Brigadier General Albin F. Irzyk played a significant role in two of America’s most famous battles.
The frozen, bitterly cold forest in Europe during a major World War II offensive and the steamy South Vietnamese capital city at the height of the Vietnam War were thousands of miles and thousands of days apart. But for one remarkable U.S. Army officer, the two sites of two famous battles—the 1944 Ardennes Offensive and the 1968 Tet Offensive—were significant milestones in his military career. He played a key role in both pivotal battles, two major offensives that historians often compare because of the surprise nature of the attacks by the German army in 1944 and the Viet Cong in 1968.
In 1944 Albin F. Irzyk was a young major who commanded a tank battalion in the 4th Armored Division and helped spearhead the relief of Bastogne during the huge fight commonly called the Battle of the Bulge. In 1968 he was in the epicenter of the battle for Saigon during Tet, when his command held the line for several crucial hours on the morning of Jan. 31, 1968. His organization, Headquarters Area Command (HAC), is credited with saving Saigon until U.S. combat forces could arrive from outside the city.
When the Tet Offensive erupted in Saigon, Irzyk had an understandable sense of déjà vu: “I said, ‘Oh, no. Not again.’”
This time, however, instead of commanding a battalion of M4 Sherman tanks crewed by combat-hardened soldiers, Irzyk’s forces were support troops. The 2,000-plus members of HAC did have a couple of aces in the hole, however: the 716th Military Police Battalion and a hastily assembled reaction force of cooks, clerks, bakers and hotel managers.
“What was unusual about Tet as opposed to the Battle of the Bulge was that [in the Bulge] you had all combat troops deployed,” Irzyk said. “In Saigon, except for the MPs, the guys I had fired their weapons in basic training, but never again.”
In 1944, Irzyk recalled, his division was in France and the weather that November was “horrible, horrible” thanks to rain, mud and cold. His 8th Tank Battalion and the rest of the 4th Armored Division were expecting to stage an assault on the Siegfried Line—Germany’s western defenses— but the terrible weather made cross-country travel virtually impossible.
They’d gotten to within a few miles of the German border when, in early December 1944, the division was pulled back. Irzyk said his battalion was assigned to a little village, where they “went full speed ahead on maintenance and weapons cleaning.”
The weather continued to deteriorate. It was the worst in a 100 years, he said; it seemed impossible for it to get any colder. But the atrocious conditions provided perfect cover for the massive German assault that erupted in Belgium in the early hours of December 16. The Germans attacked a thinly manned American sector in the Ardennes Forest, causing havoc and punching toward the Meuse River. The ultimate German objective was to capture the strategic port city of Antwerp, and hopefully compel the Western Allies to sue for peace. This would free the Germans to concentrate on the Soviet juggernaut approaching from the east.
It was a forlorn hope at best for the Germans. Still, they managed to assemble a huge attacking force by stripping troops from the Eastern Front, where they had fought the oncoming meat grinder of the Red Army, and augmenting them with boys and old men. As the German attacks continued, the battlefield took on the shape of a bulge, inevitably leading to its nickname. The town of Bastogne, a road hub, soon became a key focal point of the battle. If the Germans could take Bastogne, their path to the Meuse would be much easier. Without it, their desperate attack—and the road to Antwerp—became even more of an uphill struggle.
Irzyk and his tankers were going full-bore on their refitting and maintenance when the German offensive began. On the morning of December 19 that all changed. The 4th Armored Division was ordered to relieve Bastogne, and its units moved out, with Irzyk’s 8th Tank Battalion spearheading the relief effort.
Irzyk’s battalion made it as far as Chaumont, near Bastogne, when it became involved in an armored brawl with the Germans. The heavy fighting and combat losses halted his unit, but other elements of the division finally linked up with the American defenders of Bastogne the day after Christmas.
It was “incomprehensible that what happened [during the Battle of the Bulge] happened,” Irzyk said. The Germans amassed a tremendous force, which “took them weeks and weeks.” But despite the size and scope of the German effort, there were “no leaks…it was a total surprise.”
Nearly a quarter-century later, Irzyk found himself in the middle of another enemy surprise attack. On the eve of Tet, he was in his headquarters when he received a telephone call from General William C. Westmoreland, the top commander in South Vietnam. “I have strong indications that sappers may be operating in town tonight,” Westmoreland reported. “Accordingly, I want your command at maximum alert.”
Irzyk swung into action. He held a meeting with all his key people, including the 716th MP Battalion commander, Lt. Col. Gordon Rowe. The MPs were ordered to put on flak jackets and take other steps to prepare for possible trouble. Meanwhile, HAC’s own quick-reaction forces, drawn from the command’s various support elements, were positioned in key spots throughout the metropolitan area.
Irzyk recalled that the crowds during the Tet Lunar New Year celebration made it almost impossible to get through the city and home from his office on the eve of the offensive. But by the time the fighting in Saigon began in the early morning hours of Jan. 31, 1968, the streets had cleared. “I rushed to my headquarters,” Irzyk said. “There was not a light showing [in the city].”
Those first hours saw the MPs and HAC troops in the fight of their lives at locations throughout the capital city, including the U.S. Embassy, Phu Tho Racetrack and many other hotspots. But Saigon held until the first American combat troops arrived. Then, for days afterward, Irzyk’s command was instrumental in keeping the city functioning.
Despite the similarities between Tet and the Battle of the Bulge, Irzyk said there were some differences. In the Bulge, massive military formations fought massive military formations. But in Saigon during Tet, American MPs and support personnel performed in unfamiliar combat roles. And for the most part, he said, “their enemy was sneaky guys coming around in ones and twos.”
On a personal level, another difference for Irzyk was his near brush with death during the 1944 battle at Chaumont. His Sherman tank somehow survived a hit from a mammoth 128mm round fired by a German Tiger tank-hunter. While that round should have smashed the Sherman’s turret, instead it simply pushed his tank forward. He said it felt like being hit by a “giant hand.”
Irzyk, whose WWII decorations included the Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, four Bronze Stars and multiple Purple Hearts, experienced no similar close calls during Tet. But he did have one miraculous escape later in his Vietnam tour, as an assistant commander of the 4th Infantry Division.
His helicopter was flying over triple-canopy jungle, in the mountains of II Corps, when it lost its engine. The pilots “did a fantastic job,” he said, and auto-rotated to the ground. Somehow they found the only open spot for miles around. Passengers and crew, understandably shaken up, got out and formed a security circle until rescue helicopters arrived.
Just like at the long-ago battle at Chaumont, “That day the Man Upstairs was with me again,” said the brigadier general. Now 96, Irzyk is the author of several books, including an account of his Tet experience, Unsung Heroes, Saving Saigon.
Don Hirst served two tours in Vietnam as an Army enlisted man, in 1964-65 and 1967-68. He was the Headquarters Area Command photographer during Tet, and shot photos at the U.S. Embassy that received worldwide exposure. He covered the war for Overseas Weekly from 1968 to 1972 and was an editor at Army Times for 11 years. In 1985 he launched Salute magazine and was its executive editor for 20 years.
Originally published in the February 2014 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.