THE 1968 TET OFFENSIVE – The Battle for Kontum
From the middle of November 67 until the end of January 68 it was unusually quiet. Charlie Company was on firebase security during the Christmas ceasefire. Christmas 67 was a memorable time. I was homesick and lonely…everybody was. We laughed about Santa Claus finding us and made jokes but it was a low time. We played football with a rolled up sand bag for a football. It was the dust bowl. We shared the goodies sent from home. We went back in the boonies in January 68. The entire battalion was moved to basecamp for a stand down late in the month. A stand down is a time to pull a unit off line for some reason usually for equipment. There was no such need this time. In retrospect it is obvious why there was little enemy activity and why we were pulled back to basecamp. On February 1 the NVA started the 1968 Tet offensive. It was a major attack on every important city. Kontum City is the provincial capital of Kontum Province and it came under heavy attack. All of the units of the 1/22 infantry were committed to the battle to retake Kontum City.
C Company arrived by helicopter into the airfield at Kontum. We were to secure the landing strip. Sounds of war were all around us. Air strikes by jets were constant as were attacks by helicopter gunships. The NVA had infiltrated the city and it was our job to push them out. On the first morning D Company was in heavy contact and C Company was called to reinforce them. When we joined D Company the two units were able to retake a group of buildings that were the Provincial Government headquarters. This was heavy fighting and many NVA were killed, wounded, or captured. The second day we began going from house to house clearing everyone out of the city. At the end of the second day we camped on the edge of an open field behind a dirt levee near the government buildings. After dark we were under strict orders not to use any kind of light. We passed hand grenades to the people on the perimeter. The instructions were to not fire a shot because the muzzle flash would show our location. The grenades were to be used until the NVA came over the levee. These were very unusual orders but by knowing the orders we all knew what a dire situation we were in.
Puff the Magic Dragon was slang for an airplane equipped with guns that could fire 100 rounds per second. It was an awesome and devastating weapon. Puff the Magic Dragon flew a figure eight pattern over us all night firing all around us. The next morning we went out into the open field. As a medic I was instructed to find any wounded enemy and patch them up for interrogation. The field was full of dead NVA. You could literally walk across the field on bodies. I did not find one alive. Puff the Magic Dragon kept our unit from being overrun and wiped out.
In two or three days the city was cleared and secure. Kontum was a beautiful oriental city with white stucco buildings and blue-green tile roofs. When we left the town was in shambles. The terrain around the city was rolling hills covered with a thick growth of scrubby trees. After the city was cleared our mission became the pursuit of the retreating NVA. On February 5 the unit I was with was patrolling a short distance outside the city. We had just stopped to take a break around noon and I had laid down using my medic bag for a pillow when all hell broke loose. A squad that had been sent out to secure the area around where we stopped was ambushed. I grabbed my bag and ran through the scrub trees to get to the wounded. I slid in on my stomach next to a wounded soldier. Fellow medic Charlie Shyab and I tended to him. He was very seriously wounded. He had lost an arm at the elbow and a leg was hanging on by a small strip of skin at the thigh. As I lay beside him the ambush continued. A machine gun kept opening up and bullets were hitting everywhere. The bullets were hitting so close that dirt was hitting my face. It was very hot that afternoon and no breeze at all could reach the small clearing. There was a haze in the air from guns being fired and the explosion of grenades.
A lieutenant was killed that day who had arrived in the field the day before. He lasted one day—his only firefight. His inexperience probably was the reason the group walked in the ambush. A close friend was killed also. He was the person who taught me the inside information about survival when I first arrived in the boonies. He was from Pennsylvania and a great high school athlete.
There is a myth that bullets make a noise when they go by. My experience was that there was no noise at all. When a bullet hits a person it makes a dull thud sound. In movies a person who is hit by a shot flies through the air. I did not experience this. When a person is wounded they just drop in their tracks. The person next to you could be shot while you are talking to him and you wouldn’t know until you looked.
I had to plan how to get the wounded soldier out. I figured that at some point I would throw him over my shoulder and run, if so, I planned to amputate his leg. We were there for about four hours until a tank came and rescued us. I did not have to make a decision about severing the leg. He died in the helicopter before he reached the field hospital. I cried that night because I lost him. After keeping him alive for hours I lost him. I also shed tears because at that point I didn’t see any way I would survive doing what I had to do. We lost eight men that day. I knew them all very well. After a few more days of intense fighting things were quiet for a while. Forty years later I still try to save that soldier in my dreams.
Continue to Chapter 8