Tet Offensive

24 March 2011

Dennis Stockman

Special anniversary closing ceremony Tet Offensive, 30-31 January 2008 - spoken by Dennis Stockman

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Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to this evening’s closing ceremony, which commemorates the 40th anniversary of one of the most famous campaigns of the Vietnam War – the Tet Offensive.  By 1967 the war in Vietnam was deadlocked; neither side had the upper hand. In an attempt to gain the advantage, North Vietnamese commanders began planning a massive offensive that would attack every major city and town in the south. The communists hoped this blow would enable them to win the war, or at least weaken American resolve. They also hoped to provoke a general popular uprising against the South Vietnamese government and the Americans. The offensive was planned to take advantage of the cease-fire at Tet, the Vietnamese festival celebrating the lunar new year, at the end of January 1968.

Fighting began in the morning of 30 January when the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong attacked a number of population centres. The main offensive came in the early hours of the next day when the communists launched heavy ground, rocket and mortar attacks against most provincial capitals and autonomous cities, and many district capitals and other small towns in South Vietnam. In Saigon Viet Cong “suicide units” attacked prominent buildings, such as the Presidential Palace and the US Embassy.

South Vietnamese and allied forces were at first overwhelmed by the scale of this offensive, but within about six hours they had secured many areas and after four days the communist forces had been driven out of most towns. In Saigon, however, the fighting continued until mid-February. Much of the city was destroyed.

The worst destruction, though, occurred at Hue [pronounced “hway”], Vietnam’s former imperial capital. Communist forces held Hue during three weeks of bitter fighting. North Vietnamese soldiers massacred thousands of civilians before being driven out in fighting which left much of the historic city in ruins.

Australian forces were heavily engaged during Tet. On 1 February troops from the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR), along with cavalry and artillery support, were given the task of recapturing Ba Ria, the capital of Phuoc Tuy ["fook twee"] province, which had been occupied by the Viet Cong. This was the first time that Australians fought in an urban environment in Vietnam, but moving quickly in a spirited attack, the Australians were successful. 3RAR also successfully dealt with a similar Viet Cong attack against Long Dien ["long zyen"] a few days later.

The rest of the Australian task force, 2RAR and 7RAR, along with supporting arms, had been earlier deployed to Bien Hoa province during Operation Coburg to cover the north-eastern approaches to the Long Binh–Bien Hoa ["long bin"–"byen waa"] air base complex. In the days leading up to the offensive, the Australians fought a series of patrol clashes with the enemy. Fighting intensified during February when an Australian-manned base, Fire Support Base Andersen, came under repeated ground assault. 3RAR also took part in the operation as Andersen was successfully defended.

Operation Coburg concluded on 1 March and the task force returned to its base at Nui Dat in Phuoc Tuy province. For the Australians, Tet marked the beginning of a series of actions that were to eventually culminate in the battles of Fire Support Bases Coral and Balmoral in May and June 1968 during the second communist offensive of “mini-Tet”.

Contrary to popular belief, the Tet Offensive was a major military defeat for the communists who suffered devastating losses, especially among the Viet Cong. And there was no popular uprising in South. Tet was, however, a major political victory for the north. It was a turning point in American and allied perceptions of the war, creating the impression that the war could not be won.

In honour of all those Australians who served and died in the Vietnam War, tonight’s closing ceremony will feature a bugler playing the Last Post. The Last Post is included in commemorative services as a final farewell, to signify that the duty of the dead is over and that they can now rest in peace.

Dennis Stockman