A small but resourceful Headquarters Area Command was all that stood in the way of a massive surprise VC onslaught.
It was Tuesday, January 30, 1968, and by 10 o’clock in the morning Tet celebrations had already begun in earnest, with firecrackers exploding all over Saigon. Traffic, never good, was rapidly becoming impossible as boisterous revelers quickly filled the streets. Consequently, the man in charge of the U.S. Army’s Headquarters Area Command in the city, Brigadier General Albin Irzyk, was just considering letting his troops off early when his phone rang.
“Irzyk, this is Westmoreland! I have strong indications that sappers may be operating in town tonight. I want your command at maximum alert.” Click!
Well, so much for the afternoon off, thought Irzyk. The 51-year-old, a highly decorated tank battalion commander under General George S. Patton in World War II, was not prone to panic, though Headquarters Area Command (HAC) was neither a combat nor a combat support unit. It was a service support unit that kept the peace and assisted staffs, headquarters and offices in Saigon. The HAC was an amalgamation of 2,031 clerks, military policemen (MPs), cooks, engineers, drivers, generator operators, procurement and finance officers and others who supervised some 6,500 Vietnamese installation guards, repairmen, workers, maids, janitors and more, all of whom supported, housed, clothed, fed, guarded and transported the 35,000 U.S. and allied military personnel in South Vietnam’s 50-square-mile Capitol Military District, the CMD.
The CMD was an overcrowded urban maze without a single U.S. ground combat arms unit. American and South Vietnamese HAC personnel secured 450 widely scattered leased facilities, drove and maintained more than 2,000 vehicles, billeted 11,000 people and served about 30,000 meals a day in 22 dining facilities. Irzyk’s command also operated and maintained 21 water purification plants, as well as several swimming pools, theaters, basketball and tennis courts. While they were good at what they did, there was no way this outfit could be considered combat-ready.
However, in late 1967, Generals William Westmoreland and Irzyk had taken a number of steps to ensure that this collection of police, administrative and logistical organizations had some combat potential, and Westmoreland had personally assumed operational control of HAC. They had beefed it up with a 196-man Security Guard Company, supplementing HAC’s main fighting potential, the 716th Military Police Battalion, which had itself been reinforced with additional MP units to bring its strength up to 1,100. Although Army MP units had a rarely used standing mission to fight as infantry if necessary, the Army had not required infantry training for MPs above the level of fundamental basic training that all U.S. Army soldiers received.
The efforts of Westmoreland and Irzyk to enhance the combat potential of this service support organization would be sorely tested when the small but resourceful HAC was all that stood in the way of a massive surprise onslaught on dozens of sites across Saigon on January 31.
As soon as Irzyk had hung up his phone, he summoned his staff and commanders to begin planning how to defend against sapper attacks, a somewhat familiar task. In addition to bombarding Saigon with Soviet-made 120mm rockets almost weekly, infiltrators from the Viet Cong C-10 Sapper Battalion had made frequent terrorist-style attacks for the past year. These were more often brief encounters, such as a grenade tossed into a crowd, a drive-by pistol shot from a motor scooter rider or sometimes a bombing of a headquarters or a hotel leased as an American billet or similar facility. In April 1966, three 716th MP Battalion members had earned posthumous Silver Star medals engaging a VC attack on a bachelor officer quarters (BOQ) in Saigon that also cost three Vietnamese policemen’s lives and left 113 Americans and Australians wounded.
Indeed, bombing U.S. facilities had the potential for causing the greatest number of casualties and therefore required the employment of major HAC resources. With 450 facilities to secure inside the most densely populated city in the world, surveillance, coordination and especially guard placement had to be carefully planned, scheduled and supervised.
Unfortunately for Westmoreland and Irzyk, the attack for which they were now gearing up would have a magnitude of violence far beyond their wildest expectations. After infiltrating thousands of men and tons of weapons over several weeks into and around the CMD, the Viet Cong were only hours away from moving 19 local force battalions, including the C-10 Sapper units, to assault targets during the early morning of January 31. Eleven of these battalions would have targets in the CMD, where the overall security responsibility belonged to the Government of South Vietnam (GVN). Since there were no U.S. combat ground forces in the district, HAC secured U.S. facilities including the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) Headquarters complex at Tan Son Nhut. (The U.S. Air Force secured Tan Son Nhut Air Base.) Viet Cong objectives included the seizure of the U.S. Embassy, the Presidential Palace, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) artillery and armor school, Tan Son Nhut, the South Vietnamese Joint General Staff compound, Radio Saigon and several other facilities. The attackers were to hold their gains for 48 hours while VC and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) main force units fought their way into Saigon and Cholon.
Fortunately for the defenders, Westmoreland had taken a precaution that would prove critical when the Communists launched the Tet Offensive. On January 10 he heeded the advice of one of his commanders, Lt. Gen. Frederick Weyand, who alerted him to indications of some enemy movements toward Saigon. Westmoreland decided to cancel his own plans to move a large part of the U.S. ground forces in the III Corps region northward. As a result, Communist forces would face 27 U.S. combat battalions in near proximity to Saigon during Tet.
Irzyk began notifying all of his units to assume a maximum alert posture and planning for increased readiness, widespread street surveillance and the creation of mobile reaction forces. He ordered that all building security plans be immediately implemented. The number of MPs assigned to stationary guard posts at sensitive facilities was doubled. Beginning at 6 p.m., MPs would discontinue walking patrols, and the number of mobile jeep patrols would jump from about 20 to 41. Some of the jeep patrols were issued M-60 light machine guns. By midafternoon, these measures were either established or being implemented.
Irzyk had also identified members of HAC who could perform security and combat functions through the night without substantially degrading essential duties within the units and offices they served. These personnel—cooks, clerks, drivers, mechanics and others—were organized as Quick Reaction Forces (QRF) in groups sized to the anticipated threat. Placed under command of a HAC officer or noncommissioned officer, they were issued weapons, ammunition, communications equipment, body armor and steel helmets, and then they were assigned vehicles and dispatched to key HAC installations.
Quick Reaction Force 1, composed of troop movement specialists and special services personnel who maintained such facilities as gyms, libraries, swimming pools and movie theaters, was positioned near Tan Son Nhut Air Base. Another team made up of mechanics, drivers and clerks, QRF 2, was sent to a HAC motor pool near Phu Tho Racetrack. Quick Reaction Force 3 was dispatched to a downtown Saigon HAC motor pool, and QRF 4, consisting of commissary and storage specialists, was directed to the HAC commissary in Cholon. Similar dispositions were made for four other QRFs, which were instructed to monitor the military police network of telephone lines and radio net (call sign “WACO”).
In late afternoon, with his orders given and his forces fanning out across the city, General Irzyk sat in his now quiet office and reflected on his past experiences an-ticipating battle. He had joined the U.S. Army horse cavalry in 1940 and become a tank unit commander. Serving in France in late 1944, he recalled receiving urgent orders to quickly assemble his tank battalion, turn it 90 degrees north and begin an 18-hour, 150-mile march in bitter cold and snow aimed at a little town in Belgium he’d never heard of, Bastogne. On the way, Irzyk and his men rolled right into the Battle of the Bulge, a desperate fight that began with the American leadership being caught off guard by a massive enemy assault. Now, in steamy Saigon nearly a quarter of a century later, Irzyk assumed his disparate collection of soldiers probably believed this maximum alert was just another false alarm. The grizzled recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, four Bronze Star Medals and two Purple Hearts considered they could be right. But, then again, maybe not.
Irzyk had long ago learned that a commander needed rest before a battle, so after going over some contingencies with the incoming operations office night shift, he had his driver take him to their quarters for a few hours of sleep. Getting there took longer than usual as their sedan could only inch along through the several blocks that were teeming with festive crowds.
At 2:47 a.m., thunderous explosions suddenly awakened General Irzyk. The U.S. Embassy, the Presidential Palace and other key targets were under attack. He and his driver dashed to their car and sped out and into a now eerily deserted city—a unique sight at any hour in Saigon. As they sped through scattered gunfire at speeds hitting 60 miles per hour, Irzyk suspected that the population must have known something was going to happen.
Waved through the HAC headquarters gate, Irzyk hopped out of the car and strode into a scene of furious activity. All the phones were either being used or ringing. The WACO radio network was a chaotic cacophony of MPs reporting shootings, mortar attacks or what appeared to be assaults on facilities—seemingly coming from everywhere.
“Sir, our embassy is under attack!” the duty officer reported to the general. “MPs have been dispatched and are rushing to it.”
The HAC log for the first hour of the assault recorded nearly 50 separate action reports starting with the embassy attack at 0246 hours and followed in rapid succession with reports of attacks on five BOQs, two bachelor enlisted men’s quarters, the Vietnamese Joint General Staff Headquarters, the Rex Hotel and more.
During the next 16 hours, the pace of combat reports coming into HAC HQ—usually with dire calls for reaction forces, guards, escorts or other assistance—would only gradually diminish.
The duty officers resorted to a triage-type handling of the crisis, assessing the casualty numbers and the importance of the installation being attacked to determine the magnitude of HAC’s reaction. But early on, HAC’s top priority was the embassy, even though the Marine Security Guard detachment was responsible for its security. That was as much a result of the MP casualties sustained there as it was for the relative importance of that facility.
The first MP battle deaths came at about 2:48 a.m. Two MPs at a post just outside the embassy wall were fired on when they spotted a vehicle unloading armed Viet Cong. They quickly stepped inside the embassy grounds, slammed the gate shut and reported the incident to WACO. The VC then breached the 10-foot-tall perimeter wall with explosives. The MPs saw Viet Cong coming through the hole created by the blast and fired on them with their M-16s, killing two before being overwhelmed by the attackers, some of whom had scaled the wall. Within minutes, a two-man MP jeep patrol arrived just outside the wall, and a VC sniper killed both men. Throughout the night, Marine and HAC reaction forces were sent to the embassy where they fought the intruders and successfully defended the embassy chancery building. By 8:30 a.m., they had killed or captured all of the estimated 20 attackers, at a cost of four MPs and one Marine killed.
Meanwhile, a much bigger and far more deadly fight had been raging since 3 a.m. about 21⁄2 miles northwest of the embassy and just east of Tan Son Nhut. It began with a chance encounter and would continue well into the afternoon. The Viet Cong intended to make a battalion-size attack on the South Vietnamese Joint General Staff (JGS) compound located near a U.S. BOQ. The attackers were successful in breeching the JGS compound but would be unsuccessful in penetrating the Joint Staff office building. Much of the reason for their failure was that MPs guarding the BOQ and two MP jeep patrols encountered and engaged the VC battalion’s demolition company headed for the JGS compound. The company had AK-47s, RPGs, Claymores, explosives and grenades—all the wherewithal to break through walls and building entrances. Taken under fire in the dark by the military police, the demolition company temporarily sought cover in nearby buildings around an alley.
As at the U.S. Embassy, the MPs substantially spoiled the Viet Cong attack on the JGS compound. A HAC reaction force of about 25 MPs in a 2½-ton truck with a jeep in front and a jeep mounting a machine gun in the rear, was quickly dispatched to the BOQ. Driving with lights out in the dead of night, they chose an alley to make a stealthy approach to the BOQ. Oblivious to the Viet Cong concealed in buildings on either side, they proceeded right into a fusillade of close-range VC fire.
The MPs who survived the murderous ambush fell back and called for another reaction force as they desperately attempted to retrieve their wounded while under fire. The 35 soldiers of QRF 1, which Irzyk referred to as “my cooks, bakers and candlestick makers,” was dispatched to the alley, followed shortly by yet another MP reaction team to bolster the force to about 70 men total. As dawn broke, the firing became more concentrated and accurate. However, the VC demolition company had failed to overcome the Americans and thus to assist its comrades struggling to take the JGS compound. Although the Viet Cong were now stranded, they were still capable of stubborn resistance. With the aid of a South Vietnamese army armored car element, the MPs and QRF 1 began to recover the wounded.
Finally, an end to the alley fight came into view in the early afternoon when a U.S. armor element, two tanks and two
armored personnel carriers (APC) from the U.S. 1st Infantry Division moved in to tip the scales. One by one, buildings sheltering the attackers were reduced to rubble. At 5 p.m., after 14 hours of pitched battle, the alley fight was over, with HAC casualties totaling 17 killed and 28 wounded.
At 5:40 a.m., when the alley battle was just heating up, a frantic call from another part of town came over the net: “They got the sergeant in the guts and the driver is wounded! They’re shooting automatic weapons! We’re near the racetrack. They’re all over the place! The fire is very heavy. We need help now!”
The Viet Cong were using RPGs, and Jeep Patrol 95 was in deep trouble. A nearby HAC reaction force was dispatched to help the patrol, getting within three blocks of the Phu Tho Racetrack before dismounting and moving closer. Suddenly the reaction force was engaged in a vicious firefight and took cover. Patrol 95’s jeep burning in the middle of the road cast just enough light for them to see three bodies: Two MPs had been killed and a third was doing his best to appear dead. (He was successful and would be rescued later.) The VC clearly had fire superiority over the Americans, so another reaction force was sent—this one composed of HAC Security Guard Company soldiers that had already been suppressing VC firing at several spots and had just routed a VC attack at a BOQ in another part of the city. They rushed toward the racetrack in a 2½-ton truck.
As the Security Guard force dismounted and began moving on toward the firefight, it came across yet another jeep—with two more dead MPs. Near that spot, the VC opened up on them. The Americans responded, but in a few minutes the first lieutenant leading them, seeking cover, moved his men to a small hotel and then went to his truck to render a radio report. There he was hit and crumpled to the street. Two men were wounded trying to reach him, but the lieutenant was already dead.
Jeep Patrol 95 had had the misfortune of running into what turned out to be the largest concentration of Viet Cong forces in Saigon, centered on the Phu Tho Racetrack and a hub of streets connecting Cholon to Saigon. Within the area were a VC regimental command post and two local force battalions, of which the 6th Liberation Forces Battalion had occupied the racetrack. Viet Cong Maj. Gen. Tran Do, directing the overall attack on the CMD, had his headquarters less than two miles away to the west. He had designated the racetrack as the primary assembly point for incoming VC main force and, later, NVA units.
Realizing the enemy strength that his reaction teams were encountering, Irzyk sent another into the battle. The VC began using mortars, and as the outnumbered and outgunned HAC forces lacked the firepower to suppress them, a stalemate ensued.
It was at that precarious moment that the cavalry literally rode to the rescue. A platoon of the 17th Cavalry in four APCs (two mounting 106mm recoilless rifles), helicopter gunships, and a truck-mounted rifle company from the 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry, poured into Cholon toward the racetrack. After hours of heavy fighting by HAC forces, an experienced, well-armed U.S. ground force had finally joined them. By 1 p.m. these newcomers had fought their way to the track. Pausing briefly, they probed and spotted Viet Cong strong points, then delivered a blistering outpouring of firepower and launched an attack that drove the surviving VC out of the racetrack. As darkness fell, the Americans were reinforced and Phu Tho Racetrack was now in their hands.
For the next 20 days, tough firefights with small, disorganized and isolated groups of Viet Cong hiding among the CMD’s 3 million people continued. But the battle for those 50 square miles had been effectively decided by sunset on January 31. The critical facilities General Tran Do had to capture—the U.S. Embassy, Tan Son Nhut, the JGS compound, the Armor and Artillery Center, Naval Headquarters, Presidential Palace, Radio Saigon and the racetrack—were all in American or GVN hands.
By engaging the attackers at the embassy, the JGS compound and the racetrack before the VC could gain firm control, Irzyk’s HAC soldiers played a pivotal role in frustrating General Do’s intricate plans, and thus thwarted a catastrophic military defeat.
Their performance during those 16 hours was no accident. It was the result of several key decisions, sound leadership, skilled planning and the bravery and grit of U.S. soldiers, particularly the military policemen. Leading into Tet, Westmoreland made critical choices that contributed to HAC’s success. By eliminating any bureaucracy between himself and Irzyk, it only took one phone call to trigger Irzyk’s planning, organization and delivery of orders on January 30. Also, Westmoreland had the good sense 20 days earlier to put his own plans aside and keep troops near the CMD during Tet when he was warned of danger. The decision to beef up HAC’s combat worthiness was wise and timely. And Irzyk and his MP unit commanders put together an outstanding plan that increased surveillance of the CMD, provided widely scattered, mobile forces to quickly move to a hot spot and set up a workable communication plan to ensure smooth coordination and rapid action.
But, most of all, HAC’s victory hinged on the military police, and they paid a grave price. In the first 12 hours of the fight, 27 MPs were killed and 44 wounded while performing their secondary role as light infantrymen. If the MPs had not spotted and engaged the VC before they had a chance to fully execute their plans, the story of Tet would no doubt have been much different.
The MP units were awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, but perhaps the best indication of their courage and persistence in the Tet onslaught came from one of the captured attackers. Describing his unit’s experience in Saigon, he said that everywhere they turned, they came face to face with American MPs.
Rod Paschall was a Special Forces detachment commander in Vietnam in 1962-63, served in Laos in 1964, was a company commander and staff officer in Vietnam in 1966-68 and served in Cambodia in 1974-75. He is currently editor at large for MHQ.