A Tet Remembrance
By Chuck Aswell
Tet! That simple word means perhaps as much to Vietnam War historians as "D-Day" does to those of World War II. It signaled the reversal of a war effort that was, until then, quite mischaracterized, to say the least. The notion that the US was making progress in an increasingly unpopular war came to a quick halt as North Vietnamese and Viet Cong attacks rocked US bases and other facilities throughout the country for months.
I was a recently-graduated AIT soldier from Ft. Polk, LA (11B10) in January 1968. I knew, of course, that I was going to Vietnam and that I would be assigned to an infantry unit. But up until about a week before my departure from home, I was at least comforted...a little...by the news of the US success in the beleaguered country. I knew that I wasn't going to a picnic, but not a maelstrom either. January 31st changed all of that. Now, as we sailed over Alaska and the Pacific, many of us knew that this wasn't going to be good. And it wasn't.
When I arrived at Cam Ranh Bay, on February 8th, the reception and transfer base was teeming with activity. I was struck by that. It was like a city in motion...transportation, lodging, processing, food service, security, administration... What an operation! These people knew what they were doing. After maybe 6 days, including a "practice patrol" that was "attacked" (I will forever be suspicious about that!), I was sent on my journey to wherever. We were first sent to the 9th Division transfer point...Bearcat. Then we were put on a Caribou to Tan An in Long An province. From there, we were tossed on a supply truck that took us down a long dirt road through the Mekong Delta to Binh Phuoc, a small village about 6 miles from Tan An. The 5th Battalion, 60th Infantry of the 9th Infantry Division, a mechanized unit, was based in that remote region...and there I was. The 5/60th had apparently been hit hard in Saigon and we were the new recruits needed to fill the gaps. Now what?
My question was answered in a few hours. The next day, I and the other "new guys" were put on yet another supply truck that was headed to Firebase Jaeger, south of My Tho, along Highway 4...the main route from the Delta to Saigon. Jaeger was a typical remote firebase...in the middle of a vast rice plain, protected by triple-wire concertina, and the home of the 84th Artillery which supported operations in the area. It was still February. I was 21. Training was over. I had been drafted and now I was in the mix. It was sobering!
On this very day that I write this, I went on my first ambush patrol in Vietnam, 50 years ago! Our platoon, 1st Platoon, Bravo Co., 5/60th, with maybe 20 guys, set out into the paddies, west of Highway 4, which was only a narrow, dusty road. It was pre-dusk and we were moving along a dike with a woodline perhaps 70 yards to our right. The paddies were dry and the rice harvested, with dry stalks maybe 6 inches high. We were moving in-line with about 10 feet of spacing between us when the burst happened. It was instantaneous, of course, and the mental picture has been indelible.....3 red tracers that seemed to be varied, not in a straight line, about chest high. We had been fired on from the woodline. As it turned out, every guy in the platoon jumped, sensibly, over the dike to the left. My instinct, and inexperience, sent me to the ground fast, on the wrong side of the dike. I was terrified, immediately. I didn't move for fear of being seen and yet I was sure that whoever fired was slowly honing in on me for the next burst. I didn't know what to do. Only much later did I think about how two more steps forward and I would have been cut in half, perhaps literally.
I long ago concluded that whatever team or individual fired on us, they immediately ran away. That was harassment fire, but I didn't know it. I hugged the ground and heard my platoon mates quietly talking somewhere on the other side of the dike. Still thinking that I was about to be targeted, I shouted through gritted teeth in the near dark, "Hey, I'm a new guy and I'm on the wrong side of the dike. What should I do?" The reply was slow and, as I've reflected over the years, quite hilarious...but not at the time. The soldier closest to me surely stifled a yawn and said very matter of factly, "Jump over to this side." That was the only option, clearly, but I needed to be told. So, I dug in my left boot and sprang over the dike, thinking that the sniper was zeroing in on me, and I was soon to be a statistic. Of course, that sniper was pretty much sitting in his hooch by then, drinking some rice tea and sharing a story.
That was the first of a string of nights of ambush patrols. They were always fairly uneventful, but nerve-wracking after that first experience. After perhaps a week or more of constant nighttime patrols, on February 24th, we were told by a sergeant that we were going to stand down that night and have a break. We were all elated to hear this and put the beer on ice blocks and started helmet-baths to celebrate the occasion. Being new, I didn't really understand how rare this apparently was. The guys who'd been around were ecstatic because they had been pushed so hard for so long. So, it was a happy platoon.
However, this was the Army, and about an hour later....maybe an hour before dusk, the orders changed and we were told to gear up and get ready to "go out." Epithets flew and tempers ignited. But we did what we were told and headed out the gate, in line, for yet another AP. Little did we know that by going on this patrol, we may have avoided one of the most significant firebase attacks of the war.
At about 12:45 that night, two battalions of VC attacked Firebase Jaeger. We were positioned maybe a quarter of a mile away and, if sleeping, were awakened by the beginning of the attack. It escalated into a cacophony of flares, 50-caliber fire from tracks, small arms fire, gunships, artillery, and F-4s as more than 500 Viet Cong troops in shorts and bandoliers crawled up to the concertina wire and breached the perimeter. Our patrol was pinned down by the withering fire from both sides, and our platoon was therefore ordered to stay in place. The attack lasted about 3 hours. Twenty GIs were killed, 68 wounded, and more than 100 Viet Cong soldiers died. It was horrific... and the Tet Offensive continued. I had survived near-death circumstances twice within a week. On the 25th of February, while walking through the Jaeger bloodbath, I couldn't help but ponder the fact that I hadn't even been in country for a month yet. It was going to be a long year...I hoped.
I think too often about that period of time. We all have circumstances that could have changed our lives forever. What could be more definitive of life? But I had those few thrown at me so very early. And yet, I am mostly forever grateful that I've had all these years of joy since. I am a lucky man.
Chuck Aswell lives in Penn Valley, CA, and served in the 5th Battalion, 60th Infantry of the 9th Infantry Division beginning early February 1968. He is a retired teacher.