Tet Offensive remembered, 50 years later

Quoc-anh Nguyen (Submitted photo)

DOVER — For many six-year-olds growing up in 1968, especially in America, their childhoods are filled with memories of jump ropes, ice cream and family vacations at the beach.

Quoc-anh Nguyen, a South Vietnamese expatriate, remembers bombs, bullets and fear.

As a first-grader in 1968, Mr. Nguyen found himself in the heart of the Tet Offensive — a series of surprise attacks by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army soldiers against the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam (ARVN) and their American allies.

The offensive culminated into one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War.

It was also seen as a turning point when the war’s momentum shifted to the communist insurgents and against the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government.

“We were right in the middle of it,” said Mr. Nguyen. “We lived in a highly secured military complex for high ranking officers. My father was an officer and airborne paratrooper in the South Vietnamese Air Force.

“The complex was directly attacked by the Viet Cong and I remember mortars being fired at us and seeing hand-to-hand fighting on the rooftops.”

Mr. Nguyen and his family were able to weather the worst of the attack in a sandbag bunker — with the help of a platoon of 12 Airborne GIs ordered to protect them.

Many civilians weren’t so lucky during the attacks.

This January and February represent the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive. Dover Public Library’s History Book Club, Delaware State University and Vietnam Veterans of America plan to mark the event with a presentation. It will include a panel of veterans and survivors and a show-and-tell with authentic wartime artifacts.

A panel discussion, running from 6:45 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., will be held at Dover Public Library on Wednesday. The event is open to the public.

The panel features Vietnam veterans David Skocik, Paul Davis, Richard Lovekin and Kamau Ngom and Mr. Nguyen. It will be moderated by Delaware State University history professor Dr. Samuel Hoff.

From left, Dave Skocik, History Book Club organizer Larry Koch, Rick Lovekin and Joe Startt Jr. meet at Smyrna diner to lay out plans for the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive presentation at Dover Public Library. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Mr. Lovekin, a former US Army helicopter door gunner, arrived in Vietnam in March 1969. He’s been giving presentations on the Vietnam War since 1984 to local high schools and colleges.

“Members of Chapter #83 Vietnam Veterans of America Delaware and I have given more then 5,000 presentations to more then 35,000, mostly young people,” said Mr. Lovekin.

A program he’s helped establish, Vietnam Veterans Experience and Today’s Society (VVETS), has toured the region for decades.

“Then Sen. Joe Biden endorsed our program in 1984 and sent letters to all the high schools in Delaware,” said Mr. Lovekin. “Shortly afterwards, he got us involved in the University of Delaware History Department.

“We were part of the department for more then 25 years. We’ve also spent a week at West Point where we spoke to all the cadets. The military academy liked our program so much they invited the local high schools.”

Mr. Lovekin will provide the majority of the artifacts on display during the event. One is a deactivated Viet Cong grenade.

“We’ll have a grenade that was actually thrown at a GI there — he said it hit him right in the head, but it fell to the ground without exploding. So he just picked it up and kept it,” said Mr. Lovekin.

Other items include shrapnel from an exploded mortar, an assortment of army helmets, 20-millimeter and .50-caliber shells, ammo boxes, ration cans, signal mirrors, grenades, photo books, an anti-tank weapon and more.

During the panel discussion, Mr. Skocik, Delaware Veterans Coalition co-founder, will talk about his experiences when he was assigned to DaNang between July 1966 and February 1968 as an air freight specialist.

“DaNang was also referred to as ‘Rocket City’ because the flight line was a regular target for rockets and mortars from the surrounding hills,” said Mr. Skocik.

“I was part of a four-man heavy equipment team that traveled on C-130s to Army and Marine outposts needing emergency resupply. Our duties sometimes included loading body bags out to DaNang. There was a Navy mortuary downtown that prepared bodies destined for Dover Air Force Base.

“It was especially bad during the Tet Offensive when enemy forces tried to overrun the base.”

Mr. Nguyen will bring an entirely different perspective of a South Vietnamese civilian to the panel when he discusses his experiences as a war refugee bound for America.

“I left the country in 1975, right at the very end of the war when Saigon fell,” he said. “When I left, the communists were already in Saigon mortaring the naval base we were trying to leave from. It was a very distressing situation.”

Leaving Saigon, Mr. Nguyen’s first stop was the U.S. Naval Base in Subic Bay in the Philippines.

Then his family, along with many others, were loaded onto a merchant marine ship.

“We were packed onto the ship that was full of fruits like apples, bananas and oranges. I remember being in the hull of the ship because there wasn’t much room and I was terribly seasick,” he said.

The ship unloaded in Guam, where Mr. Nguyen’s family lived for a month in a refugee camp.

Eventually they were processed and flown to Honolulu, Hawaii, and then on to Sacramento, California.

“Since we were some of the last people to escape Vietnam, most of the American refugee camps were full. California’s, Florida’s and Arkansas’s were all fully occupied,” he said. “The last one, Fort Indiantown Gap in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania was the only one with room. I had never even heard of Pennsylvania before.”

Mr. Nguyen’s long arduous journey ultimately lead him to a life in Delaware where he’s taught classical piano and mandolin for more than 40 years. He is employed as a library specialist for New Castle County.

The presentation on Wednesday is open to all ages.

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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