The 1968 Saigon Embassy Attack: then and now

At the end of March, I visited Vietnam with my wife Ellen for our honeymoon. We spent two weeks eating the traditional rice noodle dish bun cha, walking markets, and lounging around pools. Luckily for me, Ellen abided my obsessive growing historical interest in the Vietnam War and we were able to visit multiple American military history sites while in the country. One of the most powerful sites we visited was the U.S. Consulate Ho Chi Minh City located on the site of the old Embassy of the United States, Saigon. Though the Embassy site is now famously associated with the 1975 helicopter evacuations in the Fall of Saigon, in 1968 the Embassy compound grabbed international headlines as the site of an attack by a North Vietnam combined military force. This attack set the wheels in motion for an American withdrawal from Vietnam.

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Above: Modern view of Embassy site with Viet Cong Monument at intersection of of Mac Dinh Chi Street and Lê Duẩn Boulevard in Ho Chi Minh City

The Tet Offensive

With North Vietnam General Secretary Lê Duẩn’s blessing, North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) guerrilla forces began planning a coordinated surprise attack on hundreds of cities in South Vietnam to be launched in early 1968. This attack would be launched simultaneously across hundreds of cities in South Vietnam by 80,000 NVA and VC soldiers. Le Duan and the North Vietnam government wanted to take advantage of wavering U.S. public support for the war by launching a surprise assault that would break the will of the American people to support the war; perhaps the will of the military as well.

The attack was a surprise because NVA and VC soldiers would assault cities beginning on January 30-31 to coincide with the start of the Tet lunar new year holiday. Since Tet is the most important national holiday in Vietnam, half of the South Vietnamese army (ARVN) soldiers stationed in and around Saigon were home on holiday and there were no dedicated U.S. combat units in the city. Military strategy suggested that the depleted holiday force made the end of January an opportune moment for an invasion. Saigon was an important psychological city for North Vietnam to capture in the “Tet Offensive” because it was the capital of South Vietnam, more Americans lived there than any other South Vietnamese city, and it housed the American Embassy. Saigon was also psychologically important because it was viewed as a city unbothered by war, and if the U.S. military could not protect Saigon, what cities in South Vietnam could they protect?

Gen. William Westmoreland commanded the American military response in Vietnam known as MACV, or Military Assistance Command Vietnam, and had spent the previous fall on a media goodwill tour ordered by President Lyndon Johnson to convince Congress and the American public that America was winning the war. In November 1967, he remarked in a speech to the National Press Club, “We are making progress, (and) the end begins to come into view.” The coming surprise attack would prove Gen. Westmoreland’s optimism foolish.

On January 31, 1968, a four-pronged assault by 35 Communist battalions was planned for Saigon containing the following elements:

  1. 19-man platoon of VC sappers (specially trained commandos) to take the U.S. Embassy
  2. 5th VC Division to attack an American field headquarters at the suburban town of Long Binh as well as the Bien Hoa airport NE of the city
  3. 7th NVA Division to block roads N and NW of the city
  4. 271st VC Regiment to attack Tan Son Nhut airport and American Gen. William Westmoreland’s headquarters

The Attack

Attack #1 listed above, the Viet Cong embassy attack, was made possible through the help of a double agent. Nguyen Van De was a U.S. Embassy driver known as “Satchmo” to American officials who didn’t bother to learn his name. He worked as U.S. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker’s chauffeur and as an agent for the Viet Cong. The day before the attack De drove Viet Cong Cpt. Ba Den, commander of sapper assault force, around the Embassy compound in circles so he could prepare his soldiers for the attack the next morning. At 2:30 AM on January 31, 1968, “Satchmo” led a 19 person VC sapper convoy including his Embassy car, a taxi cab, and an SUV southeast down Mac Dinh Chi Street with their lights off towards the U.S. Embassy to avoid detection. The war had come to Saigon.

The Embassy attack began at 2:45 AM when the convoy arrived at the Embassy night gate on Mac Dinh Chi Street. With AK-47s, the convoy opened fire on Specialist Four Charles Daniel and Private First Class William Sebast of the 716th Military Police Battalion, who were guarding the north gate. As Daniel and Sebast retreated into the safety of the compound and placed a padlock and chain on the steel-barred gate they were guarding, the sappers placed an explosive device along the wall adjacent to the intersection of Mac Dinh Chi Street and Thong Nhut Boulevard. The explosion created a three foot wide hole that allowed two sappers to enter the compound and place a lock on the embassy gate, trapping anyone within the compound’s walls. Daniel radioed for help as he and Sebast traded gunfire with the sappers.

In terms of gunfire, MPs Daniel and Sebast were badly outmatched. Military Police soldiers (MPs) carry lighter loads since their main role is base security rather than combat mission support. During the Vietnam War, some of their main tasks were to provide security for command posts and monitor prisoner exchanges and security checkpoints. Daniel and Sebast were just two soldiers with M16 assault rifles who had seen no major combat in Vietnam taking on a group of combat-hardened VC sappers armed with AK-47 assault rifles, rocket propelled grenade launchers, and explosive devices.

Weaponry lacking, Daniel and Sebast still subdued the first two sappers to enter the compound, shooting and killing them before being killed themselves in the second wave of attackers entering the breach. The second wave simply overwhelmed the two men, with half of the VC sappers firing their guns through the explosion breach and the other half scaling the compound wall. In their final moments, the MPs fired towards the breach at VC sappers with their backs towards their guard post. Just after 2:47 AM Daniel fell dead on his stomach, killed by a shot to the face. Sebast was not long for this world either, falling mortally wounded with a shot to the chest around the same time. The two soldiers were now just prostrate figures covered in cement dust with a battle of the living raging around them.

22-year-old Private First Class William Sebast of Albany, NY and 24-year-old Specialist 4 Charles L. Daniel of Mecklenburg County, VA were the first American casualties of the Tet Offensive. Daniel’s last words were, “They’re coming in! Help me! Help me!” over his radio while Sebast lay dying face-down near his guard post 6 days after his 24th birthday.

Daniel’s radio call for reinforcements was answered by MPs Sgt. Johnnie Thomas and Spc. Owen Mebust, also from the 716th MP Battalion, who rushed north in a Jeep up Thong Nhut Boulevard towards the Embassy front gate. An earlier reaction force of Marine Security Guards had failed in its attempt to enter the gate, so Sgt. Thomas and Spc. Mebust decided to get aggressive and ignore battalion policy to dismount one block from the compound and approach on foot. This decision cost them their lives.

When they arrived at the front gate, Sgt. Thomas exited the passenger side of the MP Jeep and was immediately shot in the back by a VC sniper. Spc. Mebust rushed to his side to provide aid to the Sergeant, but was killed himself by fire from the same sniper. News video taken during the attack shows their lonely Jeep sitting stationary outside the embassy flanked by wounded MPs.

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Above: An abandoned American MP Jeep sits outside the embassy compound across the street from the breach in the compound wall created by the earlier Viet Cong explosion

By 4:00 AM, the remaining living VC sapper soldiers were entirely within the embassy compound walls, though they had not yet captured the key Chancery building facility or CIA Station Chief Col. George Jacobson’s house. At 4:30 AM a reaction force of 50 Americans from the 716th MP Battalion arrived along the front gate on Thong Nhut Boulevard with orders to force their way into the locked Embassy compound and eject the VC. For the next two and half hours they fired into the compound at sappers through the steel bars of the front gate, constantly trying and failing to break the padlock the sappers had put on the front gate.

At 6:15 AM, a 101st Airborne Division medevac piloted a Huey helicopter to the Embassy, attempting the day’s second landing atop the Chancery building in order to evacuate wounded Embassy staff and Marine Security Guards. An earlier attempted medevac coinciding with the arrival of the 50-soldier reaction force failed due to heavy enemy fire. This time, the chopper successfully landed and loaded the wounded Americans, but its fuel tanks took heavy fire upon takeoff and the pilot was forced to make an emergency landing in a field outside Saigon. However, it showed that a Chancery landing was possible, and a reaction force of “Screaming Eagles” from the 101st Airborne regrouped to attempt a landing in order to clear the Chancery building and link up with the ground reaction force.

Inside the compound, all was chaos. Embassy coordinator Col. Jacobson was trapped in the second floor of his compound house, visibly pleading out the window to MPs for assistance while VC sappers occupied the first floor. Camera crews captured American MPs tossing him a gas mask and pistol through an open window, so he could defend himself. The Chancery lobby was hit by a rocket propelled grenade, narrowly missing Senior Chancery guard Sgt. Ronald W. Harper, who pleaded with American commander Westmoreland’s aide Cpt. Charles Sampson over his radio for assistance in a humorous exchange:”

Sampson: “What’s the trouble, Sergeant? Sampson barked.”

Harper: “The VC are right outside the door, I tell you.”

Sampson: “You’re not scared or anything, are you Sergeant?”

Harper: “You bet your ass I am!”

As seen in the above exchange, American and South Vietnamese high command denied the seriousness of events as they unfolded. Overall American commander Gen. William Westmoreland mistook the first explosions of the embassy attack for Tet holiday fireworks. Gen. Westmoreland’s deputy Gen. Creighton Abrams wasn’t even awoken by his aides to respond to the attack. South Vietnam President Nguyen Van Thieu, Commander-in-Chief of South Vietnam military forces, was on holiday with his family and could not be found during the attack.

Eventually, the combined force of American MPs and Marine Security Guards got the situation inside the compound under control. At 7:00 AM, a successful helicopter landing of 36 soldiers from the 101st Airborne was made on the Chancery roof, allowing them to clear the building from the top down and then link up with the force of MPs attempting to break the Embassy front gate. At the same time, the ground reaction force changed tactics and successfully broke through the front gate of the compound by crashing an MP Jeep through it and creating an entrance.

The entrance created by the Jeep was a small one, allowing only one MP to enter the Embassy compound at a time. Once the reaction force entered the compound, they quickly subdued the remaining sappers and linked up with the 101st Airborne, who made quick work of the Chancery building when they realized no sappers had ever entered the building. Rather than aggressively attempting to take any of the compound buildings, most of the VC invaders simply took up defensive positions in the compound garden among the flower pots after breaking in and, “fought it out like the simple and dedicated soldiers they were,” (Nolan, 1996, p. 111).

By 9:15 AM, the U.S. Embassy in Saigon was free of enemy soldiers, the initial attack having cost the lives of 2 American MPs and the counterattack costing the lives of an additional 2 American MPs and a Marine Security Guard. The entire Viet Cong sapper force to breach the compound was either killed or captured.

Aftermath

The Tet Offensive attacks in Saigon were a tactical military failure for North Vietnam. The VC sappers failed to take the Embassy, American commander Westmoreland’s headquarters were never breached, and both Bien Hoa and Tan Son Nhut Airports were safe for MACV flights shortly after the attacks began. However, the Saigon attack was a strategic boon for the Communists. To the American public, the images on news reports did not lie: the concrete symbol of American power in the capital of South Vietnam being attacked and partly occupied by Communist forces did not coincide with Gen. Westmoreland’s optimism for a speedy end to the war.

In a post-attack press conference from the Embassy grounds, Gen. Westmoreland dismissed the attacks as diversionary, then jumped spooked at the sound of a nearby explosion that he clumsily assured reporters was just, “EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) setting off a couple of M-79 duds I believe…” as he nervously glared back at disbelieving reporters who had just witnessed a major attack. U.S. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker did little to stave off the feeling something terrible had occurred in Saigon in his subsequent press conference:

Reporter: Is Saigon secure?

Bunker: “Saigon is secure as far as I know. There may be some (fighting) on the outskirts, I’m not sure…”

The tactical military result of the Tet Offensive was that the Viet Cong was largely wiped out as an effective fighting force while accomplishing almost none of its military goals, but the strategic military result was an American public distrust of the Johnson Administration’s handling of the war and a major loss of enthusiasm for the conflict. Each of the remaining years of the war saw a significant reduction in American troop levels, from a high of 536,100 in 1968 down to 24,200 by the beginning of 1972.

Today

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Above: Photoshop illustration I created to show the modern view of the Embassy compound intersection with the MP Jeep superimposed over its original location

In 1968, the U.S. Embassy compound was located at the intersection of Mac Dinh Chi Street and Thong Nhut Boulevard in Saigon. Today, this same compound is located at the intersection of Mac Dinh Chi Street and Lê Duẩn Boulevard in Ho Chi Minh City. A sign of the times, the city name was changed from Saigon to honor Central Committee Chair and Vietnamese nationalist hero Ho Chi Minh and the street name was changed from Mac Dinh Chi to honor the architect of the Tet Offensive General Secretary Lê Duẩn.

Near the location where sappers blew the hole in the compound wall stands a red marble monument commemorating the VC soldiers killed in the attack. During my trip to Ho Chi Minh City, an armed Vietnamese security guard at the U.S. Consulate chastised me for taking a photo of the monument. Vietnam is keen to portray its successful reunification as the product of a good and natural kind of nationalism, and the failed embassy attack does not fit that narrative. The failed attack has cast a long shadow, one that remains today.

Works Cited

Chicago Tribune. (2018). AP BOOK EXCERPT: The Tet Offensive’s first 36 hours. Retrieved from http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/sns-bc-as–vietnam-tet-offensive-book-excerpt-20180131-story.html

Keene, R. (2013). “Golf” Company at Hue. Leatherneck, June 2013.

Keene, R. (2013). The Terrible Carnage of Hue. Leatherneck, June 2013.

Nolan, K. (1996). The Battle for Saigon: Tet 1968. 1st ed. Pocket.

North, D. (2018). Assault on the Embassy: The Tet Offensive Fifty Years Later. Consortiumnews.Com. Retrieved from https://consortiumnews.com/2018/01/30/assault-on-the-embassy-the-tet-offensive-fifty-years-later/

Summers, H. (1995). Historical Atlas of the Vietnam War. 1st ed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.