In October, 1966, less than three months before Tet, elements of the 3rd Battalion of the 5th Armored Cavalry Regiment, attached to the 9th Infantry Division, and the 9th’s 1st Brigade, uncovered a massive arms cache in an extensive system of tunnels and bunkers 13 miles southeast of the division headquarters at Camp Bearcat. It was the largest cache uncovered during the war. In addition to more than a thousand rifles, the cache included tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition, mortar rounds, and recoilless rifle rounds as well as four 75mm howitzers, the first found in South Vietnam. It was clear that this cache was intended to arm the civilian populace that the Viet Cong expected to join them during the Tet Offensive.
How did we know that the Viet Cong would launch an offensive during the Tet holiday celebration? Simple. They had broken every Tet cease fire in previous years. Every year they agreed to an armistice during Tet, Asia’s most celebrated holiday. And, every year, they broke it. The only surprise was the scope and intensity of the offensive planned for 1968. However, U.S. intelligence had significant grounds to suspect that it would be far greater than previous offensives and were prepared for it.
January, 1968, was relatively quiet throughout South Vietnam, especially in the Mekong Delta where we were operating. It was the quiet before the storm, and the longer it lasted, the greater the storm we expected.
I had to run to the city of My Tho (pronounced “Me Tow”) on January 30th. I hitched a ride on a helicopter from Bearcat to the headquarters of our 3rd Brigade, Dong Tam, home of the Mobile Riverine Force. From there I caught a ride to My Tho, about five miles east of Dong Tam. My business there took longer than expected and one of the battalion staff officers offered me a bunk to stay the night, however I was expected back at Bearcat. I was scheduled to be the Division’s staff duty officer that night.
A staff duty officer is the commanding general’s representative during off-duty hours. It’s not really as important as it sounds. It’s a lot like the people who sit in the seats of celebrities at the Academy Awards while they are on stage to present or accept awards. (Apparently the show’s producers don’t want empty seats to appear on screen when cameras sweep the audience.) It wasn’t much of a job, and I could have called on one of my friends to cover for me, but I didn’t want to have to pay the price they would ask for the “favor.”
There weren’t any helicopters scheduled to fly out of My Tho that late in the afternoon, and I couldn’t expect a passing one to drop down and pick me up by waving a towel as instructed in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I had to get back to the airfield at Dong Tam and that wasn’t easy or comfortable. The only vehicle headed that way was a U.S. Army Engineer’s dump truck, and I had to ride in the back. It didn’t have a load to soften the ride and there wasn’t anything to hang on to, so I bounced around like a BB in a tin can. I know that the driver, his assistant, and his gunner were enjoying themselves imagining the ride I was having.
I ran limping onto the airfield as soon as we arrived at Dong Tam and found my old friend, “Jack” Spratt, lounging by his OH-25 observation helicopter. Luckily, he was just about to take off for Bearcat and didn’t have any other passengers. (This was the flight I had mentioned in an earlier posting where he uncharacteristically flew “high” so I could take pictures of the clouds with his camera.)
As we approached Bearcat, I saw armor — tanks and armored personnel carriers (APC) — parked along the perimeter road just inside our protective berm. The line stretched almost all the way around the camp, about five miles. Their crews were camped out alongside their vehicles, relaxing, smoking, playing cards, gossiping. They were like arrows in a bow, just waiting to be sent flying at the enemy.
Usually, I spent the night on staff duty with my feet up on a desk, fast asleep. (You learned how to sleep anywhere, anytime you could in the Army.) However, I wasn’t going to get much sleep that night.
The telephone rang sometime after midnight and the caller began shouting a codeword at me before I could even identify myself. He was attempting to reach the Division Tactical Operations Center (DTOC) which was located in a bunker to the rear of the headquarters building. I suppose it was easy for an Army operator to confuse the two. As soon as I convinced him he had reached the wrong phone, he pleaded with me to relay the “message” to the people in the DTOC.
I wandered in to the DTOC moments later and simply asked, “Does anyone know what [codeword] means?”
The result was similar to dumping a basket of live crabs onto a picnic table where a group of wealthy dowagers were seated, busily gossiping. (I chose that image because I had seen it actually happen once when I was a Sea Scout cruising with the Baltimore Yacht Club.)
Within minutes, there was a roar of engines firing up and tracked vehicles quickly filing out of Bearcat and headed for Saigon and other pre-assigned strategic points.
As the days passed, there were surprises. That is the nature of warfare. The test of an army, its men and commanders, is how well they handle those surprises. However, the correspondents used “surprise” as a charge, as though we were incompetent or had bumbled some how, and the American public bought it. Didn’t they remember the Battle of the Bulge? That was the greatest surprise in modern warfare, and they didn’t castigate the Army for that one. Indeed, they celebrated the allied victory on that occasion. Were we less worthy? Of course, our victory wasn’t reported. In the end, the press corps would announce the Tet Offensive as our defeat, the first lie.