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It was one of the seminal events of the Vietnam War. In the pre-dawn hours of Jan. 31, 1968, the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong attacked military bases, small towns, big cities and provincial capitals all across South Vietnam. The assaults occurred during a cease-fire to celebrate the Lunar New Year, a holiday known as Tet.

The North Vietnamese hoped the Tet Offensive would lead to a popular uprising against the South Vietnamese government and demoralize the American public. After several days of fighting, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces beat back the attackers, and the general uprising did not occur. But in the United States, the surprise and initial success of the attacks shocked people who had been led to believe the war was going well. Public support plummeted in the months that followed.

That’s the big picture. But it’s not the whole story. Perhaps the broad sweep of Tet is best illustrated through the individual stories of many people in many places. In this issue, we see how the Tet Offensive was woven into the lives of five men who saw the fighting from five different angles.

  • In our lead story, pg. 32, Jan Patronek, an American adviser with a South Vietnamese unit in the Mekong Delta, was awakened on January 31 and told that bursts of light in the sky—initially thought to be holiday fireworks—were probably signs of enemy attacks. A few days later, Patronek and the South Vietnamese troops were patrolling the streets of a nearby city and battling Viet Cong snipers hiding in the town’s buildings.
  • Also awakened by noises in the early morning hours of January 31 was Robert Komer, working in Saigon as special assistant to President Lyndon B. Johnson. Before that night, Komer had been optimistic about LBJ’s “pacification” program, designed to repel the Communist threat through economic development initiatives and a military counterinsurgency strategy. The Tet attacks left the program in shambles (pg. 60).
  • Kyoichi Sawada, one of the preeminent photographers of the war, captured the intense fghting of Tet, particularly during the battle of Hue, in a series of explosive photographs. Several are featured in our portfolio of his work, which begins on pg. 40.
  • In late 1967, 1st Lt. John E. Gross led a mechanized infantry company helping to rebuild bridges destroyed by the war. Gross’ unit rarely ran into the Viet Cong and lost no one to enemy fire, as he notes in recollections of the operation starting on pg. 46. Gross later learned that the Viet Cong were trying to avoid firefights as they prepared for Tet.
  • In May 1968, newspaper reporter Nancy E. Lynch started a column that published letters from the troops. Helicopter pilot Michael Momcilovich Jr. wrote: “Back home we hear about the ‘Saigon warrior’ whose biggest day was the Tet Offensive. True, it was rough, but it wasn’t year round. The soldier in the field has it all year round and he gets little thanks for it” (pg. 52).

Even though much of the American public was ready to wind down the war after Tet, there were still four years of heavy casualties ahead. Momcilovich was one of them. He was killed one day after he wrote his letter to Lynch.


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