Street battle in Saigon
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On May 6th, 1968, C Co., 5th Battalion, 60th Infantry, rode its armored personnel carriers, better known as tracks, into District 8, a suburb along the southern edge of Saigon. Intelligence indicated that the Viet Cong (VC) planned to strike the district that very night. The enemy had already attacked other points in Saigon the day before as part of a nationwide show of strength timed to coincide with the opening of the Paris, peace talks.
Given the enemy’s previous wave of urban attacks during the Tet Offensive, the follow-up campaign was dubbed the Mini Tet Offensive. In this instance, the intelligence was correct. At 0345 on May 7, the 1st Platoon of C Company was attacked while guarding the Y Bridge, which spanned the Doi Canal, linking District 8 with the old Colonial heart of Saigon. The platoon held the bridge, then counterattacked at dawn.
On the west side of the district, meanwhile the 2nd and 3rd Platoons rode to the rescue of the local police headquarters, catching the VC in the open as they sprinted forward from a tree line. The hapless guerillas were pinned behind a dike by M-16 and M-60 fire, then blasted into rags by a Cobra helicopter gunship. The survivors took shelter in a tin-roofed residential area. A Company, commanded by 1st Lt. Jim Sherwood and having rushed to the scene from the battalion base camp, cautiously advanced down the main street, only to come under fire from windows and alleys.
Sherwood noted in a letter home that although “we were in the enemy’s killing zone and had been taken by surprise,” his troops responded “with an intense volume of their own fire. We moved our tracks up and unloaded on Charlie with 50-caliber machine guns. Due to the buildings on both sides of the street, we could only bring two to three tracks up at a time.” Sherwood pulled his men back after two were killed and one of the tracks reduced to a burnt-out hulk by a rocket-propelled grenade.
Next, Sherwood called in air strikes, then led two attacks that finally drove the VC back in the rice paddies behind the simi flattened neighborhood where gunships fell upon them like birds of prey. Sherwood was twice wounded during the firefight, a fleck of shrapnel in the stomach, and a larger piece that pierced his back above his right shoulder blade, broke the scapula, and disabled his arm. For ignoring his wounds until the enemy had been dislodged, the young company commander would be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC).
On May 8, the 3rd Battalion, 39th Infantry, commanded by Lt. Col. Lucas, took up where Sherwood’s company had left off and fought its way, west to east, through the housing along the Doi Canal. As night fell, Lucas established his command post in a Buddhist pagoda at the foot of the Y Bridge. On May 9, the 2nd Battalion, 47th Infantry pushed east to west along the Doi Canal to link up with Lucas at the Y Bridge. Eight men of B and C companies were killed. “The enemy was right on top of us,” recalls Hoover, then the 50-caliber gunner on the track. “You could see them popping up on rooftops to fire down on us. When it was all over with, the front of my track looked like a porcupine from all the rounds sticking in it. They had embedded right in the aluminum armor.” Enemy resistance was ferocious throughout District 8.
The guerrillas dug bunkers inside and between houses, concealing themselves under sheets of corrugated tin and other debris. They knocked holes in adjoining walls so they could fit unseen from building to building. At one point, Sgt. Lead, a squad leader in B Co., 6th Battalion, 31st Infantry, attached to Lucas’s battalion, found himself pinned down in an alley with a sniper at either end. The houses from which the snipers were firing were marked with smoke grenades for gunships. Flushed out by the fire, a fleeing VC ran past Lead, who quickly sighted in at a range of 66 feet and squeezed the trigger on his M-16. The shot sent VC cartwheeling.
At another point in the battle, 1st Lt. Madewell, a platoon leader in Lucas’s battalion, crawled down a drainage ditch with a small team, and into a rubbled, two-walled house behind enemy lines. Within minutes, an enemy soldier trotted across a field near the house. One of the riflemen knocked the man down with a single shot, then shot two more unwary VC. The enemy took the group under AK-47 fire. “Chunks of plaster were flying all over” said an artillery forward observer. He said “Lets get out of here. I mean, we ran out of there.”
Given the enemy’s tenacity, Lucas and his fellow battalion commanders were forced in their frustration to flatten entire neighborhoods to eliminate the snipers and machine-gun crews ensconced among the civilians. The noise level had been tremendous with a constant stream of air and artillery support. “We have gone a total of 800 meters (a half mile pushing, taking casualties, and pushing back. So far, we have accounted for over 200 VC, but we have to pay for it.”
Heavy fighting continued through May 12, and then suddenly it was all over on May 13. The battered enemy had decamped during the night, leaving behind their dead. “It was all sort of surreal,” recalled a platoon leader. There was smoke and fire and bodies strewn about, bloated, disgusting. Civilians were walking around, looking at their destroyed property. Lot of old people. Lot of crying. It was really sad. In addition to fighting in the streets of District 8, units of the 9th division also fought in the rice-paddy country south of Saigon in a successful effort to interdict further enemy infiltration into the capital during Mini Tet. Eight men were killed during this effort.
Starting May 5 and running through May 12, 38 men of the 9th Infantry Division plus one of the 52nd Infantry (716th MP Battalion) died fighting in District 8 and nearby. Regimental losses were nine (31st), 10 (47th), and eight (60th). Places like Xom Cau Mat, Xom Ong Doi and the bridge over the Rach Ong Nho became part of the “Octofoil” Division’s lore.
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— Royal D. Goodman, U.S. Army/Vietnam,
1st Cav/9th Infantry