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In the Chaos of Tet
By Harry Wagner
I was in Vietnam working out of the Embassy and with Military Intelligence on January 30, 1968. With the impact of the Tet attack and until MACV could get reports in from all their deployed units, the military grounded all aircraft. No helicopters were flying for two days. Apparently, some military-CIA outposts were running out of supplies by the second day and needed to be resupplied before the air cover would resume.
Two Air America helicopters were going to fly the second night of Tet after dark to deliver supplies to several of the outposts. The Air America craft had no guns or armor plate. They were loaded with 15 cases of ammunition and two drums of gasoline and medical supplies.
Two flight crews volunteered to fly the very risky flights but needed someone to push the cargo out on delivery. They had few choices since everything was closed down, so I went with one of the crews for two flights. I knew the Air America crews were the best and I also knew what would happen to the outposts if not resupplied.
I was into my second day without sleep and don't remember much about the airtime except it was uncomfortable on the long ride trying to sleep on top of two drums of gasoline. We were flying with no lights and on a compass heading; the crew was in contact with the outpost, and it had been attacked repeatedly and was out of supplies.
The flight crew said they were to approach the outpost above 10,000 feet; the outpost would blink their lights once, and we would align to a touchdown position. He said he would drop straight and stop two feet off the ground. I had 15 seconds to unload, and on departure, prepare for serious evasive maneuvers. I understood, unloaded out of both sides and just as I felt lift-up, a man appeared and I handed him the medical supplies, which included whole blood.
The second flight was about the same, how the aircrew could stop the descent I do not know. It felt like we were at terminal velocity, free falling. I checked the next day, and military relief got to those outposts. The two flights, it seems, violated a general order restricting all flights, but the CIA and Special Forces weren't about to lose four outposts.
What a night, the second night of Tet. We got back to Saigon at 4:30 am, and I was called back to the Embassy. They sent me out to report on the progress of the Vietnamese police who were in a house-to-house fight with a large VC-NVA force in Saigon, less than a mile from the Embassy. I had Vietnamese Special Police Branch ID and could get through their perimeter checkpoints.
I reported back that the Vietnamese police were pushing the fight and the VC were getting hit hard. The bombing by the Vietnamese Air Force was generating thousands of refugees leaving the combat area, and they were creating a lot of confusion. I was then assigned to expedite the deluge of Vietnamese refugees trying to escape the bombing by the Vietnamese Air Force. Thousands of people were fleeing by means of one road, and it was getting bogged down. These people, who were day laborers, unloaded cargo from the ships docked in the harbor. They had been living in temporary shelters, some as little as a cardboard box. The Tet attack forced them to leave even these improvised shelters.
As I approached the area, I could see that a truck parked on the bridge was hindering the flow of people. There was no other way to escape but to cross that bridge, so I went to investigate. The truck was parked across, so there was little room to get around it. An American missionary was there. He was handing out religious literature and pamphlets. I politely told him he had to move; he was blocking the way, and the refugees were not able to get out quickly enough. He refused to leave his post until all the literature had been passed out. I then told him that people were getting killed because of this delay. At his second refusal, I had to direct him at gunpoint to move his truck; he complied.
On my way back out, I saw that the bridge was blocked once again by the same truck. This time I did not ask politely or ask at gunpoint. I went to the truck, put it in gear and pushed it into the harbor. The literature that he was so determined to distribute to the Vietnamese, who only spoke and read their native language, which was preventing people from escaping the bombing and gunfire, was all written in English.
Harry Wagner is an 88-year-old veteran of Vietnam. He worked in Military Intelligence, Psychological Operations, USAID, and with the Phoenix Program. He has written a book about his experience in Vietnam and includes proven strategies to transition our military from a belligerent agent of war to an advocate on a quest for peace. The Headless Snake is available on Amazon. You can follow his blog peaceteamforward.wordpress.com and on Facebook at Peace Team Forward.