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Old commando recalls crucial Tết battle

Colonel Tran Minh Son, alias Bay Son, former deputy commander of the campaign and chief of staff of liberation commando forces in Sai Gon-Gia Dinh. — VNA/VNS Photo Thanh Chung
Viet Nam News

Hoang Tuyet

It has been 50 years since the night of January 31, 1968, when Sai Gon – former name of Ho Chi Minh City – was rocked by a series of attacks by South Viet Nam liberation forces during the Tet Mau Than Offensive. Among which, perhaps none was more memorable than the attack on the US Embassy.

Images of the embassy under siege sent shockwaves around the world and discredited claims carefully crafted by the Johnson administration to mislead the US public that the Viet Nam War was coming to a quick conclusion.

The offensive spurred anti-war movements in the US. On November 15, 1969, the largest war protest in US history took place in   Washington, with half a million people in attendance. On January 27, 1973, the historic Paris Peace Accords were signed to end America’s direct combat role and to restore peace in Viet Nam.

Colonel Tran Minh Son, alias Bay Son, former deputy commander of the campaign and chief of staff of liberation commando forces in Sai Gon-Gia Dinh, recalled his memories of the attacks.

“The embassy was not one of our original targets,” said Bay Son. “The attack on the embassy was added to the plan after a direct order from Sai Gon-Gia Dinh region’s party secretary Sau Dan.”

Sau Dan was a alias of Vo Van Kiet, who later became Viet Nam’s Prime Minister in 1991.

As the team were going over the battle plan, Sau Dan asked them why the US embassy wasn’t on the attack list.

“Our original plan included the Presidential Palace, the Police Headquarters, TV and radio stations, Chi Hoa Prison and other important targets across the city. Given our numbers, we were already at our limit. There were simply not enough fighters to attack the embassy,” Bay Son said.

“Secretary Sau Dan insisted the US embassy must be one of our targets. He said we may as well sit out of the Tet 1968 Offensive if we were not going to attack the embassy.”

It’s noteworthy to mention that while generally known as commandos, a notion made popular in post-war era by popular Vietnamese motion pictures such as Sai Gon Commandos, they were not all soldiers. It is perhaps more accurate to refer to some of them as infiltrators as many were carrying out spy missions and other non-combat tasks and received little to no training in direct combat. 

But they had their orders. Bay Son was able to put together a team of 16 led by Ngo Thanh Van, alias Ba Den. Among them were ten clerks working at the headquarters. They had five days to train with weapons and to come up with an attack plan on one of the most protected targets in the city.

“In spite of their inexperience with weapons, they all volunteered for the mission. We named them Unit 11,” Bay Son recalled.

Bay Son had another conversation with Unit 11 over tea and fruit preserves. Sixteen members of the unit were celebrating Tet (Lunar New Year) early. It was, after all, a very dangerous mission and they knew that many will not live to see the end of the holidays.

“There was a boy, Vinh, 17. He was our youngest. Vinh was talking about going back home to get married after this mission,” Bay Son said.

“I asked them how ready they were for the mission. Vinh told me not to worry as they were all aware of how dangerous it was and that they were ready to fight to the bitter end.”

In the early hours of January 31, the liberation fighters simultaneously attacked major US forces’ command and control centres across the city. All of the attacks were quickly repelled due to the superior US firepower and their heavily fortified defenses.

But Unit 11 broke through. The commandos entered the embassy compound through a hole in the wall, blown open by an explosive charge. What followed was a deadly and bloody attacks and counter attacks inside the compound that lasted for seven hours. 

By the time the siege lifted, 15 members of Unit 11 had been killed and their commander Ba Den taken prisoner. Bay Son learned of the news on the radio. Vinh was among the dead. The young boy never made it home to his fiancee.

“They all knew the risks and were ready to fight for national cause. That much I know, but my heart ached when their families came to me and asked where their sons were,” Bay Son said.

At the age of 92, Bay Son’s biggest regret was he never knew the real names of all Unit 11 members.

“We all had our alias. I was Seven, they were Five and Eight and Four. Nobody knew each other’s real names or where they came from.”

After the war, Bay Son spent his years looking for the identities and collecting the remains of the fallen soldiers from Sai Gon battles during the Tet Offensive. It wasn’t an easy task. The secretive nature of their work and the chaos of the 20-year-long conflict made it impossible to track them all.

“It’s a debt I will have to carry to the grave," said the veteran. A tear ran down the cheek of the combat-hardened commando. — VNA/VNS



Scene outside of the US embassy in Sai Gon during the Tet Offensive. — Photo US Army Military History Institute

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