The Tet Offensive began on February 1, 1968. At that time I was assigned to a 4th Division unit out at LZ Baldy, a lonely firebase south of Danang. One of my jobs there was the unit pay officer. In those days soldiers were paid once per month, in cash by a unit pay officer.
I loved that job because we had people at LZ Baldy, a few down at the “Big City” of Qui Nhon at the depot there, some back at the Division base camp at Pleiku and a few blind Toms up at Kon Tum further up in the mountains.
The job required me to go to each of these places each month to pay the troops. I got to travel all over that part of the country from the beautiful coast line to the mountains of the Central Highlands. For a country boy who had barely ventured out of the State of Florida at that time it was a wonderful adventure to see the Oriental culture up close.
The first of February came around that year and I prepared to carry out my pay officer duties totally unaware of the ominous event that was about to unfold.
The Tet Offensive of 1968 as the historians call it was actually a last ditch effort by General Giap to defeat the Americans badly enough to run them out of the country so they could complete their takeover of Indo-China.
The Americans had been there in force about two and one half years at that time. It had become clear to General Giap he could not beat the Americans on the battlefield. Now they could hurt us from time to time as at I Drang Valley or Dak To but they could not beat us.
So he decided to roll the dice and gamble everything he had on one bold move hoping to beat the Americans badly enough to drive us out of the country.
He called forth all his soldiers from where they were hiding in the caves, rat holes and septic tanks out in the hinterlands and on that day attacked every city and town of any size in the country… All the way from Dong Ha and Quang Tri up near the DMZ down to Cam Lo south of Saigon.
You had to admit it was an impressive military operation.
Where we were out at lonely LZ Baldy during the entire Tet Offensive we received one measly 60 mm mortar round… Didn’t think much about it because that was par for the course out there but strange things were happening.
We began to get reports of major fighting going on in the cities including Saigon. They even occupied the American Embassy for an hour or two. It was unusual because in the past all the major fighting was conducted out in the hills or rice paddies… only occasionally did anything happen in the towns.
That news did not deter me from carrying out my pay officer duties that month… So as usual I went to the Finance Office and picked up that big pile of money and as usual paid the troops at LZBaldy and then as usual took a C130 flight down to Qui Nhon and that flight took me straight into the Twilight Zone.
I encountered an incredible scenario of death and destruction as I traveled through the country. It looked like the aftermath of a man-made hurricane Andrew. Everywhere I went it was the same. They were hauling away semi-truck loads of dead bodies. It was a terrible event.
What started out as a very ambitious, well executed offensive quickly turned into a colossal and total defeat for the North Vietnamese Army. In two days they lost over 50,000 soldiers killed. They held no town or city longer than two days except for the city of Hue where it took the Marines and the First Cavalry Division 4 days to root them out of the old citadel in that city.
This outcome devastated General Giap and he was ready to pull out of the war and lay low for 5 or 10 years and return when the conditions were right. Communists and socialists never quit… they just law low for a while. But something happened that changed his mind.
Anyone want to guess what it was?
Walter Cronkite, the most trusted man in America went on the CBS Evening News and after reporting on the Tet Offensive looked out at the America people and pronounced “WE HAVE LOST THE WAR.”
When I heard that I was flabbergasted, amazed and staggered just like the time I read a warning on a cigarette lighter to keep away from open flames.
I thought: what in the world was Cronkite talking about? They had thrown everything they had at us and we beat the stew out of them. I wondered how in the world he could come up with such a conclusion (I have my theories).
At the time I was thinking if Cronkite thinks we lost the war as a result of the Tet Offensive we should lose everyday and after about four days there would not be any of the North Vietnamese left to fight.
Now I think maybe Walter should be nominated for the Lois Lerner Honesty Award.
Mack Payne is a highly decorated Vietnam veteran. Recently he wrote a book titled “Vietnam Veteran Memoirs.” Today his is an award winning speaker, writer and publisher. Discover more about him and his book at http://www.vietnamcopy.com