Share This Article

The Tet Offensive had just petered out when the wounded Viet Cong, bolstered by the NVA, hit Saigon again—hard—in May 1968.

Bang! It started off with a big bang. A 500-pound bang, rigged up in an old blue and yellow 1950s vintage Renault taxi cab. The intended target was the joint Vietnamese and Armed Forces Radio and Television Service building, no more than half a mile from central downtown Saigon. Unlike in today’s all too familiar scenarios however, the driver was not a suicide merchant. He escaped after parking the car bomb between the TV station and the building housing the Vietnamese-American Student Association. After the bomb detonated, the two-story colonial school was leveled, the roof virtually lifted off. Now, next to the scarred but still-functioning TV building, was a crater 100 feet wide and 20 deep. As I arrived on the scene, rescue crews were combing the wreckage, and a large sow was rooting for human remains.

The whole of the Saigon press corps had been rocked—the blast felt and heard in everyone’s bureau. The next 24 hours would be disastrous for the city and the media alike. Earlier that day, May 5, 1968, Saigon had racked up its first heavy 122mm rocket attack. Intelligence had located North Vietnamese Army (NVA) units on the move into Saigon’s suburbs. U.S. and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) troops were on the move to blunt their advance.

Everybody had believed that the National Liberation Front (NLF) and North Vietnamese forces were burnt out after the January-February 1968 Tet Offensive. They had taken massive casualties, and the Viet Cong’s (VC) infrastructure had been uncovered and almost destroyed. On paper, the allied forces had gained the upper hand. In the American public perception, however, the offensive had exposed the vulnerability of both ARVN and U.S. forces. Virtually every district and provincial capital in the South had been assaulted, and the NVA had occupied Hue for nearly a month.

In Saigon the attack and entry into the U.S. Embassy was broadcast to a disbelieving audience back home, delivering a devastating impression of an apparently irreversible enemy ascendancy. After the 27-day battle to retake Hue, the preeminent American newscast sage, Walter Cronkite, declared the war unwinnable. That helped seal President Lyndon B. Johnson’s decision at the end of March to not seek a second term.

Tet was the beginning of the end, proving that the Viet Cong could pop up anywhere in force without allied intelligence really sussing it out. Now in early May, with this second wave, or mini Tet, the Viet Cong bolstered by massive NVA infiltration would only attack 110 places country-wide, but their success in turning Saigon into an urban battleground contributed to the largest one-month loss of American soldiers in the entire war and further eroded prospects for an allied victory.

Back at Saigon’s terrorist-inflicted ground zero next to the TV station, no gruesome stack of bodies was forthcoming so the television news crews dispersed quickly toward other explosions and gunfire in the distance. As the rescue crews dug deeper, I was left alone with a hunch that there was a frame coming. After a quarter of an hour, the pompiers in their antique French fire helmets uncovered a heavy beam resting across a body dressed in white pajamas. The broken corpse of a teenage girl was gently extracted and passed to the street. No one else had these shots.

Elsewhere in town, right around the outskirts and all over Chinese Cholon, firefights and explosions were breaking out, scattering the media to report new incidents. It was a hard call to know which way to head as columns of smoke rose around the horizon and the sounds of contact echoed from all points. There was no such thing as cell phones then, and most offices didn’t have the whole scan of military radios. Tips traveled through the grapevine, maybe via the occasionally functioning local telephone net, or through our Vietnamese stringers, interpreters and gofers.

One of the enemy’s main thrusts into central Saigon had come from just north of the TV station, near the main bridge to the Bien Hoa highway. South Vietnamese troops held off the attack at the bridge, with fighting raging in small pockets in the refugee shantytowns that since Tet had ringed the city’s core. Strange bands of paramilitary “combat police” that were armed to the teeth, roamed the neighborhoods along the canal behind the zoo. Across the fetid waterway, city blocks burned out of control because firefighters couldn’t get through to them. During one sortie into the Gia Dinh area on May 6, the national police chief, Brig. Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, was badly wounded. In an image that had profoundly affected world opinion, Loan had been photographed by Eddie Adams summarily executing a guerrilla in February during Tet. Along with Loan, a TV cameraman and two photographers, including Christian Simonpietrie, got hit by shrapnel at the same time.

Across town, by Ton Son Nhut Airport, the fighting intensified in the old French cemetery, and other journalists on the scene became casualties. Charlie Eggleston of United Press International was killed by a sniper as he stood beside UPI Radio’s Roger Norum, who recorded the whole macabre sequence on tape. Two other photographers were wounded. Life magazine’s Co Rentmeester took an AK-47 round diagonally through his 200mm lens and Nikon F body, which then traveled through his forearm. The same round continued on and hit freelance photographer Art Greenspan between the eyes. Both men survived.

Farther along the Plantation Road, going toward the racetrack at Phu Tho, the North Vietnamese were well dug in. South Vietnamese artillery based in the infield of the track pumped rounds only a few hundreds of meters away. Incredibly, jockeys worked their mounts between salvos. Only days later, with the ARVN infield firebase still firing its 105mms occasionally, the Saigon Derby went on to be run as scheduled to prove that all was normal.

It took two weeks to completely clear some buildings and entire blocks in Cholon as tanks clanked through the Chinese enclave’s streets, and choppers landed on roundabouts. Multi hued camo-fatigued mobs of never-before-apparent paramilitaries, armed with an arsenal spanning 50 years, moved in to mop up the diehards, supporting ARVN Rangers camped at shop fronts.

For once you could drive in the city with no traffic, only nervous roadblocks. It was hard to say what was a no-go zone: the lack of folk, the ad hoc roadblocks, columns of smoke, the sound of gunfire or explosions. The first day of mini Tet saw the heaviest media casualties, as everyone was looking for the best bit of action, scouting the perimeters, gauging the flow of once again displaced refugees. It was into one of these outer labyrinths on the arc from the western edge of the airport toward Phu Tho and Cholon that five photographers drove an Austin Mini-Moke. The jeep-like MiniMoke took a wrong turn down a narrow street at an intersection, against the flow of fleeing civilians. A squad of Viet Cong confronted the Moke at close range with automatic weapons. Two men inside the Moke were killed instantly, and the other three tumbled out of the vehicle and fell to the pavement. At that moment a Viet Cong officer stepped up with a newly captured .45 to execute two of the men before his Colt’s clip went dry. The third man on the pavement, Frank Palmos, was playing dead, and as the officer fumbled with the unfamiliar weapon to reload it, Palmos leapt up and sprinted away. He managed to elude the officer who took off after him, attempting to melt into the throngs of refugees clogging the streets. Later, finding that the Reuters office next door was still locked up, Palmos burst into the Time/Life villa and in a crazed, freaky babble, he blurted the story. Wally Terry and Zalin “Zip” Grant, believing the men might still be alive, tore off to find them. Their ordeal in the surreal streets of the city gripped in chaos ended hours later when they finally found the dead men and took their bodies back to the bureau. It was possibly the hardest day ever for the Aussie media. Three of the murdered men—Bruce Piggott, Michael Birch and John Cantwell—all hailed from Down Under, as did Palmos. The fourth man killed on that Saigon street was Ron Laramy, who had just arrived from the United Kingdom.

It was a Cobra strike that gave four of us photographers one of our iconic images of all time. When you took the fork at the center of the “Y” bridge on the southwest side of the city over the Grand Arroyo, you were in a densely populated slum. Where the bridge abutments leveled, there was a slaughterhouse. Groups of NVA were lodged there firing at bridge traffic. They had taken the 8th District, made up mostly of highly flammable shanties now housing refugees from the Tet fighting months earlier. An NVA regiment was dug in here, and ultimately the U.S. 9th Infantry Division would need to use tanks, tracks and dozers in an Israeli Gaza clearing-type of operation that left swaths of the district leveled. First, as we watched from the relative safety of the bridge, the Americans hit the enemy’s nest in the slaughterhouse. Fast movers dropped 750-pound bombs into the center of the district, and Cobras worked in closer. Tracers ignited the shanties, followed by rockets that fed the growing fire. The animals awaiting slaughter were sent writhing and shredded as refugees streamed up the ramp, passing fire and rescue crews headed the other way. From the wreckage of a butcher shack, rescuers hauled a 12-year-old girl shot square in the chest with a minigun. Her younger brother screamed in anguish and wouldn’t leave her side. They got her body to a red fire pickup, and a gaggle of photographers—including Philip Jones Griffith of the Sunday Times, Larry Burrows of Life and Shimamoto San of Newsweek—all got almost the same shot.

With the Y-bridge ramps cleared, the American armor rumbled into District 8 and commenced a Stalingrad-like leveling of the neighborhood, tidying up what the bombs and artillery had started. Because most of the shoeless residents, dragging pitiful bundles of possessions, had fled as the NVA infiltrated, there weren’t too many civilian casualties in the operation. But the mop-up would go on for days as diehards dug into the rubble, popping up to snipe or fire a rocket-propelled grenade.

Hanoi’s intention with mini Tet was to prove that although it had a sore legacy from Tet, it was still able to mount an offensive, albeit of lesser strength, in more than 100 locales. The National Liberation Front forces were doing a good job of keeping the media’s attention, as the Saigon street fighting was extensively covered on the front pages of the leading Western papers. This was happening just as the Paris peace talks were getting into gear, with Hanoi calling for NLF representation in the South Vietnamese government and a bombing halt over the North, and the United States calling for a cessation of infiltration and a pullback of North Vietnamese forces to the demilitarized zone.

The attack on Saigon was by three well-equipped regiments. After the first days, their supply lines were seriously interrupted as the U.S. Air Force threw a cordon of arc lights around the city, and all the allied forces went on hunt-and-kill operations. Intense urban fighting caused more internally displaced peoples, and the screening of these refugees became even more difficult. A curfew still reigned, but business and the bars slowly came back to life from the lockdown after the initial attacks. The refugee chaos, however, allowed more Communist infiltration, and another short spurt of attacks, supported by more large rockets, began May 25.

The mini-Tet offensive officially stopped on May 13, but it would take the U.S. and ARVN forces another two weeks to retake the last area occupied by the Communists. Overall, mini Tet had been another tactical failure for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, largely because American intelligence gathering and analysis had greatly improved thanks to lessons learned from Tet. In most cases, the Communists failed to achieve surprise and found U.S. and ARVN forces ready for them when they struck.

For the month of May 1968, U.S. troops killed in action exceeded 2,000, the heaviest casualties of the war thus far. They would not fall much below 1,000 for the next two months, as the enemy was driven back to his now shrinking base areas. The new commander in chief, General Creighton Abrams, who took over from General William Westmoreland, began tactically deploying B-52s in arc light missions against enemy-held targets in South Vietnam.

Against this backdrop, the initial Vietnamization efforts were being phased in, and the confidence and firepower of the ARVN was gradually growing. But the fierce fighting, first during the Tet Offensive and then the second wave of brutal urban warfare that came to be known as mini Tet, set the field for the endgame. It would prove that there was nothing that could be done to arrest the eventual slide toward the nightmare of defeat for the South and the dream of victory and unification that Ho Chi Minh had had 50 years before.


Originally published in the October 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.