Posted by: Thomas Drinkard | January 31, 2015

Tet, 1968 Remembered

I was unfortunate enough to be in Cholon, the Chinese sector of Saigon for the Tet Offensive of 1968.  My book, Where There Were No Innocents is a work of fiction, but the following excerpt is quite close to reality.  The book carries the protagonist, Mack Brinson, through several days of the fight, but this is much the way it was that morning. The book is available on Amazon as a digital book and on Amazon, Audible and iTunes as an audiobook—narrated by Mike McCartney, the PA announcer for the Kansas City Royals.

******************

When I left the meeting with my Vietnamese counterpart, I drove to the Cholon PX, in the heavily Chinese part of Saigon to pick up some necessities and a couple of gifts for my Vietnamese friends. Firecrackers were constant.  The kids would take a long, double string of the fireworks and hang them out of the second story of a building.  Another child would light them from the sidewalk and watch them climb the wall with popping flashes and smoke.  They would giggle and cheer, then do it again. It sounded like firefights all over the city.
Good thing there was going to be a ceasefire for the Tet holiday.
I woke up at about 3:00 AM on the morning of January 31st; went to the bathroom and headed back to my bunk, internally bitching about the continuous crackling of firecrackers.

I stopped and listened more closely.

The rhythm was not the rattling snap of firecrackers.  The sound was automatic weapons fire.

“Dan, wake up.  There’s fighting in the streets.”

My roommate was usually hard to wake, but once he sat up and listened he was completely alert.

“Shit.  The shooting’s close, too.  What’ve we got?” he said.

I listed the weapons that had become part of my traveling arsenal.

“Hell, all I’ve got is the old M-2 carbine with two magazines. I’d never expected to need them, here in the city.  Let’s go outside and see what’s happening.” he said.

We dressed and slowly opened the door.  It was darker than normal.  Saigon’s electrical system was unreliable, but there were even fewer lights than usual outside the compound.  The sky, however, was streaked with tracers . Red for Americans and South Vietnamese and green for our enemies.  Our compound appeared safe, but there was an MP Jeep with a machine gun at each entrance, backing up the guards.

“We need to get to SOG headquarters,” I said.

“You crazy? With all that shit flying out there, how’re we going to do that?”

“We’ll go upstairs and get Don Stephens.  I know he’ll be well armed.  You drive the Jeep and we’ll keep the bad guys at bay.  We can be there in minutes, there won’t be any traffic to deal with, and we can ignore the one-way streets,” I said.

Stephens was a SEAL who usually carried a CAR-15 and a 9mm Browning everywhere he went. I knocked on his door and stepped to one side, in case he decided to shoot without checking. When he opened the door, he stepped back inside into darkness.  Only when he’d identified me did he lower the muzzle of his assault rifle.

“What in hell is going on out there?” he said.

“Looks and sounds like the war has finally come to Saigon.”

“What’re you going to do?” he said.

He was wearing cutoff camouflage pants, an olive-drab tee shirt and black, low cut sneakers.

“Dan and I are going to SOG headquarters.  Dan will drive the Jeep, I’ll ride shotgun and you can cover the back.  You want to change clothes?”

He was silent and stepped back into his room. He came out with his pistol holstered on his belt and four extra magazines for the rifle. He hadn’t changed clothes.

“Let’s go. We can’t do anything here,” he said

I was dressed in tiger stripe fatigues with no insignia and a black floppy hat.  Dan had on his regular jungle fatigues and cap.
Dan was a little reluctant, but Stephens and I convinced him to go. We loaded into the Jeep and started out the gate.

“Halt, Sir,” the MP said.

“Why?” I said.

The young buck sergeant evidently thought we didn’t understand.

“Well, Sir, you can hear it.  There’s a lot of shooting all over the city.  We’ve heard on the radio that the VC have some of the streets blocked.  They’re shooting at anything American,” he said.

I took my SOG identification card out and let him look at it.

“Thank you, Sergeant, but we’ve got to get over to Pasteur Street,” I said.

He stood aside and saluted.

“Good luck!” he said.

Dan didn’t turn on the lights and blasted up what would normally be the wrong way on the big one-way Hung Vuong street that ran to the center of Saigon.  Apparently we took the bad guys by surprise.  By the time they’d realized what was happening, we were by them in the darkness. They didn’t expect us to be violating the traffic rules, silly as it seems.
Stephens and I fired a few full-auto bursts at muzzle flashes.
When we pulled up to the gate at our headquarters, our MP gate guard, Culp, the Texan was backed up—as the hotel compound had been—by a machine gun Jeep.
He came to my side of the Jeep.

“Damn, Cap’n, y’all are taking some big chances out there tonight.  How’d you get here through all that?”

“Fast and lucky,” Dan said.

“Y’all got shot at, too.  What’d you do?” Culp said.

“Shot hell out of whoever fired at us,” I said.

“Could’a been you were shooting at some friendlies, in the dark,” Culp said.

I stepped away from the Jeep, and raised the seat to let Stephens out.

“Son, somebody shoots at me, he ain’t friendly,” Stephens said.

The young MP silently pointed to the canvas on top of the Jeep.  There were four narrow slits that ran from the top edge of the windshield to the back bow.  Our vehicle had taken four shots that just clipped the metal at the top of the windshield and ricocheted up the bows, plowing neat paths through the canvas.

We must’ve used up a large chunk of our luck that morning.

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