Article TET January 31, 1968

The first misconception I find about TET 68 - and I find it quite amusing - is that we were taken by surprise.

Military intelligence is analyzed at two levels, the first level is determining the enemy’s capabilities. Rather than try to guess what he is going to do, you try to determine what he is capable of doing then you defend accordingly. The second level is to determine intent. This is much more difficult and usually requires the personal touch - prisoners, informants, radio intercepts, the truly difficult stuff. When our side started accumulating intel about the plans for TET 68 we actually knew tactical intent before we evaluated capability. An attack on over 30 locations at one time was certainly understood to be the intent and forced us back to the drawing board where we firmly concluded that the capability was not there to take and hold such a large number of diverse targets at one time. Some things we did not foresee, however, involved strategic intent. First, the North Vietnamese had convinced themselves that this would be all that would be needed to generate a popular uprising in the South that would sweep them into power. The second factor, and one that we simply could not get a handle on, was that the North Vietnamese intended to sacrifice the Viet Cong, who were mostly South Vietnamese, to remove them as a political force in a new Communist Vietnam. It would be totally a North Vietnamese show.

In short, if we had the entire plan (and we had most of it) laying before us in Giap's hand writing we would not have believed it. So here we sat, the major elements of the enemy battle plan in our hands, not quite knowing what to do with it. Every time the enemy exposed himself to our superior fire power he was obliterated, would he intentionally subject himself to such a thumping? But the weight of evidence was overwhelming, it was going to happen. It would have been impossible to successfully blunt such a large operation before it happened, so the best alternative was to let the attack happen and respond in force.

For us at Duc Pho, no large enemy units had been detected moving in our AO, and we had been mortared frequently, so we assumed that is how we would be attacked. Besides, if Charley could take us out, we would be unable to support the brigade firebases or SF camps. We had received no word from the Military Assistance Team (MAT) at Quang Ngai for support, so we weren't worried about them.

Starting at 1:30 AM we began receiving mortars, between 35 to 40 mortar rounds that seriously damaged 6 of our aircraft. We immediately scrambled our primary team with me riding as doorgunner on a minigun ship. My aircraft commander was our platoon leader, Captain Thomas Woods, a career officer and a very aggressive pilot. With a slick ship overhead dropping flares, we flew low level all over the area north of Duc Pho until about four AM, firing on suspected locations stopping the mortar fire, but saw nothing worth getting excited about. I had never done this type of flying before, for me it was some of the "hold your breath and hope" type of flying, hovering around rice paddies in an overloaded aircraft and poking our noses into dark corners in the dead of night. As the flares came slowly down, the shadows did weird things, getting longer and moving eerily. Of course we were a sitting duck, but we were a duck with a lot of bite.

We landed and hit the sack, secure in the fact that tomorrow we could sleep in, another team was on primary.

The official company record says:
On 1 February, at approximately 0500 hours, the primary Shark gunship team was scrambled to Quang Ngai City. The two aircraft found that a battalion-sized enemy unit was trying to overrun the Quang Ngai Airfield from the south. Enemy troops had already overrun an ARVN training camp, occupied the hospital, and seized numerous public buildings.
On its initial run, the lead Shark took several hits from automatic and small arms fire (Shark 137. Dick Blakeslee’s ship, windshield shot out). The second Shark made firing passes at the heaviest concentration of enemy fire on the ground, and also took numerous hits. After many passes at the still poorly illuminated enemy targets, it became apparent that more firepower was necessary and the secondary gunship team was scrambled.

Meanwhile back at the homestead:
Much to our sleepy chagrin, the primary team was scrambled at five and because we only had five flyable gunships, my ship went on primary. I stumbled out of bed, got dressed and went to the flight line to preflight the ship. We had finished and were in the chow line when we got the word to crank, a heavy fire team of three gunships. Two teams scrambled this close together was a rare occurrence and signaled something very out of the ordinary, something one team couldn’t handle. The primary team had only been gone about 35 minutes.

Back to the official report:
The second team, led by Capt. Thomas Woods, was briefed by the primary team and the ground commander. The ground commander reported that they were under attack by at least a battalion of well-armed Main Force VC and the southwest corner of the perimeter was under heavy pressure by a platoon-sized VC force using mortars and automatic weapons. Capt. Woods directed his team on passes on the designated area and greatly relieved the pressure there.

As I saw it:
Once airborne, CPT Woods in command once more, we made contact with the primary team and got a SITREP (situation report). They were really excited, the ceiling was at about 500 feet and there were VC everywhere trying to overrun Quang Ngai City. We had been summoned not by the MAT, but by the Air Force FAC team stationed at Quang Ngai Airport about 3 clicks (kilometers) to the west of the city. The airport sat on the south bank of a river so the north was secure, the VC were attacking from the south. The primary gunships got there in time to break up the attack by an estimated battalion of VC, making gun runs on enemy in the open, every gunship crew's dream. When we got there, a platoon of VC was trying to penetrate the southeast corner of the airport perimeter. The clouds were only about five hundred feet above the ground, the only illumination provided by tracers. We were able to break up the attack, the enemy was scattered and trying to escape so we were trading gunfire with small groups of VC trying to break free and get away. The primary team had expended their ordnance in about ten minutes so we took over and they went back to re-arm.

We were firing our doorguns constantly, there was no end of targets. In the air, you can fire an M-60 steadily because the air stream cools the barrel. On this day, however, the barrels were heating up and the problem was not in the barrel itself but in the bolt locking recesses. They were hot and were causing the locking lugs on the bolt to wear away. I had fired about 1500 rounds when my gun quit so I picked up my M-16 and used it. It wasn't long before the other gunner's M-60 quit and all of our mini-gun ammo and rockets were gone. An M-16 being fired from a helicopter is not very accurate because the bullet is blown around by the down draft from the main rotor blades. CPT Woods was getting frustrated because we had plenty of targets and nothing left to hit them with so he went right down on the deck, we were flying between groups of enemy soldiers at a distance of ten or fifteen feet.

In one place a large number of enemy were trying to escape by wading down a canal, we went right down alongside the canal, me firing my M-16 and CPT Woods firing his .45 pistol out his window. Finally, low on fuel, we headed back for Duc Pho. All they way back CPT Woods was on the radio hollering for more M-60's and urging maintenance to get the other gunships flying as fast as possible. We landed and didn't shut the engine down while we refueled and traded machine guns with the armaments people, then over to the ammo dump where we loaded rockets and threw ammo cans on the aircraft. We had taken a few hits but nothing serious. While flying back to Quang Ngai we took the ammo out of the cans and loaded the minigun boxes just throwing the empty cans out the door.

Back to the official report:
At this time, the Sharks were diverted to the overrun ARVN (Army of South Vietnam) training camp, leaving the southwestern perimeter to a set of Air Force fighters. After the secondary team made one pass on the training camp, the returning primary team arrived on station. An additional Shark had been hurried out of maintenance to replace one of the Sharks that had originally been on the primary team because one of the original team had received too much battle damage to return immediately, having had a windshield shot out. Due to the Shark firepower, the ground troops were able to retake the training camp and the Sharks were able to lend support to numerous smaller battles that had broken out throughout the city.

Back to my version:
In radio contact with the other team once more, we learned that the enemy had overrun an ARVN training camp on the north side of the river and the ARVNs were going to try to take it back attacking from south to north. We arrived and began making runs on the camp forcing the enemy back down the slopes. The crowning moment there was when we blew up a truck, never done that before. Eventually we had the enemy suppressed to the point we were simply circling over the camp at low level firing up the trenches with doorguns. With that situation under control, we began looking for targets of opportunity and ended up fighting with small groups of enemy trying to escape. Somewhere in there we took a hit that put all of our main armament, guns and rockets out of action. On our next trip back to refuel and rearm we took the panel off the floor and found the main armament cable, about 20 wires bundled neatly together, cut halfway through by a bullet coming through the floor. It was a very neat cable, all the wires were white, it was going to be a real chore to figure out which end went where.

By now a couple of our ships had been put out of commission so we elected to go back to the battle with just door guns. Airborne, we made contact with a FAC who was watching a large group of VC that had taken over the prison. We didn't even know where the prison was so the FAC, flying a twin engine Cessna 0-2, dropped down to housetop level and punched off a rocket that went right through a window. We went into an orbit around the prison shooting at anything that moved. We would shoot someone and on the next orbit the body had been pulled back inside. They had guts. I really enjoyed shooting the tile roof, the tiles bounced just like running your hand down piano keys.

Once my gun jammed, I opened the cover and the ammo belt fell to the floor. I reached down to pick it up and we caught a burst from an AK-47 that went through the bulkhead behind me but didn't hit anything. The burst came from a patch of tall grass south of the city so we went after them. By late afternoon the battle was over and we limped home. We had committed six gunships during the day, none were battle worthy by sunset. One aircraft had taken 22 hits. In spite of the heavy damage no one had been scratched, but there were some extraordinary events that took place. One gunner had an oil can under his seat that took a hit but the bullet never came out of the can. Another aircraft had the fuel filler cap shot away. We couldn't find it, we didn't know if it had been hit and punched into the tank or what.

Because we were all in one piece we were excited and laughing as we examined the aircraft and pointed out bullet holes. Everybody worked all night in maintenance and finally by morning we had a heavy team of three aircraft in flyable condition, but it didn't matter, the VC were gone. The MAT counted 367 enemy confirmed killed and credited us with 233 kills, a large number of wounded and preventing the complete overrun of two major strongholds in the city. The NVA left behind over 100 weapons including 140mm rockets and 57mm recoilless rifles. Our aircraft logged 34 flight hours.
Because we were all in one piece we were excited and laughing as we examined the aircraft and pointed out bullet holes. Everybody worked all night in maintenance and finally by morning we had a heavy team of three aircraft in flyable condition, but it didn't matter, the VC were gone. The MAT counted 367 enemy confirmed killed and credited us with 233 kills, a large number of wounded and preventing the complete overrun of two major strongholds in the city. The NVA left behind over 100 weapons including 140mm rockets and 57mm recoilless rifles. Our aircraft logged 34 flight hours.

An excellent days work :eek:
All those bullet holes would have had me fainting LOL
Soc Trang 1968 Firefly Air Field Defense. We worked about 5 miles race track all night only landing for refuel and a sandwich brought out from the mess hall. Never shut down just guide the POL tanker safely under the edge of the main rotor. Charlie wasn't stupid and watched 24/7. You just have to work under the flares to understand the intimidation you could put on your enemy. If he looked up he was just about blind. I loved flying 40 feet above the canals and manning the aircraft short barrel 50, a real chain saw ripper on a sampan of any size.
Damn, nothing beats first hands accounts. Especially when oozing details about equipment limitations and improvisations ?
Yes it is great to read accounts from VN Vets, sadly they are slipping off this mortal coil due to age and that makes accounts like these all the more important.

We are very lucky to have them :)

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