Tet 1968: Bien Hoa AB, Vietnam
The following is an excerpt from Touching the Face of God: A Fighter Pilot’s Story, a memoir in progress by Travis Vanderpool, to be published by Blue Ear Books. At the time of the Tet Offensive that began January 30, 1968, Vanderpool was a first lieutenant in the United States Air Force, about to conclude a year-long tour of service in Vietnam. - Ethan Casey, Publisher
My combat days in the Hun were done. In my year in Vietnam I had completed 267 missions in the F-100, with four additional missions as an observer in other aircraft. It was now time to pack my gear and complete the administrative work prior to departure. I was expecting nothing but my own going-away party and the joy of getting on that big bird home. It was not to be.
The Vietnamese New Year holiday, called Tet, is one of the most important days of the year for the Vietnamese. It coincides with the Chinese Lunar New Year, based upon a different calendar than the one we use. There was to be a cessation of combat operations, ostensibly a truce, in order for the people to celebrate. Of course, there were always some of the enemy who did not get the memo.
On the night of January 30, 1968, I was standing by the fence around our compound with Wells Jackson, watching an AC-47 gunship attack, with its 7.62mm mini-guns, something on the ground about a mile away not far from the town of Bien Hoa. This high-speed machine gun could fire at a rate of approximately one hundred rounds per second. The red tracers from the guns appeared as a long red tongue from the aircraft stretching to the ground. It was always spectacular but eerie to watch, hence the nickname “Spooky” for the AC-47. This was not that unusual to see around the base. We always knew that enemy forces were not far away. Combat action was all around us and, after a year of seeing such things, it did not cause the least bit of anxiety. It had become just a way of life. Shortly afterward, I called it a night and went to bed.
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In the hours after midnight, suddenly and without warning, everything changed. The noise from incoming rockets and mortars began impacting around the base. The alarm sounded, and everyone was running to the bunker. Of course, this was nothing new. Not really as routine as watching Spooky, but certainly not unnerving. By this time, it was actually kind of fun. But we soon realized this time was different. After a bit we crept out of the bunker and began to look around. The sound of rifle and automatic weapons fire was all around. It was clear that there were explosions and fires in the town of Bien Hoa. Word soon came to us that a ground force had attacked the base near the runways, and that the base perimeter had been breached. There was no attack evident coming from the town of Bien Hoa, even though fighting was going on there. Nevertheless it was unsettling, as there was little defense between us and the town. All we had were our pistols and flak vests. Obviously, no one slept the remainder of the night. Dawn was a welcome sight.
A few months earlier, I had purchased an AK-47 automatic rifle from another pilot. This was the standard combat weapon for all Communist bloc forces, including the NVA and the Viet Cong. It had a full clip and was a great war souvenir. I thought I might find some way to get it home. Sometime after the initial attack, while in shorts and wearing my flight boots, I had donned my steel helmet and a flak vest. My pistol was also in the holster around my waist, and my AK-47 hung from my shoulder. No doubt I was a terrifying sight.
While we were watching the fire fight in town, we noticed the very distinctive sound of the enemy AK-47s being fired. My Operations Officer, Major Ron Berdoy, said, “Lieutenant, put that AK-47 away. If we have to start shooting, someone might mistake us for the enemy.” I complied with the order, but thought to myself, “Yeah, they’ll recognize us as those USAF pilots fighting with pistols and beer bottles.”
The following morning, the sporadic fighting continued in the town. A gas station no more than 1000 yards away was ablaze. There was a small water tower in our residence compound that was about ten feet in diameter and about twenty feet tall. I climbed the ladder to the top of the tower with one of my buddies, trying to get a better view of what was happening in town. Suddenly, bullets began kicking up dust in the open field just outside the fence. We were probably out of range, but we decided that prudence demanded we get down from the top of the water tower.
News came that the flightline had been hit hard and several aircraft had been hit. There were casualties among personnel quartered near the flightline. It was understood that despite the enemy ground forces having penetrated the base, the assault had been thwarted by our security forces. I got on my motorcycle and, along with several other pilots, headed down to the flightline to see what had happened. It was clear that there was continuing fighting off the end of the runway. I drove over to see. The action appeared to be about a mile away from the security sandbag position where I stopped. The real fighting and the immediate threat had ended. In the aftermath, the bodies of enemy ground forces were scattered along the outside end of the runway.
A comrade and I rode our motorcycles by the guard station near the front base. As Bien Hoa AB was actually a Vietnamese base, it was manned by Vietnamese military. They had a captured enemy soldier lying on the ground near their structure. He was bloodied and dirty. He appeared to be pretty young and seemed to be in pain.
My instinct was to try to give him a drink of water. I mentioned that to my companion. He whispered to leave it be, that these South Vietnamese were agitated and would not tolerate our interference. Clearly, they felt differently than we did. After a year of war, even after all I knew about Viet Cong brutality, I felt no hatred. He was just a scared, hurting young man. It is a weird thing about war that one can be willing to kill the enemy one moment, yet feel compassion for a fallen enemy soldier.
There were a lot of rumors about what was happening, but little in the way of real intelligence reports. It was clear this was part of a much bigger attack taking place all around South Vietnam. We heard that Saigon had been hit hard and that fighting continued within the city. Our base was not operational, due to damage to the runway and the threat of enemy troops all around the base preventing any takeoffs or landings. Fortunately, other Air Force bases were not impacted like Bien Hoa AB. It was spectacular to watch an F-100 air strike hit an enemy position a little over a mile away. Few of us had been presented the opportunity to witness from the ground what we ourselves did daily.
Of course, this meant that the threat was apparently still there. Rumors spread that this was simply the first wave and that larger ground assaults should be expected. Being on the edge of the base and lightly armed made everyone feel very insecure. Moreover, for some reason, the powers that be neglected to issue us the M-16 automatic rifles that were available, and which we all had been trained to use. I found this very frustrating. Because of the fear of sniper fire from the town, I slept as I could with my steel helmet and a couple of flak vests at the head of my bed hopefully providing a degree of protection from any gunfire coming from outside the base.
It was the second day of the fighting before Army troops, including welcome armored units, were deployed between us and the town. It was so great to see the armored units rolling down the road. Obviously, all of us felt much more secure with a stronger defense force protecting the base. The base remained on high alert. No aircraft were allowed to take off or land. I began preparing for my trip home. I arranged to sell my motorcycle to another pilot. While I entertained some thoughts about disassembling the AK-47 and taking it home as a war souvenir, that was against the rules and I decided against it. I found another guy who wanted it and sold it to him for the same twenty dollars I had paid for it.
After I got home, I learned that I had been involved in what was being called the Tet Offensive. I had known, from the regular intelligence briefings we received in the last few months, that the ground war was indeed succeeding. Those reports had revealed enemy force build-ups. That had been obvious from what had happened at Christmas time in 1967. Enemy strategy was changing but it was not clear just yet what it would be. I told my family and friends that the Tet Offensive was simply a last gasp effort by the communist North to succeed in their effort to over throw the government in the South. It had only been possible because the US leadership had failed to eliminate the Cambodian sanctuaries months before.
That this was in fact a last gasp effort by the Communists proved to be true. Unfortunately, the shocking close-up views of combat, and of the carnage in the cities such as Saigon and Hue, were very troubling to the American people. Walter Cronkite declared openly that America could not win this war. The American media, in effect, turned what had been an overwhelming victory for the American force into a success for the communist North.
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