By Bob Hall and Andrew Ross
The Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) organisation conducted systematic surveys of citizens throughout South Vietnam in an attempt to judge their reaction to the events that were happening around them. Survey teams consisted usually of young Vietnamese trained to conduct interviews by asking unbiased, open-ended questions of randomly selected persons. They were to adopt a conversational rather than interrogative style so that their subjects might give answers uninfluenced by the tendency to tell their interlocutors what they thought they wanted to hear. Although there are questions about the interviewers ability to achieve unbiased samples, the responses they recorded in their reports are an interesting and rare insight into how the people were thinking about the war and its effects on their lives. Sampling and interview techniques tended to improve over the course of the war, so earlier reports may be less reliable impressions of the view of the ‘man or woman in the street’ than those conducted later in the war.
A CORDS survey was conducted in Baria on 15 February 1968 and the interviewers sought people’s views about the events in Baria over the Tet holiday. (See AWM257, D/4/16, Report, Office of Special Assistant, Deputy CORDS, II FFORCEV, 24 February 1968. Subject: 15 February 1968 RTT Report on Phuoc Tuy After the Tet Attacks.)
The following is a close to verbatim copy of the report. I have lightly edited it so that it makes sense but it retains some direct excerpts from the report conveying the Vietnamese English of the original document.
The VC attack
According to the report, on the night of 31 January/1 February 1968, a VC force of four units (C1, C2, C3 and C4) attacked Phuoc Tuy’s capital, Baria. C1 attacked the Admin & Logistics company’s installation, C2 attacked Van Kiep Training Center, C3 occupied the hospital and established a first-aid station there and C4 attacked the Re-Education Centre (i.e. the prison) and attacked the National Police HQ. The enemy’s HQ was located behind the Phuoc Tuy Public Health Service Office. It was reported that many of the enemy troops were unfamiliar with the town and were unclear about the location of the GVN’s installations and found it difficult to navigate the Province Capital’s streets. Some asked the local people for information. A civil servant reported ‘I was hiding in my house when I heard the VC discussing that if they did not know clearly the GVN’s installations, they should look for the people and ask them. I heard one VC (probably a leader) who asked: “Hell, the order was to attack Phuoc Tuy Province (Capital). Why do we attack Ba Ria District (Town)? So, how do we know what to do?”
The VC having met resistance of the GVN troops could not occupy any GVN installation. The enemy’s C4 Coy did not attack the Re-Education Centre but instead, broadcast through loudspeaker to the prison inmates: ‘Tomorrow (2 Feb) you comrades will be liberated. At present our popular armed forces have control of the situation in the Province (Capital)’. Another VC team attacked the Joint US Public Affairs Office (JUSPAO) installation and met resistance of the Information Advisor and Public Safety Advisor. Later, Aussie APCs came to relieve the two advisors and removed them from the location. The VC destroyed this installation.
The VC unsuccessfully attacked the residence of the National Police Advisor who Aussie APCs rescued, but the advisor was killed by a B40 round at Nguyen Thanh Ly street, ¬ Ca Tan crossing. Four VC were killed according to locals, three of whom were carried away and one who was left where he was, covered in gasoline, and burnt. Two VC went into Thanh Thai theatre and fired at Aussie troops. Two Aussie soldiers crawled in, threw tear gas grenades and captured the two VC. The VC who had entered populated areas were refused food by locals, so they took food by force.
In Long Dien the VC attacked the Sub-Sector HQ, the District National Police HQ, the Public Information Office and the Office of the Long Dien Village Administrative Committee. All but the Sub-Sector HQ were destroyed by the VC. They also captured the Chairman of the Village Committee and took him to an unknown place for execution.
On 3 February, the VC withdrew from the Province Capital but Long Dien was still under pressure. The ARVN 52nd Ranger Battalion and 3rd Battalion, 52nd Regiment, 18th Infantry Division came as reinforcements. The VC strength in Long Dien village was 800 men, divided into two units. The VC were powerfully armed with AK-47, AK-50 and B-40. On 8 February, Major Phan Van Xa, CO of the 52nd Ranger Battalion was killed in action. His death was due to “bad morale of the soldiers, bad weapons, and weak fire power”. 3/52nd Battalion and 52nd Ranger Battalion encountered fierce resistance. The VC stopped the Battalions which retreated. 3/52nd Battalion disobeyed orders and ran away. Major Phan, who was overweight, ran slowly and was wounded in one arm. Medics came to help but ran off under VC fire. Major Phan was hit in the back. The VC killed him with a machete. A 3/52nd Battalion officer said the VC had superior weapons and 3/52nd Battalion soldiers “lost their morale”, and were tired from much fighting. He said that the “VC had time to rest”. A civil servant assessed the ARVN as having high reliance [on external support?] and low vigilance in the defence. The VC always take advantage of negligence to attack. During the last Tet, 75% of ARVN soldiers went AWOL. Without Aussies they could not protect the Province Capital.
Consequences of the attack
Five civil servants and 32 civilians were killed, 29 civilians seriously wounded, 34 civilians lightly wounded, and one civil servant was missing. There were 66 fully burned houses plus a number of 50% damaged houses, burned motor cycles and bicycles and 1 fully burned vehicle. The Province authorities had organised refugee relief and accepted 461 families, comprising 2,731 people residing temporarily at 4 refugee centres in the Province.
Reaction of people toward the VC attack
The survey team found much fear and hatred towards the VC. The people did not expect that the VC would attack the province town on the sacred Tet holidays. People dislike the VC. “Therefore, the people put their noses in this incident, so that the VC could move their troops into Saigon city and provinces throughout the country”.
“The attack of the VC into the province during the Tet holidays caused the people to lose sympathy toward them. Because although that sympathy was not exposed, in their hearts many had sympathy with them (the VC), because the GVN has many corrupted elements, and because of the propaganda of the VC. Therefore, the people are partly pro-VC. But now the VC lost the sympathy and influence of the people because of this attack. I have a relative saying that he heard the VC talk to each other that “Why did our superiors [sic] say that when we came to the province the people will welcome and coordinate with us. But now when they see us they run away”. Another VC said that “we shot very much so they run off”. This one understands that the people don’t like the VC any more”, said a male respondent (a merchant). (p.5)
“In the morning of the 2nd day of Tet holidays, when the people in the village heard…about the VC attack into Saigon, they said that the people in Saigon are very unlucky, can’t enjoy Tet…We were afraid, we didn’t know where to run and hide…we were afraid of stray bullet and the VC, so we had to stay inside…but we also feared the helicopters would shoot mistakenly if some VC were hiding in the block. Two, three days later…the people moved to Vung Tau. My family had no transportation so I had to stay back here. It is unknown how the VC thought to launch attack on the Tet holidays”, stated a woman (a housewife). (p.6).
“I thought that the Americans put their nose in this attack…The Americans agreed for the VC to move to Saigon one battalion to attack and threaten the GVN to accept the Coalition government formation, and at provinces the VC would attack and seize the provincial authorities … the VC will organise a demonstration … to demand peace and formation of a Coalition Government. Then the Americans will be in charge of conciliation to form a government as they have planned. In United States, the Johnson administration has suffered a high pressure from the Pacifists’ Party …But the VC moved to Saigon some divisions and owing to the immediate reaction of the ARVN’s troops, so the VC were defeated. The Americans were troubled because of the betrayal of the VC and the curse of the people … the US Embassy released a notice to deny the matter. However, I think that no Vietnamese believes so … If there was not an agreement with the Americans, how could the VC divisions infiltrate into Saigon? This failure of the VC is very serious. Particularly, in the field of struggling for the people’s hearts … the VC lost all their influence among the people … In the international field the VC also lost a lot of influence … I listened to the BBC station and heard the whole world was shocked by this matter … The VC troops were armed with modern weapons but they were weak in combat experience. Their troops are too young (16, 17 years old) … the VC got serious failure in three points:
- They lost influence with the people because they violated the true order, particularly during the Tet … the most sacred of days.
- They lost international influence
- They suffered serious casualties … and loss of weapons that the VC will not be able to restore even in several years.
- A male respondent (cadre) stated: “I also agree with the rumors saying that the Americans have put their noses in this matter … In the United States … if the Democrat Party wants to win the election this time, it has to solve the problems in Viet Nam”. This respondent feels that the Americans wanted to monitor the outcome of the Tet fighting. “According to me, in the year of 1968 there will be a lot of vital changes. Either peace will return or war will reach to the most terrible rate compared to all years in the past”.
- Several civil servants complained about the VC influence in Long Dien district as the VC could hide there and resist the Vietnamese troops.
- Evidence that when the Viet and Aussie troops conducted an operation the VC disappeared, only to reappear when the troops left. Accusation that people accommodated the VC. But the local authorities have disappointed the people such that they incline towards the VC (male civil servant).
- Complaints from the people that Viet troops stole property. They trusted the Aussie troops because they defended better.
- Another soldier sent family to Saigon and stayed at Van Kiep Training Centre. When he returned to his house door open and property stolen (TV set, radio and sewing machine and all clothes gone. Locals said Ranger (preceding word missing) took his property.
- “Everywhere of my house was searched. They (Vietnamese soldiers) took anything in my house that they liked. They didn’t care to fight when the VC came, but they’re only interested in robbing the people’s property. Such acts are nothing more than urging the people to follow the VC. Many years of working and saving have all gone with the wind … I hope the government will conduct an investigation to punish the thieves in order to calm the people’s heart; I hope that the government will pay me some compensation” stated a respondent (merchant).
Aspiration of the people after the VC attack
Most people long for restoration of normal situation, to carry on business. Their concern is increase in cost of living and most worried about rice and gasoline. They hope province will be under the protection of the Aussies rather than the Vietnamese as they are “more experts and courageous”. People afraid that there will be no pay for the month.
A male civil servant said cost of living high and food scarce, worried about buying rice.
A female respondent said that business was very difficult with nothing to sell.
The finding of the survey was that the respondents’ attitudes “truly and sincerely” showed their opinion. It was found that the VC failed in the attack because the people didn’t help them. ARVN’s firepower was weak – only the air force was effective; the majority of people admired the support and courage of the Aussies; the people thought that the Americans had a hand in the VCs attacks on political and military matters; people whose houses were destroyed during the war were helped and comforted by the province; escalation of rice and gasoline prices a major concern.