For obvious reasons, this would not be an airmobile assault. It had to be executed on the ground, and it could only be supported by a limited number of vehicles. That meant only one company could go in at a time. Gibler chose his the remote areas near Cambodia and Laos, while infiltrating Main Force VC and NVA units into the cities. The infiltrators would spring their surprise on Tet, the Vietnamese lunar new year and one of the country’s biggest holidays. Previous years had seen a wary truce during Tet, but not 1968. The Communists expected to be able to overwhelm the ARVN forces, rally the South Vietnamese people to their cause and destroy the Saigon government.
In devising this offensive, the planners in Hanoi, like their counterparts in Washington, saw what they wished to see. They thought they could go toe to toe with American firepower, and they believed their own propaganda-that the people of South Vietnam were itching to be rid of their ‘imperialist’ American overseers and would welcome their northern countrymen with open arms. As it turned out, they were dead wrong. The Americans rallied quickly and decimated the enemy attackers in a conventional style of battle that played right to American strengths. Moreover, ARVN units, often fighting for their homes and families, were quite effective, and the people of South Vietnam did not even come close to a popular, pro-Communist uprising. In fact, many of them were as determined as ever to reject Northern rule.
In the days leading up to the offensive, Lt. Col. John Gibler, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, studied intelligence reports from his unit’s recent contact with enemy forces and decided something was not quite right. He had a powerful sense of uneasiness about the enemy’s whereabouts and disposition. ‘We knew something was up,’ he said later. ‘We had several contacts in the last few days before Tet, but none of the enemy wanted to join battle. You’d see ’em, you’d go after ’em, and they’d fade-and that wasn’t like the enemy we knew.’
Gibler had been a battalion commander since September 1967. In his experience, when the VC outnumbered an American unit, they usually closed quickly to point-blank range, ‘grabbing the enemy by the belt’ so as to neutralize American firepower, and tried to inflict as much damage as possible before breaking contact. Instead of doing that now, however, they would immediately disengage and move east. That prospect alarmed Gibler.
Gibler’s battalion was based at Binh Chanh, a small village about 30 miles southwest of the heart of Saigon. Day after day throughout the fall of 1967 and the early weeks of 1968, his soldiers patrolled a concentric area of operations in the muddy rice paddies, streams, rivers and plantations around the village. These men-who routinely battled leeches, immersion foot, heat, mosquitoes, malaria, booby traps and a resilient, slippery enemy-were only the latest representatives of a unit with a remarkable combat lineage.
The 7th Infantry, one of the U.S. Army’s oldest combat units, traced its history to the Battle of New Orleans, when it fought under the command of Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson. Unit folklore held that the soldiers of the 7th had battled the British from behind cotton bales, earning the nickname the ‘Cotton Balers.’ In fact, the 7th Infantry fought the British from the cover of earthen embankments-cotton bales would have caught fire and were probably only used to hold artillery pieces in place-but the nickname stuck.
In subsequent years, the 7th Infantry played an important and sometimes even a pivotal role in every significant American war. The regiment fought in the Seminole Wars and in smaller engagements against American Indians. During the Mexican War, the Cotton Balers repeatedly served as assault troops, helping to win the battles of Monterrey, Cerro Gordo and Chapultepec. The regiment fought at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Little Bighorn, Big Hole, El Caney, Belleau Wood, the Marne and the Argonne Forest, usually distinguishing itself as a crack infantry unit.
During World War II, no U.S. Army regiment fought in more battles over a longer period of time, from North Africa all the way to Germany. The regiment made four amphibious assaults and fought in such costly battles as Sicily, the Volturno River crossing, Anzio, southern France, the Vosges and the Colmar Pocket. In Korea, the 7th fought near Chosin Reservoir during the terrible winter of 1950-51 and then endured nearly three more years of continuous combat.
Now, in 1968, on the verge of the Tet Offensive, the soldiers of the 7th Infantry were about to add another chapter to their colorful history. Proud as he was of the unit’s lineage, Gibler could think of none of that as he sat in his command post bunker at his battalion’s firebase just outside Binh Chanh in late January. He could not escape the sense that the enemy was about to attack somewhere, and soon.
Perhaps in his assessment he was influenced by the attitude of Lt. Gen. Frederick Weyand, an old Cotton Baler himself and one of the most noted American soldiers of the 20th century. An ROTC graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, Weyand had served as an intelligence specialist in World War II. In Korea he commanded the 1st Battalion, 7th Infantry, in 1951, during some of the fiercest fighting of the war. In 1966-67, Weyand commanded the 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam, before moving up to command of the II Field Force, Vietnam, the functional equivalent of corps command.
In the days leading up to Tet, Weyand became convinced that the enemy was about to strike the cities of South Vietnam. He vehemently and successfully urged Westmoreland to redeploy significant numbers of American troops so that they would be able to respond to such an attack. ‘Our radio intercepts began picking up the movement of units toward Saigon, which caused us to cancel a major multidivision operation we had planned to launch…about 100 miles north of Saigon,’ Weyand later recalled. ‘That really proved to be a stroke of good fortune, for if those units had gone north, the VC would have had a field day in Saigon.’
Gibler, meanwhile, was feeling spooked on the eve of Tet. He told his operations officer, Major James MacGill, to issue orders to every company to return to the firebase. MacGill wondered why. ‘I don’t know, I just want ’em on their way back in,’ Gibler replied.
Late that afternoon, Gibler’s eyes kept wandering to a map of Saigon. He could not escape the sensation that a fight would soon break out there. That night he ordered his newly returned company commanders to immediately instruct their troops in the tactics of urban combat.
The Tet Offensive began the next morning. Main Force VC fired 122mm rockets at Long Binh, the main base of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, the 7th Infantry’s higher headquarters in Vietnam. The enemy also hit nearby Bien Hoa Air Base very hard. They infiltrated and attacked Saigon, including, most famously, the U.S. Embassy. The Cotton Baler compound near Binh Chanh remained quiet, but Gibler soon received word that the embattled forces in Saigon needed help.
Viet Cong attackers had captured Cholon, the western section of Saigon, including the strategically important Phu Tho Racetrack. This horse racing facility was located at the hub of many streets, and also made an ideal landing zone for helicopters. If the VC could hold the track, they would have a good chance of holding Cholon. Gibler’s Cotton Balers received orders to take it back.
For obvious reasons, this would not be an airmobile assault. It had to be executed on the ground, and it could only be supported by a limited number of vehicles. That meant only one company could go in at a time. Gibler chose his strongest company, Alpha, for the difficult task of going in first. Alpha was led by one of the toughest junior officers the Cotton Balers had in Vietnam. Captain Tony Smaldone, who hailed from Cohoes, N.Y., was already a veteran of three Vietnam tours and had been wounded four times. He was the perfect leader for an infantry company in combat-resolute, fair-minded, tough, smart, no-nonsense and brave. One general called him ‘the best damned company commander I’ve ever seen.’
Smaldone’s company linked up with a platoon of M-113 armored personnel carriers (APCs, or tracks) from the 17th Cavalry. The infantrymen loaded onto 2 1/2-ton (‘deuce-and-a-half’) trucks and the cavalry onto APCs for the short drive. At 0800 hours they started their movement down Highway 4, straight from Binh Chanh to Saigon. Two APCs led the column, two were wedged into the middle and two brought up the rear. Immediately overhead, Major MacGill guided the column in an observation helicopter.
Smaldone’s column rumbled uneventfully for about an hour until it reached the outskirts of Cholon, where the GIs could see evidence of fighting. ‘As we got into the outskirts, we started passing bodies along the road,’ a cavalry gunner remembered. ‘You’d see a smashed moped, and a Vietnamese would be laying there shot up. They might have been civilians or ARVN returning to their units-or running away.’
This sight was grim enough, but soon they saw the sprawled remains of Americans, blood still trickling from multiple gunshot wounds, flies buzzing around them. Hovering overhead, MacGill studied the grisly spectacle: ‘They were in khakis and had obviously been going into Tan Son Nhut or another duty station…in Cholon. They had just been slaughtered in their jeeps.’
The Cotton Balers and their cavalry comrades kept pushing deeper into Cholon. Buildings, most of them wooden two-story structures, flanked either side of the road. Small numbers of VC began shooting from the rooftops. The cavalrymen opened fire on them with a 106mm recoilless rifle mounted on one of the tracks. The rounds served to drive off the VC. The column continued for a few more blocks.
When they were within six blocks of the racetrack, an enemy soldier fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the convoy. Like an out-of-control Fourth of July rocket, the RPG round streaked ominously through the air and smashed into the lead APC. The front of the APC exploded, showering sparks and debris everywhere. The cavalry platoon leader and two other men were killed instantly. A split second later, a cacophony of enemy small-arms fire broke out. The enemy seemed to be everywhere. The shooting came from both sides of the street, straight down onto the Americans.
Immediately the GIs sprang into action. The cavalrymen returned fire with their 106mm and machine guns. Smaldone’s infantry scrambled off the trucks and raced into the buildings. Others took cover behind the APCs andreturned fire as best they could. They went through ammo magazines in a flash, firing on full automatic.
After the first few bewildering moments of the firefight, when enemy rounds ricocheted off the street and APC treads, the battle settled down into a routine. Smaldone took charge and began methodically working his men through the buildings. He knew the area well from an earlier tour of duty. His infantry worked closely with the APC troops. The tracks blasted away with the 106mm, while the infantry laid down a base of fire on the rooftops. Enemy soldiers went down or fled. Shards of wood, glass and tin sprayed all over the place. Empty casings from machine guns and rifles jangled on the street. MacGill designated targets for the helicopter gunships hovering in the area, which added their immense firepower to the hellish scene.
Inside the buildings, the Cotton Balers used C4 plastic explosive to blast holes in the interior walls so they could advance from building to building without endagering themselves in the open. At close range, the soldiers shot any VC they saw. The whole area smelled of cordite, urine, rotten fish and recent death. Several times the Americans held their fire as frightened, fleeing civilians ran past them on the street. Other civilians got killed in the cross-fire.
In more than two hours, the grunts and their cavalry support slowly advanced five blocks, and by 1300 they were only a block away from the racetrack. They could see their objective, but the Communist resistance was getting stiffer. The VC, lying prone behind and under the concrete benches of the track, sprayed the area with automatic-weapons fire. Several machine- gunners added their own deadly fire from a building that covered every approach to the racetrack. The Americans withdrew into buildings opposite the track.
Tired and hungry, the GIs took a break while helicopter gunships refueled and officers decided what to do. When MacGill’s command helicopter landed on a nearby rooftop, the major spotted two American MPs firing at the VC across the street. MacGill jumped out and joined them. He gave them ammo for their M-60 machine gun and watched as they shot at occasional VC running among the buildings. Then MacGill saw a VC come out of a building, hide his rifle, remove an identifying red armband and raise his hands in an attempt to pass for a civilian. The major leveled his rifle and squeezed the trigger, dropping the man.
Smaldone, meanwhile, used the downtime to scout the VC-held building that commanded the approach to Phu Tho Racetrack. He felt very confident that a 106mm round or two could reduce the place to submission or rubble, whichever came first. He collected two cavalry crewmen and took them on foot to his concealed observation spot just opposite the building. Once there, he showed them exactly where he wanted them to drive up with their APC, and how they could get a shot at the building.
At 1630, Smaldone set his plan in motion. His infantrymen opened up with everything at their disposal. Rifles, M-60s and M-79 grenade launcher rounds splattered the building. The Americans poured out an incredible volume of fire. They wanted to make absolutely sure that the VC would keep their heads down and have no chance to aim an RPG when the cavalry APC rumbled forward into the street. In the meantime, the APC crew members drove their track up, positioned it in the street and then opened fire as quickly as they could.
In his helicopter, Major MacGill was just taking off from the building rooftop when the cavalry fired its recoilless rifle. ‘Debris from the [VC-held] building went about a hundred feet in the air right in front of the chopper,’ he said. ‘It scared the shit out of us. The secondary explosions started a horrendous fire, and I got on the radio…requesting that they call the fire department. I was worried about burning down all of Cholon!’
In a frantic rush, Smaldone led his men across the street onto the racetrack. Adrenaline coursing through their veins, they were psyched up and ready to kill at close quarters. But the enemy fire was desultory at best. With their machine gun strongpoint obliterated, the VC chose to melt away into Cholon. Phu Tho Racetrack belonged to the Cotton Balers, at the cost of one man killed and several wounded. The racetrack proved to be an ideal landing zone and a good base from which to operate in Cholon. Shortly after dark, helicopters brought in reinforcements, Cotton Baler grunts from Bravo and Charlie companies.
In the morning the Americans began a methodical, street-by-street battle for Cholon. It was the kind of fighting their World War II veteran fathers would have recognized. The Cotton Balers made no impulsive moves or reckless charges.
They systematically worked their way from building to building, blowing holes, clearing out rooms and rooftops. At every step of the way, they called on the full range of support from the APCs and helicopter gunships.
At one point on February 1 the VC tried taking back Phu Tho. American machine guns, small-arms fire and gunships cut them to ribbons. The enemy’s best hope now was to hole up in buildings and look for good ambush opportunities. The Communists were tough and did the best they could, but this kind of fight played to the Americans’ strength. The VC and NVA were at their best when they held the initiative, moving through advantageous terrain as light infantry, attacking small American units and perhaps pinning them down, at least until American firepower support came into play. But in Cholon, the Communists were cornered and basically at the mercy of the Americans.
For five days, the Cotton Balers slowly but persistently cleaned the VC out of Cholon. The work was dirty and exhausting. Soldiers choked and coughed in the dust of ruined buildings. They struggled to endure the seemingly endless house-to-house assaults. All the men sweated out the chance that a VC sniper, well hidden somewhere, might be staring down the sight of his rifle right at them at any moment, ready to squeeze the trigger. The grunts took no chances; they sprayed the place with as much ordnance as they could, engaging the enemy in the American way of war, firepower-bullets, not bodies.
Cholon became a mangled mess of destruction. Everywhere there were ruined businesses, ruined homes, smashed-up cars, broken windows, blown-out walls and dead bodies, both civilian and VC. It often was hard to tell the difference between the two, which was exactly what the Communists wanted. They tried to blend in with the population of Cholon, but most civilians fled as quickly as they could. They wanted no part of their supposed liberation from the Saigon regime.
Within days, the Americans and South Vietnamese had a major troop presence in the Saigon area. The ARVN committed five ranger, five marine and five airborne battalions, while the Americans had seven infantry, one military police and six artillery battalions fighting in the city. The battle had turned against the Communists. The element of surprise was gone; their soldiers were in a difficult spot, fighting on U.S. terms in a bloody struggle for each block. The South Vietnamese, for political reasons, requested that American troops be withdrawn. They wanted to prove to the world that they were strong enough to win back their own capital without any more help from their American partners.
The 7th infantrymen, dirty, tired and red-eyed, piled aboard helicopters and flew back to Binh Chanh, where they resumed their patrol routine. For several days, they humped through the paddy country and took fire from stray VC who had managed to escape Saigon.
Try as they might, though, the South Vietnamese could not quite administer the coup de grace at Cholon. The stubborn VC, augmented by a few NVA, were hanging in there, killing many ARVN soldiers. The Cotton Balers got the call to return. On February 10, the entire 3rd Battalion boarded helicopters at Binh Chanh and flew back to Cholon.
The operation was a bit bizarre. The Americans did not seem to know that the VC had taken back Phu Tho Racetrack, and helicopters landed on the main field, right on top of the VC command post. What could have been a bloody tragedy, however, turned out instead to be a fairly quick victory. The M-60 fire of the door gunners suppressed the enemy, while the grunts hopped off the choppers and into the strangest LZ any of them would ever experience. They stumbled and staggered into fighting positions and laid down fire on the stands, sending chips of concrete and dust everywhere. Within minutes the 3rd Battalion had Phu Tho back.
From there they repeated the routine of a week before, cautiously securing buildings, blasting VC and warily watching each other’s backs. The fighting lasted for the better part of another four days. This time the VC were not as well armed or as determined. Some fought to the death, but others melted away into the city, assuming other identities, hoping to fight again another day. They were the lucky ones. Most of the VC who infiltrated into Saigon amid so much hope and expectation in late January were dead by the middle of February. The capital remained firmly in allied hands. The 3-7th Infantry later received a Valorous Unit Citation for its action at Cholon. It was even thought-erroneously, as it turned out-that the unit had killed the VC commanding general in addition to destroying his command post.
In pure military terms, the Tet Offensive had been a disaster for the Communists. They achieved no major physical objectives and incurred tens of thousands of casualties. The Viet Cong were decimated in the kind of open, conventional fighting that guaranteed their demise. Basically, the Communists had abandoned their hit-and-run attrition tactics in favor of an all-out battle of firepower and maneuver, exactly the kind of fight at which the U.S. Army excelled. The Communists paid a heavy price in the process. ‘I think the VC made two major mistakes,’ General Weyand later wrote. ‘First, by attacking everywhere at once, they fragmented their forces and laid themselves open to defeat in detail. Second, and most important, they believed their own propaganda and thought there would be a ‘great general uprising’ wherein the South Vietnamese people would flock to their banner. There was a general uprising all right, but it was against them rather than for them. The vast majority of the South Vietnamese people wanted nothing to do with the VC.’
The Tet Offensive did achieve one critical strategic objective, however: It broke the will of the American people to continue the war indefinitely. The furious offensive seemingly negated all the optimistic talk about an imminent end to the war. It seemed to many Americans that, on the contrary, the war was only beginning. Many now began to wonder about the feasibility, perhaps even the desirability, of winning. What’s more, they began to wonder if Vietnam was worth sacrificing the lives and futures of so many young Americans. Public opinion increasingly began to favor scaling down the war and finding a way out.
The 7th Infantry spent two more years in Vietnam, moving from sector to sector around Saigon, sometimes fighting in rice paddies, sometimes in jungles. In total, the unit spent four years in Vietnam. In all that time, the Tet 1968 fighting in Saigon was the only occasion in which the Cotton Balers fought a pitched urban battle, an anomaly among the experiences of most American infantry battalions in the Vietnam War.
This article was written by John C. McManus and was originally published in the February 2004 issue of Vietnam Magazine.
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