Tag Archives: Vietnam legacy

How To Hide Behind a Pebble

How To Hide Behind a Pebble*

by john harrison

Every combat infantryman knows how to hide behind a pebble, but they also know it’s not much use to do so. It is not that you can’t conceal yourself behind one so much as it is that even though most pebbles are really hard, they still can’t stop bullets. However, because they are so hard, pebbles make excellent secondary shrapnel should an explosion go off nearby. If you are an infantryman seriously considering hiding behind a pebble, a nearby explosion is almost a certainty.

6802861 - Feb 2 Pinned Down on Levy

This is pinned down, but given the need an infantryman could get even lower to the ground. If you look closely, you can see he is in a small depression. This was taken February 2, 1968, near Phan Thiet by Jerry Berry, PIO 3/506th (ABN).

Since a pebble is too small to protect you, but is solid enough to hurt you when it is driven into your body by an explosion, a good infantryman avoids them if possible. This is just one of the little things that you learn as an infantryman that serve to keep you alive in that place called battle.

The question of hiding behind a pebble also points out the difference between what the Army called “cover” and what it called “concealment” when I was in the service. If you can find good “cover” then you are safe from enemy fire. They may know exactly where you are, in a bunker for example, but if you have good cover then you are protected from their fire.

On the other hand concealment is exactly that. The enemy cannot see you. In fact they may not even know you are there. It is their lack of knowledge of your position that protects you.

Since you can be killed just as dead by random as well as by aimed fire, most times cover is better than concealment; but there are some exceptions to this. A bunker is usually safe against the fire of an AK-47 for example, but a bunker is an absolute death trap if the enemy has a few RPG rockets. It is a much better idea in that case to simply hide.

If you can’t be seen by the enemy, then the enemy can’t find you, and better yet if they can’t find you, they probably can’t kill you. This is a simple rule that the VC, and the Viet Minh before them, used to fight armies far more powerful than they were for years. Therefore, if your cover can’t protect you, then hiding is a much better idea than staying where you are. Like most decisions, it all depends on the particular circumstances that you face.

So, if it is not useful, why then does every combat infantryman know how to hide behind a pebble? Simple, because something is always better than nothing, and if you are a combat infantrymen nothing is often all that you have in the world.



On the other hand, when you are talking about 2,000 pound, 16 inch naval gunfire, or a 750 pound Hi-drag bombs, there is no such thing as good cover. Only concealment and a little luck in being out of the blast range will work under those extremely challenging circumstances. Battle can be brutal.

I once told a civilian that I had often crawled into my helmet to hide while in combat. The civilian for some reason, doubted my story. He may have thought that he had a good reason for that doubt. I don’t really remember. I had been drinking for a while that night before we spoke, so it is entirely possible that I was not as clear as I should have been in my description of how that could happen. However, I have no doubt that I did indeed hide deep inside my steel pot repeatedly in combat.

If you have ever heard the sound, “thump, thump, thump” then you know exactly what I am talking about. “Thump, thump, thump” is the sound that three mortar rounds make when they are fired from their tube. You hear that sound, and you wait. Just that sound concentrates and focusses the mind wonderfully.

You wait and you listen for the explosions that you know are coming. You listen carefully because, you know that if you hear the mortar rounds explode, that means you are still alive. You will never hear the one that kills you. On the other hand, hearing the one that maims you for life is probably at best small comfort.

As an American the good thing is, you will rarely hear more than three or four mortar rounds fired unless they are yours. One of the very real advantages of being born American is the amount of ammunition that we send to the battlefield, and that we have helicopter gunship pilots who think that it is great sport to track down and then fire up the firing positions of enemy mortar crews. These gunship pilots can do that because mortar shells are mostly visible in flight. So if you are up in the air over the battlefield you can see pretty quickly, where the mortar shells are coming from and then hone in on them.

The abundance of ammunition means that American artillery always loves to fire, and they have literally tons of ammunition available to do exactly that. I always found massive American artillery fire to be very helpful on the battlefield.

Having gunships overhead also means that if the enemy mortar crew is not of the shoot and quickly scoot school of mortar crews, then that gun ship overhead will flat kill them with its first pass. The latter passes serve mostly to bust up their equipment, although it is said that some gunship pilots continue to fire purely for esthetic reasons. Not being a pilot I would not know, but I have always enjoyed watching that process unfold.

Before any of that happens though, other things occur. First you hear that “thump, thump, thump” sound. Then, your sphincter muscle tightens tighter than it ever has before in your life. It continues to tighten, or contract with each thump. According to doctors during contraction of a sphincter, or circular muscle, the lumen (opening) associated with the sphincter constricts or closes. This constriction is caused by the progressive shortening of the sphincter muscle itself. If the thumps continue, that sphincter muscle continues to shorten with each thump.

Again according to doctors, voluntary sphincters like the one in the anus are controlled by the somatic nerves. That is your brain actually orders the voluntary sphincter muscles in your anus to contract, or open by a conscious command from your brain. However, I would love to see someone down range that hears that  “thump, thump, thump” sound try to order their sphincter muscle not to contract. It simply can’t be done.

Of course, some will say that they have known people, never themselves of course, that have reacted very differently when under mortar fire. They will say that these people, usually just acquaintances, not even friends, have experienced severe, multiple spasms rather than a single continuous, progressive contraction. Invariably these spasms would lead to unfortunate, dark brown, stains, some permanent, on their uniform trousers. However, this just proves the point that sphincter muscles are not always voluntary since no one would chose to spasm that way on purpose, or at least not on purpose when their pants are up, and their boots are bloused.

Therefore, no matter what the doctors say, sphincter muscles are not always completely voluntary, as anyone who has ever fully experienced explosive diarrhea can also attest. Sometimes even a good, otherwise reliable, sphincter muscle seems to just have a mind of its own.

It is the shortening of the sphincter muscle that allows one to fit into that helmet. As the firing continues, it continues to shorten. You can look this up in any medical textbook describing the operation of sphincter muscles. They will all say that the sphincter muscle constricts by “shortening”.

When you are short enough, you will fit entirely into your helmet. Case closed.


There’s more, this story and twenty four more like it can be found in my new book, Steel Rain, the Tet Offensive which is available on Amazon both as a paperback and on Kindle. Use this book to tell your grandchildren what you did fifty years ago. Please give it a look. See; Steel Rain, the Tet Offensive 1968

Recent Reviews of Steel Rain, the Tet Offensive: “John Harrison does an eloquent job writing what it was like being in the infantry during the Vietnam war. I know, I was in the infantry in Vietnam. There is a statistic which states that only 1 out of 10 who served in Vietnam were in the infantry. All of us have been asked what that was like at one point since our return. It is an impossible question for most of us to answer in part much less in full. John Harrison manages to do this in his book, Steel Rain, the Tet Offensive. So, if you are inclined and wonder what it was like, or you want to tell someone else what you went through, buy this book. Show it to your friend. It tells that story. To, “LT” John Harrison- thank you Sir.Salute.”

“John Harrison’s book, Steel Rain, the Tet Offensive, is a series of short stories, told mostly in the first person, that weaves together the humor and violence that only a talented writer can accomplish. The result is a compelling book that is hard to put down. John’s words flow easily on the pages, making an easy read. I highly recommend this book to anyone that has been there and did that, or anyone wanting to know a personal record of one lucky Lieutenant in Vietnam and the people that made it possible for him to return home.
Dan Hertlein, helicopter mechanic with the 192nd AHC at LZ Betty 1968″

“John is the soldier speaking the truest story of Vietnam. I will confirm his action as I was in a different company same battalion, fighting the same battles.”

  • Title created by the poet RonGFord. Used with permission. The rest is all my fault; don’t blame Ron. You can read Ron’s poem the Wall here:  The Wall.

SFC James Albert Bunn

SFC James Albert Bunn

by john harrison

On February 2, 1968 Sergeant First Class James Albert Bunn was killed while serving in the Republic of South Viet Nam. He was my platoon sergeant, 2nd Platoon, Company A, 3rd Battalion, 506th (Airborne) Infantry Regiment (aka the “Band of Brothers”), 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division. This is a rather long way of saying that he was also my friend.

I gave him the order that resulted in his death. It was Tet ’68.

We knew that we were moving to contact with the enemy that day. It was a question of where and when we hit the enemy, not if. Even as we moved there were already very loud pitched battles going on all over the place, all around us. We expected to hit a well entrenched, well prepared enemy, and we did.

We were looking for the 482nd Viet Cong Mainforce Battalion, near Phan Thiet on the coast of the South China Sea. As the lead platoon we made contact with the enemy first. Early that morning we moved up to a small house. After searching the small house I sent a fire team into the larger blue house next door to the right to clear it too.

They ran into the VC inside the house almost immediately. The last man in the fire team was shot as they ran out of the front door of that blue house. He fell on the front porch and laid there bleeding. He was hurt bad, but alive. Although not that far away, I could see that the porch would be a bitch to get to and then to get away from. I can’t tell you how frustrating that day was or of how many different ideas we tried to get our man off of that porch.

At one point I ordered Sergeant Bunn to take a squad and to see if he could get into the back of the blue house since the front of the blue house was swept by constant rifle and machine-gun fire from several directions. We were literally being shot at from 360°, rifle fire, machine-gun fire, mortars, rockets. You name it; they shot it at us, and we returned the compliment. The level of enemy fire that day was absolutely incredible.

While Bunn tried to get in the back of the house I set about using air strikes, gun ships and artillery to clear out the enemy from our front and left flanks so that I could turn the platoon right and get our man off that damn porch.

Jerry Berry in his excellent book, My Gift to You, (available on Amazon) tells Jim Bunn’s story:

PSG Bunn and Sergeant Stacy Raynor’s squad made their way around the three barbed wire fences that separated the two houses and carefully approached the back of the house. Just before reaching the back of the house PSG Bunn set up the squad in a supporting position and then moved on to the corner of the blue house on his own.

The enemy fire was intense, with heavy fire coming from all directions. With bullets striking all around him, PSG Bunn ran to the back door, threw a hand grenade inside the house and followed it up with several bursts from his M-16 rifle. While standing in that doorway PSG Bunn was shot several times. He was killed instantly.

It took a while, but we finally got our man off that porch and we brought Jim Bunn back as well. The Airborne recovers its dead.

Jim Bunn left his wife Rachel and three young daughters. His name appears on Panel 36E at the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial. He is interred in Riverside Cemetery in Oklahoma.

I think about Jim Bunn just about every day. This and Memorial Day are his days. He earned them both, full and complete on February 2, 1968.

Tet ‘68 was a long time ago. It was yesterday. I remembered him today, and everyday. Platoon Sergeant James Albert Bunn. My friend, a brave and good man. Airborne!


The rest of the story of our time in Vietnam, including during the Tet Offensive, can be found in my new book, Steel Rain, the Tet Offensive which is available on Amazon both as a paperback and on Kindle. Please give it a look. See; https://www.amazon.com/Steel-Rain-Tet-Offensive-1968/dp/1977045448/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1517494115&sr=1-1-catcorr

On Going To War

On Going To War

by: john harrison

Several of my former students at Bishop O’Connell High School have asked me about serving in the military. In particular the ones that are soon to be commissioned, but also some now already in the service want to know more about my experience with  leading men in combat who in many cases are much older than they are, and are certainly much more experienced than they are. Understandably, the ones headed to Iraq or Afghanistan are always very concerned about how they will react to combat, to battle. This is what I have told them.

I was commissioned at 20 years old. My Platoon Sergeant, Jim Bunn, was 34 at the time. Not only did he have many years of experience in the Army, he had already been to Vietnam. How then do you become the “leader” of such men?

It gets worse, while I had completed a year and a half of college. One of the men in my platoon, a Specialist 4, had two masters degrees. While that is not as likely in today’s all volunteer Army, you will still constantly have people serving under you who are smarter than you are, and who know more about what they are doing than you do. How do you deal with that and remain the leader?

What I had was years of study of military history and even more important I had Officer Candidate School or OCS. I was also very lucky in the men around me, both above me and below, and in the Army’s system of command. One of the things that you will realize very quickly as a junior officer is that in spite of ignorance in some areas, there are still many things that you know that no one else in the platoon knows no matter what their experience or age. More important, you are their platoon leader, and this makes all the difference. 

While it is the real job of a platoon sergeant to train his platoon leader without the platoon leader knowing, that does not mean he knows everything. The platoon sergeant may never have actually called in an airstrike, or artillery, or dust-off. He may know a lot about how to make C-Rations (MRE’s ancestor) palatable in the field, or how to motivate young men, but he may never have had a chance to research a subject overnight sufficient to give a good class on it the next day and about lots of other things that a platoon leader must be able to do.

There are all sorts of parts to the job of being a good platoon leader. At first there are some you will be good at and some you will suck at. However, it is still without question, the all-time, best job I have ever had, 2nd Lieutenant, Infantry, Platoon Leader.

You are expected to make mistakes, but your men, and in particular your platoon sergeant want you to be good at your job. They want to laugh at the other guy’s lieutenant, not their lieutenant. In a good platoon they will help you, they will also try to hide your mistakes from those above, and you will make a lot of mistakes. If you listen, particularly to your platoon sergeant, they will help you to act correctly, but the decisions and the responsibility for those decisions will always be yours.

I was very lucky. My first battalion commander, Col. John P. Geraci, was good enough to be recently enshrined in the Ranger Hall of Fame, my first First Sergeant, MSg Theron “Bull” Gergen was already a celebrity in the world of Rangers when I met him and was one of the first enshrined there. Cap. Thomas Gaffney was my first CO, but it was his second war. I had competence and hard won experience all around me. As I said my Platoon Sergeant, Jim Bunn had only recently returned from Vietnam when he joined the platoon. You may have to search for it, but real experience is available if you look.

However, you still need to be careful because some people seem to feel feel that they are building themselves up when they are tearing others down.  While only a moron would believe that this is true, or useful, these people exist in every service. They are the beetles of doubt. Avoid them. 

Hazing for example does not prove you are tough, it proves that you are undisciplined.  Any officer or NCO that lets himself or the men under his command be hazed should be fired, plain and simple.  If I saw it. I would relieve the officer or NCO on the spot, and so would any competent officer.  Why, because hazing has nothing to do with making people better. It has everything to do with allowing some people to feel superior by abusing their authority.  Those kinds of people should not have authority.

Multiple tours proves nothing.  Assuming they are trained, the best soldiers in history were generally pretty good the first time they fought and got better thereafter.  But, everyone has a limit, too.  If you go to war often enough, you will be killed, and over time when men recognize this, it changes them. In any event what did they do during those tours? What happened during those tours? What did they experience, besides just being there?

Even participation in a big battle prove nothing.  As far as the individual infantryman is concerned, a big battle is when they individually have to fight as hard as they can to stay alive.  A squad can undergo as much or more in a single squad action as they would in a big battle that perhaps makes the history books, or the evening news.  In any event, a squad in a big battle might be pulling the shit burning detail the whole time.  While they would know a lot about burning shit, their actual knowledge of battle would be limited. What did they do in that battle? How is it relevant now?

That said, everyone needs to be shot at the first time and they are different thereafter because then they are a veteran.  They know something about them self that others do not know about themselves. When I say shot at, I mean exactly that, not riding around in a truck when a bomb goes off, or sitting in a bunker at a base camp under attack, but out in the field in a combat infantry platoon, or tank squadron fighting an enemy that is trying to kill you, and that is pretty good at it. Then you are a real combat veteran. It is your reaction to the enemy fire that is important, not so much the fire itself. 

The stuff I have read about actions Iraq and Afghanistan, leads me to believe that very few of those who have served in these regions are actually what I would call “combat veterans”.  But, that was also true of Vietnam and every other American war.  There were less than 60,000 trigger pullers in Vietnam when there were over 550,000 troops there.  Probably about 90% of the jobs are still held by REMFs. 

We need the people in the rear, so while I have pulled their chain, I am not really deprecating them, but they are not infantry/tanker/artillery veterans no matter what their MOS.  No matter how many tours they served unless it was in a unit that actually fought the enemy they are not combat veterans. It is doing an infantryman’s job under fire, not just being under fire, that is important.

Anyone in the military who has not been in actual combat wonders how they will react when the bullets fly.  Unfortunately, there is only one way to find out.  Generally after the first jitters are over the problem is not a lack of courage, but actually an excess of bravery.  It needs to be tempered.  Green troops often take too many risks and thereby suffer too many casualties. 

One of the things I was always proud of was that while my platoon suffered a lot of casualties, they were spread over multiple actions over several months.  We did not do stupid, we killed the right people and in general did not allow them to kill us. 

In a sense combat is very much like basketball in that it is a team sport.  Anybody not working on building the team, making the team better has no place in the military.  Anybody who is putting down a fellow soldier, rather than sharing hard earned experience probably has little real experience to share and is not a real soldier however many tours they may have.

It is not how many doors did they kick down, but how many doors did they kick down that had an enemy inside with a machine gun pointed at the door. What did they do then? What did the man covering the entry do? Those are the real questions.

As far as how good is the Army of today, I do not know, but I would be very surprised if they are not better than in Vietnam and WW II if only because they are much better educated.   For example, less than half of the Marines in WW II had a high school degree now almost all do. Education does make a difference.

While being an “infantryman” is easy, being a good infantryman that can go upon today’s very lethal battlefields with a reasonable expectation of both accomplishing your mission and coming back is a rather more difficult proposition. It takes brains. It takes the ability to learn and apply skills that many times you do not even know you have. It takes courage, both the courage to act and the courage not to act even though you may know down deep in you soul that all you want in the world right then is to be able to do one thing, just one thing. However, you do not do that one thing, you do what you are supposed to do instead. When you have done that, you are a combat Infantryman.   

Being really good Infantry is a learned skill.  It is not easy. It is not simple.  It is not just issuing a guy a rifle and expecting them to know what they are doing.  There are a lot of little things that make the difference between living and dying. If you do not know those little things and do not do them almost as second nature then you are not very likely to survive. It is really that simple.

Audi Murphy, the most decorated soldier in World War II was a farm boy. As was Medal of Honor winning Sgt. Alvin York from World War I. In training, the Army only spends relatively a few hours on the rifle range and shoots relatively a few rounds. In the past America was famous for fielding armies of men that could shoot and shoot well. However, that was mostly because they brought that skill with them to the service.

My brother is a former Marine and an excellent pistol shot. He says that it takes about 5,000 rounds to make a really good pistol shot. It is not likely that you will have the opportunity to shoot that much in the military. In addition, today with the demonization of guns in America very few have had any experience with guns when they enter the service. You will not be getting a platoon full of Alvin Yorks and Audi Murphys. Most of them will not be able to shoot that well at first, and some may even be afraid of the weapon that they carry. That could get them, and you killed.

If you are going to teach other men how to shoot, you need to know yourself. Volunteer for range duty every chance you get. Hang out with people that know how to shoot. It may literally save your life and the lives of men in your platoon. Go to the range. Shoot. Listen. Learn. Practice. Shoot.

The next point is a little more difficult but no less important. While it is necessary to be able to hit a target, it is even more necessary to identify that target first. Both Murphy and York were boyhood hunters. You cannot buy that experience; you cannot even train it; you must experience it and that takes time. Make the time.

Whenever I walk outside to this day, I look for good machine-gun positions, good sniper positions. I look for places I would hide, or I would hide my platoon even though I have not led a platoon in 50 years. However, if you have ever been shot at in the military you will do it too, and you will do it for the rest of your life. Strangely, my wife Sandy, who has never hunted, sees far more than I do when we walk in the woods, so it is a talent as well as a craft that can be practiced. Either way, practice it. You will be surprised at what you see, at how much better you get.

I always felt that I was extraordinarily lucky in the Army.  My battalion trained together as a unit for 6 months before we deployed.  The battalion CO, Col. Geraci, was a Marine in World War II, an Army platoon leader in in Korea, and had already served two tours in Special Forces A teams in Vietnam before he was our commander.  My company commander, Cap. Gaffney, had earned a battlefield commission in Korea, was riffed back to sergeant, made Sergeant Major in Special Forces, served in “A” Teams in Vietnam, and then came back as a Captain to take us to Vietnam. I have already mentioned our First Sergeant, Bull Gergen and my Platoon Sergeant Jim Bunn. These were all men that you could learn from.

And when we were done training, I thought we could kick anybody’s ass which is probably why I once attacked a Mainforce VC battalion with my platoon. Kicked their asses too even though we could not destroy them. Too many to kill, although we and the United States Air Force did our level best all day one day trying to kill them all.

You are not really feeling inadequate if you feel doubt about your ability to fit in to this life.  You are feeling being untested, and you will feel that way until you are shot at doing your job.  It is an essential part of the job. And, while you are correct now that you are untested, after that you will be a veteran, a combat veteran.

I think that the most important thing that I could tell you is to be prepared to improvise. We spent almost all of our time training on how to patrol, on doing ambushes and counter ambush drills, and most of all on how to fight in the jungle. However, we spent almost all of our time actually fighting, doing it in the cities during Tet ‘68. The two have little in common.

Nobody in the battalion had ever done what the Army called then, Fighting In a Built-up Area. Nobody in the battalion was an expert at it when we first did it. I actually used more ideas that I got from watching Victory At Sea and other WW II documentaries as a kid than I did from my Army training. The one thing I learned is that if it works, it is not a stupid idea. In Vietnam we used to take our helmets off, hold them up and move them around for the enemy to shoot at so we could find out where they were hiding. It worked, because unlike us, they had not watched hours of cowboy shows and war movies. If it works, do it, then do it again.

As I said, the best job I have ever had in my life was that of being a second lieutenant, infantry, platoon leader. Best job by far. In that I envy you.  Good luck.


The story of our time in Vietnam during Tet where I learned the above can be found in my new book, Steel Rain, the Tet Offensive which is available on Amazon both as a paperback and on Kindle. Please give it a look. See; https://www.amazon.com/Steel-Rain-Tet-Offensive-1968/dp/1977045448/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1517494115&sr=1-1-catcorr

A Vietnam Tale

A Vietnam Tale

by: RonFord

Part one, Training

Airborne! Blood and guts, Ranger Danger!
Airborne! kill, Kill, Ranger Danger!
Airborne! I want to be a Airborne ranger!
Airborne! Live a life of blood, guts and danger

Part two, War

Fear! Death, Death, Death, Blood, guts Danger
Fear! Destruction, Destruction, Blood, guts danger Airborne!
Fear! Burn Baby Burn
Fear! Kill them all, Airborne!
Fear! Let God sort them out, Airborne, Ranger, Danger, KILL!

Part Three, Home Coming

Airborne! Who cares
Airborne! So What
Airborne! Baby killers
Airborne! Depression
Airborne! I wasn’t there
Airborne! SUICIDE! I wasn’t there

Part four, Evaluation

Some Vietnam Veterans still suffer from the war
We are unable to close the door
Theres no conclusion I fear
We just can’t get out of here
I am filled with anger and pain
I think the war fucked up my brain.

Ron Ford
101st Airborne
VN 67-68

My Mother’s Machine-gun

by: john harrison

In October of 1967 my unit, the fabled 506th Airborne Infantry Regiment of World War II, Band of Brothers fame, deployed to Vietnam as part of the 101st Airborne Division. Although we did not know it then, we would be there for the bloodiest year of that conflict.

After a short orientation at Phan Rang, we were sent to the field, Search and Destroy the Army called it; but to us we were chasing Charlie as the saying went even though we rarely caught up with him at first. Since we were resupplied either every three, four or even five days in the field, and since I did not want my Mother to become accustomed to getting a letter from me on some regular basis, I purposefully wrote to her spasmodically, rather than regularly.

A few months later, I was sitting on an LZ in the field near Phan Thiet on the coast and more or less the center of Vietnam waiting for a resupply when I realized that I owed my Mother a letter. It had been two re-supplies already, over six days, since I had last written. However, I could not think of anything to say to her.

As usual, I had started the letter with the date in the upper right hand corner followed by approximately where I was in Vietnam. So, I wrote “January 25, 1968”, followed by “Phan Thiet, RVN”, but that was as far as I could get. Then, I looked down at the last page of a Stars & Stripes newspaper in my lap and it had a small article about a strike at the Colt Patent Firearms Company plant in Connecticut that made the M-60 machine-guns we used. Each platoon usually carried three of them but since one of mine was in for repair, I was in the field with only two machine-guns.

So, I started the letter, “Here I am in Vietnam short one machine-gun for my platoon and these Bozos are sitting safe at home and are out on strike while we are fighting a war. . .” That got me started and I went on with the letter talking about how quiet it was where we were, how hot the temperature was, how beautiful the South China Sea was, how safe Phan Thiet was, then some more about the missing machine-gun and so forth. Then, I sealed it; ran it to the helicopter, and thought no more about it.

When my Mother arrived home from her job at Georgetown University on February 3, 1968, she was already worried and wanted to watch the evening news.  The battles of Tet ‘68 had started and they led the news. Therefore, she was particularly happy to see a letter from me in the day’s mail. She got herself a glass of wine, turned on the television to the CBS evening news, and sat down to read my letter.

She opened my letter only moments before Walter Cronkite’s face appeared on the screen; she just had time to read the date, and location when Cronkite’s famous voice intoned his lead story:

“Today in Phan Thiet, Vietnam, there was savage fighting as the Viet Cong tried to seize the normally sleepy provincial capital. Units of the 101st Airborne Division met the enemy head on in a series of exceptionally violent battles that started early in the morning and continued all day. There were heavy casualties on both sides. . .”

My Mother sat there stunned. She read the top of my letter again; she read the name of town on the screen; she read the top of my letter again; she read the name of town on the screen. She started crying. Then, mercifully the news program broke for a commercial. The news from Vietnam actually got worse from there. She continued to cry, and sip her wine.

For those of you that do not remember, CBS’s Walter Cronkite was a god, an oracle of truth at the time, and unfortunately he was not at all upbeat about the chances of even the legendary 101st Airborne Division to hold on to the town of Phan Thiet under such a ferocious assault by a well armed, well supplied and numerically superior enemy.

It was about the only time Phan Thiet made the national news, but we made it big time that night. According to Cronkite the fighting was severe everywhere, up and down the coast of Vietnam, so there was no possibility of reinforcements for the embattled 101st Airborne Division in Phan Thiet. This dire prediction was his close off line for the extended news program.

Except getting up for more wine during commercial breaks, my Mother watched it all. Then, she sat there in her living room staring at the now blank TV screen.  She cried for a while, then she finished reading my letter and the rest of her bottle of wine, her dinner forgotten. Her son was in trouble, and he needed a machine gun. She was sure of that.

A little after midnight my Mother called her mother in Savannah, Georgia. A Depression era baby, it was a testament to her worry that my Mother did not once think of the cost of the long distance call. She had opened a new bottle of wine as well.

They talked for a while. They both cried for a while. They talked about machine-guns repeatedly but not very knowledgeably, but they knew all about war. Both had lived through World War II and the Korean War by then. Finally, around two in the morning, her mother, my grandmother said:

“Let’s call Dickie.”

It turned out that “Dickie” was Senator Richard B. Russell, Jr., the senior senator from the State of Georgia and probably the most powerful Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee ever. However, many years before he had been a young boy in my grandmother’s, then Miss Varina Bacon’s class for two years at the Seventh District Agricultural and Mechanical School in Powder Springs, Cobb County, Georgia. In addition, Senator Russell’s mother, Ina Dillard Russell, was a teacher and was my grandmother’s best friend.

That was probably why my grandmother had Senator Russell’s home phone number, which she talked an AT&T operator into making a conference call to at about 3:00 AM. The two women just cried on the phone together as they waited for the call to be put through.

With Senator Russell on the line now, the three of them discussed machine-guns, and why Lieutenant Harrison’s platoon, did not have enough of them. My grandmother wanted to know exactly what Senator “Dickie” Russell was going to do about this problem of national importance, how had he let it happen in the first place and could he also see to it that the strikers were put in jail, or better yet, shot.

After midnight, both my grandmother and particularly my Mother could be of a seriously violent inclination. My Mother was the one that suggested shooting the strikers.

My father had always said that United States District Court Judges, United States Senators and any truly pissed off American mother could cause more trouble than anything else in the world. Here we had two angry, very scared American mothers and a powerful but sleep deprived United States Senator. Things were sure to be interesting in the morning.

Although the majority of our training was for combat patrols in the jungle, the majority of the fighting we actually did during Tet '68 was street fighting in the cities and towns of Vietnam.

Although the majority of our training was for combat patrols in the jungle, the majority of the fighting we actually did during Tet ’68 was street fighting in the cities and towns of Vietnam.  This is what it looks like.  We were using trucks this time because the VC had shot up so many of our helicopters we were saving the ones we had left for Dust Off.  Photo by Jerry Berry.

Meanwhile, the battles in Vietnam continued. Luckily, my missing machine-gun had been repaired and returned before the start of Tet because we had been busy. Finding Charlie was no longer the problem.

JEH Under Fire

We were actually being shot at when this picture was taken.  One of my men sent it to me several years ago.  I am left middle in front of my RTO, Hal Dobie of Yakima, Washington.  That is “Bull” Gergen, a full blooded Cherokee Indian member of the Ranger Hall of Fame and our First Sergeant, coming up on the right.  It was his second war, third tour.  James Philyaw third from right.  I am standing looking over a hedgerow.  We are on our way back into Phan Thiet.

A day or so after the telephone call to Senator Russell my platoon was embroiled in some of the fiercest house to house fighting of the war in downtown Phan Thiet when my RTO (Radio Telephone Operator) Hal Dobie of Yakima, Washington, handed me the radio hand set saying there was a man that said he was a Colonel on the radio asking for “Lieutenant John Harrison” in the clear. This violated so many Army rules and regulations that he had not answered the transmission.

I truly did not know what to do. After the third time I heard him identify himself as Colonel something or other, I have forgotten his name, and again asked for Lieutenant John Harrison I just said “Yes.” rather than saying, “This is Alpha 2-6”, meaning, Alpha Company 2nd platoon leader, as I usually would have identified myself.

The Colonel then said he had a machine-gun for me and where could he put his helicopter down so he could deliver it to me. I said I was pretty busy at the moment—after all a lot of people were shooting at us.

He reminded me that he was a Colonel, that I was 2nd Lieutenant and he demanded in the most forceful manner a landing zone, immediately.

Since he was so insistent, I said that the area in front of my platoon was wide open, plenty of room to land a helicopter, but then I had to warn him that he would be under heavy fire, both machine-guns and rockets as he landed. His choice. I think the pilot talked some sense into the demanding Colonel and he decided to leave the machine-gun back at our base camp, LZ Betty.

When we finally got back to LZ Betty a couple of days later, the Company armorer was still cleaning that machine-gun. The Colonel had tried to deliver an M-60 machine gun, to an active firefight, encased in a wooden box, enveloped in thick plastic shrink wrap, and full of thick cosmoline, but with no ammunition.

It took our armorer, Carl Rattee, three days and a tub of gasoline to get the machinegun ready to fire. But when he was done, it was beautiful.

My nick name for the gun was

My nick name for the gun was “instant fire superiority”, and all but one time that was true.

Strangely, unlike every other weapon in the battalion this particular machine-gun was assigned directly to me, to Lieutenant John Harrison. It was my very own machine-gun, from my Mom. I liked it and when the Army made me give it back when I left Vietnam, I thought about calling her, but then, I thought it might make her angry.  .  .


There’s more, this story and twenty four more like it can be found in my new book, Steel Rain, the Tet Offensive which is available on Amazon both as a paperback and on Kindle. Please give it a look. See; Steel Rain, the Tet Offensive 1968

Recent Reviews of Steel Rain, the Tet Offensive: “John Harrison does an eloquent job writing what it was like being in the infantry during the Vietnam war. I know, I was in the infantry in Vietnam. There is a statistic which states that only 1 out of 10 who served in Vietnam were in the infantry. All of us have been asked what that was like at one point since our return. It is an impossible question for most of us to answer in part much less in full. John Harrison manages to do this in his book, Steel Rain, the Tet Offensive. So, if you are inclined and wonder what it was like, or you want to tell someone else what you went through, buy this book. Show it to your friend. It tells that story. To, “LT” John Harrison- thank you Sir.Salute.”

“John Harrison’s book, Steel Rain, the Tet Offensive, is a series of short stories, told mostly in the first person, that weaves together the humor and violence that only a talented writer can accomplish. The result is a compelling book that is hard to put down. John’s words flow easily on the pages, making an easy read. I highly recommend this book to anyone that has been there and did that, or anyone wanting to know a personal record of one lucky Lieutenant in Vietnam and the people that made it possible for him to return home.
Dan Hertlein, helicopter mechanic with the 192nd AHC at LZ Betty 1968″

“John is the soldier speaking the truest story of Vietnam. I will confirm his action as I was in a different company same battalion, fighting the same battles.”

The Tet Offensive ’68–Battle Won, Victory Lost

 The Tet Offensive ’68–Battle Won, Victory Lost

by: john harrison

Although the majority of our training was for combat patrols in the jungle, the majority of the fighting we actually did during Tet '68 was street fighting in the cities and towns of Vietnam.

Although the majority of our training was for combat patrols in the jungle, the majority of the fighting we actually did during Tet ’68 was street fighting in the cities and towns of Vietnam.  This is B/3/506th in Phan Thiet during the battle. Photo: Jerry Berry PIO 3/506th.

The largest battle of the Vietnam War, the Tet Offensive ’68, was also among the two or three biggest infantry battles that American armed forces have ever fought. In spite of all the bad press, we clearly won that battle. The Tet Offensive ’68 was a bigger battle and a bigger victory in pure military terms even than the justly famous Battle of the Bulge in World War II.

While these numbers are subject to some dispute, it appears that there were about 500,000 Americans actively involved in both the Tet Offensive ’68 and in the Battle of the Bulge.  During the Tet Offensive there were about one million total allied soldiers involved and they suffered a total of about 75,000 casualties (KIA, WIA, MIA).  At the Bulge there were about 720,000 total allied soldiers involved and they suffered about 90,000 casualties.  The German casualties during the Battle of the Bulge have been estimated at 67,000 to 100,000.  The corresponding estimates for the Tet Offensive are that the VC/NVA casualties totaled at least 125,000 dead, wounded and missing and more likely as many as 150,000.*  Most of the VC/NVA casualties were dead.

The differences were that in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive, the Army, Marines and allies were engaged in almost continuous combat throughout the country for a much longer period of time, and Khe Sahn was a true killing field, leaving stacks of NVA dead.

In addition, while in Bastogne itself at the Battle of the Bulge there not was a rear area, for the majority of units fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, there was a rear area,  Even during the height of the battle, there were always American troops that were not directly engaged with the enemy surrounding Bastogne.  They were behind other troops in support, or reserve, or were on their way to the front and thus were not yet actively engaged by the enemy.

However, like Bastogne itself, there was no “behind” anywhere in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive.  For example, a battalion of Vietnamese paras in transit at Tan Son Nhut airport were called in to repel an attack on the airport itself before they could leave.  The only reserve during Tet ’68 was the 3rd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division in Fayetteville, N. C., which was all in the air within hours after the battles started, and engaged on the ground within hours after they landed in Vietnam.

Nevertheless, the issue as they say in the history books was never in doubt during the Tet Offensive. Even while the VC/NVA were attacking, allied counter attacks were meeting them, sometimes before they even made it to their lines of departure. It was a fight, a big, hard, ugly at times, fight, but it was never in doubt who would win that fight.

Literally the NVA and particularly the VC never recovered from that battle. Many of the VC that had fought for years were now dead, and that meant that even the Main Force NVA units now blundered about the county because they no longer had knowledgeable local VC guides.

While the Vietnam War is still portrayed as an insurgency, a guerrilla war, the battles during the Tet Offensive was a straight up, conventional, mostly infantry, slugfest. Since, the Tet Offensive does not fit the story line that was told to America at the time and since, i.e., that we lost a guerrilla war to General Vo Nuguen Giap and those fellows in black pajamas, other than dwelling on the brutality of war in cities full of civilians, the actual Allied military victory during the Tet Offensive has been almost completely ignored, both in 1968 and since then. Other than the picture of General Loan executing an NVA franc-tireur on a street in Saigon with his revolver, or the one of the great seal of the United States of America lying broken on the embassy grounds, or the street fighting in Hue, the real battles of the Tet Offensive and their outcome still have been largely discounted by historians even today.

Moreover, it was not VC guerrillas that ultimately defeated the South Vietnamese government over two years after all of the American troops had left Vietnam. After the Tet Offensive the VC were mostly broken or dead laying on a street in Phan Thiet or Hue or Saigon. It was not the NVA units that had been infiltrated in country that did it either. They were lost in the jungle, and literally dared not come out of the jungle even assuming they could find their way, or most likely, they were hiding in sanctuaries in Cambodia or Laos.

Contrary to what most people believe, what finally toppled South Vietnam was a traditional, full-scale, tank-led, conventional, combined-arms invasion from North Vietnam essentially using its entire million man army. Ultimately, this army went right down Route 1, the “street without joy” in Bernard Fall’s felicitous phrase, all the way to Saigon in 1975.

In addition to the wide spread ignorance about the Tet Offensive it has always been very curious to me that for a while much was made of the fact that in Vietnam the army required a 12 month tour, the Marines required a 13 month tour, but WW II service was for the duration. Few have tried to find out why this was so. Moreover, most Americans are unaware that the war in Europe was over about 11 months after the landings in Normandy at D-Day. During that 11-month period every American division was pulled out of the line for a time and “rested” in a secure area.

The Army had long ago determined that 12 months of combat was about all a sane person could really take and remain sane. Therefore, it limited the tours in Vietnam to 12 months and it used rotation of units to achieve the same end, for the same reason in Europe during World War II. According to some reports, and while some served for a longer period, because of constant rotations of units, the average time in combat for an infantryman in the Pacific for example during World War II was about 40 days. On the other hand, mostly because of the mobility provided by thousands of helicopters, the average time in combat for an infantryman in Vietnam was about 240 days during his year of service.

Personally, I am not sure which is more stressful, combat or the anticipation of combat. You feel it on the way in to combat, but once the shooting starts you are too busy to notice. However, I doubt that being too busy to notice is a real protection from stress. When it was over I would always be unbelievably tired, others were euphoric, either way and every way in between it was a reaction to stress, experienced but not yet fully felt.

Two statistics will serve to bring this issue into focus: the 101st Airborne Division suffered almost twice as many casualties in the Vietnam War as it did in World War II, and the United States Marine Corps also suffered more casualties in Vietnam than it did in all of World War II. In the case of the 101st Airborne Division, this was in spite of the fact that only about one-third of the Division, the First Brigade, was deployed in Vietnam from July 29, 1965 until the rest of the division came over at the end of 1967. This was a hard fought, a really big war.

This information is readily available, but I have not seen it in the mass media, only sometimes the implied slur that the infantry in Vietnam had it easier because they only served for a year while in World War II they served for the duration. Like the idea that the Vietnam War was fought mainly by draftees while World War II was supposedly fought mainly by volunteers, it is not only wrong, the exact opposite is true. Vietnam was a big, violent, long war fought mainly, about 66%, by volunteers. While World War II was a big violent, fairly short war, at least for America, fought mainly, again about 66%, by draftees.

And, later when the Wall in Berlin fell, and the Cold War was won very few paused to remember as hearty congratulations were passed around that it had been a hot war for a while in Korea, and that it was hotter still, and for much longer in Vietnam.

Also generally unknown, both the Soviet Union (3,000) and China (320,000) had troops stationed in North Vietnam during the war, as did North Korea and Cuba. In addition to these troops, all during the Vietnam War the Soviet Union required its satellites to provide for free much of the war material for North Vietnam’s war effort. Other than some food and a lot of soldiers, there was almost nothing produced in North Vietnam that was actually used in the war by North Vietnam.

There were guns and ammunition from the justly famous Skoda Arms Works in Czechoslovakia. There were field glasses from East Germany’s Steiner and ships from Gdansk, Poland to carry it all to Haiphong, North Vietnam or to Sihanoukville, Cambodia, and then into South Vietnam.

Anyone that has studied economics knows that this support of North Vietnam’s war effort was highly inflationary for the captive nations of eastern Europe. While Moscow may have thought that it was making its “allies” carry some of the economic burden of helping North Vietnam, it was actually helping create the economic conditions in those satellite countries that ultimately led to the downfall of communism.

Given this, it should be no surprise that the beginning of the end for communism started among the shipyard workers of Gdansk, Poland. These workers had made a great deal of money from the Vietnam War that they could not spend in the state controlled economy of communist Poland.

Contrary to general belief, revolutions usually happen when things are getting better, but the improvements are not progressing fast enough for a lot of people. These were the conditions in the captive nations of Eastern Europe when the rumblings of change started, and the result was as predictable in coming as it was unpredictable and surprising that it would succeed essentially without violence.

I think, because we can now see the Cold War as an immense, sustained act of American moral courage and leadership that we should also be able to see that the bloody sacrifices in Vietnam, and Korea were a significant part of that moral leadership and sacrifice. Those two brutal conflicts played a substantial role in the containment policy’s ultimate success in the Cold War.

However as yet, we do not recognize the very real contributions made by American fighting men in these wars. America still does not generally recognize even the valor of those that fought so well for so long in Vietnam, just as it ignores that their significant contribution in this hot war led in part to the successful, ultimately peaceful, end of the Cold War.

While Vietnam may not be our best example of Americans at war in the sense that many of the policies and strategies pursued over the 8 years of the conflict were seriously flawed, e.g. the claiming of progress in war on the basis of “body counts” is squalid, stupid and worse, often misleading, or that allowing the murder of Diem and his brother demeaned the brave soldiers that were fighting the war at the same time it made their job more difficult. There are many other bad examples from the Vietnam War, including the tragedy at My Lai.

Unfortunately, it is these bad examples that received most of the attention then. Therefore, these bad examples often continue to receive most of the attention from historians even today because this is what they see in their research of the war years. Finally as historians continue to dig deeper, this is beginning to change.

The use of “body counts” in an insurgency situation in modern times began with the British in Malaysia. Malaysia is one of the relatively few historical situations in post WWII times in which a major insurgency, using guerrilla tactics which was extensively supported and supplied by an outside force was nonetheless defeated.

The components of success were that the communists in Malaysia were generally limited to the ethnic Chinese minority living in Malaysia and most important the British and Malaysians were able through the use of superb intelligence work to identify the insurgents. Much of this intelligence work was conducted by Metropolitan Police Forces on loan from London and Hong Kong, who not only found out how many communist insurgents there were in Malaysia, but also in many cases they knew who they were.

A large part of the success in Malaysia came from treating the problem as a police/political problem as much as possible. This limited the contact between the civilians and soldiers to only those times where it was absolutely necessary and thus forestalled the unfortunate effect of aggressive, often violent, anti-terrorist military operations which tend to generate more new terrorists than they eliminate. Thus, the use of body count in Malaysia indicated a real diminution in the number of terrorists and was therefore a meaningful number.

When the use of body counts as an indicia of progress was applied to Vietnam such numbers were meaningless, or worse, misleading. Unlike the British in Malaysia who could identify their enemy, except for the NVA who generally fought in uniform, and during Tet ’68 as well as other times when the Viet Cong were caught with their weapons, we were often not absolutely sure that the dead body reported after a firefight was that of an insurgent.  We were only certain that it was dead.

The British tried very hard to identify who it was that they had killed in Malaysia.  Only if they had reliable information that the body was that of an active terrorist did the British add it to their body count in Malaysia.

Unfortunately where the insurgency is constantly fed new fighters from abroad, like in Vietnam from North Vietnam and today in Iraq and Afghanistan from radical Islamic groups mostly from Saudi Arabia and Iran, an increase in the body count would not necessarily mean that you are winning, rather it could mean that the other side has the people and the will to engage in an increasing amount of direct, violent action. This is simply not a good sign, it is entirely the opposite. But few noticed this reality in the Vietnam War.  They just counted the bodies.

Worse, historians that should know better often still repeat the lie that these body counts in Vietnam were inflated. They continue to repeat this base canard even though the North Vietnamese admitted years ago to the essential accuracy of the American body count figures; that is, North Vietnam officially stated that about one million, one hundred thousand VC/NVA were killed during the war. This North Vietnamese figure actually exceeds by a little the numbers reported by MACV during the war. The essential accuracy of the MACV and North Vietnamese casualty figures have also been confirmed by objective, academic, research. (See: Rummel, R. J. “Statistics of Vietnamese Democide”)

Thus, the overall casualty statistics for the VC/NVA were originally reported by the military, they were later officially confirmed by government of Vietnam after the war, and later by independent scholarly research. Against this, some still say that they “disbelieve” the total casualties reported, but they have no absolutely objective basis for that disbelief other than some anecdotal stories reported by the media at the time. Of course, some still disbelieve that the earth is round, and using similar unscientific methods some still deny global warming.

Similarly, most histories of the Vietnam War, mainly the ones written soon after the war, do not recognize, in fact they simply ignore the many American successes in that war, in particular they ignore the tremendous feat of arms that was the American, allied nations and South Vietnamese response to the Tet ‘68 Offensive. While almost all of the more recent Vietnam War histories now pay at least lip service to the idea that Tet ’68 was a “tactical win” for the Allied forces, there is always a “but” and then a much longer reference to later political changes in America which they attribute to the aftermath of Tet ’68.

However, in 1968 there was no Dien Bien Phu at Khe Sahn. In spite of news reports to the contrary, the VC sappers never got into the American Embassy itself in Saigon, only into the embassy compound where they were all captured or killed early that same morning. Only in Hue, Saigon and Phan Thiet did the first waves of the Tet battles last for more that a few days. Moreover, everywhere in Vietnam there were literally piles of enemy dead and stacks of captured enemy weapons that told the real story of the outcome of the Tet ’68 offensive.

The Tet Offensive was a textbook example of American courage, American mobility and the use of firepower and maneuver to absolutely dominate a battlefield that stretched up and down the entire country of South Vietnam. In a word it was: victory. It was a classic military battle of annihilation, a victory of truly historic proportions. Unfortunately it is also a victory that is still almost unknown to the American public.

Although some were wiped out, I do not believe that even a squad of Americans, much less a larger unit, ever surrendered during the Vietnam War, even during the Tet Offensive when the communist attacks were at their fiercest. There is no question that during the Tet Offensive that the VC/NVA attacks had some local successes, particularly at Hue and in Cholon in Saigon. However, the Americans fought, then they died or they retreated still fighting, and then they counter-attacked.

Years after the Vietnam War was over, after the real historians started looking at the numbers for the Tet Offensive and began attacking the clearly wrong reporting about the Tet Offensive, many like Walter Cronkite pointed out that they had said at the time that it while appeared technically to be an Allied military victory, politically it was a disaster. Cronkite and others also pointed to the sheer size of the Tet Offensive both in numbers and in its breadth and then they recalled that both President Johnson and General Westmorland had just told everyone that we were winning this war just before the Tet offensive broke.

However, they forgot that in the Fall of 1944 people were talking about the European part of the World War II being over by Christmas. They forgot that then the pundits were all declaring NAZI Germany to be beaten and its army to be in full, irreversible, retreat. Finally, Walter Cronkite forgot that in his famous “stalemate” speech that he stated that the people saying that we had won the Tet Offensive were the same people that had said that we were winning the war on the ground and that they were wrong both times. Of all of the reporters Cronkite is the one should have recognized the Tet Offensive for what it was, a last ditch attempt by a beaten but still dangerous enemy to change the battlefield equation because he had been there when Hitler had tried the same thing in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944.

It is important to remember that while during the Battle of the Bulge some 23,000 Americans were captured by the Germans or were declared missing after the battle, in Vietnam in the entire year of 1968 including the Tet Offensive, there were only a total 158 Americans declared to be captured or missing in action. No American, nor significant South Vietnamese Army unit surrendered during the Tet Offensive. They fought. They fought well and ultimately, they won that battle and completely destroyed the Viet Cong in the process.

The numbers when compared show the very similar totality of the two victories in stark detail, but only one is thought of today as an American victory—Why?


Description                                                      Battle of the Bulge              Tet Offensive

Total US strength 541,000 540,000
Total US KIA 19,000 7040
Total US WIA 62,500 31,204
Total US captured, missing 23,500 158
Total German-VC/NVA strength 449,000 500,000
Total German-VC/NVA casualties 67,459-125,000 125,000-150,000
Total NVA/VC captured, missing (included above) 5,070


Most of the South Vietnamese Army was a draftee army. Literally, it was a cross section of the sons of the people of South Vietnam.  While it often suffered from bad leadership and high desertion rates, during the Tet Offensive the South Vietnamese Army fought and they often fought hard for their country, particularly their elite Ranger, Marine and Airborne battalions and brigades.  Contrary to the expectations of the North Vietnamese Politburo not a single ARVN unit defected to the enemy during the Tet Offensive. These startling facts are routinely ignored by many histories of the war.

The truth, that the Communists attacks during the Tet Offensive were bloodily, speedily, crushed, still has not been generally acknowledged by Western historians of the war. Most Americans still do not know the extent of the American, Allied, Tet Offensive victory.  Unfortunately, most Americans probably still do not even know that it was our victory, not theirs.

The picture, you may remember it as well, that stands out in my mind from the Tet Offensive is the one of an MP, probably named Paul Healy, throwing a Colt .45 semi-automatic pistol up to Col. George Jacobson, USA, Ret., an Embassy officer, who was hanging out a window at his house in the US Embassy compound so that Jacobson could turn around and use it to kill the VC/NVA that was banging away at his bedroom door. This was the last VC/NVA that had made it into the embassy compound that morning.  All of the other VC/NVA that had made it into the Embassy grounds in Saigon were dead or captured the very same morning that they blew their way through the Embassy compound’s walls. It took longer in Cholon, Hue, and Phan Thiet to root them out, but the outcome was the same.

The VC/NVA took their best shot during what they called the “Tet Offensive“, and they lost miserably. They literally achieved none of their military objectives. While after the battle the NVA rapidly infiltrated replacements for their horrific losses during the Tet Offensive, many with “Born in the North, To Die in the South” written on the helmets, the Viet Cong simply never recovered from their extraordinarily bloody defeat during the Tet Offensive.  The Viet Cong were never able to replace their appalling losses from the battles up and down Vietnam, and all of their units, including even their elite Main Force Viet Cong units, soon contained far more NVA than Southerners.

As a result of the severe battle losses among both the VC and NVA units General Giap even took the extraordinary step to reassure the surviving VC/NVA units that these types of stand-up, slugfest battles with the deadly Americans would never be attempted again. Based on the results of the battle General Giap thought that this was necessary to try to restore his soldiers’ morale which had truly been shattered by American and allied steel during the Tet Offensive.

However, in spite of all the news coverage it received, when I returned from Vietnam in the fall of 1968 after all of the battles of Tet Offensive were over, and there had been ample time to judge their results, I was not asked once about our great victory in the Battle of the Tet Offensive, but I remember being repeatedly asked, how many people I had killed. My answer never varied:

“More of them than they did of me.”

Read the numbers. We really kicked their ass. You would have thought that someone would have noticed; that someone would have cared.


The full story of my time in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive can be found in my new book, Steel Rain, the Tet Offensive which is available on Amazon both as a paperback and on Kindle. Please give it a look. See; https://www.amazon.com/Steel-Rain-Tet-Offensive-1968/dp/1977045448/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1517494115&sr=1-1-catcorr

❋ For example the Tactical Department, General Staff, NVA, reference: No. 124/Tgi, document No.1103, dated February 14, 1969 reported a total of 123,394 casualties from stages 1 and 2 of the Tet ’68 Offensive. There were three stages.

Winning, In The Vietnam War

Winning, In The Vietnam War

By: john harrison

The Vietnam War was always “winnable” for the United States. However, there will always be a problem with defining what is meant by “winning” and probably what is meant by “winnable” as well.

If you looked at Great Britain during the bleakest, darkest days of World War II, say in June 1940 “winning” would probably defined as simple survival as an independent nation state. That was certainly possible for Britain in 1940.

Although the history books and Mr. Churchill take real delight in saying that Britain fought on “alone” after France collapsed in 1940, that was hardly the case. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the entire subcontinent of India were all more or less on Britain’s side from the very beginning. In December 1940 the USA began selling war materials to Britain, Canada and the other Commonwealth countries. If that was not an “act of war”, President Roosevelt’s signature on the Lend Lease Bill in March of 1941 certainly was.

If the USA was the arsenal of democracy in WW II, then Canada was a big part of its breadbasket and a great deal of its economic muscle as well. Think of all the “American” cars actually made, or assembled in Canada today. So, depending on your definition, even in those dark days Britain and her few, but staunch, allies had a chance to win, a chance at the very least to remain as an independent nation state.

For example, it was possible, even in June 1940, for Britain to make a deal with Hitler that would have allowed Britain and her allies to focus on the danger posed by Hitler’s ally Japan in the Pacific. Hitler wanted that deal so that he could focus on Russia and that was why Hitler made repeated peace overtures to Britain right after the fall of France.

In truth however, once Hitler attacked and the Soviet Union entered the fray the war was unquestionably winnable for Britain, even though the price of peace might ultimately have been even steeper than it was after America joined the war. On June 22, 1941 Hitler invaded the Soviet Union with over three million men called, Operation Barbarossa. This single, immense mistake would cost Germany whatever chance she had for victory in World War II. The full entry of the USA into World War II on December 7, 1941, just accelerated that process.✵

Using a similar fact based analysis, I do not think that the Vietnam War was ever “un-winnable” by the United States. It was always a question of price and tactics.

However, the leaders of the North were willing to pay a price that was never understood, or if understood was never truly believed in Washington, and therefore it was never included in Washington’s calculations of what it would take to “win” this war. Since this was true, Washington never had an executable military or political plan that could achieve “victory” and win in Indochina.

While this seems incredible, since France had already failed in Incochina after World War II it is nonetheless true. It is at best, difficult to create a plan to go somewhere if you do not know where your destination is, and given its almost willful ignorance of Hanoi’s intentions, Washington literally never knew where it wanted to go, much less how to get there in Vietnam.

In spite of this, on the military side, the “guerrilla war” had been “won” by the South Vietnamese and the United States well prior to Tet ’68. The failure of guerrilla warfare to gain sufficient traction against either the South Vietnamese or in the United States public opinion had been what forced General Võ Nguyên Giáp,commander in chief of the North Vietnamese Army throughout the war against the United States, to dramatically change his tactics in 1964.

In 1964 General Giap and the North changed from a relatively traditional, low key, guerrilla war in the South, to the use of large-unit, main-force VC mainly to attack the South Vietnamese Army (“ARVN”) coupled with the infiltration of large North Vietnamese Army (“NVA”) units down the expanded Ho Chi Minh Trail as well for use in the future. While in a traditional insurgency this switch to large force units would normally have come as a result of the success of guerrilla activities which produced ever larger guerrilla forces, and control over ever larger areas, the exact opposite was the case this time. In using infiltrated NVA main force units General Giap was changing the face of the war not as a result of the success of his black pajama guerrillas, rather it was because guerrilla war had been effectively stalemated in the South.

This change by General Giap was as a result of two strong but contradictory factors. The VC were successful in recruiting and in controlling much of the countryside in the South, but the small scale VC attacks were having little effect on the South Vietnamese government’s ability to govern, particularly in the large population centers.

While both VC and South Vietnamese government forces suffered from high desertion rates, both were growing, and both were getting better. Although General Giap appreciated the growth of his own forces, the growth and improvement of the South Vietnam government’s forces did not auger well for the future, and General Giap knew it.

By 1965 General Giap’s change of tactics to larger unit attacks came very close to winning. This was partly as a result of the Main Force VC units being stiffened now with numerous NVA cadres, and many of the attacks being made with Main Force NVA units in addition to the Main Force VC.  Only the rapid introduction of large-scale American combat units beginning in 1965 prevented success of General Giap’s new plan.

Ever resourceful, when the Americans came, General Giap initiated yet another plan, his third. Now they were attacking the South Vietnamese Army directly as well as some attacks on American installations with Main Force VC units, usually supported by Main Force NVA. However, this too was checkmated by the presence of ever growing numbers of American soldiers and Marines on the battlefield. As a result, General Giap raised the stakes again and the North dramatically increased the infiltration of even larger numbers of NVA regulars down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Early on after the Americans came, it was abundantly clear to General Giap that the VC, that even the large, better equipped, Main Force VC units had proved incapable of defeating even relatively small American combat units on the battlefield much less capable of toppling the entire South Vietnamese government on its own. Undaunted by this, General Giap was still ready to provide the help he thought was needed in the South to secure victory.

The plan, by now the fourth plan, for these new NVA regular units pouring down the Ho Chi Minh Trail was simple. Basically the NVA’s new assignment was to kill enough Americans so that the Americans, like the French before them, would at some point simply go home. According to the North’s plan, when that happened, what the North viewed as a puppet state propped up only by American military power, could easily be defeated if it did not fall of its own accord as soon as the Americans left.

However, the pesky Americans did not cooperate with this fourth plan either, and General Giap quickly realized that it was going to take a long time to kill enough Americans in order to force them to leave. He also soon realized that the Americans were already surprisingly good at jungle warfare, and that the colossal firepower that the Americans had brought with them to the battlefield was simply deadly. So General Giap quickly recognized that both the timing and the cost of causing sufficient American casualties had to be recalculated by Hanoi.

Neither was good news, but neither had any effect whatsoever on the resolve of the North first to drive the Americans from South Vietnam and then to conquer the South. However, by any measure at the end of 1966 the North’s war in the South was again at best stalemated and at worst headed for ultimate defeat militarily. This was true even though the North through their puppets the Viet Cong controlled much of South Vietnam, particularly at night.

In the event, General Nguyễn Chí Thanh, the head of Central Office for South Vietnam (aka “COSVN”) and Communist Party First Secretary Lê Duẩn convinced the political leaders in the North to force General Giap’s hand because they believed that the people in the South supported their political vision of a united Viet Nam but that the people of South Vietnam were only prevented from joining the North by the corrupt ruling oligarchy running the government of South Vietnam, and of course, by the Americans’ money, equipment and military might. The North’s political leadership reasoned that it was mainly the presence of the American military that prevented the majority of people of South Vietnam from expressing their true desire to join the North.

Therefore, they wanted a much faster military strategy that would take advantage of this presumed political strength in the South, and in the process to use the American military’s own character against it. The North’s political leaders reasoned, probably correctly, that while the American military would fight and kill VC and NVA wherever and whenever they found them, they would not react the same way to a truly popular revolution in the South. In fact, if the people of South Vietnam ever rose en masse in revolt, then the Americans would probably at that point simply go home.

For that reason, in 1966 and continuing into 1967 the North came up with a new plan, the 5th Plan, calling for multiple, broad based, large unit, open attacks, first of the periphery of South Vietnam to draw the American combat units away from the population centers, and then during and after the Tet ’68 holiday, on the population centers themselves. The widespread plan of attack centered on political targets like Hue and the American embassy, and importantly, also on major American and South Vietnamese troop concentrations.

The leaders of the North expected that the people of South Vietnam would rise up and support these attacks as soon as it was shown that they had a chance of success, and that entire units, perhaps even large units of the South Vietnamese Army, would defect to the North and join the fighting against the hated Americans. When the South Vietnamese people rose in support of their offensive, the leaders in the North expected the Americans to simply stop fighting and leave.

While General Giap initially opposed this plan, he loyally implemented it after the death of General Thanh until he went to a hospital in Hungary to receive medical treatment before the Tet ’68 Offensive started. While the plan has often been criticized as violating several basic military principles for a successful offensive, these criticisms ignore the political basis of the plan. The Tet ’68 Offensive’s VC and NVA attacks were actually merely spearheads, the real weight of these attacks was to come from the South Vietnamese people revealing their true allegiance.

An indication of this is that General Giap insisted that Southerners be used as much as possible in the population center attacks in South Vietnam. This order underlined the importance of the reaction of the people of South Vietnam to the success of the plan. In effect, the Tet ’68 Offensive was always politics through military means.

However, none of the North’s political assumptions proved to be correct; and even with General Giap’s corrections, none of the military plans worked either. None.

The only population area that the NVA/VC attacks achieved even a foothold in during the Tet ’68 assaults was Hue, and it was not because the people of Hue joined the NVA/VC forces attacking it. Rather it was because Hue was essentially undefended and the North had committed sufficient Main Force units to take and hold the former imperial capital of Vietnam for almost a month.

However, even in Hue both the VC and NVA attackers had been under immediate, vigorous counter-attack by both American and South Vietnamese forces ever since the first day of the North’s attacks. This was true across the board in Vietnam.

In Hue, the people either left the city or they stayed indoors and out of the battle. It must have been a tremendous disappointment to the North’s Central Committee that even the people of Hue, which as noted was under direct NVA/VC control for almost a month, did not support the North’s great offensive at all.

In fact, none of the population centers in the South rose in revolt. None of the units of the South Vietnamese Army joined the North’s forces in their attacks. To the contrary, the South Vietnamese Army’s combat performance in the battles raging up and down almost all of South Vietnam was overall very good, and in the case of their elite Ranger, Airborne and Marine, battalions and brigades, it was excellent. All of this clearly surprised and disappointed the leaders in the North.

During the battle, when the casualty figures began to come in to the North they were even more surprised and perhaps appalled as well. The Communist’s forces casualties during the Tet ‘68 battles were unprecedented, amounting to perhaps as many as 85% of the total forces actually engaged, and well over 50% of these casualties were dead. The VC in the South never recovered from this enormous, fruitless, bloodletting. For the North, all the battles of Tet ‘68 amounted to a massive military defeat of historic, even Cannae like, proportions.

Almost the entire communist infrastructure, both political and military, of Viet Cong in the South, built up over years of warfare was wiped out during and in the battles right after Tet ‘68. Over time after Tet ‘68 the North reinforced their decimated VC Main Force units with 50% or more drafts of NVA soldiers.

While this infusion of men partially made up for the VC Main Force Units’ incredible losses in manpower during Tet ‘68, it could not replace the lost experience, the loss of cadre and even more important the loss of a direct connection with the South and its people. The men that had developed that experience over years and even decades of clandestine warfare and who had those personal connections with the South were now almost all dead. In large measure as a direct result of its massive defeat during Tet ‘68 the North fought blind in the South from 1968 on.

It is more than ironic that while the war was under way that the opponents of the war in America ridiculed the body count figures put out by MACV as inflated with lies to either show unjustifiable progress in the war or they were presumed to be inflated to advance a reporting officer’s career. Now, many years after the war these same opponents of the war accept these claimed body counts as gospel, but assert with no evidence that most of those killed were actually civilians and they have often added millions more to show how depraved they believed that the American war makers had been.

However, the North admitted in 1995 that over the total war about 1.1 million Viet Minh, VC and NVA soldiers were killed. (The Agence France Presse [French Press Agency] news release of 4 April 1995 concerning the Vietnamese Government’s release of official figures of dead and wounded during the Vietnam War.) R. J. Rummell, the leading authority on the casualties of the Vietnam War, estimated that the French killed about 200,000 Viet Minh over the course of their Indochina War. (STATISTICS OF DEMOCIDE Chapter 6 Statistics Of Vietnamese Democide Estimates, Calculations, And Sources By R.J. Rummel) If you subtract that number from the North’s admission of 1.1 million military KIA over the course of the entire war, French and then American, you are left with about 900,000 VC and NVA military personnel killed during the US participation in the war. It is interesting to note that over the course of America’s participation in the war that MACV reported that approximately 900,000 of the enemy had been killed.

That is, the North’s admission and Rummell’s analysis, when taken together, have confirmed that the American military’s body count figures itemized during the war were generally accurate, and equally important that they did not include a significant number of civilians.

While there is no question that civilians were killed, these numbers make it clear that the dead civilians were not used to inflate NVA/VC body count figures to a statistically significant amount. Another Vietnam War myth shattered by facts. However, you will still see otherwise reliable observers of the war state what has now been shown to be clearly wrong, i.e., that the MACV body count figures during the war were “inflated.”

Based on no objective evidence at all, some still refuse to believe the American official reports during the war, the North Vietnamese government’s confirmation of those reports after the war and the research of Mr. Rummell which also confirms the original American casualty figures. While there are certainly problems with determining exact estimates of casualties particularly in this kind of war, the extensive NVA and VC cemeteries in Vietnam today are further, if no less inexact, confirmation of the horrific estimates of loss by the North during the war.

Right after Tet ‘68 General Earle Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited General Westmoreland in Vietnam. Even prior to Tet ’68 the Joint Chiefs were already very concerned that the Vietnam War had dangerously depleted the strategic reserve of the United States. In the preceding twelve months the remaining two brigades of the 101st Airborne Division had deployed to Viet Nam. During Tet ’68 the Third Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division had been airlifted almost directly into the battle as well. The two Airborne Divisions, along with certain Marine units were the American ready reaction force for threats anywhere in the world, and now almost all of them had been committed to combat in Vietnam.

In addition, other than the remaining two brigades of the 82nd, most of the units remaining in the United States were composed of men returned from Viet Nam that were simply waiting to get out of the Army or Marines. They did not form a sufficient credible, deployable fighting force. The draft was viewed as incapable of raising sufficient men fast enough to replenish the strategic reserve and the Joint Chiefs therefore wanted President Johnson to call up the reserves and perhaps some of the National Guard units as well in order to be capable of responding to threats elsewhere in the world if necessary.

Although General Wheeler had been in the Army since World War II, he had never actually held a fighting command and his time in combat was so short that many had objected even to his nomination as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Nonetheless, after touring Vietnam to assess himself the outcome of the Tet ‘68 battles, he pressured General Westmoreland into asking for more troops.

General Wheeler wanted General Westmoreland to ask for a sufficient number of troops that would require a significant call up of the reserves or of the National Guard to satisfy. In order to be certain that this would force the President to call up reserve units General Wheeler strongly suggested that General Westmoreland ask for a little over 200,000 additional men.

If General Westmoreland had announced that because of the great victory he had achieved against the Communists in destroying their forces during the Tet ’68 battles that over the next year or so he was sending 200,000 American servicemen home rather than being duped by the Joint Chiefs into asking for 200,000 additional soldiers that he did not need, did not want, could not use effectively but unfortunately did not reject, then the war would have ended entirely differently and General Westmoreland would have earned an entirely different reputation as a combat commanding general as well. And, the Joint Chiefs would have gotten their 200,000 additional men for the strategic reserve.   But, General Westmoreland was a go along, get along general, actually much like General Wheeler in this respect, so he asked for the additional troops.

The violent, bloody Tet ’68 Offensive, coming soon after General Westmoreland’s late 1967 trip to the United States where he had assured both the Congress and the American people that we were winning the war in Vietnam was already a shock to the American people. Then, came the pictures of the Great Seal of the United States laying broken on the Embassy grounds in Saigon. This was followed by the picture of General Loan, commander of the South Vietnamese National Police, executing a bound VC francs- tireurs on a street in Saigon. Since the execution was presented without any context by the media, it both disgusted, and caused the American people to doubt their ally.†

The final nail in the coffin came when “Westmoreland’s request” for over 200,000 more troops was leaked to the press. While the violence of the Tet ’68 Offensive certainly had a strong role in turning America against the war, it was this explosive disclosure which seemed to further belie all of the military claims of victory, both before Tet ’68 and of the battle of Tet ’68 itself. That troop request was the final straw. The “credibility gap” had now widened too far for many Americans.

Soon after Tet ’68, General Westmoreland was recalled and the war policy of the United States was irrevocably changed. General Westmorland was replaced by his deputy General Creighton Abrams, a former tanker of World War II fame. It had been Abram’s tank battalion that first broke through to the embattled 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.

The new process of Vietnamization almost immediately implemented by General Abrams after General Westmoreland left Vietnam proved that sending significant American military forces home from Vietnam after the Tet ‘68 victory had clearly been a viable option for General Westmoreland at that time as well. But, if it was considered, it was rejected.

General Westmoreland may have thought he was being the good soldier in going along with the Joint Chiefs’ request for hundreds of thousands of more men which would have forced President Johnson to call up the reserves and allowed the Joint Chiefs to replenish what they viewed as a dangerously low military force level in the United States itself, but he was not being a good commander of his troops in Vietnam. General Westmoreland had a specific mission to perform in South Vietnam, but he decided to go along and get along with the Joint Chiefs on their mission, rather than to do his duty to his men and to his President. His reputation as a soldier has never recovered.

It was not the American armed forces that lost their nerve after Tet ’68. The American soldiers, and Marines on the ground knew that they had won a great victory over a well armed, highly experienced and ferociously aggressive enemy. It was not the American people either.

It was President Johnson that lost his nerve when the butcher’s bill for this victory came in. That this is true for the American people is clear from first the election of Nixon over the “peace” candidate George McGovern, from the actions of the Nixon Administration in Vietnam and the response of the armed forces in Vietnam during the Nixon Administration.

After Tet ’68, after Nixon’s election, the war went on for years at a relatively high tempo and with a great deal of tactical success and at first clearly a majority of public support in the United States in spite of substantial, and it must be admitted growing, political protest as well. It was clear though from the two hard fought Nixon presidential victories that a majority of Americans were not yet ready to abandon South Vietnam.

While the battlefield successes in the Nixon years was partly because of the absence from the battlefield of all those Viet Cong who had been killed during Tet ’68, it was also because the ARVN units were performing much better and because a great many of the Americans stationed in Vietnam had never really been useful in the war effort. Many American soldiers and Marines were there to prepare for an invasion of North Vietnam, or Cambodia, or Laos, or all three. While there was short incursion into Cambodia, these invasions never came, nor were they ever likely to be approved.

Both during and after the Vietnam War many critics of the Westmoreland’s attrition tactics have said that the United States should have spent more of its time on pacification in the South and less time chasing large units in huge search and destroy operations.

Taking only the question of “pacification”, if the people of the South were in fact so disaffected, so in need of pacification why was there never a rising by the South Vietnamese people in support of the North? Why didn’t any units of the South Vietnamese Army, a draftee army, simply switch sides? In spite of strenuous efforts, why couldn’t the VC units rebuild their ranks after being destroyed in Tet ’68?

Perhaps because the people of South Vietnam already wanted their country left undisturbed. Perhaps, because in general they were pretty well pacified by about 1966 and certainly they were pacified after Tet ‘68. Their pacification was why General Giap, rather than being able to recruit replacements for his Main Force VC units had to infiltrate ever more NVA south.

It also speaks volumes about the political sympathies of the common people in the South that even after the North Vietnamese succeeded in conquering South Vietnam in 1975 that almost 1.5 million Vietnamese left by any means they could and perhaps another half million perished in their attempt to flee the North Vietnamese invasion of their country. (STATISTICS OF DEMOCIDE Chapter 6 Statistics Of Vietnamese Democide Estimates, Calculations, And Sources By R.J. Rummel) That is, well over 10% of the total population of South Vietnam, at very great personal risk, abandoned everything, fled their country, and most of them wanted to come to America.

If the North had not done everything it could to stop them from leaving, how many more would have left? If the South really needed more pacification, why did so many leave when the North won? If American tactics and atrocities during the war had so brutalized the people of South Vietnam, why did the almost two million plus boat people want to come to America? Perhaps because the myths of South Vietnamese political indifference, and tales of vicious, wide spread American atrocities were not entirely true after all?

After Tet ’68 the North recognized two things: if it was going to win that it must conquer South Vietnam, and that it lacked the ability to conquer the South using VC, or infiltrated NVA units and men. As a result the North tried twice to simply invade the South. In 1972 the North launched its Easter Offensive after almost all of the American forces had been withdrawn. It was mainly South Vietnamese military forces supported by massive US combat firepower particularly from the air that met the North’s 1972 invasion’s onslaught, and it was decisively defeated.

Once again in their Easter Offensive of 1972, because of a miscalculation of the political will of the people of South Vietnam, the North’s forces suffered defeat and massive losses. This time the losses were to its NVA formations already stationed in the South as well as to additional NVA conventional forces invading from the North and through Cambodia. According to some sources the North lost over 700 armored vehicles in this disastrous 1972 attack alone.

Three years later, in 1975, and after the Americans had been entirely gone from Vietnam for over two years, the North tried invasion again. However, this time because of various laws designed to end US involvement, particularly those known as Cooper-Church, and Case-Church, the US did not support the South Vietnamese militarily at all. Without American combat firepower, pretty much out of ammunition and fuel for his own armed forces as well, President Thieu lost his nerve and it quickly became a rout.

In 1975 the South Vietnamese were soundly defeated. Their nation was lost. At the risk of their lives, millions of South Vietnamese fled their country rather than live under the rule of the communist North. However, once again, there was no popular uprising anywhere in the South supporting unification with the North; and, while many South Vietnamese Army units simply disappeared, there were still no South Vietnamese Army units that switched sides.

The North had won its brutal civil war against the South, but it did it with naked military force and relatively little political support in the South. It should be noted as well, that the planes, tanks, artillery, rifles, ammunition, trucks and other military equipment and supplies including much of the food that the North used to invade the South all came from somewhere else. Without the military support of the communist bloc countries, the North could not have won the war.

As noted, many have stated that the United States “lost” the Vietnam War because it over emphasized military operations instead of civil pacification. However, pacification is a tactic designed to defeat a true insurgency. While it can be very effective in that role, there must be a true, a legitimate insurgency to pacify or such efforts will do nothing useful.

The basic idea of civil pacification is to separate the guerrillas from their allies in the civil population. When you do this effectively you can cut the guerrillas off from their primary sources of food, information and recruits.

While some of the Viet Cong from the beginning had lived in the South, many were native northerners. Many more of the original native southerners were Viet Minh that had gone to the North when Vietnam was partitioned after the French left and were thereafter re-infiltrated to the South. Thus, they were southerners in name only.

As the war progressed native southerners, attracted through either coercion, family connections, or political belief, or a combination of all of these also joined these Viet Cong in fighting the South Vietnamese government. By 1965 these Viet Cong forces had successfully progressed to the use of medium sized unit attacks throughout the Republic of South Vietnam and the NLF appeared to be on the verge of victory. Up to this point the war in South Vietnam, the NLF had apparently followed in general the classic pattern of a successful insurgency heavily supported by an outside power.

However, it is clear today that the armed struggle in South Vietnam was initiated in the 1950’s as a result of orders given by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of North Vietnam and that the war in the South always remained under the direct control of the North. During the Vietnam War, Nguyen Van Linh was the powerful Communist Party secretary for the Vietcong in South Vietnam. He was born near Hanoi, the Central Committee had sent him south to direct the guerrilla resistance against the American-allied government. He and other Northern NVA officers ran the war in the South.

By 1965 the North was clearly winning the war in the South. Only, the arrival of large American fighting units, first the Marines at Danang, the 173d Airborne Brigade (Separate) and then the First Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division and many more after that turned the tide of the war against the Viet Cong in 1966 and 1967. In reply to the introduction of large-scale American fighting units, the North infiltrated even more of its own large-scale NVA units and supplies into South Vietnam down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and it also supplied them through Cambodia as well.

At first these NVA units engaged the Americans. However, the NVA were routinely and bloodily routed by the Americans. Even in set piece battles that the NVA themselves had planned and initiated the result was the same, a bloody defeat for the NVA. Therefore, after several such gory routs the remaining NVA units generally stayed in their jungle bases, or in sanctuaries in Cambodia or Laos, and again let the Main Force Viet Cong units carry the brunt of the fighting.

The strategy switch in 1966 to medium sized and larger Viet Cong unit attacks and then the gradual introduction of Main Force NVA units to the war in South Vietnam changed the complexion of the war in the South. It was no longer truly a “guerrilla war” nor even an insurgency at that point. It had become clearly either a war of aggression of North Vietnam against South Vietnam, or it was at best a civil war between these two sides depending on the view you took of Vietnam’s long and tortuous political history.

Since the only time in its entire history that North, Central and South Vietnam as currently constituted had ever been united was after the French invaded in the late 1800s the North was actually trying to create a totally new Vietnamese state, adding substantial territory in the far south that had never been part of any Vietnamese state before. Prior to the French invasion most of what is now southern Vietnam, south of the Mekong River, had been part of the Cambodian Empire and the Central Highlands were realistically under the control of no one. However, in 1965-66 with the massive infiltration of regular NVA units this was changing, and as stated, until the Americans came in force in 1966, the North was beginning to win its war.

Importantly, at least by the beginning of 1968 and continuing thereafter, neither the NVA forces in South Vietnam nor few remaining VC main force units remaining there after Tet ‘68 relied much on the local population for food, information or recruits. These relatively large units were mostly based in areas of the country that were already separated from civilian population centers in South Vietnam, or they were based entirely outside of the borders of South Vietnam in sanctuaries in Laos or Cambodia.

In fact, after 1968 almost all of the NVA and Main Force VC did not rely on civilian support in the South for anything, except for some food and when necessary for forced labor. Both their military manpower and their supplies traveled down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the South, or they came via the Sihanouk Trail, which was the American name for the network of roads, waterways and paths cutting through Cambodia from Sihanoukville, in the Bay of Kampong Son on the Gulf of Thailand in the south of Cambodia that also supplied communist forces particularly in the far south portion of South Vietnam.

This huge logistics network was considered an integral part of the overall very complex NVA/VC supply system including the much better known road systems in Laos and North Vietnam called the Ho Chi Minh Trail and as noted those centered on the sole Cambodian deep water port of Sihanoukville. Therefore, particularly after Tet ‘68 as a practical matter, pacification of the civil population of South Vietnam was no longer as relevant since the North’s military forces in the South did not rely on the population for support. The population of South Vietnam was not essential to the “guerrilla war” because, assuming that there ever had been one, after 1966 and particularly after 1968, there no longer was much of a true guerrilla war to support.

General Abram’s now much vaunted pacification program initiated after he took over from General Westmoreland was effective in large part because we had already killed almost all of the real Viet Cong, and a lot of the NVA in the fierce battles during Tet ’68 and in the almost equally violent battles following immediately thereafter in the second and third waves of Tet ’68. When the government forces returned to the countryside after Tet ’68 they were not effectively opposed. Those earlier battles literally eliminated almost all of the even arguably indigenous support that there had ever been in the South for unification with the North.

From a strictly military perspective, every one is pretty well pacified when they are dead. And, in the absence of many real local guerrillas or insurgents after 1968, the anti-guerilla war went very well while the attacks from the NVA units, albeit still deadly, they were very good infantry after all, clearly suffered from a lack of local guides, local support and local intelligence. It is important to keep these time frames in mind because these changes, and their timing on and around the battlefield are important.

As noted, by any rational military analysis at least as early as 1966 the war in South Vietnam was no longer truly a guerrilla war, nor had it ever been a true insurgency. The armed opposition to the South Vietnamese government although supported by some in the South was initiated, supplied and most of all, it was always controlled directly by the North Vietnamese government. In that sense, it was always a civil war between the peoples of North and South Vietnam.

As such, it had a long history of conflict behind it. For centuries the Viet people of the Tonkin Gulf had been advancing south down the Vietnamese coast conquering as they went, controlling or forcing out the indigenous Cham, Khamer and other peoples of South Vietnam.

Moreover, and very contrary to general belief, it was not an insurgency, nor a guerilla war, nor even an asymmetrical war that defeated the South Vietnamese. When defeat came in 1975 it was a full-scale, traditional, combined-arms invasion by almost the entire NVA army, all 17 divisions from North Vietnam right down Highway #1.

You can’t pacify an invasion; you must defeat it. Without American combat firepower the South Vietnamese could not defeat the last of the North’s repeated invasions of the South.

Since, according to all reports, General Abrams had refocused the South Vietnamese Army after Tet ‘68 into an effective anti-guerilla, force focusing on pacification rather than as a conventional army, it was also ill equipped in both force structure and deployment to deal with the North’s classic combined-arms invasion across the DMZ.

While it may be ironic that General Abrams, an armored officer of solid reputation and great experience in conventional warfare did not prepare the South Vietnamese Army for its greatest test—a true tankers’ battle at the DMZ between North and South Vietnam, that was never his mission, nor was he ever given the means to do it. In any event both General Abrams and the other Americans had been long gone from Vietnam for over two years when Giap’s tanks rumbled their violent way south.

The Vietnam War is probably our second most studied war. I think the Civil War still beats it, but nonetheless it also stands our least understood, most misunderstood war. Worse a great deal of what we “know” to be true about Vietnam is simply wrong.

However, these facts are true:

  • Tet’ 68 was a massive, an historic defeat for the Communists. It was one of the two or three largest almost pure infantry battles ever fought and it was clearly, cleanly and decisively won by the United States, South Vietnamese and other allied forces. In point of fact, it was a battle of annihilation on the scale of Hannibal’s Cannae. Like Cannae, it was won by the grunts on the ground fighting with courage, tenacity, and in the case of Tet ’68, with devastating American firepower and surprising mobility. Unfortunately, also like Cannae, this great military victory was not followed up on with a political victory. However, the South Vietnamese Army, Navy and Air Force generally fought well in this battle, particularly as noted their Ranger, Marine and airborne battalions and brigades. That is to say that the sons of the people of Vietnam that constituted their almost all draftee army were pacified enough by 1968 that they fought ferociously and that time successfully for their country.
  • The US Marines suffered more casualties in Vietnam than they did in all of World War II, but the United States never even imposed a war profits tax. So, even though it was a really big, a really long war, the United States never went even close to a war footing to fight it. In absolute military terms the United States never even worked up a sweat fighting this war. Therefore, it was always a winnable war for the United States. It was always a question only of whether the United States was willing to pay the price necessary to prevail. If America chose to pay the price of winning, then there never was even a possibility that the North could win.
  • The Communist tactics of guerrilla war after an initial success, failed miserably in South Vietnam. The VC guerrillas were defeated by the South Vietnamese by 1964. Then the VC and the newly arrived NVA regular army units changed tactics in 1965 and after initial success were defeated again, first by the newly arrived US soldiers on the ground in the jungle and then bloodily in the city fighting of Tet ’68. They were defeated yet again in the jungle in 1972 by the South Vietnamese with the assistance of American firepower as the US was leaving which is why the ever resourceful General Giap was forced to change his tactics yet again and this time go with a conventional combined-arms invasion including over 700 tanks across the Demilitarized Zone in 1975.
  • The South Vietnamese lost their battle in 1975 and therefore the war in large part because the US failed (the Case-Church Amendment flatly prohibited it) to support the Republic of South Vietnam in its greatest battle. Only fifty-five days after the crossed the DMZ , Saigon fell. Simply stated the US refused to respond, in spite of promises President Nixon reportedly made to President Thieu in order to secure South Vietnam’s acceptance of the Paris Peace Accords. So, the North Vietnamese conventional forces invaded and conquered America’s ally, the Republic of South Vietnam. While their own bad generalship and the corruption of the South Vietnamese government also played a small part in their defeat, US combat firepower directed against the Northern invaders nonetheless would have again been utterly game changing. Had the United States intervened with its massive air assets, both land and sea based, there is no legitimate reason to suppose that the result in 1975 would have been any different from that of 1972, yet another bloody, costly defeat for the North by the ARVN, but America did nothing.

Whether or not America should have fought in Vietnam, whether or not the tactics and strategies used were effective, or could have been more effective, it is simply true that the Vietnam War, like the Korean War were both part of the Cold War policy of the United States and its allies to defeat the communist menace by containing it. And, communism both is, and was, a menace to people, to all people.

In the simplest of human terms–Communism-totalitarianism-fundamentalism all fail, because these political systems do not value human beings as individuals.

The overall Cold War policy of containment, adopted by the United States and the free world was initially proposed by American diplomat George F. Kennan in his famous “long memo” from his post in Moscow soon after World War II was over. While the Communists nonetheless expanded over the years, the policy of containment was effective, and ultimately successful. Part of the reason it was effective was that the Free World could afford the costs of the actual battles fought in Korea and Vietnam but the communists’ societies could not.

Part of the reason it was effective is also that the American soldier and Marine are the equal of any other fighting man on any battlefield, any time, anywhere—the American fighting men actually did kill America’s enemies in Vietnam at the incredible body count ratios that were reported, disbelieved and often ridiculed at the time.

We killed them in the jungle. We killed them in the cities. We beat them every single time we fought them, but America’s own newsmen told the American public that these victories and the reports about them filed by America’s sons were lies. However, anyone that repeats today the lie that the overall body count figures reported by MACV during the war were inaccurate has simply not kept up with current scholarship which indicates their remarkable accuracy, just as the admissions by government of Vietnam that approximately 1.1 million Vietminh, VC and/or NVA had been killed in the war validates in no uncertain terms the MACV reports.

However, this does not mean that all of the body count reports submitted were always accurate. Certainly some, perhaps many, were not, but as a matter of the statistics actually announced by MACV, overall they were accurate.

Moreover, like Cannae and other famous battles of annihilation, Tet ‘68 should be studied as the most perfect example of the American Way of War probably until the Iraq War I. It was an epic victory. There is no other word that adequately describes the across the board remarkable success of the American and allied military under extreme stress from a capable, resourceful, well supplied and well equipped enemy who attacked in force and was almost completely wiped out as a result of a battle in which; they chose the time; they chose the places and they chose the type of battle but nonetheless did not achieve even a single military objective.

It was a truly epic victory. But, the victory part was generally ignored then, and unfortunately still is now almost unknown in America today.

Many in and out of American government simply did not believe that any government would pay the price that the North Vietnamese were paying repeatedly on the battlefield. Therefore, in spite of the hard evidence, in spite of the stacks of enemy body bags and huge piles of captured weapons they simply refused to believe what America’s sons said had happened during Tet ’68, and tragically, America turned away from its own army.

However, communist North Vietnam was always willing to pay that high price, just as it was willing to pay the horrific price in blood in its invasion of the South in 1972. And, it must be admitted that given this, it is clear that even if the South had prevailed against the North’s 1975 invasion that probably would not have been the end of the North’s war against the South.

The war in Vietnam would have continued as long as the leaders in the North remained its leaders and there is no indication that yet another costly defeat in1975 would have changed that. The war probably would have continued, now clearly, finally unarguably, as a civil war, but now also a mostly conventional civil war between North and South Vietnam for an indeterminate time.

Since after Tet ‘68 Hanoi no longer had significant VC support in the South, if America had fully participated during the 1975 invasion battles, the North may no longer have had an army at all. Had the Marines landed again, this time near the DMZ, the North’s army may have suffered the same fate the North Korean Army suffered after the landing at Inchon during the Korean War. It would have been cut off in the South and destroyed.

We will never know what effect that would have had on the North, or on China. And, frankly that may be a good thing.

Finally several friends of mine have gone to Vietnam recently and they report that while the communists of the North may have been successful in invading and in taking over the South the infection of freedom was already well implanted there by the time the US left. It is the people of the former Republic of South of Vietnam that are driving the new nation economically. What many called “corruption” in the South was really nascent capitalism at work. Americans tend to forget that John Hancock made his living as a smuggler before our Revolutionary War. Oh yes, the North being better communists, remains relatively poor. History can be brutal.

Although the US involvement in the Vietnam War cannot accurately be described as altruistic, it was both an honorable and an unselfish policy pursued with vigor and courage. The long history of Vietnam is replete with there being a North Vietnam, a central Vietnam and a southern Vietnam stopping well short of the current boundary of southern Vietnam, and of various combinations of these three distinct, historic, political entities often warring with each other.

Like the ancient Greek city-states uniting to oppose the Persian Empire, the Vietnamese, Cham, Lao, Khmer, Chinese and Montagnard peoples of Vietnam historically have only truly united in their opposition to China—which indicates as long as history is any judge that the next time there is a war in Vietnam; they all, North, Central and South, coast and mountains, will be fighting on our side.

There is a big difference between losing a war and not winning one. There is also a big difference between winning a war and then leaving, and having an ally succumb to a different kind of war over two years after you left.

After a great deal of research, I have a much greater appreciation of General Abrams as a soldier both before and during the Viet Nam War. He was a combat commander of men of great, and well deserved reputation. However, I still do not understand what General Abrams is supposed to have done when he took over command in South Vietnam that was so very different, so much better from what General Westmorland did and why General Abrams time in command was supposed to be so much more effective than General Westmoreland’s time in command was.

It is not that I think that General Westmoreland was a great combat commander in Vietnam. He was not. In spite having more than 536,000 American armed forces in South Vietnam General Westmoreland could never get more than about 50,000 trigger pullers out in the field, on the ground, chasing the enemy. He created a huge logistic tail probably unequalled in the history warfare and ruined the native economy of South Vietnam doing it, but he did not tailor an army fitted to its task. In building this huge, unwieldy logistic machine General Westmoreland gave the enemy targets that he had to protect, but which did nothing to advance his mission.

In any event any general that chooses attrition for his strategy is in effect admitting that he does not know how to defeat the enemy and is relying on the raw courage of his men to do it for him. This is an expensive way to fight a war, but that does not mean it is always the wrong choice. It may be the only choice at the time. However, since I do not believe that a policy of attrition was General Westmoreland’s only strategic choice during the time he was the commander of the Vietnam War, therefore I must also believe that he failed as a commander.

Even saying this though does not mean that General Westmorland’s soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen did not retrieve his failures by their valor in battle. As noted, the Tet ’68 Offensive was a great victory. The armed forces on the ground, South Vietnamese, American, South Korean, Australian and many others performed magnificently. They did not just defeat the North’s truce-breaking, sneak attack; they crushed it. However, after this great victory General Westmoreland and General Wheeler threw away that success when they asked for even more soldiers that they did not need in Vietnam.

It appears that General Abrams had a better understanding than General Westmoreland of how totally the North had been defeated during Tet ’68 and thereafter. This massive defeat of the North had favorably changed the military situation through out South Vietnam. It also seems clear that General Abrams took immediate and very effective advantage of this greatly changed tactical situation on the ground throughout much of South Vietnam caused by the literal death of the Viet Cong as an effective fighting force during and after Tet ’68. Even with these favorable changes on the battlefield General Abrams was still left with plenty to do and it is very much to his credit that he immediately set out to get it done.

However, in the woods for the grunts of Vietnam of whom I am proud to say I was one, it was still business as usual. After General Abrams assumed command, we called what we did “Reconnaissance in Force” rather than “Search and Destroy” but it was still just hunting Charlie and killing him whenever, and where ever we found him. That was the infantry at work.

(✵) Hitler declared war on the United States three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. After a great deal of research, as near as I have been able to determine, Hitler’s treaty with Japan was the only treaty that he made that he not only did not break, he declared war when that treaty did not require him to. Strange.

(†) Like spies and pirates, a franc tireurs, a person caught under arms in a civil insurrection but without any identification as a combatant was treated differently from a soldier under the Geneva Convention at the time. Under both the Geneva Convention and the law of the Republic of South Vietnam, a franc tireurs was a terrorist and subject to summary execution on the battlefield. What General Loan did, however brutal, was legal which was why he was never prosecuted. After the war he owned a pizza parlor in the suburbs of Washington, D. C. General Loan was a courageous, honest man that was badly wounded by the war.


The full story of my time in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive can be found in my new book, Steel Rain, the Tet Offensive which is available on Amazon both as a paperback and on Kindle. Please give it a look. See; https://www.amazon.com/Steel-Rain-Tet-Offensive-1968/dp/1977045448/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1517494115&sr=1-1-catcorr