by: john harrison
If you read the history books, they will tell you that the famous North Vietnamese General Vo N. Giap scored a major tactical “surprise” with his ’68 Tet Offensive. You will also see phrases like “large scale”, “well planned” and “well coordinated”, “attacks”. And, to a limited extent, these descriptions of the ’68 Tet Offensive are correct when viewed from our side, except for the surprise part. That is just totally wrong.
However, there is another side even of the true part of the ’68 Tet Offensive story, and it began for the 2nd Platoon of Alpha Company with one of the world’s smallest deer, the Muntjac deer. Long after I left Vietnam I learned that an adult Muntjac deer stands approximately 45cm, about 18 inches, at the shoulder and have an average weight range of between 10 – 16kg, or about 22 to 35 pounds. When running, they seem to lean forward.
Not the same deer, but the same look we got, even to the blur. They are tiny and very fast.
During the summer months, May till October, a Muntjac’s coat is a red-brown color often with very pale, sometimes white hair under the chin, throat, and tail. Muntjac bucks have small, un-branched antlers, which slope to the rear and end in a pointed tip. They also have long canine teeth, which look like small tusks projecting downward from the upper jaw.
All of this was true of the single Muntjac deer that we saw for just a moment on a bluff overlooking the South China Sea and located southeast of LZ Betty. The real question though is, what was the 2nd Platoon doing there, and why was it hunting deer rather than Charlie in the middle of a war zone? That is the interesting part of the story.
As had been agreed every year of the war prior this, at the end of January 1968 there would again be a Tet cease-fire. Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, is easily the most important celebration of Vietnamese culture, combining Thanksgiving, New Years Day, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day and even some of Memorial Day all into one really big family centered, but also very religious, celebration.
Merging so many ideas, the Tet holiday has several names as well. It is called poetically, the Feast of the First Morning of the First Day and since the Vietnamese consider Tet to be the first day of spring, the festival is also often called more prosaically, simply the Spring Festival. Traditionally Tet takes place from the first day of the first month of the Vietnamese calendar until at least the third day thereafter.
Much like our Thanksgiving and Christmas, many Vietnamese prepare for Tet by cooking special holiday foods. Since it is a “Spring” festival they also celebrate by thoroughly cleaning their homes. There are many other customs practiced during Tet, such as visiting a special person’s house on the first day of the new year, ancestor worship, wishing special New Year’s greetings, giving “lucky” money to children and elderly people, or even opening a new shop.
Again, like our Thanksgiving holiday, Tet is the occasion for mass pilgrimages home and for large family reunions. During Tet, Vietnamese often travel long distances to visit their relatives, or they all agree to meet at their families’ shrines during the holiday. Once together, they try to forget about the troubles of the past year and focus on hope for a better new year. This holiday is and was universally revered in Vietnam, even in the aggressively secular, Communist North.
Tet ’68, and the Tet truce were set to start on January 30, 1968. On January 29, 1968, the C-O of Alpha company, Captain Tom Gaffney called me aside to tell me that he wanted me to take 2nd Platoon on a patrol in the morning outside the wire of LZ Betty our base camp near Phan Thiet, RVN, on the coast of the South China Sea.
However, a combat patrol on January 30, 1968 would be a clear violation of the Tet cease fire agreement.
Tom and I shared what can only be described as a strange relationship. There was never any question that he was the boss, the C-O with the final authority. However, there was also no question, that if time allowed, I could question, or suggest, or discuss, and even disagree with almost anything, and I often did. In recognition of this curious dynamic SFC John H. Gfeller, Platoon Sergeant, Weapons Platoon, (KIA, 2/19/68) had nick-named us: “god” and “god, junior” because no one else was allowed by Tom into this little club.
Given that Tom was ordering what appeared to me to be a clear war crime, this was one of those times where we had a heated, an extended, heated discussion. Finally, we agreed that the 2nd Platoon would go “deer hunting” south of LZ Betty to try to get a deer for an Alpha Company, Tet barbecue later in the day. What ever we saw, we saw. Whatever happened, happened. It seemed to me that it might even be legal.
We headed south from LZ Betty
In light of this, it is at least passing strange to report that the only time that I ever saw a deer during the entire time I was in Vietnam was when we were deer hunting that one morning south of LZ Betty. Mid morning walking near the bluff over the South China Sea we kicked up a Muntjac deer in the brush and it took off in front of a hail of gunfire from the entire left side of the platoon.
The Muntjac deer is a small, very fast, mobile in three directions, hard to hit, target. It runs forward; it jinks suddenly sideways, and it leaps up and down constantly. Running between the clumps of brush and thickets of bayberry bushes along the bluff made it even harder to hit.
Our early morning view of the South China Sea, showing the bluffs south of Phan Thiet overlooking the South China Sea. Stunning.
Right after we shot at the deer, my RTO, Hal Dobie, passed me the radio handset and said “6”, meaning that Tom Gaffney, the C-O was on the horn. Since the first thing that always happened anytime an Alpha Company platoon shot at something was that Tom would immediately call to ask what was going on, I thought that was what Tom’s call was about. Although I did wonder how he had heard our firing from LZ Betty, which was probably over a mile or so away by then.
“This is 2-6, go ahead.” I said into the radio handset. “2-6” was my call sign meaning that I was the 2nd Platoon, platoon leader.
“This is 6. There has been a change. You are hot. Go ahead.” Tom said.
“2-6. What? Go.” I said.
“I say again, you are hot. Go.” Tom replied.
I got ready to rehash all we had said before, but Tom broke in before I could even start.
“This is Alpha 6. This is an open net. I say again, you are hot. Do you copy? Go ahead.” Tom said.
I literally took it down from my ear and looked at the black plastic radio handset as though it could tell me what was going on. I understood what he was saying; Tom again wanted me to run a full tactical combat patrol in the middle of the cease-fire. We had talked about that, but something had changed. I could hear that in his voice. He was excited, but it was more than that too.
One of the many things that they do not have time to teach in OCS (Officer Candidate School) is that most of what you actually do in a combat unit is ultimately based on trust. You understand that in combat men are killed, but you trust your superior officers not to waste your life. You accept that you may be killed, but your life will not be wasted. It will mean something. You understand that at home, in the real world, you live by certain moral rules, but in a combat zone, you do what a superior tells you to do and you trust that he is right. You understand that people will shoot at you; that they will try to kill you, but you trust in your training and your buddies to bring you home. None of this, all of this, flashed through my mind.
I put the radio hand set back to my ear.
“Wilco.” I said. “Wilco” is a radio “pro-word” or radio procedure word meaning; I will comply.
Just as Tom had re-identified himself as my company commander for emphasis, I chose to use the radio pro-word reply that emphasized full compliance. However, just as I knew by his tone over the radio that something was going on, he knew by my tone that I was not happy.
“Return to base, hot. This is 6 out.” Tom said.
So, we turned around. As we turned, I told the point man to put his M-16 on “rock and roll”, full automatic. The deer would have to wait. I doubt that it minded.
When we got back, Tom told me about the attack on LZ Betty that intelligence was sure was coming later that day, or early the next morning at the latest. Several bases and towns had already been hit hard. He also told me that intelligence had secretly warned of the attacks even earlier. That warning had been the real reason for sending 2nd Platoon “deer hunting”.
The only thing about the ’68 Tet Offensive that was a surprise, was that a combat commander with the well earned, and seriously good reputation of General Giap would try such a mish-mash of violent, but under supported, widely separated attacks which defied almost every rule of war. However, we did not know then that General Giap had actually been opposed to the whole idea of a ’68 Tet offensive and was only in command of the ’68 Tet Offensive because the general that had planed the offensive originally had died suddenly before the offensive was launched.
So, no matter what you heard, the ’68 Tet Offensive was not a surprise, and, by the way, General Giap was right, they lost. We won that battle. It is still a mystery to me that no one in America noticed since it was a really big battle, a really big victory—for us.