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From: Joe Beben
Time: 7:24:13 AM
Remote Name: 188.8.131.52
Part II - Tet Offensive, Can Tho and Other Actions, Jan/Feb 1968
As reports from outlying units reached battalion headquarters at Can Tho on the morning of January 31, 1968 each had a similar grim tone. The situation at Vinh Long airfield, where a platoon from C Company was stationed, was tense and confused. During the night the enemy penetrated the base perimeter and killed the airfield commander as he led a counterattack. By noon the perimeter was restored and all infiltrators were in custody. However much of the nearby province capital was in flames and held by the Viet Cong. When a second mortar and small arms attack began against the airfield that night, a call came into Can Tho for troop reenforcements. Then proceeded a most unusual undertaking for an Army engineer construction unit. The executive officer of the 69th, Ed McFarlan, was given command of an airmobile assault task force organized of 40 engineers and 60 other men from Can Tho. The reinforcements were hurriedly airlifted to the north to Vinh Long and inserted shortly after midnight, unsure of what lay ahead. The men quickly took up positions, but the night passed quietly. The early morning hours of January 31st also saw the start of a bloody three week battle for control of the town of Cao Lanh. A small general construction platoon from D Company sided with US Special Forces advisors and men of a Vietnamese Army battalion in fighting off repeated attempts by the Viet Cong to overrun the headquarters of the newly formed 44th Special Tactical Zone. Miraculously, only two engineers were wounded despite heavy casualties on both sides.
At Dong Tam, forward base of the U. S. 9th Infantry Division in the Delta, the enemy engaged in a war of nerves. No large scale ground attack was attempted by the enemy but the engineers from Bravo and Charlie Companies of the 69th suffered through seventeen straight days of heavy mortar and rocket attacks. The final toll was two engineers dead, more wounded and severe damage to equipment. Similar action was seen at Vi Than, Soc Trang and Ap My Dien (in the Plain of Reeds), where the 69th stationed personnel. The Viet Cong attempted to overwhelm the defenders in the scattered and isolated support bases. Failing in that, the enemy sought to harass operations with a deadly outpouring of sniper fire and mortar and rocket attacks.
Before the enemy withdrew from the Can Tho area, one last major attempt was made to penetrate the airfield defenses. Shortly before 1 a.m.,on February 16th, they overpowered the guards at a Regional Force (RF) Camp just beyond the airbase perimeter. The mission of this RF unit was to provide internal security for a portion of the airfield perimeter. Assuming the role of the normal RF guard relief, a band of about 30 Viet Cong approached the airfield back gate. Their ruse might have been successful had not one of their number fired into friendly positions manned by D Company of the 69th Engineers. Within seconds the night again erupted in flames and battle. “Cobra” gun ships quickly rose into action and inflicted heavy casualties on the attackers. A counterattack led by the battalion signal officer cleared the last of the enemy from the airfield. Twenty-seven of the attackers were slain, there were no engineer casualties.
In addition to combat actions, the battalion was called upon to assist in numerous combat support works. Two examples stand out. Equipment operators with the large blade-mounted rubber-tired tractors - the “290's “- accompanied units of the 9th Division to clear enemy road blocks on National Route 4. This was a hazardous undertaking, not only because of ambushes and mines, but also because of the many light “Eiffel” bridges that had to be traversed by the 290's. Men from Alpha Company were employed at Phung Hiep in a combat engineer role during the 9th’s Operation CORONADO XI. Engineers worked hard at such tasks, but also continued construction projects when time was available.
Looking back after thirty-eight years have passed, one realizes how confused and tense those times were. We in the 69th had led a pretty secure life until Tet ‘68 hit us. Yes, it was hot and dirty and the sweat poured down your back but no one was shooting at us. Suddenly, the enemy seemed to be everywhere and was not discriminating between combat and support troops. He wanted to kill all of us.
But, in the end, even though the Viet Cong Offensive of 1968 was a time of fury for the men of the 69th, they responded in the best tradition of the Corps of Engineers. During that campaign, they earned seven awards of the Silver Star, twenty-four Bronze Stars for Valor and thirty-seven awards of the Army Commendation Medal for Valor. Headquarters and Headquarters Company received the Valorous Unit Award for the successful defense of Can Tho Airfield on January 31st.
In all, it was quite an accomplishment for a unit whose primary purpose in being is construction. I salute all of you out there. Wear those medals proudly.
Joe Beben, operations officer and executive officer, 69th Engineer Battalion, July 1967-July 1968.