On Feb. 14, 1968, in the midst of the communists’ countrywide Tet Offensive, my company, Alpha, in the 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division, was tasked to be the security force for the headquarters of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, just outside of Saigon. While Alpha Company was performing what was considered “in-country R&R,” easy duty guarding the MACV compound and the U.S. Embassy, our battalion continued to operate in the dangerous Thu Duc area across the Saigon River, about three to four miles northeast of the city and just above the junction of Highways 1 and 13.
On Feb. 20, the battalion had a major daylong battle with a large North Vietnamese Army element, later determined to be parts of two NVA regiments. The following day we returned to the battalion defensive position in the Thu Duc area to spend the night.
Early in the morning on Feb. 22, Alpha Company was to be inserted as a blocking force near an area where an NVA regiment was thought to still have a presence. Other units in the battalion were going to push into that area, hoping to force the NVA to retreat toward Alpha’s position.
I was Alpha’s captain, and as the company commander my call sign was Alpha 6—the numeral 6 the designation for my position as the unit’s leader. I briefed the platoon leaders and platoon sergeants on the operation. Huey helicopters would airlift us to the landing zone without any artillery prep of the LZ to kill or drive away enemy forces in the area before we landed. Once there, we had to move across a stream via footbridge and quickly set up a position.
Platoon leader Lt. Ed Knoll was as tense as he ever had been up until that point in his tour. “Being a company blocking force against a regimental-size element was scary,” he later said in an interview for an Alpha Company oral history project. The men feared they would be more of speed bump than a roadblock for the onslaught coming their way.
As we were preparing for the airlift, I was informed that a reporter and his camera crew would accompany us. We were picked up by 15 choppers. Mine was with the first flight of Hueys to land, which included Knoll’s November Platoon. (In 1st Infantry Division combat battalions, platoons were designated by alphabet-based names rather than with numbers, such as 1st Platoon.)
We landed in water-filled grass paddies, a new experience for Alpha Company. The choppers hovered with their skids just above the water as we jumped out. The water was about ankle high. I took maybe 10 hurried steps, and the next thing I knew I was completely submerged, feet bouncing on a mucky bottom, hands climbing for the murky daylight above me. I pushed off the bottom and returned to the surface. As I was crawling out of this water hole (a bomb crater), I looked at my command group and a number of others. They were lying in the water, roaring with laughter.
Spc. 4 Dillard Massengale, my radio operator, had gotten off the chopper right behind me, and he recalled the scene in his oral history interview. “We were moving through water about ankle deep to get away from the bird, when Alpha 6 disappeared right from in front of me,” he said. “Then his helmet popped up in the water. And then he came shooting up out of the water. I swear, he looked like a whale coming up to blow. We laughed and laughed. He was looking at us like, what in heck just happened? We, 1st Sgt. [Leroy] Knight and me, eased over to him and helped him up. I made sure that he cleared the water out of his M16.”
Knoll also had a good view of the incident: “We made an air assault into a paddy area. The choppers would not set down in the mud and water. We had to jump out and landed in that soft muck. Alpha 6’s chopper was one of the first choppers to land. I hopped out of my chopper and immediately saw him moving, then disappearing. He just disappeared! Then almost as quickly, part of him reappeared clawing for firm ground.”
After their captain got his head above water, “Alpha 6 Kilo [call sign for the Alpha commander’s radio operator], 1st Sgt. Knight and the rest of the command element were laying in the water laughing like crazy,” Knoll added. “We all cracked up. The overt tension disappeared almost as quickly as Alpha 6 had. We got on with the business at hand. Of course, we now had to beware of bomb craters.”
After leaving the landing zone and crossing a road we came to a cleared field. The reporter and camera crew walked just behind my command group. We were to move through the field to reach the foot bridge and the area where we were to set up our position.
Both sides of the bridge were lined with thick napa palm (baby palm-like bushes). It was very much like the setting where the battalion’s lead element, Charlie Company, ran into the NVA two days earlier, which began the all-day fight. I called for artillery to rake the napa palm rows.
The reporter, with his recorder out and cameraman rolling tape, informed me that the 1st Infantry Division used more than 50 percent of all 105mm artillery ammunition shipped to Vietnam and told me the price of a 105mm round. “What do you think of that?” he asked.
I must have had a dumbfounded look on my face. I don’t think I replied. If I did, it was probably: “Huh?” The reporter then asked if I really thought firing into a bunch of palms was worth the cost of ammo. He followed up with his own view, “I think it is a waste.”
I told the artillery forward observer who was radioing in the artillery strike to hold my request to fire. I informed the reporter that he was more than welcome to take his crew across the field and check out the other side for us. We would wait for his signal, if he got there alive. He said nothing the rest of the operation. We fired the artillery strike. The reporter’s agenda found no audience in Thu Duc—and we found no NVA troops. We did discover plenty of signs of their hasty departure from the area. They had withdrawn before we got into position.
Jeff Harvey is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel. He commanded Alpha Company from Oct. 15, 1967, to March 31, 1968. The recollections of unit members come from oral histories of Alpha’s Tet experience, also used for a February 2016 Vietnam magazine article, “All Hell is Breaking Loose.”
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This article appeared in Vietnam magazine’s February 2020 issue.