Tet Offensive: Beginning of the end


U.S. Marines move through the ruins of the hamlet of Dai Do after several days of intense fighting

Department of Defense
Published: Thursday, January 31, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 30, 2008 at 11:49 p.m.

Jim Lynch's Tet Offensive lasted one night, and was defined by a series of intense explosions and artillery rounds at the normally secure Long Binh military base.

Bill Boe's Tet Offensive comprised a month's worth of ambushes in the Que Son Valley with an Army unit that barely made it out alive.

Forty years later, Lynch, Boe and other Alachua County veterans who were in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive in 1968 have varying memories of the series of coordinated attacks on cities, villages and U.S. bases throughout South Vietnam.

They share one common impression: The Tet Offensive was the beginning of the end of the Vietnam War, despite the fact that the attacks represented a massive military failure for the Viet Cong.

"The (North Vietnamese Army) suffered tremendous casualties, but I believe psychologically, it was the beginning of the end of the war for the American people," said Lynch, now director of Alachua County Veteran Services, who was stationed at Long Binh as an Army photographer during the Tet Offensive. "The American people were told up to that time that the American forces had the war under control. The very next day, they saw the American embassy overrun and bases that were thought to be secure attacked, and they realized the war was a long way from over."

The Viet Cong scheduled its attacks for the eve of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, which fell on Jan. 31 in 1968.

The impact of the attacks varied from location to location.

For Boe, now a social studies teacher at North Marion Middle School, the Tet Offensive meant daily encounters with enemy forces in the middle of the Que Son Valley, leading up to two climactic days when his unit was charged with saving its sister platoon from Viet Cong forces.

"The only problem was, when we got there, rather than saving them, the Viet Cong surrounded us as well," said Boe, who was an M-60 machine gunner. "It was the most intense time during the war for me, and the only time I realistically thought there was a good chance we'd get killed."

Boe and his unit were surrounded by communist forces for two days. They escaped after U.S. warplanes dropped a trail of napalm leading to safety.

At Long Binh, a typically quiet base, the attacks shocked the community of largely support staff.

"You can imagine the look on the faces of the typists, mechanics, clerks and cooks who were not combat-trained when they heard our company first sergeant yelling for people to get to the ammunition bunker for weapons," Lynch said. "For a base as secure as ours, that was just totally unheard of."

Lynch said he was part of a group sent to guard the part of the base enemy troops had broken through earlier that night.

When he got to the gap in the base's perimeter fence, he saw something hanging from its barbed wire. Closer investigation showed that it was a chunk of skull hanging from a piece of long black hair.

"It was just swinging back and forth from the barbed wire like a pendulum," Lynch said.

That's when the base's ammunition storage facility - possibly the largest stash of U.S. weapons in Vietnam - exploded.

"It was an exciting night," Lynch said. "Of course, we were thinking we were the only base being attacked."

Once the attacks on Long Binh stopped the next morning, news about the scope of the Tet Offensive spread quickly. But it was years before Lynch realized its real significance.

"Reflecting on it now, that night showed us the perseverance, drive and tenacity of the NVA and the Viet Cong," Lynch said. "They were willing to sacrifice thousands of troops in these major battles, and they were willing to do that as long as it needed to be done. It's kind of like we won the battle but lost the war."

Boe said the political implications of the Tet Offensive struck him almost immediately. The attack came at a time when North Vietnamese military officials traditionally observed a cease fire in honor of Tet, and Boe said the fact that the United States didn't retaliate with greater force felt like a betrayal by political leaders back home.

"I was shocked, stunned, discouraged and mad," Boe said. "It was the first time I realized that (President) Johnson had no intention of winning this war."

Michael Gannon, who was a history professor at the University of Florida at the time of the Tet Offensive, said the attacks started a long downward spiral for popular support of the war in Gainesville and beyond.

"The American people had been led to believe by military officials that our forces had gained the upper hand and were close to winning in Vietnam," Gannon said. "The Tet Offensive blasted that comfortable feeling to pieces. The American people saw that the enemy had the capability of mounting a series of large-scale attacks, and realized that the war was not going to be over quickly."

Approval of Johnson's handling of the war dropped to an all-time low following the Tet Offensive.

Two months later, Johnson announced he wouldn't seek re-election.

Gannon said the most striking thing about the attacks and their effect on the American public is that they were considered a military failure for the Viet Cong, which failed to hold on to a single target and suffered massive casualties.

The Tet Offensive drew debate in recent times when New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman called an uptick in violence leading up to the 2006 midterm elections "the jihadist equivalent of the Tet Offensive."

In an interview later that week, President Bush agreed there were similarities between the two.

Jim Yakubsin, a Vietnam veteran who now runs the Alachua County Military Support Group of Alachua County, said he sees obvious lessons from the Tet Offensive for the war in Iraq.

"The war was going our way back then, but the Viet Cong would see all these guys protesting back home and say, 'We just have to hang on a little bit longer,' '' Yakubsin said. "It cut down morale for our troops so bad. That's why I started a military support group here in Alachua County, because I want to keep things positive for these guys, and let everyone know that we support them and what they're doing."

Gannon said there are more differences between violence in Iraq and the Tet Offensive than similarities, noting that support for the Vietnam War spiralled steadily downward after the Tet Offensive, while concerns about the war in Iraq have fluctuated.

"Today, during the time of the primaries, Iraq, which was named a major concern at the start of 2007, is now shown to be secondary to the economic situation in most polls," Gannon said. "In some polls, it is coming in third. The reaction from young people has been muted, in comparison to the historic protests of the Vietnam era. The Tet Offensive dramatically shattered the illusions Americans had about the Vietnam War. I don't think we've reached that point with Iraq."

Amy Reinink can be reached at 352-374-5088 or reinina@gvillesun.com.

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