Hope during Tet 1968

To understand hope we must understand the uniqueness of hope through Christ is the very essence of perseverance. When I was in the Army in Korea, I came across a GI who was in the hospital recuperating from his injuries that he received in Vietnam, and we became quick friends. After a time over what was probably weeks he related this story of hope to me. Neither he nor I totally understood at the time that it was related to hope, but it was a deep undying hope in Christ that he didn’t know he had that enabled him to keep going. I’ll try to do the story justice by relating it in the third person.

Tim was guarding a bridge with about 100 other GI’s north of Saigon when in the early morning of January 31, 1968,  the Tet offensive started, when 70,000 North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong guerrillas launched surprise attacks throughout Vietnam at more than 100 cities and outposts. This was his outpost. 

When it started Tim was half sleeping while sitting slumped against three layers of sand bags in front of a line of foxholes protecting a main bridge. Half sleeping because he said, “You never really sleep at night in war.” Flares started going off and claymores exploded waking him from his stupor. The claymores were trip- wired in front of their location. He looked over the sand bags towards the village, and the sound of bugles were blaring. He could see through the light of their flares, what seemed like hundreds of black outlined bodies with blinking lights in front of them. From a slight rise to the right front of the attack came green tracers which at first were going over their heads and then they could hear the heavy bullets striking their sandbagged position. 

The Vietnamese (VC) were running at them from the village that they must have snuck into under cover of darkness. The blinking lights were flashes of fire from their rifles. The green tracers were 51 caliber Russian machine gun bullets. Tim could hear heavy impacts against the outer sand bags, and then sand stung his face as the heavy bullets exploded into the bags next to his face. He got down, face stinging, heart pounding, thanking God they had put PSP (perforated steel plate) in the middle of the sand bags and started fumbling with his M-16 making sure the safety was off, not wanting to rise.

The Sergeant yelled to start firing. He forced himself to rise, somehow keeping his urge to run under control, using every ounce of self-discipline to control his fear. Later he would say “The bravest thing I ever did in Viet Nam was raise up over those sand bags and fire back.” He fired directly at several of the flashes and to his surprise they stopped. He could not see well enough to tell exactly what he was hitting. He dropped down trying to figure out why his M-16 had stopped firing and discovered he had emptied the 20 round magazine. He reloaded, putting in another magazine, telling himself to take it easy. He rose when something popped like an water melon beside him; he turned his head not understanding what was wet, hitting him in the face, at the same moment a guy called Pop, standing next to him, flew backwards. Tim stooped low looking back. Half of Pop’s head was missing. He turned facing the sand bags not feeling any physical pain, just the psychological pain from the instant inner agony over Pop's death. He was stunned for a second; using his left sleeve he wiped Pops blood out of his left eye, trying to get the courage to rise again. His mind seemed cloudy with the overwhelming thought quickly passing on how much Pop wanted to live. He, as if he was looking from the outside, could see his body mechanically moving, moving to direct the aim of his rifle to fire. His determination was building as he fired and more flashes stopped with dark bodies falling. This he realized was a battle of individual determination. Each GI behind those sand bags was feeling the same pain of fear as the VC who was forging ahead like Pickets Charge during the Civil War. They all knew the most perseverance and firepower would win.

He stooped again, reloaded, noticing the lieutenant crouching to his right was yelling into the radio mic trying to get fire support. He rose, firing. Now some of the VC was within 50 yards, and every one of the GI’s was firing their M-16s on full automatic.  Their quad 50 on a Duce and a Half Truck to his left suddenly opened up; he realized it had not been firing. He learned later a sniper killed the first gunner the moment the initial claymores went off.

Tim was firing as fast as he could aim, realizing he was yelling at the top of his voice, but with the sound of hundreds of rifles, machine guns and the quad 50-- not to mention the North Vietnamese rifles, rockets, and mortar explosions-- he couldn’t hear anything, and said,  “Those damn bugles.” He was heartened the quad 50 with four .50 caliber machine guns were really wiping them out. “Those guns are death machines,” he thought quickly.

The VC charge slowed with the quad 50 mowing them down. He could see the flashes stop in bunches as the quad 50 fired 5 second bursts. The VC small arms fire started to die, but their mortar rounds immediately picked up the pace and started coming in fast.

“Damn," he said to himself, “they know what they’re doing!”

The VC was trying to knock out the quad 50. It was the heaviest weapon the GIs had. It was their barrier to annihilation without further fire support.

The lieutenant yelled “Incoming!"  The soldiers slowed their fire as they heard the sounds of the mortar explosions. Wham! The high explosive mortar round landed several yards behind him. The concussion knocked him off his feet, but he wasn’t hurt. One second, two seconds, three seconds, Tim was scrambling to get up, then wham, another mortar round exploded. Then faster, wham, wham, as multiple mortar rounds went off over and over.  They were now landing all around the GI’s position on the north end of the bridge. Quickly glancing back he could see the south end of the bridge through the light of the flares. The GI’s on the south end were safely hunkered down watching the mortar flashes. Tim felt envious.

“We have no mortars!” He said aloud. All they could do was put their heads and bodies in their holes. He heard GI’s yelling, “Medic, medic!”

“We’re being killed!” He yelled the obvious, feeling helpless. Then the bugles started again. “They’re coming again” yelled the Sergeant. The mortar rounds didn’t stop: wham, wham, wham!

“I can’t live through this," he thought to himself, not knowing whether to rise to fight and die, or to stay in his hole and die. He was quickly standing, firing and yelling. A big explosion off to his left, he dropped crouching trying to protect himself, and looked at the Duce and a Half. Fire was coming out of the top of the truck. The Sergeant yelled the obvious, “They got the quad 50."

Being only human, he thought it was over.

He got calm all of a sudden; it was as if the sound of terror went away. Everything was moving, firing, and exploding, but now the sound and fear didn’t bother him. He had mentally moved into that other world where only those warriors go who can control their fear--and few get back. This world is where the chances of survival are dim but determination creates hope. Tim started repeating a biblical Scripture over and over; he did not remember where it came from. It went something like this, “…glory to God …produces perseverance; and perseverance, character, and hope.”  Tim slowed down, and was somehow comforted as he took methodical aim.  Every single shot a blinking light stopped. Now he was in a place where nothing mattered except survival and survival meant placing the bullet where it would kill and kill.

He felt as if he were outside his body looking in. He said to himself, “If I’m going to die, I’m going to kill as many as I can. Didn’t I hear that in an old western?” He chuckled and immediately couldn’t believe he could say Scripture, laugh, and kill at the same time. He was past determination, past fear. He was killing to survive, killing to stop the predator of death. It was his only hope, and somehow he knew Christ was with him.  He dropped to reload, and heard his lieutenant, with the microphone to his mouth, “Red Leader, this is Touchdown, white flares mark our position. Lay it 50 yards north of white flares.”

There was too much noise for him to hear the reply.

“Negative, Red Leader, north of the white flares! Red Leader, Red Leader--f__k!” the lieutenant, yelled, “He’s going to kill us."

A flight of Phantom jets were circling, to provide fire support until Puff  the Magic Dragon could get there, but apparently the lieutenant thought the Phantoms were screwed up on exactly where they were. The pilots looked down on a battle in the middle of the night, with no moon. It had to be confusing, he thought, in between firing and loading.

“Their radio must not be working right?" he thought.

He heard the lieutenant yell again, “North of the white flares.  The white flares mark our position. (Pause) No, you dumb f__k, north, north!” 

They were coming. He could hear the Phantom jets and knew they would use their Vulcan 20mm Gatling gun. The gun could shoot 6000 rounds per minute, 100 rounds a second, of tracer, armor piercing, and high explosive incendiary (HEI) rounds in an astonishing killing package. Nothing lived where those rounds landed. The tracers tell the pilots where they are hitting, the armor piercing goes through everything, and the HEI rounds explode and burn what is left. “God,” he thought to himself, “I’m going to die!”

The lieutenant ducked, thinking his own planes were going to kill him. Tim turned in a crouch, fell back against the sand bags, waited for his death, and stared into the sky looking south. Hope faded into a memory, and death was expected.

“Shit,” he said to himself, “either way I’m going to die; what does it matter?” It’s peculiar, he thought, how when you finally know the end is near what a relief you feel, but at the same moment he felt guilty. He felt no pain, his face didn’t sting, and he felt strangely clean. He didn’t feel any sticky blood on his face from Pop's head. He relaxed and gave in, saying to himself with regret, “After all, I don’t want to die all tensed up. God, I’m ready!"

The red tracers looked like they were coming right at them, but in a flash, over them. The sound of the 20mm Gatling gun roaring over the sound of the jets was like saying the word was, leaving off the s: WAAAAAAAAAA. The ground exploded around the VC just a few yards in front of their sand bags. Three more Phantoms came in and laid it down the same way: WAAAAAAAA then WAAAAAAAAAA and another WAAAAAAAAAA. 

“Kill the f__kers!” He was trying to yell as he raised himself from certain death, only no sound was coming out. He had lost his voice. He continued to rise, elated to be alive, peering over the bags and thanking God. The ground had turned white were the VC had been because of the HEI rounds. 

“Where did they go?" He said to himself.

The lieutenant said, “Those f__ker’s did it. Oooh, shit! I thought I was dead!” to no one in particular.

Tim stooped over, half realizing he was back from that other world and among the living. He could feel his heart pumping again. He collapsed in his hole, feeling totally worn out, but happy to be alive.

The lieutenant yelled into the mic, “You f__kers did it.”

It got strangely quiet and he was able to hear the flight leader say, “This is dumb f__k. We are glad you’re alive.”

“Red Leader, sorry about that, it was pretty bad down here!”  The lieutenant said.

“Roger, Touchdown,” the pilot said. The lieutenant nodded to no one and put the mic down before leaning against the sand bags exhausted.

This story shows the extremes of life and death, and how in the mist of hell the ability to have hope gives us the tenacity to carry on under the most extreme conditions.  Tim had hope until the moment he was convinced the jets were going to kill him; then he had peace. Upon realizing the jets had done the opposite, hope was rewarded and he lived again.

Three more times the VC came back that night, and three more times the G.I.’s repulsed an enemy force many times greater than their own. Tim told me that as long he repeated the Scripture (he later found out was in Romans 5:3-5) he felt he had hope. “Christ’s hope,” he said, “made me fight harder. Hope combined with Christ is so powerful that without hope I felt doomed.” He summarized saying, “Hope comes first, then determination, tenacity, and staying power, which equal perseverance.”

Hope in Christ provides us with the inner commitment to keep putting one foot in front of the other.  We develop a hopeful attitude in learning how to trust in God, ourselves and others.  Hope is created through great effort, discipline, patience, and concentration. Hope is not to believe that everything will turn out alright, rather it is the conviction that even when things go wrong, somehow we will find a way to make it through. We have peace in Christ.

My God bless you with an abundance of hope.

David Howard, Foxhole Ministry, Billings, MT