US Navy Riverine forces were crucial in I Corps keeping supply lines open on the Cua Viet and Perfume Rivers in support of the effort to retake Hue and the myriad other battles occurring along the northern I Corps AO and to the defense and recapture of a number of cities in the Delta during the Tet Offensive. This is their story:
By Chuck Johnson
Hanoi declared a truce that went into effect on 27 January 1968 in honor of the Tet holiday. Unknown to US forces, Hanoi’s plan to launch a major offensive throughout South Vietnam was scheduled to begin on 31 January. In 1967 and earlier in January 1968, North Vietnam had launched a number of attacks against Marine bases just south of the DMZ culminating in an all-out assault on Khe Sanh on 21 January as a feint to convince General Westmoreland that North Vietnam was planning to drive US Forces out of the northern reaches of I Corps and distract him from their true plan to attack cities throughout South Vietnam hoping to spur local populations into revolt against the South Vietnam government. Militarily Tet was a colossal failure; politically it was an enormous success as it convinced the US government that Vietnam was a lost cause. Subsequent to Tet, President Johnson denied General Westmoreland’s request for an additional 206,000 troops and shortly thereafter announced his intention not to run for reelection. Secretary of Defense McNamara who had announced his resignation in November 1967 left office in February 1968.
The Tet Offensive prematurely began on 30 January and formally ended on 23 February when the city of Hue was recaptured from Viet Cong forces. Navy bases throughout the Delta were hit along with most of the major cities including Saigon. Although clues were available that something big was in the offing, most US and South Vietnam forces were in a relaxed state in observance of the Tet Holiday (January 31, 1968). Navy bases were accustomed to occasional and sporadic mortar attacks so the initial explosions at the various bases were misinterpreted as part of the occasional harassment. That misperception soon changed when VC troops entered each of their target areas and began to occupy significant pieces of real estate. When the realization of what was happening hit the US defenders they reacted quickly and launched counter strikes throughout the Delta. A brief look at the events that occurred at three Navy bases (Figure 31), My Tho, Vinh Long and Ben Tre follows.
Figure 33: Vietnam War Era Map Showing My Tho, Ben Tre and Vinh Long Courtesy Texas Tech
My Tho – Capitol of Tien Giang Province
On the eve of the Tet Offensive, My Tho was home to PBR Sections 532 and 533, SEAL Team 2, a Tactical Operations Center (TOC), a squadron of the 6th ARVN Armored Cavalry and one battalion of the 11th ARVN Infantry Regiment supplemented by Vietnamese RAG units. The Victory Hotel provided both berthing and messing accommodations to US Navy personnel with the TOC located on its roof. The Carter Hotel located a half block from the Victory provided berthing but no messing. My Tho was attacked by approximately 1,200 Viet Cong from three battalions (261st, 263rd, and 514th) plus a sapper company (207th) with another battalion in reserve.
The RIVSEC 532 CO was eating dinner with his Vietnamese interpreter’s family, when sensing the mortar barrage was more intense than usual; he excused himself, ran to the docks and scrambled his boats. VNN Rangers rode along as the PBRs moved up a nearby canal and immediately engaged a VC force.
Navy SEALs from SEAL Team 2 were sipping beer on the roof of the Carter Hotel when they were alerted that the city was under attack. Some days earlier a senior CPO had told his team to move weapons from their compound on the river to their rooms; “just in case”. They gathered their weapons and ammo and set up a defensive position on the roof. As the VC approached the hotel, they were met with fire from the roof. At 0715 on 31 January 1968, a lull in the fighting allowed the SEAL team to gather more arms and ammo and to recruit some sailors to beef up the Carter roof defenses. Throughout the day, the SEALs using sniper scopes picked off any enemy combatant foolish enough to leave cover. Intense fighting occurred throughout My Tho as the VC attempted to implement their plan of attack.
At 1000 on 1 February, the MRF was in a holding pattern northeast of Vinh Long when it was ordered to deploy to My Tho. After picking up reinforcements from the 3/47th Infantry Battalion at Vinh Long, the MRF proceeded to My Tho arriving at 1515. Deployed infantry began moving into the city against stiff resistance. For the next 21 hours intense urban warfare ensued between the VC attack force and US infantry. The MRF forces supported by artillery and light attack helicopters methodically moved north through the city clearing out VC pockets of resistance. By midday on 2 February, the VC forces were abandoning My Tho and the battle was essentially over. Having accomplished its mission at My Tho, the MRF redeployed to Vinh Long which was still under siege.
Figure 34 My Tho Courtesy Texas Tech
Ben Tre – Capitol of Kien Hoa Province
About 800 VC attackers taken from the 518th Main Force and the 516th Local Force battalions launched an attack on Ben Tre at 0415 on 31 January. Ben Tre was lightly defended by two battalions of the 1st Brigade, 7th ARVN Division, and about 70 American advisors and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) personnel housed in a MACV compound, comprising a block of buildings surrounded by a 10 foot masonry wall in downtown Ben Tre. It took the VC about 16 hours to seize virtually the entire city, exclusive of the MACV compound. The first Navy response came from PBR-720 and PBR-721 that were cruising on the Ham Luong River. Hearing gunfire and recognizing weapon specific VC rounds they turned off the river into the Song Ben Tre canal fronting Ben Tre. As the two boats approached Ben Tre, they saw six VNN LCVP boats on the canal’s north bank exchanging fire with attack elements on the south bank. Radio contact with the MACV compound brought a “standby we might need you” response. They were soon asked to engage the enemy force.
The PBR .50-caliber guns silenced the enemy guns in short order. PBR-713 and PBR-714 arrived on the scene allowing the first two boats to repair to the USS Harnett County, anchored on the Ham Luong, for fuel and ammo. As PBR-713 and PBR-714 proceeded up the canal they took hits from enemy rounds, none fatal. Soon other PBR boats arrived on the scene, one of which a MKII PBR used its 60mm mortar to drop rounds on the MACV compound periphery. For the balance of the day (31st) PBR boats and Navy helicopters from HAL-3 provided enough firepower to prevent complete loss of Ben Tre.
Additional firepower was provided by AC-47 gunships and the Harnett County. “During the course of Tet, the LST’s 40mm mounts delivered over 20,000 rounds of API shells in the Ben Tre area, destroying 30 structures, three bunkers, a sampan, and a brick factory.” The following day Army helicopters delivered two battalions from the 3rd Brigade of the 9th Infantry Division who immediately engaged in intense house to house fighting losing sixteen soldiers in the process. Continued air and artillery support gradually allowed the US troops to dislodge the enemy combatants; but it took until 5 February to free the city.
Figure 35 Ben Tre Courtesy Texas Tech
Vinh Long – Capitol of Vinh Long Province
Two Viet Cong battalions (the 306th and the 308th) with an estimated strength of 1200 supported by the 857th Provincial Main Force Battalion and other units attacked Vinh Long at about 0300 on 31 January. Vinh Long’s defense relied primarily on the 2nd ARVN Armored Cavalry, the 43rd ARVN Ranger Battalion, PBRs and RAG units. Some MACV advisors, U.S. Army military police, and U.S. Army combat engineers were also available to fight. A 3,000 foot long airstrip was located just west of the city and an NSA villa was located about six miles south of the city.
The USS Garrett County was anchored about two miles northwest of the city. During the first day of battle, the Viet Cong forces overran the city. At 1500 on the 31st, the villa occupants fled to the Navy Base where they boarded PBRs that unlike the PBRs at Ben Tre left the Navy Base piers for their mother ship (Garrett County) while it was left to the VNN soldiers and sailors attached to the RAG units to defend the Navy base. The VNN force of about forty sailors defended the base perimeter with fire support from RAG-23 and RAG-31 on the river.
While fighting off the VC assault, the VNN Navy evacuated about 2,500 civilians to an island in the Co Chien River. Meanwhile, at the Airstrip just west of Vinh Long helicopter aircrews and maintenance personnel from HAL-3, Detachment 3 chose to stand their ground and defend the airstrip. Two UH-1B HAL-3 helicopters from the Garrett County, returning from a mission at Tra Vinh, braved the VC mortar and automatic weapon fire to land, refuel and rearm. Door gunners detached the M60 machine guns from their pedestals and joined the ground forces to repel a VC force that had breached the perimeter. Under fire, maintenance personnel refueled and rearmed the two UH-1B helicopters that were immediately back in the air providing air support to the troops on the ground. The firing runs expended ammunition so quickly that the birds were in the air for about six minutes before they had to land and rearm. Meanwhile support personnel in firing bunkers were heavily engaged in repelling the attack and they managed to hold until the 3rd Squadron of the ARVN 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment arrived with M-113 armored personnel carriers and M-41 A3 light tanks.
Once the ARVN armor had cleared the airfield periphery it returned to the city to help in retaking Vinh Long from enemy forces. In late afternoon, helicopters inserted the U.S. Army’s Company C, 3rd Battalion, 47th Infantry into the airfield. While the situation at the airstrip improved, the situation in the city had deteriorated to the point where enemy units had taken most of the city except for small pockets of resistance. Ten members of the 148th Military Police Platoon occupied a well fortified villa located about 100 yards from the MACV compound armed with four M60 machine guns, three 60mm mortars, M79 grenade launchers, LAW rockets, and numerous small arms.
The villa periphery and inside spaces were sandbagged providing some measure of protection against incoming rounds. More importantly, the villa’s occupants were intent on putting up a fight, which they did until the following day when they left the villa to support the airfield defenders.
Although Vinh Long was not secured until 7 February, the most intense fighting took place from 31 January to 2 February. On 31 January, the 3rd Squadron, 2nd ARVN Armored Cavalry was rebuffed by machine-gun fire and rocket propelled grenades while trying to clear Vinh Long’s main street and was forced to withdraw. The same results occurred the following morning; but later in the day reinforcements arrived on boats in the form of the 3rd Battalion, 15th ARVN Infantry. The 43rd Rangers and the MRF provided added support allowing the heavily reinforced Armored Cavalry to begin clearing Vinh Long of attackers. By 4 February, they had essentially accomplished their mission.
Seawolf detachments HAL-3 and HAL-4 were the only Navy elements operating during the first two days of February. While fully occupied in defending Vinh Long, they found time to execute a mission of mercy with the help of an Army Huey pilot by rescuing 130 orphans and 12 nuns from an orphanage located about 400 yards from the airstrip.
The climactic part of the battle occurred on 4 February when the MRF arrived on scene with two battalions of the 9th Infantry Division (the 3d Battalion, 60th Infantry and the 3d Battalion, 47th Infantry).
The fresh troops along with ARVN units established blocking positions around the city and began engaging VC forces in Vinh Long. Intense fighting took place over the next 24 hours and the pressure around the airstrip was relieved. By the 6th of February the battle for Vinh Long was essentially over
Figure 36 Vinh Long Courtesy Texas Tech
Charles Johnson spent 28 years at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory (Naval Surface Warfare Center) 1959-1987 as a design engineer and project manager specializing in fuzing, 5 years with Advanced Technology and Research from 1987 to 1992 as Division Head for Army business, 5 years at the Navy Technical Representative Office in Tucson as Senior Hardware Engineer on Standard Missile from 2000-2007, and eight months in Vietnam in 1971 attached to the Naval Research and Development Unit – Vietnam (NRDU-V) as sensor specialist. He also maintains a website: About – Stomping on Ants
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Great writing, lots of hero’s in the area, I was. In I Corp during 67.68 as craftmaster of YFU 62 and we ferried supplies to hue Dong ha and Chu li and many of the yfu had to fight our way to the ramp at hue and gunfights on the cus Viet river and our boats would move at about knots while carrying up to 150 tons of cargo never seen anyone writing about the yfu in Viet nam.
Was in Kien Hoa province as radio-operator in MoCay during TET “68 Crazy times
Well-done, very comprehensive. I spent my time in An Xuyen Province in ’71. The Huntington County was the LST off the coast by then.
ATTACK ON MY THO
During the Vietnamese Tet holiday period of 1968, a cease-fire truce was drawn up and declared by both North and South Vietnam to begin on January 29th and end on the February 3rd, allowing the Vietnamese time to travel home and be with their families. For a thousand years, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year had been a traditional celebration that had brought the Vietnamese a sense of happiness, hope and peace. Shortly before the truce began, the Mobile Riverine Force had been ordered to western Dinh Tuong Province and the eastern part of Kien Phong Province to prevent the enemy from using communication routes running east and southeast through that area.
There had been continuous credible intelligence reports of enemy activity within these districts. Accordingly, four bases were established, three along the Rach Ruong Canal from the My Tho to an agroville, which was one of the many agricultural resettlement areas established by President Diem early on in the war. Three CH-47 helicopters were used to set down the artillery on the agroville site, and the battery was laid and ready to fire by 1800 hours on January 29th, the beginning of the Tet truce. The fourth base was just off Highway 4, about a mile north of the river. The Mobile Riverine Force elements met only sporadic sniper fire while moving, but the CH-47s were fired upon with .50 caliber machineguns.
Two of the 2nd Brigade’s battalions, in addition to defending the fire support bases, actively patrolled the surrounding areas, aided by radar surveillance equipment mounted on the Alpha assault patrol boats. The first violation of the truce occurred just three hours after it began, at 2100 hours on January 29th, when fifteen rounds of 82mm mortar fire fell on one of the riverine fire support bases, but without causing any damage or casualties. No further enemy activity occurred during the remainder of the evening, with the riverine force dispersed to ambush positions to prevent major enemy movement, just in case.
At 1000 hours the next day, the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, cancelled the Tet truce because of attacks on cities in the III Corps Tactical Zone to the north of Saigon. Because of this, riverine forces were directed to resume offensive operations, with particular attention to defense of headquarters complexes, logistical installations, airfields and population centers and military billets, where troops were lodged. While two companies of the 3/47th Infantry remained to provide security for the fire support base, the rest of the battalion and the 3/60th Infantry conducted patrols east toward Cai Be. At the end of the day, forty suspects had been detained, with forty bunkers destroyed and several caches found. But the enemy’s intentions were not fully known until the massive Tet Offensive was launched in the early morning hours of January 31st, against My Tho, Ben Tre, Vinh Long, Sa Dec, Cai Be and Chau Doc cities in the Mekong Delta, as well as Saigon, Da Nang, Hue and just about every other city and military installation throughout the Republic of Vietnam.
Task Force 116 units played a prominent role in the defense of several of these cities that came under attack during the communist offensive. At the one-time quiet provincial city My Tho, SEAL Team Two members and PBR crewmen from River Section 533 augmented the defense of U.S. billeting areas in the city while patrol boats attacked VC units from the waterways adjacent to My Tho and Ben Tre. My Tho was attacked by an estimated 1,200 Viet Cong of the 263rd and 514th Main Force Battalions, and the attack on Ben Tre was launched by Viet Cong forces of the 518th and the 516th Local Force Battalions. Navy Seawolf helicopter fire teams flew in support of My Tho and Ben Tre almost continuously. At Cai Be and Cai Lay, the attack was conducted by the 261st Main Force Battalion, supported by the 504th and 530th District Companies and local force Viet Cong guerrillas. The Mobile Riverine Force had not found any Viet Cong in the populated areas along the Rach Ruong, but when the force tried to move back to the river, to embark on transports to the scene of the major battles, the VC made an effort to delay their movement.
Up river, Vinh Long was the scene of heavy fighting when it was attacked by a force of 1,200 Viet Cong from the 306th, 308th, and 857th Battalions and Local Force guerrillas. During that time, Game Warden river patrol units were confronted by the advancing enemy. The assault on Vinh Long Airfield began when commandos slyly entered the base and started setting off satchel charges on the Army helicopters. This was quickly followed by a sustained twenty-five minute mortar attack by the 857th VC Battalion, in conjunction with an infantry attack on the MACV bunkers of the Army and Navy as the defenders quickly took up defensive positions on the base. During the chaos of the enemy siege on the airfield, and from two directions on the city, there was talk of possible evacuation. Game Warden river patrol boats bravely fought alongside the ARVN 2nd Armored Calvary and 43rd Rangers on land, plus Vietnamese Navy RAG boats, with all pouring fire into the advancing enemy. One mobile riverine infantry company was airlifted to assist in the defense of the airfield.
Although unable to launch during the dark hours of the main assault, Navy Seawolf gunships flew extensive missions in support of the airfield and surrounding areas of Vinh Long for the next few days. The MACV compound, which was located on the southern edge of the city, had been cut off and was running out of food and water, with SEALs trapped in the compound along with the normal inhabitants. Seawolves flew overhead and escorted vehicles from the airfield through downtown Vinh Long and south to the MACV compound. They did this four times in one day, the vehicles making it through safely without casualties. Additional Seawolf crews had been flown in to augment Det-3, which had been flying nonstop and was exhausted.
In Saigon, Viet Cong elements launched attacks on such key targets as the United States Embassy, the Military Assistance Command headquarters, the Radio Station, and the Embassy Hotel. A thirteen-man Viet Cong Sapper squad also assaulted the Vietnamese Navy headquarters. Viet Cong units roamed the streets dressed in black uniforms or in civilian clothes with arm bands designating unit identification. Many also wore yellow handkerchiefs around their necks.
A Seawolf fire team from Det-2 in Nha Be, fifteen miles southeast of Saigon, was in its bunker adjacent to the matted runway, dressed and ready to go. Its members were requested to launch into the direction of Saigon. They were to illuminate the heart of the city to help the Military Police of the 716th Battalion, and other friendly ground forces, who were in battles on the small streets and alleys of the city. The Seawolves from Nha Be succeeded in being one of the first air units to arrive to defend Saigon and, during the following four hours, dropped dozens of high-intensity parachute flares, which slowly floated down from the skies to help identify the Viet Cong attackers. At the U.S. Navy barracks, Annapolis Hotel, the Naval support sailors manned two .50 cal machineguns behind sandbag emplacements on the roof and stubbornly held off the VC, who were firing a big gun into the building from across the street.
In Chau Doc City on the upper Bassac River, four PBRs from River Section 535, five PBRs from River Section 513, and U.S. Navy SEALs from Detachment Alfa, Eighth Platoon, operated in conjunction with the local Provincial Reconnaissance Unit, which was composed of thirty-six Nung mercenaries led by Staff Sergeant Drew Dix, the Province Senior Advisor. All of these forces contributed significantly to saving the city from seizure by 1,400 communist insurgents from the 313th Main Force Battalion, which happened to be commanded by a woman.
During the heavy fighting that lasted throughout the day, the SEALs and Nungs waged intense combat within the city while river patrol boats attacked enemy positions and evacuated civilians and wounded. During the battle, PBR crews went ashore four times to secure helicopter landing zones and joined the SEALs in defense of the U.S. Special Forces Camp, the home of the B-42 team of the Special Forces Group Airborne, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel William F. “Whiskey Bill” Smith.
One of the civilians rescued by the SEALs was an American civilian nurse. She had barricaded herself in a locker in her quarters with a carbine and was determined to take as many VC with her as possible, while hopefully saving one bullet for herself. She would later marry a Navy lieutenant who was with the river section at Binh Thuy.
Back on the Mekong River at Sa Dec, PBRs maintained a blocking force as ground units counter-attacked the Viet Cong, who had taken control of sections of the city.
In I Corp Tactical Zone, river patrol boats joined the ARVN and U.S. ground forces in a counter-offensive against Viet Cong forces, attacking the Hue landing craft ramp during the early morning offensive. Eight river patrol boats charged up the Hue River and encountered heavy mortar, rocket, and sniper fire when they arrived at the ramp. The enemy appeared to be in control of the northern bank of the Huong River opposite the landing ramp. The river patrol boats made repeated firing runs into the night, until enemy fire was suppressed and the north bank was secured by U.S. Marines. PBRs remained in the area to maintain the security of the ramp. Two river patrolmen received minor wounds in the day-long action.
Back in My Tho City on the morning of January 31st, the usual Viet Cong mortar rounds started to drop, as was customary. The off-duty PBR boat crews got up, dressed, and ran off to disperse the boats at the base, while rounds continued to fall around My Tho. Carter billet, the Navy barracks, and Victory Hotel, where the Navy headquarters had been set up, were located around the corner from each other and about eight blocks from the base, so the boat crews were exposed to enemy fire for quite sometime as they began to scramble to their boats. During the time river patrol units had spent in My Tho, they had been visited by the local Viet Cong forces with a weekly mortar attack. The enemy would drop five to eight rounds on various nights, usually between 0300 to 0500 hours in the early morning, and then stop. These were usually just harassing rounds.
Some of the patrolmen, however, were a bit slow waking up that morning. One was patrolman Quartermaster Third Class Kenneth A. Delfino, who was sick and not feeling well, so his crew put two mattresses between him and the street to protect him against shrapnel. They then ran off to do what needed to be done. Ken was half asleep, subconsciously counting the mortars: three…four…five…six….crack-crack-crack, braaaaaaaaaaak… seven!
Ken woke up when he heard the small-arms fire, since he had not heard that in town before and it was very close. His adrenalin kicked in as he jumped up, quickly dressed, armed himself, and hurriedly ran off to report to headquarters for further orders.
No one really knew how large a force was attacking, whether it was a Viet Cong squad, platoon, company, or what. But the patrolmen knew the enemy was wreaking havoc on the town with incoming rounds falling down and exploding. They soon found out that they were being hit by two Viet Cong battalions and that they had penetrated to within three blocks of the Naval base, before the Army of Vietnam’s 6th Armored Cavalry and 11th Infantry got their tanks up and shoved the enemy back to a main arterial entrance to the city of My Tho, located on Highway 4, the main road to Saigon.
When Ken got down to the now chaotic streets, he was able to catch a ride with his friend, Engineman Third Jose Garza, who was also a patrolman assigned to River Section 533. Speeding down the road, they received fire from several side streets. Upon reaching the base, Ken asked his commanding officer, Lieutenant Jerry Sapp, that he be allowed to serve as Garza’s shotgun rider. Sapp ordered Ken to do so, and Ken spent the morning riding shotgun in a Navy grey pick-up truck, covering Jose as they sped through My Tho, ducking shots and mortar explosions, weaving through the city. Meanwhile, units of River Section 533 had got underway and were running up and down the river in support of the towns that were all under attack from communist forces.
Units of River Section 532 sent to help Ben Tre City were trapped on the Ben Tre Canal, fighting for hours until they battled their way out. YRBM 16 was also stationed at Ben Tre and was shot up pretty bad. Ben Tre City was all but destroyed by the Viet Cong, but newsman Peter Arnett reported that Americans had destroyed Ben Tre, in order to save it. The LST USS Hunterdon County destroyed a brick factory that was at the mouth of the canal with her 40mm guns after the NVA and VC holding up there refused to give up. The Hunterdon gunners pounded the piss out of the factory for two hours until it was a heap of rocks and no one was left alive.
Back at My Tho, around 1000 hours, Ken asked Jose to stop by the My Tho provincial hospital so he could check up on his friends, the Philippine medical detachment. Upon arrival at the hospital, Ken learned that half the team was still trapped in their quarters back near the main entrance to My Tho, which was under enemy control. Ken, an American of Philippine ancestry, had gotten to know the Filipino detachment quite well, and several of them knew some of Ken’s family back in Manila. The two allied forces had become good friends and the medical detachment had had the Naval personnel over to their quarters for dinner on more than one occasion. Due to the fact the Philippines were a neutral country, Jose felt the people didn’t deserve to be killed in an unjust manner and was more than willing to go with Ken as they kept moving, returning fire to the sound of gunfire.
Ken and Jose returned to base and obtained permission from the base commander, Commander Sam Steed, to get a team together and get the medical staff out if they were still alive. (Ken also kept River Section 533 Executive Officer, Lieutenant Bob Moir, up to date on all activities.) After receiving permission, Ken and Jose went around the base compound to get a couple of volunteers and better firepower. At the base, they were joined by Gunner’s Mate Second Rich Wies, one of their shipmates from River Section 533 who was on medical leave with a nasty ear infection, and Gunner’s Mate Third Dennis Keeffe, who was assigned to the Naval support unit but quickly volunteered to accompany the three patrolmen on the rescue mission.
The river patrolmen of Game Warden units relied heavily on the work of the base support personnel at all Navy facilities in South Vietnam. The Naval Support Activity (NSA) sailors assigned to Task Force 116 had to see that the boat’s supplies of weapons, ammunition, fuel, spare parts, and water and food provisions were adequate. In addition, they had to protect the base itself from attack from enemy ground forces. The bases were relatively small, so the river patrolmen and support sailors relied on each other to cover each others backs while they slept and ate, recuperating from the long nights on river patrols or base guard duty.
Petty Officer Keeffe had the midnight watch and was making the rounds at Carter Billet checking on the sentrys, one out front, one on the roof, and one roaming. While stopping to shoot the breeze with the sentry on the roof, they began noticing tracers. At once, the sky was filled with red and green tracers. Then mortar rounds started dropping in the street near Carter Billet and the Victory Hotel. Keeffe stayed at his post until relieved, then made his way around the corner to the Victory Hotel, where he joined up with river patrolman Rich Wies and several other NSA sailors. The armed group decided to make their way by foot to the base receiving and returning fire along the way. It was especially hairy near the civilian hospital and from across the base, where they had to fight along the way, but all made it safely. After they arrived, Rich and Keeffe met up with Ken and Jose, to go back out on the streets in vehicles.
They split up into two teams, with two in a jeep that they had requisitioned, and two in the crew shuttle pickup truck, as the four sailors dressed in jungle greens, carrying weapons, took off speeding to the Vietnamese tank perimeter, ducking enemy fire along the way. Much to their dismay, the tanks were three blocks from the medical team’s quarters at the main entrance to My Tho and would not position their tanks in the road to give the team covering fire, let alone have any of their troops escort the sailors to help find the Filipino medical team.
Now the four sailors knew for certain that they were on their own as they cautiously proceeded on to the Filipino’s villa, encountering Viet bodies in the street. They were amazed as they viewed the beautiful French-styled homes that were riddled with bullets, with sections of walls blown away. The place was a total mess, appearing to have suffered several rocket hits, with enemy bodies strewn over the grounds. Suddenly the shelling stopped, and it became eerily quiet, but the team did not hesitate moving forward. The four sailors, equipped with only small arms, proceeded into the villa compound. There they searched a bunker jammed with scared Vietnamese civilians. But the medical personnel were not there.
Ken approached the Philippine medical detachment living quarters and went up to the window of the building and tapped loudly once…then twice, yelling out the names of a couple of the nurses. At about the same time, petty officer Wies saw activity in several second-story windows across the street and began firing twelve-gauge buckshot rounds in the enemy’s direction, in order to keep their heads down.
Then the face of Lieutenant Myrna Milan appeared in the window. Ken yelled at her to get the rest of her team, including Captain Norma Gumayagay, Captain Fabros, and the security detachment, so they could move them safely out of the building and back down the street. The sailors then hustled the medical team out of the building and into the truck, with Garza driving and Ken carrying an M-3 Burp gun. Keeffe drove the jeep while Rich, armed with a Winchester pump shotgun, provided cover fire, keeping the enemy at bay. Again they raced back through the streets of My Tho, ducking rounds and swerving around wreckage. U.S. Air Force jets flew unbelievably low-altitude firing runs on the My Tho traffic circle, putting on an awesome display of firepower, sending flames and debris flying into the air. Half a dozen SEAL Team II members held a two-square block area that was under constant attack. The Vietnamese Ranger Battalion was also heavily involved in perimeter security and city clearance.
After reaching the hospital with the medical personnel, the team found out that one of the Filipino sergeants had gone back up to the third floor to destroy the radio equipment, so as not to allow the enemy to gain possession of it. Now the Navy rescue team realized that they had to go back to get the sergeant out. Of course, they did not have to go back or do any of what they had already done – it was not really their job to do so. But these were their friends and allies, and they felt that they could not leave or abandon them to the enemy, even if the South Vietnamese forces seemed unwilling to help. That’s why many Americans had volunteered to serve in the Republic of Vietnam in the first place, to fight for their nation and help keep all people safe, no matter what their race or creed.
The team gathered up their weapons and courage and once again returned to the villa, racing through the streets ducking tracers and returning fire. Again, the Vietnamese tank commander would not support them with any forward movement. After giving them permission to re-enter the enemy held area, the commander replied, “You people are crazy for going back in with the chance of being fired upon or caught in a crossfire between our tanks and the enemy.” Still the Navy team reentered the kill zone for a second time. It remained eerily quiet, as they searched, eventually finding the sergeant hiding behind a door with a small caliber gun in his trembling hands, saying he was too scared to move with the VC in the area. Finally, after several minutes of talking to him, they persuaded him to surrender his weapon and return with them. As they left the area, they took fire from the Viet Cong located in a nearby house, but they answered stubbornly with return fire and cleared the area with no one hit, thankful to make it back to the hospital with all safe and sound.
At around 1300 hours the same day, a medevac was called in for a soldier who had been wounded earlier in the day. The dust-off was to pick him up in the soccer stadium in the middle of town. The impromptu Navy team, which had stayed together and was now running patrols through the city, heard of the medevac about to take place and proceeded to the soccer field, arriving as the dust-off helicopter was circling. The stadium was surrounded by a school on one end, as well as another three-story building on the other end. As the dust-off helicopter was coming in to land, a window swung open and a black-clad armed figure appeared in the window ready to fire. The sailors immediately took the building under fire while waving off the medevac helicopter. After receiving fire from the announcer’s booth across the field, they also took it under fire as well. The ARVN did finally go into the building to find the enemy, and the sailors provided escort for the American wounded in action back to their base for transfer by boat to Dong Tam Army hospital, four miles up river.
That night at the chow hall, Ken Delfino met up with another group of friends, and together they decided to camp out on a roof of a building across the street from the Victory Hotel as a lookout position, taking along a good supply of ammo and grenades just in case Charlie was still in the vicinity and had zeroed in on Carter Billet. From there, they had a pretty good view overlooking the city to the west and in the immediate foreground was the Vietnam 7th Army Division complex. They picked the spot because it was above a busy intersection. On that first night, they were taken under fire from the direction of one of the ARVN headquarters buildings. Rather than shoot back, they stayed down until someone got a call over to the ARVN to verify if the Viet Cong had taken over their building. They had arrived at this decision because the weapons used were not AK47s and there were no green enemy tracers coming at them, but it did sound like M-1 carbines, which were commonly carried by the ARVN soldiers. Turned out they were right in their assumptions; it was just nervous ARVNs, as they suspected.
Also on that first night, Rich Wies and Dennis Keeffe stayed at the base and took a lot of enemy fire from several places outside the base as they stood their ground and returned fire. The next morning, they brought the doctors and nurses back to the base, feeling it was safer than the hotels. Most of the active fighting in defense of My Tho that first day had been done by the 32nd Vietnamese Ranger Battalion. Unbeknownst to the U.S. Navy, South Vietnam President Thieu was visiting his daughter in My Tho that evening.
Elements of two 9th Infantry battalions were landed by water craft in My Tho at 1520 hours, February 1st. The five major ships of the Mobile Riverine Base moved from Vinh Long to Dong Tam, to be in a better position to support operations. After landing unopposed in My Tho, Bravo Company, 3/47 Infantry, secured landing sites on the southwestern edge of the city for its parent battalion and was joined by Alpha and Charlie Companies. As the troops began to move north into the city, they met heavy fire. With the 3/60th Infantry moving on the west, both battalions advanced north through the western portion of the city, receiving small arms, automatic rifle, and rocket fire. Fighting was intense and continuous, and of a kind new to the riverine battalion. The city had to be cleared slowly and systematically; pockets of enemy resistance had to be wiped out to prevent the Viet Cong from closing in behind troops.
While advancing through the city, Alpha Company 3/47th Infantry met heavy fire at 1615 hours, and Echo Company was ordered to reinforce. On the way, the lead elements of Echo Company also met intense fire and were eventually pinned down at the western edge of My Tho. By this time, both battalions were involved in pitched battles and were taking casualties. The 3/60th continued its movement north, advancing under heavy enemy fire, and air strikes were requested at 1740 hours to assist the battalion’s forward elements. Troops moved in and out the doorways, from house to house, and from street to street. Artillery was employed against enemy troops who were fleeing the city, running for their lives. At 1955 hours, a group of Viet Cong who had been in a previous engagement with troops of the Vietnam 7th Division attempted to enter the streets where Bravo Company 3/47th was fighting, but by 2100 hours Bravo Company had eliminated them.
Alpha Company, 3/47th Infantry requested a helo fire team to support its point element, which had met intense resistance from small-arms and rocket fire and had suffered several casualties. The light fire team arrived and was used to relieve the pressure on Alpha and Echo Companies by firing on Viet Cong positions. The team made runs directly over Alpha Company and placed fire within twenty-five yards of the company’s lead elements. To evacuate the wounded, a platoon leader sprinted through enemy fire, jumped into a Vietnam Army jeep parked in the street, and drove to the wounded. Ignoring the fire directed against him, he helped the wounded men aboard the jeep and drove back to his company lines. By 2100 hours, most of the firing had ceased and the enemy had begun to withdraw under cover of darkness. Throughout the night, sporadic sniper fire and occasional grenade attacks were directed against the Americans and South Vietnamese, but no large major engagements developed.
The next morning, the Second Brigade continued to attack strongholds within the city, which was encircled by friendly units. At 0630 hours, both U.S. battalions continued a sweep to the north in the western portion of the city, encountering only light resistance. At 0915, hours a Viet Cong force was engaged on the northern edge of the city. Tactical air strikes with Napalm were called in and dislodged Viet Cong troops holding a guard tower near a highway bridge. The damage to the bridge was repaired under fire by the Mobile Riverine Force’s supporting engineer platoon. Upon completion of the sweep, the city was somewhat cleared of enemy units, and the Mobile Riverine Force battalions loaded back onto armored troop carriers for redeployment to the Cai Lay District. The Riverine force moved from My Tho to the Cai Lay area to cut off enemy escape routes, but there were no significant engagements with the Viet Cong remaining close to My Tho. On February 4th, at the direction of the senior advisor of IV Corps Tactical Zone, the 3/60th and 3/47th Infantries moved to Vinh Long to relieve continued Viet Cong pressure on South Vietnamese units there. The Mobile Riverine Force with 2nd Brigade, 9th Infantry, and ARVN and Regional Forces by its side, continued to pursue Viet Cong forces through the wetlands and rice paddies in heavy combat, receiving recoilless rifle, rockets, 60mm mortar and automatic weapons fire for the next few days, until they broke the communists’ backs and the enemy broke off, retreating into the wilderness. Back in My Tho, they found fresh graves where the Viet Cong had gathered people and buried them alive, while their families watched.
For the Navy in My Tho, the next few days were spent patrolling the city by day and setting up ambush and lookout posts at night. The attack on My Tho officially ended on February 7th, 1968, and then the Navy teams all went back to their respective duties. Two weeks after the attack, Philippine Brigadier General Gaudencio Tobias visited My Tho with his staff and a television reporter named Max Soliven and his cameraman. Soliven asked many questions, and sensing where he was going, Ken Delfino and the sailors were pretty guarded in their comments of political nature and outspoken on the military questions and how well the military had responded.
About a month later, there was a small ceremony at the Navy support base where petty officer Kenneth Delfino was honored by General Tobias, with a letter of appreciation for leading the rescue squad. While Ken was not expecting anything for doing what he considered his job, he did appreciate the nice thank you from General Tobias. He was not aware that Garza, Keeffe, and Wies had not received any recognition for their bravery that day, a day in which these four sailors distinguished themselves by unselfishly putting the safety of the Philippine medical detachment ahead of their own. Ken knew that, without Jose, Dennis, and Rich, he could not have accomplished this feat, and that the medical team probably would not have survived. For this, Ken has always been especially grateful to the other three sailors who rose to the occasion and came to his aide and supported his actions during the attack on My Tho. Although Jose Garza, Dennis Keeffe, and Rich Wies have never officially been recognized for their actions during the 1968 Tet Offensive attack on My Tho, they have all earned the respect of their fellow Black Beret brothers who learnt of their bravery through Ken Delfino and their many friends.
Task Force 116’s efforts during Tet were recognized on February 12th, 1968, when they received the following message from U.S. Major General George Eckhardt:
Since the Tet Offensive started January 31st, 1968, I have received many reports from the advisors throughout IV Corps of the effectiveness of your command in coming to their assistance during these crucial times. I know you have suffered grievous losses but your brave men covered themselves with glory because of their courage and dedication. You have dealt the aggressors a heavy blow which speaks well for the professionalism and capability of your organization. Please pass my deepest appreciation to all concerned and best wishes for continued success.
To this day, if you ask most Vietnam veterans that were in-country in early ’68 what they remember most about their tour of duty in South Vietnam, they will reply “Tet.”
John love what you are doing for the guys. Not enough has been said about the war in the delta. Here is a chapter from my book and feel free to cut and paste what you would like to use or not.
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Need more like this, many people just don’t understand what we did in Vietnam. I WAS IN THE SEABEES, 1966 1967 1968. I C ORPS
We all worked out butts off regardless of who we were with , THOSE WERE HARD TIMES.
Bravo Zulu. I was a Brown Water sailor and we don]t get the notoriety we deserve.
Reading this brought a big chill.
Very interesting. In country advisor VNN HQ Saigon. Assistant Training advisor July-September 1966, Operations watch officer advisor VNN HQ Saigon October-July 1966-1967. When leaving VN in 1967 I wondered about any US and South Vietnam
success. Prior to in-country duty trained at Coronado, served as communications traffic officer in USS Enterprise (CVAN-65) October 1965-February 1966, and in USS Randolph (CVS-15) February 1964-October 1965.
Not much, I was there. Sr Med Adv IV VN Corps. Supported Riverine and Naval Adv Tm in Can Tho. Flew many Dustoff missions w/82d Med Det. This article has much inaccurate or misinformed information. Realty was not as described. I am first person the author is not.
Thanks to the Navy Seabees who built the bunkers at A-101 SFG camp at Langvei prior to the “TET” offensive 1968.
These “combat engineers” are necessary part of our military and should be commended, as such.
You have a right to be proud….
John, you are doing a service by writing and featuring this history. It should be mandated reading for high school and college students. Thank you for your service.