February 8, 2016–Greetings to all who observe the Lunar New Year! For me personally, the shock of the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War, back in 1968, put the Lunar New Year on the calendar, while many years of living in New York, with very active celebrations downtown, made it memorable. But the indelible element is Tet. Now, the thing about the Tet Offensive which made it so extraordinary is that fighting suddenly broke out all across South Vietnam. Yet when people talk about “Tet” it’s mostly three pieces of the action they mean–the fighting in Saigon (especially at the American embassy), the siege of Hue, or the battle of Khe Sanh. I admit I’ve written about all three. But there’s more to the story. In my book Vietnam: Unwinnable War I tried to expand the horizon, particularly on actions in the Mekong Delta. I’ve done pieces elsewhere, too, including one on “Tet in II Corps” that appeared in The VVA Veteran back in 2009. I was pleased the other day when a veteran of the events portrayed in that article approached me to correct some of what it said. With the Lunar New Year coming right up, this seems an ideal moment to mark it with a non-Saigon story. So, herewith, to Qui Nhon at Tet.
Qui Nhon is a city on the central Vietnamese coast. In the American war it was important as the rear base, at the foot of the Central Highlands, for troops engaged on the high plateau, the point of origin for the road to Pleiku. Qui Nhon was probably the most important place in Binh Dinh province, which was undoubtedly why the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam chose to attack it. As a bellwether for the pacification situation in Vietnam, a Binh Dinh province attack offered to put a propaganda feather in the NLF’s cap.
Qui Nhon lay in the tactical area of responsibility of the South Korean expeditionary corps in Vietnam, but the bulk of defense forces for Binh Dinh were troops of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) 22nd Infantry Division, in particular its 41st Regiment. As the North Vietnamese and NLF did elsewhere in South Vietnam, they made careful preparations in Binh Dinh, including attempting to neutralize the ARVN. During the predawn hours of January 10, 1968, about three weeks before Tet, an estimated battalion of the Vietnam People’s Army attacked Phu My, base of Captain Nguyen Van Ru’s 2nd Battalion, 41st Infantry.
ARVN units were importantly backed by American advisers. Sergeant Ray J. Robison, one of four men with the battalion’s U.S. detachment, believes the word “adviser” is a misnomer. Captain Ru had been fighting since the French war. There was nothing the Americans could tell him. Rather, the advisers were the point men for ARVN access to many resources their army lacked–from lavish artillery and air support to a scale of supply the South Vietnamese lacked. The North Vietnamese knew that too. During the attack on Phu My some People’s Army bo dois were specifically assigned to take out the Americans’ bunker. The enemy soldiers crept up and rolled two grenades into the emplacement. The first burst wounded 1st Lieutenant Richard Morris, Staff Sergeant Robert Harcum, and Sergeant Gerald Deady, while concussion threw Sergeant Robison against the bunker wall. The second grenade landed at Robison’s feet, an object of morbid dread. But before anything else happened an ARVN private, Do Van Tan, jumped on top of the grenade and shielded the Americans from its blast. Private Tan became one of only three ARVN soldiers awarded the U.S. Distinguished Service Cross during the war.
Sergeant Robison lived to fight at Tet. The other Americans were sent to get medical treatment at Qui Nhon. Captain Ru’s battalion had been badly enough handled that Brigadier General Nguyen Van Hieu switched it for Major Duong’s 1st Battalion. Duong impressed Robison as another great guy to work with.
Then came Tet. It was the night of January 30/31. At least two Liberation Front units hit Qui Nhon–the E2B Local Force Battalion and the H-36 Sapper unit. A Vietnam People’s Army infantry battalion stood in reserve outside the city. The NLF targeted the compound of the South Vietnamese Military Security Service, the railroad yard, and the radio station. They struck an hour later than other positions in II Corps. Police chief Captain Bui Van Lan had time for some preparations, and he assembled five platoons and put them on alert. Captain Lan’s men turned aside most of the initial attacks, though the NLF captured the radio station (they were unable to broadcast any of their pre-recorded tapes). A South Korean battalion and two U.S.-led companies of montagnard strikers reacted to the NLF attacks.
Police killed the leader of the NLF sappers and captured their political officer among more than fifty others. Over 150 Liberation Front soldiers were killed. The Binh Dinh province chief called off the police units after dawn, turning instead to his Regional Force/Popular Force (RF/PF) militia. To give the RF/PF, and the montagnards, more striking power, ARVN sent in Major Duong with two companies of his 1st Battalion, 41st Infantry. They airlifted from Phu My in CH-47 helicopters. The ARVNs complained, “We are jungle fighters, not city fighters,” but in Qui Nhon they would do splendidly.
Montagnards led by Green Beret Sergeant Michael R. Deeds were pushing toward the railroad yard as the ARVNs came up. The South Vietnamese infantry were painstakingly clearing nearby buildings house to house. A Green Beret and another soldier came up to Sergeant Robison, told him they had a 90mm recoilless rifle to set up, and asked him where on the rooftops they could best employ it. Robison advised them to stay off rooftops because enemy snipers were all around. The Americans disappeared but a little later one returned to ask for help–his sergeant had been wounded on the rooftop of a hotel. After seeing the situation for himself, Sergeant Robison told the young soldier to fetch his vehicle and put it as close to the wall of the building as he could. Robison then crept along the rooftop, got hold of the wounded Green Beret, and managed to lower him to the carrier truck that could take him to hospital. Sergeant Robison still wonders what became of the wounded American.
Major Duong’s soldiers spent two days working their way through Qui Nhon, while the South Korean troops cleared the hinterland outside the city. On the second day Sergeant Robison went along with the ARVN scouts ahead of a force of two platoons heading for an outlying village. They soon encountered the NLF and a firefight began that lasted all day. At one point Robison accompanied a relief party to retrieve several wounded Vietnamese soldiers, covering them with fire from his carbine. The sergeant would receive the Bronze Star with a combat “V” for his actions at Qui Nhon.
That second day ended with the security situation much improved. South Vietnamese authorities declared the battle at Qui Nhon over on February 5. Yet another of the NLF’s Tet tentacles had been lopped off.