“Not A Word of Warning From Anyone:” The Tet Offensive, the Vietcong, and South Vietnam’s Peasantry

Millions of South Vietnamese peasants assisted the Vietcong in its preparations for the Tet Offensive.  Sympathetic villagers provided the guerrillas with intelligence on Allied troop movements, gave the Vietcong food and money, and hid the infiltrators in their rural homes. Recently displaced refugees, many of whom lived on the edges of American bases or on the fringes of South Vietnam’s major cities, allowed the Vietcong to use their shantytowns and slums as jumping-off points for Communist attacks on Allied military targets.  South Vietnamese Tet travelers furnished the infiltrators with a degree of civilian cover, making it impossible for the South Vietnamese police to weed out the guerrillas from the general population.  And just days before the launch of the offensive, the Vietcong succeeded in bypassing hundreds of Allied foot patrols then taking place across rural South Vietnam; the guerrillas even breached the tight security cordons, with their manned watchtowers, pillboxes, and check points, that stood alongside the roads leading into South Vietnam’s towns and cities.  None of these Vietcong movements could have been accomplished without the assistance, or acquiescence, of large numbers of South Vietnamese peasants.

A secret network of trails and waterways, used mostly at night, obscured the guerrillas from Allied observation planes and helicopters. Abandoned, bombed out hamlets, converted by the Vietcong into mini-bases, acted as rest stops, supply depots, and jumping-off points. Moving from mini-base to mini-base, the guerrillas hopscotched from the highlands through the denuded lowlands toward South Vietnam’s population centers. Superb camouflage techniques, a logistical system that placed supplies in front of advancing units, and thousands of miles of tunnels stretching across strategically-important areas further assisted the Communists in entering undetected Saigon, Can Tho, and a host of other cities. Adverse weather played a role too, especially at Hue.

Communist leaders decided to strike at Saigon because of the high-value military and political targets within the city, including the U.S. Embassy, Presidential Palace, Saigon radio station, and the Joint General Staff Headquarters. Hanoi’s strategists reasoned that a series of well-coordinated and successful attacks in Saigon would have a tremendous shock effect, demoralizing both the South Vietnamese and Americans. The adverse reaction to the offensive by the American public proved Hanoi’s prediction to have been correct.

Communist sappers and Vietcong infantry arrived in Saigon from a number of different directions. Employing separate infiltration corridors guaranteed that some guerrillas would get through to their targets, even if the Allies captured or killed others.[3] A key infiltration route ran from the Vietcong’s border sanctuaries situated north and northwest of Tay Ninh down the Saigon River toward Saigon. This route passed by the U.S. bases at Lai Khe and Cu Chi. Another major infiltration corridor paralleled the Be River, which enabled Communist troops to reach the Bien Hoa area. The Dong Nai River Valley served as an additional Vietcong transportation route.[4]

Although the Americans had long tried to keep the Vietcong out of war zones C and D, in the weeks prior to the offensive, the Communists were able to use a system of tunnels and hidden trails through those two areas to move men and supplies toward Saigon. Once the guerrillas emerged from the bomb-blasted, bulldozed, and defoliated war zones, they hurriedly transited toward the sprawling slums located northeast of Saigon between the city’s edge and Bien Hoa. From the cramped, maze-like slums, the guerrillas jumped-off to Cholon and downtown Saigon.

Other guerrilla units moved out of the Plain of Reeds toward their assigned targets. In order to avoid detection by U.S. and ARVN mechanized patrols and American spotter aircraft, the insurgents avoided the main roads.  Instead, they walked across dry, hard-packed, recently-harvested rice paddies or they marched along the tree-lined edges of the delta’s many canals.  In heavily patrolled areas, the Vietcong waded directly down the center of irrigation ditches.[5]

Shallow draft wooden sampans carried still more men and supplies. Canals west and south of Saigon acted as Communist lines of communication. The Vietcong navy, which consisted entirely of civilian watercraft dragooned into service, relied heavily on these LOCs before and during the Tet Offensive. The Vietcong used well-traversed civilian water routes, as well as secret watercourses. On the heavily trafficked canals and rivers near Saigon, where the Allied brown water navy regularly patrolled, Vietcong vessels hauled small amounts of war material – amounts that would not raise the suspicion of Government inspectors. These vessels eventually deposited their supplies at collection points, where land-based porters carried the materials further afield. The Allies had no idea of the number of secret water routes in existence across the delta. For example, in 1967, the Americans discovered that Vietcong laborers had dredged an abandoned canal in Hau Nghia Province. This canal, long thought by the Allies to be in disrepair, floated enemy sampans out of the Plain of Reeds toward the populated regions to the east. Canals and rivers played an important role in Vietcong logistics throughout the Tet Offensive. In mid-February 1968, while fighting raged across South Vietnam, American helicopter gunships intercepted a flotilla of 300 Vietcong sampans on a canal twenty-eight miles south of Saigon. The choppers, armed with rockets and mini-guns, sank many of the slow-moving, exposed watercraft.[6]

Communist troops based in the Plain of Reeds transited toward Saigon through Long An, Hau Nghia, and Dinh Tuong provinces – three provinces with a high percentage of Vietcong sympathizers. Villagers in those provinces supplied the guerrillas with food and drink and a place to sleep at night. They also provided the infiltrators with information on Allied military positions. Civilian porters carried Vietcong supplies. Most damaging to the Allies, the peasantry kept quiet about the guerrilla presence in their midst, refusing to tell the Allies of Vietcong plans.

On the southern outskirts of Saigon, small guerrilla cells passed through several Catholic villages, situated on the approaches to the city during the Diem years as a means of precluding a Communist strike on the city – a strike that the Vietcong were now about to carry out. Surprisingly, many Catholics aided the Vietcong. They, like their more left-leaning Buddhist neighbors, offered the Vietcong food, shelter, and vital intelligence. They too remained quiet, not telling authorities of the existence of the guerrillas in their villages. The Catholics south of Saigon understood that if they informed the ARVN or police of the Vietcong passing through their neighborhoods, the guerrillas would return to punish them. Few doubted that the Vietcong would seek violent retribution. If the guerrillas could enter a Catholic village located right next to the heavily defended capital city, they could certainly come back later. A desire for self-preservation, rather than pro-Communism, along with an appreciation for the Vietcong’s well-known vengeance, ensured the silence of the otherwise pro-GVN rural Catholics.

Saigon’s District 7 spread out on the southwest edge of the capital. Beyond it to the south and west flowed the Vam Co Dong and Vam Co Tay rivers, two long-established Vietcong transportation routes.[7] On the uplands adjacent to the two streams lay a checkerboard of dry, gray-brown rice paddies. The guerrillas came into District 7 over those paddies. The district’s refugee population hid the guerrillas inside their cardboard, tin, and crate-timber huts. Lying in wait in the slums, the Vietcong prepared to strike at Cholon.[8]

District 4 sat immediately south of the Ben Nghe Canal on Saigon’s southern edge. A massive slum, filled with pro-Communist refugees, sprawled across the district. Residents living on the south bank of the rancid canal could see from their shacks the buildings of Saigon’s Central Business District. With the assistance of thousands of angry, desperate, dispossessed peasants, the Vietcong, in the days before the offensive, readied themselves for attacks against the centers of U.S. and South Vietnamese power in districts 1 and 2. As early as January 1965, South Vietnamese officials acknowledged that it was all but impossible to keep the Vietcong out of the Central Business District so long as they had access to the slums across the Ben Nghe Canal in District 4.

Additional Vietcong infiltrators came into Saigon from the south, east, and north. Across the Saigon River from the city’s main waterfront sat an overgrown swampland frequented by the Vietcong. Crossing the Saigon River from this marsh, insurgents entered directly into downtown Saigon. Still more guerrillas found entry into the city from Vietcong controlled hamlets on the eastern and northern edge of the capital. Westmoreland acknowledged that Saigon’s sprawl, and the terrain circling the city, impeded its defense.  Westmoreland observed, “In the areas around Saigon the terrain facilitated infiltration by large enemy units. Except for the few radial roads emanating from Saigon, the city is bounded to the north, west, and east by a combination of paddies, jungles, and swamps.”[9]

With Saigon’s defenses leaking like a sieve, Communist soldiers poured into the city throughout the month of January. Not all the Vietcong made the arduous cross-country journey on foot or sampan through swamps and paddies. Vietcong special forces personnel and an unknown, but possibly high number, of combat soldiers came into the city on the backs of bicycles and Japanese-built cyclos. Cyclos were so common in Saigon that security personnel did not notice the young Vietcong darting down the streets on their Hondas on their way to a rendezvous with history. Vietcong troopers also passed through the city’s military and police checkpoints on board buses and in the comfortable seats of American and French sedans. Dressed in civilian clothes, holding forged identity papers, and passing themselves off as Tet travelers returning home for the holiday, the insurgents did not raise suspicions.[10] When the White Mice (the derogatory named given to Saigon’s white-uniformed police) discovered someone with dubious identity papers, the Vietcong often bribed them to forestall their incarceration and interrogation. Amongst the American legation, the Saigon police had a well-deserved reputation for corruption. That it failed to learn of the coming Vietcong offensive surprised no one at MACV or the embassy that spent any length of time in South Vietnam. Westmoreland, who was always ready to excuse the shortcomings of the South Vietnamese, said this of the Vietcong’s success in infiltrating Saigon, “The use of public roads and civilian disguise made it very difficult to detect the infiltrators…Many were riding public buses and bicycles in civilian clothes.”[11]

Communist logisticians smuggled supplies into the city in rice sacks, hollowed out logs, beneath vegetables piled high in the back end of oxcarts, and inside secret compartments in the hulls of sampans. Weapons, food, and ammunition went into the shanties and apartments of sympathizers. Much of the food to support the infiltrating troops came from markets in Saigon and outlying communities. Authorities, always on the lookout for an uptick in civilian food purchases in a local market as a signal of an upcoming Vietcong operation, did not discern any suspicious increase in food sales in the days before Tet. The reason – thousands of civilian sympathizers bought small amounts of rice, vegetables, and meat destined for the guerrillas. Those purchases, spread out among a large number of buyers, could not be attributed to the Vietcong. The impending Tet holiday season, with its tradition of feasting, also concealed the purchase of extra food supplies for the guerrillas.[12]

South of Saigon, in the heart of the delta, the Vietcong depended more heavily on the region’s rivers and canals to move troops and supplies.[13] Back in 1965, the U.S. and ARVN operated seven River Assault Groups (RAGs) in the 13 delta provinces. Each assault group consisted of 19 vessels of various types, including gunboats that possessed .50 caliber machine guns and 81 mm mortars as well as converted World War II-era Higgins boats that served as miniature troop ships, hauling ARVN soldiers into battle. The 133 boats of the Allied brown water navy had been given the impossible job of interdicting the Vietcong on the delta’s thousands of miles of canals and rivers. Because of the small number of Allied vessels relative to the number of miles of waterway in the delta, the RAG patrols represented more of a nuisance to the Vietcong than a real threat. For example, RAG 23 and its 19 boats were tasked with securing the water routes in the three delta provinces of Vien Long, Vinh Binh, and Kien Hoa. Nineteen vessels, moving slowly through narrow canals, some of which were booby-trapped or mined, could not effectively intercept the Vietcong over such a large area. Local sympathizers made Allied interdiction even harder because they warned the Vietcong of approaching Allied river patrols, which were often heard from great distances by the sound of the vessels’ engines.[14] The number of vessels in the American brown water navy increased after 1965. But even as late as June 1967, seven months before Tet, U.S. military authorities conceded that Allied riverine forces had secured only 12% of South Vietnam’s waterways. With so little of the waterscape under Allied control, the Vietcong moved across most of the delta unopposed and without fear.[15]

In order to deploy troops directly adjacent to U.S. and ARVN base camps and inside the delta’s urban centers, the Communists depended, as they did at Saigon, on the refugees living in the hundreds of dilapidated shantytowns and slums that had been built across South Vietnam since 1965. The residents of those makeshift cities, if not openly supporting the Vietcong, did nothing to thwart them and their Tet preparations. On January 31, those shantytowns acted as base areas from which the Vietcong sprung their attacks. When the offensive went into full swing, refugee neighborhoods funneled Vietcong reinforcements and supplies toward the frontlines. Reporter Frances Fitzgerald wrote, “In the Delta, Front [NLF] forces moved into the most “secure” of the province capitals – Can Tho, My Tho, Vinh Long, Rach Gia, and Ben Tre – [and] entrenched themselves in the poorer quarters….”[16] The Vietcong did the same in other cities in the delta, setting themselves up in the poverty-stricken districts of Quan Long (Cam Mau), Cham Dac, and Soc Trang.

Tobias Wolff, who served as a U.S. military advisor to the ARVN at My Tho, remembered the days just before the start of the offensive, “They [the Vietcong] had been coming into My Tho for weeks. The Vietnamese army didn’t know, the American advisors didn’t know. The town was full of them and nobody said a word. I couldn’t forget that afterward – not a word of warning from anyone. For weeks they were all around us, on the streets, in the restaurants, gathering for the great slaughter and tasting the pleasures of the town until it began.”[17] Thousands of South Vietnamese in and around My Tho provided support to the Vietcong in the lead up to Tet.

To the north, along the coastal plain, the guerrillas and their PAVN allies, concealed by fog, rain, and low clouds, slipped down from the dark, forested piedmont into the flat, grey-green paddy lands. Once there, the khaki-clad soldiers marched along secret trails next to streams and rivers. In one hamlet after another they received a friendly reception. Peasants aided them as porters and reconnaissance personnel. Boys, girls, and the elderly bicycled or walked out to the front of the Communist troop formations to ascertain the location of Allied units. The following diary entry of a PAVN soldier killed on the southern battlefield explained how the peasantry assisted the Communist armies at Tet. It read, “My commissar teaches me that so far we operate in the jungle area. We have the trees as camouflage. Now we prepare to infiltrate the populated areas of South Vietnam. We should now consider the people as trees to camouflage us.”[18] Millions of South Vietnamese acted as “trees” to the Vietcong and PAVN in the weeks before the start of the offensive.

Supported by the peasantry, the Vietcong advanced across the coastal plain, moving from hamlet to hamlet. In places where the land had been depopulated, and the hamlets bombed into ruins, such as across much of Quang Ngai and Quang Tin provinces, the guerrillas moved into the abandoned hamlets – to rest, hide, and prepare for the next cross-country trek. Eventually, the Vietcong and PAVN reached their destinations – the refugee camps, boom towns, and slums thrown up next to provincial and district towns or alongside U.S. and ARVN military bases, such as those at Da Nang, Chu Lai, Tuy Hoa, Bong Son, Qui Nhon, Nha Trang, and Cam Ranh Bay. The guerrillas similarly positioned themselves for attacks in the Central Highlands at Tan Canh (near Dak To), Kontum, Pleiku, and Ban Me Thuot.[19]

The fact that tens of thousands of Vietcong and PAVN soldiers traveled unobserved across the South Vietnamese countryside in the days and weeks prior to the start of the Tet Offensive represented an impressive demonstration of the Communists’ popular appeal. Conversely, the inability of the Allies to thwart Communist troop movements, or to learn of the upcoming offensive, pointed to the widespread absence of peasant support for the Saigon regime and its American backers. [20] U.S. intelligence experts admitted, “Prior to the offensive there were very few cases of civilians volunteering information on the impending attacks.”[21] Communist preparations for the Tet Offensive exposed a hard truth – America had few friends in rural South Vietnam.

[1] Vietnam Task Force, Office of the Secretary of Defense, The Pentagon Papers, Parts IV.C.6 through IV.C.8, “IV.C.6. (c), U.S. Ground Strategy and Force Deployments, 1965-1967, Volume III,” (Nimble Books LLC, 2011), 33.

[2] FRUS, Vietnam, Volume VI, Document 91, “Notes of Meeting,” February 28, 1968; Gettleman, Vietnam and America, 382; FRUS, Vietnam, Volume VI, Document 82, “Embassy Vietnam to Department of State,” February 22, 1968; Vietnam Task Force, Office of the Secretary of Defense, The Pentagon Papers, Parts IV.C.6 through IV.C.8, “IV.C.6. (c), U.S. Ground Strategy and Force Deployments, 1965-1967, Volume III,” (Nimble Books LLC, 2011), 34.

[3] Marshall, Bird, 13.

[4] Peter Goldman and Tony Fuller, Charlie Company: What Vietnam Did to Us, (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000), 99; Lewis Sorley, ed., Vietnam Chronicles: The Abrams Tapes, 1968-1972, (Lubbock: Texas Tech University, 2004), 38; J.D. Coleman, Incursion: From America’s Chokehold on the NVA Lifelines to the Sacking of the Cambodian Sanctuaries, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991), 68, 133.

[5] Marvin E. Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn B. Young, and Bruce H. Franklin eds., Vietnam and America: The Most Comprehensive Documented History of the Vietnam War, (New York: Grove Press, 1995), 168, 178, 345; Sorley, Vietnam Chronicles,119.

[6] New York Times, “Foe Hurled Back from Key Village Near Saigon Base,” Gene Roberts, February 20, 1968; L.P. Holliday and R.M. Gurfield, “Viet Cong Logistics,” (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, June 1968), 55.

[7] Nhu Truong Tang, David Chanoff, and Doan Van Toai, A Viet Cong Memoir: An Inside Account of the Vietnam War and Its Aftermath, (New York: Vintage Books, 1985), 132.

[8] Peter White, National Geographic Magazine, “Saigon: Eye of the Storm,” Photographs by W.E. Garrett, Vol. 127, Number 6, June 1965, 834-872, 838-839.

[9] New York Times, “Fighting Flares on Saigon’s Edge,” May 29, 1968; Gettleman, Vietnam and America, 346.

[10] L.P. Holliday and R.M. Gurfield, “Viet Cong Logistics,” 20.

[11] New York Times, “Outlook Assessed By Westmoreland,” Associated Press, February 26, 1968.

[12] Holliday and Gurfield, “Viet Cong Logistics,” x, 19; Elliot, “Pacification and the Viet Cong System in Dinh Tuong,” 41.

[13] Holliday and Gurfield, “Viet Cong Logistics,” 48.

[14] Dickey Chapelle, National Geographic Magazine, “Water War in Viet Nam,” Vol. 129, No. 2, February 1966, 272-296, 275.

[15] Douglas Kinnard, The War Managers: American Generals Reflect on Vietnam, (New York: Da Capo Press, 1991), 70; Vietnam Task Force, Office of the Secretary of Defense, The Pentagon Papers, Parts IV.C.6 through IV.C.8, “IV.C.6. (b), U.S. Ground Strategy and Force Deployments, 1965-1967, Volume II,” (Nimble Books LLC, 2011), 111.

[16] Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam, 1972, Reprint, (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2002), 389.

[17] Tobias Wolff, In Pharoah’s Army: Memories of the Lost War, (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 131.

[18 Al Santoli, To Bear Any Burden: The Vietnam War and Its Aftermath in the Words of Americans and Southeast Asians, 1985, Reprint, (Bloomington: Indian University Press, 1999), 154.

[19] Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake, 389; FRUS, Vietnam, Volume VI, Document 34, “Westmoreland to Sharp and Wheeler,” January 30, 1968.

[20] Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports, 344.

[21] Committee to Review U.S. Intelligence Prior to Tet (CIA, DIA, INR, NSA, JCS), “Intelligence Warning of the Tet Offensive in South Vietnam (Interim Report), April 1968, 8.

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