VIETNAM WAR: In the Chaos of TET

In late January, 1968, during lunar new year (or “Tet”) holiday, North Vietnamese and communist Viet Cong forces launched a coordinated attack against a number of targets in South Vietnam now called The Tet Offensive. Here's one man's account.


By Harry Wagner

January 30, 1968 I was in Vietnam working out of the Embassy and with Military Intelligence. With the impact of the Tet attack and until MACV could get reports in from all their deployed units, the military grounded all aircraft. No helicopters were flying for two days. Apparently, there were some military-CIA outposts running out of supplies by the second day and needed to be resupplied before the air cover would resume.

Two Air America helicopters were going to fly the second night of Tet after dark to deliver supplies to several of the outposts. The Air America craft had no guns or armor plate. They were loaded with 15 cases of ammunition and two drums of gasoline and medical supplies.

Two flight crews volunteered to fly the very risky flights but needed someone to push the cargo out on delivery. Since everything was closed down they had few choices, so I went with one of the crews for two flights. I knew the Air America crews were the best and I also knew what would happen to the outposts if not resupplied.

I was into my second day without sleep and don’t remember much about the airtime except it was uncomfortable on the long ride trying to sleep on top of two drums of gasoline. We were flying with no lights and on a compass heading; the crew was in contact with the outpost, and it had been attacked repeatedly and was out of supplies.

The flight crew said they were to approach the outpost above 10,000 feet; the outpost would blink their lights once, and we would align to a touch down position. He said he would drop straight and stop two feet off the ground.  I had 15 seconds to unload and on departure prepare for serious evasive maneuvers. I understood, unloaded out of both sides and just as I felt lift-up a man appeared, and I handed him the medical supplies, which included whole blood.

The second flight was about the same, how the aircrew could stop the downward descent I do not know. It felt like we were at terminal velocity, free falling. I checked the next day, and military relief got to those outposts. The two flights, it seems, violated a general order restricting all flights, but the CIA and Special Forces weren’t about to lose four outposts.

What a night, the second night of Tet. We got back to Saigon at 4:30 AM, and I was called back to the Embassy. They sent me out to report on the progress of the Vietnamese police who were in a house-to- house fight with a large VC-NVA force in Saigon, less than a mile from the Embassy. I had Vietnamese Special Police Branch ID and could get through their perimeter checkpoints.

I reported back that the Vietnamese police were pushing the fight and the VC were getting hit hard. The bombing by the Vietnamese Air Force was generating thousands of refugees leaving the combat area and they were creating a lot of confusion. I was then assigned to expedite the deluge of Vietnamese refugees trying to escape the bombing by the Vietnamese Air Force. Thousands of people were fleeing by means of one road and it was getting bogged down. These people, who were day laborers, unloaded cargo from the ships docked in the harbor. They had been living in temporary shelters, some as little as a cardboard box. The Tet attack forced them to leave even these improvised shelters.

As I approached the area I could see that the flow of people was being hindered by a truck parked on the bridge. There was no other way to escape but to cross that bridge, so I went to investigate. The truck was parked across, so there was little room to get around it. An American missionary was there; he was handing out religious literature and pamphlets. I politely told him he had to move; he was blocking the way and the refugees were not able to get out quickly enough. He refused to leave his post until all the literature had been passed out. I then told him that people were getting killed because of this delay. At his second refusal, I had to direct him at gunpoint to move his truck; he complied.

On my way back out, I saw that the bridge was blocked once again by the same truck. This time I did not ask politely or ask at gunpoint. I went to the truck, put it in gear and pushed it into the harbor. The literature that he was so determined to distribute to the Vietnamese, who only spoke and read their native language, which was causing people to not escape bombing and gunfire, was all written in English.

If you cut the head off of the snake, the snake dies. That was the opening statement of a briefing I attended in Vietnam 1966. In short, the American strategy for victory in Vietnam was to kill the leaders and anyone who happened to be in the path of the leaders, whether they were soldiers or civilians, government officials or innocent women and children. Through my work with the Embassy, IFFV General Staff, Psychological Operations, and Phoenix, I developed a strategy that was counter to what the military was doing, but successful in situations involving civilian populations; Persuasion with Relevance as developed in Peace Team Forward. The Headless Snake is my firsthand account of Vietnam 1966-1968, not through the eyes of a bureaucrat or soldier, but someone who made a difference then, and can transition our military to make a difference now. The US military is representing every American in each deployment outside of our country. Are you satisfied with how the world sees you? I’m not, and I have a strategic plan that was tested successfully in Vietnam and is even more applicable today. The Headless Snake is a unique combination of Vietnam War history and practical theory for a country desperately in need for change.

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About the Author

Harry Wagner is an 88-year-old veteran of Vietnam. He worked in Military Intelligence, Psychological Operations, USAID, and the Phoenix Program. He has written a book about his experience in Vietnam and includes proven strategies to transition our military from a belligerent agent of war to an advocate on a quest for peace; The Headless Snake is available on Amazon. He can be reached by email at [email protected]. You can follow his blog and on Facebook at Peace Team Forward.


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