TET

By Dave Moyer

 

FromThe Owasco Chronicles

Perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of combat, any kind of combat, for anyone who hasn’t experienced it is the confusion. I’m sure the overview as seen by the powers behind the war have a definite semblance of order, but for the individual "players" making up the entire mosaic, it is anything but.

Understanding decisions made by those powers is frustrating—morale suffers, tempers flare, and, sadly, lives are lost, sometimes for unbelievable reasons due to unbelievable circumstances. Our experience aboard the CGC OWASCO at the start of the ’69 Tet went beyond understanding.

Our great leaders, after deciding upon the shape of the table to be used for the peace talks in Paris, somehow agreed to halt the bombing. Not only did it mean no bombs would fall north of the DMZ, but it also included any round, regardless of caliber or size. Quite simply, nothing was to be fired in their direction. We knew that all too well. Our patrol area was the southern boundary of the DMZ. I’m sure to the people back home in the "real world" it made sense; to others out there it was a death sentence.

It started two days before the Tet holiday. A large North Vietnamese flag was raised north of the line. It stayed there for 48 hours in plain view. We knew they were there and we knew it was only a matter of time until they moved across the line—they were preparing to invade en mass, but we couldn’t fire.

Army intelligence said it would be rough. Large caches of small wooden coffins were discovered. The Vietnamese had a thing for being buried properly, and evidently the knowledge of those coffins waiting to be filled by their comrades or themselves spirited them on. To add an additional bit of brilliance, our side declared a holiday 24-hour cease-that went from 2400 hours the day before and ending at midnight, the beginning of Tet.

They began moving south at 2300 hours. Early reports indicated they were over-running the small naval base at Cua Viet. The U.S. forces conducted a planned withdrawal, leaving the South Vietnamese to protect the river. When the North Vietnamese attacked, they simply tucked their tails between their legs and ran for all they were worth, leaving their patrol boats moored to the piers to become spoils of war.

At 2315, the first reports from our forward spotting units started to come in. The enemy was approaching and requests for naval gunfire support were issued. Headquarters denied the requests. The 24-hour cease-fire still had 45 minutes to go. Evidently the North Vietnamese were in a different time zone.

A small forward unit of the Third Marines were being over-run but an emergency request for gunfire support was denied. Soon after all radio communications with that unit ceased. Quickly following this, another unit reported it was under attack. Again a request for emergency gunfire, and again Da Nang denied the request. Communications with the unit by radio also ceased.

Shortly before midnight still another unit was in trouble. This time small arms fire could be heard during their radio transmissions. At midnight, the magic hour, the third unit requested immediate support. We sent a Flash message to Da Nang for permission to fire, but again the request was denied. Their reply was questioned and the answer echoed their previous response but added the following reason: "Headquarters has decided to allow one extra hour for the cease fire to demonstrate our honorable intentions."

It isn’t easy to explain "honorable intentions" to men who are about to die.

Still another request was received and denied. Finally, at 0100, permission was given to commence fire. As our spotters were directing our rounds, we could hear them hitting during their radio transmissions. In essence, they were literally calling them in on top of their own positions. Before the night was over, our magazines were empty. Star shells were then fired, one every 5-seconds, for illumination until they were also expended. The 16" guns of the USS New Jersey, a ship we were assigned to assist, also fired most of the night. By dawn it was over.

The report released to the media said that 200 North Vietnamese slipped across the border during the night. "Slipped" they said. I never learned how many American lives were lost, and I’m not sure it didn’t make all that much difference to the people back in the aforementioned "real world." That is, with the exception of the mothers, wives, children, and sweethearts of the Marines in those forward units, of course. I’m sure they would be proud to know that we were honorable and respected the 24 plus 1 hour cease-fire.

Proclaiming myself a hero is something I have never done. I learned early on to avoid any situation that might have given anyone the impression that I was. I’m sure my crew mates on the CGC OWASCO felt the same, but that night in February, listening to those forward units fall, we all would have gladly grabbed anything that would shoot and hit the beach firing.

There’s something about hearing men die that makes a person change his mind about self-preservation—they didn’t have a chance because those "powers" didn’t give them one. I guess they had their reasons.

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