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Fifty years later: Local veterans remember the Tet Offensive

Bill Hershey of St. Charles plays “Taps” during the memorial service for Charles Morrison

Professional bugler Bill Hershey of St. Charles plays “Taps” during the Feb. 6 memorial service for Navy Hospitalman Charles Morrison, killed 50 years ago during the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. (Photo courtesy of Chris Bennett)

Cpl. Cottrell [Cott] Fox and the 11 other Marines in the combined action platoon [CAP] assigned to “Hotel 8” knew something was going to happen.

It was late January 1968 and the men had heard reports from CAPs at other “hotels” – small Vietnamese villages – about an increasing level of enemy activity working its way toward their location just south of Huế in central Vietnam.

The CAPs were units strategically located in villages where they could train the locals, known as Popular Forces, or PFs, in military techniques, particularly ambushes, and engage in whatever pacification efforts they could. In most cases, a CAP included 12 Marines and a corpsman.

An older brother’s service in the Marines had led Fox to sign up for a two-year enlistment in May 1966. The Webster Groves native qualified for training as a language specialist and became proficient in Vietnamese. Fox had been in charge of the Hotel 8 group since the unit’s sergeant was wounded and evacuated for treatment.

Town & Country resident Cott Fox displays artwork in his office depicting a U.S. Marine.

Town & Country resident Cott Fox displays artwork depicting a U.S. Marine in his office at J. W. Terrill.

The beginning of Tet

At the end of January, a decision was made by top commanders of communist forces – one that followed months of planning – for a major offensive set for the early morning hours of Jan. 31. However, seven towns and cities were attacked a day early on Jan. 30. The premature strikes apparently were due to confusion over a revised North Vietnamese calendar that set the first day of the lunar new year observance, known as Tet, a day earlier than the former calendar still used in the South.

The early attacks were repulsed within hours. And, while the element of surprise had been at least somewhat compromised, top U.S. commanders still believed the main enemy thrust would be at the Marine base at Khe Sanh and that other enemy activities were merely diversions.

But at 4 a.m. on Jan. 31, not long after the wounded sergeant had returned, the Hotel 8 compound, where Fox, his fellow Marines and a similar number of PFs were situated, found itself under attack on all sides by an estimated 400 Viet Cong [VC] fighters.

It was one of scores of similar attacks on military targets, provincial and district capitals, and hamlets throughout South Vietnam, as well as on the major cities of Saigon, Danang and Huế.

Because the onslaught came at the start of the Vietnamese lunar new year, the battles that would continue for two months became known as the Tet Offensive.

Wounded initially early that morning by an exploding enemy grenade that sent shrapnel and debris into his lower back and legs and later by a bullet in his right arm, Fox and other remaining Marines [two were killed during the night of terror], along with the small number of PFs who survived, held off the attackers until pinpoint artillery called in from a battery some distance away decimated the enemy forces and sent those who remained fleeing for their lives.

Taken by medevac aircraft first to a military medical facility at Phu Bai and ultimately to Cam Ranh Bay, Fox described his harrowing experiences in an early February 1968 letter to his parents. Included in the book “Letters from Vietnam” edited by author Bill Adler, his message reads in part:

“It was the most unbelievable night that I’ll ever spend. I’ve never really thought that I was going to die before, but that night I truly believed that I would.

“It was hell as no civilian and hardly any Marine can imagine. No words can describe it and no one can begin to appreciate it unless he has lived through a similar situation.

“I have never fought so hard in my life. I have never wanted to see dawn break so badly.”

Fox spent the remainder of his enlistment recovering from his wounds. Returning stateside, he used his veterans benefits to earn a journalism degree from the University of Missouri. He later became involved in the J.W. Terrill insurance, benefits and risk management firm headquartered in Town & Country where he now is a senior executive vice president. He and his wife, Kay, also live in Town & Country.

Those who served

Around the region, there are many veterans, like Fox, whose tours of duty in Vietnam included the weeks of the Tet Offensive. West Newsmagazine caught up with four of them – members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5077 in O’Fallon and representing three different branches of the Armed Forces.

Jim Mueller, of O’Fallon, and Joe Aiello, of Foristell, are Army veterans, although Mueller was involved in transportation and Aiello served in the Army’s air wing gathering intelligence on enemy locations.

Now the VFW Post’s chaplain, Aiello frankly conceded he still prefers not to talk about his experiences, adding that his memory of those events is faulty anyway.

O’Fallon resident Bill Fisher was assigned to security with the Air Force and worked with two different canine partners. Wolf, his first German shepherd, had to be removed from duty after nearby artillery shell explosions damaged his hearing. Fisher believes the base where he was stationed may have been a target in the Tet Offensive but that early detection of enemy troops gathering outside the perimeter served to foil any plans to attack. He considers himself lucky in that his only wound while in Vietnam came when he fell in a patch of cactus-like plants.

Ron Wunderlich of Lake Saint Louis served with the Navy Seabees building, repairing and improving roads, bridges and other infrastructure essential for the war effort. The Seabees’ task was an ongoing one because those needed facilities regularly became targets depending on who might be using them at any given time.

Mueller’s convoys carrying supplies and reinforcements to outlying areas were always a potential target for land mines or enemy ambushes. While the improvised explosive devices used against U.S. troops in conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan have become more sophisticated, enemy forces in Vietnam were highly skilled in disguising roadway mines and booby-trapping roadside areas where Allied forces would head for cover at the first sign of trouble, Mueller recalled.

The Army veteran became active in the VFW after his service years. While in national office, including the position of national commander, Mueller returned to Vietnam three times as part of teams trying to learn the fate of possible prisoners of war and those missing in action. He also adopted a Vietnamese boy who’s now 44.

The thought of returning to Vietnam or even watching war movies about that Southeast Asian nation are things Fisher prefers to avoid.

“I know what has happened since the war has been sort of a natural progression of life,” he observed. “But it would be difficult for me to see the base I once protected in the hands of those we considered the enemy.”

From left, Jim Mueller, Ron Wunderlich and Bill Fisher, Vietnam veterans and members of VFW Post 5077 in O’Fallon, recall their service during the Tet Offensive.

From left, Jim Mueller, Ron Wunderlich and Bill Fisher, Vietnam veterans and members of VFW Post 5077 in O’Fallon, recall their service during the Tet Offensive.

Fox also has gone back to Vietnam four times for visits – trips he describes as “deeply gratifying.” During one trip he met a village mayor formerly a member of the Viet Cong and who narrowly escaped being killed or captured by Fox’s Marine group.

They spoke and joked about the fates of war, perhaps in a way that only those who have shared the horrors of war, though on opposite sides, can understand.

Stan Nelms, of Wildwood, was a sergeant in the Army’s military police and was stationed in Vietnam from November 1966 until June 1968. He was on leave in Singapore when the Tet Offensive began. One of the seven locations attacked prematurely on Jan. 30, Nelms’ base at Pleiku was back in U.S. hands when he returned early in February.

Nelms has penned the novel “Shack Rat,” based on experiences and observations during his tour of duty in Vietnam. He now serves as historian and webmaster for Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1028 that meets regularly at a Jefferson County sports bar and restaurant.

A fitting memorial

Early this month, the familiar, haunting melody of “Taps” echoed throughout St. Charles Memorial Gardens on a cold, overcast and blustery day.

For the small group of VFW Post 5077 veterans and others gathered around one gravesite, the 24 notes were a fitting conclusion to the memorial service honoring Navy Hospitalman Charles L. Morrison on the 50th anniversary of his death.

Born in Illinois, Morrison later moved with his family to Missouri and graduated from St. Charles High School before enlisting in the U.S. Navy. He was just 22 when he became involved in one of the longest and bloodiest engagements of the Vietnam War – the battle to recapture the ancient imperial capital city of Huế, occupied by the enemy during the early hours of Tet.

Morrison was killed Feb. 6, 1968.

Special guests at the memorial were Morrison’s sister, Linda Witt, and her husband, Ron, from Cedar Hill, Missouri. VFW members had tried to locate any surviving family members to tell them about the ceremony and succeeded in reaching the Witts only the day before the event.

Aiello, the Post 5077 chaplain, was in charge of the brief service.

When West Newsmagazine first learned of Morrison, it was through Post 5077. Members of that post were seeking to complete Morrison’s listing on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund’s Wall of Faces [vvmf.org/Wall-of-Faces]. As late as last fall, Morrison’s entry was without a photo. Today, it displays his high school graduation picture.

The Wall of Faces strives to put a face to the name listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, commonly referred to as The Wall, in Washington, D.C.

Lessons learned

Large numbers of American troops had been serving in Vietnam for several years before Tet and the conflict would continue for several more years before the U.S. ended its military involvement in 1973. Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese Army in 1975, and North and South Vietnam were unified the following year.

But West County military historian and author John McManus describes Tet as the key tipping point of the war even though it wound up being a defeat for PAVN [People’s Army of Vietnam] and VC forces.

“Tet demonstrated that the North was willing to invest whatever was needed to try to win an objective, even if doing so meant huge losses of manpower and material,” McManus said. The prolonged engagement also told the American people that victory was not as close and sure as military and political leaders had been predicting.

A Vietnam city remembered in a different way The U.S.S. Huế City is the only Navy ship named in honor of a Vietnamese city. Commissioned in 1991, the vessel is a Ticonderoga Class guided missile cruiser with a total crew of some 400 enlisted personnel and officers. The Battle of Huế’ was perhaps the most hard-fought during the 1968 Tet Offensive when North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces initially overran the city only to lose it to Allied troops after weeks of bloody and often house-to-house fighting. As its schedule permits, the ship conducts a yearly memorial service in connection with that battle. The vessel’s home port is Mayport, Florida.
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