Western Pennsylvania Vietnam vets recall brutal Tet Offensive
Marine Cpl. George Zahuranic was guarding the U.S. Embassy in Saigon on Jan. 31, 1968, when he became a casualty of war and a part of the Tet Offensive, the massive attack the North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies launched against dozens of U.S. bases and cities and towns across South Vietnam.
Zahuranic of Uniontown was a victim of a Viet Cong assault squad that executed a daring attack on the symbol of the U.S. presence in Vietnam to show Americans watching on television back home that no place in Vietnam was safe for their 500,000 countrymen fighting there.
Zahuranic said he grabbed the phone as a Viet Cong fired rocket propelled grenades at the embassy building during the 3 a.m. surprise attack.
"One hit right outside the building, and I got a whole bunch of shrapnel," he said. "It got a big chunk of my shoulder, a bunch in my head and both legs."
It left the 20-year-old Marine bleeding from his head so badly that one fellow guard "decided I wasn't going to make it," Zahuranic, 70, recalled as he sat in his Carmichaels home.
About 4,000 Americans died during the Tet Offensive, which lasted until April.
For years, President Lyndon Johnson and his generals assured the country that they were killing more communists than Americans were dying, said John McCarthy, a history professor at Robert Morris University who teaches about the Vietnam War.
Two months before the Tet Offensive, Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of the U.S. forces, predicted in Washington, D.C., that the end of the war would come into view in 1968. Instead, about 70,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers launched coordinated attacks across South Vietnam in hopes of igniting an uprising that would topple the South Vietnamese government.
"They took the American leaders by surprise. They attacked every major city and camp and the rural areas," McCarthy said.
And with it went the public's belief that the United States was winning the war, McCarthy said
Like people back home, the attack caught Zahuranic by surprise, as it came during a truce for the lunar new year.
"Nobody told us anything. All the big shots knew for months the Viet Cong were planning something" for Tet, Zahuranic said.
An embassy guard since July 1967, the injured Zahuranic was evacuated by helicopter. Gunfire prevented the chopper from landing until its third attempt atop the six-story tower — the same tower where, seven years later, helicopters would conduct a frenzied evacuation minutes before being overrun by the North Vietnamese.
"You could hear the bullets coming through the floor," Zahuranic said. A soldier with him said one bullet missed Zahuranic's head by about 6 inches.
After the helicopter crash-landed in a rice paddy, Zahuranic was carried to another chopper and flown to a Saigon hospital, then Guam, before returning to the United States for extended recuperation.
The following day, New Kensington native and Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams took the iconic photograph of the South Vietnamese national police chief executing the captain of a Viet Cong squad for killing a family. The Pulitzer Prize-winning photo caught the grimace on the face of the Viet Cong as he was shot in the head.
The Viet Cong attacked Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon, where Westmoreland had his headquarters, on several fronts. Ivan Chambers, a 20-year-old from Latrobe, was caught in the middle.
A member of the Army Security Agency, Chambers was pressed into service in a machine gun nest 20 feet off the ground.
"Basically, (expletive) was hitting the fan," said Chambers, now 71, living outside Indiana Borough.
On Feb. 6, shrapnel from a rocket propelled grenade hit Chambers and he was thrown from his perch. He awoke three days later in a hospital.
About 12 miles north of Saigon, 18-year-old Richard Griser of Pittsburgh had been in the country all of three weeks, stationed at the Phu Loi air base with his Army unit when he got his baptism under fire.
"That was my welcome. We got hammered for about three days. It was hell," Griser said. And the barrage of rocket attacks continued for weeks.
To prevent the enemy from using the jungle around the base for cover, Griser said, planes doused areas outside the perimeter with "an industrial strength" defoliant, known as Agent Orange, which killed the vegetation and caused a decades-long controversy over its link to cancer in veterans.
Griser was close enough to the edge of the camp that he got hit with spray, that left "a chalky taste" in your mouth, he said.
An estimated 40,000 North Vietnamese soldiers backed with artillery and armored regiments surrounded a Marine combat base 14 miles below the North Vietnamese border, 600 miles north of Saigon. North Vietnamese Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap had been building up his forces along the demilitarized zone for months. Westmoreland figured he would attack the northern provinces.
In Washington, President Johnson feared Giap would defeat the Americans like he did the French base at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, causing the French to leave Vietnam.
Marine 1st Lt. James Sumner of Hempfield could have been one of those 6,000 Marines at the base after returning at Christmas 1967 from Guam, where he was sent to recuperate after being struck by mortar shrapnel near Con Thien a few months earlier.
The lanky Marine from Fulton, Ala., had led his platoon on patrols from the base at Khe Sanh. When given the choice of returning, the 22-year-old officer opted instead to serve as a military police officer stationed at Phu Bai, near Hue.
Had he followed his commander's suggestion and gone there in January 1968, "I never would have made it," said Sumner, 73.
When the North Vietnamese attacked the base in late January, Mike Hriko of Stahlstown was in a mobile support unit of a 105mm Marine artillery battery. His unit was flown in to help in late January and within the first day or two at the base, the ammo dump was blown up.
"There were rounds laying all over the place. ... All hell was breaking out. You knew things were going to get bad," said Hriko, 69.
With his Marine bravado still intact, Hriko said the Marines at Khe Sanh had the North Vietnamese right where they wanted them — in front of them, behind them and on both sides.
"They can't get away now. Come and get us. We believed we would kick their (rear)," Hriko said.
Hunkered down in bunkers, Hriko said they lived through the shellings. Supply planes dropped food and ammo without stopping so as not to give the enemy an easy target.
If the North Vietnamese had broken the Marines' lines, Hriko said, they had a contingency plan. They would lower the barrels of the artillery level to the ground, load "beehive shells" — antipersonnel bombs filled with thousands of short nails — and time the shells to explode at the perimeter.
By the time the siege was over, between 10,000 and 15,000 of the enemy were killed around Khe Sanh.
A few miles northeast of Khe Sanh, Ed Wertz of Harrison City was stationed with fellow Marines atop the Rock Pile, a mountain jutting up from the surrounding terrain south of the demilitarized zone.
From an observation post atop the mountain, they could hear the shells from U.S. battleships in the Gulf of Tonkin whizzing over their heads.
"You hope they did not have a short shell" and land on the U.S. post, said Wertz, 70.
They could not see B-52s dropping thousands of bombs on North Vietnamese positions, Wertz said, but they could see the explosions at night.
When the siege finally lifted in early April after 77 days, Wertz recalled that he was trucked into Khe Sanh, where he witnessed a horrible sight.
"All you could see along the road were bodies — thousands laying along the road. It was creepy going up there. It was not good for kids 18 and 19 years old to see," said Wertz, who grew up in North Huntingdon.
At an Army compound at Long Binh, it was just Robert Dandrea's luck that he returned from rest and recuperation in Australia to be greeted by the Tet offensive.
Dandrea of Hopwood served as a crew chief on a Huey helicopter. He was sleeping in an aluminum building when the attack came.
"I heard noise like gravel on the roof. I woke up and was in a fog. Shrapnel was going through the building, and I rolled out of bed and put the mattress over me," said Dandrea, 72, who earned a Bronze Star for helping rescue a group of special forces surrounded by the enemy and cut off from a relief force.
Army specialist David Corob's one-year tour in Vietnam was set to end Feb. 8. The attack at his base north of Saigon almost ended those plans.
"I had a hard time getting out of there. We had mortars and rockets every hour, on the hour. Then we had small arms fire during the day," said Corob, 70, of Point Marion.
At a fire base west of Da Nang, Marine John Weinheimer, a member of a weapons platoon, found himself "dead in the middle of it."
"It was like the wild, wild West. We were getting hit two, three times a day," said Weinheimer, 71, of Pittsburgh's Brookline neighborhood. "We were on 100 percent alert. I thought that was the way Vietnam was."
The offensive captured the ancient capital of Hue, leading to a bloody purge by Viet Cong. Marines liberated the city after about three weeks of heavy fighting.
Sumner recalls his duty as a Marine MP was to make sure only authorized Americans went into Hue. Too many soldiers were sneaking in and partaking of whiskey and women, then ending up floating in the Perfume River, throat slashed, money gone, Sumner said.
Sumner recalled driving his Jeep headlong into the throngs of civilians running for their life from the Viet Cong attacking Hue. A quick parlay between his translator and frightened civilians revealed the Viet Cong were attacking. That was enough for Sumner to turn around and head back to the Phu Bai combat base.
Looking back, Weinheimer said, "There are times when it seems like 50 years ago and other times, it's like it was yesterday."
While American forces won the military battles of the Tet Offensive, and an estimated 60,000 enemy were killed, it did not make Americans confident that victory was at hand, McCarthy said.
Griser blames the media for the perception that the U.S. did not win the offensive. The North Vietnamese did not achieve what they wanted — no victory and no uprising against the South Vietnamese government.
"I thought it was perceived really bad here. There were myths about Tet. We won every major battle, and that was not emphasized," Griser said.
The Tet Offensive changed the public perception of the war, and McCarthy agreed the news media was, in part, responsible for it.
"People asked, 'Why are we still there?' " McCarthy said. "The distrust of our leaders came out."
Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-5252 or firstname.lastname@example.org.