I was a Navy pilot assigned to HA(L)-3, headquartered in Vung Tau from 14 June 1967 to 5 May 1968. The squadron consisted of approximately 80 pilots and 22 UH1B gunships, along with enlisted support personnel. Our primary mission was to provide air cover for the Navy river patrol boats (PBR's) that patrolled the rivers, canals and waterways of the Mekong Delta.
Two UH1B's and two PBR's operated from each of the LST's that the Navy had stationed on strategic rivers though out the delta. In addition, the squadron had four other land based detachments of two aircraft each. Additional PBR's also operated out of Navy bases in the delta area. The purpose of this operation was to interdict arms and supplies that the Viet Cong was shipping via the waterways from North Vietnam to their troops in the south. In general we would fly air cover for the PBR's while they were on patrol, or would be on standby alert to be scrambled when called by a PBR under enemy fire. During the first part of my tour, HA(L)-3 supported any friendly troops under fire, however, later on we were allowed to support only US Naval forces. During TET these rules of engagement were ignored.
My first recollections of TET begin on 29 January, two days before the actual Viet Cong attacks began. The US and South Vietnamese governments had agreed to a truce with the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong in honor of the New Year which was to begin on 1 February. The truce began at 6:00 PM. I remember thinking to myself as we flew our routine patrol that evening that there was a lot of movement below in the form of foot traffic and sampans under way. We had launched from the deck of the USS Garrett County, which was stationed on the Con Thien River and were patrolling the surrounding area. Since we flew our patrols at 1200 feet and it was very easy to observe what was happening below, we could see what were obviously Viet Cong units marching with their weapons slung over their shoulders. In fact, when we dropped down to tree top level to take a closer look, these soldiers waved their AK-47's and Viet Cong flags at us. I remember thinking as I looked at these sinister, jeering faces that these same Viet Cong had been trying to kill us, and we them, for months, and as soon as the truce ended, that routine would start again.
It is interesting to note that this scenario had occurred before, during previous truces with the Viet Cong. These prior truces had ended when the enemy attacked without warning. Little did we realize that history was about to repeat itself, only this time the magnitude of the attacks caught us by surprise.
On the morning of 30 January, we patrolled the area again and saw large numbers of Viet Cong flags along the canals and roadway which were normally under the control of the South Vietnamese. The Viet Cong troops were everywhere. At 9:45 AM we got word that the truce had been ended because of Viet Cong violations. During our patrol we spotted eight sampans in an area inhabited by Viet Cong sympathizers. We attacked and sank the sampans. The truce was over for us also.
The actual TET Offensive began for me at 4:45AM on 31 January when I awoke to the ship's PA speaker that screamed out "Scramble, scramble, scramble the helos!" This was a typical way in which we were informed that there were friendly forces under fire who needed our help. Little did we realize the significance of the battle that was just beginning. We prided ourselves in being able to launch within five minutes of the scramble alert. Since each gunship was fueled, armed, preflighted and ready to go, all that remained was for the crew of two pilots and two gunners to suit up, man the helicopter and start the engine. While we did this, the ship positioned itself for proper wind over the deck.
One at a time, both aircraft launched into the dark morning air. While the number two helicopter was joining number one, the fire team leader got a briefing from the ship's combat information center on where the action was and who was involved. On this particular morning we were told that the US Army airfield at Vinh Long was under mortar and ground attack, so we headed in that direction.
It was soon evident that this was a different kind of enemy action. Before we could get to Vinh Long we were called by the ship and told to divert to Tra Vinh where the town was under siege and in need of air support. We flew to Tra Vinh only to learn the situation was not too bad. While we were circling over the town, we were informed that the situation had grown worse at Vinh Long, and the other Vietnamese cities in the area were also being attacked. We made one air strike on an enemy position on the edge of Tra Vinh and then returned to the LST to refuel.
After refueling, we launched and again headed for Vinh Long, which was now being overrun buy the Viet Cong. As we approached the Army airfield at Vinh Long, we could see a major battle in progress. The Air Force had been dropping flares all night and the sky was lit up like daylight. We put in a strike at the edge of the runway and were told that the field was not only completely surrounded, but that one half of the runway had been overrun by the Viet Cong. After expending our ordinance, we landed to refuel and rearm. I will never forget the scene as we approached the field for landing. It reminded me of a fourth of July celebration. Flares were drifting slowly to the ground and tracer rounds were arcing in all directions across the brightened night sky. Geysers of water were erupting many feet into the air as mortar rounds impacted the in the rice paddies surrounding the airfield. I remember being told by the tower not to land on the east half of the runway because it had been overrun by Charlie. We landed on the west end of the runway and sent both door gunners aft of the aircraft and told them, "Shoot anything that moves!"
After refueling and rearming, we headed back to Tra Vinh which was now under heavy attack. We put in multiple strikes around the city and received heavy enemy fire. The lead aircraft was hit but returned safely to the LST. It was mid morning by the time we arrived back at the ship. We ate breakfast and prepared to fly to Vung Tau where HA(L)-3 had it's maintenance facility. We had some minor repairs and battle damage to tend to.
En route to Vung Tau, we monitored the operational frequency commonly referred to as "Paddy Control." What we heard were continuous reports of towns, airfields and outposts that had been overrun by the Viet Cong. I remember thinking, "There isn't a safe place in all of South Vietnam for us to land."
After having our two aircraft repaired, we returned to the ship that evening. At 2:00AM, the following morning we were again scrambled for Vinh Long which was under attack again. Vinh Long was the location of a major Army complex and airfield, and the Navy had a PBR base that was the main focus of the VC attack. The Navy decided to evacuate the base, so we put in air strikes to cover their withdrawal. The Naval base was actually part of the town and since the whole town had been infiltrated by the enemy, it was difficult to separate friends from foes. Unless we received fire from a specific location, it was impossible to know where the enemy was. For this reason, most of our air strikes were directed by someone on the ground or by an airborne spotter.
We continued to make numerous strikes in and around the town at the request of friendly troops under fire. It seemed that the enemy had succeeded in infiltrating all of Vinh Long and we were taking fire from everywhere. When dawn arrived, most of the city had been taken by the Viet Cong and the Army airfield was still surrounded. Enemy bodies were strewn around the airfield, some of them were children 10-12 years old. All the next day the battle continued. Air Force F-105's and F-4's pounded the perimeter of the airfield continuously. We knew that when nightfall arrived, Charlie would be on the move again.
As dawn arrived on the morning of 2 February, the town of Vinh Long remained under siege. I'll never forget seeing the long line of Vietnamese peasants that stretched for what appeared to be miles along the main highway leaving Vinh Long. What a sad sight it was to see these people carrying everything they owned on their backs and in small rickshaws as they fled their war torn homes.
For the next two to three days, we flew strikes 24 hours a day against the well entrenched Viet Cong. It was the first time any HA(L)-3 pilots had actually attacked targets inside a Vietnamese city. We had no choice, that's where the enemy was. Eventually the Viet Cong forces were routed by the combined action of the Army, Navy and Air Force operations in and around the city of Vinh Long. Gradually, the action died down, not only around Vinh Long, but everywhere else in South Vietnam. It became apparent that the Viet Cong were retreating. In retrospect, there were many moments when we thought we would be the ones retreating. In the end, it's difficult to say which side actually won the TET Offensive. History will decide that.