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House to House: Playing the Enemy’s Game in Saigon, May 1968

By Keith Nolan (Zenith Press, Osceola, Wis., 2006, hardcover $24.95)

The 1968 Communist Tet Offensive remains indelibly burned into the memory of all who fought in or followed the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. Although it represented a massive military miscalculation and defeat by the North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies, images of that offensive portrayed on the evening news in American homes converted the tactical fiasco into a strategic victory. It was the political turning point that turned the American public and its news media away from the war effort. Both were confident in victory before Tet; after Tet, a growing number were not. Few people realize, however, that militarily Tet was neither the costliest nor most destructive phase of the Vietnam War. That dubious distinction falls to the second VC assault on Saigon, better known as the Mini-Tet offensive. That episode in May 1968 constituted the war’s costliest two weeks for American forces and marked the U.S. Army’s only house-to-house campaign of that war.

Keith Nolan’s House to House: Playing the Enemy’s Game in Saigon, May 1968 (Zenith Press, Osceola, Wis., 2006, hardcover $24.95) describes the portion of that battle fought by four battalions of the 9th Infantry Division in Saigon’s District 8. It was a battle that tested those units and their commanders against a determined enemy on a suicide mission. The VC they fought had been augmented by North Vietnamese “replacements” and were fighting purely to convince the American public and its leaders that the U.S. war effort was futile. In hindsight, most believe they were largely successful in that mission.

This is no simple battle book, but rather a well-researched and superbly written account of the actions and experiences of the American soldiers, sailors and airmen who were caught up in the fighting in and around Saigon immediately before and during the VC assault of May 5-15, 1968. As with the battle itself, the bulk of the book centers on the companies and commanders of the 9th ID, but the author also describes the experiences of MACV staff officers caught in their quarters in town by roaming VC units on the offensive’s first day.

Nolan highlights as well the actions of the Air Force security units that defended Tan Son Nhut Air Base. The result is a panoramic view that accurately portrays not only the confusion of battle but also the complexity and breadth of the Viet Cong assault.

The book’s most important element is its focus on the people involved, from Maj. Gen. Julian Ewell, the 9th ID commander, down to individual soldiers. This book is their story—one of heroism, discipline and ill-discipline, chaos, sacrifice and personal loss. It is a simple, sincere and balanced narrative of those men, their battles and what they did for each other. No chest-beating here, but the reader will identify with the participants, particularly at the end when the Army’s actions after the battle seemingly rebut its sacrifices and diminish its accomplishments by post-action finger-pointing and the positioning of careerists to benefit from the actions of those “not blessed from above.”

Maps augment the text effectively, and photographs help bring the men to life, whether at rest, in action or, in some cases, as casualties awaiting evacuation. In each case—whether it was Lt. Col. Anthony De Luca, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 39th Infantry; the men of Charlie Company (“Charlie’s Bandidos”), 5th Battalion, 50th Infantry (Mechanized); or Spc. 5 Random Cyr—the reader sees the men as they were then. These portraits are further reinforced by excerpts from the participants’ diaries and letters. Such quotations provide insights into how the public’s changing perspectives and the political debates about the war affected the men and their approach to their duties.

These battles were not fought by robots but by human beings with feelings, perceptions and, increasingly, a greater respect for their enemy than for their political leaders back home. Despite all this and, in some cases, their personal flaws, the men of the 9th Infantry Division’s 2nd Battalion, 47th Infantry (Mech.); 3rd Battalion, 39th Infantry; 5th Battalion, 60th Infantry (Mech.); and 6th Battalion, 31st Infantry, fought with determination and great courage against an enemy who converted houses into strongholds and, in a fashion all too common in today’s wars against terrorism, used civilians as shields. Theirs was not a perfect battle, but it was a courageous one. House to House is a compelling record of their actions, and one that no serious or casual student of the Vietnam War should miss.


Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here