The Tet Surprise (1968)
The year 1968 began with a stream of intelligence reports on the enemy’s imminent Winter-Spring campaign which bore all the signs of a major offensive. Despite the telltale signs, both the U.S. and RVN [Republic of Vietnam] commands were still speculating on the probability of the enemy campaign, and neither was certain when it would take place or if it would even be conducted. No evidence obtained so far had ever pointed clearly toward the inevitability.
As early as 19 October 1967, the enemy had announced he would observe a 7-day truce on the Tet occasion. This was the longest truce ever proposed by the Communists. Many, especially U.S. and RVN intelligence analysts, had speculated that the enemy would take advantage of the truce period to move his units and supplies and complete the last stage of his preparations for the Winter-Spring campaign. Our intelligence also estimated that this campaign would be primarily directed against the Khe Sanh Base area where reports had indicated an enemy force concentration of at least three main force divisions.
To face this mounting pressure around Khe Sanh, the U.S. command deployed the 1st Air Cavalry Division and one brigade of the 101st Airborne Division from II Corps area to I Corps area to strengthen the defense of the two northernmost provinces. Then, on 21 January 1968, two NVA divisions initiated an attack on Khe Sanh Base with the support of artillery. Concurrently, enemy armor made its first appearance during the war when five PT-76’s were sighted at Lang Vei, five miles west of Khe Sanh.
As the battle raged on fiercely, Khe Sanh drew most of the U.S. command’s attention and concern. The RVN was much less concerned since no ARVN [Army of the Republic of Vietnam] force had been involved prior to the siege. Not until the fighting had been in full progress did the RVN decide to deploy one ARVN Ranger battalion to the base, more for political than tactical reasons, evidently. For the RVN presence was deemed symbolically significant in a battle that eventually would make history.
Despite Khe Sanh and other developments in the military situation, the RVN population and even its leadership still felt reassured. The presence of one half million U.S. and Free World troops and U.S. air and firepower had convinced everybody that the Communists could hardly conduct anything big, and if they attempted to do so, they would surely incur heavy losses and a tragic defeat.
In any event, Tet was approaching and to most Vietnamese, everything else hardly mattered, including politics and the war. Even those who were deeply concerned about current events seemed carefree enough to join in the feverish pre-Tet shopping spree and preparations.
This year, the festive mood among Vietnamese was particularly accentuated. By contrast to previous years, the level of individual income seemed to have risen substantially as a result of increasing business and job opportunities brought about by the presence of U.S. and Free World troops. To add to the expectation of festivities ahead, the GVN [Government of Vietnam] removed the long ban on traditional firecrackers during Tet, which set in motion a booming business in manufacturing and imports. The wealthy Vietnamese were particularly fond of firecrackers imported from Hong Kong, whose machine gun-like noise was rythmically accentuated by big booms that sounded like grenade explosions. The GVN Ministry of Information went all out in its public-relations campaign, distributing Tet presents for the troops and the underprivileged. Each gift parcel contained, in addition to the usual toilet articles, a horoscope predicting among other things a bright future for South Vietnam in the Year of the Monkey and, naturally, disaster for the Communists.
On New Year’s Day, some piecemeal information was circulated among the Saigon population to the effect that the enemy was attacking a few cities across the country. But this information created only a small ripple of concern not strong enough to distract people from celebrating.
Then during the night, amid the deafening noise and echo of unending firecrackers, there were also heard more distinct, sharper reports of AK-47 and RPM automatic rifle rounds interspersed by B-40 rocket thuds. But no one seemed to recognize these ominous sounds until dawn when early commuters bumped into strange faces, strange uniforms and the distinctive “Binh Tri Thien” rubber sandals in some city quarters. Then it was too late; the surprise had been almost total.
But very few of our citizens could believe their eyes. How could this have happened during a Tet truce and when the enemy was reported to be defecting everywhere? Only a few believed that the enemy was actually attacking Saigon, much less conducting coordinated attacks in 28 other cities throughout South Vietnam. Why was the enemy attacking the cities? How had he accomplished this maneuver? Had he changed his strategy and his rules of war?
Source: Hoang Ngoc Lung (Colonel, ARVN), The General Offensives of 1968-69, in the Indochina Refugee Authored Monograph Program prepared for Department of the Army, Office of Chief of Military History, by General Research Corporation, McLean VA, 27 June 1978, pp. 11-13.
Image: “Member of a Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol,” by Bruce J. Anderson, Vietnam, U.S. Army Center of Military History.http://www.forgottenwarstories.com/2014/05/31/lurps-vn/http://www.forgottenwarstories.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/aMember-of-a-Long-Range-Reconnaissance-Patrol.jpghttp://www.forgottenwarstories.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/aMember-of-a-Long-Range-Reconnaissance-Patrol-300x300.jpgVNcombat,vietnam warThe year 1968 began with a stream of intelligence reports on the enemy's imminent Winter-Spring campaign which bore all the signs of a major offensive. Despite the telltale signs, both the U.S. and RVN commands were still speculating on the probability of the enemy campaign, and neither was...stevenhardestySteven Hardestyforgottenwarstories@gmail.comAdministratorForgotten War Stories