On January 30, 1968, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces launched what became known as the Tet Offensive. A few days later I got involved in some extremely strange stuff at a place called Saigon Port on the Saigon River, a few kilometers north of Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City.
Our base was a sprawling supply depot nestled under a bridge carrying Highway 1 over the Saigon River. The depot was on the south side of the bridge and didn’t have much military significance – we unloaded barges and boats – but the bridge was a crucial strategic target.
We were stevedores and clerks, not combat troops. However, during Tet Offensive we had to provide our own security since most U.S. and ARVN troops were occupied with other attacks – particularly in and around Saigon, including the U.S. Embassy. There was a small detachment of ARVN at the north end of the bridge, but lightly armed.
The Viet Cong attacked at around midnight. They overran the guard post on the north end of the bridge and fought their way towards us on the south side. As the attack progressed, our commander called for air support. Fifteen minutes later three Cobra helicopter gunships arrived and commenced firing rockets and “mini-guns” (giant Gatling guns firing up to four thousand rounds a minute).
The VC and NVA tended to use green and blue tracer bullets, while the U.S. favored red. The giant tracer bullets of a U.S. fifty caliber machine gun looked like a string of fiery baseballs zooming through the night. The Cobra mini-guns also carried tracers, but the high rate of fire made the tracers look like a laser beam. Occasionally, a bullet ricocheted off metal or the ground and traced a high, lazy arc through the sky.
A firefight at night is an awesome light show, with green, blue and red beams of light crisscrossing the blackness, punctuated by bright flashes from rockets and grenades.
The sound was equally awesome. The mini-guns split the atmosphere with a continuous, screeching roar, like tearing apart a giant sheet of steal. The fifty calibers thumped with dull, staccato booms. Random bursts of small arms fire popped like strings of firecrackers. Rockets and grenades set off sharp cracks of thunder.
Modern warfare is quite the spectacle and cannot be equaled as a horrifying experience. Also, there is no other extreme adrenaline rush than to shoot at people and get shot at. I can see why men can find it attractive, exciting and powerful. (I say “men” because it’s men who make war.)
I went through an experience so deadly horrendous that it changed my life. And this is good; I am who I am and live where I live because of this event, and I wouldn’t have it any other way!