The Tet Offensive: Lulled by a sense of unreality

Michael R. Levene

February 02, 1993|By Michael R. Levene

IT WAS my first night on guard duty -- and my last.

Twenty-five years ago last Friday night, I had been in Vietnam for five months and had been stationed at the sprawling Long Binh army base northeast of Saigon for three months.

Guard duty rotated among the thousands of support troops, which meant that it fell to each of us for one week at most during our year's tour of duty.

On Jan. 29, 1968, shortly after my three fellow guards and I had reported to our bunker -- one of dozens spaced out along the border of the base -- for the 6 p.m.-to-6 a.m. shift, a jeep approached. We had been warned that we would be inspected by the sergeant of the guard, but two men walked up, one of them a colonel. Even as a draftee not steeped in military tradition, I knew that it was not customary for an officer of such high rank to visit a lowly guard post.

Finding that I was senior in rank among the four guards (as a private first class), the colonel put his arm around my shoulder and, amid an aura of fumes that testified to a recent, prolonged visit to the officers' club, told me to be extra alert, that "we expect the balloon to go up tonight."

His inebriation -- and my enlisted man's skepticism about the forthrightness of such a high-ranking officer -- combined to leave me unconcerned about anything except the guard's greatest fear: falling asleep on duty.

The colonel was right. In the small hours of the morning, we heard what sounded like thunder but which we knew couldn't be, since it was the dry season. Then enormous orange clouds (mindful of the colonel's "balloon," in fact) billowed up on the horizon a couple of miles away in the direction of the Bien Hoa Air Force base.

The Tet Offensive, or at least our part of it, had begun.

We would not know for several days how widespread the attacks had been, but as the planes continued to explode and we settled into our ringside seats, we acknowledged the possibility that some people in black pajamas might be lurking on the other side of the sandbags with unpleasant plans for us -- and that their years of experience in guerrilla warfare might be more than a match for our months of experience operating Teletype machines and filling sandbags.

Oddly, though, I felt little fear (and I think that was true of my three colleagues, too). I suggested that our best hope if attacked would be for the Viet Cong to laugh so hard at our ineptitude (we had trained only minimally with the M-16 rifles we carried, having fired antiquated M-14s in basic training) that their aim would be off.

More than anything, we were awed by the pyrotechnics and lulled by a sense of unreality. Perhaps, having spent so many hours in front of movie screens and television sets, we simply were accustomed to being spectators and, in effect, were just watching another show.

What we were unaccustomed to was coming close to combat. The nearest we had come before was occasional mortar or rocket fire that would interrupt the movie at our outdoor, plywood-screen theater (we were once spared having to watch the last half of "The Wicked Dreams of Paula Schultz," for which we should perhaps thank the Viet Cong).

The detachment we felt must also have had something to do with the fact that, unlike our predecessors in World War II, there were lights at the end of our tunnels: The war might not end, but our part in it would last no more than 12 months, and draftees like me were in the Army for two years, not the duration.

And we were much better informed -- and therefore less isolated -- than, say, a Marine on Guadalcanal or a soldier on Omaha Beach would have been. Although we had less access to news than people back home did, we listened to Armed Forces Radio and read "Stars and Stripes" (both of which reported on the war more forthrightly than is widely believed), so had some idea how our puny efforts fit into the grand scheme. And we had fast (and free, for us) mail service, which resulted in large quantities of letters or tapes from home.

As a result, I think, we never felt we were very far from civilian life -- or at least life back in "the world," that is the United States. Most of us had almost daily contact of some kind with home. We had been in uniform a matter of months and would be out of it before many more months went by.

In the chaos that ensued after that first day of Tet, I was not returned to guard duty. Several times in the following weeks, my fellow combat-unready Teletype operators and I were sent off base on patrol. We never encountered the Viet Cong, but, in our ineptitude, probably would have been our own worst enemies if we had. And none of it seemed any more real than that night on guard duty had.

Many years after my return from Vietnam in 1968 and my return to civilian life in 1969, it finally occurred to me that my mother might have worried about me just a little during those 12 months from August 1967 to August 1968. I asked her the silly question, and she said, "Of course, I was worried!"

The war may have seemed more real to her, 10,000 miles away, than it ever had to me.

Michael R. Levene is a copy editor for The Evening Sun and The Sun.

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