For a couple Las Vegas Vietnam War veterans, memories of the assault launched by communist forces 40 years ago this week still linger.
Bob Haygood, an Army specialist with the 329th Heavy Boat Company, and Stephen White, a Marine private first class with Hotel Company, 3rd Platoon of the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, managed to survive the Tet Offensive.
While they were not among the 6,328 allied military personnel killed in the 8-month-long ordeal, their mental and physical scars are constant reminders of the attack during the lunar new year truce.
Their stories are a prelude to a public remembrance of the Tet Offensive from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at American Legion Post No. 8, 733 Veterans Memorial Drive in Las Vegas.
“They weren’t supposed to be doing anything fancy during the truce,” Haygood, 63, said Wednesday.
Rocket and mortar fire at 3 a.m. on Jan. 31, 1968, surprised the crew aboard his Landing Craft Utility boat anchored in the Mekong Delta.
A sentry “woke everybody up. He said, ‘I don’t know what’s happening but you better get up,’ ” said Haygood, a draftee and 1962 graduate of Las Vegas High School.
As the fog rolled in, machine gun fire ripped through the air. The crew feared that the bullets, coming from the second floor of a building on the shore, would detonate the boat’s cargo of artillery shells.
“Our skipper ended up taking an M-79 (grenade launcher). He put a round right through that window, and we didn’t have any more fire,” Haygood said.
That was just the beginning of some scary weeks that followed leading up to March 4, 1968, when the boat hit a mine.
When the explosion went off, Haygood was armed with his assault rifle and laden with 140 rounds of ammunition, a flak jacket and his steel helmet.
“It launched me like a catapult in the air. I hit the water on the other side of the boat and was sucked under it,” he said.
He knew if he tried to inhale under the water he would drown so he kept blowing bubbles out until his lungs were burning. He shed his gear and swam to the surface only to find himself trapped under the boat.
“I realized I’ve got three, 36-inch propellers turning, so I went back down and came out on the opposite side in open water,” he said.
A Navy patrol boat rescued him and others from the crew. With injuries to his head, right foot and ankle he was eventually sent back to San Francisco until he recovered and was discharged four months later.
While Haygood’s boat was churning through the Mekong Delta, White’s platoon was south of Da Nang trying to ward off Viet Cong targeting a helicopter base at Marble Mountain.
At 3 a.m. on Jan. 31, 1968, “all hell broke loose,” White said. “We saw rocket and mortar fire hit the Marble Mountain air base and the city of Da Nang. It was pretty much like the Fourth of July.”
Hotel Company dug in, positioned behind Concertina wire and Claymore mines.
“We were told we were going to be overrun. … When the dust settled, we went out to find Viet Cong,” he said.
On Feb. 7, 1968, White’s unit fought two Viet Cong companies, killing 90.
“During February, we encountered a lot of small arms fire. We suffered a lot of casualties but never lost a battle. … A lot of people thought we lost the Tet Offensive. That’s not true. We eradicated the Viet Cong,” he said.
In a narrative he wrote, White, a San Francisco native and 15-year Las Vegas resident, described the period as “a slow motion blur of enemy incoming mortars, rockets and small arms ammunitions aimed in all directions.
“I can remember the choppers landing constantly. … Many of the enemy lay dead, blown to bits or just smoldering black corpses lying in pools of thickened blood. The humid, thick air was scented with the odor of burned flesh.”
In April, his unit was sent to a hill where more than three dozen Marines had been overrun by the enemy. Their task was to retrieve the bodies but “there was so much artillery that we couldn’t recover the bodies for a week.
“I got hit by the psychic bullet,” he said. “The bodies had been tortured. Finally, by the grace of God, I got it together enough to continue up the ridge.”
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at email@example.com or (702) 383-0308.