Sunday, July 22, 2012

At War's End, U.S. Ship Rescued South Vietnam's Navy

Enlarge Hugh Doyle

The South Vietnamese fleet follows the USS Kirk to Subic Bay in the Philippines. The Kirk's final mission at the end of the Vietnam War was to bring the remnants of the South's navy to safety in the Philippines.

text size A A A September 1, 2010

Last of three parts

On April 30, 1975, North Vietnamese troops entered the deserted streets of Saigon. Tanks crashed through the gates of the presidential palace and soldiers hoisted the yellow and red flag of the Viet Cong.

Just hours before, the last Americans had been evacuated, rescued and flown on Marine helicopters to U.S. Navy aircraft carriers waiting off the coast.

The Vietnam War was officially over. Now those Navy ships were steaming away from Vietnam.

There was one exception. That night, the captain of a small destroyer escort, the USS Kirk, got a mysterious order to head back to Vietnam.

Enlarge Hugh Doyle

The Kirk reached Con Son Island, off the southern coast of Vietnam, on May 1, 1975. There, it was met by 30 South Vietnamese navy ships and dozens of fishing boats and cargo ships — and as many as 30,000 Vietnamese refugees.

South Vietnamese Navy: 'We Forgot 'Em'

Paul Jacobs, the captain, received the directive from Adm. Donald Whitmire, commander of the evacuation mission — Operation Frequent Wind. He was aboard the USS Blue Ridge, the lead ship of the Navy's 7th Fleet.

Jacobs recalls Whitmire's surprise message: "He says, 'We're going to have to send you back to rescue the Vietnamese navy. We forgot 'em. And if we don't get them or any part of them, they're all probably going to be killed.'"

The Kirk was being sent to an island off the Vietnamese mainland — by itself. And there was one more odd thing, the admiral told Jacobs: He'd be taking orders from a civilian.

Richard Armitage came aboard the Kirk late at night, wearing a borrowed sport coat. Years later, Armitage would become second in command to Colin Powell in the Bush administration's State Department. But on that last day of April 1975, he was on a special assignment from the secretary of defense. He'd just turned 30 that week.

Armitage recalls coming aboard the ship and quickly being escorted to the officer's mess where he met with Jacobs and Commodore Donald Roane, commander of the flotilla of Navy destroyers.

Video: A War, A Baby And Lasting Ties

Credit: Heather Murphy/NPR

"Commodore Roane said something like, 'Young man, I'm not used to having strange civilians come aboard my ship in the middle of the night and give me orders,' " Armitage recalls. "I said, 'I am equally unaccustomed, sir, to coming aboard strange ships in the middle of the night and giving you orders. But steam to Con Son.' And so they did."

Secret Plan To Rescue More Than Just Ships

Web Resources
Official web site of the USS Kirk FF1087 Association

The Kirk and its crew of about 260 officers and men were ordered to Con Son Island, about 50 miles off the coast of South Vietnam and not yet occupied by the North Vietnamese. Con Son was the site of a notorious prison. Now, its harbors were the hiding place for the remnants of the South Vietnamese navy.

Armitage had come up with the plan for them to gather there.

Armitage, a graduate of Annapolis, had been a Navy intelligence officer, assigned to Vietnamese units. He gained respect for the South Vietnamese as he worked alongside them and became fluent in the language. Then he resigned his commission and left the Navy in protest when the Nixon administration signed the Paris peace accords. That 1973 agreement between all warring parties in Vietnam ended direct U.S. military involvement in the war. Armitage felt the U.S. had sold out the South Vietnamese.

But as it became clear that the South Vietnam government was about to fall, a Pentagon official asked Armitage to fly back to Vietnam with a dangerous mission. His assignment: to remove or destroy naval vessels and technology so they wouldn't fall into the hands of the Communists.

A few weeks before Saigon fell, Armitage had shown up at the office of an old friend, Capt. Kiem Do, deputy chief of staff for the South Vietnamese navy. Together, they came up with the secret plan to rescue the Vietnamese ships when — as was becoming clear would happen — the South Vietnamese government surrendered.

Enlarge Courtesy Richard Armitage

In 1975, Richard Armitage was a 30-year-old civilian charged with a dangerous mission: to remove or destroy South Vietnamese naval vessels and technology so they wouldn't fall into the hands of the Communists. Later, Armitage would serve as deputy secretary of state from 2001 to 2005, under Secretary of State Colin Powell in the administration of George W. Bush.

Do remembers warning Armitage that they'd be saving more than ships.

"I told him, I said, 'Well, our crew would not leave Saigon without their family, so therefore there will be a lot of people,' " Do recalls.

He says Armitage remained silent. "He didn't say yes; didn't say no. So I just take it as an acknowledgement," Do says.

Armitage didn't tell his bosses at the Pentagon there would be refugees on those ships. He feared the American authorities wouldn't want them.

Neither Do nor Armitage, though, could predict how many refugees would turn up in Con Son.

Chaos At Con Son Island

The Kirk steamed through the night to Con Son and reached the island just as the sun came up on May 1. There were 30 South Vietnamese navy ships, and dozens of fishing boats and cargo ships. All of them were packed with refugees, desperate to get out of Vietnam.

The ships "were crammed full of people," says Kent Chipman, who in 1975 was a 21-year-old machinist's mate in the ship's engine room and today works at a water purification plant in Texas. "I couldn't see below deck, but above deck the people were just as tight as you could get, side by side."

There was no exact count of how many people were on those ships. Some historical records say there were 20,000 people. Other records suggest it was as many as 30,000. Jan Herman, a historian with the U.S. Navy Medical Department, who is documenting the story of the Kirk, uses the higher number.

The Kirk sent its engineers to some of the boats to get them started.

Interactive Feature

Forgotten Ship: A Lifesaving Mission As Saigon Fell

"They were rusty, ugly, beat up," says Chipman. "Some of them wouldn't even get under way; they were towing each other. And some of them were actually taking on water and we took our guys over and got the ones under way that would run."

One cargo ship was so heavy it was sinking. People below deck were bailing out the water with their shoes.

Stephen Burwinkel, the Kirk's medic — in the Navy known as a hospital corpsman — boarded that ship to check on the sick and injured. He saw a Vietnamese army lieutenant helping passengers leave the sinking ship, crossing to another ship, over a narrow wooden plank. As people pushed to get off the sinking ship, one man knocked a woman who stopped in front of him. She fell off the plank and into the ocean.

The woman was quickly rescued. But Burwinkel worried that the others on the ship would panic. He says the lieutenant acted quickly.

"This Vietnamese lieutenant did not hesitate, he went right up the back of that guy, took his gun out and shot him in the head, killed him, kicked him over the side. Stopped all the trouble right then and there," Burwinkel recalls. The shooting was shocking, he says, but it very likely prevented a riot.

Saigon, The Last Day

NPR Senior Foreign Editor Loren Jenkins witnessed the fall of Saigon. He wrote this essay in 2005 to mark the 20th anniversary.

Leading The Way Toward The Philippines

After fixing what could be fixed on the seaworthy vessels and transferring people from the ships that would be left behind, the Kirk led the flotilla of naval ships, fishing boats and cargo ships toward the Philippines.

The USS Cook, another destroyer escort, like the Kirk, helped out as the ships were leaving Con Son. The Cook's crew provided rice, and its corpsman helped Burwinkel and his assistant from the Kirk attend to the sick and injured, too.

As the flotilla headed out to sea, on the way to the Philippines, other Navy ships came in and out of the escort, according to Herman. Among those other ships were the USS Mobile, USS Tuscaloosa, USS Barbour County, USS Deliver and USS Abnaki.

But it's clear from the daily logs from the Kirk and the other ships that the crew of the Kirk took the lead.

"For me, the Kirk was ideal," says Armitage, who moved from the Kirk to the Vietnamese navy's flagship. "It could communicate with the rest of the U.S. fleet. They would go with us across to the Philippines and would be able to rescue any of the folks who might be in harm's way. Some had been wounded. Some were pregnant. All were sick after a while. And we needed a way to take care of those folks."

Enlarge Hugh Doyle

A boat brings Vietnamese refugees to the Kirk near Con Son Island. The U.S. ship undertook one of the greatest humanitarian missions in the history of the U.S. military.

The Kirk's sailors kept busy providing food, water and medicine to people on the South Vietnamese ships.

Burwinkel spent his time moving from ship to ship treating the sick and injured. With thousands of people — many of them babies and children — he had to work almost nonstop.

"When they gave me the meritorious service medal over all this, I quite frankly referred to it as my 'no-sleep' medal," says Burwinkel, who made a career in the Navy and is now retired and living in Pensacola, Fla. "I would go out there and do my thing and at dark we would come back to the Kirk and try to get a little bit to eat and make some rounds — gather my wits about me, resupply myself and get ready for the next day."

'Last Sovereign Territory Of The Republic Of Vietnam'

Of the some 30,000 refugees on vessels escorted by the Kirk over six days, only three died.

But as the flotilla approached the Philippines, the Kirk's captain got some bad news. The presence of South Vietnamese vessels in a Philippine port would present the government in Manila with a diplomatic predicament.

"The Philippine government wasn't going to allow us in, period, because these ships belonged to the North Vietnamese now and they didn't want to offend the new country," Jacobs, the captain, recalls.

The government of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos was one of the first to recognize the Communist rulers now in control of a single Vietnam, and Jacobs was told the ships should go back.

Armitage and his South Vietnamese friend, Capt. Do, came up with a solution that Marcos had to accept.

Finding The Kirk's Story

The USS Kirk carried out one of the most significant humanitarian missions in U.S. military history. Yet the story went untold for 35 years. Correspondent Joseph Shapiro and producer Sandra Bartlett of NPR's Investigative Unit interviewed more than 20 American and Vietnamese eyewitnesses and participants in the events of late April and early May 1975. They studied hundreds of documents, photographs and other records, many never made public before — including cassette tapes recorded at the time by the ship's chief engineer.

Shapiro first learned of the Kirk from Jan Herman, historian of the U.S. Navy Medical Department, who says the Kirk's heroics got lost because, as the Vietnam War ended, Americans were bitterly divided over the war's course and cost. There was little interest in celebrating a mission that saved the lives of 20,000 to 30,000 refugees. Herman is working on a book documenting the story and a film documentary, which was shown when the Kirk crew met for a reunion in Springfield, Va., in July.

Do recalls the plan: "We will raise the American flag and lower the Vietnamese flag as a sign of transfer [of] the ship back to the United States, because during the war those ships are given to the Vietnamese government as a loan, if you want, from the United States, to fight the Communists. Now the war is over, we turn them back to the United States."

There was a frantic search to find 30 American flags. Two officers from the Kirk were sent aboard each Vietnamese ship to take command after a formal flag ceremony.

Rick Sautter was one of the Kirk officers who took command of a Vietnamese ship.

"That was the last vestige of South Vietnam. And when those flags came down and the American flags went up, that was it. Because a Navy ship is sovereign territory and so that was the last sovereign territory of the Republic of Vietnam," he says.

"Thousands and thousands of people on the boats start to sing the [South Vietnamese] national anthem. When they lower the flag, they cry, cry, cry," Do remembers.

'High Point Of My Career'

On May 7, the ships flying American flags were allowed into Subic Bay.

For the refugees, it was just the beginning of their long journey, which took them to Guam and then resettlement in the United States.

For the sailors of the Kirk, ending the Vietnam War by rescuing 20,000 to 30,000 people was very satisfying.

"This was the high point of my career and I'm very proud of what we did, what we accomplished, how we did it," Jacobs says. "I felt like we handled it truly professionally and that was kind of a dark time."

Armitage says he "envied" the officers and men of the USS Kirk. The ship had not seen combat on its tour to Vietnam. But it ended with the rescue of tens of thousands of refugees, one of the greatest humanitarian missions in the history of the U.S. military.

Says Armitage: "They weren't burdened with the former misadventure of Vietnam."

35 Years On, Vietnam Heroes Reunited, Decorated

Crew members of the USS Kirk try to wave off a CH-47 Chinook carrying South Vietnamese refugees on April 29, 1975. But the helicopter's pilot, Ba Nguyen, was determined to unload his passengers, who included his wife and three young children.

text size A A A September 1, 2010

Second of three parts

As Saigon was falling to Communist North Vietnamese forces in April 1975, U.S. sailor Kent Chipman and Ba Nguyen, a helicopter pilot in the South Vietnamese army, crossed paths for one brief moment. Chipman was aboard the USS Kirk, a small Navy ship that rescued Nguyen and his family as they flew in a Chinook transport chopper, desperate to get away from Saigon.

Chipman waited 35 years to be reunited with Nguyen and his family.

The two men met again this summer at a reunion of the crew of the Kirk, held in a conference center in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C.

Interactive Feature

Forgotten Ship: A Lifesaving Mission As Saigon Fell

At the door of the ballroom, Chipman stood, his beard graying, in a white sailor's hat and — even though it's summer — the heavy wool, dark blue winter uniform of the U.S. Navy. He snapped to attention with a crisp salute when he spotted Nguyen, in a wheelchair, being pushed down the hall by his wife and children.

As a Navy band played, Chipman greeted Nguyen.

"Hello sir, my name's Kent Chipman. You're the pilot of the big Chinook. Nice to meet you, sir. Thank you for coming. Thank you, sir," he said as he grabbed Nguyen's hand.

'I Remember The Baby Coming Out'

In 1975, the Kirk, a destroyer escort, took part in Operation Frequent Wind, the helicopter evacuation of South Vietnam. As Saigon began to fall on April 29, the ship's crew saw helicopters on the horizon headed for the Kirk and other U.S. ships. The choppers were piloted by South Vietnamese officers and their families fleeing their homeland.

And then, after the South Vietnamese government surrendered and the country was in control of the North — and as other U.S. Navy ships steamed away — the Kirk went back to rescue the remnants of the South Vietnamese navy, which were hiding near an island off the coast.

Mina Nguyen-Driver, the pilot's daughter, was 10 months old in 1975.

"I obviously don't remember anything just because I was still a baby in diapers, but what my mom tells me, my parents tell me, is that they dropped me off," she says.

Enlarge Jim Bongaard

This girl is one of 20,000 to 30,000 South Vietnamese refugees the Kirk rescued in a nearly forgotten story of courage and heroism. Now, Kirk crew members and a Navy historian are trying to change that.

Web Resources
Official web site of the USS Kirk FF1087 Association

That's not the same as drop off the baby at day care or drop off the baby at Grandma's house. What Nguyen-Driver means is that her mother literally dropped her — from a moving helicopter. She's heard her parents tell the story.

"And she just was like, '1-2-3, hallelujah: Drop her,' " Nguyen-Driver says. "And just going for Hail Mary and not really quite being sure as to if the folks below were going to catch me or not."

The folks about 10 feet below were that sailor, Chipman, and his crew mates on the USS Kirk.

"I remember the baby coming out," says Chipman, who was a 21-year-old Texan normally not on deck, but usually working deep in the ship tending to the engine. "But you know, there was no way we were going to let 'em hit the deck or drop 'em. We caught 'em."

That's how desperate things were for families such as the Nguyens. As Saigon fell, the Vietnamese pilot gathered his family in his helicopter and flew away from the city. The only direction to go was out to sea. He was running out of fuel when he spotted a solitary ship below. It was the Kirk.

But the ship was too small and the CH-47 Chinook helicopter too large to land. So Nguyen hovered above the deck while his passengers — including his wife and three small children — jumped.

Enlarge Craig Compiano

Crew members push a Huey helicopter into the ocean to make room on the Kirk's small deck for more helicopters full of refugees.

Untold History From An 'Unhappy War'

The 260 officers and men on the Kirk did even grander things than that. When they returned to Vietnam to rescue the South Vietnamese navy, they found 30 ships, dozens of fishing boats and a few cargo ships with them. The ships were crowded with refugees, some 20,000 to 30,000 in all.

But it has been an untold history. It just wasn't something people wanted to talk about 35 years ago. Jan Herman, a historian with the U.S. Navy Medical Department, says people wanted to forget the Vietnam War.

More In The Series

Forgotten Ship: A Daring Rescue

"It was a time to forget a very unhappy war and to move on. And so the story of the Kirk, as good as it was, was kind of left in the dust. No one really looked at it," he says.

Herman, for one, is trying to change that. He is working on a film and a book about the Kirk. He first showed the film documentary at the recent reunion.

Of the 20,000 to 30,000 refugees the Kirk led to safety, about half were women, children and babies. The crew fed them, gave them fresh water and cared for the sick.

In the war, the ship never saw combat. The Kirk was a submarine hunter; its crew trained for warfare. So the sailors found it hard to think of their humanitarian work as heroic.

"It's certainly not something you go bragging about to your fellow warriors," says the Navy historian. " 'I diapered a baby today' — I'm not sure that's going to go over well, you know, at a bar when you're having a brew with a bunch of friends or colleagues."

Rescuing The Story Of The Kirk

It's not just the rest of the world that didn't know about the Kirk. The Navy didn't know either.

Several years ago, men from the Kirk applied for a new service medal that was being given to sailors who had taken part in the helicopter evacuation of Saigon. The Navy couldn't find a record that the Kirk was even there.

That bureaucratic mess was cleared up only recently.

Enlarge David Deal for NPR

Ba Nguyen (right), here with his wife, Nho, was able to maneuver his helicopter so his passengers — including his 10-month-old daughter — could drop to safety on the Kirk. He then flew the Chinook over the ocean and jumped out while the helicopter crashed. In July, Kirk crew members honored Nguyen with an Air Medal, the award the U.S. military gives for heroic feats while flying. Though he is afflicted with advanced Alzheimer's, he saluted upon receiving the award.

So at this summer's reunion — and at the last one in 2007 — Vice Adm. Adam Robinson, the Navy surgeon general, showed up to present those service ribbons and to recognize the Kirk's humanitarian mission.

One way the crew of the Kirk is making its story known is by holding reunions. In part, bitterness over Vietnam has eased with time. And as troops fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq have made a happier return to the U.S., the men of the Kirk have begun to feel they can more safely tell their story.

And they simply want to know what happened to each other and to those they helped save.

Paul Jacobs was captain of the Kirk. "They want to find out what happened to the Vietnamese that they rescued and the Vietnamese want to pay their respects to the people who rescued them," he explains.

Jacobs says the men of the Kirk better understand the importance of what they did when they hear the success stories of the Vietnamese refugees they saved.

In Search Of A Vietnamese Hero

There were many joyous reunions at the July reunion, including those with Nguyen, the Vietnamese pilot, and his wife, son and daughter, who was thrown from the helicopter.

The Kirk crew had long forgotten the pilot's name. The Nguyen family landed on the ship and was quickly transferred to another ship. But the officers and men never forgot the pilot's stunning airmanship.

Finding The Kirk's Story

The USS Kirk carried out one of the most significant humanitarian missions in U.S. military history. Yet the story went untold for 35 years. Correspondent Joseph Shapiro and producer Sandra Bartlett of NPR's Investigative Unit interviewed more than 20 American and Vietnamese eyewitnesses and participants in the events of late April and early May 1975. They studied hundreds of documents, photographs and other records, many never made public before — including cassette tapes recorded at the time by the ship's chief engineer.

Shapiro first learned of the Kirk from Jan Herman, historian of the U.S. Navy Medical Department, who says the Kirk's heroics got lost because, as the Vietnam War ended, Americans were bitterly divided over the war's course and cost. There was little interest in celebrating a mission that saved the lives of 20,000 to 30,000 refugees. Herman is working on a book documenting the story and a film documentary, which was shown when the Kirk crew met for a reunion in Springfield, Va., in July.

So last year, Jacobs and Herman looked for him. They went on a Vietnamese television show based in Virginia and explained they wanted to find the pilot.

Soon afterward, an e-mail arrived at the pilot's home. It said a U.S. naval person was looking for the gentleman who ditched a Chinook off the USS Kirk, recalls Miki Nguyen, one of the pilot's sons. "I asked my mom if there was anyone else in the U.S. Vietnamese community who would have performed such a thing and she didn't recall any. So I replied back," he says.

'An American Story'

Ba Nguyen and his wife, Nho, had often told their children the story of their dramatic escape from Vietnam, and how Nho had dropped 10-month-old daughter Mina and 3-year-old son Mika from the helicopter. Miki, the oldest, then 6, had jumped thinking it was an adventure.

The Nguyen family resettled in the United States and moved to Seattle. Both the husband and wife worked for Boeing, the aerospace giant. Today, Miki is a project manager for AT&T Wireless in Seattle. Mina is a neuropsychologist in Oregon. The middle son died a few years ago.

Thirty-five years ago, after Nguyen's family had jumped to safety, the pilot was left in his helicopter, low on fuel. So he flew off the side of the Kirk, hovered over the water, took off his flight suit, and jumped into the water just before the huge Chinook helicopter crashed into the sea. He was rescued, in his underwear.

Nguyen's wife saved the shirt he wore that day and his colorful boxer shorts. In 2000, when he retired from Boeing, son Miki built a box of wood and glass and took the T-shirt and shorts, and Nguyen's flying medals, and put them in.

David Deal for NPR

Paul Jacobs, captain of the Kirk, was first reunited with Lan Tran (left) and her daughter Tien Kirk, named after the Kirk, in 2005. Since then, the pair has formed close friendships with the crew members and other refugees. Here, they meet again at a reunion in July in Virginia.

"I gave that to him for his retirement party," says Miki. "The symbolism of how he started in the U.S. — a T-shirt and boxer shorts and a dream. And it's an American story, it's our story."

When Miki Nguyen responded to the e-mail from Herman and Jacobs, the Navy historian sent back a picture that had been taken of the Chinook pilot. Is this your father? he wanted to know. It was a picture of a pilot, being rescued from the sea, in a T-shirt and those same, colorful boxer shorts.

Honoring Ba Nguyen

The family was excited to attend the reunion and to meet, once more, the men who had helped save them. Miki brought his two young children.

But the family was surprised when they found out that the crew of the Kirk planned to honor Ba Nguyen.

"What he did in 1975 to free those people was above and beyond," Jacobs, the Kirk's captain, said from the ballroom stage. "Great job. Let's give him a hand."

As the crowd rose to its feet, Miki pushed his father in his wheelchair to the front of the ballroom. Rick Sautter, an officer from the Kirk, pinned an Air Medal on the man's sport coat. It's a version of the one the U.S. military gives for heroic feats while flying.

It hadn't been clear how much Ba Nguyen understood, because he has Alzheimer's and doesn't speak anymore. But he frequently cried out during the ceremony.

Then, the old pilot struggled to get out of his wheelchair. His son hurried to his side and helped him up. Ba Nguyen lifted his shaking arm, and brought it to his head in a salute.

After 35 Years, Unlikely Navy Caregivers Receive Recognition

On April 29, 1975, as Saigon was falling to Communist North Vietnamese forces, a small U.S. Navy destroyer escort ship, the USS Kirk, played a dramatic but almost forgotten role in rescuing up to 30,000 South Vietnamese. Here, a member of the USS Kirk's crew tends to a Vietnamese baby.

The men of the USS Kirk were trained as warriors, not as caregivers. So they didn't think of what they did more than three decades ago as significant.

But their rescue of 20,000 to 30,000 Vietnamese refugees, in the last days of the Vietnam War, is now being recognized as one of the most important humanitarian missions in the history of the U.S. Navy.

One of the first places to recognize the Kirk is the Navy's Medical Department. Vice Admiral Adam Robinson, the Navy Surgeon General, showed up at the July reunion of the Kirk's crew in Springfield, Va., to thank the officers and men from the small destroyer escort. That was a big step because, for several years, the Navy said it had no record that the Kirk was even present during the 1975 evacuation of Saigon.

Robinson's department deploys the Navy's hospital ships, the USNS Comfort and the USNS Mercy. The Comfort was sent to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina five years ago and to Haiti after the earthquake there in January. Robinson says those missions showed the growing role for the Navy to carry out humanitarian work.

And it's that growing role that also led to Robinson's interest in the story of what the Kirk did 35 years ago. Robinson is sponsoring the work of Jan Herman, of the Navy Medical Department, to document the Kirk's mission in a film and a book.

Herman says the Kirk's story got "left in the dust" because of bitterness over Vietnam. When the war ended, Americans didn't want to hear stories about the war, he says.

But another reason, he says, is that the men themselves didn't think of what they did as significant. The Kirk, designed to hunt submarines, didn't see combat. When the ship's crew was ordered back to Vietnam — by itself, as the rest of the Navy was leaving — the men saw themselves as "just doing our job," says Captain Paul Jacobs.

The ship steamed to Con Son Island, where the last ships from South Vietnam's Navy were awaiting rescue. On board the 30-some Navy ships — and even more small fishing boats and rusted cargo ships — were an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 refugees.

"So here they are suddenly involved in this drama. It has nothing to do with firing torpedoes or guns," says Herman of the Kirk's crew. "It has nothing to do with any of that. It has to do with taking care of babies and feeding women and children. And I think for warriors, that doesn't come naturally. But they did it because it was something they had to do on the spot, and they did it. And they did it extremely well."

The ship escorted the refugees to safety, later meeting up with other U.S. Navy ships. About half the refugees were women, children and babies. The Kirk's crew fed them, gave them fresh water and cared for the sick.

But still, it wasn't something people talked about. "It's certainly not something you go bragging about to your fellow warriors: I diapered a baby today," Herman said.

That started to change when the men of the Kirk began to hold reunions. They would wonder what happened to the men, women and children they saved. They started to seek them out and when they found them — and heard the stories of their successful lives — the members of the Kirk crew began to understand that their humanitarian mission was as important as the military mission they'd been trained for.

To tell this forgotten story of the Kirk's rescue mission, NPR interviewed more than 20 American and Vietnamese participants and looked at hundreds of photographs and other records, many of which had never been made public before.

Children of the Vietnam War

Born overseas to Vietnamese mothers and U.S. servicemen, Amerasians brought hard-won resilience to their lives in America

They grew up as the leftovers of an unpopular war, straddling two worlds but belonging to neither. Most never knew their fathers. Many were abandoned by their mothers at the gates of orphanages. Some were discarded in garbage cans. Schoolmates taunted and pummeled them and mocked the features that gave them the face of the enemy—round blue eyes and light skin, or dark skin and tight curly hair if their soldier-dads were African-Americans. Their destiny was to become waifs and beggars, living in the streets and parks of South Vietnam's cities, sustained by a single dream: to get to America and find their fathers.

But neither America nor Vietnam wanted the kids known as Amerasians and commonly dismissed by the Vietnamese as "children of the dust"—as insignificant as a speck to be brushed aside. "The care and welfare of these unfortunate children...has never been and is not now considered an area of government responsibility," the U.S. Defense Department said in a 1970 statement. "Our society does not need these bad elements," the Vietnamese director of social welfare in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) said a decade later. As adults, some Amerasians would say that they felt cursed from the start. When, in early April 1975, Saigon was falling to Communist troops from the north and rumors spread that southerners associated with the United States might be massacred, President Gerald Ford announced plans to evacuate 2,000 orphans, many of them Amerasians. Operation Babylift's first official flight crashed in the rice paddies outside Saigon, killing 144 people, most of them children. South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians gathered at the site, some to help, others to loot the dead. Despite the crash, the evacuation program continued another three weeks.

"I remember that flight, the one that crashed," says Nguyen Thi Phuong Thuy. "I was about 6, and I'd been playing in the trash near the orphanage. I remember holding the nun's hand and crying when we heard. It was like we were all born under a dark star." She paused to dab at her eyes with tissue. Thuy, whom I met on a trip to Vietnam in March 2008, said she had never tried to locate her parents because she had no idea where to start. She recalls her adoptive Vietnamese parents arguing about her, the husband shouting, "Why did you have to get an Amerasian?" She was soon sent off to live with another family.

Thuy seemed pleased to find someone interested in her travails. Over coffee and Cokes in a hotel lobby, she spoke in a soft, flat voice about the "half-breed dog" taunts she heard from neighbors, of being denied a ration card for food, of sneaking out of her village before others rose at sunrise to sit alone on the beach for hours and about taking sleeping pills at night to forget the day. Her hair was long and black, her face angular and attractive. She wore jeans and a T-shirt. She looked as American as anyone I might have passed in the streets of Des Moines or Denver. Like most Amerasians still in Vietnam, she was uneducated and unskilled. In 1992 she met another Amerasian orphan, Nguyen Anh Tuan, who said to her, "We don't have a parent's love. We are farmers and poor. We should take care of each other." They married and had two daughters and a son, now 11, whom Thuy imagines as the very image of the American father she has never seen. "What would he say today if he knew he had a daughter and now a grandson waiting for him in Vietnam?" she asked.

No one knows how many Amerasians were born—and ultimately left behind in Vietnam—during the decade-long war that ended in 1975. In Vietnam's conservative society, where premarital chastity is traditionally observed and ethnic homogeneity embraced, many births of children resulting from liaisons with foreigners went unregistered. According to the Amerasian Independent Voice of America and the Amerasian Fellowship Association, advocacy groups recently formed in the United States, no more than a few hundred Amerasians remain in Vietnam; the groups would like to bring all of them to the United States. The others—some 26,000 men and women now in their 30s and 40s, together with 75,000 Vietnamese they claimed as relatives—began to be resettled in the United States after Representative Stewart B. McKinney of Connecticut called their abandonment a "national embarrassment" in 1980 and urged fellow Americans to take responsibility for them.

But no more than 3 percent found their fathers in their adoptive homeland. Good jobs were scarce. Some Amerasians were vulnerable to drugs, became gang members and ended up in jail. As many as half remained illiterate or semi-illiterate in both Vietnamese and English and never became U.S. citizens. The mainstream Vietnamese-American population looked down on them, assuming that their mothers were prostitutes—which was sometimes the case, though many of the children were products of longer-term, loving relationships, including marriages. Mention Amerasians and people would roll their eyes and recite an old saying in Vietnam: Children without a father are like a home without a roof.

The massacres that President Ford had feared never took place, but the Communists who came south after 1975 to govern a reunited Vietnam were hardly benevolent rulers. Many orphanages were closed, and Amerasians and other youngsters were sent off to rural work farms and re-education camps. The Communists confiscated wealth and property and razed many of the homes of those who had supported the American-backed government of South Vietnam. Mothers of Amerasian children destroyed or hid photographs, letters and official papers that offered evidence of their American connections. "My mother burned everything," says William Tran, now a 38-year-old computer engineer in Illinois. "She said, ‘I can't have a son named William with the Viet Cong around.' It was as though your whole identity was swept away." Tran came to the United States in 1990 after his mother remarried and his stepfather threw him out of the house.

Hoi Trinh was still a schoolboy in the turbulent postwar years when he and his schoolteacher parents, both Vietnamese, were uprooted in Saigon and, joining an exodus of two million southerners, were forced into one of the "new economic zones" to be farmers. He remembers taunting Amerasians. Why? "It didn't occur to me then how cruel it was. It was really a matter of following the crowd, of copying how society as a whole viewed them. They looked so different than us.... They weren't from a family. They were poor. They mostly lived on the street and didn't go to school like us."

I asked Trinh how Amerasians had responded to being confronted in those days. "From what I remember," he said, "they would just look down and walk away."

Vietnam 101: A Short Introduction


The Vietnam War occurred in present-day Vietnam, Southeast Asia. It represented a successful attempt on the part of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam, DRV) and the National Front for the Liberation of Vietnam (Viet Cong) to unite and impose a communist system over the entire nation. Opposing the DRV was the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam, RVN), backed by the United States. The war in Vietnam occurred during the Cold War, and is generally viewed as an indirect conflict between the United States and Soviet Union, with each nation and its allies supporting one side.

When was the Vietnam War?:

The most commonly used dates for the conflict are 1959-1975. This period begins with North Vietnam's first guerilla attacks against the South and ends with the fall of Saigon. American ground forces were directly involved in the war between 1965 and 1973.


The Vietnam War first began in 1959, five years after the division of the country by the Geneva Accords. Vietnam had been split into two, with a communist government in the north under Ho Chi Minh and a democratic government in the south under Ngo Dinh Diem. Ho launched a guerilla campaign in South Vietnam, led by Viet Cong units, with the goal of uniting the country under communist rule. The United States, seeking to stop the spread of communism, trained the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and provided military advisors to help combat the guerillas. Causes of the Vietnam War

Americanization of the War:

In August 1964, a US warship was attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. Following this attack, Congress passed the Southeast Asia Resolution which allowed President Lyndon Johnson to conduct military operations in the region without a declaration of war. On March 2, 1965, US aircraft began bombing targets in Vietnam and the first troops arrived. Commanded by General William Westmoreland, US troops won victories over Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces around Chu Lai and in the Ia Drang Valley that summer. Americanization of the Vietnam War

The Tet Offensive :

Following these defeats, the North Vietnamese avoided fighting conventional battles and focused on engaging US troops in small unit actions in the sweltering jungles of South Vietnam. In January 1968, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong launched the massive Tet Offensive. Beginning with an assault on US Marines at Khe Sanh, the offensive included attacks by the Viet Cong on cities throughout South Vietnam. Though the North Vietnamese were beaten back with heavy casualties, Tet shook the confidence of the American people and media who had thought the war was going well. The Tet Offensive


As a result of Tet, President Lyndon Johnson opted not to run for reelection and was succeeded by Richard Nixon. Nixon's plan for ending US involvement was to build up the ARVN so that they could fight the war themselves. As this process of “Vietnamization” began, US troops started to return home. The mistrust of the government that had begun after Tet worsened with the release of news about US soldiers massacring civilians at My Lai (1969), the invasion of Cambodia (1970), and the leaking of the Pentagon Papers (1971). Vietnamization of the Vietnam War

End of the War and the Fall of Saigon:

The withdrawal of US troops continued and more responsibility was passed to the ARVN, which continued to prove ineffective in combat, often relying on American support to stave off defeat. On January 27, 1974, a peace accord was signed in Paris ending the conflict. By March of that year, American combat troops had left the country. After a brief period of peace, North Vietnam recommenced hostilities in late 1974. Pushing through ARVN forces with ease, they captured the Saigon on April 30, 1975, forcing South Vietnam’s surrender and reuniting the country. The End of the Vietnam War

Vietnam War: Battle of Ia Drang

Battle of Ia Drang - Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of Ia Drang was fought November 14-18, 1965, during the Vietnam War (1955-1975).

Armies & Commanders

United States
  • Colonel Thomas Brown
  • Lieutenant Colonel Harold G. Moore
  • Lieutenant Colonel Robert McDade
  • approx. 1,000 men North Vietnam
  • Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Huu An
  • approx. 2,000 men
  • Battle of Ia Drang - Background:

    In 1965, General William Westmoreland, commander of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, began utilizing American troops for combat operations in Vietnam rather than solely relying on the forces of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. With National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) and People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) forces operating in the Central Highlands northeast of Saigon, Westmoreland elected to debut the new air mobile 1st Cavalry Division as he believed its helicopters would allow it to overcome the region's rugged terrain.
    Following a failed North Vietnamese attack on the Special Forces camp at Plei Me in October, the commander of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, Colonel Thomas Brown, was instructed to move from Pleiku to seek and destroy the enemy. Arriving in the area, the 3rd Brigade was unable to find the attackers. Encouraged by Westmoreland to press towards the Cambodian border, Brown soon learned of an enemy concentration near Chu Pong Mountain. Acting on this intelligence, he directed the 1st Battalion/7th Cavalry, led by Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore, to conduct a reconnaissance in force in the area of Chu Pong.

    Arriving at X-Ray:

    Assessing several landing zones, Moore chose LZ X-Ray near the base of the Chu Pong Massif. Roughly the size of a football field, X-Ray was surrounded by low trees and bordered by a dry creek bed to the west. Due to the relatively small size of the LZ, the transport of the 1st/7th's four companies would have to be conducted in several lifts. The first of these touched down at 10:48 AM on November 14 and consisted of Captain John Herren's Bravo Company and Moore's command group. Departing, the helicopters began shuttling the rest of the battalion to X-Ray with each trip taking around 30 minutes (Map).

    Day 1:

    Initially holding his forces in the LZ, Moore soon began sending out patrols while waiting for more men to arrive. At 12:15 PM, the enemy was first encountered northwest of the creek bed. Shortly thereafter, Herren ordered his 1st and 2nd Platoons to advance in that direction. Encountering heavy enemy resistance, the 1st was halted though the 2nd pushed on and pursued an enemy squad. In the process, the platoon, led by Lieutenant Henry Herrick, became separated and was soon surrounded by North Vietnamese forces. In the firefight that ensued, Herrick was killed and effective command devolved to Sergeant Ernie Savage.
    As the day progressed, Moore's men successfully defended the creek bed as well as repelled assaults from the south while awaiting the arrival of the remainder of the battalion. By 3:20 PM, the last of the battalion arrived and Moore established a 360-degree perimeter around X-Ray. Eager to rescue the lost platoon, Moore sent forward Alpha and Bravo Companies at 3:45 PM. This effort succeeded in advancing around 75 yards from the creek bed before enemy fire brought it to a halt. In the attack, Lieutenant Walter Marm earned the Medal of Honor when he single-handedly captured an enemy machine gun position (Map).

    Day 2:

    Around 5:00 PM, Moore was reinforced by the lead elements of Bravo Company/2nd/7th. While the Americans dug in for the night, the North Vietnamese probed their lines and conducted three assaults against the lost platoon. Though under heavy pressure, Savage's men turned these back. At 6:20 AM on November 15, the North Vietnamese mounted a major attack against Charlie Company's section of the perimeter. Calling in fire support, the hard-pressed Americans turned back the attack but took significant losses in the process. At 7:45 AM, the enemy began a three-pronged assault on Moore's position.
    With the fighting intensifying and Charlie Company's line wavering, heavy air support was called in to halt the North Vietnamese advance. As it arrived over the field, it inflicted major losses on the enemy, though a friendly fire incident led to some napalm striking the American lines. At 9:10 AM, additional reinforcements arrived from the 2nd/7th and began reinforcing Charlie Company's lines. By 10:00 AM the North Vietnamese began withdrawing. With fighting raging at X-Ray, Brown dispatched Lieutenant Colonel Bob Tully's 2nd/5th to LZ Victor approximately 2.2 miles east-southeast.
    Moving overland, they reached X-Ray at 12:05 PM, augmenting Moore's force. Pushing out of the perimeter, Moore and Tully succeeded in rescuing the lost platoon that afternoon. That night North Vietnamese forces harassed the American lines and then launched a major assault around 4:00 AM. With the aid of well-directed artillery, four assaults were repelled as the morning progressed. By mid-morning, the remainder of the 2nd/7th and 2nd/5th arrived at X-Ray. With the Americans on the field in strength and having taken massive losses, the North Vietnamese began withdrawing.

    Ambush at Albany:

    That afternoon Moore's command departed the field. Hearing reports of enemy units moving into the area and seeing that little more could be done at X-Ray, Brown wished to withdraw the remainder of his men. This was vetoed by Westmoreland who wished to avoid the appearance of a retreat. As a result, Tully was instructed to march the 2nd/5th northeast to LZ Columbus while Lieutenant Colonel Robert McDade was to take the 2nd/7th north-northeast to LZ Albany. As they departed, a flight of B-52 Stratofortresses was assigned to strike the Chu Pong Massif.
    While Tully's men had an uneventful march to Columbus, McDade's troops began encountering elements of the 33rd and 66th PAVN Regiments. These actions culminated with a devastating ambush in the vicinity of Albany. Under heavy pressure and taking major losses, McDade's command was soon aided by air support and elements of the 2nd/5th which marched in from Columbus. Beginning late that afternoon, additional reinforcements were flown in and the American position was appearance during the night. The next morning, the enemy had largely pulled back. After policing the area for casualties and dead, the Americans departed for LZ Crooks the next day.

    Aftermath of Ia Drang

    The first major battle that involved US ground forces, Ia Drang saw them suffer 96 killed and 121 wounded at X-Ray and 155 killed and 124 wounded at Albany. Estimates for North Vietnamese losses are around 800 killed at X-Ray and minimum of 403 killed at Albany. For his actions in leading the defense of X-Ray, Moore was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Pilots Major Bruce Crandall and Captain Ed Freeman were later (2007) awarded the Medal of Honor for making volunteer flights under heavy fire to and from X-Ray. During these flights they delivered much needed supplies while evacuating wounded soldiers. The fighting at Ia Drang set the tone for the conflict as American forces continued to rely on air mobility and heavy fire support to achieve victory. Conversely, the North Vietnamese learned that the latter could be neutralized by quickly closing with the enemy and fighting at close range.

    Vietnam War: Battle of Hamburger Hill


    The Battle of Hamburger Hill took place during the Vietnam War.


    US forces were engaged in the A Shau Valley from May 10 to May 20, 1969.

    Armies & Commanders:

    United States
    • Major General Melvin Zais
    • approx. 1,800 men
    North Vietnam
    • Unknown
    • approx. 1,500 men

    Summary of the Battle of Hamburger Hill:

    In 1969, US troops began Operation Apache Snow with the goal of clearing the People's Army of Vietnam from the A Shau Valley in South Vietnam. Located near the border with Laos, the valley had become an infiltration route into South Vietnam and a haven for PAVN forces. A three-part operation, the second phase commenced on May 10, 1969, as elements of Colonel John Conmey's 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne moved into the valley.
    Among Conmey's forces were the 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry (Lt. Colonel Weldon Honeycutt), 2nd Battalion, 501st Infantry (Lt. Colonel Robert German), and the 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry (Lt. Colonel John Bowers). These units were supported by the 9th Marines and the 3rd Battalion, 5th Cavalry, as well as elements of the Army of Vietnam. The A Shau Valley was covered in thick jungle and dominated by Ap Bia Mountain, which had been designated Hill 937. Unconnected to the surrounding ridges, Hill 937 stood alone and, like the surrounding valley, was heavily forested.
    Terming the operation a reconnaissance in force, Conmey's forces began operations with two ARVN battalions cutting the road at the base of the valley while the Marines and 3/5th Cavalry pushed towards the Laotian border. The battalions from the 3rd Brigade were ordered to search and destroy PAVN forces in their own areas of the valley. As his troops were air mobile, Conmey planned to shift units rapidly should one encounter strong resistance. While contact was light on May 10, it intensified the following day when the 3/187th approached the base of Hill 937.
    Sending two companies to search the north and northwest ridges of the hill, Honeycutt ordered Bravo and Charlie companies to move towards the summit by different routes. Late in the day, Bravo met stiff PAVN resistance and helicopter gunships were brought in for support. These mistook the 3/187th's landing zone for PAVN camp and opened fire killing two and wounding thirty-five. This was the first of several friendly fire incidents during the battle as the thick jungle made identifying targets difficult. Following this incident, the 3/187th retreated into defensive positions for the night.
    Over the next two days, Honeycutt attempted to push his battalion into positions where they could launch a coordinated assault. This was hampered by difficult terrain and fierce PAVN resistance. As they moved around the hill, they found that the North Vietnamese had constructed an elaborate system of bunkers and trenches. Seeing the focus of the battle shifting to Hill 937, Conmey shifted the 1/506th to the south side of the hill. Bravo Company was airlifted to the area, but the remainder of the battalion traveled by foot and did not arrive in force until May 19.
    On May 14 and 15, Honeycutt launched attacks against PAVN positions with little success. The next two days saw elements of the 1/506th probing the southern slope. American efforts were frequently hindered by the thick jungle which made air-lifting forces around the hill impractical. As the battle raged, much of the foliage around the summit of the hill was eliminated by napalm and artillery fire which was used to reduce the PAVN bunkers. On May 18, Conmey ordered a coordinated assault with the 3/187th attacking from the north and the 1/506th attacking from the south.
    Storming forward, Delta Company of the 3/187th almost took the summit but was beaten back with heavy casualties. The 1/506th was able to take the southern crest, Hill 900, but met heavy resistance during the fighting. On May 18, the commander of the 101st Airborne, Major General Melvin Zais, arrived and decided to commit three addition battalions to the battle as well as ordered that the 3/187th, which had suffered 60% casualties, be relieved. Protesting, Honeycutt was able to keep his men in the field for the final assault.
    Landing two battalions on the northeast and southeast slopes, Zais and Conmey launched an all-out assault on the hill at 10:00 AM on May 20. Overwhelming the defenders, the 3/187th took the summit around noon and operations began to reduce the remaining PAVN bunkers. By 5:00 PM, Hill 937 had been secured.


    Due to the grinding nature of the fighting on Hill 937, it became known as "Hamburger Hill." This also pays homage to a similar fight during the Korean War known as the Battle of Pork Chop Hill. In the fighting, US and ARVN forces suffered 70 killed and 372 wounded. Total PAVN casualties are unknown, but 630 bodies were found on the hill after the battle. Heavily covered by the press, the necessity of the fighting on Hill 937 was questioned by the public and stirred controversy in Washington. This was worsened by the 101st's abandonment of the hill on June 5. As a result of this public and political pressure, General Creighton Abrams altered US strategy in Vietnam from one of "maximum pressure" to "protective reaction" in an effort to lower casualties.

    Vietnam War: End of the Conflict 1973-1975

    Working for Peace

    In October 1972, Nixon’s National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, concluded a secret peace agreement with North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho. After reviewing the agreement, President Thieu demanded major alterations to the document. In response, the North Vietnamese published the details of the agreement and stalled the negotiations. Feeling that Hanoi had attempted to embarrass him and to force them back the table, Nixon ordered the bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong in late December 1972 (Operation Linebacker II). On January 15, 1973, after pressuring South Vietnam to accept the peace deal, Nixon announced the end of offensive operations against North Vietnam.

    Paris Peace Accords

    The Paris Peace Accords ending the conflict were signed January 27, 1973, and were followed by the withdrawal of the remaining American troops. The terms of the accords called for a complete ceasefire in South Vietnam, allowed North Vietnamese forces to retain the territory they had captured, released US prisoners of war, and called for both sides to find a political solution to the conflict. As an enticement to Thieu, Nixon offered US airpower to enforce the peace terms.

    Standing Alone, South Vietnam Falls

    With US forces gone from the country, South Vietnam stood alone. The situation worsened in December 1974, when Congress passed the Foreign Assistance Act of 1974, cutting off all military aid. This act removed the threat of air strikes should North Vietnam break the terms of the accords. Shortly after the act’s passage, North Vietnam began a limited offensive in Phuoc Long Province to test Saigon’s resolve. The province fell quickly and Hanoi pressed the attack. Surprised by the ease of their advance, against largely incompetent ARVN forces, the North Vietnamese stormed through the south, finally capturing Saigon. South Vietnam surrendered on April 30, 1975, following the fall of its capital. After thirty years of conflict, Ho Chi Minh’s vision of a united, communist Vietnam had been realized.

    Casualties of the Vietnam War

    During Vietnam War, the United States suffered 58,119 killed, 153,303 wounded, and 1,948 missing in action. Casualty figures for the Republic of Vietnam are estimated at 230,000 killed and 1,169,763 wounded. Combined the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong suffered approximately 1,100,000 killed in action and an unknown number of wounded. It is estimated that between 2 to 4 million Vietnamese civilians were killed during the conflict.

    Vietnam War: Nixon & Vietnamization 1969-1972

    Handing Off the War

    Campaigning under the slogan “Peace with Honor,” Richard M. Nixon won the 1968 presidential election. His plan called for the “Vietnamization” of the war which was defined as the systematic build up of ARVN forces to the point that they could prosecute the war without American support. As part of this plan, American troops would slowly be removed. Nixon complemented this approach with efforts to ease global tensions by reaching out diplomatically to the Soviet Union and People's Republic of China. In Vietnam, the war shifted to smaller operations geared towards attacking North Vietnamese logistics.

    Trouble on the Home Front

    While the antiwar movement in the US was pleased with Nixon’s efforts at détente with communist nations, it was inflamed in 1969, when news broke about a massacre of 347 South Vietnamese civilians by US soldiers at My Lai (March 18, 1968). Tension grew further when, following a change in stance by Cambodia, the US began bombing North Vietnamese bases over the border. This was followed in 1970, with ground forces attacking into Cambodia, a move viewed as expanding the war rather than winding it down. Public opinion sunk lower in 1971 with the release of the Pentagon Papers. A top secret report, the Pentagon Papers detailed American mistakes in Vietnam since 1945, as well as exposed lies about the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, detailed US involvement in deposing Diem, and revealed secret American bombing of Laos. The papers also painted a bleak outlook for American prospects of victory.

    First Cracks

    Despite the incursion into Cambodia, Nixon had begun the systematic withdrawal of US forces, lowering troop strength to 156,800 in 1971. That same year, the ARVN commenced Operation Lam Son 719 with the goal of severing the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. In what was seen as a dramatic failure for “Vietnamization,” ARVN forces were routed and driven back across the border. Further cracks were revealed in 1972, when the North Vietnamese launched a conventional invasion of the South, attacking into the northern provinces and from Cambodia. This offensive was only defeated with the support of US airpower (Operation Linebacker).

    Vietnam War: The Tet Offensive

    The Tet Offensive

    On January 21, 1968, an intense barrage of artillery hit the US Marine base at Khe Sanh in northwest South Vietnam. This presaged a siege and battle that would last for seventy-seven days and would see 6,000 Marines hold off 20,000 North Vietnamese. Anticipating that American forces would be drawn north to the fighting at Khe Sanh, Viet Cong units broke the traditional Tet (Lunar New Year) cease-fire on January 30, 1968, by launching major attacks against most cities in South Vietnam.
    For the next two months, US and ARVN forces successfully beat back the Viet Cong assault, with particularly heavy combat in the cities of Hue and Saigon. Once the fighting had ended, the Viet Cong had been permanently crippled and ceased to be an effective fighting force. On April 1, US forces began Operation Pegasus to relieve the Marines at Khe Sanh. After opening the road to Khe Sanh (Route 9) with a mix of air mobile and ground forces, US troops linked up with the besieged Marines on April 8.

    Aftereffects of Tet

    While the Tet Offensive proved to be a military victory for the US and ARVN, it was a political and media disaster. Public support began to erode as Americans started to question the handling of the conflict. Others doubted Westmoreland’s ability to command, leading to his replacement in June 1968, by General Creighton Abrams. President Johnson’s popularity plummeted and he withdrew as a candidate for reelection. Ultimately, it was the media’s reaction and stressing of a widening “credibility gap” that did the most damage to the Johnson Administration’s efforts. Noted reporters, such as Walter Cronkite, began to openly criticize Johnson and the military leadership, as well as called for negotiated end to the war. Though he had low expectations, Johnson conceded and opened peace talks with North Vietnam in May 1968.

    Vietnam War: Americanization

    On August 2, 1964, USS Maddox, an American destroyer, was attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin by three North Vietnamese torpedo boats while conducting an intelligence mission. A second attack seemed have occurred two days later, though the reports were sketchy (It now appears that there was no second attack). This second “attack” led to US air strikes against North Vietnam and the passage of the Southeast Asia (Gulf of Tonkin) Resolution by Congress. This resolution permitted the president to conduct military operations in the region without a formal declaration of war and became the legal justification for escalating the conflict.

    Bombing Begins

    In retribution for the incident in the Gulf of Tonkin, President Lyndon Johnson issued orders for the systematic bombing of North Vietnam, targeting its air defenses, industrial sites, and transportation infrastructure. Beginning on March 2, 1965, and known as Operation Rolling Thunder, the bombing campaign would last over three years and would drop an average of 800 tons of bombs a day on the north. To protect US airbases in South Vietnam, 3,500 Marines were deployed that same month, becoming the first ground forces committed to the conflict.

    Early Combat

    By April 1965, Johnson had sent the first 60,000 American troops to Vietnam. The number would escalate to 536,100 by the end of 1968. In the summer of 1965, under the command of General William Westmoreland, US forces executed their first major offensive operations against the Viet Cong and scored victories around Chu Lai (Operation Starlite) and in the Ia Drang Valley. This latter campaign was largely fought by the 1st Air Cavalry Division which pioneered the use of helicopters for high speed mobility on the battlefield.
    Learning from these defeats, the Viet Cong seldom again engaged American forces in conventional, pitched battles preferring instead to resort to hit and run attacks and ambushes. Over the next three years, American forces focused on searching and destroying Viet Cong and North Vietnamese units operating in the south. Frequently mounting large scale sweeps such as Operations Attleboro, Cedar Falls, and Junction City, American and ARVN forces captured large amounts of weapons and supplies but rarely engagd large formations of the enemy.

    Political Situation in South Vietnam

    In Saigon, the political situation began to calm in 1967, with the rise of Nguyen Van Theiu to the head of the South Vietnamese government. Theiu’s ascent to the presidency stabilized the government and ended a long series of military juntas that had administered the country since Diem’s removal. Despite this, the Americanization of the war clearly showed that the South Vietnamese were incapable of defending the country on their own.

    Raid on Son Tay


    The raid on Son Tay prison camp occurred during the Vietnam War.


    Colonel Simons and his men captured Son Tay on November 21, 1970.

    Armies & Commanders:

    United State
    • Colonel Arthur D. "Bull" Simons
    • Lieutenant Colonel Elliot "Bud" Sydnor
    • 56 Special Forces soldiers, 92 airmen, 29 aircraft
    North Vietnam
    • Leaders: Unknown
    • Numbers: Unknown

    Battle Summary:

    In 1970, the US had identified the names of over 500 American POWs who were being held by the North Vietnamese. Sources reported that these prisoners were being held in atrocious conditions and were being cruelly treated by their captors. That June, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Earle G. Wheeler, authorized the formation a fifteen-member planning group to address the issue. Operating under the codename Polar Circle, this group studied the possibility of conducting a night raid on a North Vietnamese POW camp and found that an attack on the camp at Son Tay was feasible and should be attempted.
    Two months later, Operation Ivory Coast commenced to organize, plan, and train for the mission. Overall command was given to Air Force Brigadier General LeRoy J. Manor, with Special Forces Colonel Arthur "Bull" Simons leading the raid itself. While Manor assembled a planning staff, Simons recruited 103 volunteers from the 6th and 7th Special Forces Groups. Based at Eglin Air Force Base, FL, and working under the name "Joint Contingency Task Group," Simons' men began studying models of the camp and rehearsing the attack on a full-size replica.
    While Simons' men were training, the planners identified two windows, October 21-25 and November 21-25, which possessed the ideal moonlight and weather conditions for the raid. Manor and Simons also met with Admiral Fred Bardshar to set up a diversionary mission to be flown by naval aircraft. After 170 rehearsals at Eglin, Manor informed the Secretary of Defense, Melvin Laird, that all was ready for the October attack window. Following a meeting at the White House with National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, the raid was delayed until November.
    After using the extra time for further training, JCTG moved to its forward bases in Thailand. For the raid, Simons selected 56 Green Berets from his pool of 103. These men were divided into three groups each with a different mission. The first was the 14-man assault group, "Blueboy," which was to land inside the camp compound. This would be supported by the 22-man command group, "Greenleaf," which would land outside, then blow a hole in the compound wall and support Blueboy. These were supported by the 20-man "Redwine" which was to provide security against North Vietnamese reaction forces.
    The raiders were to approach the camp by air aboard helicopters with fighter cover above to deal with any North Vietnamese MiGs. All told, 29 aircraft played a direct role in the mission. Due to the impending approach of Typhoon Patsy, the mission was moved up one day to November 20. Departing their base in Thailand at 11:25 PM on November 20, the raiders had an uneventful flight to the camp as the Navy's diversionary raid had achieved its purpose. At 2:18 AM, the helicopter carrying Blueboy successfully crash landed inside the compound at Son Tay.
    Racing from the helicopter, Captain Richard J. Meadows led the assault team in eliminating the guards and securing the compound. Three minutes later, Col. Simons landed with Greenleaf approximately a quarter mile from their intended LZ. After attacking a nearby North Vietnamese barracks and killing between 100-200, Greenleaf re-embarked and flew to the compound. In Greenleaf's absence, Redwine, led by Lieutenant Colonel Elliott P. “Bud” Sydnor, landed outside Son Tay and executed Greenleaf's mission as per the operation's contingency plans.
    After conducting a thorough search of the camp, Meadows radioed "Negative Items" to the command group signaling that no POWs were present. At 2:36, the first group departed by helicopter, followed by the second nine minutes later. The raiders arrived back in Thailand at 4:28, approximately five hours after departing, having spent a total of twenty-seven minutes on the ground.


    Brilliantly executed, American casualties for the raid were one wounded. This occurred when a helicopter crewman broke his ankle during the insertion of Blueboy. In addition, two aircraft were lost in the operation. North Vietnamese casualties were estimated at between 100-200 killed. Intelligence later revealed that the POWs at Son Tay had been moved to a camp fifteen miles away in July. While some intelligence indicated this immediately prior to the raid, there was not time to change the target. Despite this intelligence failure, the raid was deemed a "tactical success" due to its near flawless execution. For their actions during the raid, the members of the task force were awarded six Distinguished Service Crosses, five Air Force Crosses, and eighty-three Silver Stars.

    Battle of Dak To

    Battle of Dak To - Conflict:

    The Battle of Dak To was a major engagement of the Vietnam War.


    Fought over nineteen days, the Battle of Dak To lasted from November 3 to November 22, 1967.

    Armies & Commanders:

    US & Republic of Vietnam Major General William R. Peers 16,000 men

    North Vietnam & Viet Cong General Hoang Minh Thao Tran The Mon 6,000 men

    Battle of Dak To - Background:

    In the summer of 1967, the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) initiated a series of attacks in western Kontum Province. To counter these, Major General William R. Peers commenced Operation Greeley using elements of the 4th Infantry Division and the 173rd Airborne Brigade. This was designed to sweep PAVN forces from the jungle-covered mountains of the region. After a series of sharp engagements, contact with PAVN forces diminished in August leading the Americans to believe that they had withdrawn back across the border into Cambodia and Laos.

    After a quiet September, US intelligence reported that PAVN forces around Pleiku were moving into Kontum in early October. This shift increased PAVN strength in the area to around division level. The PAVN plan was to utilize the 24th, 32nd, 66th, and 174th regiments to isolate and destroy a brigade-sized American force near Dak To. It was believed by the PAVN command that this would lead to the further deployment of American troops to the border regions which would leave South Vietnam's cities and lowlands vulnerable. To deal with this build up of PAVN forces, Peers launched Operation MacArthur on November 3. Battle of Dak To - Fighting Begins:

    Peer's understanding of the enemy's intentions and strategy was greatly enhanced on November 3, following the defection of PAVN Sgt. Vu Hong. Alerted to each PAVN unit's location and objective, Peers' men began engaging the enemy the same day, disrupting the North Vietnamese plans for attacking Dak To. As elements of the 4th Infantry, 173rd Airborne, and the 1st Brigade of the 1st Air Cavalry went into action they found that the North Vietnamese had prepared elaborate defensive positions on the hills and ridges around Dak To.

    Over the ensuing three weeks, American forces developed a methodical approach to reducing PAVN positions. Once the enemy was located, massive amounts of firepower (both artillery and air strikes) were applied, followed by an infantry assault to secure to objective. In most instances, PAVN forces fought tenaciously, bloodying the Americans, before vanishing into the jungle. Key firefights in the campaign occurred on Hills 823, 724, and 882. As these fights were taking place around Dak To, the airstrip became a target for PAVN artillery and rocket attacks. Battle of Fak To - Final Engagements:

    The worst of these took place on November 12, when rockets and shellfire destroyed several aircraft as well as detonated the base's ammunition and fuel depots. In addition to the American forces, Army of Vietnam (ARVN) units also took part in the battle, seeing action around Hill 1416. The last major engagement of the Battle of Dak To began on November 19, when the 2nd Battalion of the 503rd Airborne attempted to take Hill 875. After meeting initial success, the 2/503 found itself caught in an elaborate ambush. Surrounded, it endured a severe friendly fire incident and was not relieved until the next day.

    Resupplied and reinforced, the 503rd attacked the crest of Hill 875 on November 21. After savage, close-quarters fighting, the airborne troopers neared the top of the hill, but were forced to halt due to darkness. The following day was spent hammering the crest with artillery and air strikes, completely removing all cover. Moving out on the 23rd, the Americans took the top of the hill after finding that the North Vietnamese had already departed. By the end of November, the PAVN forces around Dak To were so battered that they were withdrawn back across the border ending the battle.

    Battle of Dak To - Aftermath:

    A victory for the Americans and South Vietnamese, the Battle of Dak To cost 376 US killed, 1,441 US wounded, and 79 ARVN killed. PAVN casualties are estimated between 1,000 to 1,445 killed. The Battle of Dak To saw US forces drive the North Vietnamese from the Kontum Province and decimated the regiments of the 1st PAVN Division. One of the "border battles" of late 1967, the Battle of Dak To did accomplish a key PAVN objective as US forces began to move out from cities and lowlands. By January 1968, half of all US combat units were operating away from these key areas.

    Saturday, July 21, 2012

    Vietnam war history - 4 of 4

    Vietnam war history - 3 of 4

    Vietnam war history - 2 of 4

    Vietnam war history - 1 of 4

    Tet 1969 at Cu Chi

    The American command in Vietnam had predicted the attacks for months — believing at first that they would start at the end of the summer of 1968, then around the time of the presidential election in November, and finally about the time of Richard Nixon's inauguration — but the NVA and the VC remained relatively quiet throughout that period. In spite of a conditional Tet truce unilaterally declared by the Communists, many in the U.S. and ARVN commands thought there would be a reprise of the attacks that had occurred all over South Vietnam in 1968, but the 1969 Tet passed with little additional activity. It was during the week after Tet that the Communists struck, launching attacks against 115 cities and military bases.

    On March 10, 1969, Newsweek reported: 'At Cu Chi, the headquarters of the U.S. 25th Infantry Division (Mechanized) some 20 miles northwest of Saigon, enemy sapper squads slipped undetected through the barbed-wire perimeter in the middle of the night and ranged up and down the airstrip planting their explosives. Before they were driven off, they totally destroyed nine giant Chinook helicopters and badly damaged four others. And despite the heavy damage inflicted, some U.S. officers believed that the Cu Chi attack was nothing more than a diversion — a maneuver designed to keep the 25th Division occupied while large enemy forces slipped past the base and moved toward Saigon.'

    That was the whole analysis — a one-paragraph report, stuck in the middle of a two-page story that was buried in a 100-page magazine. It was so inconspicuous that it would have been easy to miss. The reporting in Time was even thinner, mentioning the rocket and mortar attacks and comparing the situation to Tet 1968. On March 14, 1969, Time reported, 'The attacks in South Vietnam left 453 Americans dead in the first week, a higher toll than for any one week since last May — higher even than in the first full week of the Tet offensive a year ago.'

    A week later, Time devoted a column and a half to 'Assessing the Attack.' The report focused on the attempts to overrun Landing Zone Grant, a'super' fire support base northeast of Saigon. American defenders had reportedly thrown back a battalion of Communist troops, killing 285 of them in the process. American losses were 17 killed, including the commanding officer, Lt. Col. Peter Gorvad.

    Tet 1969 was practically missed by the media. Histories of Vietnam make almost no mention of it. Yet the Tet 1969 attack at Cu Chi, where I was stationed at the time, was a memorable engagement. It began with a rocket and mortar attack. The area of the 116th Assault Helicopter Company (the 'Hornets') was near the center of the large Cu Chi base camp. Although the center was where the NVA or VC aimed, a few of the rounds fell near us, waking us and sending us scrambling for the bunkers. These were little more than trenches dug about four feet into the ground and covered with a plywood roof that held several layers of sandbags, a series of 55-gallon drums covered with pierced steel plate (PSP) and more sandbags. The theory was that anything hitting the sandbags would detonate in the top layer, with the lower layers, PSP and the bottom layers absorbing the shrapnel.

    There was a wood bench in the bottom of the trench, and there were areas about shoulder height that could be thought of as shelves, though they were really just places where the dirt had been dug out. Minimal equipment, such as aircraft first-aid kits, was stored there.

    There were also bare light bulbs on a long wire — looking like oversized, clear Christmas lights — strung from one end of the bunker to the other. As long as the generator was working, there would be light in the bunker. The psychological importance of that little thing — lights — might explain why the engineers on Titanic worked so hard, sacrificing themselves, to keep the lights burning until just minutes before the ship sank.

    When I dived in, there were maybe a dozen men in the bunker, sitting on the bench. I was the only one who brought any weapons, having grabbed both my .38-caliber revolver and an M-2 carbine. I was wearing a T-shirt, fatigue trousers and unlaced boots.

    At about that time, the ground-attack horn sounded. We had heard it infrequently for six months, mainly when someone caught sight of what he believed to be an enemy patrol near the wire. I took a position near one entrance to the bunker and gave the revolver to another pilot who covered the other. We could still hear an occasional explosion far away, but I felt safe enough in the bunker.

    The ground-attack horn continued to blare, and the length of the mortar and rocket attack suggested that the enemy might be making a serious probe. I didn't expect trouble, since — even if they managed to break through the wire — there was more than a brigade of infantry on the base camp. More could be brought in, not to mention the interlocking fire of the artillery at the fire support bases surrounding Cu Chi, and airstrikes that could be launched by the Air Force.

    Sitting there, I wondered if I was going to have to defend the bunker with the two magazines I had. Suddenly the operations officer ran around a corner, skidded to a stop near me and announced, 'We've got to evacuate the aircraft.' Someone asked, 'To where?' The operations office replied: 'Don't know yet. We just need to get them off the airfield right now.'

    I ran out of the bunker toward my hooch, grabbed my flight helmet, then ran across the company area to the small footbridge that crossed the ditch by the road that led to the 'Hornet's Nest' — our name for the ramp and aircraft parking area. There I met Warrant Officer 1st Class Lance Overholt, a pilot I had known since flight school. He was a 'peter pilot,' or co-pilot, rather than an aircraft commander. Lance suggested, 'Let's get your aircraft.'

    We ran into the Nest, between helicopters, until we reached the northern corner where mine was parked. The crew chief and another man were working to get the door guns mounted. I tossed my carbine onto the troop seat and then ran to the rear of the helicopter so that we could untie the blade. Then I climbed into the pilot's seat, looked back and saw that the door guns were mounted. Both men were in the back, working to load their weapons. I turned on the battery, the main fuel and the start generator, ignoring the checklist. After looking right and left, I yelled, 'Clear.'

    'Clear back here,' shouted the crew chief. Overholt nodded, and I pulled the trigger that would start the turbine. My eyes were on the gas producer and the engine temperature gauge. We were doing a hot start, and it would be very easy to overheat the engine.

    Once the turbine caught and the gas producer had reached 40 percent, I let go of the trigger. Overholt, who was sitting there with his gloves and helmet on and plugged into the radio and intercoms, put his hand on the throttle. I buckled my seat and shoulder belt, put on my gloves and helmet, and then plugged in.

    Over the radio I listened to the communications from our operations bunker, the Cu Chi tower and other places. Outside, far over the perimeter, we could see the lights of some kind of aircraft circling. There were some fires burning on the base, but not very big ones.

    'We have Charlie on the active runway,' said Overholt. I said, 'We have suppression on the active.' That meant that if we saw movement, the door gunners were cleared to fire. No one from our company should be running around on the runway. Over the radio, Warrant Officer John Schaeffer said, 'I'm off and in orbit behind Puff [a Douglas AC-47 gunship] at 7,000 feet.'

    We rarely climbed above 3,000 feet, outside of small-arms range, but this sounded like something Schaeffer would do. He was always somewhere he shouldn't be, doing something he shouldn't be doing.

    'Flight, this is One-Six. Join on me.' That was Captain Joseph Downs, the first platoon leader we called Dai-uy Downs (Dai-uy was the Vietnamese equivalent of captain). I had to laugh at Downs' order. It was night. There were aircraft taking off all over the airfield, including the Hueys assigned to the 'Little Bears' of the 25th Infantry Division and the light observation helicopters of the 'Three-Quarters' Cav (3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry). I had no idea which aircraft or which formation One-Six was flying.

    I lifted to a hover, slowly backed out of the revetment and turned. Seeing two of the gunships on the assault strip, I moved toward them as they struggled to take off to the south. Shadowy figures ran around below. A burst of machine-gun fire ripped through the darkness, the red tracers glowing as they floated upward, nowhere near me.

    From somewhere on the northern side of the runway, another string of tracers erupted. These were green, meaning enemy, and much closer. They looked like glowing golf balls tossed at me. The crew chief opened fire, his ruby tracers flashing down at the end of the runway.

    One-Six was on the radio again, demanding that we all form on him, but he still hadn't provided the information needed to find him. Each helicopter was taking a position somewhere south of Cu Chi, on the far side of Highway 1, over the open area.

    About a thousand feet down, green tracers from Communist machine guns bounced around, some spinning upward, others along the ground. Red tracers, from American M-16s or M-60 machine guns, replied. A few fires burned on the northern side of the base camp and in the tiny city of Cu Chi.

    Over the intercom I heard, 'French fort firing up at us.' The French forts, triangular-shaped structures built low to the ground, were now occupied by South Vietnamese soldiers who had a habit of shooting at everything without regard to its identity. Fortunately, their tracers were nowhere near us.

    Near the edge of Cu Chi, close to the perimeter of the base camp, someone with automatic weapons was firing upward. The green tracers were rising slowly toward us. I figured they were about a hundred yards away. Behind me, one of the door guns fired, the red tracers dropping around the source of the green. The enemy stopped shooting at us.

    Puff suddenly opened fire, the red tracers of his mini-guns combining into a long, glowing stream that resembled a ruby-colored ray from a science fiction movie. It bobbed and wove along the ground, touched something that exploded into orange fire, then disappeared.

    'Hornet flight, join on me,' insisted One-Six, but he still didn't provide a location. 'All Hornet aircraft, join on One-Six, or make your way to Bien Hoa,' announced Hornet Operations. Someone asked, 'How's the ground attack going down there?' A reply came: 'I'm safe in my bunker. I don't know.'

    At last giving his location, One-Six radioed, 'All Hornet aircraft, I'm orbiting at 3,000 near Cu Chi city.' Overholt asked, 'We going to join on him?' I said: 'If I can find him. It'll be easier than trying to find everyone on the ground at Bien Hoa.'

    'Sir, we're taking fire from the right,' said a voice over the intercom. 'Do I return it?' I glanced out the cargo compartment door and saw a stream of red tracers. That didn't mean that the South Vietnamese were shooting at us, only that whoever it was had American ammunition. It wasn't all that close, either. Someone was shooting at the sound of the aircraft.

    'No,' I replied. 'We don't really know who is where down there now. If it gets any closer, then see if you can suppress it.'

    I spotted four or five helicopters in a staggered trail formation off to the left and turned toward the group, wondering if this was the Hornet flight. As I approached, even in the dark, I could see the white hornet painted on the nose of one of the aircraft. I passed them, turned and rolled over, catching them. I slowed to 60 knots and said, 'Three-Seven has joined the flight.' 'Roger, Three-Seven,' said Downs.

    I said to Overholt, 'You've got it.' Overholt put his hands on the controls and said, 'I've got it.' He took over flying while I sat back and studied the situation. The various radios were alive with chatter, from Air Force pilots, Army pilots, operations, other Hornet aircraft, and Armed Forces Radio in Vietnam. The automatic direction finder covered the commercial broadcast bands so that we could listen to music while flying. I had the volume set low, but could still hear rock and roll in the background.

    Below, I could see the base camp outlined in lights. There were fewer fires now and less shooting. Most of the rounds were outgoing. Red tracers bounced along the ground, most of them on the northern side of the base. Some were directed into the edge of Cu Chi city, and there seemed to be no return fire. Schaeffer called, telling us that he had joined the flight. One-Six asked for another head count and learned that most of the aircraft had found him. 'Turning toward Bien Hoa,' he announced, and the flight began a gentle maneuver.

    Bien Hoa wasn't all that far from Cu Chi, but by the time we arrived it was getting light. Once we landed and lined up on the side of an asphalt strip, we were told to meet at the mess hall. I was feeling uncomfortable because I had taken off without a shirt. The crew chief supplied a field jacket with Spc. 4 stripes on it. I thought nothing about the rank as we all headed toward the mess hall.

    We found a table set up for four on the officers' side and sat down. The mess hall was a little nicer than ours at Cu Chi. For one thing, rather than huge floor-mounted fans that were supposed to circulate air, it had air conditioning. For another thing, the hall was done in a wood resembling cherry, though I didn't pay enough attention to be sure it wasn't just plywood with cherry stain. And, most important, the food seemed better than what we got at Cu Chi.

    Some of the officers assigned there looked at me strangely, wondering what a Spc. 4 was doing on the officers' side, but I was sitting with three warrant officers, including Schaeffer and Overholt. They probably figured I was the crew chief or something and let it slide. I was fully prepared to explain, but no one asked.

    As we ate breakfast, Captain Downs circulated among the tables, giving us the news. 'Muleskinners got hit last night. Charlie came through the wire near them and ran through the revetments tossing satchel charges into the Chinooks. Blew up a bunch of them.'

    'How many came through the wire?' Schaeffer asked him. 'Maybe a platoon, maybe a little less,' replied Downs. 'We got them all?' asked Schaeffer. One-Six grinned and said, 'There are a couple still running around inside the wire. Got everyone a little jumpy.'

    'I hope we're in no hurry to get back,' I said.

    'We've got a couple of ash and trash missions to fly, but the early morning operations have been changed. Got the grunts in the field around Cu Chi. They just walk out the gate to begin their search.'

    After we finished breakfast, our platoon leader, Two-Six, walked over and asked me, 'You ever been to the Air America pad?' 'You mean at Tan Son Nhut?' I asked. 'Yeah.' 'Once; I think I know where it is,' I said. 'You have to enter through the main control tower and not Hotel-Three,' he said, meaning that I'd have to land on the airfield proper rather than flying into the helipad near the biggest PX in the world, just on the edge of Tan Son Nhut.

    'We'll all head back to Cu Chi. You'll need to refuel and then fly over to the Muleskinners to pick up a flight crew and take them to Saigon. They're going to pick up a new Chinook.' I consented, and he asked, 'Who's your peter pilot?' 'Overholt,' I said. That surprised him. Normally, the junior aircraft commander was paired with the senior peter pilot, putting as much experience in the cockpit as possible. The problem here was that Overholt and I had been in flight school together, and he'd arrived in-country and at the company a week before I had — yet I had already made aircraft commander and he hadn't. Although I wasn't supposed to know, the platoon leader and the other aircraft commanders thought that Overholt might resent the situation. But Two-Six finally agreed that last night's activities had overruled that concern.

    Once we finished eating, we strolled back out to the aircraft to await instructions. Flight lead, by default, was Downs. He rode up in a jeep, walked toward the nose of his aircraft and waved a hand over his head, telling us to crank.

    He flew back to Cu Chi and stopped at the petroleum, oil and lubricants (POL) point, which hadn't been damaged in the attack. The rearm point looked as if it had been hit. There were the remains of the 2.75-inch rockets, the wood from ammunition crates, cardboard, paper, smoke grenades and other debris scattered in front. The sign looked as if it had been hit by some of the larger ordnance. The remains still smoked, but not everything had burned.

    When the flight took off from the POL point, I broke away from the formation and landed on the Muleskinners' company pad. As we passed over part of their flight line, I could see the remains of Chinooks in the revetments. Here were what had once been huge, twin-rotor aircraft, each capable of carrying 40 soldiers, reduced to a small pile of smoking rubble. There didn't seem to be enough material in the revetments for a Chinook — just ash with partially burned rotor blades sticking out at strange angles.

    The Chinook pilots climbed into the back. Neither of them looked any the worse for wear. They were both in fresh flight suits. One carried a black briefcase, a flight bag and a revolver in an Old West–style holster. The other carried a flight bag and wore a shoulder holster with a .45-caliber pistol. Neither said a word to me, but one of them talked to the crew chief. With the turbine running, even at flight idle, conversation was difficult.

    'They want to know if you know the destination,' said the crew chief on the intercom. 'Yeah,' I said. 'Ask them how everything is.'

    A moment later he said: 'They lost one man, Spc. 4 Isaac Stringer, Jr. He was killed by an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] in the maintenance area. They lost a bunch of their airplanes.'

    The crew chief then relayed to me that the VC had punched their way through the wire, blowing up a bunker to do so. They had first run toward the Muleskinners' area, stopping just long enough to blow up the aircraft, and then spread out over the Cu Chi base camp, looking for targets. Apparently they had attacked the POL point, but they hit the refueling points rather than the storage area and destroyed only a couple of hoses. That reduced the capacity to refuel aircraft but did no serious damage. They found the rearm point and tried to blow it up, but with only moderate success. By the time they moved beyond that, most of the aircraft had been evacuated. The 25th Division, either with its infantry companies or with the military police, had begun searching the camp for the sappers. The Americans believed there might be as many as 25 or 30 of the enemy still hiding in the camp.

    As we took off for Saigon and the Air America pad, I looked back at Cu Chi. I couldn't see much. The fire that always burned on the northeastern side still burned, throwing up a column of smoke that helped us navigate. Anyone who managed to get within 10 or 20 miles of Cu Chi could spot the smoke and then use it to navigate the rest of the way. I didn't see any real damage, other than that to the Muleskinners' Chinooks and around the rearm point.

    It wasn't long before we had made our way to Saigon, following the standard practice of flying at low altitude to avoid aircraft taking off or landing at Ton Son Nhut. We got permission to land directly at the Air America pad and touched down. Sitting on the pad was what looked like a brand-new Chinook.

    The two pilots climbed out, thanked us for the ride and disappeared toward the hangar. I called the Tan Son Nhut tower to take off, explaining that I was in a UH-1 at the Air America pad, and requested a straight-out exit to avoid the traffic pattern filled with jet fighters, four-engine transports and other fixed-wing aircraft. We finally got our instructions and took off.

    Arriving at Cu Chi, we refueled and then headed for the Hornet's Nest. I parked in the revetment, shut down and got out of the aircraft. In Operations I learned that the enemy soldiers had all been eliminated. There had been few American or South Vietnamese casualties. The damage had been limited to the Chinooks and the rearm point, though there was some minor shrapnel damage in the company area. Something had poked a couple of holes in the corrugated tin of the buildings, ripped up some of the bamboo matting and put holes in some screen, as well as a few more holes in the tail booms of some of the aircraft.

    The damage wasn't heavy, except to the Muleskinners — and even then, some of the destroyed aircraft had been replaced by noon the next day. The entire force of sappers had been eliminated. I never did learn how many there had been. Surely fewer than 50, but maybe as many as 40.

    Other than Newsweek, news magazines failed to report on the attack. It was mentioned only in passing, suggesting that a base northwest of Saigon had been hit. Quite a few bases were described by the media as being 'northwest of Saigon,' so those reports could have been about one of the other attacks.

    Our mission for the following day changed slightly, but only because the infantry conducted searches around Cu Chi rather than flying out into the Ho Bo Woods, the Iron Triangle or the areas along the Saigon River. We were fully prepared to fly the next day. Admittedly the pilots had been flying since early morning and had had very little sleep the night before — but that was not an unusual circumstance.

    Of course, Tet 1969 was nowhere near as dramatic as Tet the year before. The media seemed to believe that fewer troops were engaged and the scale of the attacks had been reduced significantly. In reality, the numbers were about equal, but the Communists had not enjoyed the initial successes of 1968. The news media were surprised in 1968, whereas in 1969 they were waiting for something to happen.

    Reporters might have thought there was heavy damage at Cu Chi, but I saw only minor damage and disruption — and, of course, Isaac Stringer had been killed. I also noticed that everyone in the camp was armed. Normally, upon return from the day's missions, the weapons were stored.

    The day after that, everything returned to normal. Although the Tet 1969 attack on Cu Chi was certainly disruptive to the Muleskinners, it might be classified as a nonevent except to those who participated. Yet it was one of many mere footnotes in the history of the Vietnam War that became vivid memories for those of us who were there.

    This article was written by Kevin D. Randle and was originally published in the February 2003 issue of Vietnam Magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Vietnam Magazine today!