from some districts in the Mekong Delta, the Viet Cong failed to create a governing apparatus in South Vietnam following Tet, according to an assessment of captured documents by the U.S. CIA. [68] The breakup of larger Viet Cong units increased the effectiveness of the CIA's Phoenix Program (1967–72), which targeted individual leaders, as well as the Chiêu Hồi Program, which encouraged defections. By the end of 1969, there was little communist-held territory, or "liberated zones", in South Vietnam, according to the official communist military history. [69] There were no predominantly southern units left and 70 percent of communist troops in the South were northerners. [70]

The Viet Cong created an urban front in 1968 called the Alliance of National, Democratic, and Peace Forces. [71] The group's manifesto called for an independent, non-aligned South Vietnam and stated that "national reunification cannot be achieved overnight." [71] In June 1969, the alliance merged with the Viet Cong to form a "Provisional Revolutionary Government" (PRG).


The Tet Offensive increased American public discontent with participation in the Vietnam War and led the U.S. to gradually withdraw combat forces and to shift responsibility to the South Vietnamese, a process called Vietnamization. Pushed into Cambodia, the Viet Cong could no longer draw South Vietnamese recruits. [70] In May 1968, Trường Chinh urged "protracted war" in a speech that was published prominently in the official media, so the fortunes of his "North first" fraction may have revived at this time. [72] COSVN rejected this view as "lacking resolution and absolute determination." [73] The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 led to intense Sino-Soviet tension and to the withdrawal of Chinese forces from North Vietnam. Beginning in February 1970, Lê Duẩn's prominence in the official media increased, suggesting that he was again top leader and had regained the upper hand in his longstanding rivalry with Trường Chinh. [74] After the overthrow of Prince Sihanouk in March 1970, the Viet Cong faced a hostile Cambodian government which authorized a U.S. offensive against its bases in April. However, the capture of the Plain of Jars and other territory in Laos, as well as five provinces in northeastern Cambodia, allowed the North Vietnamese to reopen the Ho Chi Minh trail. [75] Although 1970 was a much better year for the Viet Cong than 1969, [75] it would never again be more than an adjunct to the PAVN. The 1972 Easter Offensive was a direct North Vietnamese attack across the DMZ between North and South. [76] Despite the Paris Peace Accords, signed by all parties in January 1973, fighting continued. In March, Trà was recalled to Hanoi for a series of meetings to hammer out a plan for an enormous offensive against Saigon. [77]

Fall of Saigon

In response to the anti-war movement, the U.S. Congress passed the Case–Church Amendment to prohibit further U.S. military intervention in Vietnam in June 1973 and reduced aid to South Vietnam in August 1974. [79] With U.S. bombing ended, communist logistical preparations could be accelerated. An oil pipeline was built from North Vietnam to Viet Cong headquarters in Lộc Ninh, about 75 miles northwest of Saigon. (COSVN was moved back to South Vietnam following the Easter Offensive.) The Ho Chi Minh Trail, beginning as a series of treacherous mountain tracks at the start of the war, was upgraded throughout the war, first into a road network driveable by trucks in the dry season, and finally, into paved, all-weather roads that could be used year-round, even during the monsoon. [80] Between the beginning of 1974 and April 1975, with now-excellent roads and no fear of air interdiction, the communists delivered nearly 365,000 tons of war matériel to battlefields, 2.6 times the total for the previous 13 years. [69]

The success of the 1973–74 dry season offensive convinced Hanoi to accelerate its timetable. When there was no U.S. response to a successful communist attack on Phước Bình in January 1975, South Vietnamese morale collapsed. The next major battle, at Buôn Ma Thuột in March, was a communist walkover. After the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, the PRG moved into government offices there. At the victory parade, Tạng noticed that the units formerly dominated by southerners were missing, replaced by northerners years earlier. [70] The bureaucracy of the Republic of Vietnam was uprooted and authority over the South was assigned to the PAVN. People considered tainted by association with the former South Vietnamese government were sent to reeducation camps, despite the protests of the non-communist PRG members including Tạng. [81] Without consulting the PRG, North Vietnamese leaders decided to rapidly dissolve the PRG at a party meeting in August 1975. [82] North and South were merged as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in July 1976 and the PRG was dissolved. The Viet Cong was merged with the Vietnamese Fatherland Front on February 4, 1977. [81]

Activists opposing American involvement in Vietnam said that the Viet Cong was a nationalist insurgency indigenous to the South. [83] They claimed that the Viet Cong was composed of several parties—the People's Revolutionary Party, the Democratic Party and the Radical Socialist Party [2] —and that Viet Cong chairman Nguyễn Hữu Thọ was not a communist. [84]

Anti-communists countered that the Viet Cong was merely a front for Hanoi. [83] They said some statements issued by communist leaders in the 1980s and 1990s suggested that southern communist forces were influenced by Hanoi. [83] According to the memoirs of Trần Văn Trà, the Viet Cong's top commander and PRG defense minister, he followed orders issued by the "Military Commission of the Party Central Committee" in Hanoi, which in turn implemented resolutions of the Politburo. [nb 8] Trà himself was deputy chief of staff for the PAVN before being assigned to the South. [85] The official Vietnamese history of the war states that "The Liberation Army of South Vietnam [Viet Cong] is a part of the People's Army of Vietnam". [8]

Viet Cong attack U.S. Embassy

As part of the Tet Offensive, Viet Cong soldiers attack the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. A 19-man suicide squad seized the U.S. Embassy and held it for six hours until an assault force of U.S. paratroopers landed by helicopter on the building's roof and routed them.

The offensive was launched on January 30, when communist forces attacked Saigon, Hue, five of six autonomous cities, 36 of 44 provincial capitals, and 64 of 245 district capitals. The timing and magnitude of the attacks caught the South Vietnamese and American forces off guard, but eventually the Allied forces turned the tide. Militarily, the Tet Offensive was a disaster for the communists. By the end of March 1968, they had not achieved any of their objectives and had lost 32,000 soldiers and had 5,800 captured. U.S. forces suffered 3,895 dead South Vietnamese losses were 4,954 non-U.S. allies lost 214. More than 14,300 South Vietnamese civilians died.

While the offensive was a crushing military defeat for the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese, the early reporting of a smashing communist victory went largely uncorrected in the media and this led to a great psychological victory for the communists.

The heavy U.S. casualties incurred during the offensive coupled with the disillusionment over the earlier overly optimistic reports of progress in the war accelerated the growing disenchantment with President Johnson's conduct of the war. Johnson, frustrated with his inability to reach a solution in Vietnam announced on March 31, 1968, that he would neither seek nor accept the nomination of his party for re-election.

On a day like today. 1862: The first day of the Seven Days campaign begins with fighting at Oak Grove, Virginia.

1864: Pennsylvania troops begin digging a tunnel toward the Rebels at Petersburg, Virginia, in order to blow a hole in the Confederate lines and break the stalemate.

1876: Indians under the leadership of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse defeat Lieutenant Colonel George Custer and much of his 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

1920: The Greeks take 8,000 Turkish prisoners in Smyrna.

1941: Finland declares war on the Soviet Union.

1942: Following his arrival in London, Major General Dwight D. Eisenhower takes command of U.S. forces in Europe.

1948: The Soviet Union tightens its blockade of Berlin by intercepting river barges heading for the city.

1950: The North Korean Peoples Army (NKPA) crossed the 38th Parallel at 0500 hours with 60,000 troops to launch an all-out offensive on the Republic of Korea. The United Nations Security Council, in the absence of the Soviet Union, adopted a resolution calling for the withdrawal of North Korean forces to the parallel.

1969: The U.S. Navy turns 64 river patrol gunboats valued at $18.2 million over to the South Vietnamese Navy in what is described as the largest single transfer of military equipment in the war thus far.

841: Charles the Bald and Louis the German defeat Lothar at Fontenay.

The Attack that Shook the World

In its glory days, it was among the most prominent restaurants in Saigon and a popular attraction for visitors from around the world pouring into South Vietnam in 1965. Moored along the riverfront at the doorstep of Tu Do Street’s entertainment district, the My Canh was perhaps less famous for its food than for its ambiance the floating restaurant’s name means “beautiful view.” And so, on a pleasant evening in June an international crowd had gathered on the Saigon River for a Friday get-together with friends, family and fellow soldiers. Maybe there would even be a CIA encounter. That serene setting on the river would soon be the scene of the most sensational terrorist incident of the Vietnam War.

Viet Cong terrorism was well-established across South Vietnam by then. Especially rampant in the countryside, the violence was moving into the capital as the American presence intensified. On the previous Christmas Eve, the VC had bombed the Brink Hotel (often referred to as the Brinks), a residence for American military officers. They struck the U.S. Embassy on March 30 and the Saigon air terminal just nine days before hitting the My Canh. The restaurant had been staked out by urban commandos, called sappers, including Huynh Phi Long of Saigon’s 67th Commando Unit, whose story was told in 2010 in People’s Army, a newspaper published by Vietnam’s Defense Ministry. In the days before the attack, Long—about 60 years old at the time of the interview, the article’s writer estimated—“had carefully studied the terrain and the enemy’s movement habits, his drinking habits and his playboy habits.”

Security surrounding the My Canh was extraordinary on June 25, 1965. According to the 2010 exposé, three armed policemen stood guard at the gangplank that diners used to cross from the riverbank to the on-deck, open-air dining room. Other uniformed and plainclothes officers were watching from an open area opposite the barge armored vehicles and combat soldiers were manning nearby intersections, and naval vessels patrolled the river. Long was assisted in his plot by Le Van Ray, another member of the 67th Commando Unit.

The two VC sappers approached the restaurant on bicycles one was motorized. Long led the way, carrying one time bomb, according to the People’s Army story. Ray, pretending to be a newspaper seller, transported a mine. The two men weaved through traffic, even passing through a checkpoint, using a crowd of Vietnamese as cover. As the pair approached the My Canh, several peddlers were walking in front of the restaurant, where there was a cigarette stand near the entrance.

Long parked his bicycle bomb, set to detonate in a few minutes, in such a way that the blast would spray shrapnel over two-thirds of the target. Then he took out some money to buy cigarettes and walked a short distance to a getaway motorcycle that another conspirator had left for him. In the meantime, Ray had set his Claymore-type mine, which would also spray its blast over a precise area, and joined Long on the motorcycle to make their departure. They had gone about 55 yards when the first explosion blew. Metal shards peppered the My Canh’s hull and tore through the dining room customers panicked and ran for the walkway, desperate to escape.

When the bombers’ motorcycle reached the Nguyen Hue traffic circle, police stopped the two men but allowed them to proceed after they produced IDs. At that moment, the second mine exploded, ripping through the flesh and bone of fleeing customers, most of them civilians: peddlers on the shore, mothers and children. “Enemy [South Vietnamese] sirens echoed loudly and the streets turned into a scene of chaos,” according to the People’s Army article. “Only the two commandos were filled with a feeling of incredible joy.” Minutes after the twin blasts, the U.S. ambassador arrived on the scene. “The ambassador shook his head hopelessly and sadly got back into his car, seeming to be unable to believe what had just happened,” the article reported.

Waiters help a man injured after two Viet Cong commandos set off bombs at a floating restaurant along the Saigon River in June 1965. (AP Photos)

The horrific crime would go down as an example of an attack of maximum impact. It occurred at a trendy location during prime time: Friday evening just after 8, an international gathering place and only a few blocks from foreign news bureaus—a guarantee of extensive media coverage.

A combined Associated Press and United Press International story on an American newspaper’s front page reported: “The restaurant was a ruin, both decks a smoking, smoldering mass of broken bulwarks and smashed tables. An American woman, mutilated in her torn clothing, responded weakly to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation administered by a U.S. military policeman. A Vietnamese man waved the body of a young child at photographers. He seemed insane with grief.

“The broken causeway leading to the restaurant was piled high with bodies. American medics were rushing from body to body shouting: ‘Is he an American? Is he? Find the Americans, find the Americans.’ Some of the wounded stacked along the pavements died as they waited. Thirty minutes after the blast, many were still pleading for help. ”

The unforgettable carnage resurfaces as intense flashbacks 50 years later, even for grizzled war reporters. “The street was full of sandals that people had run out of, or been blown out of,” remembers Joe Galloway, who reported on the war for UPI and was co-author of We Were Soldiers Once…and Young. “One vivid memory is the top of a Vietnamese woman’s head lying on the white tablecloth…with long, flowing, black hair cascading down the side. I never ate there again.”

A Vietnamese-written history of sapper forces credits the attack with “killing 51 CIA intelligence officers and wounding many other personnel.” Western reports put the death toll as high as 48. The Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office counted 123 total casualties, mostly Vietnamese. It listed 12 Americans among the dead. Adding the missing and injured, there were at least 28 American casualties. According to newspaper accounts, the U.S. deaths included civilian Air Force employees who repaired damaged aircraft, military advisers in from the field and three soldiers attached to the Phu Lam Signal Battalion. There were also French, German, Swiss and Filipino dead. The shock waves reverberated worldwide.

As for claims of 51 CIA deaths, “you can’t just take them at face value,” says Vietnam War historian Erik Villard. “Some of those people may have been informants, others not actually on the CIA payroll, or the VC suspected they might be, so it’s not like you’ve got 51 James Bonds.” Nonetheless, the People’s Army profile on Long alleges that the My Canh owner, identified as Phu Lam, “was a trusted intelligence lackey of the CIA….Superiors believed that by destroying the restaurant we would essentially have destroyed an American-puppet source.” Regardless of any proven connection, one can assume that CIA personnel frequented the My Canh, which was a short walk from the U.S. Embassy.

Perhaps a bigger reason for the bombing was straightforward payback. The People’s Army article on bomber Long called the My Canh attack “an act of revenge for the death of Comrade Tran Van Dang, a commando fighter who had just been executed by the U.S. and the puppets at Ben Thanh Market on June 20, 1965.” The 25-year-old terrorist was blindfolded, tied to a post and publicly killed by a South Vietnamese firing squad in central Saigon for trying to bomb an American billet.

The restaurant bombing wasn’t the only reprisal. Radio Hanoi announced the execution of Army Staff Sgt. Harold Bennett, a prisoner of war, on June 25 and suggested other Americans might face the same fate: “The punishment serves to warn the U.S. aggressors and their henchmen…that the murderers must pay for their blood debts. The crimes of the bloodthirsty devils are intolerable.” While many Viet Cong had already been executed by the Saigon government, Bennett was the first American POW put to death during the war. He served as an adviser with South Vietnamese Rangers and was captured at Binh Gia on Dec. 29, 1964, when the unit was overrun.

Within hours of the My Canh bloodbath, the North Vietnamese and American governments were exchanging terse rejoinders and propaganda. Radio Hanoi and Viet Cong radio both claimed that hundreds of U.S. aggressors had been killed or wounded, the restaurant seriously damaged and a nearby U.S. warship blown up. The following day the Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office tried to set the record straight in a 16-page pamphlet. Ambassador Maxwell Taylor said, “This surely was the act of desperate men who have begun to realize that they cannot win. Last night’s outrage, like the wanton murder of an American prisoner…can only strengthen us in our resolve.”

Bystanders rush to people struck by the bomb blasts. (AP Photos)

Countering the inflated casualty toll of Americans, the embassy reported that most of the victims were Vietnamese, that no harm had come to any ships in the harbor and that damage to the restaurant was minor: “The bombs were designed to kill people.” The My Canh reopened in five days.

In a cable from the U.S. Mission in Saigon, the ambassador laid out his suspicions: “Viet Cong execution of Sgt. Bennett, closely followed by My Canh Restaurant atrocity, brings into sharp focus blackmail potential VC and Hanoi possess in numbers of U.S. hostages in their hands and the usefulness of this blackmail to support a stepped-up terrorist campaign.”

Taylor, a retired four-star general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from October 1962 to July 1964, urged an immediate bombing attack in the Hanoi-Haiphong area, accompanied by major leaflet drops and a strong push by Voice of America and other media to counter VC propaganda. He also recommended a presidential statement announcing the American response to show that the United States “would not stand for blatant violation of all standards of humanity and international conduct.”

Taylor’s advice was overruled by Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy sent this response to the president at his Texas ranch: “Rusk, McNamara and I all disagree with this recommendation.” They wanted to “hold Hanoi responsible” but favored a more restrained response.

The North Vietnamese continued to extract propaganda from the My Canh bombing, including this classic broadcast from Radio Hanoi: “You are a long way from Fort Riley now and there is no Jersey coffee in town on Washington Street where you can sit around the counter eating hamburgers and sipping coffee without having to be afraid a bomb might go off, like it did at that restaurant in Saigon a few weeks back. You can get killed here. Get out while you’re still alive and before it’s too late.”

On the American side of the propaganda war, the pamphlet issued by U.S. public affairs officers includes background on the Vietnamese casualties illustrated with ghastly pictures. The front cover shows an American holding the bloody body of a young boy, visibly in shock. One of the photo captions reads: “Of the 123 people killed and injured, 89 were Vietnamese—cyclo drivers and government officials, sugarcane vendors and businessmen, young women clerks and a popular singer, and of course many children.” Taylor is seen visiting patients in a hospital where survivors were interviewed. A 13-year-old boy who had been selling peanuts was recovering from surgery to remove shrapnel from his back and leg. To Thi My, the mother of Saigon singer Phuong Thao, who perished, is pictured weeping. She said her daughter was not performing at the time: “She was dining there with some of her friends. They were there just for a good time.”

A Vietnamese man who provided a crucial service for Western news agencies barely survived and was taken to the U.S. Naval Hospital. “Mr. Thach,” as he was known, handled the all-important radio photo machine at the post, telegraph and telephone office, PTT for short, and transmitted news photos for the wire services. A false rumor was circulating that Thach would be thrown out of the hospital, and his boss at the PTT called Mike Malloy, a UPI reporter in Saigon, for help. Malloy assured the post office’s director general that Mr. Thach would not be forced out of his hospital bed.

“Later, someone at PTT called and said they had a package for us a sack of piasters [Vietnamese currency],” Malloy remembers. “It was a lot of dough.” The money appeared to be a refund to settle a longstanding dispute with the news agency, which was also granted an exclusive 24-hour outgoing circuit of its own. “Nobody ever told me why we got these favors,” Malloy said, “but it’s obvious to me that they were rewards for saving Mr. Thach’s life, even though the Navy never intended to throw him out in the first place.”

There are others who likely would have been casualties that night but for sheer luck or happenstance. One was a young Army officer who had landed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base earlier that day—Norman Schwarzkopf. He and a West Point classmate arrived in Vietnam with a list of Saigon’s best restaurants and had planned to go out, but they were jet lagged and chose to dine at the roof garden restaurant atop the Hotel Majestic, where they were staying.

“We had just placed our orders when wham,” recalled Schwarzkopf in his 1992 autobiography, It Doesn’t Take a Hero, which recounts his two tours in Vietnam during a military career capped with his leadership of the multinational force in the 1991 Gulf War. The Majestic was so near the bombed restaurant that he could peer down from the roof and see wounded customers moving over the walkway to shore. “Suddenly another explosion blasted them from the gangplank into the water,” Schwarzkopf wrote. “That was my welcome to Vietnam.” More chilling, the My Canh had been first on his list of recommended restaurants.

The floating eatery was also a hangout for the media. Author and journalist Marvin Wolf and a Time magazine freelancer had lunch on the vessel the day of the disaster. They were joined by the owner, “an enormously rotund Chinese in a white linen suit, a guy with 6-inch fingernails,” as Wolf describes him. “The food was gratis. Six hours later, boom!”

Freelance journalist Don North, who had arrived in-country a month earlier, had left his gear in his room before he set off for a seafood dinner. He was walking toward the My Canh when the whole neighborhood was shaken. North’s most lasting memory? Watching firemen with strong water hoses washing blood off the street in crimson waves. “After that,” North insisted, “I never left my apartment without cameras and a tape recorder.”

It was an even closer call for armed forces radio announcer Adrian Cronauer, who had finished dinner with friends and was still in the area when the terrorists hit. He dodged the horror and lived to create the story concept that comedian Robin Williams turned into the hit movie Good Morning, Vietnam.

Army Spc. 5 Ron Hesketh had two brushes with terrorism. He was heading for the My Canh to celebrate his 25th birthday when he heard the thunderous explosions. “It was the worst thing I saw in the war.” Six months earlier, he had been scheduled to work at the Brink Hotel on the night Viet Cong planted a car bomb there, but Hesketh had suddenly been sent away on temporary duty.

Urban terrorism was escalating alongside the U.S. troop presence in the mid-1960s, but it was not a new phenomenon. In 1957 the U.S. Information Agency Library, a military bus and a hostel were bombed during an international meeting in Saigon, wounding 13 Americans and five Vietnamese. By 1965 the terror campaign in Saigon—attacks on hotels, bars, theaters and other strategic targets in the capital—was dwarfed by Viet Cong intimidation in the countryside where civilians had it much worse.

A 1967 study, “Viet Cong Use of Terror,” compiled by the U.S. Embassy, lists page after page of terrorism against noncombatants. In the same year of the My Canh bombing, the report tallied 1,800 assassinations and 8,500 kidnappings countrywide, most of them targeting rural officials.

The Viet Cong “are very deliberate in what they do,” said historian Villard. “Rather than just say, ‘Let’s go kill a bunch of civilians,’ they had thought it through to achieve a certain effect.” One strategy, he said, was to drive a wedge between the allies, “to do things that would put the Americans and South Vietnamese at each other’s throat, point fingers: ‘You brought this on.’ ‘No, you brought this on.’ ‘You should have prevented it.’ That sort of thing.”

The actions of the Viet Cong commandos who pulled off the My Canh attack were celebrated. Long was awarded the Combat Achievement Medal, First Class. The entire 67th Commando Unit won the Military Achievement Medal. Correspondent Bang Phuong, who prepared Long’s profile for People’s Army, wrote, “This legendary person fills everyone who sees him with awe and respect for the intelligence and courage he displayed when he scored a resounding victory in the attack on the My Canh Restaurant.”

Eventually, Long and his wife, who raised three children, were jailed for revolutionary activities. Long even spent time on Con Son Island, the site of a South Vietnamese prison where, according to the profile, he was locked up in so-called tiger cages, notorious French-built torture cells with barred ceilings allowing guards to look down on the inmates. He was released in 1973 in a prisoner exchange after the Paris Peace Talks.

In the years immediately after the raid, the floating restaurant remained trendy for its “beautiful view,” despite having an ugly past, and it continued to serve Vietnamese, Chinese and seafood dishes to a forgiving clientele. Fresh-faced young servicemen, like me, enjoyed fried rice and tasted the delectable tropical fruit lychee for the first time, even though it was out of a can.

The My Canh also continued to be of keen interest to the Viet Cong, who in October 1969 lobbed several mortar shells at the restaurant, only to see them land harmlessly in the Saigon River.

Rick Fredericksen, a Marine veteran, was an editor and newscaster for American Forces Vietnam network in Saigon in 1969-70 and a civilian reporter in Asia and the Pacific for 13 years.

First published in Vietnam Magazine’s June 2016 issue.

Viet Cong attack U.S. Embassy - HISTORY

By Eddie Adams Tet Offensive

On the first day of the Tet (Lunar New Year) truce, the Viet Cong launch their biggest offensive of the war. One thousand Viet Cong troops infiltrate the city of Saigon. The Communist troops capture the Citadel at Hue and seize part of the US embassy in Saigon. It took nearly two weeks to completely route out the Viet Cong troops. The attack is a military disaster for the Communists: they lose over 10,000 men and do not manage to hold any of their objectives. Nevertheless, the offensive marks a strategic victory for the Viet Cong. For many Americans who had believed the war was being won, the sight of Viet Cong troops holding the U.S. embassy is a rude awakening and forces them to question the U.S. "true" position.

After years of the same images of the war, on January 31st a completely different image would fill their screens. While ultimately the communist offensive known as the Tet- offensive would be a military failure, its strategic impact took place in the homes of Americans.

The communist had pledged to maintain a ceasefire during Tet- the lunar New Year, but in fact, seventy thousand communist troops attacked 100 cities and bases throughout the country. The war had until now been one fought in the rural areas of the country, now the communist changed the terms of the battle. They attempted to attack the coastal city of Nhatrang, the cities of How An, Danag and Quinhon. They attacked most of the provincial capitals and tried to surge in Mekong Delta.

They reserved their largest attacks for Saigon area. They attacked the US Embassy managing to breach it before being killed by Americans on the scene. The communist also captured the radio station and had planned to broadcast that they had captured the city, but the capture automatically cut them off from the broadcast tower. South Vietnamese troops surrounded them and communists eventually blew up the station.

One of the most iconic photos of the war- was taken the next day by Eddie Adams who captured General Nguyen Ngoc Loan shooting a prisoner in the street.

The bloodiest battle of the war took place after the communist captured Hue. American and South Vietnamese troops recaptured the city, but not before the communist killed 3,000 South Vietnamese supporters of the regime.

When the offensive was over 2,000 Americans, 4,000 South Vietnamese and as many as 50,000 communist lay dead. The biggest impact was back in the United States. There the American people had been told the war was about to be won, the images from the streets of South Vietnam told a very different story.

Tet: Circling the Wagons in Saigon

In late 1967, Gens. Westmoreland and Irzyk had taken steps to ensure that Headquarters Area Command in the Saigon area had some combat potential. The number of MPs was doubled, and cooks, clerks, drivers, mechanics and others were issued weapons, ammunition, communications equipment, body armor and steel helmets, and were dispatched to key installations.

It was Tuesday, January 30, 1968, and by 10 o’clock in the morning Tet celebrations had already begun in earnest, with firecrackers exploding all over Saigon. Traffic, never good, was rapidly becoming impossible as boisterous revelers quickly filled the streets. Consequently, the man in charge of the U.S. Army’s Headquarters Area Command in the city, Brigadier General Albin Irzyk, was just considering letting his troops off early when his phone rang.

A small but resourceful Headquarters Area Command was all that stood in the way of a massive surprise VC onslaught.

“Irzyk, this is Westmoreland! I have strong indications that sappers may be operating in town tonight. I want your command at maximum alert.” Click!

Well, so much for the afternoon off, thought Irzyk. The 51-year-old, a highly decorated tank battalion commander under General George S. Patton in World War II, was not prone to panic, though Headquarters Area Command (HAC) was neither a combat nor a combat support unit. It was a service support unit that kept the peace and assisted staffs, headquarters and offices in Saigon. The HAC was an amalgamation of 2,031 clerks, military policemen (MPs), cooks, engineers, drivers, generator operators, procurement and finance officers and others who supervised some 6,500 Vietnamese installation guards, repairmen, workers, maids, janitors and more, all of whom supported, housed, clothed, fed, guarded and transported the 35,000 U.S. and allied military personnel in South Vietnam’s 50-square-mile Capitol Military District, the CMD.

The CMD was an overcrowded urban maze without a single U.S. ground combat arms unit. American and South Vietnamese HAC personnel secured 450 widely scattered leased facilities, drove and maintained more than 2,000 vehicles, billeted 11,000 people and served about 30,000 meals a day in 22 dining facilities. Irzyk’s command also operated and maintained 21 water purification plants, as well as several swimming pools, theaters, basketball and tennis courts. While they were good at what they did, there was no way this outfit could be considered combat-ready.

However, in late 1967, Generals William Westmoreland and Irzyk had taken a number of steps to ensure that this collection of police, administrative and logistical organizations had some combat potential, and Westmoreland had personally assumed operational control of HAC. They had beefed it up with a 196-man Security Guard Company, supplementing HAC’s main fighting potential, the 716th Military Police Battalion, which had itself been reinforced with additional MP units to bring its strength up to 1,100. Although Army MP units had a rarely used standing mission to fight as infantry if necessary, the Army had not required infantry training for MPs above the level of fundamental basic training that all U.S. Army soldiers received.

The efforts of Westmoreland and Irzyk to enhance the combat potential of this service support organization would be sorely tested when the small but resourceful HAC was all that stood in the way of a massive surprise onslaught on dozens of sites across Saigon on January 31.

As soon as Irzyk had hung up his phone, he summoned his staff and commanders to begin planning how to defend against sapper attacks, a somewhat familiar task. In addition to bombarding Saigon with Soviet-made 120mm rockets almost weekly, infiltrators from the Viet Cong C-10 Sapper Battalion had made frequent terrorist-style attacks for the past year. These were more often brief encounters, such as a grenade tossed into a crowd, a drive-by pistol shot from a motor scooter rider or sometimes a bombing of a headquarters or a hotel leased as an American billet or similar facility. In April 1966, three 716th MP Battalion members had earned posthumous Silver Star medals engaging a VC attack on a bachelor officer quarters (BOQ) in Saigon that also cost three Vietnamese policemen’s lives and left 113 Americans and Australians wounded.

Indeed, bombing U.S. facilities had the potential for causing the greatest number of casualties and therefore required the employment of major HAC resources. With 450 facilities to secure inside the most densely populated city in the world, surveillance, coordination and especially guard placement had to be carefully planned, scheduled and supervised.

Unfortunately for Westmoreland and Irzyk, the attack for which they were now gearing up would have a magnitude of violence far beyond their wildest expectations. After infiltrating thousands of men and tons of weapons over several weeks into and around the CMD, the Viet Cong were only hours away from moving 19 local force battalions, including the C-10 Sapper units, to assault targets during the early morning of January 31. Eleven of these battalions would have targets in the CMD, where the overall security responsibility belonged to the Government of South Vietnam (GVN). Since there were no U.S. combat ground forces in the district, HAC secured U.S. facilities including the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) Headquarters complex at Tan Son Nhut. (The U.S. Air Force secured Tan Son Nhut Air Base.) Viet Cong objectives included the seizure of the U.S. Embassy, the Presidential Palace, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) artillery and armor school, Tan Son Nhut, the South Vietnamese Joint General Staff compound, Radio Saigon and several other facilities. The attackers were to hold their gains for 48 hours while VC and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) main force units fought their way into Saigon and Cholon.

Fortunately for the defenders, Westmoreland had taken a precaution that would prove critical when the Communists launched the Tet Offensive. On January 10 he heeded the advice of one of his commanders, Lt. Gen. Frederick Weyand, who alerted him to indications of some enemy movements toward Saigon. Westmoreland decided to cancel his own plans to move a large part of the U.S. ground forces in the III Corps region northward. As a result, Communist forces would face 27 U.S. combat battalions in near proximity to Saigon during Tet.

Irzyk began notifying all of his units to assume a maximum alert posture and planning for increased readiness, widespread street surveillance and the creation of mobile reaction forces. He ordered that all building security plans be immediately implemented. The number of MPs assigned to stationary guard posts at sensitive facilities was doubled. Beginning at 6 p.m., MPs would discontinue walking patrols, and the number of mobile jeep patrols would jump from about 20 to 41. Some of the jeep patrols were issued M-60 light machine guns. By midafternoon, these measures were either established or being implemented.

Irzyk had also identified members of HAC who could perform security and combat functions through the night without substantially degrading essential duties within the units and offices they served. These personnel—cooks, clerks, drivers, mechanics and others—were organized as Quick Reaction Forces (QRF) in groups sized to the anticipated threat. Placed under command of a HAC officer or noncommissioned officer, they were issued weapons, ammunition, communications equipment, body armor and steel helmets, and then they were assigned vehicles and dispatched to key HAC installations.

Quick Reaction Force 1, composed of troop movement specialists and special services personnel who maintained such facilities as gyms, libraries, swimming pools and movie theaters, was positioned near Tan Son Nhut Air Base. Another team made up of mechanics, drivers and clerks, QRF 2, was sent to a HAC motor pool near Phu Tho Racetrack. Quick Reaction Force 3 was dispatched to a downtown Saigon HAC motor pool, and QRF 4, consisting of commissary and storage specialists, was directed to the HAC commissary in Cholon. Similar dispositions were made for four other QRFs, which were instructed to monitor the military police network of telephone lines and radio net (call sign “WACO”).

In late afternoon, with his orders given and his forces fanning out across the city, General Irzyk sat in his now quiet office and reflected on his past experiences an-ticipating battle. He had joined the U.S. Army horse cavalry in 1940 and become a tank unit commander. Serving in France in late 1944, he recalled receiving urgent orders to quickly assemble his tank battalion, turn it 90 degrees north and begin an 18-hour, 150-mile march in bitter cold and snow aimed at a little town in Belgium he’d never heard of, Bastogne. On the way, Irzyk and his men rolled right into the Battle of the Bulge, a desperate fight that began with the American leadership being caught off guard by a massive enemy assault. Now, in steamy Saigon nearly a quarter of a century later, Irzyk assumed his disparate collection of soldiers probably believed this maximum alert was just another false alarm. The grizzled recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, four Bronze Star Medals and two Purple Hearts considered they could be right. But, then again, maybe not.

Irzyk had long ago learned that a commander needed rest before a battle, so after going over some contingencies with the incoming operations office night shift, he had his driver take him to their quarters for a few hours of sleep. Getting there took longer than usual as their sedan could only inch along through the several blocks that were teeming with festive crowds.

At 2:47 a.m., thunderous explosions suddenly awakened General Irzyk. The U.S. Embassy, the Presidential Palace and other key targets were under attack. He and his driver dashed to their car and sped out and into a now eerily deserted city—a unique sight at any hour in Saigon. As they sped through scattered gunfire at speeds hitting 60 miles per hour, Irzyk suspected that the population must have known something was going to happen.

Waved through the HAC headquarters gate, Irzyk hopped out of the car and strode into a scene of furious activity. All the phones were either being used or ringing. The WACO radio network was a chaotic cacophony of MPs reporting shootings, mortar attacks or what appeared to be assaults on facilities—seemingly coming from everywhere.

“Sir, our embassy is under attack!” the duty officer reported to the general. “MPs have been dispatched and are rushing to it.”

The HAC log for the first hour of the assault recorded nearly 50 separate action reports starting with the embassy attack at 0246 hours and followed in rapid succession with reports of attacks on five BOQs, two bachelor enlisted men’s quarters, the Vietnamese Joint General Staff Headquarters, the Rex Hotel and more.

During the next 16 hours, the pace of combat reports coming into HAC HQ—usually with dire calls for reaction forces, guards, escorts or other assistance—would only gradually diminish.

The duty officers resorted to a triage-type handling of the crisis, assessing the casualty numbers and the importance of the installation being attacked to determine the magnitude of HAC’s reaction. But early on, HAC’s top priority was the embassy, even though the Marine Security Guard detachment was responsible for its security. That was as much a result of the MP casualties sustained there as it was for the relative importance of that facility.

The first MP battle deaths came at about 2:48 a.m. Two MPs at a post just outside the embassy wall were fired on when they spotted a vehicle unloading armed Viet Cong. They quickly stepped inside the embassy grounds, slammed the gate shut and reported the incident to WACO. The VC then breached the 10-foot-tall perimeter wall with explosives. The MPs saw Viet Cong coming through the hole created by the blast and fired on them with their M-16s, killing two before being overwhelmed by the attackers, some of whom had scaled the wall. Within minutes, a two-man MP jeep patrol arrived just outside the wall, and a VC sniper killed both men. Throughout the night, Marine and HAC reaction forces were sent to the embassy where they fought the intruders and successfully defended the embassy chancery building. By 8:30 a.m., they had killed or captured all of the estimated 20 attackers, at a cost of four MPs and one Marine killed.

Meanwhile, a much bigger and far more deadly fight had been raging since 3 a.m. about 21⁄2 miles northwest of the embassy and just east of Tan Son Nhut. It began with a chance encounter and would continue well into the afternoon. The Viet Cong intended to make a battalion-size attack on the South Vietnamese Joint General Staff (JGS) compound located near a U.S. BOQ. The attackers were successful in breeching the JGS compound but would be unsuccessful in penetrating the Joint Staff office building. Much of the reason for their failure was that MPs guarding the BOQ and two MP jeep patrols encountered and engaged the VC battalion’s demolition company headed for the JGS compound. The company had AK-47s, RPGs, Claymores, explosives and grenades—all the wherewithal to break through walls and building entrances. Taken under fire in the dark by the military police, the demolition company temporarily sought cover in nearby buildings around an alley.

As at the U.S. Embassy, the MPs substantially spoiled the Viet Cong attack on the JGS compound. A HAC reaction force of about 25 MPs in a 2½-ton truck with a jeep in front and a jeep mounting a machine gun in the rear, was quickly dispatched to the BOQ. Driving with lights out in the dead of night, they chose an alley to make a stealthy approach to the BOQ. Oblivious to the Viet Cong concealed in buildings on either side, they proceeded right into a fusillade of close-range VC fire.

The MPs who survived the murderous ambush fell back and called for another reaction force as they desperately attempted to retrieve their wounded while under fire. The 35 soldiers of QRF 1, which Irzyk referred to as “my cooks, bakers and candlestick makers,” was dispatched to the alley, followed shortly by yet another MP reaction team to bolster the force to about 70 men total. As dawn broke, the firing became more concentrated and accurate. However, the VC demolition company had failed to overcome the Americans and thus to assist its comrades struggling to take the JGS compound. Although the Viet Cong were now stranded, they were still capable of stubborn resistance. With the aid of a South Vietnamese army armored car element, the MPs and QRF 1 began to recover the wounded.

Finally, an end to the alley fight came into view in the early afternoon when a U.S. armor element, two tanks and two
armored personnel carriers (APC) from the U.S. 1st Infantry Division moved in to tip the scales. One by one, buildings sheltering the attackers were reduced to rubble. At 5 p.m., after 14 hours of pitched battle, the alley fight was over, with HAC casualties totaling 17 killed and 28 wounded.

At 5:40 a.m., when the alley battle was just heating up, a frantic call from another part of town came over the net: “They got the sergeant in the guts and the driver is wounded! They’re shooting automatic weapons! We’re near the racetrack. They’re all over the place! The fire is very heavy. We need help now!”

The Viet Cong were using RPGs, and Jeep Patrol 95 was in deep trouble. A nearby HAC reaction force was dispatched to help the patrol, getting within three blocks of the Phu Tho Racetrack before dismounting and moving closer. Suddenly the reaction force was engaged in a vicious firefight and took cover. Patrol 95’s jeep burning in the middle of the road cast just enough light for them to see three bodies: Two MPs had been killed and a third was doing his best to appear dead. (He was successful and would be rescued later.) The VC clearly had fire superiority over the Americans, so another reaction force was sent—this one composed of HAC Security Guard Company soldiers that had already been suppressing VC firing at several spots and had just routed a VC attack at a BOQ in another part of the city. They rushed toward the racetrack in a 2½-ton truck.

As the Security Guard force dismounted and began moving on toward the firefight, it came across yet another jeep—with two more dead MPs. Near that spot, the VC opened up on them. The Americans responded, but in a few minutes the first lieutenant leading them, seeking cover, moved his men to a small hotel and then went to his truck to render a radio report. There he was hit and crumpled to the street. Two men were wounded trying to reach him, but the lieutenant was already dead.

Jeep Patrol 95 had had the misfortune of running into what turned out to be the largest concentration of Viet Cong forces in Saigon, centered on the Phu Tho Racetrack and a hub of streets connecting Cholon to Saigon. Within the area were a VC regimental command post and two local force battalions, of which the 6th Liberation Forces Battalion had occupied the racetrack. Viet Cong Maj. Gen. Tran Do, directing the overall attack on the CMD, had his headquarters less than two miles away to the west. He had designated the racetrack as the primary assembly point for incoming VC main force and, later, NVA units.

Realizing the enemy strength that his reaction teams were encountering, Irzyk sent another into the battle. The VC began using mortars, and as the outnumbered and outgunned HAC forces lacked the firepower to suppress them, a stalemate ensued.

It was at that precarious moment that the cavalry literally rode to the rescue. A platoon of the 17th Cavalry in four APCs (two mounting 106mm recoilless rifles), helicopter gunships, and a truck-mounted rifle company from the 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry, poured into Cholon toward the racetrack. After hours of heavy fighting by HAC forces, an experienced, well-armed U.S. ground force had finally joined them. By 1 p.m. these newcomers had fought their way to the track. Pausing briefly, they probed and spotted Viet Cong strong points, then delivered a blistering outpouring of firepower and launched an attack that drove the surviving VC out of the racetrack. As darkness fell, the Americans were reinforced and Phu Tho Racetrack was now in their hands.

For the next 20 days, tough firefights with small, disorganized and isolated groups of Viet Cong hiding among the CMD’s 3 million people continued. But the battle for those 50 square miles had been effectively decided by sunset on January 31. The critical facilities General Tran Do had to capture—the U.S. Embassy, Tan Son Nhut, the JGS compound, the Armor and Artillery Center, Naval Headquarters, Presidential Palace, Radio Saigon and the racetrack—were all in American or GVN hands.

By engaging the attackers at the embassy, the JGS compound and the racetrack before the VC could gain firm control, Irzyk’s HAC soldiers played a pivotal role in frustrating General Do’s intricate plans, and thus thwarted a catastrophic military defeat.

Their performance during those 16 hours was no accident. It was the result of several key decisions, sound leadership, skilled planning and the bravery and grit of U.S. soldiers, particularly the military policemen. Leading into Tet, Westmoreland made critical choices that contributed to HAC’s success. By eliminating any bureaucracy between himself and Irzyk, it only took one phone call to trigger Irzyk’s planning, organization and delivery of orders on January 30. Also, Westmoreland had the good sense 20 days earlier to put his own plans aside and keep troops near the CMD during Tet when he was warned of danger. The decision to beef up HAC’s combat worthiness was wise and timely. And Irzyk and his MP unit commanders put together an outstanding plan that increased surveillance of the CMD, provided widely scattered, mobile forces to quickly move to a hot spot and set up a workable communication plan to ensure smooth coordination and rapid action.

But, most of all, HAC’s victory hinged on the military police, and they paid a grave price. In the first 12 hours of the fight, 27 MPs were killed and 44 wounded while performing their secondary role as light infantrymen. If the MPs had not spotted and engaged the VC before they had a chance to fully execute their plans, the story of Tet would no doubt have been much different.

The MP units were awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, but perhaps the best indication of their courage and persistence in the Tet onslaught came from one of the captured attackers. Describing his unit’s experience in Saigon, he said that everywhere they turned, they came face to face with American MPs.

Rod Paschall was a Special Forces detachment commander in Vietnam in 1962-63, served in Laos in 1964, was a company commander and staff officer in Vietnam in 1966-68 and served in Cambodia in 1974-75. He is currently editor at large for MHQ.

Vietnam War Myth No. 4: Communist Forces Breached the U.S. Embassy in Saigon During the Tet Offensive

One of the most pivotal events of the Vietnam War was the attack by the Viet Cong on the U.S. Embassy in Saigon in 1968. Retired ambassador David F. Lambertson, who served as a political officer there, said in one account that “it was a shock to American and world opinion. The attack on the Embassy, the single most powerful symbol of U.S. presence signaled that something was badly wrong in Vietnam. The Tet Offensive broke the back of American public opinion.” Early reports by the Associated Press said the Viet Cong had occupied the building. UPI claimed that the fighters had taken over five floors.

In fact, communist forces had blasted a hole through an outer wall of the compound and hunkered down in a six-hour battle against U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. The embassy was never occupied, and the Viet Cong attackers were killed. The Tet Offensive’s other coordinated attacks by 60,000 enemy troops against South Vietnamese targets were repelled. Don Oberdorfer, writing for Smithsonian Magazine, observed that Tet was a military disaster for the North, yet it was “a battlefield defeat that ultimately yielded victory” for the enemy.

In part, that was because the erroneous reports about the embassy assault were searing and humiliating to Americans, and no subsequent military victories during Tet could dislodge the powerful notion that the war effort was doomed.

St. Cloud vet recalls long, deadly night 50 years ago defending U.S. Embassy in Saigon

Ron Harper reflects on his service in Vietnam during an interview Thursday, Jan. 18, in St. Cloud. Harper was part of Marine Corps security forces assigned to guard the U.S. embassy building in Saigon during the Tet Offensive. (Photo: Dave Schwarz, [email protected])

Viet Cong bullets pinged off the Cold Spring Granite in the lobby of the new U.S. Embassy in Saigon.

It was Jan. 31, 1968, and 20-year-old Sgt. Ronald Harper, a Central Minnesota native, could hear the voices of enemy combatants seeking to break into the building with rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47 assault rifles.

Dust and smoke filled the air that first night of the Tet Offensive, a key moment in the Vietnam War marked by Viet Cong attacks throughout U.S.-backed South Vietnam.

Five Americans and 19 of 20 Viet Cong guerrillas died in the fight at the Embassy. Harper earned a Bronze Star for his service.

Historians describe the Embassy attack and entire Tet Offensive as a turning point in favor of the North Vietnamese and against America. It showed the war was far from over. Amid growing anti-war sentiment, President Lyndon B. Johnson just two months later would call for talks to end the war and announce he would not seek re-election.

Ron Harper receives the Bronze Star for his service as a U.S. Embassy guard in Saigon during the Tet Offensive. (Photo: Photo courtesy of Ron Harper)

Now, 50 years after that attack, Harper runs his own business, Quality Appliance & TV Center, in Waite Park.He thinks regularly of that long night in Vietnam.

He remembers the comfort of a mid-fight cigarette provided by the Embassy's Vietnamese night watchman after Harper pulled him from the fray. And he remembers the Americans who died at the Embassy.

"When my son went to Iraq (in 2009), it was on my mind daily," Harper said, choking up.

The veteran, now 70, went on to have nine children with his wife, Cathy. The son who served in Iraq, Harper said, "he'll be my successor at the store."

Harper smiles easily as he talks about his work, family and life in the military and after it. He grew up in Cambridge, an hour east of St. Cloud and an hour north of the Twin Cities.

Ron Harper stands next to a large U.S. flag hanging near his office at Quality Appliance Friday, Jan. 19, in Waite Park. (Photo: Dave Schwarz, [email protected])

Harper joined the Marines in 1965. His friend came to visit for Harper's birthday and suggested they enlist together.

Harper then became part of the elite Marine Security Guard, whose members have guarded U.S. Embassies worldwide for 70 years. Harper chose the Vietnam Embassy amid the war.

The Vietnam War and Tet Offensive attacks filled the front page of The St. Cloud Daily Times on Feb. 1, 1968. (Photo: St. Cloud Times archives)

"I felt it was my duty," Harper said. "I was always very patriotic. It was in my heart all my life. I loved my country. I still do."

He held the keys to the Embassy in Saigon on Jan. 31, 1968 — 50 years ago come Wednesday. He was delivering a round of coffees to fellow servicemen on the night shift, and he was caught a few hundred yards away when Viet Cong soldiers blew through an exterior wall.

"The sky just lit up in a big explosion," Harper said.

Harper made it back to the Embassy to lock the doors, thanks to two military police officers. They fought and died there.

Harper first secured the rear doors. At the front, teak doors, he pulled in the Vietnamese staffer. A rocket injured the other Marine security guard who was bleeding profusely.

"I wrapped him up like a mummy, but I couldn't get him to be quiet," Harper said. He could hear Viet Cong fighters within 10 feet.

Ron Harper, center, receives the Bronze Star for his service as a U.S. Embassy guard in Saigon during the Tet Offensive. (Photo: Photo courtesy of Ron Harper)

Instructions came and Harper was ordered to double-check the doors. Harper found the watchman in the lobby and pulled him back again.

The guard offered Harper a cigarette then, a relief for the Marine who didn't bring his own smokes that night. Harper wasn't even supposed to work that shift because a doctor had treated him for lung-tissue inflammation called pleurisy the day prior.

The fight continued for hours outside the Embassy, and Harper kept four civilians safe in the building.

"You're tense," Harper said of the six-hour skirmish. "You didn't know what was going to happen in the next minute."

Ron Harper reflects on his service in Vietnam during an interview Thursday, Jan. 18, in St. Cloud. (Photo: Dave Schwarz, [email protected])

Daylight brought the "best feeling" after Harper listened to fire all night. After 8 a.m., American forces broke through the front gate and opened fire again, Harper said.

"Here I am safe, and now they're shooting at me," he said with a laugh.

Harper didn't go to bed for two days after the attack, he said. He was in shock and had some shrapnel injuries he didn't notice at first. "The adrenaline was so high."

The Tet Offensive prolonged his stay in Vietnam by three months. And it marked a shift in the war.

John Decker, an associate archivist at Stearns History Museum, lived through that change and served as a Navy Hospital corpsman in Japan from 1970 to 1972.

"It changed what people thought of the war," Decker said. "We came back and we weren't really welcomed."

In the whole of the Vietnam war, Stearns County military casualties reached about 37.

Decker lost friends, classmates and two cousins. "We miss every one of those guys," he said.

The U.S. lost over 16,000 troops in 1968, Decker said.

In mid-1968 Harper's term in Vietnam ended. He went on to guard the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia.

When he returned to Central Minnesota, Harper worked in retail then opened his appliance store. That was 40 years ago.

Ron Harper talks about his service in Vietnam during an interview Thursday, Jan. 18, in St. Cloud. (Photo: Dave Schwarz, [email protected])

Looking back on his service in Vietnam, Harper feels the U.S. did the right thing.

"I was in a different part of the world than the guys in the field. I didn't meet a Vietnamese person I didn't like. And I didn't meet a Vietnamese person who didn't like me," Harper said. "In my mind, they were worth fighting for."