First Hand Account


Sp4 Philip Thomas Randazzo
2nd Platoon, Charlie Troop
C21 Recon, Cavalry, 25th Infantry Division
Vietnam Duty - September 1967 - September 1968

Saigon, February 1968

    Finally, we had the security of the barded wire defending us.  Ironically, that barded wire which was once our downfall now became our protector.  I remember vividly the next series of events.  Four of five of us were leaning with our asses against one of the many APC's (Armored Personnel Carrier) that were in the checkpoint area at that time.  Right then everything just felt all mixed up and confusing.  I couldn't get any water to drink or any other kind of aid.  There was a feeling of loss of reality.  Like we no longer existed.  I guess the cleaning up of the village and the military operations going in in there contributed to this feeling.  I had thought I was waiting to get dusted off because of my injuries.  But I guessed wrong.  We were told that only the dead and the almost dead would be dusted off.  We were told that we had lost too many men for the ones of us that could function at all to leave.  For the rest of us that were wounded, this of course did not make a whole lot of sense.  I was thinking that there might be a chance to get back to Cu Chi the next day.  As I mentioned before my teeth were smashed out in the front of the mouth and I still had a piece of shrapnel in the top of my head.  I leaned against the APC in a tired, fatigued state of mind.  I then noticed that there were POWs tied up against another APC.  I was looking at the enemy again eye to eye.  But now I could see how scared they were.  It was easy to pick up on how they thought that all the good moments of their lives were over.  Shortly afterwards they were airlifted out of there on a chopper.  I was very sad to see that chopper go up because I still had to stay.  Anywhere would have felt better than where I was.

    The big excitement that finally happened was a box of C rations was passed it guys.  I couldn't eat much of anything, anyhow because my stomach was very upset, a real tight and queasy feeling that I can't really put into words.  I figured that sooner or later we were going to go back to Cu Chi to regroup and treat some of our wounds.  Lieutenant Pinto had me mount his track and take over the M60 position.  The 2nd Platoon was very short of men at this point.  Since my track had been hit (C21), I had on choice but to mount up.  The crew consisted of Lt. Pinto, the 2nd Plt. medic (Jones) and a track driver whom I did not know.  I really didn't like being on an officer's track because of the two radio antennas instead of just the one on top of our track's.  It is a more lucrative target for the enemy to take out a track with two antennas.  Besides that, I really couldn't open my mouth much because of the pain I was in from having my front teeth smashed out.  The air would hit all of the exposed nerves on the front of my mouth and hurt like hell.  I had small cans of peaches and pears and I just sucked the juice in through the side of my mouth.  That is about all I had to eat for a few days.  I did not know the week that lay ahead of our platoon would just about finish us.

    The 2nd Platoon stayed near the area with the barbed wire for roughly 3 to 4 days.  We basically went through the same routines, of S&D, LPs and Ops throughout the area.

    As I said, I was ordered by the lieutenant onto the track but I didn't relish the idea of working with guys I really didn't know.  I couldn't rely on how they might react if we got hit again.  I had those thoughts in my mind and then I tried to look at the good side.  I figured then that at least I would be going back to Cu Chi alive.  After three days at Ton Son Nhut we were pulling out, about 0800 hrs, but once again we were going in the wrong direction.  We were in column formation with the tank in lead and Lt. Pinto's track following.  We went through an Air Force guard crossing and we entered the city of Saigon.  I was surprised to see a city of this magnitude as compared to the primitive landscape and desolate living conditions that I had been patrolling through for the last 4 months.  I had a flak jacket on at this time and also bandoliers of M16 magazines and grenades hanging from the jacket and a rifle slung over my shoulder.  I was not going to be made a fool of twice.  On our CVC helmets we were told something about a building that was under fire, and the guys there were having trouble in defending themselves (something to the effect).  I really didn't care at that point in my life.  All I was thinking that I would probably get another RPG up my ass, and I would be mighty lucky again to make it off of the track alive.

    As we were rolling down the city of Saigon's streets there were big buildings with balconies.  People with round eyes were sitting and standing on their balconies looking down on us like they were watching some kind of circus parade.  Moving along,  I stood up and looked down the column behind me to see how much firepower we had.  I happened to notice Colonel Otis on a track about 4 behind the one that I was on.  I felt better when I saw him.  A minute later a message came over our CVC helmet.  It was from Col. Otis, "If we receive one shot, I will shut my radio off and I want the city destroyed."  At this point I felt strong and not too fearful.  As we followed the road deeper into Saigon we made a left turn, which brought us to the U.S. Embassy.  We had stopped the column to either observe or to wait for further orders.  There were large historical type homes along this street.  Just looking at them relaxed me.  The entire atmosphere felt different to me.  Even the air here seemed more civilized, not as heavy to breathe in, not as musty smelling.

    Orders started to come across to us then.  We were told which positions to place our vehicles in.  I could see tracks being positioned at all the intersections.  Our track, C20, Lt. Pinto's was told for us to approach the front of the U.S. Embassy and enter through the front gate.  As we were in position in front of the U.S. Embassy I could see several (10-15) explosive holes in the front wall of the Embassy.  I could see that they had been severely attacked by RPGs.  This sight put me right back to very high alert.  We were still positioned on the street and I am manning my M60.  I observed a building to my right front, about the 1 o'clock position.  There were heavily armed Vietnamese soldiers.  I was pointing my M60 right in their direction.  I was defending my position.  I was observing everything around me in order to be familiar enough with it in case all Hell broke loose.  I remember seeing the mortar track behind our track at a distance back at the intersection.  Lt. Pinto was receiving information and he told me that the building with the soldiers placed all around it was the Presidential Palace of the South Vietnamese.  I still didn't trust the soldiers surrounding it.  They had expressions on their faces not like the ordinary ARVNs.  To be truthful there was not much trust between them and us.  Lieutenant Pinto turned toward me and gave me orders to open the large wrought iron gates.  I remember opening them and not realizing what this was all about.  I looked up toward the palace and could see the towers and bunkers where the Presidential Guards were dug in.  It was a strange and unusual moment.  Beyond the Palace was another of our tracks at that intersection.  I started to see the entire picture (tactic).  We had the Embassy completely surrounded in order to protect it.  Lieutenant Pinto yelled out for me to ground guide our track through the gates.  Our track began backing up through the gates onto the sidewalk and toward the Embassy building.  We were getting closer but I was still under orders to keep on ground guiding.  The doors at the front of the U.S. Embassy were square in shape and there was a concrete type porch with 4 or 5 concrete stairs leading up to it.  Apparently this was Lt. Pinto's mission.  I continued to ground guide the APC up the steos and right onto the porch.  Lieutenant Pinto dismounted our track to make sure this mission was complete.  His mission (unknown to me) was to back our APC so tightly to the Embassy double doors to serve as a blocking force.  This way the doors were only opened or closed with our orders.

    We set up a very tight defensive position.  I walked back and closed the wrought iron gates, mounted my track and started waiting for whatever may happen next.  By that time it was 0930 hrs, I was observing the RPG holes in the front of the building trying to figure out what positions they were fired from.  I sat on the M60 just observing a "city-like" atmosphere.  After four months of being in Vietnam I missed the feel and look of civilization.  Different thoughts went through my head just sitting there.  It must have been around 1000 hrs or 1030 hrs when Longabardi and another trooper (Klump I believe) came through the gate to our track.  Their mortar track was on the corner intersection on our right, about the 2 o'clock position.  Klump came in from another APC in a different position, he had a Infantry MOS not a mortar 11-C MOS.  But, Longabardi and him were good friends.  Longabardi liked Lieutenant Pinto quite a bit.  Klump had about 10-11 months in country and he was pretty sharp when it came to firefights.  Longabardi was always "cool" and Charlie didn't shake him up easily.  So, in these positions we felt pretty secure, but that feeling didn't last long.  We started receiving AK-47 fire right at us on our tracks.  It was coming directly across the road from some buildings.  The firing made us feel real pissed-off and aggressive.  We put a quick reaction plan together.  We didn't want to just start reconning by fire with our M60s.  Indiscriminate firing like that may have also taken out some innocent civilians.  Instead we started on foot toward the direction of the enemy with Lt. Pinto's orders.  I took a M79 (Grenade launcher), Longabardi took a M60 (Machine gun), and Klump had his M16 rifle.  We went back through the wrought iron gates and across the street.  We took a street straight down in front and we were catching rounds coming at us.  We had a fix then on the enemy.  We were on a sidewalk facing a lumberyard.  Along the top was a gangplank type structure and our targets were up there running with their weapons.  We laid down a blanket of fire in that direction.  Not too much later a fire started burning.  We ceased fire and did not receive any fire back.  We were in that position for about 5 minutes to observe for resistance or retaliation.  There was none.  While we were in that position we started to hear more firepower coming from behind the lumberyard on the next block.  We circled around onto that block and sighted a group of Vietnamese civilians with a group of  (white mice) Vietnamese police.  They appeared to be arguing with each other.  When we started approaching them with our weapons ready they started to spread apart.  We also had a problem starting in a 4-story building.  Enemy fire was coming out of one of the windows towards the Vietnamese and us.  The white mice started spraying bullets in the direction of the windows of the 4th floor.  We held back and observed as the Vietnamese police seemed to have everything under control.  We stayed in a tight defense pattern just in case the situation went sour.  As we were monitoring things some of the police ran into the doorway of the building.  The same crowd of people were still in front of us and they seemed pretty angry.  Another five minutes of this bullshit and then we saw the police at the window of about the 4th floor.  As I was looking up at the window the white mice had a Viet Cong in their grasp.  I think he may have been wounded.  But, that was irrelevant, because they just picked him up and tossed him out the window.  Then, the gunfire ceased.  The crowd gathered around the VC's body making derisive gestures at it.  We then started walking back to the Embassy building.  I guess they figured justice was served.  We were once again on or around C20 just observing the area and bullshitting amongst ourselves when Lt. Pinto asked for 2 volunteers.  He was looking pointedly right at Longabarde and me, so much for volunteering.  He then gave us orders to open the tow large doors leading into the Embassy and afterwards we were to receive further orders inside the building.  We squeezed between the doors and track into the Embassy.  We both had M16s and plenty of ammo.  As we stood there, a Marine officer, I am not sure of his rank maybe a Colonel or Major approached us.  I was still just trying to adjust to being inside a building that literally screamed civilization, with its marble floors and curtained windows.  The sight of this building took me by surprise especially since I had been living by then for four months in such primitive conditions near the villages.  This officer walked up to us and stood at attention with a look on his face that I hadn't seen since boot camp or AIT.  This officer was really stract looking, white gloves and belt and shined boots.  He then asked us why we weren't saluting him?  You have to visualize what our appearance was compared to his.  I had missing teeth, dirt and filth, and dried blood all over my ruined uniform, Longabardi was not in much better shape.  We respectively told him that we had orders not to salute while we were in the field.  No officer with combat experience wants to be saluted while in the field as it can make him an easy target for a sniper.  This officer was not buying that explanation so we respectively gave him an about-face and walked back out.  We told Lt. Pinto what had happened and Lt. Pinto walked us back inside and explained to him in about 2 sentences what we were all about and then he understood.  Then Lt. Pinto left us under his command.  We followed the officer through the Embassy and down a single narrow hallway.  The look of civilization gave me a bad feeling to my stomach.  There was a water fountain against the wall but we couldn't break ranks to use it.  It was very tempting though.  At the end of the hallway we stopped.  It was very tight quarters.  There was a door on the left side that we were in front of.  The officer gave us an order that meant business.  No one was to enter into this doorway or for that matter the hallway.  we had orders to shoot to kill.  He left us alone at that point.  I sat down leaning against the door and Longabardi sat against the wall in front of me.  Like I mentioned before it was a narrow hallway.  This duty was quite a bit different than what we were used to.  however, we made the best of it, by just sitting there and bullshitting and thinking about getting back to Highway 1 to our normal routine.  Longabardi's MOS was 11 Charlie.  He enjoyed getting off of his mortar track for a change of pace.  

    The day went by this way and the evening came upon us when ladies with round eyes stared at us from down the hallway.  They started talking and walking toward us when we brought them to a halt and told them to back up down the hallway.  They did so without any hesitation.  With our direct orders to eliminate anything that came down that hallway we couldn't take any chances with them.  these ladies apparently worked at the Embassy.  They asked if we would like some dinner.  We laughed but they insisted that they bring us some dinner.  They walked away and returned shortly with two cafeteria type trays with plates of normal looking stateside fool.  I hadn't seen or smelled anything like that since I had been in Vietnam, 4-5 months.  They tried to bring the trays down the hallway again and we halted them again and told them to back up into the open forum.  Longabardi and I came up with a plan.  I can't remember which order we used, but I covered him as he walked toward the women and he picked up his tray and then he covered me while I went and picked up my tray.  We backed up still covering ourselves.  This type of acting may seem paranoid, but we had our orders.  The fact that we had just lived through months of hellish living conditions made this type of behavior believable then.  The women watched us and then walked away.  They returned a little while later and we pushed the trays back toward them.  The women asked us if we would like a mattress to lie on.  We told them no.  But, they left and returned with one anyway.  We leaned the mattress against the wall and the door that we were guarding and there we spent the night guarding that door and hallway.  We never saw those ladies again.  When morning came the Marine Officer showed up.  We removed the mattress and waited for orders.  He gave us these instructions.  He said he was going to enter through the door and come out with someone.  He closed the door behind him and within a minute or two the door opened.  He explained to us that we were to walk shoulder to shoulder with the person he was bringing out, one of us on either side.  When the door opened again an officer with a lot of stars on his shoulders stepped out.  I immediately put my right shoulder against his shoulder and Longabardi went shoulder to shoulder to him on his other side.  The Marine officer led us down the hallway into a huge foyer.  There we stood.  The officer told us that through the glass doors were the jeep that the General would be getting into.  He also mentioned that if a grenade was thrown in our direction that we were to lie immediately on top of it.  We got his message that any grenade thrown were for us not the General.  We were also reminded of the snipers that may be up in one of the trees that surrounded the backyard.  We were told to take out snipers quickly.  Longabardi looked at me like he was thinking the same way I was.  this Marine officer thought that he was talking to someone that was a base camp warrior or even better yet, a boot camp trainee.  Well, we went along with his elementary combat thoughts.  The doors were opened by MPs and we started to walk the General through the doors down the steps, onto a walkway and into this canvas type of large jeep.  The MPs closed the vehicle's door and they drove off.  Longabardi and I knew we had just been used as human shields by that was part of our honor and duty.  We were dismissed then and we walked out the front door and told Lt. Pinto what had gone on inside.  It wasn't until I got home months later, Stateside, that I found out that the General we had shielded was General Westmoreland.  So, in other words the General was in the U.S. Embassy when the Tet Offensive started and when the U.S. Embassy got hit.

    The morning was going by peacefully enough.  I decided to walk down to Longabardi's track.  I walked through the gates and down one of the main streets of the city.  There were several mansion type homes.  In the front of one of these homes an American looking man wearing a suit stood there waving me over to him.  I cautiously walked up to him and he invited me inside for some dinner and to clean up.  I told him to hold that invitation for a few minutes and that I would be right back.  When I got to Longabardi's track I told him about the invitation and since we were both curious we went back to the man's home.  I know that here was four of us guys that went back.  I can't remember who the other two soldiers were.  He asked us into his home and that was a sight to see.  We stood in the foyer and to one side was a huge formal dining room.  There was a table with about 6-8 well-dressed men sitting there.  The table was set with china and crystal and silverware.  He told us to go on up and use the bathroom at the top of the stairs and wash up.  Two of us went up there and the other two kept on guard downstairs.  We really couldn't clean up much.  It was not possible to take off months of filth and blood that easily.  We really just made a mess out of his nice carpeting, his sink and his towels.  When we were all downstairs again we took a closer look at our host and his guests.  I figured that they were more than likely engineers or architects, something along those lines.  But, we didn't ask any personal questions.  We didn't want to stay to eat.  The food was undoubtedly great but we were too tense to enjoy it anyway.  I think we were all really just curious to get a touch of civilization.  That, and we wanted to get a closer look at some of the moneymaker's in Vietnam.  When I got back to my track I told Lt. Pinto about it ,but he didn't pay much attention to that king if bullshit.  For me it was another example of the enormous contrasts in that country.

    We spent one more night at the Embassy front doors and then we received new orders.  These new orders proved to be once again very fatal for the 2nd Platoon of "C" Troop.  this ended up being the battle of Hoc Mon.  I will continue to describe in detail exactly what happened there, about the two days of hell at Hoc Mon.  The 6th & 7th of February 1968.

 

Philip T. Randazzo