Fifty years ago this week, Americans watched a furious battle half a world away play out in their living rooms in nearly real time.

The Tet Offensive was named for its timing with the Lunar New Year, called Tet. The attack at the beginning of the Year of the Monkey was a gamble by North Vietnam and its Viet Cong allies in South Vietnam. After years of guerrilla fighting, they marshaled their forces en mass to deal a hammer blow and do to the United States what the surprise communist victory at Dien Bien Phu had done to the French in 1954 — force a major power to withdraw from Vietnam.

“We were intoxicated by the thought,” a North Vietnamese general recalled after the war. Troops were exhorted to “crack the sky and shake the earth!”

Nearly a half million American troops were in a furious fight in over 100 cities, towns, villages, military bases and even inside the compound of the American Embassy in Saigon.

“Some units said they were being overrun by Viet Cong and called in fire on their own positions,” recalled James Carter, of Bend, who was part of an Army artillery battery during the fight.

It was clear as early as late February that the attack was a catastrophe for the communists. More than half of the 84,000 attackers were killed and nearly all the territory lost in the battles regained. Many South Vietnamese troops that Hanoi thought would collapse fought tenaciously. The popular uprising of South Vietnamese people never occurred.

President Lyndon Johnson went on television to tell the American public that as a military and a psychological campaign, Tet was an “utter failure.”

He would be proved half right. The Tet Offensive was a decisive battlefield victory. But the attack and its aftermath led to the bloodiest week, month and year of the war for American troops.

The images of endless carnage and the scale of the attacks helped flip American attitudes. In 1967, a majority of Americans supported the war. After Tet, the majority opposed the war. Even conservative media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal and Time magazine editorialized against a continued military effort in Southeast Asia. Johnson would not seek re-election amid growing opposition to the war.

“Battles are won and lost by the actions of warriors on the field of battle; wars are won or lost in the minds of civilians on the street,” wrote Wade G. Dudley, a history professor at Eastern Carolina University.

For those who were serving in Vietnam, the whole event is hard to grasp even today.

“I did my job and did best I could and worked hard,” said Kim Boddie, 76, of Bend, an Army lieutenant during Tet. “But if you ask me the reason we were there, I can’t tell you. Doing it was foreign to me.”

‘Gung ho, ready to go!’

Going off to Vietnam was something of a right of passage for some Bend High School boys in the mid-1960s. Some waited for a draft notice from Uncle Sam. But many made a bee-line to the recruiter’s offices of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines as soon as they left high school.

“We were gung-ho, ready to go — patriotic and wanting revenge for the guys who had been killed,” said Mark Wirges, 69, of Bend. He joined up. So did William Klawitter, a wrestling team buddy from high school.

Others from Bend were already in Vietnam. John Patrick Brown was a West Point graduate who had trained as a Ranger before going into combat with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division.

“While I was in Vietnam, I knew of at least 14 guys from Bend that were there, too,” Wirges recalled.

Up until January 1968, the Vietnam War seen by Americans back home was one of jungle skirmishes and American “Big Belly” B-52 bombers dropping bushels of 1,000-pound bombs on communist strongholds. It was an often frustrating battle of attrition in which clashes happened quickly before the enemy would seemingly melt away.

Dick Tobiason, 83, of Bend, was an Army major commanding the “Catkiller” unit, the Army’s light 0-1 Bird Dog spotter planes. He was wounded in July 1967 by a North Vietnamese grenade thrown at him on the ground inside the walls of the old imperial palace at Hue.

“North Vietnamese threw a hand grenade in the dark into our midst, wounding all eight of us Army pilots,” Tobiason said. Tobiason and another pilot were so severely wounded, they were flown to a military hospital in Japan.

At the beginning of 1968, over 400,000 American troops were “in country” in Vietnam. More than 20,000 had been killed since 1963. Not a light toll, but for the World War II generation that was sending their boys off to fight, that number paled in comparison to the carnage suffered in a fraction of that time at Okinawa, Iwo Jima and D-Day. Besides, President Lyndon Johnson and his top commander in Vietnam, Gen. William Westmoreland, assured the public that America was winning the war. Westmoreland would famously say “there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

Tet changed that. The enemy no longer fought and slipped away. They came to Americans ferociously in large numbers nearly everywhere in the country.

Carter, the artilleryman, was drafted in 1967 and didn’t want to go. But he did.

“I didn’t think we should be there — it was their civil war,” Carter said. “But I wasn’t going to go to Canada, so I went.”

Because Carter had studied algebra and trigonometry in high school, he was assigned to the artillery, where he learned to plot coordinates to lay down heavy fire. Then, it was off to Vietnam.

“I’m flying into the airport in Saigon, yeah, Tan Son Nhut Air Base, and they sent a rocket or two our way,” Carter recalled. “I thought, ‘Oh no, I’m really here. How am I going to handle a year of this?’ I was scared.”

During the Tet Offensive, Carter was assigned to Bien Hoa, about 20 miles northeast of Saigon. The largest air base in South Vietnam, it was one of the Viet Cong targets in the first waves of the attacks. The shells flew fast and furious out of the howitzers. Often, the distance between the American troops and the enemy was a matter of yards.

“I don’t know if we killed any of our own guys, or even if we killed any of the other guys,” Carter said. “Nobody told me. I didn’t want to know.”

Bien Hoa was part of a sprawling military complex that also included the Long Binh base and depot, where Army 2nd Lt. Boddie was serving as a supply and maintenance officer at the sprawling Long Binh base and depot.

“I was kind of the head scrounger,” said Boddie, 76, who has lived in Bend for 20 years. “I’d go around the base and find parts to fix equipment.”

A Boston native, Boddie had just finished college and was planning on starting a new job with the U.S. Forest Service when another branch of the federal government, the Selective Service, changed his plans. After officer training school, he was sent to Vietnam and eventually to Long Binh.

“When you were on the base, you weren’t concerned about being attacked,” Boddie said. “I had to go out to take pay or something to troops. I spent three days in a bunker on the Cambodian border. But otherwise, I hadn’t seen any action.”

He and some other soldiers were working behind a shallow berm on the base when a wave of Viet Cong made a suicidal charge to the barbed wire, cut their way through and made it to a massive American ammunition dump, where they set off the explosives

“We were working in a trench, and I heard this BOOM and could see the shock wave go right over our heads,” Boddie said. “When I looked up, there was a mushroom cloud going up in the air. It looked like an atomic bomb had gone off.”

A steel building Boddie had passed many times was blown a mile away. Dozens of Viet Cong died in the fight. Word spread quickly about one attacker. Someone who had at least once had a blade near Boddie’s throat.

“It was our company barber,” Boddie said. “The Vietnamese guy who would cut our hair. Our barber was Viet Cong and nobody knew.”

Wirges, the Marine who attended Bend High School, was 18, a lance corporal sent to Khe Sanh to shore up the Marines and Army forces who had only recently broken a 77-day seige.

Khe Sanh was in the far northwest, close to North Vietnam. Holding it had become an obsession for both Gen. Westmoreland and President Johnson.

“The French lost at Dien Bien Phu and that was it for them,” Wirges said. “President Johnson wasn’t going to let Khe Sanh be the American Dien Bien Phu. We were going to hold it, whatever the cost.”

Wirges arrived while the base was still a constant target of rockets, artillery and machine guns. As his transport plane landed, he could see the blackened hulk of a similar aircraft just off the runway.

“It was still on fire, and we were taking incoming fire,” said Wirges.

Wirges would fight the North Vietnamese as part of the crew of a self-propelled 155mm howitzer. He was with the Marines when the decision was made to abandon Khe Sanh (U.S. troops would return in 1971.)

Wirges would make it back to Bend alive. His buddy did not.

Marine Lance Corporal William Richard Klawitter, 19, who lived on Ogden Street, had been in Vietnam for four months when he was killed March 1 in the fighting around the Citadel at Hue.

“Every Memorial Day, I go down and put a flag on Klawitter’s grave,” Wirges said.

Also killed was Army 2nd Lt. John Patrick Brown, 23, U.S. Military Academy Class of 1967. He had been “in country” for 12 months and was celebrating his 23rd birthday when the Tet Offensive started on January 30. Brown was killed near Hue during the last stages of the counter-offensive. West Point had 335 graduates killed or missing in action during the Vietnam War.

Tet’s aftermath

Tet would mark the high point of American ambition and the cost in American blood. As Americans quickly turned the tide of the battle, Gen. Westmoreland said the Tet Offensive had been an American victory and he needed 10,500 more troops immediately and 206,000 more troops in 1969.

President Johnson at first echoed the facts of the American victory in the battlefield. But the relentless news of thousands of Americans killed in the fight soured Americans on the war. He recalled Westmoreland from Vietnam, approved just over 13,000 new troops for Vietnam and stunned America by announcing he would not seek re-election.

Gene Whisnant, 74, who was an Air Force officer assigned to Da Nang just after the Tet Offensive, said the combat showed that the North Vietnamese had the capability to endure calamitous losses and still fight on.

“The impact of the Tet Offensive in my opinion showed the U.S. political leaders and generals that the North Vietnamese were a stronger-than-anticipated military opponent, which — combined with the bombing halt — resulted in the war dragging on and finally our evacuation of U.S. combat forces.” said Whisnant, who retired from the Air Force as a colonel and is now a state representative from Sunriver.

The conflict would drag on for seven more years with over 27,000 more American dead. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese on both sides of would also lose their lives. After the Americans left in 1973, the North crushed the South.

At the Bend Heroes Memorial at Brooks Park, a memorial contains the names of 13 men from Bend killed in the Vietnam War.

Vietnam is still communist, but over time has become a popular tourist destination in the West, with boutique hotels in Hanoi, Hue and Ho Chi Minh City, formerly called Saigon. Da Nang is near popular surf and sun vacation spots, while Dalat — once South Vietnam’s “West Point” — is a top cultural tourism stop. American stores are filled with clothes and other items stamped “Made in Vietnam.”

It’s been 50 years since the Tet Offensive, as far from today as Tet is from the end of World War I. Veterans recall the Tet Offensive with a mix of pride, sadness and bewilderment.

“I was not a hero, but I saw many acts of heroism,” said Wirges, the Marine at Khe Sanh.

As for Vietnam War, and Vietnam today, Wirges said that is something for history books to sort out.

“It was what it was, and it is what it is.”

— Reporter: 541-525-5280, gwarner@bendbulletin.com

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