The Battle of Ben Tre
I was the Commanding Officer of Task Force
Builder, an Army engineer group of 60 soldiers that was stationed in the small
rural village of Rach Kein, Vietnam in 1968. Rach Kein was approximately 20
miles SW of Saigon, located in Long An Province. Our base camp was next to
the base camp of the 3/39 Infantry Battalion of the 9th Infantry Division.
Our base camp was next to the base camp of the 3/39 Infantry Battalion of the 9th Infantry Division.
Ben Tre, Vietnam, is a moderately size town that is
located on the Mekong River about 25 miles SE of Rach Kein. It was much bigger
than Rach Kein, probably even bigger than the town of Long An.
During the first week of the Tet Offensive the VC made
their big move of attacking Saigon. The 3/39 Inf. was initially sent to fight in
the big battle for Saigon. This left us alone to face an NVA regiment of 5,000
men that surrounded us on January 29. We survived that. And we remained
surrounded and cut off for several weeks. As best I recall, the 3/39 Inf. was in
Saigon for about two weeks. I certainly remember this, because while they were
gone from Rach Kein we were on our own as far as defending against ground
attacks. These must have been likely, for at one point, the 9th Inf.
Div. sent in several companies of the 2/39 Inf. to bolster the town defenses and
to conduct sweeps around Rach Kein while the 3/39 was away.
I especially remember that one platoon of infantry was
wiped out in a well laid ambush in an open rice paddy. It was just a few hundred
yards from where we eventually built a school near the first village North of
Rach Kein (can’t remember its name). The VC had cleverly built machinegun
bunkers into the rice paddy dikes (it was the dry season), and the infantry
walked right up to them before the VC opened fire.
Then the 3/39 returned. Or I should say that 75 percent
of them returned. The fighting in Saigon had been intense. After only a few days
rest, they were air-lifted by chopper to retake the town of Ben Tre. Ben Tre had
been occupied by the VC during Tet. The VC had dug in heavily, and were not
ready to retreat without a big fight. So the still exhausted and depleted
infantry troops of the 3/39 were thrown into another vicious fight. I cannot
tell you how much respect that I have for those guys. True heroes, every one of
them. Tough, plucky, and mostly draftees. I still remember my wonder at the
ability of America’s youth to endure.
I sometimes wonder if I am the only one who remembers
them. So I willingly tell this story, so you can help me to remember. Their
deeds should not be forgotten. The 3/39 Inf. Bn. suffered 100% casualties during
the year 1968. I watched it. It is something that still haunts me. Eight hundred
young men gone, dying bravely to serve the country they so loved.
Anyway, the fighting in Ben Tre went badly for the
Americans. House-to-house all the way. The VC were so well dug in and barricaded
that progress got stalled. So, in desperation, artillery and air strikes were
called in on the town. Much of the town was heavily damaged in the resulting
melee, but the town was retaken.
Several days later, Major Robert Black (the Rach Kein
U.S. Army Advisor) invited me to attend with him an evening briefing that the
3/39 was going to give for a group of journalists and Saigon army brass. I had
never before been invited to attend an infantry battalion briefing. I accepted
the invitation. The briefing was held in a Vietnamese house that served as the
S-3 office. It was about 7 houses East of where the VC barbershop was at one
time set up. The house was on the left side of the road as you drove through the
infantry compound, just about across from the infantry mess hall.
Anyway, the living room of the house was packed, mostly
with civilians. The purpose of the briefing was to explain the battle of Ben
Tre. Such briefings are usually conducted by the S-3, in this case, Major
Peter Booris. He was a heavy-set fellow.
He was also not my favorite officer. This was because he
was the guy who told the infantry on guard to open fire on us the morning when
we were walking back to Rach Kein across the rice paddies. This was when we had
chased the VC who had ambushed the infantry Road Runners that one infamous and
well-remembered morning (but that is another story). Fortunately for us, the
infantry sergeant (an E-5) on duty had ignored the major’s orders. I’ll never
forget his grin as he told me that he had saved our bacon by ignoring the S-3’s
orders. He could clearly see that we were friendlies, so he withheld his fire.
Anyway, at one point the journalists were pressing Major
Booris to explain why it had been necessary to wipe out the town. They were
definitely pressing the point that perhaps too much force had been applied by
the US forces. Major Booris was trying his best to put a good face on the
situation. But at one point he got flustered, and blurted out, “We had to
destroy Ben Tre in order to save it.” I have to admit that I almost laughed when
he said that. It was a really unfortunate comment. But Major Booris, in his
defense, was trying his best to defend his battalion’s honor. His CO, Lt.
Colonel Anthony P. Deluca, deftly jumped to his feet and interceded to rescue
Major Booris from this difficult moment. He smoothly carried the rest of the
conversation. I really liked LTC Deluca. He was a good combat leader, and he was
always fair to Task Force Builder.
Anyway, that was the only briefing of the infantry that
I ever attended. But it turned out to be the most famous. Some of the
journalists present at that briefing seized Major Booris’ comment, and they
really publicized it. As I recall, it appeared on the cover of Newsweek or Time
magazine within the month. And it has gone down in history as an example of the
some of the insanity that was Vietnam.
Last year I was reading an historical assessment of the Vietnam War. The famous historian who wrote it actually challenged whether or not that Ben Tre statement was ever made. Well I know, because I witnessed it being made. I wrote to the historian, explaining this. I hope that he got my message.
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