Half a century has passed and the fresh faced young men are now in their 70s, but 50 years have not dimmed their memories of the harrowing days of the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War.
The series of coordinated attacks by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong communist forces all over South Vietnam began on Jan. 30, 1968.
North Vietnamese leaders hoped to spur an uprising among the South Vietnamese and pressure the U.S. to negotiate or withdraw from the war, according to the State Department’s Office of the Historian.
Although Americans and South Vietnamese repelled the attacks, historians say the Tet Offensive was instrumental in weakening Americans’ support for the war and President Lyndon Johnson’s administration. Johnson announced in late March 1968 that he would not seek re-election.
“It was a wake-up call. It was like thinking everything was OK in Albuquerque and then all of a sudden riots break out in 12 different places in the county of Bernalillo,” said Albuquerque Realtor Randy Eakin, who piloted a CH46 helicopter with the HMM-364 and HMM-262 U.S. Marine Corps squadrons in Vietnam from October 1967 to November 1968.
New year holiday
The attacks began during the Vietnamese lunar new year holiday known as Tet Nguyen Dan. Among the earliest and most significant was an assault by Viet Cong fighters on the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, and the capture of the historic city of Hue by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces. There was also heavy and prolonged fighting at Khe Sanh, a U.S. Marine garrison near the border with Laos and the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, which divided North and South Vietnam.
Eakin, then 23, was at Phu Bai Combat Base just south of Hue when he heard firing at night signalling the start of the attack. Over the next few days his unit was busy ferrying troops from the 5th Marine regiment into Hue city.
The battle for Hue has been called the longest and bloodiest of the Vietnam War. The U.S. Army’s 1st Battalion, 83rd Artillery was called upon to send 8-inch Howitzer guns from near Saigon north to help retake the city.
Santa Fe lawyer Gary Kilpatric, 76, was a lieutenant in the unit that went. Kilpatric had been accepted to join the Peace Corps but he was drafted. He recalls celebrating his 26th birthday eating pound cake from C-rations on the deck of the LST (Landing Ship Tank), the night before they headed north.
“We were watching the night sky bright with red tracers and gun fire. The next morning, we and our LST headed for Hue,” Kilpatric said.
During their journey, the ship’s radar equipment malfunctioned and they unwittingly overshot their destination. The LST was ready to land when a U.S. Navy plane and destroyers signalled them to turn back.
“It turned out we were minutes away from landing in North Vietnam,” Kilpatric said.
The incident occurred just a few weeks after the USS Pueblo, a Navy intelligence vessel, was captured by North Korean patrol boats. The Pueblo’s crew were charged with spying and held for 11 months. Kilpatric believes he and his comrades could have met a similar fate if they’d landed in North Vietnam.
His unit eventually reached their destination near Hue and used the guns to support efforts to retake the city.
Around the same time, Albuquerque resident George Faulhaber was flying a Huey helicopter with the Army’s 1st Air Cavalry Division.
“I got to Vietnam in February (1968), right after the big show started,” Faulhaber said. He was 20 years old.
His orientation flight was with Chief Warrant Officer Fred Ferguson, who later received a Medal of Honor for action in Hue.
“I was kind of bug-eyed knowing what he experienced. He told me he came back from Hue with bullet holes in the helicopter,” Faulhaber said.
Faulhaber’s helicopter came under fire many times as he flew missions to transport troops, resupply units with food and ammunition and pick up the wounded. At that age, he said, “You believe you’re invincible. You went with the flow and did what you were supposed to do. All our training was to be unemotional, not to be panicked.”
Some of his comrades didn’t make it. His flight school roommate was shot down three months after arriving in Vietnam.
“That one kicks hard. There was a lot of mourning in our unit. It got your attention. It certainly moved you,” he said.
After Hue was retaken by U.S. and South Vietnamese forces in late February, Eakin was transferred to Quang Tri near the coast about 20 miles south of the DMZ.
The helicopter units he flew with supported the 26th Marine Regiment at Khe Sanh Combat Base and the Marines in combat posts on hilltops around the base. Eakin said the base was totally surrounded by tens of thousands of North Vietnamese forces.
Because of the danger of enemy gunfire, they developed the “SuperGaggle,” a unique system to deliver supplies to the besieged troops. A dozen CH46 helicopters would circle at around 2,500 feet to 3,000 feet and wait for a code to tell them which hill to go to. As they started down, fixed wing aircraft would fly strafing runs and release smoke.
“Then the helicopters would come down, drop the load and leave, so we weren’t in the zone for more than five seconds. This way we were able to resupply the Marines with ammo, water and food so they were able to survive, because they couldn’t be resupplied any other way,” Eakin said.
Eakin’s friend and former New Mexico Military Institute schoolmate, Bruce Wiggins, then 23, arrived in Vietnam in mid-January 1968. He was a lieutenant platoon commander with a reconnaissance unit of the 1st Marine Division based in Da Nang.
The unit was on a hilltop overlooking a large valley, watching for enemy movements. Normally, they would call for artillery or air strikes if they saw activity. However, on Jan. 30, a truce was in effect so they could only call for support to stand by when they noticed large numbers of what they believed were North Vietnamese troops heading down trails toward Da Nang. Finally, they heard the truce was lifted and could call in support.
Air strikes continued through the night as the attack on Da Nang went on. Wiggins’ unit helped direct fire from its position. But they were exposed to the enemy and were attacked during the night by North Vietnamese troops who dismantled the detection devices they had placed.
“The attack started with mortars. We were in a small area, maybe 20 yards wide, in fox holes we dug into the hardscrabble rock. There was no overhead cover. We had sandbags and a defensive position but we were on our own,” Wiggins said.
They survived the attack with only one man wounded. Wiggins believes the artillery and air support they called in helped blunt the main attack on Da Nang.
Chuck Howe, president of the David Westphall Foundation Board which supports the mission of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Angel Fire, was at Camp Enari near the central highlands town of Pleiku when the Tet attacks began. Howe was an artillery officer assigned to the Army’s 4th Infantry Division. The camp was in a flat area surrounded by dense jungle.
Howe recalls he had gone to the “hooches,” sleeping shelters, around 9:30 p.m. A short time later, the camp was under attack from rockets and small arms fire.
“I was thinking, what the heck is going on and how many people are out there?” Howe said.
Fighting continued through the night, he said, and the attackers eventually withdrew when they were unable to get into the camp.
Former Albuquerque Tribune reporter and Roswell Daily Record editor Jack Swickard was a pilot with the Army’s 118th Assault Helicopter Company stationed at Bien Hoa Air Base near Saigon. His duty tour over, he was scheduled to return home and get married in February 1968. He had turned in his flack jacket and helmet and was returning to his house in Bien Hoa when he heard what he thought were fireworks celebrating the Tet holiday.
“We saw something hit the pavement and it dawned on us that we were being fired on,” Swickard said.
Instead of partying during his last few days in Vietnam, Swickard acted as battalion staff duty officer in a compound surrounded by enemy forces, living on a diet of fried liver.
“That was pretty minor when other folks were being shot at,” said Swickard.