Bill Rider considered himself a grizzled veteran of the Vietnam War that late January night in 1968 when the first waves of North Vietnamese soldiers and their Viet Cong allies attacked U.S. and South Vietnamese lines in the besieged central city of Khe Sanh, where he was stationed.
After all, the 19-year-old native of New London, Ohio, had been in the theater for a whole three months and had seen intense action dating back to his second day in Vietnam in October.
But the scope of the battle, and the determination of the enemy forces he faced, quickly convinced him that this attack was different.
“We knew that if anyone screwed up, you could get killed,” Mr. Rider said. “My advice to the new guys was, ‘Do what I tell you, and you might survive this.’ “
Mr. Rider, now 75, recalls many harrowing days and close calls during his 13-month tour, but no time was more nerve-wracking than that January exactly 50 years ago Tuesday.
The wide-ranging assault was timed to the day marking the Vietnamese lunar year, a celebration known locally as Tet.
Khe Sanh, where some fighting had begun more than a week before Tet, became a grueling 77-day conflict before the Marines were finally withdrawn.
The Johnson administration and the Pentagon had been offering relatively rosy assessments of the fighting in the months prior to the attack, suggesting Hanoi’s ability to carry the fight to the South was weakening.
But on that day, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese army launched a series of calculated, coordinated attacks against every major American military position from the demilitarized zone in central Vietnam right into the heart of Saigon.
Waves of North Vietnamese fighters had been building up weapons and supplies in anticipation of the surprise attack via the Ho Chi Minh Trail — a complex network of jungle footpaths through seemingly impassible terrain that was the materiel lifeline for the Vietnamese communists.
Thousands of Viet Cong and whole regiments of North Vietnamese army troops stormed U.S. outposts and major firebases across the country during the offensive, catching the South Vietnamese government and the Pentagon by surprise.
In Saigon, Viet Cong fighters and Marines assigned to secure the U.S. Embassy engaged in bloody street warfare as the Americans fought off waves of attackers attempting to overrun the diplomatic outpost.
A half-century later, the attack and its aftermath can still spark bitter divisions while providing an object lesson in the power of perception in the prosecution of modern warfare.
Militarily, even the North Vietnamese would later concede, the Tet Offensive was a staggering defeat for the communists, who lost over 50,000 fighters during the offensive while gaining little valuable territory.
Against Hanoi’s expectations, South Vietnamese soldiers did not abandon their posts, the South Vietnamese “puppet” government did not buckle and ordinary citizens did not welcome their “liberators” from the north.
Two weeks after the offensive started, the Defense Department estimated that the North and its allies had lost more than 33,000 soldiers, compared with 2,000 South Vietnamese soldiers and 1,000 Americans. A total of 12,000 were wounded.
The Viet Cong’s “regular units were decimated and would never completely recover, and its political infrastructure suffered crippling losses,” Vietnam War historian George Herring wrote of Tet’s impact.
But the boldness and sophistication of the coordinated attacks was a massive blow to public confidence in the U.S. about the course of the war and the Pentagon’s plan to win it. An enemy that some U.S. generals argued was on the ropes had managed a coordinated assault that struck 36 provincial capitals, the six largest cities in South Vietnam and even the U.S. Embassy in the heart of Saigon.
Convulsive political events on the home front marked 1968, which would become the bloodiest year for U.S. forces from the entire Vietnam operation, with 16,592 killed.
Less than a month after the first Tet assaults on Jan. 30, 1968, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara resigned. By June, a beleaguered President Johnson removed Gen. William Westmoreland from his command of the war as well.
CBS newsman Walter Cronkite famously proclaimed that, after Tet, an outright U.S. victory in the war was no longer feasible and a negotiated peace was the only way to avoid a military stalemate with the regime in Hanoi.
While much of the North Vietnamese were thrown back from much of the territory they seized in the first days of fighting, the Tet Offensive sparked more extended fighting in many places. The brutal battle for Hue, for example, lasted a month and destroyed much of the onetime imperial capital before the North Vietnamese and their allies were thrown back.
Nowhere was the fighting more intense than in Khe Sanh. While most of the fighting from the Tet Offensive subsided weeks after the initial thrust by enemy forces, the battle for Khe Sanh lasted for 77 days.
The battle for the city, less than several miles from the demilitarized zone separating North and South Vietnam, remains perhaps the signature conflict of the Tet Offensive and the scene for some of the most intense fighting of the war.
Mr. Rider and the other Marines from Charlie Company found themselves on the front lines at Khe Sanh during Tet. The Marines had been flown into the besieged city along with troops from the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Battalions from 26th Marines to hold the line against enemy forces, which had been laying siege to the city for more than a week.
Mr. Rider recalled that his Marine platoon was digging bunkers and fortifying its positions at Marine Corps base “Rock Quarry” on what was known as Hill 64 in Khe Sanh when the first wave of the North Vietnamese army and Viet Cong fighters hit the perimeter on the night of Jan. 30.
“Normally during Tet, there were always some attacks,” he said. But after hearing reports about concurrent attacks on Saigon, Hue, Da Nang and elsewhere, platoon members knew they were facing an assault unlike any other to date in the war.
“What the information was that there were 40,000 hard-core NVA” waiting to pour into Khe Sanh,” he said. “And at best we had 3,500 to 4,000 Marines. And we thought they are coming for us.”
The first full day of Tet was harrowing for the Marines, who were hit with 1,400 heavy artillery, Mr. Rider recalled.
“It was incredible. Mortars, artillery, rockets, everything ,” he said. “There wasn’t one day where there was not severely wounded [Marines].”
Picking off sappers
For days on end, the Marines battled back waves of North Vietnamese attackers, picking off specialized combat engineers known as sappers who were planting explosives and other devices to crack the U.S. fortifications in the city. There was little time to rest, much less sleep, during the onslaught.
“Alpha Company ended up getting overrun” during the early days of Tet, Mr. Rider recalled.
Sleep became an even dicier proposition as American B-52 bombers pounded North Vietnamese positions in and around Khe Sanh as part of Operation Arc Light. “We would be sitting in our bunkers and feel the vibrations from Arc Light” as the massive bombers decimated the countryside around the besieged city.
“We would sit there and think, ‘My God, what are those guys going through?’” he said of the North Vietnamese units on the receiving end of the bombardment. “But they were committed. They just would not leave.”
The fighting in Khe Sanh got so bad that Marine Corps helicopters would not fly in supplies to the Marines. Instead, they dropped massive pallets of food, water and ammunition to the forces below, Mr. Rider recalled. During one drop, one Marine was partially crushed by a falling pallet of supplies, he said.
In April, when the fighting from Tet subsided, the Marines at Khe Sanh went on the offensive. The Marines from the 26th Battalion began pushing the enemy out of the embattled city and moved into the highlands surrounding Khe Sanh to hunt down the remnants of the North Vietnamese units that were regrouping.
Mr. Rider and what was left of 1/6 Marines took out an entire North Vietnamese battalion. Days later, almost all of Mr. Rider’s battalion was wiped out by communist forces on nearby Hill 64. In the end, 1/6 Marines and those from 26th Marines were pulled out of Khe Sanh and moved back to the rear in Bang Hao.
By the end of the war, Charlie Company and the rest of 1/6 Marines would compile the highest American combat casualty rate of all Marine Corps units in Vietnam, earning them the nickname “The Walking Dead.”
In his 13 months in Vietnam with Charlie Company, Mr. Rider and the men of 1/6 Marines were pulled off the front line three times.
Suffering from malnutrition, Mr. Rider was evacuated to Bethesda Naval Hospital in 1968. While he was recovering in Maryland, Marine Corps recruiters attempted to persuade the 20-year-old to sign up for another tour in Vietnam.
“They said they needed guys with combat experience,” he recalled. “I was bulletproof there, but I did not know if I wanted to tempt fate. I decided to go to Ohio State instead.”
Looking back, Mr. Rider said what got him though those difficult days in central Vietnam were the bonds he forged with his fellow Marines.
“The Marines who died [in Khe Sanh] gave their lives for their brothers,” he said. “Nobody died for their country. They died for the ones who they fought next to.”
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