Remembering 54th anniversary of end of Phase III of Tet Offensive during Vietnam Conflict

  • Published
  • By Scott Wakefield
  • 377th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

Friday, Sept. 23, will mark the 54th anniversary of the end of Phase III of the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam Conflict.

The Tet Offensive was a series of coordinated attacks by the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong in South Vietnam between Jan. 31 and Sept. 23, 1968.  These attacks targeted hundreds of the South Vietnamese cities and military installations to get the populace to turn against the Republic of Vietnam government and erode support for the United States military with the American public during the Vietnam War.

The offensive started on the Tet lunar new year, which had previously been an informal truce period.

However, in 1968 the ceasefire never came.  According to 377th Air Base Wing historical documents, Tan Son Nhut Air Base on the outskirts of Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, came under fire in the early morning hours of Jan. 31.

Just prior to the attack on Tan San Nhut, base officials were aware that attacks in the South Vietnamese capital had started around 3 a.m. local time when the U.S. Embassy in Saigon was hit, and shortly afterward, the Vietnamese Joint General Staff came under fire.

At approximately 3:20 a.m., the first rocket and mortar rounds hit the east side of Tan Son Nhut near the POL area as a diversion.

Security conditions at the base had already been elevated that morning due to an increase in hostilities in the surrounding area. 

After the initial distraction on the east side of the installation, the 377 SPS realized there was a main attack force hitting Tan Son Nhut from the west, near the 051 gate with three reinforced battalions of Viet Cong troops, supported by the North Vietnamese Army, armed with rockets, mortars, and other various arms. 

The breach of the base perimeter began when sapper units were able to blow a hole in the fence two minutes after this second attack began.  The opening was between the gate and the 051 bunker being held by the 377 SPS.

The bunker returned fire on the enemy but was neutralized within minutes by two direct hits from rocket fire, killing four of the five Security Policeman inside, including Sgt. William Cyr, Sgt. Louis Fischer, Sgt. Charles Hebron, and Sgt. Roger Mills.

Shortly afterward, a four-man Security Alert Team was able to reach the location and fire upon the advancing enemy forces until it was forced to fall back due to lack of ammunition.

Other SAT units were eventually able to enter the area and provided support to prevent the unit from being flanked from the north side of the operations area.

Additional units, including three-13-man Quick Response Teams from the 377 SPS and a platoon from Task Force 35, a 30-man team of Army augmentees assigned to the 377 SPS, were dispatched to the west side of the base to bolster the defense.  Around this time, 600 VC had penetrated the base perimeter.

Although outnumbered 4-1, the security policemen and the Army augmentees were able to maintain a steady, well-disciplined fire that stopped the advance of the enemy forces.

Eventually, external support from the Army arrived about three hours after the assault began.  Around 10 a.m., the VC that was holed up in the bunker released the sole surviving 377 Security Policeman, Sgt. Alonzo Coggins.  Coggins walked out of the bunker and was able to make it down the road to the next bunker before the battle resumed.

The VC in the 051 Bunker were neutralized around noon that day, about nine hours after it had been taken over by enemy forces.

It is estimated that approximately 1200 enemy combatants had died in the attack.  The base defense lost a total of 55 allied troops, including the four 377 SPS Airmen in 051 Bunker.

Gen. William Momyer, commander of Seventh Air Force, praised the unit following the attack. “I wish to extend my utmost appreciation for the splendid manner in which the 377th Security Police and others involved in the defense of Tan Son Nhut blunted and held enemy forces…The successful accomplishment of this mission without question resulted in the saving of many lives and vital resources.”

These sentiments were echoed by Gen. William Westmoreland, the commanding officer of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam.  “The recent Communist Tet Offensive posed a significant challenge to the responsiveness and effectiveness of our forces in Vietnam.  The men of the 377th Security Police Squadron accepted this challenge and helped frustrate the enemy’s intentions. The men of this unit can take pride in the contributions they have made to the allied efforts in Southeast Asia.”

For their action, the 377 SPS was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation which read: “Tan Son Nhut AB suddenly came under attack from a large, multi-battalion hostile force using rockets, mortars, automatic weapons and small arms.  The small 377 SPS, armed only with light weapons, reacted immediately, establishing strong defensive positions and heroically held off the attackers during the early, critical hours until Republic of Vietnam and U.S. Army reinforcements could respond.”

The four sergeants killed in 051 Bunker were the only fatalities the 377 SPS suffered during the attack, another 11 would be wounded.