Air Commando Hoi B. Tran and the Tet Offensive of 1968

February 11, 2016

Air Commando Hoi B. Tran and the Tet Offensive of 1968

By Martin Scott Catino, Ph.D.

 

Hoi Tran 1

 

Today, February 10, 2016, is another Tet holiday (New Year) celebrated by the Vietnamese American community–along with Vietnamese around the world.  Amid the food, celebration, reverence for ancestors, reuniting of families, and children receiving red envelopes containing money from their elder family members are the memories from 48 years ago when the Tet Offensive occurred.  “Tet,” as it is frequently called, was one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War and a result of the North Vietnamese Communists breaking the truce and seeking not only a tactical surprise but also a strategic victory over South Vietnam and its American allies.  Consequently, major civilian and military command and control centers came under waves of attack by 80,000 Communist troops striking over 100 towns and cities across South Vietnam.

Saigon Under Attack During the Tet Offensive

Among the many free Vietnamese resisting that offensive was Hoi B. Tran, air commando of the VNAF (Vietnam Air Force).  But the young Major was not surprised at the Communist onslaught. He noted in his memoirs:

The Communists took advantage of our weakness whenever they deemed necessary.  They would fight and kill us mercilessly when they had the upper hand, and they would shamelessly ask for a truce to negotiate when they he were about to succumb. . . .  We knew their dirty tricks but always gave them the benefit of the doubt only to end up on the short end of the stick!  It was their old fight/talk-talk/fight tactic they employed since the Korean War in the fifties. Hanoi had used this very same dirty tactic to mount a general offensive during the most solemn occasion in the Vietnamese culture, the Tet or Lunar New Year of 1968. Our U.S. ally and our military brass were well cognizant of the concept, ‘The best defense is a good offense.’ However, being civilized nations, we did not dare violate the principle of decency. (Hoi B. Tran, A Vietnamese Fighter Pilot in an American War, 254.)

Despite the surprise, intensity, and scale of the attacks the Vietnamese Communists suffered their most devastating defeat of the war, their entire covert infrastructure and Viet Cong suffering losses that would not be recovered for several years afterward. Hoi Tran’s air base typified the victory earned in that time, such a remarkable victory that General William Westmoreland, commander of US forces in Vietnam, personally visited the base. Hoi Tran noted again:

At the end, the Tan Son Nhat joint U.S and Vietnamese defense forces were successful in their fight to repulse the Communist attackers. Casualties to our defense forces were very light in the view of the size of the forces committed to overrun the base. The Communist attacking forces sustained over nine hundred killed in action, and some were taken prisoner. General William C. Westmoreland, commander of U.S Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, must have been very pleased with the effective and successful defense of Tan Son Nhat. He personally came to the base, and I was honored on behalf of Colonel Cuon to take him and his staff around the defense perimeter and the apron to count enemy dead bodies. It was clear the warning from our sympathizer in the pacified hamlet surely helped our defense preparation. Undeniably, the courageous American and Vietnamese defense troops at Tan Son Nhat saved the base from being overrun by the Communist assault forces. (Hoi B. Tran, 259).

But the American news media, critics of the war, and a wavering presidential administration of Lyndon B. Johnson allowed the enemy to snatch victory from defeat as a patriotic public continued to grow weary of the war and its casualties.  Despite these realities, dedicated soldiers like Hoi B. Tran emerged from the period and continue to remind us all of the importance of resolve—and that freedom in any age requires a courageous response to aggression.

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