Lt. Col. John E. Gross Recalls the Tet Battles of Bien Hoa and Long Binh

6/12/2006 • Vietnam

A great deal has been written about the battles of Tet 1968 and the political firestorm that resulted from them. Less has been written about the danger, turmoil, chaos, confusion, contradictions and outright lunacy that confronted individual units as they responded to VC attacks on the morning of January 31. This is the story of one rifle company, and what it faced on that decisive day. Mainly it is the story of some of the finest solders to ever wear the uniform of the U.S. Army and how they reacted not only to fierce combat, but also to the fog of war.

In April 1967 I was a first lieutenant commanding a rifle company in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C. I had been in command for five months and had been assured that I would be in command for one year, which suited me fine. My plan was to make captain and go to Vietnam as an experienced company commander. Since I was in an airborne unit, I was sure I would go to the 173rd Airborne Brigade or the 101st Airborne Division.

I was disappointed when I received orders to join the 9th Infantry Division. Not only would I not finish my command tour, I was being assigned to a leg division. When I arrived at 9th Division in June, I was shocked to learn that I was going to a mechanized battalion. I had assumed I would be assigned to one of the battalions in the Delta where I could use my light infantry and Ranger school experience. The only contact I had had with M-113 armored personnel carriers (APCs) was during a training exercise at the officers’ basic course just after I entered the Army.

When I arrived at the 2nd Battalion (Mechanized), 47th Infantry, nicknamed the Panthers, Lt. Col. Arthur Moreland, the commander, asked me what job I wanted. I told him that I wanted to command a company. He said I would have to wait. I was to be a platoon leader again, in Charlie Company, commanded by Captain John Ionoff. After commanding 180 paratroopers, taking on four APCs and 40 troops seemed like a dream–except that now I was responsible for troops in combat, not training.

In mid-September, when Ionoff moved to battalion to become the operations officer (S3), I assumed command of Charlie Company. In October, the 2-47 was given the mission of securing engineers as they cleared Highway 1 from Xuan Loc to the II Corps boundary near Phan Thiet. During this time, the battalion made only sporadic contact and suffered few casualties.

As my airborne mentality faded, I learned to love the M-113–or ‘track,’ as we called it. We could haul more personal gear, live more comfortably and walk less than straight-leg troops. Each APC could carry almost as much ammunition as a dismounted rifle company, and in a fight, the company had 22 .50-caliber machine guns, a 106mm and several 90mm recoilless rifles, and more radios and M-60 machine guns than a walking company could ever carry. In addition, we were tremendously flexible. We could ride, walk or be airlifted to war, travel great distances in a short amount of time, and arrive with many times the ammunition and equipment that could be lifted in by helicopter. We could use our tracks as a base of fire or in a blocking position as the company maneuvered dismounted. We carried concertina wire, sand bags and hundreds of Claymores and trip flares to make our defensive positions practically impenetrable.

As time passed, I became a mechanized soldier. So, when I was offered a chance to go to II Field Force to help establish a new long-range reconnaissance patrol outfit, I actually turned it down to stay with the company.
Dismounted troops of the 2nd Battalion (Mechanized), 47th Regiment, 9th Infantry Division, stay close to their M-113 armored personnel carriers (APCs) as they clear Widow’s Village, near Long Binh Army Post, of Viet Cong who had overrun it during the Communist 1968 Tet Offensive (National Archives).

During December we made little enemy contact, probably because the Communists were lying low preparing for Tet. In January 1968, our battalion relocated to the area between Xuan Loc and Bien Hoa, where intelligence had located a VC battalion. On January 23, during a battalion sweep of a heavily jungled area south of Highway 1, Alpha Company walked into a well-camouflaged, well-defended enemy bunker system and was badly mauled, losing four men killed and more than 20 wounded, including almost all of the officers. Charlie Company reacted quickly to reinforce Alpha, and a daylong fight ensued. Toward dark, airstrikes had to be called in to blast the VC from the hill. The battle was significant, since Alpha’s leadership was seriously depleted during the days immediately prior to Tet.

Following that fight, the 2-47 was ordered south of the 9th Division’s base camp. During the last week of January, the battalion patrolled the jungles east of Highway 15, near the Binh Son rubber plantation.

When the Tet cease-fire period began on January 28, the battalion was called back to the vicinity of Bear Cat, and Charlie Company was ordered to a large open field across Highway 15 from the Long Tan airfield. From our positions, we could see and hear the fireworks lighting the sky over Saigon to the west. Besides the fireworks, ARVN soldiers had linked tracer bullets together and were stitching the darkness with weaving streams of machine gun fire.

The II Field Force commander, Lt. Gen. Frederick C. Weyand, had correctly guessed that a major attack was going to come during Tet, and his anticipation of the attacks no doubt saved Long Binh and Saigon from being overrun. The 2-47 was one of several units General Weyand pulled in from the jungles to guard the Long Binh headquarters and logistical complex 15 miles northeast of Saigon.

During the morning of January 30, the 2-47 Mech was notified that the Tet cease-fire was canceled, and the unit was deployed into a defensive line along the road that ran around the east side of the Long Binh base. The recon platoon was ordered to establish a blocking position south of Long Binh on Highway 15. The 1st Platoon of Bravo Company was made the II Field Force reaction force and was placed in the PX parking lot at Long Binh. Charlie Company’s 3rd Platoon was also detached for a security mission inside the base. Alpha Company, still licking its wounds from the January 23 fight, was left intact.

The three companies formed a line almost three kilometers long, facing to the east, with their backs to the Long Binh wire. All of these placements were made with the wrongful assumption that the VC would attack from the jungles outside the base. In fact, the Communists had already infiltrated the city of Bien Hoa, suburban Ho Nai village and Widow’s Village, where pensioned families of deceased ARVN soldiers lived. Widow’s Village made a perfect attack position for the VC, since it lay directly across Highway 316 from II Field Force headquarters in the Long Binh complex. Dressed as travelers returning to ancestral homes for the Tet holiday, the guerrillas had quietly drifted into their urban assembly areas and put together their weapons.

As the afternoon of January 30 drifted toward dusk, Charlie Company soldiers stripped to the waist and dug bunkers next to their M-113s. Later, as the sun sank over the Long Binh base, they tossed a football and ate cold C rations. That night, no one slept, but instead scanned the jungles with Starlight scopes, seeing nothing.

At 0300 hours I received a call from Major Bill Jones, who had recently taken Ionoff’s place as S3, stating that Bien Hoa airbase, the Long Binh facility, the II Field Force headquarters and the 199th Light Infantry Brigade (LIB) base camp were under heavy mortar and rocket attack. This was no surprise to us, since we could plainly hear the enemy rounds slamming into Long Binh.

As was our normal practice, each company had sent two ambush patrols into the jungle to our front. At 0400 Jones ordered us to pull in our ambushes and be prepared to move. The S3 also told Charlie Company’s noncombatants to report to battalion headquarters. We all knew that these moves were more than just precautionary. Something was definitely about to happen.

We packed up all of our gear, rolled up our concertina wire and waited. I was not sure what to do about the bunkers we had dug. Battalion policy was that we had to fill in all holes and empty our sandbags each time we left a position. The idea was to leave nothing the VC might use against us. I called battalion headquarters and asked what to do about the bunkers. I was told to forget about them, which reinforced our feeling that this situation was different and that combat was certainly imminent.

At about 0600, Lt. Col. John Tower, the new battalion commander, called with orders. Normally, operations orders issued over the radio were encoded and sent by the S3’s radio operator. Here was another sign that the situation was serious: The battalion commander personally gave out map coordinates of company objectives in the clear.Alpha Company was ordered to the 199th LIB compound, which was under attack. Now commanded by a brand-new second lieutenant, the men of Alpha Company balked when they were told to move. Tower sent the battalion S3, Major Jones, to take command, and once Alpha got moving, it did a magnificent job. Bravo Company was sent to protect the Long Binh ammunition dump, and Charlie Company was ordered into downtown Bien Hoa, where the ARVN III Corps headquarters was in danger of being overrun.

After I received the coordinates of our objective, I yelled, ‘Crank ’em up!’ into the radio handset, and we moved out. We rolled through Long Binh and out the main gate, then turned left onto Highway 316. The 2nd Platoon, under Lieutenant Fred Casper, led the way, followed by my track, then Lieutenant Howard Jones’ 1st Platoon and, finally, the weapons platoon under Lieutenant Don Muir. The Commo track, C-007, nicknamed Abdula and the Rug Merchants, with then- Pfc (and current Vietnam editor) David Zabecki behind the .50-caliber, brought up the rear. We charged southeast down Highway 316 to the Highway 15 intersection, located on a small hill overlooking the 90th Replacement Company. As we rolled by, we looked down into the compound and saw soldiers in khakis, boarding passes in hand, milling about. But no one would be leaving the country that day.

As we turned right onto Highway 15, an unbelievable spectacle stretched before us. Having been struck by mortars or rockets, the fuel tanks at the air base, as well as several buildings throughout Bien Hoa, were burning brightly. Flames illuminated the clouds, forming an eerie glow; flares hung in the sky and helicopter gunships crossed back and forth firing red streams of tracers into the city.

Through sporadic fire, we continued northwest on Highway 15 to where it intersected Highway 1 on the western edge of Bien Hoa. As we made the turn eastward on Highway 1, the lead platoon was ambushed. We opened up with everything we had and kept driving. We had run through the rear of the 274th VC Regiment, which was attacking the airfield. As we cleared the ambush, the column suddenly came to a halt because of some kind of block in the road; simultaneously, someone keyed the company net. With a push-to-talk button stuck in the transmit position, no one could use the radio. I jumped down and ran from track to track, pounding on the sides and yelling, ‘Check your handsets!’ As I ran back through the weapons platoon, I came upon an unbelievable sight. With small-arms fire cracking overhead, young girls carrying bottles of Coca-Cola were trying to sell them to the troops.
M-113 APCs of the 9th Infantry Division storm VC positions 200 meters outside II Field Force headquarters at Long Binh on February 1, 1968. (National Archives)

After the roadblock was cleared and communications restored, Charlie Company continued toward its objective. At 0700, as daylight was breaking, my track rolled past the ARVN III Corps compound gate. Realizing we were driving past our objective, I halted the company and called for the 2nd Platoon to find a place to turn around. As the C-23 track Stormy, which was in the lead, turned into a side street, an RPG slammed into its front, smashing the radiator and wounding several soldiers. A VC guerrilla hiding behind a parked ARVN jeep had fired the rocket. Despite the confusion and wounds, our troops returned fire. The VC who had fired the RPG slipped away, but Pfc Jim Love, who was tossed into a sewage ditch by the explosion, remembers ‘killing the jeep’ with his M-16.

Several soldiers gathered in front of the track to help the wounded, and Love climbed up to man the .50-caliber. Just then a three-man VC RPG team calmly walked across the street right in front of the damaged APC. Love was so startled, he didn’t fire.

‘I realize now that the track was high enough that the rounds would have passed over’ the troops in front of the vehicle, Love recalls. ‘I yelled at Lieutenant Casper and everybody looked around as the VC tore out running the last few yards to safety. We threw grenades over the wall behind them, but hit nothing.’

Under fire, Staff Sgt. Benny Toney, the 2nd Platoon sergeant, hooked a tow cable to Stormy. The 2nd Platoon pulled the damaged track out of the side street and towed it back to the III Corps compound. There, Charlie Company soldiers joined ARVN and U.S. MACV soldiers manning the walls. Zabecki remembers taking his place on the wall with his M-79. Our arrival had canceled fears that III Corps headquarters might be overrun.

As our medics treated the wounded, I reported to the American lieutenant colonel who was the III Corps G3 adviser. Tower had called and told me that Charlie Company was under the operational control of III Corps and I was to take my orders from them. Those orders were for us to clear the VC from the houses surrounding the corps headquarters. I assigned areas of operation to my two rifle platoons and positioned the weapons platoon inside the compound as a reserve and security force. Their 81mm mortars were useless, since we were told we could not put any indirect fire into the town.

Charlie Company soldiers, used to months of patrolling and fighting in the jungles, suddenly found themselves fighting house to house as their fathers had done in World War II. During this fighting, both platoon leaders were wounded, Lieutenant Casper in the leg and Lieutenant Jones in the foot. The two of them refused evacuation and neither reported his wound. They both hobbled through the rest of the day’s fighting.

The combat around III Corps headquarters was intense. According to the official history of the VC 5th Division, the 3rd Battalion, 5th VC Regiment, supported by the Bien Hoa Sapper Company, had the mission of overrunning the compound, which was defended by about 15 ARVN soldiers and a smattering of MACV advisers. Charlie Company slammed into the VC before they could get their attack organized.

Sergeant John Ax, squad leader of 1st Squad, 2nd Platoon, recalls what the fighting near III Corps was like: ‘An RPG hit Shocker, the C-21 track, in the side; but it must have been a glancing blow, because it did not explode. It knocked a dimple in the side of the track as I fired up the gunner.’

Later in the fighting, Casper and several 2nd Platoon troops were pinned down next to a building. Casper rose from a prone position and yelled for his troops to follow him. ‘When Lieutenant Casper jumped up, our legs became entangled and I tripped him,’ Ax remembers. ‘As he fell, a burst of automatic weapons fire stitched the wall right where he would have been had he not fallen.’

Fred Casper, one of the bravest of the brave, was killed during the May offensive at the Y Bridge in Saigon, leading from the front as was his custom.

After we finished clearing the area around the compound and as our wounded were being dusted off, I received an absolutely incredible order from III Corps. The G3 adviser told me that they had received intelligence that Vo Nguyen Giap, the North Vietnamese commanding general (the enemy equivalent of General William Westmoreland), had his command post in a Catholic church about a kilometer east of III Corps. We were ordered to go to that church and detain every male between the ages of 16 and 80. To get to the church, we had to run a gantlet of fire, through the VC 238th Regiment and into the flank of the 275th, which was fighting the 2-47’s scout platoon in Widow’s Village. We fired everything we had into the buildings lining the roadway and took several wounded while getting to the church.

When we arrived, we found the churchyard packed with thousands of civilians seeking refuge. I called III Corps and reported that we had detained all of these people, and was told to wait until the Vietnamese National Police arrived to take charge. A few minutes later, a jeep drove up carrying two extremely frightened white-shirted policemen. As best I could, I explained that they were to take charge and that General Giap might be among the civilians. They bowed and looked confused.

Meanwhile, Charlie Company was ordered back to III Corps. As we turned around to head back west, a tremendous blast shook the whole city of Bien Hoa. The Long Binh ammunition dump had exploded. Sappers had placed satchel charges on pallets of artillery ammunition, and the resulting mushroom cloud caused all its witnesses to think the VC had employed a tactical nuclear weapon.

We suffered more wounded during the trip back to III Corps, where I was called to a meeting in the headquarters. As I walked around the front of a track, the .50-caliber gunner accidentally hit the trigger and pumped five rounds into the ground about three feet in front of me. All I could think of to say was, ‘Please clear that weapon!’During the meeting, a master sergeant adviser to a Vietnamese ranger battalion ran into the compound. His battalion was in heavy contact and he had several wounded rangers he needed to evacuate. He wanted to borrow one of our tracks. When the G3 adviser told me to lend the rangers a track, I told the sergeant that the M-113 was not a tank and to be extremely careful with it. He manned the .50 and, with a Charlie Company driver, started off down Highway 1. About 30 minutes later, the track came back with only the driver, who reported the ranger sergeant had been killed and that it had been impossible to evacuate the wounded.
On February 2, 12968, an APC passes buildings damaged by the Americans in the course of flushing out enemy troops from their hiding places in Bien Hoa. (National Archives)

At the meeting I was joined by the S3 of a battalion from the 101st Airborne Division. The Vietnamese brigadier general, who was the ranking man at III Corps, drew circles around two equal-sized areas of downtown Bien Hoa. He assigned one to the airborne battalion and the other to Charlie Company. When I pointed out that the 101st Battalion had more than 500 troops and I had only two line platoons and fewer than 90 troops, he said, ‘You’re mechanized, you’re very strong.’

I told him we could not take the tracks off Highway 1 and into town because the streets and alleys were too narrow. He waved me off. Charlie Company would get the mission. I walked back to my track, thinking this was going to be a real nightmare. I told the platoon leaders to prepare to dismount and to take all the ammunition and grenades they could carry. At that time, I received a call on my company frequency from the battalion commander, Colonel Tower, asking how things were going. I told him about the order to clear an area of operations equal in size to that assigned the airborne battalion.He said: ‘Forget that. I’ve just been told you work for me again. Come back up on the battalion freq.’

I was never so happy in my life. The Vietnamese general and the III Corps G3 adviser, however, were not very happy when we pulled out. We left the clearing of Bien Hoa City in the capable hands of the 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry.

Tower ordered Charlie Company to attack eastward to clear the village of Ho Nai, a suburb of Bien Hoa. I had learned no tactic at infantry school that fit the situation we were faced with, so we improvised. What we came up with was a ‘T’ formation. I dismounted the platoons and placed them on line on each side of the road: the second on the left, or north, and the first on the right, or south. The platoons attacked by successive bounds through the village as the company’s tracks, forming the base of the ‘T’ on the highway, provided fire support from the .50s and resupplied the troops with ammunition.

The progress was slow and ammunition was becoming a scarce, particularly grenades, which city fighting consumes at an enormous rate. As the 2nd Platoon began to run short, Spc. 4 Joseph Dames was tasked to return to the tracks for more grenades. ‘Sugar Bear’ Dames, as he was called by his many friends, walked down a side alley toward the highway. Suddenly he came upon a VC RPG team drawing a bead on my command track, which was marked as a prime target by the number of radio antennas jutting from it. Unfortunately for them, the hapless VC had no weapons other than the RPG launcher, and Dames dispatched them with a burst from his M-16. His action probably saved the lives of everyone on my track.

As enemy resistance stiffened, we realized we had bottled at least a company of the VC 275th Regiment in the village. The 2-47’s scout platoon had just finished a brutal fight in Widow’s Village, and at 1600 hours, it was ordered to move to the junction of Highways 1 and 316, and to attack westward through the village of Ho Nai toward Charlie Company, in the hope of pinning the VC between us. As 1st Lt. Brice Barnes led his scout platoon into the edge of Ho Nai, he ran full speed into a hornet’s nest. Several of his tracks were hit by RPGs and surrounded by the enemy. Listening to the scouts’ desperate fight on the radio, Charlie Company attacked with renewed vigor as we tried to get to Barnes and his men.

As we fought our way toward the scout platoon, we were blocked by two large churches that were directly across Highway 1 from each other, both occupied by the VC. The 2nd Platoon took on the one on the north side of the road, and the 1st Platoon attacked the other. Troops opened their attacks with volleys of grenades, then went in shooting. The churches were cleared in short order.

After the battles for the churches, there occurred one of the most bizarre incidents of the day. An MP full colonel, along with a deputy sheriff from Los Angeles (dressed in his deputy uniform) and two jeeploads of Vietnamese National Police, drove up to my track. The colonel explained that since we were infantry soldiers and did not know the proper method of searching a house, he and his crew had come to teach us. I explained to the colonel that this was not a police action, and that we weren’t searching houses, we were in combat. He ignored me and proceeded to a nearby house where he and the deputy sheriff kicked in the front door. A burst of VC machine gun fire erupted nearby, causing the colonel, the deputy and their Vietnamese escorts to pile into their vehicles and roar off in the direction from whence they had come. We never saw them again.

As the sun sank low, we closed within a few hundred meters of the scout platoon and watched as helicopter gunships destroyed a large yellow house from which the VC were pinning down Barnes’ troops. As the Hueys’ rockets smashed the VC strongpoint, the scouts fought their way out of the encirclement and evacuated their dead and wounded. Lieutenant Barnes and one of his soldiers would be awarded Distinguished Service Crosses for their heroism that day.

As the scouts escaped, the volume of enemy fire began to slacken, then died altogether. All day civilians had been darting from their homes and running from the fighting. Now someone pointed out that there were a lot of young men, all dressed in black pants and white shirts, among the refugees. Simultaneously, platoon leaders reported finding discarded AK-47s. Then a report came in that a body had been found wearing a white shirt under a black pajama tunic. It then dawned on us that the VC were throwing down their weapons, changing clothes and slipping away. We began detaining the well-dressed young men among the refugees.

Meanwhile, Huey gunships reported VC running from the village. The armed helicopter teams had a field day shooting guerrillas who tried to escape to the nearby jungles. We found out later from captured VC that many guerrillas had been given only two magazines for their weapons. They had been told that the population would rise up against the Americans and that there would be plenty of captured U.S. weapons to fight with. The VC had run out of ammunition and were trying to escape.

As darkness settled in, Charlie Company was ordered to move back the way it had come, to the junction of Highways 1 and 316, where we would form a screen in front of the 199th LIB base camp. As we rolled back through Bien Hoa, we were astounded to find the battalion S4, Captain Leroy Brown, in the middle of town with a 5,000-gallon fuel tanker and several ammunition trucks. Bringing that volatile convoy through the city, which had not been totally cleared and was still burning in many places, was a tremendously heroic act. We topped off our fuel tanks, replenished our ammo and continued to move toward our assigned blocking position.

That night, frightened bunker guards in the 199th compound shot into the darkness to their front. The only trouble was that Charlie Company tracks were sitting in the road right in front of their bunkers. We began to pop hand-held flares so they could see we were there, but the shooting persisted, one round actually hitting my track. After much frequency changing, I finally got the commander of the bunker guards on the radio. I remember telling him that if the shooting persisted, or if they hit one of my troops, I wouldn’t be responsible if my troops shot back.

Specialist 4 Bill Rambo, assistant driver and .50-gunner on my command track, remembers my response to the firing as being absolutely irate. Rambo claims that the bunker guards were MPs with the call sign of ‘Filmy Milker.’ According to him, I told their commander that any fool could see that the VC did not have M-113s, and that we had 22 .50-calibers and a 106mm recoilless rifle and they, for sure, did not want us to return fire. Soon we could hear leaders moving up and down the bunker line yelling for the guards to stop firing.

Jim Love recalls lying in a ditch near a dead civilian as the friendly fire cracked over our heads. All night he stared at the body, which had one arm grotesquely sticking in the air, and wondered why nobody had taken the gold wristwatch off the arm.

As dawn broke, everything was deathly quiet. The village of Ho Nai, now a ghost town, was still smoldering. Realizing I had not eaten for 24 hours, I looked for some breakfast, but all I could find was a bag of pistachio nuts. I sat behind the .50-caliber, munching and giving thanks for the fact that, incredibly, nobody in Charlie Company had been killed.

At the end of the previous day, Charlie Company had reported 38 VC killed, at the cost of only 11 U.S. wounded and three APCs damaged by RPGs. In addition we detained more than 20 probable VC fighters dressed in civilian clothes. The 2-47’s enemy body count came in at over 200, while the battalion suffered only four KIA. An accurate body count could never be compiled since so many VC bodies were dragged away or were burned in the many fires in the towns and villages. In addition, gunships killed many more as they tried to escape from the villages.

Besides the actions of Charlie Company, under the leadership of the S3, Major Bill Jones, Alpha had conducted an assault on VC positions in a cemetery. According to Jones, that assault went so perfectly that it could have served as a demonstration at the infantry school. Bravo Company (one member of which was Spc. 4 and future U.S. senator from Nebraska Chuck Hagel) had defended the Long Binh ammo dump and had helped in the Widow’s Village fight. The scout platoon had fought valiantly all day long in Widow’s Village and in Ho Nai. Company B, 4th Battalion, 39th Infantry, which was placed under the operational control of the 2-47, made a combat air assault under fire into the middle of the Widow’s Village battle and fought bravely beside the Panthers all day long.

Although initially surprised, U.S. forces had reacted quickly and, despite what was reported in the press, American and ARVN forces handed the VC a devastating defeat during Tet. In fact, VC effectiveness was so degraded that, after 1968, they were mainly replaced on the battlefield by North Vietnamese regulars, and were never a viable force after that. The VC attacks on Bien Hoa and the Long Binh complex were abject failures, due in part to the fact that on January 31, 1968, they had run into the Panthers of the 2nd Battalion (Mechanized), 47th Infantry.

John Gross received the Silver Star for his actions in command of Charlie Company on the first day of the Tet Offensive. He retired from the U.S. Army as a lieutenant colonel. For additional reading, see: The Battle for Saigon, Tet 1968, by Keith Nolan; and History of the 5th Division, by Ho Son Dai and Nguyen Van Hung.

This article was originally published in the February 2006 issue of Vietnam Magazine.

For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Vietnam Magazine today!

Tags: , ,