Charlie, I clearly remember the first time I saw you on the other side of the twenty kilometer, defensive perimeter fencing, that surrounded Tan Son Nhut Air Base, on the Northwest outskirts of the capital city of Saigon. Even though it was thirty years ago, January 31, 1968, and the TET Lunar New Year Peace Accord was in effect. To me, it really was, only yesterday. You were mostly a shadow, moving about in a manner that indicated to me that you were very determined. By keeping yourself behind various structures, trees and bushes, it was clear that you did not want us to know of your presence. You were looking for the element of surprise. Under the rules of engagement we had to determine first if you were friend or foe. You stopped about 100 meters off our west perimeter of Tan Son Nhut. At that distance no verbal challenge of, "Halt -- Dung Lai," could have or would have been given. In my mind, I determined that you were indeed, FOE, the Enemy, Charlie, Viet Cong, VC, NVA. Even though I did not know precisely what you were doing as an individual, I did know what your goal was. You were with thousands of your friends and comrades, Officers and NCO's alike.
The master plan for the TET offensive, code named "Tong Cong Kich - Tong Khoi Nghia," (TCK-TKN)(General Offensive - General Uprising) had begun. We observed you setting up your 81mm mortars and then firing them. Of seeing your comrades blowing up the O-51 Gate with bungalore type charges. Observing you and hearing you over-taking the O-51 Bunker, containing five of my Security Police friends (SGT's Coggins, Cyr, Fischer, Hebron and Mills, with only Coggins coming out alive after nearly eight hours of you being in the bunker with him.), being attacked with RPG-2 and RPG-7 rocket propelled grenades and AK-47's. The dreadful killing had begun and just as much as you were going to kill me, I was going to kill you. With a hatred !!! I was going to kill you! Coming directly at you with such a hatred in my heart. I had never seen you before but my friends and I knew what you had in mind. You were here to disperse your version of Death and Destruction.
You did not know it at the time, but we knew for several hours that you might be coming that day. We had captured several of your comrades the day before and believe me, when I say they were talking. Most of the mama-sans on post had not come to work that day. Several of them also told us, "Tonight would be a bad place." Then we knew it officially, at 1730 hours, when the 377th Combat Security Police Squadron was placed in Security Condition Red, that you probably were coming that fateful night! Around 0322 hours, February 1, 1968, you began your assault on the Eastern perimeter and Northern perimeter of Tan Son Nhut's fortified boundaries.
With your NVA and Viet Cong's massive TET offensive, specifically with the multi-battalions that attacked Tan Son Nhut on our Western perimeter, I believed that anyone of us, of the American forces, could die that night. Most of us was very young, eighteen and nineteen years old. I was only twenty-two. I was considered the old man, in my sector. Some of us were single and some were married with children. We looked forward to a FUTURE, what-ever it may bring us! For the single men, it might be to get married, have children, to experience our sons and daughters first handshake in life is the greatest of all; the clasp of an infants fist around a parents finger, raise a family, go to college, to better ourselves and our families. To see our children grow up and become good adults. In due time, for our children to have our grand-children. Looking back to yesterday, plus thirty years, maybe you might have had such aspirations as we did. Knowing that you too, must have had loved ones, who cared for you. As you see, in a way, you and I were not that much different when it came to our personal home life.
You see, for me to have my FUTURE, I must deny you, your FUTURE !!! I didn't have a choice, you made my choice for me when you attacked Tan Son Nhut. As a result of your actions, you died for your country and your beliefs. You made us, the Judge, Jury and Executioner. The Judge said, "Charlie, stand up. You have had a trial by combat and have been found guilty, and that the court takes positive delight in sentencing you to, Death !!! You are a young man in good health, and the time of the year is wonderful. It's your New Year, the holiday spirit is alive with music and love is in the air, soon grass and other plants will be pushing its fresh green heads out, birds will be singing of love and mating, flowers will be dressing up the valleys. But, you son-of-a-bitch will not see all this, for you will be dead and more than six feet asunder. In the deep trench made by a bulldozer on the West end of the runway. Covered with lime and then followed by tons of the good earth." My decision and resulting reactions was made in a split second. The very instant that the first mortar round was fired by you and having it land inside the defensive perimeter. With that explosion that sounded like lighting and thunder.
As it was reported in the March 11, 1968, issue of Newsweek Magazine, page 64-65, you were so confident of winning the Battle of Tan Son Nhut and the Battle of Saigon, that shortly before the offensive began, you placed an order at a renowned Chinese restaurant in Cholon for 400 meals, to celebrate your victory. Cholon being the Chinese sector of Saigon and a large VC stronghold. In addition, you invited the Vietnamese emigres' living in Paris to return to Saigon in order to participate in a coalition government. You also invited the Russian media to accompany you into battle, in Saigon, so as to write 1st person articles about your anticipated glorious victory, over the Americans. Expecting to find ARVN armored tanks at the armor school, to capture the U.S. Embassy, to seize the Saigon radio station (wanting to play a tape-recorded message from Ho Chi Minh). Further, expecting to capture Premier Nguyen Van Loc and force him to order a cease-fire over the said radio station. To free several thousand prisoners in prison, arm them and turn them loose on the population. To overtake an ARVN post and finding that their artillery weapons had the breech mechanism removed, to capture American warplanes and further use them against Tan Son Nhut and the capital city of Saigon! In all these endeavors, you were never successful !!!
Even though many of us came away from the Nam' with wounds that would heal with time. There is one wound that seems to never heal. The wound that is in my mind, of memories of those terrible days gone by, of friends good and brave, whose names appear on The Wall. The despicable times that we had to endure. My friends were Security Policemen and most were K-9 Sentry Dog Handlers. Most of us had not begun to live our life to its fullest. Today, in 1997, my previous security police friends are doctors, lawyers, dentists, optometrists, writers, policemen, postmen, laborers and such.
If they are like me, have reached middle age, gained weight and still have their FUTURES !!! Some are members of the Vietnam Dog Handlers Association, Vietnam Security Police Association, Tan Son Nhut Association, 1st Cavalry Division Association, 101st Airborne (Air Assault) Association, and the Military Police Corps Association, and Son's of the American Revolution.
Charles E. Penley
SFC (RET), USA