40th Tet Anniversary: The Battle for Saigon | HistoryNet MENU

40th Tet Anniversary: The Battle for Saigon

By David T. Zabecki
7/26/2018 • Vietnam Magazine

Viet Cong infiltrators had a host of key objectives scattered throughout the Saigon Circle intended to ignite the ‘General Uprising’.

On Christmas Day, 1967, Colonel Nam Truyen, the commander of the 9th Viet Cong Division, slipped into Saigon with forged papers identifying him as a student returning home for the holiday. Once inside the city, he made a thorough tour around the perimeter of Tan Son Nhut Air Base, one of his primary targets in North Vietnam Defense Minister Vo Nguyen Giap’s “General Offensive” that was slated to begin with the onset of the Tet holiday at the end of January 1968.

Earlier, on December 15, 1967, the U.S. Command had turned over sole responsibility of the defense of Saigon to the South Vietnamese military, a gesture of confidence in the growing reliability of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). The main task of securing Saigon was assigned to the 5th ARVN Ranger Group, supported by the only U.S. combat unit remaining inside the city itself, the 2nd Battalion, 13th Artillery. Meanwhile, 39 maneuver battalions from the U.S. II Field Forces were earmarked for a campaign against Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnam Army (NVA) base camps near the Cambodian border. By the time of Tet, only 14 U.S. and Free World maneuver battalions would be inside the 29-mile zone around the capital called the “Saigon Circle.”

In early January, the commander of II Field Forces, Lt. Gen. Frederick C. Weyand, didn’t like the pattern of enemy activity he was seeing. His troops in the border regions were having too few contacts, and enemy radio traffic around Saigon was getting heavier. On January 10, Weyand, a former intelligence officer and future chief of staff of the U.S. Army, made what may well have been the single most important move of the entire battle when he went to see his boss, General William C. Westmoreland, with his concerns. He convinced Westmoreland to allow a shift of some of II Field Forces’ combat power back in the Saigon Circle. When the Tet strikes on Saigon did come, 27 U.S. maneuver battalions were back inside the Circle.

By late January, intelligence estimates put 20,000 to 40,000 NVA troops around Khe Sanh, in the northwest corner of South Vietnam near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Westmoreland was now convinced that the enemy was preparing to violate the Tet truce. Still believing that the main enemy effort would be in the north, he sought cancellation of the holiday cease-fire in the ARVN I Corps tactical zone.

The initial blow did fall at Khe Sanh on January 21. Until the city attacks erupted at Tet, the attention of the entire U.S. Military and the national command structure was riveted on the far-flung Marine outpost. With the ferocious attack, the press started making comparisons between Khe Sanh and Dien Bien Phu, and Khe Sanh became an obsession for President Lyndon B. Johnson— so much so that he had a scale model of the battlefield installed in the White House Situation Room.

When the main attacks on the cities finally came, Giap’s grand plan didn’t exactly go off without a hitch. The extreme secrecy of his buildup cost him something in coordination and, ultimately, a key element of surprise. At 12:15 a.m. on January 30, Da Nang, Pleiku, Nha Trang and nine other cities in the center of Vietnam came under attack when Viet Cong units jumped off one day too early, tipping off the Americans to the impending attacks. Intelligence chief Brig. Gen. Phillip B. Davidson alerted General Westmoreland to expect the same thing across the whole country by the next day. By 9:45 a.m. on January 30, the allies canceled the Tet cease-fire for the remainder of the country. At 11:25 all U.S. units were ordered to full alert. The maneuver units inside the Saigon Circle were ordered to take up blocking positions around Saigon and the nearby Long Binh–Bien Hoa military complex.

At 1:30 a.m. on January 31, Saigon’s presidential palace was attacked by a 19-man platoon from the Viet Cong’s C-10 Sapper Battalion. By 3:40 a.m., Hue, was also under attack. The Tet Offensive was in full swing.

Before the day was over, five of six autonomous cities, 36 of 44 provincial capitals and 64 of 245 district capitals had been attacked. Except for Khe Sanh, Hue and the Saigon Circle, the fighting was over in just a few days. However, even after the first full day of nationwide fighting, the allied command still didn’t have a clear picture of what was happening. In a late-hour January 31 press conference, Westmoreland maintained that the city attacks were diversions for the main effort at Khe Sanh and the DMZ, instead of the other way around.

Perhaps the clearest indicator of the importance the enemy placed on the Saigon Circle objective was reflected in the Communist command structure for the attacks. The entire operation was under the command of Lt. Gen. Tran Van Tra, the second-highest-ranking officer in the NVA since the death of Senior General Nguyen Chi Thanh the previous July. Just prior to Christmas, Tra had shifted his headquarters from the “Fishhook” area of Cambodia and taken up residence on the outskirts of Saigon, at the headquarters of Colonel Tran Van Dac, the area’s chief VC political officer. They were joined by VC commander for the operation Maj. Gen. Tran Do.

The Communist command had eight major objectives for the Saigon Circle. They believed that with these objectives achieved would come the crippling of the Saigon government, and then the “General Uprising”—when the people of the South would rise up for the Communist cause and topple the Saigon government. Organized into one NVA and two VC divisions, a combined force comprising 35 battalions was committed to the capital.

Singly or in combination, these units were to seize and neutralize the key command, control and communications centers inside Saigon; capture the artillery and armor depots at Go Vap; and neutralize Tan Son Nhut Air Base and the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) command center. Further, they would seize the Cholon section of Saigon; destroy the Newport Bridge linking Saigon to Long Binh–Bien Hoa on Highway 1; seize the massive U.S. Logistics center at Long Binh; neutralize the U.S. Air Base at Bien Hoa and the II Field Forces and III ARVN Corps command centers. Finally, they were to block attempts by the U.S. 25th Infantry Division to reinforce Saigon from Cu Chi along Highway 1 and stop any U.S. 1st Infantry Division effort to enter Saigon from Lai Khe via Highway 13.

During the early hours of January 31, General Weyand sat in his Long Binh Tactical Operations Center watching the battle sites on his operations map light up “like a pinball machine.” Between 3 and 5 a.m., he ordered the nearly 5,000 American combat troops under his immediate control into action. Later that morning, he ordered his deputy commander, Maj. Gen. Keith Ware, a battalion commander in World War II, into Saigon to take command of all the forces he was sending into the city. As the morning dragged on, Weyand’s forces were stretched thinner and thinner. But his most pressing problem turned out to be the one that was probably the most militarily insignificant: the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.

At about 2:15 a.m., a taxi had pulled onto Thong Nhut Boulevard and driven past the American Embassy. When machine gun fire from the cab raked the front gate, the two MPs on duty, Spc. 4 Charles L. Daniel and Pfc William E. Sebast, slammed it shut and radioed for help. The compound was under assault by the same sapper platoon that struck the presidential palace earlier.

Rather than attack the gate directly, the sappers went farther down the street and blew a hole in the compound’s wall with C-4 plastic explosive. Once on the grounds, they killed Sebast and Daniel, but not before the two MPs managed to kill the VC platoon leader and his assistant. The sappers blew open the doors of the chancery with a B-40 rocket, but for some reason they never entered the building. It wouldn’t have been hard, for there were only three U.S. Marines inside. Deprived of their leader, the sappers just sat inside the compound and exchanged shots with the MPs on the outside.

Weyand, meanwhile, was under heavy pressure from his headquarters to regain control of the embassy. At 5 a.m. he sent a helicopter carrying troops from the 101st Airborne Division. They tried to land on the chancery roof but were driven off by heavy fire from the sappers on the ground. Another air insertion at 8 a.m. was successful, and the embassy cleared of sappers.

Meanwhile, another VC C-10 Battalion platoon hit gate Number 5 of the ARVN Joint General Staff (JGS) compound at 2 a.m. The first attack was driven back, and the 1st and 2nd VC Local Force Battalions were brought up to continue the assault. At 4 a.m. a truckload of American MPs, racing to answer a trouble call from an American officers’ billet near the ARVN compound, was ambushed in an alley by a VC company. The ensuing alley fight lasted 12 hours, with 16 American MPs killed and 21 wounded. In the meantime, by 9:30 a.m., other VC forces managed to breach the JGS compound but were quickly driven out and routed by a reaction force of ARVN paratroopers.

A few blocks north of the U.S. Embassy, still another platoon of the ubiquitous C-10 Battalion hit the National Radio Station. The station had been reinforced during the night by a platoon of ARVN paratroopers, almost all of whom were sound asleep on the roof when the attack started. The sappers took up positions in an adjacent apartment building where they could fire down on the ARVN soldiers. After killing all the paratroopers, the sappers had little difficulty taking over the station. Accompanied by an NVA radio specialist who carried prerecorded tapes, they were prepared to broadcast the fall of the Saigon government and the beginning of the General Uprising. Their plans fell apart when the night crew at the transmission site 14 miles away shut down the link at the last minute.

The ARVN depot complex at Go Vap, on the northern edge of the city, was the primary objective of the 101st VC Regiment. Its plan called for the capture of ARVN tanks from the Phu Dong Armored Headquarters and howitzers from the Co Lao Artillery Headquarters. These heavy weapons were then to be used by specially trained troops to assault the east end of Tan Son Nhut Air Base, about a mile away. Both assaults were successful, but once inside Phu Dong, the VC discovered that the tanks had been moved elsewhere. At Co Lao, the VC did manage to capture 12 105mm howitzers, but found the weapons had been disabled at the last minute when the withdrawing ARVN troops removed the firing locks. A few hours later, the Go Vap complex was retaken by the 4th Vietnamese Marine Corps Battalion.

The following day, just north of the city, the U.S. 1st Infantry Division turned the tables on the force that was supposed to block the “Big Red One” from reinforcing Saigon. Moving southeast along Highway 13, the Americans ran into the 273rd VC Regiment, which took up defensive positions near Phu Loi but was caught there by the division’s artillery and sealed in the box by the infantry. Two days and 3,493 artillery rounds later, the 273rd was destroyed as an effective fighting unit.

During the evening of January 30, a large VC force infiltrated the Vinatexco textile factory across Highway 1 from Tan Son Nhut. At about 3:20 a.m. on February 1, three VC battalions stormed the western side of the air base, which also housed the MACV command headquarters. Secondary attacks were also launched against the north and east gates. Even though the armor and artillery that were to come from Go Vap never arrived, Communist forces breached the western perimeter and made it onto the runway.

The base was defended by an oddly assorted reaction force consisting of a Security Police squadron, two platoons of MACV Headquarters’ guard force, the ARVN 52nd Regional Force Battalion and Vice-President Nguyen Cao Ky’s bodyguard. The base’s only reserve consisted of two ARVN 8th Airborne Battalion companies, men who had been sitting in the Tan Son Nhut terminal awaiting air transport north to reinforce the DMZ. By 4:15 a.m., this reserve had been committed and attackers and defenders were fighting hand-to-hand on the western end of the runway. Calls for help went out to the U.S. 25th Infantry Division at Cu Chi, about 15 miles northwest of Saigon.

The 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry, had already been alerted for a possible relief mission to Tan Son Nhut. When the call came, squadron commander, Lt. Col. Glenn K. Otis, was ordered to immediately commit his Troop C. As the armored cavalry troop, under the command of Captain Leo B. Virant, raced down Highway 1 in the dark, Otis flew overhead in his command-and-control helicopter, harassing VC ambush sites and guiding the troops around danger zones by dropping flares nearby.

One platoon of Troop C was left to secure the Hoc Mon Bridge, just north of the base. Colonel Otis then returned to Cu Chi to rearm and refuel, and the rest of Troop C crashed into the rear of the three VC battalions at about 6 a.m. The VC responded with rocket-propelled grenades, and about a third of the armored column was destroyed. Captain Virant was seriously wounded, but the cohesion of the VC attack was badly disrupted.

American troops from the destroyed vehicles were fighting from the ditch alongside the highway and rapidly running out of ammunition. Unable to establish contact with Allied forces inside the base, Troop C radioed back to Cu Chi for help. Colonel Otis got the call and immediately headed back for Tan Son Nhut. The platoon guarding the Hoc Mon Bridge arrived at 7:15 a.m. Otis then called in his air cavalry troop. Ammo was brought in by air, the wounded were evacuated, and Otis directed the air troop’s gunships against the attackers.

Troop B was then called in from its alert position about 30 miles away. Racing down Highway 1, it reached Tan Son Nhut in about 45 minutes. Otis positioned it across the enemy’s north flank, effectively putting the VC in a right angle between two armored columns. More gunships and artillery pounded the enemy, now firmly fixed in the “L.” By 10 a.m., the attack had folded and many of the VC fled back into the textile mill, which was later leveled by air strikes. Around the base perimeter, mop-up operations continued into the night.

Thirteen miles to the east, the Long Binh–Bien Hoa complex was simultaneously attacked by the 5th VC Division. There, too, the battle was decided by armored and mechanized forces. The previous night, the 9th Division’s 2nd Battalion, 47th Infantry (Mechanized), under the command of Lt. Col. John B. Tower, had moved into alert positions outside the cities. At 4:45 a.m. on January 31, Weyand ordered it forward.

Company A was sent to relieve the attack on a large allied POW compound maintained between the two cities on Highway 1. Company B was sent to reinforce the already breached perimeter of the Long Binh ammo dump. Company C, commanded by Captain John Gross, was sent to relieve the attack on the ARVN III Corps headquarters in Bien Hoa City.

Company B arrived at the ammo dump at 6:30 a.m. Some of the soldiers joined in the fight to eject the intruders, while others helped ordnance personnel remove and disarm satchel charges already placed in many bunkers by VC sappers. Among the soldiers in B Company that day was young Spc. 4 Chuck Hagel, who many years later would become a U.S. senator from Nebraska. Company A, meanwhile, attacked from the Long Binh base across Highway 1 into elements of the 275th VC Regiment in Ho Nai Village and “Black Widow Village,” so called by U.S. troops because many widows of VC officers were thought to live there.

To reach the ARVN III Corps headquarters, Company C had to fight its way through the middle of the 275th VC Regiment astride Highway 1 and through the flank of the 274th VC Regiment attacking Bien Hoa Air Base. At 5:45 a.m., it plowed into the rear of the 238th VC Battalion attacking the III Corps compound. Company C attacked and overran the besieged ARVN positions.

Company C continued to fan out from the III Corps compound, fighting house to house. After months of jungle fighting, these men suddenly found themselves engaged in World War II–style street fighting. As disorienting as the abrupt change was for the Americans, they adapted to it much faster than their enemy, using M79 grenade launchers with deadly effect against VC riflemen firing from the upper stories of buildings. When Bien Hoa City was finally cleared by 5:30 that evening, Company C had taken only eight walking wounded.

While Company C fought to secure Bien Hoa City, Troop A of the 9th Division’s 3rd Squadron, 5th Cavalry, was sent to relieve the attack on Bien Hoa Air Base. The troop, commanded by Captain Ralph B. Garretson, had to move 18 miles down Highway 1 and run the same gauntlet as Company C had. At the town of Trang Bom, Troop A was hit by a company-sized ambush, but just rolled right through it, the men firing as they went. Ten miles from Bien Hoa, they were momentarily stopped cold when the VC blew a highway bridge after Troop A’s first tank rolled across. The troop’s M-113s could ford the stream, but the tanks could not and it was once again on the move, but with only one of its tanks.

The cavalry column had to fight through Bien Hoa City to reach the air base. It lost two armored personnel carriers (APC), reducing the relief force to only one tank and eight APCs. As the relief column rolled out of the city toward the air base, squadron commander Lt. Col. Hugh J. Bartley spotted another large ambush from his command-and-control helicopter. At Bartley’s direction, the column detoured around the ambush site, firing into the ambushers’ rear as it went.

Troop A reached the air base and linked up with the 101st Airborne Division’s 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry, which had been brought in by helicopter at dawn. Together they pushed the attackers off the eastern end of the field in a fight that took most of the day. Troop A lost two more APCs. Its lone tank took 19 hits and lost two crews, but was still operational when the battle was over.

The fight for Long Binh-Bien Hoa ended on the evening of February 1 with the arrival of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, after an eight-hour forced march from War Zone C.

The teeming Chinese section of Cholon, in Saigon’s southwest corner, was the Communists’ key population objective inside the Saigon Circle. Cholon was initially attacked by the 5th and 6th VC Local Force Battalions. As the fighting dragged on into days—and then into weeks—elements of every Communist unit known to be operating in Saigon were eventually identified there.

The key to Cholon was the Phu Tho Racetrack. It was at the hub of most of the key streets in the area and, by holding it, the VC could deny its use as a landing zone. Early on January 31, Weyand ordered Brig. Gen. Robert C. Forbes, commanding general of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, to send some of his troops to reinforce ARVN rangers in Cholon. The elements from the 199th had to be shifted from their defensive positions at Long Binh, making the huge logistics complex just that much more vulnerable.

The 6th VC Local Forces Battalion had little trouble taking the racetrack. From there, a large number of Communist political cadres fanned out to work through the huge urban sprawl. Some tried to whip up support for the General Uprising. Others went to serve arrest and execution warrants on government figures and ARVN officers in the area. A monthlong reign of terror in Cholon had begun.

Company A, 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry, and the 199th’s reconnaissance troop reached Cholon at about 8 a.m. on January 31. Six blocks from the racetrack, a rocket-propelled grenade hit the lead APC in the column, killing the platoon leader. Communist troops began to fire down onto the column from the surrounding buildings. The infantry dismounted and continued fighting house to house, exactly as their colleagues in the 2nd Battalion, 47th Infantry, were doing in Bien Hoa City at that very moment.

By 1 p.m., Company A had pushed to within two blocks of the racetrack. The VC then withdrew to prepared positions behind the concrete benches at the track. Company A assaulted the position, but was repulsed. At 4:30 it tried again, this time supported by helicopter gunships. The Americans succeeded in taking the track, but the VC troops melted away into the streets of Cholon. Shortly after dark, Companies B and C of the 3rd Battalion of the 7th Infantry were brought onto the racetrack by helicopter.

The next morning, the troops at the racetrack were reinforced by two ARVN mechanized companies. Using the racetrack as a base of operations, they started working outward to clear Cholon. The VC tried to retake the racetrack later that day, but they were beaten back.

The tedious city fighting ground on. By February 3, the South Vietnamese had five ranger, five marine and five airborne battalions inside Saigon. The Americans had committed seven infantry, one MP and six artillery battalions. On February 5, the ARVN 5th Ranger Group started an operation to finally clear Cholon. For political and prestige reasons, the South Vietnamese joint general staff requested that the Americans pull out of Cholon and allow the ARVN to finish the job. However, by February 10, they were requesting that the Americans be sent back in.

In the north, Hue was retaken on February 25. Cholon was finally cleared on March 7. Hoping to save some face, the Communists stepped up their pressure on Khe Sanh, but in a traditional set-piece battle such as that, they had no reasonable expectation of overcoming American firepower and air superiority.

About March 20, the NVA units around Khe Sanh began to melt away. On April 1, Operation Pegasus, the ground relief of Khe Sanh, was launched. Enemy opposition was light. A few weeks later, Colonel Tran Van Dac, the chief VC political officer for Saigon, defected. The Tet Offensive was over.

Militarily, the Tet Offensive had been a tactical disaster for the Communist forces. By the end of March, they had not achieved a single one of their objectives. More than 58,000 VC and NVA troops died in the process, as opposed to just under 4,000 U.S. and 5,000 ARVN deaths. By attacking everywhere at once, Giap had superior strength nowhere. He achieved great surprise, but he was unable to exploit it.

Analyzing the battle for the Saigon Circle, General Weyand later concluded that it had actually been a large collection of relatively small independent actions. The assault had been launched piecemeal, and it was repulsed piecemeal. The NVA would not make that mistake again. When they returned to Saigon in April 1975, Senior General Van Tien Dung massed 130,000 troops in 18 divisions for the final assault on the South Vietnamese capital that has been known officially as Ho Chi Minh City ever since.

 

Originally published in the February 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here

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