Tet ’68 in Phuoc Tuy: Impact on communities

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By Bob Hall and Andrew Ross

Phuoc Le village, better known as Baria, was the Phuoc Tuy Province capital. It and the neighbouring village of Long Dien, bore the brunt of the Tet Offensive attacks in Phuoc Tuy Province in February 1968. This article describes these two towns and the impact of the Tet Offensive on them.

Baria

Baria had a population of over 18,500 people. The population was 59% Buddhist and 40.5% Roman Catholic. Small numbers of Cao Dai and Protestant Christians made up the remainder. There were seven Buddhist pagodas/temples located in the village and four Roman Catholic churches. There was also one Protestant chapel. The population was predominantly of Vietnamese ethnicity (93.6%) with much smaller Chinese (5%), montagnard and Cambodian communities.[1]

Baria was the most highly developed of the villages in the Province with numerous brick buildings including some of two storeys, in the centre of town. As the Province capital it also had the largest concentration of ARVN security forces in the Province. The village clustered around the intersection of two important roads; Route 15 linking Saigon with the port of Vung Tau, and Route 2 which drove north through the centre of Phuoc Tuy Province past the 1ATF base at Nui Dat, to link the Province with major US Army bases in neighbouring Long Khanh Province to the north. Approaches to the village of Baria were dominated by vast mangrove forests of the Rung Sat Special Zone to the south and by the Nui Dinh mountains about 2.5 kilometres to the north west of the village.

There were almost 80 registered shops and business houses in Baria. Semi-permanent stalls and numerous sidewalk vendors traded throughout the village. Minor secondary industry including sawmilling, furniture manufacture and welding/steel fabrication, were carried out. There were four public dispensaries in the village, each staffed by a medical assistant. The Province Hospital was located in Baria village on the eastern edge of the town. It had three medical wards, one surgical ward and one maternity ward. It had 110 bed capacity and 39 staff members including two Vietnamese doctors and three doctors from a Korean Medical Team.

To counter the influence of communist propaganda, the Vietnamese Information Service (VIS) had offices located in most reasonably sized villages throughout the country. In Baria the VIS office and public reading room where villagers could read newspapers, was located at the rear of the Baria village office. A public address system was installed in the base of the village water tower, a prominent Baria landmark. The Centre was staffed and open daily. The Phuoc Le newspaper was published fortnightly.

Long Dien

Long Dien was located about 5 kilometres east of Baria. The village consisted of 11 hamlets some of which were clustered together while others were widely dispersed away from the central cluster. Long Dien had a population of over 15,600 about 70% of whom were engaged in rice and vegetable farming. Unlike Baria, Long Dien’s population was predominantly Buddhist (89%) with a smaller Roman Catholic component (10%). About 1% of Long Dien’s citizens followed the Cao Dai faith. There were seven Buddhist pagodas in the village and three Roman Catholic churches. The ethnic composition of the village was mainly Vietnamese (90%) with about 10% Chinese.[2]

Long Dien was also one of the major commercial centres in Phuoc Tuy Province with a range of light industry that rivalled the Province capital, Baria. Its architecture included many substantial buildings of brick including some two-storey buildings located in the centre of the village while housing varied from substantial brick buildings to buildings constructed mainly of light timber, corrugated iron and thatch. Long Dien was located on a low spur protruding north into the central Phuoc Tuy paddy fields from the Long Hai hills. The Long Hai hills were used as a base for a number of enemy units and Long Dien was one of their main sources of political support, supplies and intelligence. To the south west of Long Dien were salt pans and mangrove swamps.

There were 90 known permanent shops and business houses in Long Dien village. Many Vietnamese in Phuoc Tuy Province considered that Long Dien was the biggest commercial centre in the Province. As in Phuoc Le (Baria) village, trading in the local market continued throughout the day as opposed to other villages in the Province where the local market usually opened only in the late afternoon. Long Dien also possessed a number of minor secondary industries including rice milling, saw mills, welding and steel fabrication and coffin making.

Occupations and employments consisted of rice and vegetable farmers (70%), salt drying/collection (20%), shop keepers/vendors (10%). Shops and business houses in the village included general groceries (9), cafes (6), hardware (6), radio/electrical (10), tailors/mercers (10) photographers (3), furniture (1), pharmacy (4), patent medicine (10), motor cycle repair (4), garage/service station (5), rice wholesaler (6), rice retailer (15).

Impact of operations on civilians.

The Tet Offensive produced three types of impacts on civilians; casualties, damage to housing and infrastructure and psychological impact. Data on civilian casualties is incomplete and sketchy. However, the available data shows that especially during the battles of Tet 1968 civilian casualties were high in comparison with other types of Australian operations in Phuoc Tuy Province such as reconnaissance in force operations which were mostly conducted deep in the jungle and well away from large concentrations of civilian population. Accounting for civilian casualties was primarily the responsibility of the South Vietnamese government rather than the Australian Task Force so the absence or incomplete nature of documentary evidence on casualties and damage in Australian official records is not surprising. Nevertheless, the battles in Baria and Long Dien in which Australian forces took part, each involved Australian forces confronting VC/PAVN troops in urban terrain where there were large numbers of civilians present. 1ATF policy was to avoid using heavy indirect fire support such as artillery, mortars or air strikes, in villages if possible, so as to reduce the risk of civilian death and injury and damage to civilian property. Heavy weapons were only to be applied in urban terrain if 1ATF elements needed the support and were taking casualties.

Civilian casualties

Following the Tet offensive in 1968, in which units of 1ATF fought urban battles in Baria, and Long Dien, civilian casualties were assessed to be as follows:[3]

  • Government employees: 12 killed, 3 wounded, 1 missing.
  • Civilians: 45 killed, 77 wounded.
  • Police: 10 killed, 26 wounded.

In addition to these casualties resulting from the fighting in the two villages the hamlet chief of Ap Soui Nghe and his deputy were assassinated by the Viet Cong on the morning of 5 February 1968.[4] It appears that there were no other executions of government workers or others in the Province during the Tet offensive.[5]

It would be useful to be able to apportion these casualties to the village in which they occurred, but unfortunately, the records available in the Australian War Memorial seem to give no further information about how these casualties might be split between Baria and Long Dien. Neither do the records describe the cause of the casualties.

Damage to property

In Baria, 61 buildings were 100% destroyed, 47 were 50% destroyed and 112 were assessed as 10% damaged. Long Dien suffered less damage with 28 buildings 100% destroyed while 61 were 50% destroyed and 38 were 10% damaged. [6] Once again the records provide limited information. Some of the buildings were private houses while others were public buildings such as Vietnam Information Service offices, schools and temples. But the records we examined for this article made no attempt to differentiate between these building types.

Following the Tet offensive battles, 1 Australian Civil Affairs Unit (1ACAU) initiated a program to re-house those families made homeless. A total of 139 houses were built in Long Dien District with the program ending in early August 1968. In Long Le District (Baria) a further 26 houses were built. The houses built under this program were very simple. Nevertheless, this program represented a diversion of 1ATF effort and resources towards restoring houses for Vietnamese families. Over a period of about four months, 1ATF provided working parties and protection parties to this program as well as construction

materials. The program was a heavy drain on engineer tradesmen and the members of the 1 Australian Civil Affairs Unit while it lasted.[7]

Psychological impact.

Following the Tet offensive of 1968, the Commander Australian Forces, Vietnam (COMAFV) conceded that there was ‘almost certainly some psychological advantage to the VC because of Baria and Long Dien’ but this was not measurable.[8] However, in the longer term this psychological advantage may have been moderated by the effort of 1 Australian Civil Affairs Unit to assist with re-housing civilians. A report by 1 ACAU on the completion of the re-housing program noted:

This military Civic Action Project has attracted both written and verbal statements of appreciation from the local officials and villagers. More importantly, it has enhanced the Australian Army image in what was previously a hostile community at Long Dien. As such it may be considered a successful psyops exercise although any long term effort is difficult to assess in view of the continuing marginal situation which exists in and around Long Dien.[9]

However, following the urban battles of Tet ‘68 some of the province’s citizens continued to provide political and financial support, intelligence and supplies to the Viet Cong. Enemy units continued to make night-time penetrations into the villages on a regular basis. Support for the Viet Cong did not vary significantly as a result of these urban operations. While local support for the Australian forces might have improved, it did not do so decisively.

 

 

[1] AWM284, 43, South Vietnam, Village information. See also AWM 288, R569/1/30, Op Nowra, 7 Aug 68. HQ 1ATF Op Instr 40/68 (Op Nowra) dated 7 Aug 68.

[2] AWM304, item 78, Long Dien Village – Long Dien District, Report on Long Dien Village, undated. See also AWM100, item R176/1/72, Civic Action, General – Village and Hamlet Statistics.

[3] AWM98, item R569/1/112, HQ AFV Operations General VC Tet Offensive – Operations in Phuoc Tuy. 1 Aust CA Unit Aust FPO 4, Nui Dat, dated 25 Feb 68, titled ‘Civil Affairs – Phuoc Tuy Province – Situation Resulting from VC Tet Offensive as at 25 Feb 68.

[4] Ibic, Minute to C of S by LTCOL Duke dated 21 Feb 68.

[5] Ibid, Signal Austforce Vietnam to Army Canberra, 170852Z Feb 68.

[6] AWM98, item R569/1/112, HQ AFV Operations General VC Tet Offensive – Operations in Phuoc Tuy. 1 Aust CA Unit Aust FPO 4, Nui Dat, dated 25 Feb 68, titled ‘Civil Affairs – Phuoc Tuy Province – Situation Resulting from VC Tet Offensive as at 25 Feb 68.

[7] AWM98, item R569/1/112, HQ AFV Operations General VC Tet Offensive – Operations in Phuoc Tuy. Report, 1 Aust CA Unit, Nui Dat 14 August 1968: Special Project 182 – Tet Offensive Rehousing Programme Final Report – Jul/Aug 68.

[8] AWM98, item R569/1/112, HQ AFV Operations General VC Tet Offensive – Operations in Phuoc Tuy. Signal, Austforce Vietnam to Army Canberra, 160247z February 1968.

[9] AWM98, item R569/1/112, HQ AFV Operations General VC Tet Offensive – Operations in Phuoc Tuy. Report, 1 Aust CA Unit, Nui Dat 14 August 1968: Special Project 182 – Tet Offensive Rehousing Programme Final Report – Jul/Aug 68.

One Comment on “Tet ’68 in Phuoc Tuy: Impact on communities”

  1. The article is very interesting indeed and quite topical. Some readers who visited – or were stationed in, Baria during the War, might think of Baria more of a “town” than a “village”. However, according to the official Vietnamese administrative history:
    “Before 1975, the city of Baria – from an administrative perspective, was only the village (xã) of Phước Lễ. On 8 December 1982, the townlet (thị trấn) of Baria was created from Phước Lễ village … … On 2 June 1994, the townlet of Baria was upgraded to a town (thị xã); and in August 2012 Baria was declared as a city (thành phố). In November 2014, Baria was upgraded to a city/urban centre – class II (đô thị loại II). Its population in 2014 was 153,000.

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