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  Revisiting Vietnam American RadioWorks
     
  Vietnam Scrapbook
     


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 when the
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 base.

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 so long.

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 allies.

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)

   

 

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