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Jan Patronek, a young U.S. Army lieutenant, finds himself leading South Vietnamese troops in house-to-house fighting with the Viet Cong during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Sentries standing guard at 3 a.m. in the Mekong Delta initially assumed that flashing lights they saw in the distant sky were fireworks. After all, their New Year’s celebration, the Tet holiday, along a canal deep had just started the day before, Jan. 30, 1968, and both sides in the war had agreed to a three-day cease-fire. The sentries, from South Vietnam’s 3rd Battalion, 16th Regiment, 9th Division, were on duty in the hamlet of Mang Thit, about 15 miles southeast of Vinh Long, a provincial capital. Watching the bursts of light increase over Vinh Long, they felt left out of the big celebration. After a while, however, they thought maybe they were watching the lightning of a thunderstorm. Then they learned that something more serious was taking place.

As the night progressed, radio traffic revealed that serious attacks were occurring at bases and provincial capitals all over the region, including Vinh Long. Second Lieutenant Jan Patronek, a U.S. adviser to the 3rd Battalion, was awakened and told what was happening. He tried unsuccessfully to contact the regimental headquarters 30 miles away in Sa Dec. Patronek and the rest of the unit could tell that something big was underway. A massive Communist attack on cities throughout the South, the Tet Offensive, had begun.

Whatever trouble was coming his way, Patronek had spent the past two years preparing for it. After graduating from Officer Candidate School in 1966, he had led a platoon of the elite 82nd Airborne Division for a year. But the Army desperately needed advisers for the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, which oversaw all U.S. combat forces, and MACV preferred highly trained troops from Airborne and Ranger units.

Patronek and about a dozen other second lieutenants from the 82nd Airborne were selected for the adviser program and sent to the Military Assistance Training Advisory school at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where they studied counterinsurgency, weapons, explosives, communications and the Vietnamese language.

The United States had been providing military and civilian advisers to South Vietnam since the late 1950s. In 1961 the secretary of defense authorized the deployment of military advisers for every battalion of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Each ARVN battalion was supposed to have a U.S. captain as senior adviser and a first lieutenant as an assistant, accompanied by three noncommissioned officers with skills in communications, light weapons or heavy weapons. Sometimes a medical NCO was added to that five-man group. This need for officers and NCOs placed a tremendous strain on Army personnel. By 1968 the MACV field advisory force consisted of 11,596 men in 181 different teams—the equivalent of seven divisions solely of officers and NCOs.

When Patronek arrived in Vietnam during October 1967, he was assigned to Advisory Team 60, deployed with the 9th ARVN Division. Since 1963 the 9th had been garrisoned in the Vinh Long and Sa Dec areas, in the center of the Mekong Delta. The 3rd Battalion of the 16th Regiment was Patronek’s unit for the 12 months he was in-country. Captain Ron Wiley was the senior U.S. battalion adviser, and there were two NCOs, a sergeant first class and a sergeant. The team never had the full complement of five men intended by MACV, and for most of the year consisted of only three men.

The Army’s replacement system played havoc with an advisory team’s cohesiveness. Every three to four months a team member was rotated out, and his replacement would need time to get up to speed on important information and build relationships with ARVN troops.

Two months after Patronek arrived, the sergeant first class was rotated home, and two replacements were both wounded after only weeks on the job. For most of Patronek’s year in Vietnam, the team did not have a senior NCO. Captain Wiley rotated home not long after the Tet Offensive, leaving in May 1968, and was soon followed by the sergeant.

Wiley and the sergeant first class worked with the ARVN battalion commander, usually a major or lieutenant colonel, while Patronek and the other sergeant would assist whatever company was leading an operation. As a result, Patronek was always in the action, advising one of the five South Vietnamese company commanders.

In his advising role, Patronek served mostly as the ARVN’s liaison with American air support and artillery operations—a job whose duties included requesting assistance from helicopter gunships stationed at the nearby airbase in Can Tho.

The cultural differences between the Americans and the Vietnamese were staggering. Many American advisers viewed the Vietnamese as backward, superstitious and devious, and many Vietnamese viewed Americans as arrogant, rude and disrespectful, explains military historian Robert Ramsey in Advising Indigenous Forces: American Advisors in Korea, Vietnam, and El Salvador, a study for the Army’s Combat Studies Institute. The take-charge “get it done yesterday” attitude of the American soldier was jarring to the Vietnamese, who addressed problems slowly and indirectly. They also believed leadership and authority came from the commander as a man, not from an institution or a political system.

During much of the war, advisers were not getting the language training they needed to understand the Vietnamese culture. Before 1962 advisers attended the Defense Language Institute in Monterrey, California, for a year of language training. In an effort to get advisers into the field faster, language instruction was reduced when the Fort Bragg training school was established in February 1962. It became just a small portion of the four-week adviser program. That was quickly recognized as insufficient, and by the time Patronek went through the program, language study had expanded to 50 percent of the course.

Many advisers, however, still lacked a solid understanding of the cultural differences, and because many of them served in frontline units for only six months before being transferred to a staff job, they had trouble gaining the trust and confidence of their ARVN counterparts. The American advisers often became so frustrated that they could not do their jobs effectively. Vietnamese commanders, who frequently outranked their advisers and had far more combat experience, learned to “handle” their advisers. A commander would smile and agree with the adviser and then ignore his advice.

Patronek, however, was able to establish a rapport with the Vietnamese and stayed on the front line with them during his entire 12-month tour. He had been around Asians of Chinese and Japanese descent all his life. The son of a career Navy man, Patronek was born at Bremerton Naval Base in Washington state in 1947 and lived at a variety of bases along the West Coast, home to many Asian-Americans. He understood the centrality of family, tradition and “face” in Asian society.

“Asian culture did not intimidate me,” Patronek recalled, “and more importantly, I did not have the colonial attitude that I was there to fix the ‘little people.’ I wasn’t going to change a thousand years of tradition; besides, I was a 20-yearold second lieutenant with no combat experience ‘advising’ South Vietnamese captains who had been in combat for six to eight years.”

Patronek was frequently invited to homes of 9th Division officers whose families were with them in Vinh Long, and he got to know their wives and children. The enlisted men’s families were literally camp followers: Wherever the men went, the families went too, and it was not unusual to have kids in the adviser bivouac area. Sometimes Patronek would be working on a piece of equipment, and before long a group of them would be watching him. He would explain what he was doing and answer their questions. The members of his little entourage talked with their parents, and that created the bond of trust that enhanced Patronek’s job as an adviser.

During the last week of January 1968, Patronek was with the 3rd Battalion on security duty at a canal near the Mang Thit hamlet. The Mekong River splits into several smaller streams as it works its way through the delta, and canals were cut to allow traffic between the rivers. The battalion’s mission in Mang Thit was to keep the canals open. Troops patrolled them on foot along the banks and in boats on the river to prevent the Viet Cong from blockading a canal or setting up ambushes. The area was relatively quiet and the work regarded as light duty.

Patronek had been in Mang Thit several times and had befriended the Khiem family on the edge of town. The father was a local official. Patronek spent so much time at the family’s home that he became an honorary uncle to the children, four girls ranging from toddler to 10 years old. The father’s government salary was not enough to pay the school fees for the two oldest daughters.

“I hated to see them miss out on the chance for an education,” Patronek said, “so I discreetly gave the family enough money to keep the girls in school. If I ever get the chance to go back to Vietnam, I would like to look up the Khiems and see what happened to my nieces.”

Because there were no American units in the area, Patronek was on his own for food and personal items. His food allowance enabled him to live off the local economy, which meant a diet of fish or chicken with rice or, for variety, rice with chicken or fish.

“When I arrived in-country I was a fit 192 pounds,” Patronek recalled. “Eight months later I was 145 pounds, and my arms looked like pipe cleaners. I enjoyed the food; there just never seemed to be very much of it.”

When Patronek ate with a Vietnamese family he would compliment the wife for her cooking. And he always addressed the children directly, speaking their names. Too many advisers resisted the language, thought the food was disgusting and considered “gook culture” backward. The Vietnamese quietly ignored them—or worse, worked to undermine them. But Patronek’s efforts to speak their language, eat their food and respect their culture paid in cooperation and assistance, he said. Penniless enlisted men would give him gifts in appreciation for his care and concern for their families. Patronek would get warnings to watch a particular sentry carefully. Someone might also suggest that he increase security on a particular night or avoid a specific route on patrol.

There were no warnings that alerted Patronek and his colleagues in the ARVN’s 3rd Battalion, 16th Regiment, to the January 1968 Tet attacks. And because the Viet Cong had targeted radio towers, the soldiers at Mang Thit would not have dependable communications for two days. More than 70,000 troops from the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army had attacked over 100 cities, towns and military bases in an attempt to cripple the U.S. and ARVN forces, spark a popular uprising against the South Vietnamese government and weaken the American public’s support for the war.

The scale of the attacks created a shortage of everything at once, including trucks that could take Patronek and the 3rd Battalion back to Vinh Long. They thought about walking back but decided that after hiking 15 miles with all their equipment the soldiers would have been too exhausted to fight. At dawn on the third day of Tet, the trucks had finally arrived, and the battalion climbed in for the drive to Vinh Long. Its mission was to help break the siege around the airfield and the provincial chief’s headquarters.

As the battalion reached the outskirts of the city and dismounted, Patronek, as usual, was with its lead company. Once the troops moved into town, they were deployed in two lines of about 50 men each, one down each side of the street. One line would move forward while the other line covered it. Progress was slow and nerve-racking. At every two or three houses, a Viet Cong sniper would open fire, disappear and show up at another house. As Patronek’s company moved along the street, each house had to be searched for snipers to make sure none would be left behind to attack the unit from the rear. When a soldier entered a house, he never knew if he would see an empty room, a cowering family or the barrel of an AK-47.

The company had faced only sniper fire until it reached a large intersection. At that point, scouts who turned right to go around the corner were driven back by heavy machine gun fire. The company halted. Its captain and Patronek moved forward to take a quick peek around the corner. They saw a four-story hotel with a machine gun on every floor at the window of the end room facing the intersection. There were no corner posts in the windows, which meant each of the four machine gunners could swing his weapon almost 180 degrees, creating multiple overlapping fields of fire across the entire intersection.

Patronek’s company made several attempts to get around the corner but always met with the same outcome. As word of the machine gun emplacements was passed down the column, embellishments of the news put an entire Viet Cong battalion around the corner. The troops became increasingly edgy.

The options for destroying the machine guns were limited. Before entering Vinh Long, the battalion had been ordered to minimize the harm to civilians and buildings. Artillery and airstrikes within the city limits were not allowed. MACV did not want to create refugees or deal with an injured population.

Patronek was connected by radio to Captain Wiley, the U.S. battalion adviser, 200 yards to the rear. Patronek’s counterpart, the ARVN company’s captain, was connected to his battalion commander, who was with Wiley. Both radios channeled the same bleak report to the battalion level. As noon approached, the soldiers lying along the street in the shade worried that a frontal assault would be ordered.

Normally in that situation a simple solution would have been a tank, but the Mekong Delta was not tank country. The delta was a giant swath of rice paddies with narrow single-lane roads between the paddies. The few tanks in the area were usually dug in as defensive measures for a bridge or military base.

While Patronek and the ARVN captain were discussing the problem, they both became aware of a roaring and rattling sound coming down the street from the rear. All they could see was a cloud of dust and engine smoke out of which emerged an M42 “Duster,” an armored vehicle with a tank chassis and an open-topped turret mounting two 40mm Bofors cannons.

“To this day I have no idea where they found the Duster,” Patronek said.

As the M42 approached, Patronek realized it looked as if it had been “rode hard and put up wet.” The body was lacking several fender sections. Almost all the mounting brackets were broken or missing. When the Duster stopped and idled, the engine smoke enveloped it like a protective fog. “I think every gasket and valve in the engine leaked,” Patronek said.

Originally designed as an anti-aircraft weapon, the Duster soon found its home as a close-support weapon the infantry could use for ground targets. The two guns could deliver a combined 240 rounds a minute. That firepower was later augmented by a .30-caliber machine gun mounted on the turret.

As bizarre as the Duster looked, the three-man Vietnamese crew—commander, driver and gunner—were even more comical. All three had bandannas on their heads, and none of their clothes matched. They looked like Oddball’s tank crew from the movie Kelly’s Heroes. Patronek wondered, “This is our armored support?”

The ARVN captain explained the situation to the Duster commander, who then walked to the corner and peeked around. After another short consultation with the captain, he hopped back onto the Duster. The three amigos talked briefly and then took their positions.

The gunner loaded the 40mm shells. The driver cranked up the engine as though he were on the starting line of a drag race. Everyone edged back from the Duster, thinking something might explode or fly off the engine. The driver popped it into gear and took off down the street. As the Duster roared past the corner, the driver stomped on the right brake causing the vehicle to spin quickly to the right. Instantly, the twin 40s began firing and “walked” shells up and down the corner of the hotel, pounding it with 20 rounds of high explosives in about five seconds.

When the Duster stopped firing, the only sound was the asthmatic rattle of its engine. The turret scanned the rest of the intersection, and then the engine shut down. Patronek and the captain slowly walked into the intersection. The corner of the hotel was gone from ground to roof. The Duster had removed a wedge of the building about 40 feet deep. The two officers could see bedrooms, hallways and stairwells. As they stood assessing the damage, about 15 to 20 of their men came around the corner to look. Somebody started to snicker and then broke into a laugh.

“When you’ve been through a major shelling or firefight there is an eerie silence that lasts for 15 to 20 seconds, followed by an exhilarating feeling that you survived,” Patronek said. “The release of tension frequently comes in the form of humor and laughter.”

The first laugh became contagious, a floodlike release of all the stress of the house-to-house fighting and hours of waiting. Men were doubled over laughing, many with tears streaming down their face.

“I was laughing so hard I could hardly catch my breath,” Patronek said. The sound of all this hilarity drew the rest of the company, and within minutes over a hundred guys were standing in the intersection, joining in the laughter that washed over them like a spring rain. If Viet Cong had been in the area, the company would have lost dozens of men. But nobody was thinking about that. Congratulations were showered upon the Duster crew. They smiled and laughed along with the ARVN men.

“They may have looked like hippies,” Patronek said, “but those guys were trained killers.”

Finally, the battalion commander arrived, restored order and sent the troops toward the center of Vinh Long. The Duster headed back to the rear, disappearing in its cloud of dust and smoke. By the time the 3rd Battalion reached the airfield the next day, the Viet Cong attackers were dead, captured or retreating. The assault had been repulsed, and the uprising never occurred.

After his tour in Vietnam, Patronek was a weapons instructor at Fort Benning, Georgia, for almost two years and then did a second tour in Vietnam as a company commander in the 173rd Airborne Brigade. After seven years as a captain in the Airborne, Patronek returned to the civilian world for 10 years. In 1982 he joined the Special Forces as an enlisted man and served seven years as a noncommissioned officer. He now lives in Claremore, Oklahoma, and is a member of the Airborne Heritage Platoon.


Stan Leland met Jan Patronek when Patronek was a jumpmaster for the Airborne Demonstration Team, a World War II living history group. Leland, a San Antonio veterinarian, went through the school in 2008. He is interviewing veterans and writing their stories.

Originally published in the February 2015 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.