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Tet: First In . . .

June 2024
4min read

I awoke at first light on the morning of January 31, 1968, at Landing Zone Evans. I was tired and dirty from a night spent in a shallow foxhole with my friend and wingman Lynn Freeman. I was sitting in the dirt eating a scrounged C-ration breakfast when Bill Woods came over and told me that my fire team was first up that morning and that I was to report to flight operations for a briefing.

My mission was to fly to Phu Bai as soon as the fog lifted and rendezvous with a CH-54 Flying Crane. The Sky Crane was to pick up a bulldozer and sling-load it back to LZ Evans, where it would be put into service cutting an airstrip. CH-54s usually flew high and unescorted, but the operations officer said the day’s poor visibility meant the Crane would have to fly low and slow, making it a tempting target for enemy gunners. “Speaking of enemy gunners,” he added, “there were reports of gunfire around Hue City last night. Probably only ARVN soldiers celebrating Tet, but you never know.” I made a mental note of this; our flight route would take us right over the Imperial City.

I briefed the other three pilots who would accompany me on the mission, and within the hour we had a three-hundred-foot ceiling and a little better than a mile of visibility. Not great conditions but enough to go, so I gave the order to launch. Our fire team consisted of two UH-1C helicopter gunships with crews of two pilots, a crew chief, and a door gunner in each aircraft. Each gunship carried fourteen 2.75-inch folding-fin aerial rockets fired by either of the pilots and two .30-caliber “mini guns” operated through a remote-sighting device by the pilot in the left seat. The crew chief and door gunner each manned a hand-held M-60 machine gun through the open cargobay doors on either side of the ships. We were the first two helicopters to take off that morning.

LZ Evans was located on the coastal plain surrounded by flat terrain, so we swept out low down Highway 1, our skids skimming the tops of the palm trees. The trip was uneventful. We avoided flying directly over the highway; even though it was little more than an improved dirt road, following its course would give the bad guys a reference point from which to track us with their fire. If anyone in our crew noticed the lack of the usual civilian activity on the road that morning, he didn’t comment on it.

After about fifteen minutes of flight time the tree line on the outskirts of Hue City began to take shape through the dissipating fog. We crossed a large rice paddy and dike complex at about one hundred feet above the ground going less than one hundred miles per hour. As we passed the tree line the ground erupted in a hail of automatic-weapons fire. I glanced over my shoulder through the open window and saw the ground dotted with North Vietnamese soldiers shooting at my helicopter. In the next instant my attention was wrenched back into the cockpit by the voice of my door gunner yelling through the intercom that he was hit. As if to confirm his words, long spurts of blood pumped forward from his seat in the rear and swirled through the cockpit on the wind from the open doors. To his great credit he continued to lay down a protective fire, never missing a beat with his machine gun! The crew chief picked up the fire with his M-60 out of the left door as I broke hard in his direction calling for “Smiling Tiger 23” to cover my retreat. The chief, as usual, was in perfect position at my right rear to lay in covering fire underneath my aircraft to buy me the few precious seconds I needed to get out of harm’s way.

I headed back toward the road, and a quick check of the instruments reassured me that my aircraft was still intact. We weren’t taking fire any more so I slowed the ship back to forty knots while the crew chief closed the cargo doors. This stopped the blood from blowing through the cockpit and allowed him to bandage the gunner’s leg. Everyone’s adrenalin was up!

Within a few minutes the crew chief had applied a pressure bandage to the wound, and the bleeding was under control. We were orbiting over Highway 1 and some rice paddies at one hundred feet, less than a mile from where we had taken the ground fire. Our gunship was fully loaded, and I couldn’t see leaving the area without a little payback. In my toughest twenty-one-year-old voice I asked my gunner if he felt up to a couple of hot passes on the guys who shot him. Without hesitation he said, “Let’s do it!” I radioed back to “23,” informing him of my intentions. The chief acknowledged with a “Roger” and assured me he would cover my breaks.

The crew chief and door gunner slid the cargo doors back and pinned them in the open position as I rolled over to the none-too-impressive speed of seventy-five knots (all my overloaded C model could muster) and headed for the tree line of Hue City. The first rocket that I punched off went wild because I overcontrolled in my excitement, but I quickly regained my composure and put the balance of my ordnance on target. Meanwhile the crew chief and gunner were getting some of their own, blazing through the open doors with their hand-held M-60s. After a couple of passes our ammunition was expended and we headed back to LZ Evans.

We retraced our course up Highway 1 with me in the lead and “23” covering my tail. By now the adrenalin dump was past and had been replaced by the inevitable jitters, which is like an adrenalin hangover. My heroic door gunner was beginning to show the first signs of shock brought on by loss of blood and needed more medical attention than we could give him. Time was on our side however, since we were now only minutes away from LZ Evans. I diverted directly to the Medivac pad while the chief landed at our company area to report on the hornet’s nest we had run into at Hue City.

That hornet’s nest erupted in every major urban area in the Republic of Vietnam that day. By the time the evening news came on back in the States, it was already known as the Tet Offensive. The capture of the Imperial City of Hue by the North Vietnamese army was the high-water mark of that offensive. During my three tours of duty with the 1st Air Cavalry Division in the Republic of Vietnam, I fought in many engagements—some far more intense than the one described here, yet forgotten or ignored in the histories of an unpopular war. But the Tet Offensive of 1968 changed the course of that war. Probably one of the most ironic campaigns in the history of warfare, it was both a smashing U.S. military victory and a crushing political defeat, and as far as I know, I flew the first gunship into the Imperial City of Hue on the first day of the Tet Offensive of 1968.

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