WASHINGTON — On Jan. 31, 1968, Vietnamese communist forces launched surprise attacks on more than 100 South Vietnamese towns and cities in what came to be known as the Tet Offensive. Even though the forces were defeated, the shock of the attack mangled Americans’ already skeptical confidence in their government and set the stage for the departure from South Vietnam.
Key to the North Vietnamese strategy was taking Bien Hoa Airbase, at the time the largest, busiest airport in the world and the fulcrum of the U.S. air campaign during the Vietnam war. Twenty-five miles east of Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, the airport was a ripe target; Army forces that were supposed to protect the base were not present and there was a truce between the warring sides.
The North Vietnamese attacked with a force greater than 2,000 against an Air Force garrison of 402 people.
At the end of the battle, the air base remained in American hands and ready to operate — even though President Lyndon Johnson had falsely been told “Bien Hoa is lost.” At least 600 of the attackers had been killed; U.S. losses were 30 wounded, 30 captured and two killed.
One of those killed in action was Capt. Reginald Maisey, operations officer for the 3rd Security Police Squadron. As the attack unfolded Maisey was five miles from Bunker 10, the cornerstone of base defenses. According to military records, he raced to the bunker and rallied forces to maintain their position and ward off the near continuous assaults from three directions.
For 90 minutes Maisey darted from cover to coordinate air support, maintain radio communications and command forces — until his life was taken by a rocket-propelled grenade.
He was posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross, the second-highest military award for valor.
On Thursday he was recognized at a Pentagon ceremony attended by his widow, his three children and friends, and at a wreathe-laying ceremony at a building named in his honor at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C.
“That round passed through the bunker,” retired Col. Martin Strones said Thursday, during the remembrance. He said when the assault began “we had about 45 seconds to get under cover.”
Bien Hoa remains the largest land battle in Air Force history. And just as reports were wrong about the airport being lost, so too were the first reports that said the U.S. “lost” the Tet Offensive.
Breaking a truce that was supposed to allow the warring sides to celebrate Tet, or the Lunar New Year, communist leaders sent soldiers and Vietcong guerrillas into cities and military bases all over South Vietnam, including Saigon, home of the U.S. Embassy. They believed they could take the Army of the Republic of Vietnam and its U.S. allies by surprise, and inspire a general uprising that would overthrow the government of the south.
They failed, lost more that 40,000 troopsand whatever ground they had won by surprise. Yet the perception was because of the early success of the strike, the U.S. was doomed in the war
Bien Hoa was a microcosm of those perceptions. It first became a military base for the French, in their initial Indo-China war. U.S. forces at the base were first attacked by the North on November 1, 1964, an attack quickly subdued. But because that attack came so soon after the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964, it helped set the stage for expanded American involvement in Vietnam.
The 1968 assault began at Bien Hoa with rockets and mortars raining down on the west end of the base. They were a diversion for the soldiers coming out of the jungle to try to penetrate the base from the east and north, according to Strones, who was a captain at the time.
Not only were the U.S. servicemen at Bien Hoa outnumbered 5 to 1, but they also had no crew-served weapons, no armored vests and no armored vehicles, according to an after-action report.
“We were very fortunate,” Strones said Thursday. “We had planned ahead for an attack.”
Strones set up a counterattack against the 38 enemy soldiers who had penetrated deepest into the base and taken over a portion of the taxiway and the shack where planes would be armed before takeoff.
Strones led 40 men on the counterattack with nothing but an 18-inch-high pile of dirt for cover. He and his men had an M-79, a 40-by-46mm grenade-launcher that could fire flares, tear gas, explosives and shotgun rounds. With the enemy in the grass, Strones and his men shot magnesium flares to catch the grass on fire. Then they shot over tear gas, followed by high explosive rounds to make a loud boom.
That was Strones’ plan of distraction and it worked. His men captured or killed all 38 enemy fighters. He lost one of his men in the charge. Strones, for his actions, was awarded the Silver Star for valor in combat.
It was not until April 25, 1975, when the war ended, that North Vietnamese troops finally got to enter the air base.
“Who won and who lost in the great Tet Offensive against the cities?” Walter Cronkite asked on the “CBS Evening News” in February 1968. “I’m not sure. The Viet Cong did not win by a knockout. But neither did we.”
Fifty years almost to the day of the Tet Offensive, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis sat with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang beneath a massive bust of Ho Chi Minh and said that the U.S. is “clearly building the trust” with a like-minded partner to create a new relationship going into the future.
“We’re dealing with those things in respect to the past, but it is definitely forward-looking,” Mattis said of the new U.S. relationship with Vietnam after departing the country.