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Bill Lynch: Lessons from the Tet Offensive

This last January marked the 50th anniversary of what was probably the turning point of the war in Vietnam – the Tet Offensive.

I was reminded of this in several ways, not the least of which was the incredibly interesting Ken Burns documentary on Vietnam that aired recently on public television.

The other reminder was a cache of hand-written letters that I sent to my family from Vietnam during that time. My mom had saved every one of the letters and I am now in the process of digitizing them.

I was the operations officer on the USS Jerome County, an amphibious ship built during WWII for landing tanks, trucks and troops onto beaches. In Vietnam, our shallow draft and cargo capacity, made it ideal for operating in the rivers, bringing ammunition, gasoline, food and other supplies to bases located in remote areas along the vast river systems of the country.

In late January of 1968 on the eve of Tet, I had sent a letter home telling my mom and dad that I was looking forward to this Buddhist Lunar New Year holiday because “it is a real holiday all over Vietnam. Everyone closes shop and hits the road or river to visit relatives. It is a time of much frivolity, fireworks and high living.” I told them that we were also looking forward to the cease-fire proposed by both sides for Jan. 28 to Feb. 2.

Meanwhile back in Sonoma, the front page of the Index-Tribune carried a photo of the funeral for John N. Brewer, 20, a member of the 29th Infantry Division who was our Valley’s fourth casualty to that date in the war. Other stories included a report on the annual March of Dimes mothers march, the opening of a new preschool and a looming city election.

In that first Tet letter I also included a quote from a book about Indochina that I was reading at the time. It was from Viet-Minh communist leader Nguyen Giap on the ability of a democratic power like the U.S to fight a guerrilla war.

Giap said, “The enemy will pass slowly from the offensive to the defensive. The blitzkrieg will transform itself into a war of long duration, thus the enemy will be caught in a dilemma. He has to drag out the war in order to win it… but does not possess the psychological and political means to fight a long, drawn-out war.

“In all likelihood,” Giap concludes, “public opinion in the democracy will demand an end to the senseless bloodshed, or its legislature will insist on knowing for how long it will have to vote astronomical credits without a clear cut victory in sight.

This forces the democratic politicians to agree to almost any kind of humiliating compromise rather than accept the idea of a semi-permanent anti-guerrilla operation.”

Giaps’ observation was prophetic not only about Vietnam, but also applies to the kinds of wars we are trying to fight in the Middle East today.

It was early evening on the first night of Tet. Several hours after I had posted that letter to home, I found myself on our ship’s landing craft heading from our anchorage in the bay toward Vung Tau, a major city at the entrance of the Mekong Delta.

Our ship’s captain, another officer and I decided to celebrate Tet with dinner in the city.

We, like many of our fellow sailors, soldiers and marines, thought we were going to get a few nights off thanks to the cease-fire. We let our guard down.

Vung Tau had a very French Mediterranean look to it. It was a warm, pleasant evening. The restaurant seemed like a tropical oasis, a safe haven in which we could forget about the danger all around us, even if only for an evening.

It was an excellent meal. We lingered over drinks after dinner and chatted with the beautiful Vietnamese women who served as hostesses for the restaurant.

But, as the time grew close to midnight, we noticed that virtually all of the staff had vanished, hostesses, waiters and bartenders included. They knew something we didn’t.

We made our way down to breakwater where our boat was to pick us up just as what we thought was fireworks erupted. They were fireworks all right, but not the fun kind.

That night, all over Vietnam, the forces of North Vietnam and their Viet Cong allies, attacked supposedly secure cities and bases in a well-coordinated effort.

The fighting was fierce, some of our bases were overrun and battles raged for days in cities like Hue and in smaller provincial capitals including the ones nearest us. Our job was to get supplies upriver as quickly as possible to relieve the troops running short of ammunition and food at bases isolated and under siege.

There seemed to be fighting everywhere. We stayed at general quarters for days. It was hard to know from which direction the next attack would come.

We were lucky. Our ship came under fire but nobody onboard was hurt.

The thing I remember most was being totally exhausted and sleep-deprived.

The marines and soldiers had it far worse. Many died and many more were wounded.

Tactically, the offensive was a disaster for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. Their losses were enormous. The U.S. and ARVN troops won that battle but, in the end, it proved Giaps’ point. Back home in Sonoma and all over our country, more and more Americans were coming to the conclusions Giap had predicted.

Even many of us in country began to wonder what we were really accomplishing. It was the beginning of the end.