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The Tet Offensive
By John Lindquist
Tet 1968 Vietnam means different things to all the Marines who were involved. After thirty years we have had time to put the Tet offensive in perspective.
As I look back at it, this offensive was a long, drawn-out affair. I feel that it really started January 21, 1968, with the beginning of the siege of Khe Sanh, continuing through and beyond the Tet holidays. Fighting the length and breadth of Vietnam did not end with the battle of Hue City. The spring counter-offensive that included the relief of Khe Sanh, (Operation Pegasus), a raid into the A Shau and the battle for Dong Ha City must be included. Most people forget to include what was known as mini-Tet: May 5 to May 27, 1968. This was my part.
My involvement with Tet '68 started in Camp Pendleton, where I was getting ready for radio school. I was on guard duty (Headquarters & Supply) in the Del Mar area. I was looking forward to many weeks in school, but no such luck: school was now nineteen training days. Replacements for the 'Nam were already needed. After radio school it was fifteen days of staging battalion and off to Vietnam on April 30, 1968.
We rode to Norton Air Force Base and boarded a Braniff jet for the trip to Okinawa. Fifty of us had orders for FLC Da Nang as radio operators, but at Camp Hansen that all changed. Forty-five went straight to 3rd Marine Division Khe Sanh, three to FLC Da Nang and myself and one other to Dong Ha with orders for LZ Stud. I was new and I told "Stretch" not to worry because LZ Stud must be short for student. We flew to Vietnam and landed about 0900 on May 4, 1968. What struck us all was how hot it was. We were quickly taken to a wooden shack to secure air transport to Dong Ha. We looked so clean and everyone looked so salty. There was a scattering of men with thousand-yard stares. We loaded onto a C-123 for a noisy ride to Dong Ha.
When we landed it became a madhouse. The ramp descended and some NCO ran in saying, "Get out now." Other Marines threw our gear out the back. The plane never shut down its engines. Hot air and red dust blew all over as we tried to find our gear. The plane taxied to the north end of the beach matting steel air field, turned around, headed back toward us, and took off. As I walked toward the hut on the west side of the airstrip I heard artillery impacting nearby and a jet was dropping napalm not very far away. I said to myself, "Damn - what did I get into?"
I reported to the "air terminal" (that little shack) and was pointed toward 3rd Marine Division Supply for my gear, and the armorer issued my rifle, an M-16. My orders read FLSG-B H&S Co. Communications Platoon. In the communications shack Staff Sergeant Taylor welcomed me aboard, assigned me a hooch (living area) told me to get some chow and said that I was on A-Guard tonight. I wondered what A-Guard was and a friendly PFC in the area said, "You mean you're on rocket watch?"
"What the hell is rocket watch?" I asked. He replied, "You'll figure it out."
As I looked for rockets in the sky, another marine laughed and took pity on me. "Got stuck with rocket watch already?" he asked, and I answered that I smelled a rat. He said it was good that I'd figured out the usual newbie trick. He advised me to get some chow and get back because the corporal of the guard was coming with a truck to pick up the A-Guard.
After chow I received a rack and a foot locker, loaded my magazines, got an extra bandoleer of ammo and waited for the truck. About 1900 hours we were trucked out to the line of bunkers that sat on the railroad track line, and the sergeant of the guard dropped two men off at each bunker. I was in bunker 30, the last one on the east side of Dong Ha Combat Base.
I got the 0200 to 0600 watch and was told to get some sleep. There was no sleep: artillery, outgoing and incoming, continued sporadically, and the C-130s dropped flares all night. At 0200 it was my watch. We didn't stand watch in a bunker but in the fighting hole off to the right and below the railroad grade.
Across Highway 1 and the Quang Tri River artillery fell, red and green tracers arcing in the sky in the eerie light of the occasional flares. At times, sniper fire opened from across the road but we kept fire discipline; the order of the day was to get permission to fire. The sky started to lighten, I did not fall asleep, I survived my first night, welcome to mini-Tet.
We rode back to FLSG-B and had chow and as I prepared to fall out in the rack I was ordered to Staff Sergeant Taylor's office again. "Private Lindquist, pack your sea bag. We are sending you up north."
"North," I said. "How much further north can I go?"
"You are going to Cua Viet and you will catch a ride by the ramp in Dong Ha at the river." Luckily I'd never unpacked, but the offers of extra magazines from two other guys in the hooch gave me an uneasy feeling. When I got to the ramp I finally found out what was going on. Starting on April 29, elements of 2nd Battalion 4th Marine had found 5000 NVA from the 320th Division and the battle of Dong Ha had begun.
The initial six days of heavy fighting centered on Dai Do Hamlet, 1.5 miles northeast of Dong Ha. Heavy fighting continued till about May 16, around Nhi Ha and involved 3/9 to the west, 3rd Bn., US 21st Infantry and, once again, 2nd Bn., 4th Marines. Although greatly outnumbered, the marines prevented the 320th Division from assaulting Dong Ha Combat Base.
As I turned to the ramp I looked west on Highway 9 into the center of Dong Ha. It looked like a Vic Morrow set on combat. Two-story stucco French-style buildings half blown away. I looked across the ramp over the river and jets were still dropping bombs and napalm. Luckily we were riding on a PBR boat - a Navy river patrol boat. Fast, light and heavily armed. The Chief had us lock and load, and lay out on the deck at various angles, and we left for Cua Viet. We passed near Dai Do as we entered the main river channel. Lots of sniper fire but no B-40 rockets until we were about two miles downstream.
Cua Viet Base was about two miles north and ten miles east of Dong Ha. It sat on the South China Sea and featured a Navy offloading ramp for LSTs, a sea-bee base, home for 1st Amtrak (amphibious tracked vehicles) and home of 7th Separate Bulk Fuel, and Camp Kistler. It was my home until September of 1968, and where I experienced over a thousand rounds of artillery from the DMZ. It was there I had my last experience of the mini-Tet, on May 25, 1968.
Since my arrival on May 5, we had been frantically building the new bunker. There was four of us, radio operators. We handled all radio traffic to Dong Ha and while offloading Navy AOGs and Shell oil tankers. (It always made my blood boil because a Marine private made about $130 a month and the Shell Oil guy made $1200 a month. Well, I guess we weren't in it for the money.)
Since we were on the seacoast we could only dig down two feet before we hit water, so our bunker sides were very thick and had many, many layers of sandbags. About fifty meters from our bunker sat sixteen 10,000-gallon fuel bladders lined up in two rows. I always wondered what would happen if we were in the bunker and all that fuel "went up" so close to us. On May 25 I received that answer.
The Russian 152mm field gun has a longer range than a US 155mm and is a badass gun. We were close enough to the DMZ that we could hear the rounds leave the tube in north Vietnam and count the eleven seconds it took to arrive. A whistle overhead was a good sign because it meant it was going beyond us. The first 15 rounds were okay, all whistles. PFC Jones and I looked at each other because each whistle got shorter. Finally no whistle at all, just rounds exploding very close. Yes, they found the field on round twenty and now it was time for fire for effect. All 160,000 gallons of JP-4 aviation gas, a jet fuel, was on fire. An eerie light roared outside and it started to get hot. It finally got so hot it was time to get out or roast like a turkey in an oven.
We heard five more rounds leave the tube, we got up, grabbed the radios, ran to count ten, and hit the dirt. Man, it was like a movie. Geysers of sand erupted all around, five more rounds left the tube, ten more seconds running, hit the deck. Up again and we made the next bunker. After 111 rounds it was over, and the field was on fire. Four hours later we went back to our bunker.
Luckily for us this happened in good old Cua Viet. We were in a sea of sand where the killing radius of artillery was ten meters, instead of fifty to a hundred meters on the sun-baked clay that was the norm for Dong Ha. No new fuel bladders replaced the ones that burned. I am still glad I enlisted in October of 1967 and not September of 1966 or I would have made the entire Tet 1968 offensive and might not have made it.
John Lindquist is a city worker in Milwaukee. He serves on the executive board of AFSCME local 423. He's a member of the Milwaukee chapter of VVAW.