Reflections: 50 years ago at Tet
Charles Douglas Robbins was just 22 when he arrived in Vietnam in January 1968 as part of the U.S. Army’s 5th Special Forces Group.
Having gone through a rigorous Green Beret training program, he was ready to get to work. It was a matter of days, actually, and Robbins remembers how the action came directly at him during one of the largest military campaigns and a pivotal point in the Vietnam War.
During the nights and days of Jan. 30-31, 1968, Communist North Vietnam forces, Viet Cong guerrillas and village militia launched surprise attacks on more than 100 cities, towns and U.S. military bases.
This past week, the retired sergeant was at his Carson Valley home when memories flashed back during a television report on an event that began 50 years ago.
“I was there. I was in the thick of it,” Robbins said. “You know, I never thought much of it until, all of a sudden, I was watching television and they start talking about the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive. I go, ’50 years ago? Where did it all go?’”
At the time, it must have seemed like an eternity to anyone who witnessed an event that began in the dark of the night during Vietnam’s Tet lunar new year celebration.
On Jan. 21, People’s Army of Vietnam forces launched a massive artillery bombardment of the U.S. Marine garrison at Khe Sanh. It proved to be a diversion for the true objective in the days to come.
Among the Tet Offensive attacks, a Viet Cong platoon penetrated the U.S. Embassy courtyard in Saigon (renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1976). The North Vietnamese platoon was destroyed, but not before the attack was witnessed by television viewers in America and worldwide. The fighting in the city of Hue near the border of North and South Vietnam — again, scenes viewed on television — was intense and bloody for nearly a month.
Robbins, now 71, had only arrived about a week before and was stationed at B Camp at Bien Hoa military airfield, about 25 kilometers from Saigon.
“I want to say it was midnight or 12:30 or something like that, and then all of a sudden, all hell broke out” Robbins recalled.
The objective was to destroy U.S. aircraft on the airfield, he explained.
“We were in a firefight for 72 hours, maybe even longer,” Robbins said. “Our camp was at the end of the airport so they had to go through us into the airport to blow up the planes. When I woke up with all the noise going on, the Viet Cong, they were climbing over the walls and coming toward us.”
North Vietnamese casualties were extremely high compared to losses sustained by American troops — “Remember, Australians and New Zealanders were there, too,” Robbins pointed out — and the offensive was eventually repelled. In the long term, however, it marked the turning point in events that eventually led to America’s withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975.
“Psychologically, it was news that made people say, ‘Wait a minute, this is not good.’ They got into the embassy and then the news made it sound terrible, but they lost more people than they could imagine.”
Robbins had grown up in the Bay Area — he was an athlete who played football, ran track and wrestled at Hayward High School — and later studied agriculture engineering at Fresno State University. He enlisted in the Army after college, and during that time in 1968-69, all the physical training and education came to fruition.
“I wanted to make sure I come back, and the best way to come back is to be totally trained and be the best,” he said about wanting to become a Green Beret.
“As a Green Beret, those who are next to you, are the best of the best. You could trust them. There were men who were on their second or third tours of Vietnam. Some had been in Berlin, they had dug the tunnels underneath the Berlin Wall to get people out during that period of time. I had another sergeant who helped catch Che Guevara. I was just the younger guy, but these guys were experienced warriors, that’s the best way I can say it.”
On a wall of the study in his home, Robbins points to his old beret and a map he carried in Vietnam.
“We didn’t have GPS, you have to be able to read a map and read a compass,” he said.
Robbins can recall being on patrol and realizing the enemy was not far away.
“So that night, you don’t sleep, you’re getting everybody ready for the (stuff) to happen, and it does,” he said. “And it doesn’t happen like the movies, where it lasts 20, 30, 40 minutes. Not when you’re in the jungle by yourself because you only have so many rounds you can shoot. So, when all hell breaks out, bamboo is flying all over the place, bullets are whizzing by, and they do make that whizzing sound, then people are hurting, they’re crying, they’re wounded, or whatever.”
Enemy forces were not necessarily the only concern in Vietnam.
“It was hot, you were sweating all the time in the jungle,” Robbins said. “Monsoon season — which is like February, March and April — it just never stops raining. You had all this red soil, clay, and you’re going through it. There’s insects I couldn’t even describe crawling everywhere. I still have scars on my legs from the leeches.”
Robbins, who lost his wife, Diana, to cancer in September 2008, keeps busy with various activities these days. Among those, he enjoys flying planes, race cars, endurance swimming (he serves as a trustee for the East Fork Swimming Pool District), and as an artist who in 2009 won the Genoa Cowboy Poetry & Music Festival poster contest. And his son, Sgt. Clint Robbins, served through two tours in Afghanistan with the U.S. Marine Corps.
“It’s very similar, my son went to Afghanistan when he was 22,” Robbins said. “My dad (Floyd Lewis Robins) was a World War II veteran, he was on the USS Baltimore at Pearl Harbor. My family (military history) goes back to the Civil War in the cavalry for the Confederates and they go all the way back to the Revolutionary War … they fought out of North Carolina. And my son’s carried on the tradition.”
Robbins said the last Vietnam reunion he attended was in 2003.
“I haven’t been to any recently,” he said of the reunions. “A lot of them, I’ve heard have passed away … exposure to Agent Orange … old age catches up to you. I’ve been very fortunate … knock on wood … to still be active and still physically fit.”