Story by Sadie Bleistein
Information for this article was gathered through the Annual Supplement to the History of the 101st Aviation Battalion, Jan. 1 - Dec. 31 1968. Prepared by the order of Lt. Col. Arlen R. Suddaby. Written by Cpt. Edward H. Leekley, Unit Historian; TET Offensive Debriefing Report, July 1968; and Department of the Army TET Holiday Memorandum, Jan. 21 1968.
While many Vietnamese were taking the time to pay homage to their ancestors and looking forward to a year where the opportunity of peace might prevail, the 101st Aviation Battalion, Attack Helicopter commander and air mission commander, Lt. Col. John E. McGregor, was called to lead what some may call, the most unique airmobile combat assault mission in the Vietnam War.
The year was 1968, during the Asian Lunar New Year known as "Tet," observed from Jan. 30 until Feb. 1. It is a holiday, which in many ways, is comparable to the American Thanksgiving and New Years. Tet is a time of family reunions, and signifies the start of the spring planting season and time to make self improvements.
Jan. 21, 1968, Maj. Gen. Olinto M. Barsanti, 101st Airborne Division Commander, published a memorandum. "During this three-day holiday period, we must be especially watchful and security conscious. The enemy will take advantage of any opportunity to conduct subversive activities among the people and raid our base camps. The Viet Cong have broken truces before. We must therefore maintain the maximum degree of vigilance in our security posture."
These predicted subversive activities began a period known as the TET Offensive.
In the early morning of Jan. 31, around 3 a.m., a Viet Cong sapper platoon dressed in civilian clothes breached the courtyard wall of the American Embassy in Saigon.
Despite the gallant efforts made by the embassy guards, sections of the embassy shifted control to the communist forces, to include parts of the main building.
With such a politically important building on the verge of falling into the power of enemy hands, the quickest way to move troops to the locality was by helicopter. At 5 a.m., the nation called on the 101st Aviation Battalion (AH).
With the infiltration of the Viet Cong, positive identification between friendly and opposition forces within the complex could not be determined, making the use of preparatory fire impossible. Also at risk from the effects of air fire were the sensitive records and equipment housed within the complex.
With the grounds and buildings partially overrun by enemy forces, limited firing capabilities and time closing in our comrades who were resisting the enemy from within, landing areas were limited to one - the roof.
Five UH-1H Huey helicopters, known as "slicks," carried a Charlie Co., 1st Battalion, Airborne, 502nd Infantry platoon task force beyond the courtyard walls of the embassy. The task force was to conduct a heliborne assault to the roof top, sweep and secure the grounds.
The lead bird was commanded by McGregor. He made two attempts to bring the Soldiers to the roof, but met fierce ground fire. The door gunners were at a loss, to return fire would almost certainly result in the loss of friendly forces.
As Mcgregor went in for his third attempt, friendly ground forces were able to provide covering fire and the first slick landed at 8:34 a.m. Only one bird was able to hover down to the roof at a time, and as the Soldiers came down, the air assault had begun.
With the 1/502 task force moving across an exposed and wide open roof, McGregor and his pilots maneuvered their slicks to shield the infantry as they moved forward and down into the building.
By 8:45 a.m., the air assault was complete and within 45 minutes, the embassy and surrounding area was secure. One American casualty was suffered during the embassy relief mission; McGregor's door gunner was wounded, but what may have been the most unique airmobile combat assault in the Vietnam War had now come to a successful end.