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Viet Cong commandos attack the heart of South Vietnam’s high command.

At 3 a.m. on Jan. 31, 1968, the second day of the Tet holiday marking the start of a new lunar year in Vietnam, the Year of the Monkey, Nguyen Van Lung and 21 other commandos from the T-700 Special Action Group sprinted up an alleyway in the northern suburbs of Saigon toward Gate 5 of the compound that housed the South Vietnamese Joint General Staff, the equivalent of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. Most of the Viet Cong soldiers carried a Chinese-made version of the Soviet AK-47 assault rifle and several hand grenades. Three more had B-40 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and several others, including a 16-year-old girl, carried bags full of extra rocket grenades.

Sniper fire rains on U.S. military policemen as they sprint through a Saigon alley in the May 1968 fighting. (AP Photo)

As the column of commandos closed the final 100 meters to the gate, they saw five South Vietnamese guards gesture toward them in alarm and then scramble for cover behind concrete barriers and inside a sandbagged bunker. The lead commandos opened fire with their assault rifles in an effort to suppress the South Vietnamese guards as another Viet Cong soldier ran forward with a B-40 launcher, trying to get close enough to land a square hit on the bunker that was beginning to spit out defensive fire. Hanoi’s long-awaited Kong Kich-Tong Kong Ngia (General Offensive-General Uprising) had begun.

North Vietnamese leaders started preparations for the Tet Offensive after a clique of South Vietnamese generals overthrew President Ngo Dinh Diem in November 1963. Eager to take advantage of the political instability that followed, the senior members of Hanoi’s Politburo—Le Duan, general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party; General Vo Nguyen Giap, minister of defense; Ho Chi Minh, the aged revolutionary leader now living in semiretirement, plus seven others—decided to push for an all-out offensive against Saigon at the soonest opportunity.

At the time, South Vietnam’s armed forces were losing ground to the Viet Cong all over the country, despite the presence of nearly 20,000 U.S. advisers, and the junta of generals that ran the country after Diem’s passing lacked popular support. Le Duan and his comrades planned to send units from the North Vietnamese Army into South Vietnam to help Viet Cong forces prepare for a knockout blow to destroy the South Vietnamese state.

The Viet Cong headquarters designated to oversee the offensive in South Vietnam’s capital, the Saigon-Gia Dinh Party Committee, was a regional command group that reported to the Central Office for South Vietnam. COSVN was the Communist agency that controlled all political and military affairs in the lower half of South Vietnam and parts of neighboring Cambodia. The Saigon-Gia Dinh Party Committee, staffed by several hundred secret operatives, included a military component known as the C-10 Sapper Battalion (also called the F-100 Group), which carried out surveillance, assassinations and bombings.

Throughout 1964 and into early 1965, these Biet Dong Doi (Special Action Teams) conducted a wave of terrorist attacks in Saigon to undermine public confidence in the government. Most of the targets were South Vietnamese, but on March 30, 1965, Viet Cong commandos detonated a car bomb in front of the U.S. Embassy in downtown Saigon, an act of retaliation for the recently launched Rolling Thunder bombing campaign against North Vietnam.

As the C-10 Sapper Battalion spread fear throughout the capital, COSVN organized six VC infantry battalions to spearhead the offensive against Saigon. One that would later see action at the South Vietnamese JGS compound during Tet, the 2nd Go Mon Battalion, was formed from local guerrillas in October 1964 at Nui Ba Den, Tay Ninh province.

In July 1965, COSVN moved the unit down to the Hoc Mon and Go Vap districts of Gia Dinh province (the territory that surrounded Saigon), where it became the 2nd Go Mon Battalion of the 165A “Liberation” Regiment—165 indicating that the unit had been formed in 1965 for plan “A” to attack the capital.

Plan A was never put into effect: The massive influx of American combat troops in the summer of 1965 stabilized the South Vietnamese government and put COSVN on the defensive. North Vietnamese leaders returned to a strategy of protracted warfare, ratified with the passage of Resolution Twelve of the Lao Dong Party in December 1965. Two more years would pass before Le Duan and his comrades saw another opportunity to strike at the heart of the South Vietnamese state.

In spring 1967, North Vietnam’s Politburo began exploring the possibility of implementing the long-awaited general offensive-general uprising. Preparations began in earnest in October 1967. COSVN ordered the C-10 Sapper Battalion (renamed the T-700 Group) to attack 10 targets in and around Saigon: Tan Son Nhut Air Base, the JGS compound, the South Vietnamese navy compound, Independence Palace, the Saigon Broadcasting Station, the Capital Military District headquarters, the National Police headquarters, Chi Hoa Prison and the U.S. Embassy. Ten Viet Cong infantry battalions were to penetrate the city from multiple directions and then link up with the special action teams within a few hours of the first day.

Communist agents in Saigon intended to mobilize several thousand university students, blue-collar workers and anti-government dissidents to stage sit-down strikes and hold demonstrations that would interfere with South Vietnam’s security forces during the critical opening phase of the battle.

The T-700 commandos began training for their missions in early January 1968, learning city-fighting tactics, small-arms use and demolition techniques, but most had no idea what their targets were going to be. COSVN kept the attack’s timetable and the specific objectives a closely held secret until the last moment. The reorganized T-700 Group consisted of 12 “J” units, each with about a dozen fighters, plus a headquarters section.

The commandos were a mix of experienced urban operatives and newly recruited village guerrillas. Lung, the executive officer of the J6 unit, had served in the C-10 Sapper/T-700 Group since late 1965, as had about half of the 24 people in J6. The remaining half, including Pham Dao, an ammo bearer for a B-40 rocket propelled grenade gunner, were added in October 1967 to bring the unit up to fighting strength. Two of those recruits were females: a 16-year-old ammo carrier and a 20-year-old who served as a scout and messenger. Few of the commandos in the J6 Unit had combat experience. Lung was skilled in surveillance and sabotage, but had little experience fighting as an infantryman.

Lung later revealed that most of his comrades were tired, weak and dispirited by the odds facing them. Some, including Dao, had been reluctant to join the Viet Cong. He agreed to serve only after a U.S. airstrike killed his uncle and cousin. COSVN’s reliance on fighters with limited skill and questionable dedication to such a crucial mission underscores the risky and almost desperate nature of Hanoi’s Tet offensive.

Unknown to Lung at the time, the mission of the J6 unit was to attack and seize Gate 5 of the Joint General Staff compound, measuring about a square kilometer in size at the southeastern corner of the massive Tan Son Nhut Air Base, just north of metropolitan Saigon. Urban sprawl had made the area around the JGS compound appear to be a seamless extension of the capital. The interior of the compound resembled a college campus, with two- and three-story tile-roofed buildings laid out in a geometrical pattern among wide boulevards and grassy areas. A 6-foot concrete wall topped by a high fence and razor wire separated the compound from residential areas to the south and east.

COSVN’s plan called for the 2nd Go Mon Battalion to attack Gate 4 at the northeastern corner of the compound at the same time that the J6 Unit attacked Gate 5 on its southeastern corner. Within a couple of hours, the J6 Unit would be reinforced by a second Viet Cong infantry unit, the 267th Local Force Battalion, advancing from the west along the lower edge of the air base. COSVN also expected up to 500 students and workers to arrive before daybreak to mount a public demonstration. If all went according to plan, the combination of Viet Cong soldiers and sympathizers would paralyze the JGS headquarters during the opening hours of the Tet Offensive, crippling the South Vietnamese command structure as the Communists swept into more than 100 towns and cities across the country.

The Tet fighting extended to the U.S. Embassy, where a military police sergeant carries away a badly wounded Viet Cong commando. (National Archives)

On Jan. 27, 1968, three days before the start of the Tet festival, 22 commandos from the J6 unit boarded buses in Cu Chi, northwest of Saigon and traveled on Highway 1 to a pair of safe houses. Dressed like typical urban professionals (Western-style collared shirts and slacks), they made the trip in groups of twos and threes so they would not draw attention to themselves. In those safe houses the next day Lung and his comrades finally learned the details of their mission, set to commence at 3 a.m. on Jan. 31.

Hanoi’s carefully laid plans went awry in the early morning hours of Jan. 30 when Viet Cong and North Vietnamese units in some areas of central and northern South Vietnam began the offensive a day ahead of schedule. The error arose from a misunderstanding about which calendar to use (the North used a lunar calendar, which put the new year one day ahead of the calendar used in the South). The early start of the fighting in those areas placed U.S. and South Vietnamese forces on notice that other parts of the country might soon be attacked as well.

That mix-up had particular repercussions for Lung and his comrades. On the evening of Jan. 30, Gen. Cao Van Vien, the head of the Joint General Staff and chief of staff of the South Vietnamese army, ordered all military and security units in the capital region to go on full alert.  He recalled any personnel who were on holiday leave, increased patrol activities and strengthened defensive positions.

At Tan Son Nhut, a battalion of South Vietnamese paratroopers that had been preparing to fly to the northern part of the country unpacked their gear and prepared for battle. The South Vietnamese security battalion and the U.S. Air Force’s 377th Security Police Squadron, which defended the perimeter of Tan Son Nhut, put extra men on duty at each gate, tower and guard post. A South Vietnamese platoon of M41 light tanks waited in reserve. South Vietnamese policemen established checkpoints throughout the city, and the U.S. 716th Military Police Battalion, the only American unit in Saigon that possessed some combat capability, increased the number of its roving jeep patrols.

Lung and his comrades had lost a vital measure of surprise when the J6 Unit assembled at the southern end of the alleyway and sprinted toward Gate 5, some 300 meters in the distance. They had to move quickly; streetlights and a combination of high walls and fenced-off courtyards made it nearly impossible for the commandos to find cover in the northern part of the alleyway. As a result, most of them stopped about 100 meters from Gate 5, while several of their bravest fighters dashed forward in an attempt to knock out the bunker holding several guards and a machine gun.

The gambit failed. South Vietnamese bullets killed the Viet Cong B-40 gunner before he could use his weapon as well as a commando firing an AK-47 near the outer fence of Bachelor Officers Quarters 3, a villa on the corner of Vo Thanh Street that housed senior U.S. officers. The J6 commander, unwilling to risk more men, especially the two remaining B-40 gunners, ordered Lung and the others to seek cover among the one- and two-story buildings lining the middle part of the alley. They broke down doors to gain entry and then climbed to vantage points where they could continue to fire upon Gate 5 and anyone who entered the alleyway.

Lung and his comrades expected to renew their assault on Gate 5 once the 267th Battalion arrived from the west as promised. The J6 unit still had 20 able-bodied fighters and most of their ammunition in buildings that offered good cover and concealment. The commandos might also gain assistance from the 2nd Go Mon Battalion, which was supposed to be attacking the JGS compound from the northeast. At that point, the only allied troops defending Gate 5 were a handful of South Vietnamese guards and a few U.S. military policemen who had shown up at about 3:15 a.m.

Around 30 minutes later, a U.S. jeep with three occupants came rolling up the alleyway, followed at a short distance by a 2½-ton truck carrying 16 heavily armed American MPs in the back. It was a threat the commandos could not ignore. Letting the jeep pass through the alleyway unmolested, the Viet Cong fighters waited until the truck was about 50 meters from the exit and then sprang their ambush.

A B-40 gunner rose from concealment on the west side of the alley, firing his weapon at the left side of the truck’s engine compartment, right above the tire. The high-explosive round ripped through the engine and shredded both front tires, bringing the truck to a shuddering halt a few dozen meters from Vo Thanh Street. Simultaneously, Viet Cong fighters on both sides of the alley, some in a two-story building overlooking the crippled truck, opened fire on the MPs still reeling from the initial blast.

Within a few moments, bullets and grenade fragments killed most of the soldiers in the truck and wounded the others. A few of the wounded men crawled to safety as U.S. troops on Vo Thanh Street poured out covering fire. Devastating though it had been, the ambush did not bode well for the J6 unit. The very success of the attack ensured that the Americans and South Vietnamese would now bring additional reinforcements to the area and make every effort to recover the dead and wounded MPs in the alley.

Lung had reason to be worried. The Viet Cong 267th Battalion he had counted on for his salvation ran into a South Vietnamese unit on the outskirts of Saigon during the night, forcing the VC unit to veer north toward Tan Son Nhut where it joined two more battalions that attacked and penetrated the western side of the air base. The 2nd Go Mon Battalion’s local Viet Cong guide ran away, but the battalion was able to find the JGS compound by following the railroad tracks that entered Saigon from the northeast and eventually passed by the JGS compound. Arriving at 4 a.m., one hour late, the 2nd Go Mon Battalion eventually knocked out the bunker at Gate 4 and entered the JGS compound about 7 a.m.

However, the battalion possessed fewer than 250 soldiers and none of its heavy weapons, which had been left behind because of their excessive weight. As a consequence, the unit settled for occupying the eastern corner of the JGS compound (some school buildings and warehouses), which it could adequately defend, rather than making a risky push toward General Vien’s headquarters or Gate 5. By 8:30 a.m., elements of the South Vietnamese 8th Airborne Battalion took up defensive positions around Vien’s headquarters, and later that day helicopters transported the South Vietnamese 2nd Marine Battalion from the Mekong Delta into the JGS compound. Facing relentless counterattacks from the ground and air, the survivors of the 2nd Go Mon Battalion retreated from the compound the next day, a few dozen managing to evade capture and eventually returning to their base camp.

Lung and his comrades knew none of this, lacking a radio they could use to communicate with the T-700 headquarters or some other Viet Cong command group. The commandos continued to hold their positions until early afternoon, fighting off a combination of U.S. MPs, South Vietnamese police and troops from the U.S. Army Headquarters Command trying to recover the dead and wounded men by the truck. Some of the VC appear to have slipped away at 3:30 p.m. when a South Vietnamese V-100 armored car arrived to assist in the rescue effort. Sniper fire greeted the U.S. soldiers when they entered the alley behind the protective shield of the armored car, but it wasn’t enough to prevent the recovery of all the dead and wounded.

The standoff in the alleyway next to Bachelor Officer Quarters 3 might have been resolved sooner were it not for the other problems facing the commanders in Saigon that morning. Shortly after daybreak, the head of II Field Force, Maj. Gen. Frederick C. Weyand, ordered his deputy commander, Maj. Gen. Keith L. Ware, to establish a forward command post in Saigon to control all of the U.S. Army combat units that would soon be operating in and around the capital. Ware and a small staff flew by helicopter from Long Binh to the Capital Military District headquarters in central Saigon, establishing Task Force Ware at 10:45 a.m. on Jan. 31.

Ware’s first priority was to defeat Communist forces attacking Tan Son Nhut, particularly the Viet Cong battalions lodged around Gate 51 on the western perimeter and Gate 10 on the eastern side near the headquarters of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, which oversaw all U.S. combat forces in the country.  Only after those threats had been contained could the general spare some troops from the 1st and 25th Infantry divisions arriving at Tan Son Nhut for other missions. As a result, it was not until 5:30 p.m. that an M48A3 tank and two M113 armored cavalry assault vehicles from Troop A of the 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, showed up at Gate 5 of the JGS compound to help deal with the J6 unit.

By that time, Lung and most of his comrades had gone into hiding or moved to other parts of the neighborhood. An M113 vehicle backed into the alley and towed out the destroyed truck without receiving fire. The battle now over, U.S. and South Vietnamese military policemen began a thorough search of nearby buildings while collecting the damaged and discarded equipment strewn along the alleyway at the scene of the fight.

Across Saigon, the failure of the Viet Cong general offensive was plain to see on Feb. 1. Lung and 11 other Viet Cong commandos, most of them wounded, surrendered that morning. Ten others escaped. On the other side, 13 U.S. soldiers from the 716th Military Police Battalion and three men from other units perished in the fight for Gate 5, all killed in the initial hours of combat during the truck ambush and rescue efforts. The attack that hit the JGS compound on the morning of Jan. 31, 1968, would be the one and only time that the Communists directly threatened the South Vietnamese high command until NVA tanks and troops poured into Saigon in April 1975. 

Erik Villard is digital military historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History in Washington and author of the forthcoming Staying the Course: U.S. Army Combat Operations in the Vietnam War October 1967-September 1968. Villard is also founder and director of the Facebook group VietnamWarHistoryOrg.