The First Battle of Saigon, fought during the Tet Offensive of the Vietnam War, was the coordinated attack by communist forces, including both the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong, against Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam.
Saigon was the main focal point of this offensive, but a total takeover of the capital, by military units, was not intended or feasible. They rather had six main targets in the city which 35 battalions of Vietcong were to attack and capture: the headquarters of the ARVN, the Independence Palace, the US embassy, the Tan Son Nhut air base, the Long Binh Naval Headquarters, and the National Radio Station. Several reports, after the conflict, indicated that the leader of the Vietcong lived next door to the US Embassy.
Because it was Tet (the Vietnamese New Year), the sound of firecrackers exploding masked that of gunfire, giving an element of surprise to the NLF.
Attacking from all sides of the capital Saigon, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), and VC launched 35 battalions at Saigon. Sapper Bns and the local forces attacked the Presidential Palace, the National Radio Station, the US Embassy, and other principal targets.
The 5th Vietcong Division launched an attack on the military bases at Long Binh and Bien Hoa. The North Vietnamese 7th Division launched an attack on the U.S. 1st Infantry Division and the ARVN 5th Division at Lai Khe. The VC 9th Division attacked the U.S. 25th Infantry Division base at Cu Chi.
The fighting in Saigon produced one of the Vietnam War's most famous images, photographer Eddie Adams' Pulitzer Prize-winning image of the summary execution of a Viet Cong prisoner on February 1, 1968.
Nguyen Van Lem was captured by South Vietnamese national police, who identified him as the captain of a Viet Cong assassination and revenge platoon, and accused him of murdering the families of police officers. He was brought before Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the chief of the national police, who briefly questioned him. General Nguyen then drew his sidearm and shot the prisoner. Nguyen's motives may have been personal; he had been told by a subordinate that the suspect had killed his six godchildren and a police major who was Nguyen's aide-de-camp and one of closest friends, including the major's family as well.
Present at the shooting were Adams and an NBC television news crew. The photograph appeared on front pages around the world and won eight other awards in addition to the Pulitzer. The NBC film was played on the Huntley-Brinkley Report and elsewhere, in some cases the silent film embellished with the sound effect of a gunshot. General Westmoreland later wrote, "The photograph and film shocked the world, an isolated incident of cruelty in a broadly cruel war, but a psychological blow against the South Vietnamese nonetheless".
By early February, the Communist high command realized that none of their military objectives were being met, and they halted any further attacks on fortified positions. Sporadic fighting continued in Saigon until March 8. Some sections of the city were left badly damaged by the combat and U.S. retaliatory air and artillery strikes in particular. The Chinese district of Cholon suffered especially, with perhaps hundreds of civilians killed in the American counterattacks.
As cited in the Spector book on page xvi, "From January to July 1968 the overall rate of men killed in action in Vietnam would reach an all time high and would exceed the rate for the Korean War and the Mediterranean and Pacific theaters during World War II. This was truly the bloodiest phase of the Vietnam War as well as the most neglected one." One center of discussion in the Spector book is the attack on Saigon in May 1968. Called "Little Tet" or as many call the attack mini-Tet, Saigon was faced with another series of Communist attacks. May attacks were also conducted on American bases such as Bien Hoa, Long Binh, and Tan Son Nhut. The main weapon of choice for attack by the communist forces was the Soviet-made 122mm rockets which had a range of about 11,000 meters.
Brunger states that Communist forces overran a portion of the Tan Son Nhut airfield and closed the air strip for a period of time in early May 1968. Brunger also states, in a primary source, that his plane loaded with troops for the Republic of Vietnam was delayed in landing for at least 2 days. The plane with troops was held in Oakland, Hawaii, Wake Island, and Guam.
Brunger's account states that attacks were made on the Bien Hoa military troop holding compound in May 1968. The compound was used as a transfer facility within country for the transfer of men coming and going in-country. The compound was mainly attacked with rockets. A number of military men going home were killed. Many military men entering the country for the first time were wounded. A few of the buildings suffered direct hits from the rockets. The compound was constructed of buildings with tin roofs with wood sides about half way up-then screens, used for ventilation, to the roof. The buildings had concrete floors. The buildings had bunks within that were 3 tiers high. Each bed had a military style mattress with no sheets. All the mattresses were red in color and thus covered in red dirt. Outside of most buildings were bunkers. These bunkers were dug into the ground on a shallow level and covered with military style sandbags. Brunger's other account tells of being blown from a military bunk at Bien Hoa and his knee was bleeding. Another army trooper received wounds in his face just as he was walking out the door of the same building.
In popular culture
The battle is depicted in the first-person shooter, NAM, as its last level.
- James R. Arnold (1990). The Tet Offensive 1968. Praeger Publishers. ISBN 0-275-98452-4.
- Ronald H. Spector (1993). After Tet. Free Press. ISBN 0-02-930380-X
- John C. Brunger, M.S. Ed.; 1968 United States Army Disabled Republic of Vietnam Combat Veteran, Primary Source
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