“The Vietnam War,” Episode Six: “Things Fall Apart” (Jan. 1968 – July 1968)

[What follows is a brief summary of Episode Six of the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick Special “The Vietnam War” along with my personal commentaries, songs, and writings about where I was during this period. – Former 1Lt. Richard Morris, A Co. 2nd Bn 5th Cavalry, 1st Air Cavalry Division (Airmobile) 1967-68]

“Something’s going to happen but we don’t know what.”

Attacking the enemy troops at Hue

On the eve of the Tet holiday, January 31, 1968, all hell broke loose. North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces launched surprise attacks on cities and military bases throughout the south. Le Duan and Ho Chi Minh counted on the attacks to stimulate a general uprising all over the south. This did not occur. The NVA and VC suffered devastating losses. At Hue, they held on for 25 days and cast grave doubt on Johnson’s promise that there is “light at the end of the tunnel.”

In Saigon, the communists attacked six primary targets: the HQ of the ARVN General Staff at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, the Independence Palace, the U.S. Embassy, the Republic of Vietnam Navy HQ, and the National Radio Station. All the attacks met stiff resistance and failed.

Ilikai Hotel

During Tet, I was Battalion Communications Officer with the 1st Cavalry Division units at Camp Evans, just a few clicks (km) north of Hue, but I had orders to go on R&R to Hawaii for a week.

Barbara after R&R in Hawaii, in early March

So we met in Hawaii–me from Vietnam and her from Alabama–and stayed at the Ilikai Hotel.  It was to be a honeymoon for us, since we had married shortly before I left Ft. Benning for Ft. Polk, LA to be a training officer and just a few months before I went to Jungle School in Panama for two weeks and then shipped out to Vietnam.

We had a great time in Hawaii, but I was fearful of returning to Vietnam in the middle of Tet. However, when I got back, most of Hue had been recaptured by our forces. The VC/NVA executed 2800 people on their way out. Altogether, 6000 civilians died, 110,000 lost their homes. There was no popular uprising, and no South Vietnamese Army units defected.

On February 1, South Vietnamese Army General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of the National Police, publicly executed Viet Cong officer Nguyen Ven Lem, captured in civilian clothing, a photo that some called “the picture that lost the war.”

The American people became convinced that if the VC/NVA could attack cities all over Vietnam at will, the war would continue for many years. Sixty-three percent disapproved of the war.

Operation Pegasus.

On March 10, Gen. Westmoreland requested 206,000 more troops, and on March 26, LBJ replaced him with Creighton Abrams. On March 31st, President Johnson announced that he would not seek nor accept the nomination of his party for President of the United States. On that day the 1st Cavalry Division launched Operation Pegasus to relieve the 3500 Marines and 2100 ARVN troops surrounded and under siege by 20,000 NVA troops at Khe Sanh near the DMZ. I’ll never forget flying in that chain of choppers down Rt. 9 from Dong Ha to Khe Sanh. A Co. 2/5 landed on a hill denuded by Agent Orange with a 30-foot-wide bomb crater on top. Eerily, we found no enemy troops – only some discarded weapons – and presumed that the attack on the Marines had ended. Where was Charlie? I wrote a song about it in Vietnam. (Here’s the link to all my songs):

9. Charlie’s Gone From Khe Sahn
© Richard A. Morris 1968

Charlie’s Gone, Charlie’s Gone, from Khe Sahn, from Khe Sahn.
When we got there, when we got there,
the Leathernecks were lyin’ in the sun
and a-havin’ fun, a-havin’ fun,
and a-sippin’ a long, cool one.
‘Cause Charlie’s gone.

Charlie’s Gone, Charlie’s Gone, from Khe Sahn, from Khe Sahn.
We’d like to think, we’d like to think, he heard the Cav was comin’ and he run.
But there’s more than that, there’s more than that,
‘Cause the jets are gettin’ deadly with their bombs.

He didn’t even say goodbye.
He didn’t even pack his bags.
He didn’t even say where he was goin’ knowin’
We’d want to pay a visit to him soon.

Charlie’s Gone, Charlie’s Gone, from Khe Sahn, from Khe Sahn.
We’re moppin up, we’re moppin’ up
his weapons by the hundred these days.
But no KIAs, no KIAs and no pris’ners are we gettin’ from the caves
Cause Charlie’s gone.
Adieu.

Other companies saw days of tough combat. Overall, the division killed more than 1000 enemy; 19,000 fled.

On April 4th, Martin Luther King was killed in Memphis and riots erupted in major cities all around the country.  Then Robert Kennedy was killed on June 5th, immediately after I returned home.

May 1968 was the bloodiest of the war, with 2416 U.S. KIA. It was “mini-Tet” when the communists attacked 119 targets throughout South Vietnam, including Saigon. This time, however, allied intelligence was better prepared. Most of the communist forces were intercepted by allied screening elements before they reached their targets. Thirteen Viet Cong battalions, however, managed to slip through the cordon and once again plunged Saigon into chaos. Severe fighting occurred at Phu Lam, around the Y-Bridge in Saigon, and at Tan Son Nhut Air Base. By May twelfth, the offensive was over as Viet Cong forces withdrew from the area leaving behind over 3,000 of their dead and 7,500 wounded–another victory for us.

During mini-Tet, our battalion was still on Camp Evans, as I recall. I was getting to be a “short-timer,” which meant that soon I would be returning home. In April, I flew to Ankhe and took my graduate Graduate Records Exam in a Quonset hut. So during mini-Tet, my mind was on graduate school. The Vietnam War was different from other wars in that each man served for only one year, and that became an objective for many soldiers–to survive for a year. That’s not to say that we didn’t fight hard, though; we did, just to stay alive and to take care of our comrades.

Next Episode:

Episode Seven: “The Veneer of Civilization” (June 1968 – May 1969), Monday, Sept. 25: Public support for the war declines while American men of draft age face difficult decisions and wrenching moral choices. After police battle with demonstrators in the streets of Chicago during the Democratic National Convention, Richard Nixon wins the presidency, promising law and order at home and peace overseas. In Vietnam, the war goes on and soldiers on all sides witness terrible savagery and unflinching courage.

 

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