|Download PDF of this full issue: v48n2.pdf (20 MB)|
1968 Tet Offensive
By Steven Curtis
I couldn't have arrived in Vietnam at a worse possible time: just twelve hours before the start of the Tet Offensive of 1968. After a harrowing three-day journey up Highway One, which is another story in itself, I was assigned to the command bunker at the Quang Tri airport perimeter. Our job was to keep in phone contact with the twenty or so bunkers stretched along a riverbank defending the eastern side of the airport.
Although I had been "in-country" less than five days, I felt like I had aged ten years. The base I left a day earlier had been overrun the night after I left. The rear of a convoy that had brought me to Quang Tri had been hit hard; the front of the convoy, where I had been, went through with nothing more than a few random sniper bursts in our direction. Thus far, I had not received so much as a scratch, but I was terrified my luck was about to run out. I had a nagging feeling something was going to happen that night, and it did.
Less than thirty miles south of us in the city of Hue, some of the bloodiest fighting of the entire war was taking place. Intelligence reports had come into us that morning warning of substantial enemy build up in our area and a virtual certainty we would be hit. Most of the experienced "grunts" had been sent up to Khe Sanh two weeks earlier to help defend against an expected attack leaving the perimeter security at Quang Tri to mostly new arrivals like myself. We had spent the daylight hours frantically strengthening our positions as best we could and now as the darkness of the evening engulfed us, on full alert, we waited.
It was an incredibly dark night and a heavy fog had rolled in off the South China Sea adding a claustrophobic effect to an already nightmarish situation. About midnight, our worst fears were confirmed when a call came into us at the command bunker that communications with Bunker Four had been lost—an ominous sign. Had the enemy begun to penetrate our lines and cut communications in preparation for an all-out attack? Someone from command would have to investigate. I volunteered.
Not until I was outside alone in that suffocating darkness did the enormity of what could well be in store for me begin to register. I started my way up the river bank with my only guide in the nothingness around me being the wires connecting the radios between bunkers which I let slide through my free hand. As I worked my way along, pausing every few feet to listen carefully for anything unusual, the buildup of terror at times seemed as if it were going to incapacitate me completely.
Just as I was sure that I could stand no more, it happened. The radio wires which I had clung to so tenaciously to guide me were suddenly jerked right out of my hand. No question, there was movement, and it was close—possibly within a matter of feet. Was I to be the next victim of the Viet Cong's uncanny ability to penetrate our lines, to meet my maker with my throat slashed from ear to ear?
Surprisingly, my intense fear was soon displaced by something much larger, deeper and absolutely profound. Suddenly my mind became amazingly clear and my terrible fear, although still present and undiminished in its intensity, became manageable—in fact an ally.
As I crouched there in that small ravine, my M-16 on full automatic, I got in touch with the enormous investment the primal human spirit places on survival. There were no "thou shalt nots," only a fierce and clearly focused determination to survive at any cost. In the long seconds that passed as every cell in my body was euphorically committed to my survival, my ears listened with unprecedented acuity, my eyes—unable to see even my hand in front of my face only moments earlier—could now see the ground below me.
The wires tugged again, but my mind was in complete control now. My thoughts were racing. I no longer had a death grip on my M-16; I held it effortlessly as if it were an extension of my own body. Again there was movement of some sort very close by. I strained to listen. In my heightened state of awareness, I could hear whispers, but they were not those of the enemy but those of my fellow Marines in Bunker Four. The relief I felt was overwhelming. I tingled from head to toe, and I just wanted to laugh. They were unshaken as I whispered out to them, unaware that communication with them had been lost. The four of us laughed nervously as they explained that the tug I had felt was from a puppy—a gift from one of the "zoomies" in the air wing—pulling and chewing on the wires. Another round of nervous laughs greeted my attempt to recount to them how frightened I had been and the transformation I had undergone only moments earlier.
My return to the command bunker was on the order of a religious experience. I felt god-like as I effortlessly glided through the same foggy darkness that had caused me so many cuts and falls earlier, my mind intuitively knowing the direction and my feet seemed to know exactly where to land. It was an overwhelming reaffirmation of my own right to live, that I had just as much a right to life as any of God's creatures and equally as great a right to protect it by whatever means necessary. But above all, I had the distinct feeling that some greater force had been at work testing me and that I had passed.
Steven Curtis was a Marine Corps photographer from 1968-1970. Photos and more info on the book this story was excerpted from can be seen at TheVietnamIRemember.com.