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A 'tunnel rat' of the 173rd Airborne Brigade approaches the remains of an enemy camp fire far below the surface in the Iron Triangle.

To encourage the fighters in the South, the Communist Party utilized all its formidable propaganda powers. Typical was the exhortation given by the Binh Dinh Province Committee to its trusted cadres:

'The General Offensive will occur only once every 1,000 years.
It will decide the fate of the country.
It will end the war.
It constitutes the wishes of both the Party and the people.'

At secret bases inside South Vietnam and in adjacent, so-called neutral Laos and Cambodia, morale-building efforts proceeded. The 'Second Congress of Heroes, Emulation Combatants and Valiant Men of the South Vietnam People's Liberation Armed Forces' convened to hear Ho Chi Minh's message calling them the 'flowers of the nation'. They included a one-armed soldier who had learned to fire his rifle with his elbow and killed two Americans, and a mine-laying specialist who had been credited with the implausible total of 400 enemy killed, thus earning the title 'Valiant American Killer'. One 17-year-old 'hero' addressed the meeting: 'If he has hatred, even a child can kill Americans.' Such efforts as these rekindled flagging Vict Cong spirits.

Not all the Communist leaders shared the general euphoria. The deputy political chief for Saigon was in closer touch with reality than his higher command. He knew the urban guerrillas were poorly organized and relatively few in number. When he mentioned his doubts, his superiors dressed him down for being 'overly pessimistic' and told him to leave strategy-making to his betters.

In general terms, the July conference in Hanoi decreed that the Tet General Offensive would carry the fighting into previously untouched South Vietnamese urban centres. Here the people would rally to the National Liberation Front and overthrow Thieu's government. Since 1968 was also an election year in America, the successful offensive would help convince the American public that the war was unwinnable. A strike on Saigon was one of the key aspects of the general offensive.

Just as in the Second World War when the German Army secretly advanced through a series of staging areas to suprise the American defenders in the Ardennes, so the Vict Cong brought munitions over the border from Cambodia to the tunnels of Cu Chi and the Iron Triangle. Men and weapons assembled in the tunnels where they received detailed briefings. Systematically they moved into Saigon suburbs and on the eve of the assault gathered in specially prepared safe houses inside Saigon. Agents, often women and children, moved weapons past the city's checkpoints by a variety of subterfuges including hiding them beneath agricultural produce or concealing them inside coffins as part of bogus funeral processions.

Mai Chi Tho, the political commissar of the region encompassing Saigon, carefully planned the assault from a tunnel base in the Iron Triangle:

'During the Tet Offensive, I was in the Iron Triangle. We were working day and night. It was a time of very secret and intensive activity. Many of our officers had to secretly reconnoitre the enemy targets. They moved around in Saigon on forged identity papers. Our fifth columnists, soldiers and officers working inside enemy military installations, came to report.'

From such reports, the Viet Cong received detailed information on the defences they would confront.

The Tet Offensive bore the unmistakeable imprint of General Giap. Giap pursued a three-phase military strategy: resistance; general offensive; and general uprising. The strategy featured an evolution from hit and run guerrilla warfare to the formation of regular units that would engage in conventional, objective-seizing battle. The problem with this doctrine was that it required battlefield concentration and thus provided an unmistakeable target for American firepower.

Private and 2nd Lieutenant (kneeling) of the US Marine Corps. Illustration by Mike Chappell

Communist planners hoped to utilize captured resources in a variety of imaginative ways. NVA artillerymen were to accompany the assault against an Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) artillery installation in the central highlands. They would man the captured artillery pieces. Similarly, in Saigon, NVA tank troops would follow the assault against an ARVN armour school to operate the captured vehicles. Near Saigon another artillery team would man weapons captured from an artillery training school. Thus the Communist planners boldly schemed to provide their soldiers with the heavy weapons they had always lacked. Meanwhile, another team carried a recorded speech from Ho Chi Minh designed to promote a popular uprising against the South Vietnamese government. They planned on broadcasting this speech once the assault troops had captured the South Vietnamese national radio station.


The Army of the Republic of Vietnam

Vietnam has a long tradition of resisting outside influence. Opposition to foreigners superseded internecine dispute. Thus, from the beginning it was an unnatural and very uneasy alliance between the South Vietnamese government and the United States. Moreover, what the South Vietnamese government decreed might well be ignored by a people faced with the options of allying with foreigners to fight their own people, staying neutral, or doing whatever it took to survive. Since 1965 American forces had carried the brunt of offensive operations while the South Vietnamese carried out so-called pacification efforts. Thus, on the eve of Tet, they were dispersed in myriad garrisons scattered around the countryside.

Before Tet the South Vietnamese armed forces included 342,951 regulars in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps. Americans performed most technical and command and control functions in these units. Underpinning the ARAN infantry were some 12,000 American advisers. Each division had about 300 Americans who served as liason/advison/logistics specialists. In the field, each battalion had a three- to five- man American advisory team. Since the Americans brought their own radios, they could rapidly tap into the American arsenal of on-call firepower.

In theory, the American assumption of major combat provided a break from the fighting and thus an opportunity for the South Vietnamese to train and improve. In some cases this is what happened. Nha Trang's excellent Dong De (sergeants' school) is a case in point. More often, soldiers sent to training schools naturally took advantage of the respite from combat to loaf. Furthermore, much of the instruction was poor. A veteran infantryman recalls that Ranger school featured instruction based on outdated US Second World War and Korean War doctrine. Some of the instructors were political appointees. The key instructor position was a patronage post, a welcome, comfortable rear-area assignment. Too often instructors taught American doctrine by rote. In contrast were wounded veterans who would not deal with obsolete doctrine; instead 'they taught wisdom'.

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