Looking back at the 1968 Tet Offensive on its 40th anniversary
By Don Hirst Staff writer
Forty years ago, the Tet Offensive erupted in Saigon and throughout most of South Vietnam. As historically significant as the Battle of the Bulge during World War II, Tet 1968 was a watershed event, considered by many experts to be a major turning point in the war.
That long-ago battle half a world away also has direct links to Fort Meade today, where the Directorate of Emergency Services building is named after one Soldier who fought in it and later died in the line of duty here.
Tet -- the Vietnamese lunar new year -- is a major holiday where much celebration and feasting goes on. By early 1968, the war seemed to be going well for the United States and for the South Vietnamese we were trying to help. So the bulk of South Vietnam's armed forces were on leave or otherwise standing down for the holiday. Furthermore, the South Vietnamese government also had relaxed many of the restrictions that were in effect during previous Tet celebrations.
For example, firecrackers -- a staple of lunar new year festivities in the Far East -- had been banned by the South Vietnamese government for a number of years during Tet. The reason was obvious: firecrackers can sound an awful lot like gunfire. But during Tet 1968, that prohibition was relaxed and the citizens of South Vietnam had been blasting millions of them for days.
Saigon, the national capital, was no exception. The noise level was incredible, and it never seemed to stop during that Tet holiday.
Consequently, when thousands of Viet Cong guerrillas launched massive attacks in Saigon and throughout the country, the effects of that no-warning onslaught were compounded. It wasn't firecrackers -- it was the roar of many thousands of AK-47s fired by enemy forces at the start of the Tet Offensive.
Although the fighting raged throughout the cities, villages, jungles, mountains and swamps of South Vietnam, Saigon was the ultimate prize. In a war where American public opinion often seemed to matter more than events on the battlefield, perception was king. If the enemy was seen taking control of the capital -- Saigon -- staggering losses elsewhere wouldn't matter to guerrilla leaders and their masters in North Vietnam's capital, Hanoi.
Which is why, in the early morning hours of Jan. 31, 1968, Viet Cong attackers hit many sites in and around Saigon. One of the most prominent and lucrative targets was the U.S. Embassy in the heart of the capital. Marines guarded it, as they do at the U.S. Embassy everywhere else in the world.
Also on duty there were members of the Army's 716th Military Police Battalion. The 716th -- with a total strength of roughly 1,000 -- was responsible for protecting and defending U.S. facilities throughout Saigon and also maintaining law and order among American troops and civilians assigned to or visiting the city.
There had been a few attacks hundreds of miles north on Jan. 30, 1968 -- a day earlier than the enemy's master plan called for. The first was in Nha Trang, a beautiful small city on the coast of the South China Sea in the central part of the country. A handful of others erupted inland, in the Central Highlands area of South Vietnam. But the full force and fury of the Tet Offensive fell like a hammer on Jan. 31.
Enemy sappers were able to shoot their way into the U.S. Embassy compound in the predawn darkness but could not penetrate the main building. The battle for the embassy compound raged for several hours and once daylight arrived, much of the battle scene was captured by TV and still cameras. Ultimately, the 716th was able to secure the area.
Elsewhere in the city, other fierce battles had been in progress since the middle of the night. MPs fought a number of desperate, isolated actions before the sun came up. Many American MPs were killed or wounded and the radio traffic on the 716th's communications net was enough to bring on tears. Typical was the one that was entered in the 716th's Staff Duty Log at 0445 -- 4:45 a.m. "The driver caught a slug in the gut and I'm under heavy automatic weapons fire. Can you give me some help?"
Then the radio went dead.
The 716th's single-largest loss that day was when a quick-reaction force, rushing to battle on the outskirts of Saigon, was ambushed. Multiple claymore mines hit the 2 1/2-ton truck they were riding in, killing and wounding many of them. In Saigon, the fighting lasted nearly a week. The 716th lost 27 MPs and another 44 were wounded, according to the unit's history on its Web site.
But Saigon held. The Web site of today's 716th -- now part of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., and currently on duty in Iraq -- says this about the battalion's performance during Tet: "...Soldiers of the battalion met the enemy in ten major and countless smaller engagements ... Due to the absence of combat arms forces in Saigon, the 716th Military Police Battalion's responses to these Viet Cong attacks were responsible for defeating the assaults outright or delaying the enemy long enough for combat arms forces to arrive. In the end, not one of the 130 facilities the battalion was responsible for fell into enemy hands."
President Richard M. Nixon later awarded the Presidential Unit Citation to the 716th for its performance during the Tet Offensive. The unit also has direct links to Fort Meade that stretch from Vietnam to the present. For example, Fort Meade Chief of Police Charles McGee served in the ranks of the 716th, arriving there after Tet.
His office -- and the rest of the DES facilities -- are located in Campagne Hall, re-dedicated in honor of Capt. Alfred E. Campagne in July 2007. Campagne, a young MP platoon leader in the 716th, fought at the U.S. Embassy during Tet. He died in the line of duty at Fort Meade on July 6, 1969 -- shot while responding to a reported vehicle break-in at Meade Heights.
The 716th's performance during Tet was significant both then and now, according to DES Director Lt. Col. James A. Peterson. "Our MP successes in such previous conflicts allowed us to develop our current MP unit structure, equipment and battlefield missions into a very critical military asset for today's senior commanders. This is evident by the accomplishments of our MP units providing combat support to the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan."
Editor's note: Don Hirst, then an Army photographer, was at the U.S. Embassy on Jan. 31, 1968. His photos of the 716th in action there were printed in numerous Army and civilian publications. Portions of this story were drawn from his copyrighted manuscript "The Desperate Hours," a work in progress about the 716th during Tet 1968.
Col. Thomas S. Rickard
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