Half a century since his troops helped land heavy blows on key U.S. bases in Saigon, Bay Son still carries the guilt of not being able to find his dead comrades.
One morning in late January 2018, he woke up in a room at Thong Nhat Hospital, a treatment facility for high-ranking officials and veterans in Ho Chi Minh City.
His daughter-in-law pushed his wheelchair into the corridor, which was bathed in sunlight.
He gave a newspaper to a former comrade who was already sitting there, showing him a piece about the Tet Offensive in 1968.
Vietnam is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the attacks that changed the Vietnam War. Banners, exhibitions and media reports can be seen everywhere.
Son, 93, remembers the victory with pain.
“My brothers, Five, Seven, Ten…,” he said, referring to his former comrades by their code names. For confidentiality reasons, he only knew them by these names, and they fought wearing masks to hide their faces too.
“16 people died at the U.S. embassy and I never knew who they were or where they came from,” Son said.
“After the attack, I tried to look for their remains but I could not find them. I will owe this debt of blood to my brothers for the rest of my life.”
The Tet Offensive in 1968 stunned the U.S.-backed South Vietnam regime, targeting more than 100 sites across southern Vietnam. Photo by AFP
The Tet Offensive was launched on January 30, the first day of Vietnam’s Lunar New Year in 1968. More than 80,000 soldiers from the north and the Vietnam National Liberation Front (NLF) launched surprise attacks on more than 100 cities and outposts throughout southern Vietnam.
Saigon, then the capital of the south, and the former imperial city of Hue were transformed into fierce urban battlegrounds. The attacks came at a crucial time when most U.S.-backed southern soldiers had gone home for the Tet holiday, and the anti-war movement at home had caused distractions and divisions in the American leadership.
Son was then chief adviser of the NLF’s elite Special Forces Unit.
He had been preparing the campaign to attack crucial targets in Saigon, including South Vietnam’s presidential palace (now the Independence Palace), its radio and television stations, the Navy Command office, its police and prisons.
A week before the attack, Vo Van Kiet, who was in command of the communist forces in Saigon and the surrounding areas, suggested they add the U.S. embassy to the list of targets.
Sparing the embassy would have meant no attack, said Kiet, who was Prime Minister of Vietnam between 1991 and 1997.
Son said the offensive had been three years in the planning, but they did not have much time for actual preparation. The U.S. forces were hundreds of times bigger than Vietnam in terms of financial backing, personnel and technology.
He personally took 16 young soldiers to the city center three days before Tet, and they were all eager and ready to fight, “even it if kills us”.
On Lunar New Year’s Eve, nearly half of the South Vietnam forces were off duty, but there were still many patrolling the streets.
On the evening of the first day of Tet, the order was delivered.
At 2 a.m. on the second day of Tet, a battalion fired eight mortars at Tan Son Nhat Airport, signaling the start of the attacks.
The 16-strong team from the Special Forces Unit entered the U.S. embassy, firing rifles and killing two American guards.
They blasted through a wall using explosives and marched on inside.
The U.S. sent more troops and a helicopter to fight back.
After six hours, 15 members of the unit had been killed, while the other was arrested. Among the casualties was Vinh, a 17-year-old boy who had planned to return home to get married.
Despite the losses, the mission was considered a success.
Gunfire was heard at other major American offices in Saigon, and similar attacks were launched in major towns across the southern region.
The Saigon regime later reported 371 soldiers were killed in the attacks between January 30 and February 4, 1968. It said 23 others were missing, 997 were injured and 1,041 weapons were lost.
The NLF’s Special Forces Unit also lost 67 soldiers – 41 killed and the others arrested.
The battalion that attacked Tan Son Nhat airport lost at least 380 fighters and the remains of more than half of them have not been found.
Bui Hong Ha, an artillery veteran, said that it was “painful” to leave his dead comrades behind and not be able to even bury them.
“There’s no winners or losers in a war. We all lost,” Ha said.
Son shared his mixed feelings, although he said the attacks were something they had to do to have a political impact.
And that they did.
Historians see the Tet Offensive as a major turning point in the Vietnam War, which forced the U.S. to change its strategy from defeating the North to finding a way to withdraw.
The Tet Offensive is widely seen as a turning point in the Vietnam War. Photo by AFP
James Willbanks, director of the Department of Military History at the U.S. Army Command and an officer who served in Vietnam, said the attacks had a strong impact on the American public. They were shocked and lost confidence in President Lyndon B. Johnson, who then replaced his defense secretary and fired William Westmoreland, the commander of the U.S. forces during the Vietnam War.
On March 31, 1968, he announced he would not be seeking a second term in office, and suspended bombings in North Vietnam.
In May 1968, Johnson sat down to negotiate with Hanoi in Paris.
The U.S. withdrawal caused widespread conflict and depression among the Saigon forces.
After the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973, the U.S. withdrew all its forces, paving the way for the assault in spring of 1975 and the end of the Vietnam War.