In Harm's Way

North Vietnamese troops used the neutral territory of Laos and Cambodia to infiltrate and attack key provincial cities and the Capital- Saigon

The Tet Offensive

This chapter details personal experience during the Tet Offensive starting 31 January 1968 and lasting, on and off, for over six months. See here for a more accurate historical account.

The Vietnamese population might a statement that the country and culture is a region of southern China.

Tet celebrates the start of the Chinese New Year which in Sino culture is our equivalent to Christmas - a time which is sacrosant.

A"cease fire" was declared and the 2400-0600hrs curfew lifted. Combined with the weekend we were to have a four=day holiday starting 31 January.

Sergeant Ray McCabe (Australian Federal Policeman) was the Embassy Security Officer. He was a Rhodesian and had done a lot of police work with counter terrorism in his home country. He stuttered when he got angry excited or had a couple of drinks.

He received a report from his intelligence contacts about the possibility of some increase in VC terrorist activity in the city and sent us a memo to be careful just in case. The following memo is a classic case of an Understatement:

Bruce Scott Second Secretary (Administration) hosted a fancy dress party.

Guests came in dribs and drabs. I bowled up to the front gate where the night watchman was in attendance - effusive but silent.
He was wearing the traditional black pajama trousers and black chemise, thongs and conical straw hat.
He was bowing and making a fuss of my arrival and bidding me to enter.

Well it turned out that this person was not the night watchman but Dennis Milton, First Secretary (Administration).He came dressed as a Vietnamese peasant and fooled us all.

This set Dennis off. He was fond of a drink. Dennis was the last to leave and walked home - one step forward and two steps back.

At the same time, all hell had broke loose and there were lots and lots of similar dressed individuals running around in the same clobber but carrying AK47 automatic rifles and RPG7 rocket launchers. It was probably the two steps back that saved Dennis.

Everybody was awake at dawn. Some in their own beds some in others.
We all said "Shit Dennis!" So we all started phoning him.

On or about the fifth call Dennis, still drunk and jovial, answered "VC here!" ... It was the Ambassador.

I lived in Precinct 3, a block away from the American Embassy.
I could only hear the noise of gunfire. But it was sufficient for me to realise that something was amiss.

There was a radio and TV news blackout - as the National Radio Station was also under VC attack.

I got a quick telephone call from Ray McCabe to (a) ask if I could see anything (No) and to (b) stay inside.

A block to the east in Precinct 1, there was further fighting.
foreign journalist took newsreel footage of a South Vietnamese Police Colonel Loan murdering a captured Viet Cong in cold blood.
This was an action that rocked the US and turned the tide of public opinion against the war - see annex.

The Embassy had a set of Emergency Procedures.
I prepared a small suitcase and awaited transportation to a predetermined location where others would be billeted. Marshall Law was declared. It did not need announcing. It was decided that if we travelling in day time and to only short distances we would risk it. Embassy staff drove the vehicles - the drivers had returned to their villages for the holiday.

I was billeted at the Aid House. This was a large villa with high walls and a garden. It was used as a transit point for visiting aid personnel who would be coming in and out of Saigon and had about eight bedrooms.
Each of the five "
Safe Houses" was equipped with two way radios which was a godsend. The public telephone utility company had closed down due to lack of staff.

We were caught unprepared there was no food and shortly the water service was cut off.

The Australian army was quite busy with its own problems.

Ba Ria, the provincial town of Phouc Tuy Province had been captured by the Viet Cong and our main force was engaged in retaking it.

The contingent at Free World HQ in Saigon were non combatants. They organised a truck with escorts and went around the Safe Houses to deliver C Rations. The Saigon daily markets operated on a day to day basis due to the tropical heat. It had ceased operations. So C Rations - washed down by a hot beer or two were our only sustenance. The power was off.

The vehicles were clearly military. But an observant "Saigonaise" would notice something different about them.

The escorts were Land Rovers and all had an emblem of a red kangaroo.

Our armed forces had it painted on every Australian vehicle. It was a symbol of mate ship and the Australian spirit and also a recognisable icon for the allied forces. But most Vietnamese did could only see it as a rat. Thus in the spirit of Australian larrikinism everybody referred to it with affection as "The Big Red Rat".

The escorts stopped about 100 metres either side of the house and out got armed soldiers who fanned out taking defensive positions - unloading the truck.

An army doctor was part of the team. He was there just in case anyone was having health problems or was likely to have some in the near future - very thoughtful.

I remember him being quite chatty and optimistic. He lamented the fact that in Saigon, professionally, he was occupied mostly with treating the soldiers for the clap and now there was this total curfew he was pissed off that he could not get around and treat the girls.

The army left us to bunker down for about a week.

The Aid House was in an area that borders Saigon and Cholon (Chinatown). Cholon was now the main area where the Viet Cong were dug in and there was fierce street to street fighting.

The air was dense with smoke from burning buildings and slum areas that we could not see.

Helicopter gunships were buzzing overhead in a low level flight path towards this area. They were so low the noise drowned everything else out. Not that they were cars in the street as the curfew was now 24/7 and the city was in lock down.

A few of us were in an upstairs room allocated as a bar. Dennis Milton, myself and two transient aid personnel - George Wilson, Medical Aid Team Administrator (Vung Tau) and a nurse from one of the surgical teams.
The bar was located in the upstairs area of the villa. It was a large room with French louvre windows that looked down on to the street and a neighboring house of the same style and vintage. I was sitting on a high stool at the bar with my back to the window and Dennis Milton was standing acting as the barman.

From his position he could look out down onto the street.

As he was speaking to me, he suddenly went white. He said he saw someone in the house across the street open the French Window and get off a fusillade from an AK47 rifle at an overhead chopper and then just as quickly closed the louvres.

Because of the noise you simply had to see it to believe it - otherwise you would have missed it.

"Christ Dennis when are you going to stop joking" we said.

The perpetrator was either Viet Cong or he too was suffering from a head ache and did not appreciate the noise.

Seriously. this shooting incident was a cause for concern. We held a meeting headed by the most senior ranking Chancery member Laurie C. He was the Councilor (Aid).

His decision was for us to do nothing and continue to be as inconspicuous as possible.

Someone asked what if they decide to raid us.

This Councillor gave us some bad counsel.

He said: "We will hold up our diplomatic passports and claim Diplomatic Immunity".

It was a nonsense. In the chaos - who had thought to bring along their passport. We were a contingent of 10 refugees. I think only the counsellor had diplomatic accreditation.

This same person used to hear noises at night in the garden and would ask George to go out and investigate. I would accompany him.

"Why doesn't the boss bloody well do this himself."

George was a WW2 campaign in New Guinea. He was jockey size and smoked profusely.

He was shot in the shoulder by a Japanese sniper which left with permanent limited use of his arm. He used to proudly show off his scar. He had recovered by time enough to serve in the Occupation Forces in Japan and married a Japanese. Her name was Chick. At the time she was on holidays in Japan.

After a long stint in Vietnam, George was recruited as an aid administration officer for the Australian Telecommunications Mission in Bandung, Indonesia.
I was responsible for the ATM 1973-75 and I visited George in Bandung quite often and he vice versa in Jakarta. He also joined up with me in Canberra in the late seventies in AIDAB , the aid arm of Foreign Affairs. We would reminisce about Saigon Days but never brought up that ridiculous statement because months later, four western journalists were caught going down a wrong street in Cholon when out came a Viet Cong patrol leader and calmly shot three of them dead as they were screaming
Bao Chi Bao Chi (Journalists)

Click here for article in the Australian Newspaper.

So what chance would "diplomats" have had being seen to being aided and supported by military provisioning. We would also laugh about how we would go outside the Aid house at night to scout around. It was not at this person's behest but simply to have a smoke then come back in and tell him everything was ok (George died of emphysema in the early 80's.)

By January 1968 Australia had a new arrived third Battalion at its Task Force HQ in Nui Dat.

American intelligence had forewarned a buildup of enemy troops around Saigon and asked and received Australian assistance to establish a Fire Support Base outside its area of Operation 34 miles away near Bien Hoa a satellite city to the northeast of Saigon.

It was called Fire Support Base Anderson.

It was set up too late to stop the movement of forces into Saigon (pre 31 January) but turned into Operation Coberg which inflicted serious losses on North Vietnamese and VC regulars as they were leaving.

Australia lost 20 dead and 70 wounded including a school chum friend of mine - a conscript called Mike Williams. Mike was awarded the Military Medal.

We had much in common - Same School House (Fitzgerald); he was from Cooma, he also had an alcoholic parent; he joined Foreign Affairs after conscription and had a few postings. As well he went on to represent the ACT in Rugby even though he had a metal plate inserted in his head as a result of his war wound.

After a week of intense fighting, the South Vietnamese with the help of the Allied Forces gained the upper hand.

There were still pockets of local resistance from Viet Cong in the Cholon Area - where many Australian citizens lived - and the racecourse.

Australians living in any country are advised to register with the nearest Australian mission for consular and administrative reasons. We had a list of registrants who had given Cholon as the district in which they were living.

It was incumbent on the government to check on the welfare of its Australian Citizens.

Dennis Milton recruited me from the Registry to the Consular Section - Wow!

But my job was to go downtown to Chinatown for the above purpose "Shit Why me Dennis? "

He didn't answer. He simply said If I feel in any way exposed tell the local staff driver to abort and get the hell out of there.

I made three trips - at least there was no traffic as the roads were clear except for a South Vietnamese road block every 200m or so where the driver would enquire as to the status of the road ahead. The chauffeur would then relay this information to me - in French.

It was at this time I regretted non advancing my schoolboy French. I was not sure as to the specifics of what was translated and it takes a lot of experience to grasp the idiom and local expressions. But I reckoned that if the driver was game enough to go ahead, who was I to argue.

I got to some of these listed addresses. On each occasion the servants would look at me incredulously as If I was batty. They would all tell me that their employees had pissed off days ago! "What the hell are you doing in this dangerous place you fool".

So we stopped this waste of time.

A Bad Decision

One night when I was guarding the Embassy. The After Hours door bell rang. The buzzer was positioned on the grill of the entrance foyer.
I cautiously peered around a hallway corner and saw it was
Keith Hyland. He was a well know wealthy business entrepreneur who owned a duck feather processing factory on the outskirts of the city. He said he tried to get down there to his factory but was stopped by the South Vietnamese roadblock time after time.

He wanted me to get in an Embassy car and use this to get him through the roadblocks.

"No way Pal!" was my polite response.

Testily he then asked If I could provide him with a letter on Embassy headed paper stating that he was an Australian citizen and any help in getting through the blockade would be greatly appreciated.

He was caught by the Viet Cong on a back road not far from his factory and spent the next eight months in captivity while a ransom was negotiated.

The Australian government was not party to the negotiations but his predicament was reported in diplomatic correspondence which I avidly followed given my initial involvement.

For the next month we took turns in guarding the Chancery at night until eventually we were relieved by real professionals - fighting troops from the Australian Task Force at Nui Dat .

The Damage

From our vantage point we could look out to Cholon district and see the Cobra helicopter gunships using their gattling guns to support troops engaged in street to street fighting.

TV footage of the Second Gulf War brings back memories of what I witnessed.

The fire power of yester year's Cobra compared to the Apache gunship seems just as intense. But nowadays the science is in how the latter can limit collateral damage.

In Saigon "times" the destruction from these "birds" was devastating.

We were getting hungry. We searched for food in the cupboards of the chancery.

As luck had it we found some C Rations prepared for the British Army. The year was dated 1945 (The year I was born). I was worried about botulism in the tinned food but tucked into the chocolate bars - they were rock hard.

At night we were alone in the chancery yet had the company of all the staff in External Communications Division in the Department through the medium of the 'leased telegraphic line' which was still open to two way typing traffic.

They were shift workers and work colleges in 1965-66. They were telling us what was happening given the bigger picture of world news. We could only tell there was a lot of shit happening around our little patch of the globe. It was so good to be in contact. They seemed concerned and were so supportive. To keep my spirits up, the girls suggested they would be even more supportive once I got back to Canberra. It really made me feel good.

The Viet Cong suffered great losses but won the psychological battle.

In mid-February 1968, Walter Cronkite, the Anchor man for American CBS News journeyed to Vietnam to report on the aftermath of the Tet Offensive.

Upon return, on February 27, 1968, Cronkite closed

"Report from Vietnam: Who, What, When, Where, Why?" with an editorial report:[29]

We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. They may be right, that Hanoi's winter-spring offensive has been forced by the Communist realization that they could not win the longer war of attrition, and that the Communists hope that any success in the offensive will improve their position for eventual negotiations. It would improve their position, and it would also require our realization, that we should have had all along, that any negotiations must be that -- negotiations, not the dictation of peace terms. For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. This summer's almost certain standoff will either end in real give-and-take negotiations or terrible escalation; and for every means we have to escalate, the enemy can match us, and that applies to invasion of the North, the use of nuclear weapons, or the mere commitment of one hundred, or two hundred, or three hundred thousand more American troops to the battle. And with each escalation, the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic disaster.

To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy's intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.[30]

Following Cronkite's editorial report, President Lyndon Johnson is reported to have said, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America." Several weeks later, Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.

Mortar Barrages

Still a vengeful Viet Cong started a new terror campaign of indiscriminately bombarding the city.

In the past, a few 122mm rockets or mortars were lobbed into the city more of a nuisance or a sign of a political gesture.

But now we were subject to an eleven day barrage of about a dozen rockets directed at the key political and administration posts.
The Viet Cong could not get any more off because their locations would be vectored in and artillery brought down upon them.

All action happened between two and five in the morning.

The rockets would be "walked In". This meant if you heard the first bang and if the second bang was louder, the bombardment was coming your way.

There would be sheer fear and panic as we scrambled for the toilet under the stairwell as the pipework in the concrete offered reinforcement. First in best dressed or rather best undressed!

I would be running out and down the stairs the maids would be running out and to the stairs. We would be holding the kiddies.

(See foto of kids under stairs was the toilet where we would huddle)

The nearest a rocket landed was in a quadrangle outside the hotel Caravelle.
It blew in all the windows on that facade. But the glass did not splinter because it was cris crossed with masking tape as a countermeasure for such an occurrence.

Being so close to an explosion of this measure with concrete all around amplified the noise of impact.

Our ears would ring for days. The concussion was such that your teeth would be numb as if you had been to the dentist.

But on the bright side, once the bombardment ceased one's adrenalin level was quite high.

As well there was a feeling of general euphoria that you did not get killed or hurt.

By February 1968, the situation had improved enough for us to return from the "bunkers" to our domiciles and servants who had to fend for themselves. We could not get in contact nor pay them. Any way the banks were also closed.

122mm Rocket - range 7.5 miles

Damage sustained by a 122mm rocket,
See location 3 below

Windows taped up to absorb glass blown in towards occupants

Outside the Embassy - a single fusillade

We were also better armed. I was in charge of the vault. In the vault were our classified files; two rockex machines and now an armory.

The latter consisted of six Browning .45 calibre automatic pistols and two armalite M15 rifles.

In addition Canberra sent up two sets of chemicals on the supply ship HMAS Jeparit.

One set of chemicals was stored in one end of the Chancery and the other set at the opposite end. I was given some virtual training in how to smash parts of the secret Rockex coding machines and how to sprinkle one chemical on both the broken machinery and a pile of classified files and then go and get the other chemical; sprinkle that on top of the heap and then run like hell before the two chemicals started to interact.

I asked Ray McCabe about training in firing the Browning pistol. Ray said "Don’t worry Paul, in these confined quarters just point the barrel in the general direction and fire. If you hit anybody you will really hurt him and if you miss the noise will scare the living daylights of him".

I did feel some form of comfort with this new form of "diplomatic immunity" rather than some old fart's borrowed leather passport - see earlier.

Nightly flares around the city perimeter

Spooky with gattling machine guns

AWM Exhibit 105mm Howitzer - captured/retaken at FSPB Balmoral

The Second Tet Offensive

This occurred in May 1968.

It took place, not so much as in Saigon-Cholon, but more so in the immediate countryside. This time the opposing forces could not breach the city.

North Vietnamese re-enforcements were coming into Vietnam from the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The trial went from North Vietnam then into the sanctuaries of Laos and Cambodia where apart from massive B52 bombing, the allies were reluctant to invade for fear of expanding the war by bringing China into the conflict - China had close ties with Laos and Cambodia.

It meant that, at will, the North Vietnamese could amass large troop concentrations for a planned attack on the South's strong holds.

See Map. The darker colour represents the allied strong holds; the yellow = contested areas and the orange the North Vietnamese supply routes.

The gigantic civilian/military airport base on the outskirts of Saigon was regularly "hit" by VC irregulars.

Most of my days were sitting around inside the air base perimeter - in an embassy vehicle keeping an eye on Safe-Hand material.

Quite often, I was entertained by either military aircraft dive bombing or allied paratrooper exercises clearing out VC insurgents trying to break into the base and cause chaos.

Fire Support and Patrol Bases FSPB Coral and Balmoral

Australia played a central role in the Second Tet Offensive.

By agreement with the Americans (not Vietnamese) it had secured Phouc Tuy province to the south east of Saigon.

But the Task force was now asked to respond to intelligence "build up" of enemy troop movement in the north east around Tay Uyen for a second attack on Saigon.

The support requested was six batteries of 105 mm Howitzer artillery guns together with supporting defensive mortar, machine gun pit crew and a command HQ.

It was code named Fire Support Base Coral

The objective was to supply artillery support for the American "grunts" forming a defensive perimeter around Saigon.

The cannons were airlifted in by chinook helicopters.

As fate/luck had it, the equipment was landed directly in the path of the enemy advancing for an attack - that night.

The base was not prepared as the engineer/sappers had no time to prepare its defenses before sunset nor set up communications properly.

A mortar battery and a howitzer was over run.

But shortly thereafter the howitzer was recaptured just as it was being prepared to be used against the Australians.

Above is a picture of this gun which now appears in the Australian War Memorial.

See animation of the battle.

Ten Australian troops were killed that night.

At the end of a month long intervention 25 Australians were killed and over 100 wounded.

I found it deeply distressing when these casualty numbers were published

"They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning,

We will remember them"

In Saigon intelligence , Interceptions were coming in fast and furiously.

But instead of the original Offensive in January-February, we were now better prepared.

In the Embassy I was reading the communiqués.

I knew where our troops were positioned - about 25 miles to the north west of my office window.

From this vantage point on top of the Hotel Caravelle nothing could be seen during the day - due to the tropical haze. But at night there was no difficulty seeing the incessant flashes of artillery for the next 26 days & nights and knowing that the combined involvement of 70% of Australia's armed forces in Vietnam was committed to protecting Saigon.
It was the largest combined deployment of artillery; support troups and armour since WW2.

B52 Bombers

American B52 bomber were also engaged.

The ground beneath you and buildings shook as thousands and thousands of tons of ordinance were dropped on the enemy's support lines.

In Saigon, our buildings would rattle from the percussion.

Mortar/122mm Rocket Attacks

Again we were subjected to indiscriminate mortar attacks at night by elements of the North Vietnamese who had evaded the American defensive perimeter.

Puff the Magic Dragon/Flares

A fleet of aircraft called Puff the Magic Dragon would be used to sort out enemy elements that were getting through.

The You Tube link does not do justice to the spectacle of the dark night sky being illuminated by this converted Douglas DC3.

It was deadly but spell binding.

In support, flares would be dropped constantly by other aircraft.

The effect was that night would be turned into day.

Goodness knows how much this high tech intervention was costing the American tax payer.

While highly interesting at the time, I do not like any night fireworks display such as New Year or the annual Brisbane River Festival. Thank you ... but no thank you!