Tet Offensive, 31 Jan 68

The following was sent by JIM LOVE a.k.a. PFC.James B Love, 2nd Squad, 2nd Platoon, C 2/47

(As Remembered in April 1999)

I was eighteen years old and had been in Vietnam since the 26 Dec 67. I had been a member of C Company, 2/47th Mech Infantry, 9th Infantry Division, since the 10th of January 1968. I had not taken part in a shooting war yet. I led my first listening post just two days before. This was my baptism of fire. It was early, probably 0400 or so when we got the call to saddle up. We had spent the night in a laterite pit north of Long Binh. I sat up all night talking to Idorwatt, the platoon leader's RTO. He sat with me through my guard shift, then I moved over to his track and we talked through his. Both of us were restless. I don't know why. We had no word of anything happening. We mooched around getting organized and finally rolled up in front of the 90th Replacement Battalion's front gate, Long Binh Post, at sunrise. I would estimate the time around 0600. To the southwest there was a large hill rising toward Bien Hoa Air Base. I saw a Cobra gunship firing into an area behind the crest of the hill, at a distance of a mile or so away. I thought then that we were going there. I was right. We finally started rolling up the hardball toward Bien Hoa. The streets were deserted. People occasionally looked out from doorways as we passed. I focused on my sector, from my perch straddling the shipping connector atop the left rear corner of the M-113, APC. My sector was from the middle of the left side to the middle of the rear ramp. We had company this morning. In addition to the squad leader, Willie Howell, the driver, SPC Bostic, the M-60 gunner, SPC Mohica, and the privates Robinson, Koch and me, we had a two man Arty radio team, whose identities are lost. It was crowded. We had the top hatch open. The arty team and Robinson sat on the hatch facing forward. Mohica sat on the right rear corner. Howell stood in the open cargo hatch peeking out behind the open commander's hatch. Koch sat on the .50 with his back leaning against the open commander's hatch. Bostic was up in the driver's hatch with his head and shoulders exposed. It was more comfortable to drive that way. He did not wear goggles. We had the old style, gasoline engine track. It rumbled, squeaked and shuddered, loud as hell.

We were in line about mid-way down the column, following the Plt Leader (Casper). We were Casper's Ghostriders, the 2-3 track. At the main gate to Bien Hoa Airbase we turned right and headed down QL1. We rolled for about two miles until the houses on the left (west) side of the road ended. A line of cheap houses about 300 yards backed a large open field west. The column stopped and inexplicably began to turn around. We all went through the turn around. It was amusing to exchange high signs, smiles and gestures of "typical military bullshit" with our buddies from the other tracks as they passed us going back the way we had just come. We turned around and joined the column. About a mile later we stopped. Then 2-3 was ordered to turn right into a narrow street. There was some confusion. We still didn't know what we were doing there. We finally turn right and begin slowly moving west on the unnamed street. High walls shield courtyards. People are hiding in alleys. The roadway is only wide enough for one track at a time. I thought,"This is kind of stupid!" I felt trapped. Especially since Mojica and I were advancing into the unknown with our backs turned! A Vietnamese boy, maybe 10 years old, was hiding in the first alley on the left. As we slowly passed, the track moving "at a walk", he looked at me then pointed down the street and said,"Beaucoup VC!". I gave him a thumbs up. I glanced forward and saw an empty intersection ahead. A jeep, with Vietnamese Army markings, was parked facing us close to the wall on the left side of the street, just feet from the intersection. I looked back toward the alley. BLAM!!

I sensed I was in flight. Nothing else for a moment, just flight. I never felt it when I hit the ground. I had been blown off the track and into a slimy little drainage ditch on the side of the road. Dust and smoke filled the air. I knew we had been hit but didn't know how bad. The .50cal was firing in a continuous roll. I heard some yelling. The smoke and dust hung heavily in the damp morning air. I snap rolled over onto my belly and began firing my M-16 down the ditch toward the only thing I could see, the wheels of a jeep parked at the corner of the next intersection. It was only 40 meters away but all I could see were the wheels. I thought the shooter was under the jeep. I killed the jeep. Mojica fired off a belt from the M-60 on the other side of the road.

I changed magazines and waited for orders. Howell was yelling. "Charlie, charlie, charlie done jumped in mah shee-it!" Lying on the ground I could see his pants legs were bloody. I heard Bostic moaning. I got up and went to help. We got Bostic out of the driver's hatch. The blast and dust had temporarily blinded him. Koch took a large piece of frag that unzipped his leg about four inches worth. He was bleeding and dazed. One of the RTO's caught a chunk of shrapnel in the stock of the M-79 he had held across his chest as we entered the alley. He had pepper frag on his legs. The other RTO was peppered too. Mojica and I were the only two to get off the track unscathed. Howell wasn't making any sense. He was rambling about fire. I grabbed a couple of cans of ammo and started hauling them to the track behind us thinking our track was brewing up. There was no fire, only steam from the radiator that was punctured. Lots of confusion. Howell put me on the .50 to pull security. Mojica stayed on the ground with the M-60. Bostic and Koch were evacuated. Then occurred the single most bizarre event of my service in Vietnam. LT Casper, assorted senior NCO's and hangers on gathered in front of the track to hold a conference! They were between the intersection and me. As a PFC I didn't think to mention they should probably chat behind the track. Not two minutes late three VC, complete with black pajamas, weapons and kit, calmly walked across the intersection in front of us, 40 yards away. I didn't believe it at first. I thought about firing the .50 but I was afraid I'd hit our own people. I yelled at them to get out of the way. The VC ran into each other dashing the rest of the way across the intersection. They got away. LT Casper asked me why I didn't fire. I said I was afraid I'd hit some of them. I wasn't very respectful when I said that. We then got a house search organized. I took the first house on the right and found nothing. Standing there, knocking on the door like any well raised American youth, was the stupidest thing I have ever done. We weren't trained to clear houses. Especially houses with families in them. It proved a waste of time.

Someone rigged tow cables to the rear of the track and drug out of the alley onto QL1. We then were towed to III Corps headquarters and positioned in front of the main gate to reinforce the defense of the compound. It was about 0930 by then and the sun was heating up. Several of us were tasked to go across the street with an old US civilian to look for VC snipers. This lasted about an hour. With some serious poking and looking but it turned up nothing. We went back to the compound. By now the crew were Howell, Robinson, the platoon medic, Doc Rogers and me. Rogers attended the platoon sergeant, "Magnificent 7", who had been shot through one of the rolls of fat on his ample stomach. He was whining and trying to look at the wound. Rogers kept slapping his face away, telling him to shut up. Nobody liked Magnificent 7. He was a terror in base camp but in the field, he was one scared fat guy. Howell was hurting with the pepper frag in his legs. He started taking Darvon reinforced with shots of Four Roses whiskey. In an hour or so he was one toasty puppy, feeling no pain. We sat in the sun at the main gate to III Corps for several hours, while other members of the platoon were detailed to go house to house. I was relieved not to have to do that. It was all very disorganized. I was scared I was going to get killed because we didn't seem to have a handle on how to fight this thing. I was more than content to ride it out behind the .50, even if the temperature was in the low 90's and we had no overhead cover while on guard. Robinson spelled me on the gun. About 1200, several of the REMF's from III Corps HQ, in their starched fatigues, shined boots and new web gear, came to the rear of the track to buy sodas. We were issued ice the night before. By now our sodas were icy cold, with beads of condensation dripping off the can. We gladly sold them for a dollar a piece. Our customers gladly paid. The squad fund made a profit that day. About 1400 we were towed through the main gate and back out onto QL1, headed north. I was ready to go. Soda sales had leveled off. The sun was frying our brains. I was soaked in sweat. There was no shade at all at the main gate and we were a sitting duck. I wanted to fight, but fight smart. We chugged along, eating exhaust and dust from the track towing us for about four miles. We stopped at the base of a large hill. The company was in column. Our track stopped just beyond a Catholic school. The yard was filled with school children. The Vietnamese priest was gesturing toward the crest of the hill where two large Catholic churches sat facing each other. Oh, keen! This looked like another opportunity to excel. BLOOP!!

The unmistakable sound of an M-79 firing made us all flinch. It was LT Gross, the company commander, the King of Charlie Company. He carried an M-79 with "The King" painted on the stock. He'd fired at an old Vietnamese civilian who ran into a building. BLOOP!!

The first round had been at the shutters on the windows of the building. The second round went through the hole opened by the first round and exploded inside. Shortly thereafter the door opened and two women drug this incredibly old man out into the street. He was streaked with blood. Doc Rogers helped them bring the old man over to our tracks. Doc went to work on him. The shrapnel had done a lot of damage. He was cut deep, wide and often. Rogers didn't work very hard. He was conserving supplies because he knew we weren't through for the day and was keeping them for us. We dispassionately watched this unlucky old guy lay there and bleed. Nobody really gave a shit at that point. We were thinking about the hill looming the distance. Howell told me to go with LT Casper on patrol. I exchanged my M-16 for an M-79, several bandoleers of grenades and a .45cal pistol. I love grenades. Besides, as a lowly private, I'd never got a chance to carry an M-79. I was moving up the ordnance ladder, anyway! We got no briefing. Just formed up in a gaggle that turned into a column, turned right into an alley then turned left up another alley leading to the rear of the church on the East Side of the road. Our route paralleled QL1. First platoon, we found out later, was simultaneously moving toward the church on the left. There was a plan after all. We eased along the alley, or maybe it was the local version of a dirt street, slowly advancing up the hill. The church was completely surrounded by a three-foot wall. There was an open space of twenty meters or so on the south side where another building had been destroyed. We went across the open ground one at a time. Once across that, we kept moving north using the East Side of the churchyard wall to protect us. The smell of burning wood lingered in the air. After ten meters, we hit another street and turned left still hugging the wall. There, in the burned out remains of houses, I saw my first dead VC. The fire horribly baked him. Not burned, just blistered all over. His clothes were largely intact. I stared at the corpse for a moment or so, digesting the event. Then, like most of us at that place and time, completely dismissed it. A gunship made a run and fired close to us. We found out he shot a VC on the roof of the church! Why this guy didn't light us up is unknown. Maybe he was looking the wrong way. We moved along the wall to a gateway and stopped. Then, just like the movies, we all rose and peered over the wall. We were maybe 25 feet from the church. I was just left of the double doors leading into the front of the church near the altar. The point was stopped about midway down the length of the church. Corporal Sandusky, a short, stocky Georgian with a thick reddish blonde moustache, went forward to the doors leading to the altar. He cracked open the door. A grenadier moved up to him and fired an M-79 round into the church. We could hear the dull explosion. Then he fired again. The same results. Then Sandusky uncorked an M-26 handgrenade and flipped into the church, throwing in the direction of the area to the left of the altar. It exploded. He was through the door immediately after blast. We heard his M-16 fire, once, twice. Controlled 2-3 round bursts. Then he yelled "Clear!". We moved quickly into the church through the double doors, clustering around the front of the altar. There were two dead VC by the windows on that side, with an RPD machine gun set on a table so it could fire through the windows. The gun had jammed. Mortar tubes, ammunition, aiming stakes and similar equipment was stacked at the front of the church. I went snooping around. A large explosion that left a gaping hole in the roof at the southwest corner had destroyed the stairway leading to the roof. We were at the East End of the building. I found two VC laying side by side at the right of the altar. One had a rag wrapped around his head, no shirt and khaki pants. The other had a rag around his head but was dressed in NVA khaki. I announced my find and LT Casper told me to search them. I set the M-79 on the first pew, loosened the flap on the .45 holster and knelt over the guy in uniform. He had no marks on the front of his body. No blood. I ran my hands through his pockets and found nothing. Then, just like I'd been trained to do at Fort Polk, LA, I ran my hands gently under his shoulders and down his back feeling for a booby trap. He was shot through the back and my hands were covered in thick, gooey, drying blood. There was nothing else. I looked at my hands then looked for something to wipe them on. I noticed the khaki pants. Perfect. I generally cleaned them by wiping them back and forth on the fabric. I saw, out of the corner of my eye, the stomach of the second man move. I jumped up quick. I hollered to LT Casper that I had a live one here. He said kill him. I delayed, trying to get myself together. I couldn't shoot this guy in the head with my .45 because it might ricochet. All I had was the pistol and the M-79. I was thinking of ways to do it without ricocheting rounds off the concrete of the altar. What I was actually doing was delaying because deep down inside I wasn't ready to pop a cap on a wounded man. Finally, I told LT Casper I couldn't do it. A mechanic came over with a .45 submachine gun, the old M-3 grease gun, and fired a burst into this guy's stomach. The VC's eyes flew open, his hands came up clutching and his mouth opened but no sounds emerged. The shock the wounds just knocked him about. He didn't bleed much, so I think he was in shock already. The fact of the matter was I just couldn't kill a wounded and helpless man. The other fact is, it was totally unnecessary. We left all the equipment and the dead and went back down the hill to the tracks. I asked LT Casper about taking the mortars with us but he said leave it and the Vietnamese Army would collect it. That didn't sound right either.

Back at the track I told Howell what happened and he gave me shit about not shooting the VC. He said I should have been motivated to do it because all my friends were wounded that morning. I asked, "What friends?" I was never close to anybody on that track or that squad. It was too bad they got hit but I wasn't crushed. Actually I was feeling pretty good. I was alive. Actually, I was hungry. I sat down to a feast of C's, opening a can of meatballs and beans. As I sat on the side of the road munching away, I realized the food smelled funny. I sniffed deep in the can and it seemed ok. Then I smelled my hands. I saw the VC's blood dried in the crevices of my fingers and under my nails. Well, mystery solved. It wasn't the food. I resumed eating. After my snack, I got the water can out of the track and washed my hands. About 1700 we rolled over the hill and down the other side to a night defensive position on the western edge of the perimeter at II Field Force. A dead Vietnamese civilian lay in the road next to a new 125cc motorcycle. His arm was raised skyward from the elbow. I noticed a very nice gold watch on wrist. The watch caught the fading light and glowed. I hoped someone got the watch that needed it. We slept in the ditch along the side of the road, away from the tracks. I pulled a guard shift but was generally left alone to talk to Idorwatt about the day and get some sleep. We waited for an attack that never came. The next day our track was towed back to Bear Cat. That ended my part in the Tet Offensive of 1968.

In retrospect, I realize how inept we were. We should have dismounted infantry to precede the tracks down the street that morning. Our leaders shouldn't have bunched up in front of a disabled vehicle. We should have advanced the tracks to cover our approach to the churches. Once we took the churches, the tracks should have immediately come up to reinforce us and prepare for a possible counterattack. When that failed to occur, we should have evacuated the VC weapons, material and prisoner in the tracks. We were lucky. Years later I met one of the NCO's from III Corps. Listening to me talk about that day, he suddenly said,"You're the SOB that sold me a coke for a dollar!" I laughed. He then said,"It was worth every penny!" LT Casper and Doc Rogers were both killed in Vietnam. LT Gross went back to Fort Lewis, WA, to command a basic training company. I met an officer who knew him there. He apparently regaled them with stories of playing touch football in the perimeter in the field, shooting his M-79 and being the King of Charlie Company. The officer was stunned when I assured him that it was all true. In March 68, while serving with a combined recon/intel platoon of the 1st Brigade, 9th Div, I wrote a song commemorating my experience:

January Thirty-one

January thirty-one, Tet Offensive just begun, Charlie company's out behind Long Binh, Four thirty call told us to go in, Gotta go save our Air Force friends, The King said "Charlie, charlie, this is the King" "Meet me on the hardball, Highway 15" "We're going to Bien Hoa, outside Saigon, "Gotta save the Air Force from the Cong, " Gonna save the Air Force from the Cong.

Second platoon, the 2-3 track, Thumbs up signs, some won't be back, Down in Bien Hoa, in a narrow street, Charlie socked it to us with an RPG. Dragged that track back to Third Corps Charlie company fights a little bit more, Trying to calm my shaking hand, Gotta show the boys I can be a man, Gotta show the boys I can be a man.

Charlie company rolled up that hill, Six more Cong in a church we killed, Then the King on the radio, Sayin' saddle your ponies, we gotta go.

He's saying "Charlie, Charlie this is the King" Roll to the hardball, Highway Fifteen, Rally your people, gather your gear, People don't seem to like us round here, We done all we can do around here.

It was January Thirty-one, Tet Offensive just begun, A day that means quite a lot to me, I was only eighteen and got my C-I-B, But most of all, I got away, Scot free!!!

-Love-

1968

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