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Detachment A and the Forgotten Tet 1969 Offensive
Detachment A and the Forgotten Tet 1969 Offensive
Dwight H. Gates, Det A II, 9/68 - 3/70
"Red Alert! Red Alert!" The CQ shouted as he ran through the Detachment A enlisted bay waking us up. I looked at my watch; it was 2:15 a.m., Sunday morning, February 23rd. I quickly threw off the bed sheet, tossed the mosquito net over its frame above the bed and ran to the balcony door only five feet from my bunk. Along the way I grabbed my loaded M-14 rifle, steel pot and web gear. My buddies and I took up our firing positions in a matter of seconds, ready for any potential ground attack on our compound. The 1969 Tet Offensive we anticipated was beginning.
Earlier on February 4th I wrote my parents:
The next month or so might be pretty hairy here in Bien Hoa. Tet is from February 17-19 and the Viet Cong (VC) will probably start something during that time. I figure the VC will launch a very large offensive (probably their largest) in the very near future. Part of the Communist's theory on making peace agreements is to bargain from a position of strength (example: Korea and the 1954 Geneva Agreement). The biggest drive will naturally be in III Corps and since most of the vital targets are In the Bien Hoa area, it is a safe bet this area will probably be hit the hardest. As you know such places as the 101st, III Corps headquarters (where I work), the air base (which is the busiest by far in the world), Long Binh Post, large VC Prisoner of War camp are all within a few miles of each other. One saving factor of course is that the VC would have a very hard time taking Bien Hoa as there is an awful lot of fire power in the area.
Unlike the famous 1968 Tet Offensive when our forces were somewhat caught off guard, preparations for Tet 1969 were made well in advance. The day following my letter to my parents a substantial increase in our daily intake of aerial imagery slammed our detachment operations. It was to continue the next month and a half. Our image interpreters (II) were busy plotting the mission coverage for our Master Coverage Trace, looking for signs of enemy activity in the III Corps area of operations and writing imagery interpretation reports. Our reproduction section was also overloaded reproducing prints and roll imagery of key areas for the field units we supported. These products were critical to operational planning and third phase exploitation. Our customers depended on them. Despite the beginning of peace talks in Paris the previous month and North Vietnam's self-imposed Tet truce, which was to last for seven days beginning on February 15, no one was buying the idea that peace was breaking out all over.
The increased activity and cause for concern was fueled by Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP) sightings of large enemy units in the Bien Hoa-Long Binh area and elsewhere throughout III Corps. Locally there were human intelligence reports concerning sapper squads in the vicinity of our compound. Consequently, the detachment took steps to beef-up its own security posture. Early in February, unit members built two bunkers in our former sawmill compound: one near the front gate and the other outside the officers living quarters. Although many of us speculated they would never be used, nevertheless in the past rockets had hit the compound and the Esso oil plant across the street. We were ready for anything at anytime.
As I took up my firing position the night of the 23rd, the street in front of our compound was quiet, well lit, with nary a soul moving. I had a great field of fire down the street perpendicular to the main road leading to the bridges 100-meters to our south. My sector would be responsible for repelling any ground attack down this side road. To my left, we could see the Military Police station, a little over 800 meters north of our compound. They were engaged in a fire fight with VC hiding in an open field across the street from the station. Tracers were flying through the air from both sides of the road. Some of us thought a few stray rounds came down the road toward our compound. A UH-1Huey helicopter with a large searchlight showed up and circled the field. About this time, I grabbed my camera from my locker just inside the door from my firing position. Known as a "firefly," the specially equipped helicopter lit up the field as if it were daytime. Searching for the VC, it made pass after pass circling the field. Then we saw it, a short burst of green tracers went up toward the helicopter from the field, with the helicopter door gunner returning fire with his M-60 machinegun from above. I snapped a couple of pictures with my camera. In a split second, the firefly banked and its place taken up by two Cobras helicopter gunships firing into the field. I snapped more pictures as the Cobras wreaked havoc on their prey in the field. The miniguns sounded like the grinding gears of a stick shift car driven by a bad driver, but it was music to our ears.
The red tracers streaming from the gunships reminded me at the time of the famous Yosemite fire fall I had seen many times at the national park, where burning embers are shoved over Half Dome at night and looked like a red waterfall. The fight didn't last long; soon the field was quiet. The remainder of the night we held our positions, occasionally hearing gunfire from the units protecting the bridges south of us. At one point we heard a mortar impact approximately 100 yards away, probably by the bridges. Later we learned that in addition to the MP station, the VC attacked the bridges near our compound and wounded some of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) guards; the air base was hit with 39 rocket and mortar rounds, destroying two aircraft and damaging eight more; Train Compound, where we ate, was attacked by the enemy; and the Vietnamese police station in town was hit. Also, the railroad station was briefly taken in an attack. In nearby Long Binh, the enemy launched a ground attack that penetrated the perimeter of Long Binh Army Depot, but were beaten back. Everywhere the VC and North Vietnam Army (NVA) troops attacked, they were repelled.
In the morning, our detachment clerk and couple of others ventured out on a mail run to the air base and saw a half-dozen dead VC along the road by the MP station. Sunday afternoon, a VC was caught in front of our compound, possibly the guy that ran the ice cream stand across the street from our compound. We learned that Sunday that a VC sympathizer ran the stand to keep an eye on us. We also learned that afternoon that our detachment was the secondary target for a sapper attack if the primary target, which turned out to be the bridges to Saigon a hundred meters southeast of us, could not be attacked. By Sunday evening, it was safe enough for the night shift to drive out to our operations area.
The ground attacks on the 23rd were part of a larger effort that saw 110 NVA-VC attacks taking place throughout South Vietnam that day.
In III Corps, the enemy's main thrust was to take Saigon with three VC and NVA divisions, primarily along the northern approaches to the capital, and to a lesser extent east and west of the city. Other intense fighting on Sunday took place in Tay Ninh and Binh Duong provinces, where the U.S. 25th Infantry
Division battled the NVA's -1st Division. Intelligence reporting assessed the 1st Division's mission was to keep open northern escape routes into Cambodia. At Song Be, 100 miles northeast of Saigon, enemy forces nearly overtook the American compound and placed a North Vietnamese flag on the airstrip. Elsewhere, heavy fighting was taking place near Da Nang where the U.S. Marine 1st Division was fighting a large-scale force. On Monday the 24th and Tuesday the 25th, ground attacks were replaced with rocket and mortar attacks on cities and military camps throughout the III Corps area. News reports speculated that the rocket and mortar attacks were probably meant to mask the movement of enemy units for attacks on Bien Hoa, Long Binh or Saigon. In reaction to the threat, the US Air Force countered with B-52 airstrikes.
On Wednesday the 26th, enemy ground attacks resumed in the Bien Hoa area. Going to our operations area that morning, the dayshift watched wave after wave of bombing and strafing runs on an area east of III Corps compound. We watched Helicopter gunships fire rockets and F-100 Super Sabre, F-4 Phantom and A-1 Sky Raider fighter-bombers drop bombs on the area. These air strikes lasted throughout the day. In between air strikes, the Army's psychological operations (psyops) unit dropped Chieu Hoi leaflets on the attackers trying to convince them to surrender. We soon learned the reason for the airstrikes. Elements of a battalion-sized unit of the 5th VC Division came in contact with Air Force Air Police (AP) near the airbase at 3:00 a.m. that morning. The APs repelled an attack by approximately 50 enemy soldiers. This attack was part of a three prong attack on the air base, with the NVA and VC forces capturing the nearby villages of Dong Lach and Ho Nai. Fighting between the enemy unit and South Vietnamese Rangers and Marines was house-to-house in the villages. During the battle, the executive officer of the 275th Regiment (90% of the unit made up of NVA soldiers) was captured and taken up in a psychological operation aircraft with a loud speaker to try and convince his unit to surrender. The attack lasted 15 hours in all with the enemy unit decimated. In the battle, 234 Communist Soldiers were killed and 80 captured. Several of the enemy carried the psyops leaflets. On the U.S. side, one soldier was killed and 10 injured. ARVN casualties were described as light.
While the immediate threat to Detachment A significantly diminished after the 26th attack, our work at operations was just getting into gear. In the first week in March, Detachment A broke the existing Battalion record for targets in a week. The work load was so heavy that two IIs from Detachment C in Can Tho were attached to the unit to help. The rest of March was even busier. By the end of the month, it looked like Detachment A would break their February total of targets by 200. Two other IIs joined the detachment, one from Detachment B in Danang and another from Detachment C. Both men told us that we received more missions in a day than they received in a week. On many days we received 8-12 missions or more. With only four or five IIs doing most of the work on any given day, our eyeballs were hurting by the end of each shift. A stateside study once showed that the maximum effectiveness of an II on a light table was three and a half hours. Our IIs were frequently working eight to twelve hours at a time reading out missions. Needless to say the increased number of missions also meant heavy demands on our reproduction section to make prints and roll imagery for our customers. Making matters worse, in late April the detachment had a Command Material and Maintenance Inspection (CMMI). This put a lot of strain on the nightshift, who worked nearly all the missions received, while the dayshift worked details in preparation for the inspection.
By May, the Tet '69 Offensive period was coming to a close, but not before a series of rocket and mortar attacks. Between May 12th and June 20th Bien Hoa Air Base was attacked eleven times. On May 14th the Reds shelled 159 cities and military sites throughout Vietnam, but Bien Hoa was spared any attacks that day. For nearly a month, Detachment A's night shift bore the brunt of the rocket and mortar attacks. The attacks became so regular the nightshift began taking bets on what hour the attack would take place. On June 6th the air base was hit hard by 36 rockets and mortars. One of the rockets landed 25-meters from our operations area next to the communications center. The rocket put a hole in one of our conex containers and wounded a soldier at the communications center. A few days later, another rocket hit the III Corps dispensary about 200-meters from Detachment A Operations, killing 15 people. On June 12th the air base was hit with 30 rockets and mortars. From May 12th to June 20th 108 rockets or mortars hit the air base making the end of Tet a memorable one for the nightshift.
On June 8th, the 1969 Tet Offensive Counteroffensive officially ended, although the detachment continued to receive a heavy load of missions each day after that date.
Two days later, the Assistant Chief of Staff Intelligence, II Field Forces, Colonel D.G. Wood, sent a letter of commendation to Det A's Commanding Officer, which stated in part:
I want to take this opportunity to commend you and the members of your unit for the outstanding support rendered by Detachment A to the United States and Free World Military Forces in the III Corps Tactical Zone during the VC/NVA Winter/Spring Offensive. The intelligence information obtained from your interpretation of approximately 1200 aerial reconnaissance targets substantially assisted in the location and ultimate destruction of many enemy units. In addition, your interpretation of contemplated areas of operation gave the tactical commander an appreciation of the terrain and enemy fortifications which ultimately resulted in fewer US and friendly casualties.
The fact that your unit interpreted 37% of all Air Force targets flown in the Republic of Vietnam between 5 February and 19 March 1969 is proof of the high motivation and outstanding professional competence of your personnel. Your constant attention to detail and desire to improve the support rendered to tactical units in the III CTZ has resulted in an ever increasing reliance of such units on your products. Detachment A proves the necessity of having such a technically qualified unit as part of the overall intelligence effort.
For those of us who served in Detachment A during the 1969 Tet Offensive, the four and a half months spanning the offensive were certainly memorable ones. We all remember the early beginnings of the Offensive on the 23d and 26th of February when the fighting was heavy in the Bien Hoa area. Also, we will never forget how hard we worked providing our customers with intelligence and imagery for operational planning during the subsequent months. Yet today, Vietnam histories barely talk about the period. During Tet 1969, some seventy named operations took place in response to the VC-NVA attacks. Although the VC-NVA tried to mount major offensives in the Saigon and Da Nang areas of Vietnam, they were soundly defeated on every front and suffered heavy losses of personnel.
Enemy forces were further punished when Nixon commenced secret B-52 bomb strikes of Communist safe areas in Cambodia to counter the Tet 1969 Offensive. The Communists apparently wanted to test the new president's resolve at the beginning of the Paris Peace Talks and paid dearly for their decision. Nevertheless, casualties on both sides were heavy during the period. Although not as well known as the Tet 1968 Offensive, Tet 1969 was another significant defeat for the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army Forces in a fight that pitted division-level units against each other. Perhaps one day the story of Tet 1969 will be told in a proper accounting of the period. Until that time it will be known by us who fought it as the "Forgotten Tet of 1969."
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