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Tet Offensive Can Tho January 1968

From: Joe Beben
Date: 10/27/2005
Time: 2:33:20 PM
Remote Name:


For those who are recent to this page, here's something I posted a few years back. JAB ________________________________ The 69th Engineer Battalion and the 1968 Tet Offensive (Part One)

The following is a story that needs to be told about the brave soldiers who served with the "Builders of Peace" during the hectic months of the 1968 Tet offensive as we experienced it in the delta, and in particular at Can Tho airfield. It was a time of fury and good men died. I dedicate this to those heroes who took the brunt of the VC attacks, the battalion grunts of HQ and D Companies. This first episode deals only with what happened to HQ Co during the first of two ground attacks at Can Tho airfield. There was fighting also at Vinh Long, Ap My Dien, Vi Thanh, Soc Trang and Cao Lanh. Other locations where men from the battalion were stationed were heavily mortared.

The battalion had spent a quiet six months in the delta after moving from Vung Tau in the summer of 1967. I was on the coast only for two or three weeks before we moved but I think everyone would agree that Vung Tau was nice duty. If nothing else, the Aussies made it pretty interesting. Trying to work in the gasoline soaked ground at the Vung Tau tank farm was also an eye opener. Anyway, by late summer Bravo and Charlie Companies were hard at work raising a base camp for the brigade of the 9th Div at Dong Tam and HQ, A and D Co were at Can Tho Airfield. Small detachments from these units were farmed out all over the delta. Things were pretty quiet at Can Tho except that one evening sometime in December the VC boldly came through the main gate of the airfield disguised as ARVN medics and proceeded to the parking aprons where they wreaked havoc with the aircraft. Besides burning up some aviation unit assets, they managed to reduce Air America to a smoldering pile of metal. It was a not so pretty sight the next morning and all perpetrated by a single jeepload of nonfriendlies (who all escaped unharmed)! But, that was all the excitement we engineers at Can Tho experienced prior to Tet and many men were signing up for tour extensions. The bennies seemed pretty good and you could see something positive happening. All that changed in an instant on the morning of January 31, 1968.

The word got out the day before that something big was about to happen and the last thing I recall was telling the Bn Opns Sgt to double the guard that night, as higher headquarters had directed that afternoon. I then went off to Can Tho City where the officers were billeted and later that evening witnessed the crazy fireworks when celebrating ARVN gunners traced lazy eights in the dark night with tracer rounds. That was the last peaceful night many of us spent for the rest our tours…….(The remainder of this saga was obtained from extensive interviews I made the following morning with eight engineers who had participated in the fighting. I also discussed the attack with IV Corps staff to obtain information on the VC. And I walked the ground.)

In the early morning hours of January 31, 1968 the VC and NVA attacked virtually every major city and military installation in South Vietnam. About 0300 hours the VC 303rd Main Force Battalion began their first attack on the airfield at Can Tho. Its mission was to seize a portion of the base proper and/or to destroy the aircraft in their revetments.

The enemy came out of the jungle on the northern perimeter charging forward across the moonlight rice paddies, hurling hand grenades and firing AK-47's. The initial squads pressed hard on the HQ Co positions but were quickly halted, but only for a brief moment by the defending engineers. A new wave of attackers ruptured the defensive line killing five engineers and wounding others. The VC poured through the break, creating a shallow salient some 75 meters wide and maybe 15 or 20 meters deep. At this point it appeared that they might turn left toward the fuel dump or keep charging ahead to the aircraft apron.

But they couldn't do it. Within fifteen minutes of the first shot the Quick Reaction Platoon headed by the Bn Personnel Sgt (I believe Swanson was his last name) had halted the drive for the fuel dump and the Cobras were either in the sky or about ready to get in the air. The reaction platoon helped fight the VC to a standstill and the Cobras started their deadly strafing runs over the VC forward positions. Illumination rounds and searchlights turned night into day and the Cobras rapidly made the VC positions untenable. The men in the guard towers came under heavy fire and at one point the VC were firing directly up into one. But they were sandbagged well and they turned out to be crucial to stopping the penetration. I think it was Vroman who headed the guard detail that night and he helped illuminate the battlefield with the headlights on his jeep. Just before dawn the VC withdraw back into the jungle and the fighting was over for that morning at the airfield.

There were lots of hair-raising stories that morning but the most incredible is what happened to the battalion photographer, Specialist Burchett. He and his buddy were in a two-man foxhole that was in the direct line of the enemy attack. The VC threw a grenade into the foxhole killing Burchett's buddy outright but the force of the explosion threw Burchett up and on top of the perimeter road. This road ran just inside the fenceline and was elevated three or feet above the surrounding rice paddies. Burchett was knocked unconscious as the VC swarmed over his position, taking his rifle and ammunition before advancing deeper into the airfield. He regained consciousness a few hours later after the VC had been driven back. It was still dark when he found himself atop the berm with both sides shooting small arms and machinegun fire over his body. He dared not move, fearful he would be a dead man to either side if he did. After dawn a patrol sweeping the area found him slowly rising up from the dusty road, hands in the air, so glad to see daylight and friendly faces. He was peppered with shrapnel but otherwise in good shape.

The battlefield was strangely quiet afterwards. It was chilling to see the carnage delivered by the Cobra gunships on the enemy. We counted 67 VC dead and 20 wounded were taken prisoner. HQ Co suffered five dead, all falling when the enemy's overwhelming numbers overran their positions. Twenty-two US soldiers were wounded that morning at Can Tho.

There was no rest following the battle that day or for weeks afterward. There's more to this story but for now let me finish with what happened next to Burchett. The doc patched him up, the battalion commander, Col Bob Potts, awarded him a purple heart and a one grade on-the -spot promotion. Burchett was angry, in fact so mad at what had happened to his fallen comrades that he spent the next several days and nights arming Cobra gunships with rockets. The aviation gunships were flying almost around the clock and when the call came to the engineers for volunteers to assemble rockets and stuff them into the pods, he was among the first to step forward. We almost didn't get him back to picture taking.

HQ Co received the Department of Army Valorous Unit Award for the successful defense of Can Tho Airfield on 31 January 1968.

I apologize for any errors and omitting names I should remember, but let me know what I missed or what may need correction.

Joe Beben, battalion operations officer, July 1967 to July 1968

Last changed: October 27, 2005