Saturday, July 21, 2012

Tet 1969 at Cu Chi

The American command in Vietnam had predicted the attacks for months — believing at first that they would start at the end of the summer of 1968, then around the time of the presidential election in November, and finally about the time of Richard Nixon's inauguration — but the NVA and the VC remained relatively quiet throughout that period. In spite of a conditional Tet truce unilaterally declared by the Communists, many in the U.S. and ARVN commands thought there would be a reprise of the attacks that had occurred all over South Vietnam in 1968, but the 1969 Tet passed with little additional activity. It was during the week after Tet that the Communists struck, launching attacks against 115 cities and military bases.

On March 10, 1969, Newsweek reported: 'At Cu Chi, the headquarters of the U.S. 25th Infantry Division (Mechanized) some 20 miles northwest of Saigon, enemy sapper squads slipped undetected through the barbed-wire perimeter in the middle of the night and ranged up and down the airstrip planting their explosives. Before they were driven off, they totally destroyed nine giant Chinook helicopters and badly damaged four others. And despite the heavy damage inflicted, some U.S. officers believed that the Cu Chi attack was nothing more than a diversion — a maneuver designed to keep the 25th Division occupied while large enemy forces slipped past the base and moved toward Saigon.'

That was the whole analysis — a one-paragraph report, stuck in the middle of a two-page story that was buried in a 100-page magazine. It was so inconspicuous that it would have been easy to miss. The reporting in Time was even thinner, mentioning the rocket and mortar attacks and comparing the situation to Tet 1968. On March 14, 1969, Time reported, 'The attacks in South Vietnam left 453 Americans dead in the first week, a higher toll than for any one week since last May — higher even than in the first full week of the Tet offensive a year ago.'

A week later, Time devoted a column and a half to 'Assessing the Attack.' The report focused on the attempts to overrun Landing Zone Grant, a'super' fire support base northeast of Saigon. American defenders had reportedly thrown back a battalion of Communist troops, killing 285 of them in the process. American losses were 17 killed, including the commanding officer, Lt. Col. Peter Gorvad.

Tet 1969 was practically missed by the media. Histories of Vietnam make almost no mention of it. Yet the Tet 1969 attack at Cu Chi, where I was stationed at the time, was a memorable engagement. It began with a rocket and mortar attack. The area of the 116th Assault Helicopter Company (the 'Hornets') was near the center of the large Cu Chi base camp. Although the center was where the NVA or VC aimed, a few of the rounds fell near us, waking us and sending us scrambling for the bunkers. These were little more than trenches dug about four feet into the ground and covered with a plywood roof that held several layers of sandbags, a series of 55-gallon drums covered with pierced steel plate (PSP) and more sandbags. The theory was that anything hitting the sandbags would detonate in the top layer, with the lower layers, PSP and the bottom layers absorbing the shrapnel.

There was a wood bench in the bottom of the trench, and there were areas about shoulder height that could be thought of as shelves, though they were really just places where the dirt had been dug out. Minimal equipment, such as aircraft first-aid kits, was stored there.

There were also bare light bulbs on a long wire — looking like oversized, clear Christmas lights — strung from one end of the bunker to the other. As long as the generator was working, there would be light in the bunker. The psychological importance of that little thing — lights — might explain why the engineers on Titanic worked so hard, sacrificing themselves, to keep the lights burning until just minutes before the ship sank.

When I dived in, there were maybe a dozen men in the bunker, sitting on the bench. I was the only one who brought any weapons, having grabbed both my .38-caliber revolver and an M-2 carbine. I was wearing a T-shirt, fatigue trousers and unlaced boots.

At about that time, the ground-attack horn sounded. We had heard it infrequently for six months, mainly when someone caught sight of what he believed to be an enemy patrol near the wire. I took a position near one entrance to the bunker and gave the revolver to another pilot who covered the other. We could still hear an occasional explosion far away, but I felt safe enough in the bunker.

The ground-attack horn continued to blare, and the length of the mortar and rocket attack suggested that the enemy might be making a serious probe. I didn't expect trouble, since — even if they managed to break through the wire — there was more than a brigade of infantry on the base camp. More could be brought in, not to mention the interlocking fire of the artillery at the fire support bases surrounding Cu Chi, and airstrikes that could be launched by the Air Force.

Sitting there, I wondered if I was going to have to defend the bunker with the two magazines I had. Suddenly the operations officer ran around a corner, skidded to a stop near me and announced, 'We've got to evacuate the aircraft.' Someone asked, 'To where?' The operations office replied: 'Don't know yet. We just need to get them off the airfield right now.'

I ran out of the bunker toward my hooch, grabbed my flight helmet, then ran across the company area to the small footbridge that crossed the ditch by the road that led to the 'Hornet's Nest' — our name for the ramp and aircraft parking area. There I met Warrant Officer 1st Class Lance Overholt, a pilot I had known since flight school. He was a 'peter pilot,' or co-pilot, rather than an aircraft commander. Lance suggested, 'Let's get your aircraft.'

We ran into the Nest, between helicopters, until we reached the northern corner where mine was parked. The crew chief and another man were working to get the door guns mounted. I tossed my carbine onto the troop seat and then ran to the rear of the helicopter so that we could untie the blade. Then I climbed into the pilot's seat, looked back and saw that the door guns were mounted. Both men were in the back, working to load their weapons. I turned on the battery, the main fuel and the start generator, ignoring the checklist. After looking right and left, I yelled, 'Clear.'

'Clear back here,' shouted the crew chief. Overholt nodded, and I pulled the trigger that would start the turbine. My eyes were on the gas producer and the engine temperature gauge. We were doing a hot start, and it would be very easy to overheat the engine.

Once the turbine caught and the gas producer had reached 40 percent, I let go of the trigger. Overholt, who was sitting there with his gloves and helmet on and plugged into the radio and intercoms, put his hand on the throttle. I buckled my seat and shoulder belt, put on my gloves and helmet, and then plugged in.

Over the radio I listened to the communications from our operations bunker, the Cu Chi tower and other places. Outside, far over the perimeter, we could see the lights of some kind of aircraft circling. There were some fires burning on the base, but not very big ones.

'We have Charlie on the active runway,' said Overholt. I said, 'We have suppression on the active.' That meant that if we saw movement, the door gunners were cleared to fire. No one from our company should be running around on the runway. Over the radio, Warrant Officer John Schaeffer said, 'I'm off and in orbit behind Puff [a Douglas AC-47 gunship] at 7,000 feet.'

We rarely climbed above 3,000 feet, outside of small-arms range, but this sounded like something Schaeffer would do. He was always somewhere he shouldn't be, doing something he shouldn't be doing.

'Flight, this is One-Six. Join on me.' That was Captain Joseph Downs, the first platoon leader we called Dai-uy Downs (Dai-uy was the Vietnamese equivalent of captain). I had to laugh at Downs' order. It was night. There were aircraft taking off all over the airfield, including the Hueys assigned to the 'Little Bears' of the 25th Infantry Division and the light observation helicopters of the 'Three-Quarters' Cav (3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry). I had no idea which aircraft or which formation One-Six was flying.

I lifted to a hover, slowly backed out of the revetment and turned. Seeing two of the gunships on the assault strip, I moved toward them as they struggled to take off to the south. Shadowy figures ran around below. A burst of machine-gun fire ripped through the darkness, the red tracers glowing as they floated upward, nowhere near me.

From somewhere on the northern side of the runway, another string of tracers erupted. These were green, meaning enemy, and much closer. They looked like glowing golf balls tossed at me. The crew chief opened fire, his ruby tracers flashing down at the end of the runway.

One-Six was on the radio again, demanding that we all form on him, but he still hadn't provided the information needed to find him. Each helicopter was taking a position somewhere south of Cu Chi, on the far side of Highway 1, over the open area.

About a thousand feet down, green tracers from Communist machine guns bounced around, some spinning upward, others along the ground. Red tracers, from American M-16s or M-60 machine guns, replied. A few fires burned on the northern side of the base camp and in the tiny city of Cu Chi.

Over the intercom I heard, 'French fort firing up at us.' The French forts, triangular-shaped structures built low to the ground, were now occupied by South Vietnamese soldiers who had a habit of shooting at everything without regard to its identity. Fortunately, their tracers were nowhere near us.

Near the edge of Cu Chi, close to the perimeter of the base camp, someone with automatic weapons was firing upward. The green tracers were rising slowly toward us. I figured they were about a hundred yards away. Behind me, one of the door guns fired, the red tracers dropping around the source of the green. The enemy stopped shooting at us.

Puff suddenly opened fire, the red tracers of his mini-guns combining into a long, glowing stream that resembled a ruby-colored ray from a science fiction movie. It bobbed and wove along the ground, touched something that exploded into orange fire, then disappeared.

'Hornet flight, join on me,' insisted One-Six, but he still didn't provide a location. 'All Hornet aircraft, join on One-Six, or make your way to Bien Hoa,' announced Hornet Operations. Someone asked, 'How's the ground attack going down there?' A reply came: 'I'm safe in my bunker. I don't know.'

At last giving his location, One-Six radioed, 'All Hornet aircraft, I'm orbiting at 3,000 near Cu Chi city.' Overholt asked, 'We going to join on him?' I said: 'If I can find him. It'll be easier than trying to find everyone on the ground at Bien Hoa.'

'Sir, we're taking fire from the right,' said a voice over the intercom. 'Do I return it?' I glanced out the cargo compartment door and saw a stream of red tracers. That didn't mean that the South Vietnamese were shooting at us, only that whoever it was had American ammunition. It wasn't all that close, either. Someone was shooting at the sound of the aircraft.

'No,' I replied. 'We don't really know who is where down there now. If it gets any closer, then see if you can suppress it.'

I spotted four or five helicopters in a staggered trail formation off to the left and turned toward the group, wondering if this was the Hornet flight. As I approached, even in the dark, I could see the white hornet painted on the nose of one of the aircraft. I passed them, turned and rolled over, catching them. I slowed to 60 knots and said, 'Three-Seven has joined the flight.' 'Roger, Three-Seven,' said Downs.

I said to Overholt, 'You've got it.' Overholt put his hands on the controls and said, 'I've got it.' He took over flying while I sat back and studied the situation. The various radios were alive with chatter, from Air Force pilots, Army pilots, operations, other Hornet aircraft, and Armed Forces Radio in Vietnam. The automatic direction finder covered the commercial broadcast bands so that we could listen to music while flying. I had the volume set low, but could still hear rock and roll in the background.

Below, I could see the base camp outlined in lights. There were fewer fires now and less shooting. Most of the rounds were outgoing. Red tracers bounced along the ground, most of them on the northern side of the base. Some were directed into the edge of Cu Chi city, and there seemed to be no return fire. Schaeffer called, telling us that he had joined the flight. One-Six asked for another head count and learned that most of the aircraft had found him. 'Turning toward Bien Hoa,' he announced, and the flight began a gentle maneuver.

Bien Hoa wasn't all that far from Cu Chi, but by the time we arrived it was getting light. Once we landed and lined up on the side of an asphalt strip, we were told to meet at the mess hall. I was feeling uncomfortable because I had taken off without a shirt. The crew chief supplied a field jacket with Spc. 4 stripes on it. I thought nothing about the rank as we all headed toward the mess hall.

We found a table set up for four on the officers' side and sat down. The mess hall was a little nicer than ours at Cu Chi. For one thing, rather than huge floor-mounted fans that were supposed to circulate air, it had air conditioning. For another thing, the hall was done in a wood resembling cherry, though I didn't pay enough attention to be sure it wasn't just plywood with cherry stain. And, most important, the food seemed better than what we got at Cu Chi.

Some of the officers assigned there looked at me strangely, wondering what a Spc. 4 was doing on the officers' side, but I was sitting with three warrant officers, including Schaeffer and Overholt. They probably figured I was the crew chief or something and let it slide. I was fully prepared to explain, but no one asked.

As we ate breakfast, Captain Downs circulated among the tables, giving us the news. 'Muleskinners got hit last night. Charlie came through the wire near them and ran through the revetments tossing satchel charges into the Chinooks. Blew up a bunch of them.'

'How many came through the wire?' Schaeffer asked him. 'Maybe a platoon, maybe a little less,' replied Downs. 'We got them all?' asked Schaeffer. One-Six grinned and said, 'There are a couple still running around inside the wire. Got everyone a little jumpy.'

'I hope we're in no hurry to get back,' I said.

'We've got a couple of ash and trash missions to fly, but the early morning operations have been changed. Got the grunts in the field around Cu Chi. They just walk out the gate to begin their search.'

After we finished breakfast, our platoon leader, Two-Six, walked over and asked me, 'You ever been to the Air America pad?' 'You mean at Tan Son Nhut?' I asked. 'Yeah.' 'Once; I think I know where it is,' I said. 'You have to enter through the main control tower and not Hotel-Three,' he said, meaning that I'd have to land on the airfield proper rather than flying into the helipad near the biggest PX in the world, just on the edge of Tan Son Nhut.

'We'll all head back to Cu Chi. You'll need to refuel and then fly over to the Muleskinners to pick up a flight crew and take them to Saigon. They're going to pick up a new Chinook.' I consented, and he asked, 'Who's your peter pilot?' 'Overholt,' I said. That surprised him. Normally, the junior aircraft commander was paired with the senior peter pilot, putting as much experience in the cockpit as possible. The problem here was that Overholt and I had been in flight school together, and he'd arrived in-country and at the company a week before I had — yet I had already made aircraft commander and he hadn't. Although I wasn't supposed to know, the platoon leader and the other aircraft commanders thought that Overholt might resent the situation. But Two-Six finally agreed that last night's activities had overruled that concern.

Once we finished eating, we strolled back out to the aircraft to await instructions. Flight lead, by default, was Downs. He rode up in a jeep, walked toward the nose of his aircraft and waved a hand over his head, telling us to crank.

He flew back to Cu Chi and stopped at the petroleum, oil and lubricants (POL) point, which hadn't been damaged in the attack. The rearm point looked as if it had been hit. There were the remains of the 2.75-inch rockets, the wood from ammunition crates, cardboard, paper, smoke grenades and other debris scattered in front. The sign looked as if it had been hit by some of the larger ordnance. The remains still smoked, but not everything had burned.

When the flight took off from the POL point, I broke away from the formation and landed on the Muleskinners' company pad. As we passed over part of their flight line, I could see the remains of Chinooks in the revetments. Here were what had once been huge, twin-rotor aircraft, each capable of carrying 40 soldiers, reduced to a small pile of smoking rubble. There didn't seem to be enough material in the revetments for a Chinook — just ash with partially burned rotor blades sticking out at strange angles.

The Chinook pilots climbed into the back. Neither of them looked any the worse for wear. They were both in fresh flight suits. One carried a black briefcase, a flight bag and a revolver in an Old West–style holster. The other carried a flight bag and wore a shoulder holster with a .45-caliber pistol. Neither said a word to me, but one of them talked to the crew chief. With the turbine running, even at flight idle, conversation was difficult.

'They want to know if you know the destination,' said the crew chief on the intercom. 'Yeah,' I said. 'Ask them how everything is.'

A moment later he said: 'They lost one man, Spc. 4 Isaac Stringer, Jr. He was killed by an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] in the maintenance area. They lost a bunch of their airplanes.'

The crew chief then relayed to me that the VC had punched their way through the wire, blowing up a bunker to do so. They had first run toward the Muleskinners' area, stopping just long enough to blow up the aircraft, and then spread out over the Cu Chi base camp, looking for targets. Apparently they had attacked the POL point, but they hit the refueling points rather than the storage area and destroyed only a couple of hoses. That reduced the capacity to refuel aircraft but did no serious damage. They found the rearm point and tried to blow it up, but with only moderate success. By the time they moved beyond that, most of the aircraft had been evacuated. The 25th Division, either with its infantry companies or with the military police, had begun searching the camp for the sappers. The Americans believed there might be as many as 25 or 30 of the enemy still hiding in the camp.

As we took off for Saigon and the Air America pad, I looked back at Cu Chi. I couldn't see much. The fire that always burned on the northeastern side still burned, throwing up a column of smoke that helped us navigate. Anyone who managed to get within 10 or 20 miles of Cu Chi could spot the smoke and then use it to navigate the rest of the way. I didn't see any real damage, other than that to the Muleskinners' Chinooks and around the rearm point.

It wasn't long before we had made our way to Saigon, following the standard practice of flying at low altitude to avoid aircraft taking off or landing at Ton Son Nhut. We got permission to land directly at the Air America pad and touched down. Sitting on the pad was what looked like a brand-new Chinook.

The two pilots climbed out, thanked us for the ride and disappeared toward the hangar. I called the Tan Son Nhut tower to take off, explaining that I was in a UH-1 at the Air America pad, and requested a straight-out exit to avoid the traffic pattern filled with jet fighters, four-engine transports and other fixed-wing aircraft. We finally got our instructions and took off.

Arriving at Cu Chi, we refueled and then headed for the Hornet's Nest. I parked in the revetment, shut down and got out of the aircraft. In Operations I learned that the enemy soldiers had all been eliminated. There had been few American or South Vietnamese casualties. The damage had been limited to the Chinooks and the rearm point, though there was some minor shrapnel damage in the company area. Something had poked a couple of holes in the corrugated tin of the buildings, ripped up some of the bamboo matting and put holes in some screen, as well as a few more holes in the tail booms of some of the aircraft.

The damage wasn't heavy, except to the Muleskinners — and even then, some of the destroyed aircraft had been replaced by noon the next day. The entire force of sappers had been eliminated. I never did learn how many there had been. Surely fewer than 50, but maybe as many as 40.

Other than Newsweek, news magazines failed to report on the attack. It was mentioned only in passing, suggesting that a base northwest of Saigon had been hit. Quite a few bases were described by the media as being 'northwest of Saigon,' so those reports could have been about one of the other attacks.

Our mission for the following day changed slightly, but only because the infantry conducted searches around Cu Chi rather than flying out into the Ho Bo Woods, the Iron Triangle or the areas along the Saigon River. We were fully prepared to fly the next day. Admittedly the pilots had been flying since early morning and had had very little sleep the night before — but that was not an unusual circumstance.

Of course, Tet 1969 was nowhere near as dramatic as Tet the year before. The media seemed to believe that fewer troops were engaged and the scale of the attacks had been reduced significantly. In reality, the numbers were about equal, but the Communists had not enjoyed the initial successes of 1968. The news media were surprised in 1968, whereas in 1969 they were waiting for something to happen.

Reporters might have thought there was heavy damage at Cu Chi, but I saw only minor damage and disruption — and, of course, Isaac Stringer had been killed. I also noticed that everyone in the camp was armed. Normally, upon return from the day's missions, the weapons were stored.

The day after that, everything returned to normal. Although the Tet 1969 attack on Cu Chi was certainly disruptive to the Muleskinners, it might be classified as a nonevent except to those who participated. Yet it was one of many mere footnotes in the history of the Vietnam War that became vivid memories for those of us who were there.

This article was written by Kevin D. Randle and was originally published in the February 2003 issue of Vietnam Magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Vietnam Magazine today!

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