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article imageBazooka fire rocks the building: Tet from AFP's bureau

By AFP     Jan 25, 2018 in World

As Vietnam celebrated the 1968 Lunar New Year, tens of thousands of North Vietnamese communist troops and Viet Cong guerrillas launched attacks that changed the course of the war.

The audacious campaign stunned the US-backed South Vietnam regime, and although the communist force was forced to retreat after weeks of bloody fighting, the "Tet Offensive" was pivotal.

More than 100 sites across southern Vietnam were targeted, including the bustling capital Saigon -- today called Ho Chi Minh City -- which was plunged into war overnight.

On January 31, 15 Viet Cong took up positions in the building next door to the AFP bureau, breaking an informal holiday truce which had seen most soldiers go home.

Four days after the start of the offensive, bureau chief Francois Pelou filed an account of what he witnessed and what he was told later about how the fighters infiltrated the city.

Here are some extracts.

- Lured by a dream -

SAIGON, February 3, 1968 (AFP) - ... Bazooka fire shakes our building... a few minutes of calm, then: bang bang bang... AK-47s respond immediately. From the office, we followed the battle of the 15 Viet Cong.

Bazookas, silence and the response...

In the street are two Viet Cong, killed in the first hours of the fight, and two Americans dead next to their jeep. The bodies will stay there for 24 hours, blackening under the sun.

On Thursday morning the 15, maybe 10, remaining Viet Cong fighters attempt a final push. By 9:30 am six are prisoners, their ammunition is spent.

There is a woman among them. In dirty, old civilian clothes, several are injured, with haggard eyes, bleeding from the mouth and ears because of the blasts of the bazooka.

Crouched, beaten-up on the pavement, handcuffed, they refuse to talk, taunting their guards. They have just lived a whole 36 hours in a city they have seen for the first time.

Lured by a dream, these rice farmers came to liberate the capital, to start a revolution.

The dream has just died.

- Firecrackers or bullets -

The offensive was widely seen as one of the turning points of the Vietnam war
The offensive was widely seen as one of the turning points of the Vietnam war
STR, PANASIA-FILES/AFP/File

Some had come from Kiem Hoa in the delta, walking for five days. They are dressed as civilians. In their pockets, a red armband; supplies for a day and a half in a small plastic bag.

They come from all over, mysteriously turning up at meeting points in the middle of fireworks for Tet celebrations. The locals are enjoying themselves; they have no idea the battle for Saigon has started. Tet in Saigon is like the carnival in Rio.

Commandos form, weapons are handed out. More than 600, heavy machine guns and bazookas, have been in Saigon for weeks, hidden in the Chinese neighbourhood of Cholon.

The most audacious offensive of the war is under way.

At midnight the commandos set out for their targets. There are 18 in the city: the US embassy -- where 19 Viet Cong will die in the gardens, unable to break into the building -- and also Independence Palace, Saigon radio station, Tan Son Nhut air base, the racecourse, nine police stations and four US military hospitals.

At 2:50 am on Wednesday powerful explosions rock the city centre; my home shakes. They are like mortar bombardments.

In the city bursts of fireworks continue. Firecrackers or bullets... In my garden they whistle and ricochet in the trees. Tet is over. The battle of Saigon begins.

Seamlessly, Saigon has gone from firecrackers to gunfire. This will last nearly four days. For the first time, Saigon will experience the war.

- 'They are brave' -

The US intelligence service now understands that the majority of the population was aware of the Viet Cong preparations but nobody said anything.

Maybe this was out of fear, but maybe also out of solidarity, and, more likely, because of indifference after 20 years of war and reversals.

At the same time the population did not take part in a general uprising that the Viet Cong were maybe hoping to stir up.

The daily display of US power is too great to allow, for now, even the slimmest chance of victory for these fighters in their old clothes and Japanese sandals held together by string, a single armband turning any outfit into a uniform.

They have not attracted the masses anywhere.

But it is undeniable the Viet Cong's resistance in Saigon has made an impression. "They are brave," a young student from Cholon, who has spent two days with them, tells me.

There is the same reaction from a woman from Gia Dinh who had to accommodate fleeing Viet Cong soldiers for a day. "They never wanted to take food. They only took water to drink."

The vulnerability of the United States and the government, exposed after the undeniable victory of the Viet Cong in the first phase of their offensive, risks becoming an important factor.

US power has lost its prestige. The most powerful army in the world was put on the defensive across the country. For a moment it was overwhelmed.

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