I recently received an inquiry from Jim Taylor, a fellow combat veteran of the War in Vietnam. Jim sent me a link to an article about combat veteran Sergeant John Ross who served in 1968 with the 173rd Infantry Brigade (Airborne) in Vietnam. Sergeant Ross was part of the battle for Dak To in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. The article was written by Don Moore and titled “Sgt. John Ross in 173rd Airborne, took part in biggest battle in Vietnam War“.
Jim questioned whether the battle for Dak To was in fact the “biggest battle of the Vietnam War.”
For every soldier the battles they were involved in are, at the time, the biggest ones, and as time goes on they become even bigger. Our fellow U.S. Army airborne soldiers should be commended for their bravery in combat, and we should never forget our surviving and fallen comrades sacrifices. All gave some and some gave all.
The Vietnam War website column “What were major Battles of the Vietnam War?” lists the following battles as major:
Battle of Ap Bac (January 2, 1962)
Battle of Ap Bac was the first major battle in the Vietnam war. It was fought by the ARVN and NVA at Ap Bac – a village in Dinh Tuong province, approximately 50 miles southwest of Saigon on January 2, 1962. The battle resulted in heavy casualties on a much more superior South Vietnamese troops with American assistance in weapons and planning. It exemplified poor performances in both fighting ability and spirit of the South Vietnamese forces in compared to the Viet Cong.
Battle of Ia Drang Valley (October 26 – November 27, 1965)
Battle of Ia Drang was the first major battle between regular U.S. and People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) troops. The 2-part battle occurred from November 14 to November 18, 1965 at the Landing Zone X-Ray and Albany in La Drang Valley, Central Highlands of South Vietnam. Despite heavy casualties on both sides, both claimed the battle was a victory of their owns. As a matter of fact, Ia Drang Valley battle was considered essential as it set the blueprint for tactics for both sides during the conflict. American troops continued to reply on air mobility and artillery fire to achieve their battlefield objectives – victory of the so-called “body count”. On the other side, the Viet Cong learned that by quickly engaging their combat forces close to the enemy (fighting at close range), they could neutralize American advantages.
Battle of Khe Sanh (January 21 – April 9, 1968)
The Battle of Khe Sanh took place in Quang Tri province, North-western South Vietnam from January 21, 1968, when PAVN troops began a heavy artillery bombardment on the U.S. Marine garrison at Khe Sanh. For the next 77 days, ARVN and U.S. Marines fought an extensive fight until Operation Pegasus ended the siege. Khe Sanh turned out to be one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War.
Aftermath, both sides claimed victory despite heavy casualties on the communists and the fact that the U.S. had to abandon a key combat base due to enemy pressure for the first time. Although the U.S. officials expected a full-scale offensive from the North Vietnamese troops, it never came. Instead, Battle of Khe Sanh seemed a diversionary tactic to distract American & South Vietnamese forces from the Viet Cong build-up in the South for the so-called “Tet Offensive”.
The Tet Offensive (January 30 – March 28, 1968)
While the U.S. and South Vietnamese were still focusing on Khe Sanh, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops surprisingly launched the Tet Offensive – a series of aggressive and coordinated surprise attacks on over 100 major towns and cities throughout South Vietnam on January 30 – the first day of Tet (Vietnamese Lunar New Year).
Despite its surprise and initial success, the communists were quickly repelled within several hours or days except for Saigon, which took around 2 weeks and particularly Hue, which took the PAVN nearly a month to recapture the former capital city of Hue.
The Tet Offensive was, in deed, a massive military defeat for the North communists. However, the offensive could be seen as a “strategic”, “psychological” win and a turning point in the war for them as it shocked the U.S. government and public at home.
What’s the difference between biggest and major? The battles impact on the outcome of the war!
I served with the 101st Airborne Division and was in Vietnam for the 1968 Tet Offensive. It was a major battle that turned the tide of the war against the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army. I know, I was there. It was a clear North Vietnamese defeat on the battlefield.
However, Walter Cronkite called it a loss for our military and the Tet Offensive of 1968 was the beginning of the end of our involvement in Vietnam. In his National Interest article “Cronkite’s Vietnam Blunder“, Robert W. Merry writes:
Douglas Brinkley’s new biography of Walter Cronkite has sparked an intriguing controversy about the CBS anchorman’s famous trip to Vietnam in February 1968. That’s when, as legend has it, Cronkite was so shocked at the devastation of the communists’ Tet offensive that he went over to see for himself what was really going on. And he concluded the war was a stalemate, probably unwinnable.
Brinkley buys the argument, put forth by the late David Halberstam in his characteristically portentous manner, that Cronkite’s February 27  broadcast, “Report from Vietnam,” played a major role in turning Americans against the war and inducing President Lyndon Johnson to abandon his reelection campaign.
This lead to increased calls to exit Vietnam and eventually gave North Vietnam their final victory in Paris, France. Congress capitulated, the South Vietnamese were abandoned. The Christian genocide in Vietnam began.
I, to this day, say that our military won the war on the ground in Vietnam but lost the war on the streets of Washington, D.C. and in Congress due to the protests. We won the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people but lost the hearts and minds of the American people. Each battle during the Tet Offensive, from Khe Sahn to Dak To to the the battle for Hue, were part of the larger war against the Communist forces aligned against the armies of the free world.
Vietnam was a proxy war in the greater global war fought between the former Soviet Union and the Free World.
We continue to relearn that lesson today as we see the war in Iraq now lost and so too in Afghanistan. History is repeating itself. The players are the same, just the names of the battles have change – from the Battles for Fallujah in Iraq to the 101st Airborne Division in the Hornets Nest (watch the below video) in Afghanistan.
Winning the battles inextricably will lead to winning the war. That was true up until Vietnam. Since then the dynamic has changed, for the worse.
It’s the will of the American people that counts, not the victories on the battlefield by our soldiers. Sad but true.
EDITORS NOTE: The featured image is of American soldiers near the ancient city of Hue in the Northern province of the former South Vietnam, taken during the Tet Offensive of 1968. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.