Prelude to Tet
By Dan New
Three of us, young soldiers, waited in line to board our flight to Vietnam after a week of R&R in Australia. I noticed a newspaper's headline, the large font, bold and thick, PEACE TALKS. It was January 1968.
We boarded the overnight flight. I remember watching a deep violet predawn sky turn crimson red as the sun rose over the South China Sea. Smoke rose from the landscape during our final approach. The heat and stench assaulted our senses once the cabin doors unsealed. When we touched down in-country at Tan Son Nhut AFB, there were only four months remaining of my year-long tour. The trip from the airbase to our billet left us covered with the red dust of the open roads. We reached our bunks and unpacked. The next morning, we reported to our posts. A long flight home at the end of April was my lone yearning.
The first eight months of my time in Vietnam had been uneventful. My assignment at the Port of Saigon, supporting the Army's marine division, comprised of tugboats, barges, cranes, patrol boats, did not call for treks in the jungle. We transported supplies and munitions further in-country to the Mekong Delta and most units south of Long Bien. We were quartered in an old French colonial hotel where the electricity and water delivery were both sparse and erratic. Sniper fire and satchel charges were daily but after nine months of exposure, I had become accustomed to them as only interruptions rather than heart-stopping terror. Our return to the war zone was filled with expectation of a ceasefire and peace talks but there was a change. First an increase in Vietnamese funerals. What had been a once a week event now ballooned into a three or more a day. Stowed in the hearses were the weapons of the coming attacks. Next, dead bodies on the city streets, every day, young men mostly; one to the back of the head, blood pooled beneath their corpse, left strewn for all to take heed. Finally, traffic on the once crowded streets subsided. It happened gradually. I can only recall it now with my knowledge of what followed but at the time, it was barely perceptible.
Counting days to the flight home was what we all did as our time neared. It was a measure of guarantee to check off the days, one by one. When my countdown reached 90 days, it was the early morning hours of January 30, 1968. By then, the weapons and munitions smuggled to supply the divisions of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army that infiltrated the city were in place. During the predawn hours of that day, the explosions rattled our quarters. Vehicles were heard arriving and leaving the front entrance of our building. The powerful smell of exploded ordnance permeated the air we breathed.
We roused from our bunks, headed to the street, to the action. We were halted at the front door, then ordered to remain in place until further notice. We went to draw weapons from our arsenal only to be told there was no ammunition. It had gone to the Military Police fighting directly with the enemy.
Sniper fire from triangulated positions began by midmorning. We scattered and fell to the floor where we stood as the first round pierced a jalousie window at the head of the long hallway. Before those shards of glass scattered to the floor, the bullet ricocheted off a steel door than streaked down the tiled hallway like a violent skipped stone. Its path buzzed me as I clung to the wall wrapped in the fetal knot. My hands held the steel helmet in a death grip to each side of my head. Wide-eyed adrenaline coursed through my veins. A nasty panic spreading through my being. My senses received pulses of sight, sound, touch, and smell. Each one triggering a more heightened rush of anxiety that causes my mind to quest relief, only to be filled by the deafening detonations from the street battle. Rote prayers roll from my lips. Each moment brings the next wave of anxiety, trapped in this space that had been safe only hours before when I had gone to sleep and counted another day closer to home. I waited for the next round, craning my neck to see where or who the last one hit. I crawled to find cover but there was only tile and a barren hallway. An occasional round pings close by, our progress halts and our sphincters pucker.
Silence followed for minutes or hours while our collective apprehension mounted then another shot reminds us of the lack of weaponry to return fire and defend our position. Choppers circle above and jeeps with mounted machine guns race by the street, never stopping. And we waited while reports trickle through our ranks. After dark, more fire from different angles came to us. Tracer rounds revealed the spot of its origin, but we had no way to respond. Eventually, the sniper fire stopped. While it may have been days or weeks, it seemed forever. The fear triggered in those hours remains in my soul even now, remembered to this day by any scent of abandonment.
Eventually, we returned to the Port of Saigon with loaded weapons. The streets of Saigon remained empty of civilian traffic for many days on end. The bodies of the dead lay scattered throughout the city. The war never returned to its pre-TET condition. Although military leadership declared the victory.
Less than a month later, Walter Cronkite announced his assessment of the efforts in Vietnam. "For it seems now more certain than ever, that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past." Only 63 days remaining for me. As a soldier still in-country, his words seemed a call to forget us. LBJ listened to the broadcast and claimed to "have lost middle America." He chose not to seek reelection by the beginning of April. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s was assassinated a few days later. Just 3 weeks and five days to my flight. I had shipped my crate of mementos by then. Cities at home were afire.
My freedom bird lifted from Tan Son Nhut Airbase at the end of April. We landed in Travis AFB outside Oakland in the middle of the night. As I walked through the empty reception area, the sergeants directing us through the gates to our country and handing us our plane tickets home repeated over and over, "Don't wear your uniforms home, it will make you a target."
Dan New is a Vietnam Veteran who served in the US Army 1967-68.