All hope was riding on one rifle company flying into an unknown situation at night, under orders from Lt. Gen. Fred Weyand to ‘secure the U.S. Embassy in Saigon’.
Moments after the first shots were fired at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon on January 31, 1968, Marines assigned to Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker’s personal security unit awakened Bunker and hustled him into his armored 1966 Plymouth Fury. They sped to the residence of Leo Crampsey, the senior State Department security officer. From there, initial decisions were made and orders were transmitted for sending elements of the 101st Airborne Division into action. General William C. Westmoreland assured Bunker that all that could be done to secure the embassy would be done.
As the Viet Cong assault on the embassy unfolded, who could have contemplated that such a minor military action would have such an enormous strategic consequence? On the other hand, who knew the scope of the Tet Offensive that morning? It was a mad moment of decision-making, requiring immediate action.
Ambassador Bunker and General Westmoreland were determined that the embassy would not fall into enemy hands; but if it did, that it be taken back immediately. To this end, the Army’s response was quick and determined, in spite of the fact that virtually the entire alliance of military forces under Westmoreland’s command was being engaged in mortal combat by a massive and coordinated onslaught that was as impressive as it was lethal.
The story of how the embassy was to be rescued in the early morning darkness is little known. In recent interviews with members of the 101st Airborne Division tasked to make the rescue, the extent of the lack of information available and communications between the American forces is extraordinary, putting their efforts—and the potential for disastrous consequences—in a different light.
This much was known at the time: The attack was still in progress; no enemy penetration of the embassy had occurred, but the Viet Cong were in control of the compound; one Marine and three MPs were dead and two additional MPs presumed dead; the compound was reasonably contained from the outside; and all was darkened within the walls of the embassy compound. Unknown was how long the embassy could hold out before the VC gained entry.
Despite the paucity of information and sketchy communications, clear and concise orders were expeditiously issued to Lt. Gen. Fred Weyand, the commanding general, II Field Force, who, in turn, ordered Maj. Gen. Orlinto M. Barsanti, commanding general, 101st Airborne Division, to “secure the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.” It was that simple. How these orders were to play out assumes an almost surreal quality, and the can-do attitude of those commanded to execute the orders is most remarkable.
As these orders were formulated, 101st Airborne Division Captain Jack Speedy was commanding his rifle company in close combat with enemy forces attacking the U.S. Army base at Bien Hoa. While fighting around the Michelin Rubber Plantation, Speedy got orders to report immediately to General Barsanti. It was highly unusual for a captain to receive orders in person from his division commander, but the unusual was quickly becoming the norm.
Barsanti directed Speedy to disengage his company from its present fight, to be transported to the U.S. Embassy to “take charge of the situation there.”
Beyond those orders, Speedy was not given any maps or aerial photos of the embassy, nor intelligence beyond the fact that the Viet Cong were there. He was not told about the presence of the Marine Security Guards (MSG), MPs or Department of State (DOS) Security elements in contact with the enemy there. Neither did he know that Marine Captain Robert J. O’Brian, officer in charge, MSG Detachment, Saigon, and Crampsey of DOS, were, in fact, in command of the embassy fight.
Likewise, no one on the ground at the embassy was aware of the relief effort being mounted. Astonishingly, Speedy had just been yanked out of one raging combat mission, to be choppered—essentially blind—into what would ultimately be one of the entire war’s most critical fights.
The commanding officer of the 101st Airborne Independent Aviation Battalion, Lt. Col. John McGregor, and his operations officer, Major Don Bliss, were also given simple and straightforward orders directly by General Barsanti: Pick up Captain Speedy’s rifle company and fly it into action at the embassy. Incredibly, Bliss had no radio frequencies of any U.S. element on the ground other than the 716th MP Battalion. He could hear the MPs, but the MPs would or could not respond.
Furthermore, the aviation element was not informed that the embassy was under blackout conditions, and none of the officers in the aviation lift element and the infantry company had ever worked together—or even knew each other.
All hope was riding on one rifle company flying into an unknown situation at night, knowing nothing about its landing zone except that VC were present, having no knowledge of the friendly forces in the fight, and being flown by crews possessing no more situational awareness than it had. As Captain Speedy and his troopers flew toward their destination, about the only thing that was clear about his mission was that he was to “take charge of the situation” at the embassy. If he could reach the ground in one piece, he was determined to do just that.
From the aviators’ perspective, going into this action was difficult and highly uncertain. The commanding officer, Colonel McGregor, who Barsanti ordered to personally lead the flight, had been in-country only a few days—and this was his first mission. Fortunately, his co-pilot, Major Bliss, was in his second tour and was seasoned by combat.
The aviation command, with Speedy and some of his soldiers, flew toward where they thought the embassy was located, leaving the troop lift to circle over the Saigon River. Adding to their worries, they would have only one chance to make the insertion before being forced to return for refueling.
Flying over the countryside lit up by a multitude of firefights, and into a city that none of them had been in before, they were now experiencing the “fog and friction” of battle. They would try to land 11 ships, one at a time, on top of a seven-story-high helipad about 50 feet by 70 feet, in a blacked-out condition—while the enemy was free to fire automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades at them from no more than 100 feet and with little chance for door gunners to return suppressive fire.
The command helicopter found the compound, and determined the best landing approach to be from the back, almost directly over the quarters within the compound of the mission coordinator, Colonel George Jacobson. The quarters were surrounded by shrubs and trees that gave the enemy excellent cover. Bliss took the controls of the command bird and set the glide path for a touchdown. Just as it passed over Jacobson’s quarters, however, VC in the bushes opened fire. Rounds ripped into the troop compartment, wounding one soldier.
Bliss immediately banked the aircraft to the right, breaking the glide path to the embassy helipad. He now had a badly damaged airframe with a wounded man on board. Moreover, as the entire flight was getting low on fuel, none of the choppers could attempt to land their troops. McGregor and Bliss limped the aircraft back to Long Binh to evacuate the wounded, and another helicopter was flown in to replace it.
McGregor, Bliss and Speedy set about planning for their return to the embassy. Realizing how foolhardy it was to attempt another flight in the darkness, they decided to return to the fight at daybreak, which was not far off.
This time the task force could see where it was headed, and each of the 11 aircraft made a dash for the embassy rooftop helipad. With precision, they disembarked their troops, and then returned to base.
As the assault troops descended from the helipad into the embassy, they proceeded from floor to floor, clearing each to ensure that no enemy forces were located within the chancellery. Having arrived on the scene just as hostilities were ending, however, they found none. They linked up with the Marines and members of the 716th MP Battalion and State Department Security team and proceeded to set up defensive positions in and around the embassy compound. Their mission would last about three weeks.
Ultimately, the embassy had been successfully defended. Not one enemy soldier penetrated the embassy itself, and all but three involved in the assault were killed.
In retrospect, it was probably a fortunate outcome that the 101st Airborne assault in the dark did not go in as originally desired. It is likely that fratricide would have occurred as the Marines and MPs mixed together and neither had been informed that a reinforcement element was on the way. Likewise, the soldiers in the 101st knew nothing of the situation on the ground other than that enemy forces were present, leaving the possibility open for friendly fire and, of course, the calamity that would have come in the aftermath.
Wilburn Meador was a Marine security guard in Saigon during Tet 1968 and is now an assistant professor in the Department of Military History at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.