General William C. Westmoreland had been telling the press and the president that the American, Australian, Filipino, Korean and South Vietnamese forces were winning the war against the Viet Cong (VC), and he had the statistics to prove it. Certainly a degree of demoralization existed among even the most hardline VC. The Americans had been in-country for years and continued to grow in force and numbers; in the cities, the impact of American presence, goods and televised entertainments was powerful. The Americans were tall, friendly, wealthy, and godlike to many of the native younger women and children.
Militarily, the Tet Offensive of 1968 was a disaster for the insurgency, save that North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars and VC cooperated countrywide in more or less simultaneous attacks on the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), U.S., and other troop emplacements. Politically, the offensive was a huge success, for it demonstrated–especially to the American public–that the will and capability to drive the foreigners from the country had not been broken, and the military statistics, even if true, did not tell the story of the ongoing war.
I awakened early in the morning during Tet. What had awakened me probably was a missile round fired into an ARVN tank on the road behind the house in which I rented a room on the southwest side of Pleiku. What I heard thereafter was the pop-pop of what sounded like firecrackers, but a few thuds into the house indicated that they were small-caliber rounds. The fluorescent hands of the windup alarm on the bed table indicated a few minutes after 1 a.m. When I understood what was happening, I was suitably frightened and crawled into a corner of the bedroom, pulling the bed mattress in front of me. At the time, I thought that the mattress might catch the fragments of a grenade thrown through one of the bedroom windows.
At some point, the physical pressure of my bladder and an unwillingness to void on the floor or into clothing caused me to move from the rented bedroom to the adjacent bathroom and shower. I finished quickly and scurried back to my lair, where I dressed in everyday fatigues and combat boots. I was a civilian, living in the local economy but working for Pacific Architects and Engineers. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), the Ministry of Health and other agencies had decided that I and my people would work on plague in the civilian sector during the dry season; it was a significant problem.
I remembered GIs in the house at the end of the block and a vague comment by someone that they were an Intelligence unit (G2). In the darkness, I scurried down the alleyway between my house and the next, to the drainage ditch in front of the houses and bordering the road. On knees and elbows I got to that corner house. It was surrounded by a concrete-block wall with a gate of pierced aluminum paneling. I pounded on the locked gate and yelled, asking entry.
A stately and elderly Vietnamese in traditional clothing walked from the house to the gate. He looked over the gate at me, flat on the ground, and asked what he could do. I said, ‘Let me in, please,’ and he did so. Crouching, I scurried to the front door of the building. The manservant returned at a regal pace. He was impressive.
I introduced myself. I needn’t have; they knew me although I knew none of them. Everyone was in fatigues and armed. Two windows facing south were sandbagged from the floor to a foot or so above the sill. The windows were open at the bottom, and the tops were taped, presumably to prevent glass fragments from exploding into the room. Weapons lay on the sandbags, pointed southward into the darkness. The room, a living room, was dark, but there was some light from the windowless kitchen. A youngish man with captain’s bars asked me if I had transportation. Yes, I said, a weapons carrier, down the block by my place.
‘I have wounded and they must get to the MACV hospital. I need you to take them,’ he said.
I was not particularly keen to drive around Pleiku during this attack. I asked, ‘Is the city surrounded?’
‘No idea, but if you stay here you’re no better off if they do have us surrounded. I can’t spare anyone else to take them.’
The wounded were another captain and a lieutenant. The captain had a shoulder wound and the lieutenant’s bandage covered the upper right quadrant of his face. An incoming round had glanced off of the top of one of the sandbags and, it appeared, had done the lieutenant some terrible damage.
I crawled back to my place and fired up my weapons carrier, which, I had discovered several months earlier during excitement on the road to Qui Nhon, was capable of 60 mph on potholed dirt. The wounded had to have heard my engine, for they hustled from the building to the road on the north side. We crowded into the front seat, and I drove due west, thinking to get to the outskirts of town and then north, avoiding any combatants who might have passed the G2 house and gone into the city. My lights were off.
Due west, on the road that I had intended to take, I could see in the predawn light a small group of men trotting northward, each wearing what looked like a pith helmet and carrying parallel to the ground what probably was an AK-47. The captain said, ‘Turn right,’ so I turned to the north.
We drove through town. ‘I have to stop at the club to see if our people have any wounded, too,’ I said. We civilians had a private club in the middle of Pleiku, where we raised too many glasses and enjoyed one another’s company, in preference to evenings alone in our (for many of us) solitary bedrooms. Many of the expatriates, and other Asian and Vietnamese employees and their families, had taken refuge in the small, walled compound with a locked gate. No, no one was injured, the installation director said, but everyone therein was unarmed and vulnerable. Could I bring back some weapons from MACV?
I would try, and so took leave, returning to the weapons carrier and the wounded. The G2 captain understood the request for arms; the lieutenant was in shock and not coherent. To go down fighting was one thing; to be slaughtered or herded away as captives was another. We had been told that the opposition was capable of great ruthlessness.
We drove north through the city and onto the main road going to the MACV installation. As we drove, the gray light of dawn became the bright tropical morning. We could see no one, friend or foe. The drive to the hospital was uneventful. The captain and I walked the lieutenant inside; the captain, wound and associated ills notwithstanding, said, ‘Let’s get over to HQ,’ and we did.
The captain located a bird colonel at the installation. I requested shelter in the MACV compound for my Filipino, Korean and Vietnamese workers.
‘Americans and Australians, yes, but no Asians,’ he replied. I then asked for weapons so that we could defend ourselves.
His reply was a succinct: ‘Not authorized.’
The captain, with his good arm, pulled me away. ‘Let’s go,’ he said with urgency, although I wanted desperately to plead with the colonel, or to savage him if possible. And there was an element of temptation to stay at MACV. Probably, the sense of duty to my workers was stronger than the fear, but not by much.
The captain directed me on a driving tour of the MACV compound. We stopped at each company and explained our needs. The weapons carrier filled with ammo, M-16s, an M-60, a couple of M-79s. Every grunt in the compound understood. No one refused to help. Lives might hang in the balance, and if the gear could be spared, it was.
On the east side of the compound we were on a parapet and could see over the compound’s log wall. Two officers were looking intently into the distance with binoculars. I asked what they saw.
‘Some guys setting up mortars,’ I was told.
‘Can’t a sniper nail them from here?’ I asked.
‘Orders are, don’t fire unless fired upon.’
The wounded captain and I looked blankly at each other and went on our way. I remember thinking that this was a modern military version of Through the Looking Glass.
By now, the bandage on the captain’s shoulder and his fatigue jacket had soaked through. He must have been feverish and shocky, but the civilians downtown needed some means of protection and, it seemed, he was going to see that we got it. Finally, with a full load of arms, I dropped the captain at the hospital, too anxious now to get back downtown to give him proper thanks, or even to make note of his name. He remains one of my anonymous heroes.
I drove to the civilian compound, our club, and offloaded the weaponry, then drove back to the G2 house on the south side of town. This was no priority; I did it without thought. Having once been shamed by the elderly Vietnamese servant, I walked to the gate, which now was unlocked, and then into the house. Firing was intermittent. No one else was wounded and they were happy to hear that their men were being cared for.
Down the street where I lived, a patrol of Montagnard mercenaries (‘strikers’ in Special Forces parlance) came trotting along with a Special Forces sergeant first class, distinctive in his beret. The ‘Yards’ were armed with M-16s and BARs (Browning automatic rifles). The sergeant had a sidearm only, leaving his arms free to give hand signals, which he did. The strikers, in their mid to late teens, clearly were frightened and took to crouching behind anything. The sergeant would walk over to one, kick him in the butt and yell, ‘The enemy is that way. Fire and move your ass.’ He also screamed the advice that nobody lives forever.
I heard later that the Special Forces sergeant had taken a mortal wound and, considering his disregard for enemy fire, I was amazed that he had lived as long as he had. I also was told that this was his third tour.
At the gate of our civilian compound, I honked and drove in for the second time. I had taken a grease gun (an M3, .45-caliber submachine gun) and two clips. Carrying these, I sat at the bar, the gun cradled in my lap, the clips in a side pocket of my pants. Providing booze to armed and frightened males is an invitation to serious trouble. The bartender, a local who knew that opportunities were not to be lost, took pains to collect quickly for all drinks. Some of the money even went into the till.
Every male there probably longed for a protective maternal hug. I did. In the bar, the plug had been pulled on the jukebox lest one of the drunks play it.
I climbed a tree. I wanted to know what was going on and to see whether VC and the small NVA group were moving north through the city. There was no movement to be seen. It was a hot, bright, tropical day, and even the birds were silent. From the lower branches of the tree, I could step onto the roof of the club, and, since houses and other buildings almost abutted one another, it was possible to walk across the corrugated rooftops to the southerly end of the block.
At the third roof, the corrugated steel crumpled, and I fell through onto the dirt floor of what passed for a very poor family’s living room. There was a potbelly stove with no fire and a family who looked blank-faced at me, save for a little girl who clearly was very frightened by this armed, sweaty, smelly, dirty, unshaven Yankee. I walked out their front door, with apologies for the damage, and took to the street, back to the compound–where the director now insisted that all of us stay off the roof and the trees in the compound, and that the drinking stop. There were muttered threats, but the order was obeyed.
Later, several of us crouched by the gate (paneled in aluminum sheeting from temporary landing strips, like the G2 gate) and peered at the street through holes in the sheeting. Collectively, we held our breath as an NVA patrol trotted past, headed east–we assumed that the pith helmets and fatigues were of a sort identified as NVA. There was little firing in the middle of the city, and none of us cared to advertise our presence. Children were hushed or nursed, whatever price the silence.
Late in the afternoon, with dusk approaching, we heard the buzz of an aircraft and someone said that ‘Puff’ was up. At home, Peter, Paul and Mary were singing about Puff the Magic Dragon, and Puff was the sobriquet for AC-47 gunships with the door and adjacent window removed, from which protruded ‘gatling guns.’ It was the first time that I had seen Puff, which circled slowly, left wing tilted down. Red streams, like neon, poured from the rearward door and window, accompanied by a flat brrrrp sound.
Someone told me about the firing rate, which seemed unbelievably high, and that tracer rounds were spaced in the feed so that the accuracy of firing could be determined. ‘They fire in short bursts so the equipment doesn’t get too hot,’ my informant said. From a distance it looked benign. Puff broke the attack on Pleiku.
The next day I drove around town and took pictures of some of the buildings. They were Swiss cheese, and it was clear that any living thing larger than a mid-sized dog could not have survived Puff’s fury. That innocent neon stream and brrrrp killed the attacking VC and NVA, but already the bodies had been removed by parties unknown to me. I wasn’t curious about who spirited them away.
There were some interesting local sequels to the attack on Pleiku, which apparently was milder than many of the others but no less frightening. I was told that the colonel at the MACV compound was gone within a day or two, but I had no personal knowledge of that. We civilians now looked on one another quite differently; the Filipinos, Koreans and Vietnamese were, like us, survivors, and we did not merely know them by name but now identified with them, which is quite different. None of the Orientals, by the way, drank during the attack. Their survival instincts were better honed than ours.
My work was in quelling bubonic plague among the civilian population, and it was clear that the interruption of civilian services as a result of combat would result in renewed outbreaks due to disruptions in the rat population. Sporadic fighting persisted in some areas, but my crews and I were unharmed as we went about our work in Pleiku, Kontum, Dak To and outlying areas. One round was fired at us immediately south of the Kontum landing strip. I was told that an inept and elderly VC was posted there, and because he never hit anything, he was left alone. That may have been true, but it might have been a joke. One’s sense of humor is heavy-handed in such circumstances.
One of the GIs from the G2 compound down the street asked me over one evening in April. The G2 commanding officer (CO) quietly presented me with a flamboyantly colored ‘Certificate of Achievement’ for the period February 3 through February 10, 1968, which presumably related to the plague abatement work. The others at this urban outpost sat or stood around, watching us. The CO said to me, ‘You’d get a medal if you were in uniform.’ I was flattered.
The measure had been, presumably, that I did my job and a bit more when inaction would have been understood. I had put myself in harm’s way to benefit a couple of our countrymen. In point of fact, the G2 CO had been correct at the time of the hospital run; if I had chosen to stay in my room, my fate might have been equally tenuous. The certificate was just his nice way to say thank you.
This article was written by Dr. Wayne P. Olson and originally published in the February 1998 issue of Vietnam Magazine. During the 1968 Tet Offensive Wayne P. Olson was chief entomologist for Pacific Architects and Engineers, a civilian firm under contract to the 1st Logistical Command in Vietnam.
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