A general’s chief of staff requires a diverse set of skills—tactical, supervisory, coordinating, leading and negotiating. He must fulfill many roles, on occasion acting as the commander’s most ardent advocate, harshest critic, closest adviser and alter ego. Major General Walter T. “Dutch” Kerwin, who served as General William C. Westmoreland’s chief of staff during the 1968 Tet Offensive, understood those challenges very well.
Even today, General Kerwin can vividly recall how U.S. forces fought their biggest battle since the end of the Korean War. Twenty-three years of retirement have not dulled the 84-year-old Kerwin’s remembrance of the harrowing days following the outbreak of the battle or the grueling weeks of fighting that turned back the North Vietnamese invasion.
Kerwin’s assignment as MACV chief of staff topped an action-filled career. He graduated from West Point in 1939 and received a commission in the field artillery. When World War II broke out, Kerwin rose quickly to become the 3rd Infantry Division’s artillery operations officer, participating in campaigns in North Africa, Sicily, Italy and southern France. No operation was more trying than the landings at Anzio, Italy, in 1944. After an almost effortless landing, the Allies found that well-dug-in Germans were holding the Alban Hills, blocking the route to Rome and claiming an unrestricted view of the beachhead. The German advantage in observation made artillery fire a significant threat to Allied troops. The challenge of organizing effective counterbattery fire against the enemy guns thoroughly tested Kerwin, bringing out the best of his organizational and tactical skills.
Wounded in southern France, Kerwin returned to the United States. After World War II he rose through the ranks of America’s postwar Army to command the 3rd Armored Division and serve as assistant deputy chief of staff for operations on the Army Staff before deploying to Vietnam.
In a recent interview conducted by Lt. Col. James Jay Carafano, General Kerwin recalled the difficult and complicated world of the MACV chief of staff. Kerwin’s May 1967 assignment was no matter of chance. He previously had served under MACV’s deputy commanding general, Creighton Abrams, who had a reputation as a difficult and demanding boss. Kerwin, however, thrived on pressure and challenges. The two officers had long ago earned each other’s respect and confidence, and Abrams had become a friend and mentor. When Abrams was posted to South Vietnam, Kerwin received three days’ notice to follow him.
Dutch Kerwin arrived in Vietnam as the level of the U.S. Army’s involvement in the war was nearing its peak. While military operations were expanding throughout South Vietnam, the theater’s complicated organizational arrangements strained to keep up. Although General Westmoreland, or ‘Westy,’ was the military leader most visibly connected with the war, his command, MACV, did not directly control all the forces involved. The air and naval units, for example, answered in part to the theater commander in chief in Hawaii.
Kerwin was appalled by the inefficiency of the organization when he arrived in-country. “The Marines were sitting up there in I Corps almost entirely by themselves,” Kerwin recalled. “The bombing and other fire support was being run out of many other organizations. It was split…initially MACV was in a small headquarters downtown [in Saigon], and, in my opinion, not organized to get the best out of everything.” According to him, the staff was simply not taking full advantage of the preponderance of power available from the various forces crammed into the theater. Theater rotation policies that moved officers through the MACV staff in less than a year did not help. “In retrospect,” Kerwin said, “the one-year tours were a mistake.” The staffs were never as cohesive and competent as the ones he had seen in his service with the 3rd Infantry Division during World War II.
Nor did Kerwin find the command relationships at MACV as strong as they should have been. Abrams had left for Vietnam believing that he would shortly relieve Westmoreland as MACV commander, with Kerwin as his own hand-picked chief of staff at his side. The change in command, however, was delayed for more than a year. “Although General Abrams was completely loyal to Westmoreland,” Kerwin recalled, “there was not the closeness that there probably should have been between the two of them. There were many times—which I knew of, being the chief of staff—that General Westmoreland did not take General Abrams into his confidence. General Abrams knew that he wasn’t being utilized in the true sense of being a deputy commander.”
In addition to supporting both generals, Kerwin was called on to perform chief of staff duties for the ambassador to South Vietnam, Ellsworth Bunker, and Ambassador Robert William Komer, MACV’s civilian deputy commander in charge of Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support programs. Although Kerwin remained fiercely loyal to all four of his bosses, his duties were complex and difficult, considering that these men seemed to have different agendas, personalities, philosophies and priorities.
Moreover, as Kerwin lamented, his bosses “didn’t necessarily speak the same language.” From the quiet and introspective Westmoreland, to the blunt and down-to-earth Abrams, to the abrasive and volatile Komer, it was usually Kerwin who was caught in the crossfire. “It took an inordinate amount of time,” the MACV chief of staff recalled, “before I, as the chief of the whole headquarters, was able to exercise some sort of coordination and staff functioning, and all those things that should be done in that headquarters got done.” Moving MACV from its cramped facilities in Saigon to larger and better organized quarters near Tan Son Nhut helped, but staff coordination remained a chronic challenge in his new position.
MACV’s problems seemingly culminated on January 31, 1968, during the Tet cease-fire that marked the traditional Vietnamese celebration of the Lunar New Year. The day before, MACV had received reports of sporadic attacks, including some near Da Nang. Before dawn on January 31, VC insurgent forces and NVA Regulars launched a series of coordinated surprise attacks across South Vietnam. They hit more than 100 cities, towns and hamlets, as well as military bases and the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.
“Well, we knew something was coming,” recalled Kerwin. “They [the NVA forces] were moving out all over the place. [On the night of January 30, 1968] I went down to my house, down almost in the center of Saigon. Of course, it was Tet night and they’d blow firecrackers all over the place as they do in Hawaii. I woke up about 2 in the morning, wondering what all of this bang, bang, bang was, and I just ordinarily thought it was the firecrackers, because I had heard them before. Then the phone rang, and they said that we were under attack and I’d better get down here right away.
“My Vietnamese driver slept in the other part of the building, and I got dressed in a hurry and out the door we went—got the jeep and started down the long drive. I quickly saw that was not the thing to do, particularly since up ahead of us on the right-hand side of the main drag there was a military police outfit. They were under attack. So I tried to figure out what the hell to do. I thought, ‘If I get off on the side streets, I’m liable to get killed myself. And I’m not sure in the middle of the night (it was a dark night in January) whether I can even get back to headquarters or not.”’
“So we quickly turned around and went back close to the house and waited for a while. Things didn’t improve. It must have been 45 minutes or something like that. They were firing all over the damn place. We finally got out of there, and of course I went right down to the TOC to find out what the hell was going on. It was very difficult to do that, because everybody was being attacked everywhere.”
At about 3 a.m., General Kerwin got a call from the JCS, who asked what was going on. “I said: ‘To be frank with you, I’m not sure what the hell’s going on. Everybody seems to be unaware. We’re doing the best we can to get you the information. I’ll have to call you back.”’ Soon after that, he learned that the U.S. Embassy was under attack.
“Westy went down there because he thought if we lost that, it would appear that we’d lost the whole damn battle,” Kerwin recalled. “He called me and said to get hold of General Fred Weyand, who had II Field Forces. He said to get the troops down here at this embassy.”
“So I got hold of Fred on the radio, and by that time Fred had gotten the word. He sent down some troops. From there on out, my main job was to get a tactical picture. So, that was what I did—get the staff really ginned up and get hold of various commanders. I got the picture for Westy because he was down there at the embassy. From then on out, the rest of that day, I slept in the headquarters and never got home.”
Getting the staff organized was a considerable challenge, since many of the officers had a difficult time making their way to MACV headquarters on the 31st. “After the battle,” Kerwin recalled, “that led to the establishment of a trailer park at the new headquarters [at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, a few miles to the north]. I said: ‘We can’t have this. Next time we may get a hell of a lot of people killed.’ Of course, that’s a part of combat, but the question was how to get people in hand so we could do something. So I said, ‘Let’s establish a trailer park up there for everybody.’ But of course, that didn’t help us at the time….You just shift as best you can. You tap everybody on the shoulder down in the operations center and say, ‘Get a hold of those guys—tell Khe Sanh I want this and I want that, and so forth.”’
As the situation developed that day, General Kerwin recalled, “In some places we weren’t quite sure what was going on. It didn’t look too bad—we hadn’t lost anything, I mean anything major. Of course, the battle for Hue developed more and more as time went on, and that turned out to be one hell of a fight. [As for] the embassy, of course, it was just psychological….If we lost that place, if the people inside got killed in our own embassy, that would be one hell of a blow psychologically. But that was not our problem [at MACV headquarters]. It was our job—the whole damn staff — to get information.”
Turning to the Offensive
As Kerwin pieced together the scope of the enemy operation, he updated the MACV commander and the JCS in Washington. In the days that followed, American troops, South Vietnamese forces and a small contingent of other allied units gradually regained the initiative across the entire country. While there were some serious battles in the south, they were not of primary concern. The greatest challenge was keeping the north-south main supply routes open. As long as the allies could keep control of the highway and continue to move troops and supplies, Kerwin believed the situation in the south could be stabilized. Operationally, Westmoreland was most concerned about the attack on the city of Hue and the siege of the U.S. base at Khe Sanh (which Kerwin called Westmoreland’s “pet project”). Both were in the northern part of the country. In addition to the Marines already fighting in the north, MACV redeployed the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division from South Vietnam’s central coast. Kerwin recalled that it was a difficult situation, mixing Army and Marines, as well as South Vietnamese forces, on the fly. “It could have gone down the tube up there,” Kerwin said.
The Marines, the Vietnamese forces and the more than 45,000 Army troops that MACV funneled into the area strained both the theater’s tactical control and its logistical support structure in the following weeks. MACV also found itself battling incessantly to ensure that commanders gave the South Vietnamese forces enough air and artillery support so that they could make real contributions to the operation.
Worried that the northern provinces might fall to a North Vietnamese invasion, Westmoreland extended his operational control over the region by establishing a MACV forward headquarters at Phu Bai, just south of Hue. Troops in the area were under the command of Marine Lt. Gen. Robert E. Cushman of III Marine Amphibious Force (MAF). Westmoreland, however, ordered Deputy MACV Commander General Abrams to assume control over all forces in the area and conduct the fight for the northern provinces.
It was General Kerwin who suggested establishing the MACV forward headquarters. “It was always a question of accountability,” he said, recalling discussions of that move. “This was a big step. If we were going to coordinate all of these people up there, somebody had to do it, and Abe had the stature to do it. We had Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and everybody up there, [but] we didn’t seem to be making much headway, if any. The question was, who’s coordinating all of it, who’s running that thing up there? It’s an eyesore, it’s left over, the rest of the place is pretty quiet. We’ve won that battle. So we talked about it and I said, ‘Well, we’ve got to establish a headquarters up there and make sure things get under control.’ Westy said, ‘Abe, how about you?’ Abe said, ‘Sure.'”
“Abe was a real team player. He established a headquarters up there. Meanwhile, it was my job to make him a staff. So I gave him my J3 [joint operations officer] and some staff. Some of them he personally asked for.”
On occasion, General Kerwin became personally involved in the joint operations. “One day,” he recalled, “there was a squabble going on up in the north about controlling the TACAIR [tactical air support]. You had the Army with their helicopters. You had the Navy and Marines. It was a hell of a problem with the coordination of the air campaign up there. So we had a meeting. Westy was there, Abe was there, and a couple of people from the embassy, as usual. Abe said, ‘Let’s send Dutch Kerwin up there.’ Abe had read this book [General Lucian Truscott’s Command Missions] and saw my name in there and what I had done in the middle of the night [at the Battle of Anzio during World War II], changing artillery plans for the division commanders.'”
Abrams apparently had assumed that if Kerwin could straighten out the artillery firing at the Anzio beachhead as a lieutenant colonel, he could make sense out of the air coordination in Vietnam as a two-star general. “I called up the Marines and the Army and everybody else and I said I wanted a meeting,” recalled Kerwin. “They assembled this huge crowd in a great big general purpose tent. They must have had 150 or 200 people there. I started out by saying, ‘You can’t meet with this many people.’ At the end of that meeting—which lasted all day and part of the night—we hadn’t gotten anywhere.”
“I came back to the headquarters and told Abe that it would require people who would settle down and stop fighting over prerogatives and things of that type. So I asked him to send three people down—Army, Air Force and Marines—one each, three people. They came down to the headquarters.
“Finally, after much debate, we came up with a set of rules about who was going to do what. It turned out pretty well, but I must admit that it could have been much better if we’d stopped working on everybody’s prerogatives.”
As U.S. and South Vietnamese troops pushed back the enemy in the north, the MACV staff turned their thinking to future operations, including thinking about the unthinkable—the use of nuclear weapons. Kerwin, who had considerable experience in working with nuclear weapons, assembled a small planning team to consider the potential for employing tactical nuclear weapons against North Vietnam in the event the enemy attempted to repeat the Tet maneuver.
“The idea was,” Kerwin recalled, “that, suppose we did get authority. What would we do? It was shortly after Tet. We thought this was a good time to see what we could plan at a place called Vinh, on the coast. I got about four guys out of the staff, two of them Air Force—nuclear business was big in the Air Force—one Army, and one Marine.”
“This team’s purpose,” said Kerwin, “was contingency planning in case we had a catastrophe. It wasn’t a full-time job. We met two or three times a week just to discuss things and see what the planners had come up with. Basically the plan looked at using a few tactical Air Force weapons, bombs that we could drop on one focused, constricted area.”
The choice of targets for such an operation, according to Kerwin, “depended on whether we had sufficient troops or not. One place we looked at was near Vinh, because that was the only main avenue of approach on the DMZ. Also, that would be a place where you could use a nuclear weapon, because you would have a target that was of sufficient size. You bottle up the enemy and then block the approach.”
Eventually, the plan to use nuclear weapons was dropped when “somebody, somewhere heard about it.” Looking back, Kerwin said: “I guess we should have expected that. We were told pretty firmly to knock it off.”
Tet offered a variety of lessons for Kerwin and the MACV staff. Despite all its shortcomings and obstacles, MACV had launched an effective counteroffensive under difficult conditions, demonstrating great operational agility and flexibility. On the other hand, though the invasion had been successfully repulsed, the campaign again highlighted the flaws Kerwin saw in MACV’s operational design. These included the challenges of getting the South Vietnamese army into the fight, the cost of not thoroughly coordinating all fighting, Vietnamization and pacification efforts, and the difficulty of holding the initiative when the enemy had the freedom to withdraw to safety beyond the borders of North Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia.
Kerwin also witnessed MACV’s rapidly deteriorating relations with the press. The American media generally portrayed Tet as a horrendous military setback. As a result, Americans back home were becoming increasingly disillusioned with the war effort.
After Tet, Kerwin remained as chief of staff during the transition between Westmoreland and Abrams, helping the new commander begin to address the flaws they both saw in MACV’s operational approach to the war. Later on Kerwin served in combat as the commanding general of II Field Forces, a corps-level command. After returning to the United States, he held a succession of high-level posts, retiring as the vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army in 1978.
In retirement Kerwin has remained an influential figure, supporting the post–Vietnam War revitalization of the Army, encouraging the renaissance in thinking on operations, and—perhaps most important—supporting a return to an emphasis on the basics of soldiering, professionalism, integrity and character. Today he remains a valued adviser to the Army’s senior leadership, who frequently seek out his counsel.
This article was written by Lieutenant Colonel James Jay Carafano and was originally published in the February 2001 issue of Vietnam Magazine.
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