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The Tet Offensive: A Battle that Changed America

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Message Horace Coleman
Originally published at Tom Paine's Corner. URL:

A lot of it's a blur now.

I was in "the Tomb (the Tan Son Nhut Officers Open Mess)." My battle buddy--Joe "Beaucoup Kilo" Flake and I were eating breakfast after a 14-hour night shift.

We were both scope dopes (air traffic controllers / intercept directors) and both short timers. I was going to rotate on 15 Feb; Joe had even less time left.

As we ate, I think we'd bounced a couple of corks from champagne bottles off the ceiling as we celebrated having lost so much "height" and the Christmas we'd missed by being on shift that holiday. And, the aerial invasion of Vietnam that hadn't happened then. No lie, GI!

The intel boys had decided we were going to be fighting MiG 21s throughout Vietnam on Christmas Day. We'd gone to the classified Air Force version of Jane's All the World's Aircraft to get the data we'd need to know to help the fighter jocks fight those birds. There wasn't much in the leather bound Air Force manual beyond a picture and short sentences that basically said MiG 21s flew real high and real fast.

Some time after Christmas but before New Year's Day, Time magazine carried an in depth feature on that plane. It had more hard data than my outfit had access to. Combat altitude, fire control system lock on range. Stuff like that.

We hadn't finished eating when the PA system blurted out "All troops report to your duty stations!" We left in a hurry.

We were at the radar "shack" in a couple of minutes. The balloon was up. APCs and tanks were rolling through base streets. Fighter bombers were taking off and dropping their ordnance at the end of the runway they'd just left.

There were fire fights in the Foreign Cemetery and other outlying areas of the base. Some hot--to-trot young airman with an M-16 climbed up one of the radomes and started whanging away at who knows what. The MPs thought he was a VC and ate him up while blasting the height finder radar so badly it was knocked out of commission.

Our unit's CO wouldn't issue weapons. He posted guards with rifles-but no ammo. When I was in the boonies of IV Corps I was issued an M-16 and a .38. All I had in Saigon was my personal "suicide" piece: a .25 automatic--which I'd left at home.

Getting killed while fighting is one thing. Being slaughtered is another. The birds I worked with on pre planned and ad hoc missions carried and delivered high explosive bombs, machine guns, cannon fire, CBUs and napalm.

If I intercepted an unidentified flying object with a fighter and the bogie turned out to be unfriendly, I was authorized to tell the pilot to fire. If you can't trust me in a chaotic war zone with a rifle, train me better or send me home.

Wild stuff was happening every where. A Cobra helicopter flying over Cholon saw some uniformed Vietnamese with weapons and opened up on a group of ARVN field grade officers, killing all of them.

The U.S. Embassy was besieged. Our ground troops were trying to repel the attacking VC as unarmed embassy staff fled to the roof. I was told to guide a chopper with a load of weapons and ammo to the embassy. The bird was from an outfit newly in country, was unfamiliar with the Saigon area, and never got high enough to show up on radar.

I gave its pilot street directions, trying to use landmarks I knew but had never seen from the air-a large Catholic Cathedral, the Saigon Zoo, the Presidential Palace-broad streets like Trung Minh Ky. A Vietnamese Air Force Sergeant with a Saigon street map and English as bad as my limited pidgin Vietnamese tried to help.

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California based essayist / poet. Background: university professor, public information officer, technical writer, proposal writer / editor, community college instructor. Vietnam veteran.
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