William E. Haynes, Vietnam veteran
Rancho Palos Verdes, CA 90275, USA
A somewhat different set of reflections on Tet, 1968, from one
who fought the Communists and experienced the Tet Offensive. I
was commander of the 90th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Bien Hoa
Air Base about twenty miles north of Saigon in February, 1968
Communist invaders launched their attack.
Please realize that Tet is celebrated as a period of reflection
upon the events of the past year and a time when enemies reconcile
and debts are paid, homes are cleaned and ancestors are remembered.
It was that period that the Communists chose to mount their most
vicious attack upon their southern brothers. They sought to exploit
an expected relaxation of defenses and desire for a peaceful celebration
to kill more ARVN and American troops and South Vietnamese civilians.
Bien Hoa Air Base was the home of both Vietnamese and U.S. Air
Force units and the source of much trouble for the Communists.
My squadron mounted on average twenty five to thirty sorties a
day against them, and there were two other U.S. fighter squadrons
based there, as well as a Vietnamese fighter squadron, a Squadron
of C-123 Ranch Hands who sprayed Agent Orange that defoliated
the Communists' jungle hideouts (more on this shortly), and was
the major base for both receipt of logistics via cargo aircraft
and departure on the big commercial aircraft that we called the
"Freedom Birds" on which we returned to the USA. There was also
a company of Army helicopters and a number of FACs (forward air
controllers who directed our combat missions) based on Bien Hoa.
There was advance intelligence that something big would happen
the evening before the initiation of the Tet Offensive. My squadron
was on special alert and flew a highly unusual mission to the
northern border of South Vietnam on the day before. During that
first night the base itself came under ground attack for the first
time. It seems that a force of North Vietnamese infiltrators had
taken over houses along the south border of the base and had occupied
the open ground just east of the base. During the night our perimeter
defenses came under heavy automatic weapons fire. The fire was
returned by the ARVN troops dug in and in bunkers all around the
You should understand that the base belonged to the South Vietnamese,
and we Americans were tenants on the base. The perimeter was ringed
with barbed wire in depth, mine fields and concrete bunkers left
over from the French presence there. Although there were U.S.
troops guarding that perimeter, the primary responsibility was
borne by our South Vietnamese allies. The first day of Tet, '68
at Bien Hoa on the ground was devoted to rooting out the Communist
attackers from the city of Bien Hoa south of our perimeter, and
in the east side open area. Meanwhile, we airmen continued to
fly our usual mission load, with heightened intensity as numerous
new targets appeared. The Communists had occupied Buddhist temples
and similar areas in an effort to discourage counter attacks,
but for the first time, the South Vietnamese command was authorizing
sacrifice of such previously off limits sites as the seriousness
of the Communist threat became clear.
By noon that first day all of the Communist ground troops attacking
Bien Hoa had been wiped out. I recall witnessing dozens of black
pajama clad bodies being loaded into military pick up trucks at
the east end of our runway on the way to disposal. It was clear
to any casual observer that most of these people had been very
young men; in their early to mid teens. That was clear even when
the apparent youthfulness of young Vietnamese men was taken into
account. Our flight surgeon took some blood samples and verified
that these gallant Communists had been high on opium laced wine
during their final battle.
Earlier that morning I was returning from a mission and on final
approach to our only runway when I saw tracer automatic weapon
fire shooting straight up ahead of me between my F-100 and the
runway. I called it out to the tower operator who acknowledged
it (what could he do?) while I continued on to a normal landing.
I never did find out whether that was friendly fire or some poor
Communist's last gasp. It is a measure of what one can begin to
accept as normal in a war zone. The rest of Tet continued with
infiltrators in Saigon and all around South Vietnam. I still have
gun camera film of a strafing attack I made on a roofless house
across the Saigon River from bunched houses and sampans just on
the other side. My wing man and I had just completed a mission
out in the countryside when we received directions to aid an ARVN
unit that was taking mortar fire on the outskirts of Saigon.
The FAC directed us to fire our 20 mm cannon at this house where
the mortar was concealed. I took one look at this target and ordered
my wing man to stay "high and dry" as he was relatively inexperienced
while I already had over a hundred missions under my belt. I set
myself up for a high angle approach from over the houses so that
chances of any rounds being deflected that way were minimized.
I waited until I was as low as possible, squeezed of a short burst
and zoomed over the top of the house and back up.
Later I received a report from the FAC that the mortar had been
silenced. Furthermore, when the ARVN troops reached it there was
no sign of the Commie gunner, ... but there was a twenty mm hole
though the barrel of his mortar!
By the end of the third day of Tet it was clear that the Communists
had suffered a tremendous loss of people and weapons and had gained
nothing, except for having temporarily occupied the city of Hue.
That occupation, which resulted in the summary execution of thousands
of Hue's noncombatant citizens, gave the South Vietnamese a taste
of what occupation of all of South Vietnam would mean.
We fighter pilots were totally energized by what had transpired.
For the first time we had more targets out in the open where we
could really be effective, and where we could really aid our South
Vietnamese allies in their fight for freedom. The ARVN also was
energized and encouraged by their successes all the way from battalion
sized battles to the numerous village self defense forces that
had beaten off their Communist attackers.
Then we were totally amazed. The source of our amazement was
the U.S. media's reporting of Tet. Our squadron had built a small
officer's club in one of the hooches that housed our junior officers.
There was a bar in one room and a small reading room with a TV
set where we watched the three U.S. networks' news broadcasts
every evening, as provided by the Armed Forces Network News Service.
Now realize that we who were fighting the war were convinced
that we had just accomplished what we had been trying to do for
years: that is, to essentially wipe out the Communist infiltrators
as well as energize our South Vietnamese allies to go all out,
allow no sanctuaries and really hurt the enemy wherever he was.
What we saw portrayed on U.S. TV was hand wringing and doom saying,
"the issue is in doubt", "Communist troops are in the center of
Saigon", "Hue has fallen", etc., etc. Our initial bewilderment
was soon replaced by another emotion: blistering anger! We were
well aware of the civil disobedience campaign that was being waged
at home, because there were echoes of the attitude behind it in
the war theater. We were describing Communist prisoners of war
as "detainees"; we were admonished not to refer to napalm when
we were interviewed for home town news releases and even medal
citations had to be "cleansed" of controversial references to
numbers killed and such like nasty references.
But watching our own news media grossly distort and denigrate
what we all saw as a major triumph, at first simply flabbergasted
us, and then made us furious. Need I say that I am still furious?
No, not at the Vietnamese, of whatever persuasion. It is indeed
time to stop hating them, for I see the North Vietnamese as just
as much victims of a repressive, bloodthirsty dictatorship as
were, and are, the South Vietnamese by whose side we fought for
It is my sincere wish that a new generation of journalists will
engage in an in-depth examination of the view of that war that
I am trying to convey here. It is not the common view. It is not
the view that those media have succeeded in investing into our
history books I have despaired of ever overcoming what to me was
clearly aiding the enemy, and those who have refused to even listen
to the point of view that I am espousing.
The overwhelming burden of reporting on the Vietnam War has been
from Hanoi's point of view and that continues to this day. The
wonder is that we were able to sustain that war effort for as
long as we did, while our leadership hedged, dissembled and finally
ran away. We didn't lose that war on the battle fields of Vietnam;
we lost it on TV, in the pages of our newspapers and on our college
campuses where professors indoctrinated students with the messages
of Ho Chi Minh, and adulated Jane Fonda and Danniel Ellsberg while
we were fighting and dying to keep South Vietnam free.
I saw "Full Metal Jacket" with my son and afterwards he asked
me whether what we had seen portrayed was "true". I replied that
everything we had seen was true, but that the motion picture was
a lie. He asked how that could be? I replied that although I had
no doubt that somewhere in Viet Nam all those incidents or their
equivalent had occurred, that they constituted picking the evil
raisins out of a flawless cake. Nowhere in that propaganda film
were the very close camaraderie of U.S. and South Vietnamese fighters
depicted, the tremendous sacrifice that we made as a nation for
absolutely no selfish purpose nor commercial gain; solely in a
sabotaged attempt to save the freedom of our South Vietnamese
We can thank God that the so called Cold War finally ended when
the fundamental corruption and moral bankruptcy of that philosophy
caused it to fall of its own weight. It is clear that Vietnam,
as well as all the other nations so cruelly wounded by the evil
that is Communism, is rapidly throwing off that awful yoke and
that when viewed as one battle in a Cold War that was won by Freedom,
we did not fight in vain.
When will the U.S. media and historians finally get that message?
William E. Haynes
Lt Col USAF (Ret)