53 years ago, a vicious, unexpected attack showed Americans what kind of war they were really fighting in Vietnam

Marine Corps Marines Hue South Vietnam
US Marines on residential street behind a tank firing over an outer wall of the citadel in Hue, South Vietnam, February 13, 1968.

  • In the final hours of January 1968, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army launched a massive offensive across South Vietnam.
  • The Tet Offensive failed to hold territory or spark a general uprising, but daily footage of brutal fighting broadcast into homes in the US had a profound effect on how Americans viewed the war.
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Shortly after midnight on January 30, 1968, cities in South Vietnam came under simultaneous attack by North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers and Viet Cong (VC) guerrillas.

Many of the attacks were beaten back relatively quickly, some within hours, but the following days revealed that the fighting was not isolated.

Over 100 locations, including 36 of South Vietnam’s 44 provincial capitals, six of its largest cities, and dozens of towns, hamlets, and South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) and US bases faced a massive and well-coordinated attack.

The NVA and VC had launched their Tet Offensive, a brutal assault by some 84,000 soldiers and guerrillas across South Vietnam. They were told to “crack the sky” and “shake the earth” and that the offensive would be “the greatest battle ever fought in the history of our country.”

What ensued would change the course of the Vietnam War.

A plan to start an uprising

Viet Cong Vietnam Tet Offensive
A woman Vietcong soldier with an anti-tank gun during a fighting in southern Cuu Long delta amid the Tet general offensive, spring 1968.

American military advisors had been on the ground in Vietnam for over a decade, but the country saw ever increasing fighting since the US directly intervened in 1965.

By 1968, at least 485,000 US troops were stationed in the country. The fighting on the ground was almost exclusively in the countryside, and bombing operations had expanded into Laos and Cambodia in an effort to destroy the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the main supply line for communist forces.

Contrary to statements made by President Lyndon B. Johnson and the overall US commander in Vietnam, Army Gen. William Westmoreland, there was no sign of victory in sight.

The war had entered a stalemate, and the leaders of North Vietnam, upset by the lack of progress, devised a plan that they believed would give them the decisive victory necessary to unify Vietnam under communism.

Viet Cong Vietnam Tet Offensive
Viet Cong soldiers charging the enemy in South Vietnam, 1968.

They would take the fight directly to South Vietnam’s centers of power – the cities.

The objective was to take control of the major cities, broadcast messages of revolution, and start a general uprising across the country, overwhelming American and ARVN forces and leaving the US with no choice but to withdraw.

The offensive took place during Tet, a holiday that was traditionally, but unofficially, seen as a ceasefire period, allowing ARVN soldiers to return home.

In the months before the offensive, the NVA and VC smuggled thousands of men, weapons, and tons of supplies down the Ho Chi Minh trail and into South Vietnam’s cities.

Diversion at Khe Sanh

Khe Sanh b52 strike
US Marines in sandbagged trenches watch a B-52 strike on Communist positions only 1,000 yards from the base at Khe Sanh, March 3, 1968.

By December, US and ARVN commanders knew something was coming. They noticed the massive increase in activity along the Ho Chi Minh trail, and captured reports showed plans for attacking cities. They also intercepted a recorded message calling on locals to rise up.

Westmoreland believed these were diversions and that the true target was Khe Sanh, a large military base just a few miles from the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam.

Worried that the US could suffer a defeat like France’s disastrous loss at Dien Bien Phu 14 years earlier, Westmoreland ordered reinforcements to Khe Sanh and put its 6,000-strong Marine garrison on alert.

Sure enough, almost 20,000 NVA troops attacked Khe Sanh on January 21, starting a brutal months-long siege.

Believing this to be the main attack, the US threw a massive amount of firepower into the fight, dropping close to 100,000 tons of bombs on NVA positions. Half of the US Army’s mobile reserve was also sent into the area.

But Khe Sanh was the diversion.

Saigon

Saigon Vietnam embassy Tet Offensive
US soldiers seen through a hole in the perimeter wall after the attack on the US Embassy during the Tet Offensive, in Saigon, early 1968.

A little more than a week after the fighting at Khe Sanh started, the true targets came under attack. Saigon, South Vietnam’s capital, was the biggest.

Shortly after midnight, the presidential palace came under assault, as did the airport, the city’s biggest radio station, and multiple bases, including Westmoreland’s own headquarters.

Most shocking, 19 VC commandos breached the US Embassy, engaging US troops in a six-hour long firefight before being killed or captured.

But things fell apart for the VC and NVA in Saigon. US and ARVN forces inflicted massive casualties, and operators at the radio station prevented the call for an uprising from going out.

By early February, the attackers were on the defensive, and the fighting was over by early March.

Huế

Marine Marine Corps Hue South Vietnam
Keeping low to avoid enemy fire, US Marines push one of their wounded out of range during fighting in the old section of Hue, February 1968.

As ARVN and American soldiers were regaining ground across the country, in Huế, near the northern border, the bloodiest battle of the offensive was only getting started.

Huế, the old imperial capital, was a major cultural, religious, and educational center. It was divided by the Perfume River: to the north was the walled-off old city within the 200-year-old citadel, and in the south was the city’s new section.

On January 31, over 5,000 NVA and VC stormed the western walls, quickly taking all but two areas: the Mang Ca garrison in the northeast corner of the citadel, controlled by the ARVN 1st Division, and the MACV compound held by US Marines on the southeast corner in the new city.

Battle of Hue Vietnam Marines wounded medic tank
Bloody and bandaged troops on a tank used as a makeshift ambulance during fighting in Hue, February 15, 1968.

An initial US attempt to link up with the ARVN was repulsed, and American troops, untrained in urban combat, fought floor by floor, house by house, and block by block for weeks.

The Americans were originally denied permission to use tanks or airstrikes, but the bans were lifted after it became clear how entrenched communist forces were.

By February 10, the Marines had killed 1,000 combatants and secured the new city at a cost of 358 casualties. They then linked up with the ARVN and pushed into the citadel, where the process started again.

Only after the communist forces’ supply lines had been cut were the Marines and the ARVN able to secure the citadel. By February 25, the remaining NVA and VC had retreated, and the city was fully secured on March 2.

Aftermath

Saigon Vietnam Tet Offensive
Two 750-pound bombs hit in the Cholon area of Saigon during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

The Tet offensive was devastating.

Eighty percent of Huế was destroyed, and over 2,000 civilians there, labeled as threats to the revolution, were executed by VC death squads. Thousands of civilians were also killed in the fighting. US and South Vietnamese forces suffered over 12,000 casualties, including more than 2,600 deaths.

The offensive was also a disaster for North Vietnam. Of about 84,000 combatants, up to 58,000 are believed to have been killed, wounded, or captured. The VC was particularly hard hit, losing so many guerrillas that it was effectively wiped out as a viable fighting force.

In addition, they achieved none of their objectives. There was no general uprising, no South Vietnamese units defected, and they were unable to hold any of the cities or towns they seized.

Saigon Vietnam Viet Cong embassy Tet Offensive
Two dead Viet Cong soldiers on the grounds of the US Embassy in Saigon during the Tet Offensive, January 31, 1968.

But Tet was a strategic victory for the North.

Every day, media outlets broadcast graphic images of death and destruction directly into American homes. Particularly horrifying were images of the summary execution of a VC death squad captain by a South Vietnamese general.

Moreover, the fact that the NVA and VC had conducted such a large-scale attack as Johnson and Westmoreland promised victory was near led many Americans to see the war as unwinnable.

Political opinion turned against the war, and the US mission shifted to strengthening South Vietnam’s military so it could fight alone, enabling the US to withdraw, which it did in 1973. But South Vietnamese forces were quickly overwhelmed, and Saigon fell in 1975.

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How a ‘successful failure’ deep behind enemy lines 50 years ago changed the way US special-operations units plan missions

Son Tay raid Vietnam
The HH-3 helicopter Banana 1 after deliberately crash landing inside the Son Tay camp, November 22, 1970.

  • As the Vietnam War raged 50 years ago, a US special-operations task force attempted a daring prisoner rescue at a camp right next to Hanoi, the North Vietnamese capital.
  • Operation Ivory Coast, as the raid on Son Tay prison was known, didn’t free any US POWs, but it did have a profound effect on how US special operations were conducted.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

By 1970, US intelligence knew that there were 450 American POWs in North Vietnam, several of who were dying of starvation, torture, or illness.

The Pentagon decided to rescue some of them.

So, 50 years ago, a US special-operations task force attempted the unthinkable: a daring prisoner rescue right next to Hanoi, the North Vietnamese capital.

A raid like no other

Son Tay raid Vietnam
The Son Tay Prison.

The main objective of Operation Ivory Coast was to rescue about 50 American POWs from the Son Tay prison.

To do so, the Pentagon assembled a joint special-operations task force, totaling 148 men – Green Berets and Air Commandos – all hand-picked volunteers.

Army Col. Arthur D. “Bull” Simons was the overall ground commander. Simmons was no stranger to prisoner rescues. As a Ranger during World War II, he participated in the successful raid at Cabanatuan, a Japanese POW camp in the Philippines.

The assault force was divided into three groups. “Blueboy,” led by Capt. Dick Meadows, would land within the prison courtyard and rescue the prisoners; “Greenleaf” would land outside and provide fire support and reinforcements if needed; finally, “Redwine” would secure the prison camp’s perimeter and hold off any NVA reinforcements.

The air package, which had to fly the 687-mile route, consisted of one HH-3E Jolly Green Giant and five HH-53 Super Jolly Green Giant helicopters to carry the personnel, two MC-130 Combat Talons for navigation, two HC-130 Hercules for air-refueling, five A-1E Skyraiders for close air support, and 10 F-4 Phantoms to ensure air superiority.

In addition, several Navy aircraft would conduct a diversionary raid east of Hanoi before and during the raid.

Using footage from Ryan Model 147 drones and SR-71 Blackbirds, the CIA was able to construct an exact replica of the prison compound at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, where the assault force trained.

Son Tay raid Vietnam
Special Forces operators abroad one of the helicopters for the Son Tay raid.

The replica was so precise that it even included a bicycle that the guards could use to call in reinforcements. Before D-Day, the ground force had done 170 rehearsals, while the aerial force had completed 268 practice sorties in the US, all of them at night.

Because of the mission’s importance, the operators received state-of-the-art gear, including Singlepoint Sights, a sort of night-vision aiming scope, and 30-round magazines for their CAR-15 rifles. They also wore sterile uniforms with no ranks or tabs that would identify them as Americans.

The raid’s organizers feared that their plan might have been compromised. Special-operations teams conducting covert cross-border operations into Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam were plagued by intelligence leaks that got many teams compromised or wiped out. (Eventually, a mole who had been passing information to the North Vietnamese was discovered in their Saigon headquarters.)

The plan in case they were compromised was to stick together and dig in on the banks of a nearby river. With enough air support, they could hold off superior NVA forces until an extraction was possible or the assault force was overrun.

“You are to let nothing – nothing – interfere with the operation. Our mission is to rescue prisoners, not to take prisoners,” Simons told his men during the final brief.

The prison’s proximity to Hanoi meant the NVA guards there had thousands of troops to call on for reinforcement.

The task force flew from the US to a CIA compound in Thailand. After a couple of days of rest, they flew to their launching site in Laos. On the night of November 20, the task force launched.

‘We’re here to get you out’

Son Tay raid Vietnam
Capt. Dick Meadows before the operation, with the white bullhorn he used to warn the prisoners.

The task force approached the target and caught the NVA completely off guard.

The HH-3E carrying Blueboy crash-landed in the courtyard, and the operators shot out toward the compound.

“We’re Americans. Keep your heads down. This is a rescue. We’re here to get you out. Keep your heads down. Get on the floor. We’ll be in your cells in a minute,” Capt. Dick Meadows, the officer in charge of the force inside the compound, shouted through a bullhorn.

Meanwhile, the HH-53 carrying Greenleaf mixed up the compounds and put the security element into a secondary objective, which was packed with between 100 and 200 Chinese troops, 500 yards away.

After a short but intense firefight, the 22 men of Greenleaf neutralized the Chinese threat, killing hundreds and sustaining no casualties. Simmons himself, the senior man on the ground, killed an NVA guard with his revolver.

Back on the target, Blueboy’s operators had suppressed the NVA guards but found empty cells. Meadows radioed back “negative items,” the code word for a dry hole.

Unfazed, the assault force collapsed its perimeter and reboarded the choppers, taking off for Laos. The operation had taken just 28 minutes.

A successful failure

Son Tay raid Vietnam
President Richard Nixon presents awards to Son Tay Raiders. Simons is on the right.

Although the primary objective of the operation was to save POWs, a secondary goal was to give the prisoners hope and send a message to North Vietnam that the US wouldn’t leave its troops behind. In that, the mission was a success.

“We were absolutely elated when we learned of the raid,” Maj. R.E. Smith, an F-105 pilot who spent time in Son Tay prison before the raid, said after he was repatriated in 1973.

“It was the single most significant event in terms of POW life that happened in North Vietnam. It brought us together. It allowed us to be better organized. It reinforced the belief that the US would go to any length to see that we were returned,” Smith said.

The intelligence failures of the operation led to a reorganization of US intelligence community and set the foundations for the creation of organic intelligence-gathering capabilities within the military.

The raid also had an unintended consequence. The trouble of setting up a task force from scratch made clear the need for a dedicated unit to perform such special missions.

Only a few years later, Col. Charlie Beckwith created Delta Force, in which Dick Meadows was a plank holder. The unit was soon called into to perform a similar operation in Iran, after Iranian revolutionaries took 66 Americans hostage.

The spirit of the Son Tay raiders has lived on for decades in the US special-operations community.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (National Service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

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