Comrades in arms: Bedford County soldiers endured Tet Offensive
Fifty years ago, on Jan. 31, 1968, the North Vietnamese army launched a series of surprise attacks on January 31, which was that year's date for the Vietnamese New Year's celebration, called Tet.
Previously, it had been traditional to honor a truce on the holiday, but the North Vietnamese military leaders hoped a surprise attack would have a devastating effect on the South Vietnamese, and bring them to rebellion against their leaders.
In military terms, the Tet Offensive, as it's come to be known, was a failure for the North Vietnamese. They did not accomplish their stated goals, and the rebellion they hoped for did not happen.
But the offensive had unintended consequences. U.S. leaders had been reassuring the American public that victory was close at hand, and the Tet Offensive showed that it was farther away. Nightly newscasts reporting the war's body count brought it into the public consciousness in a way that no other war had faced.
One month after the Tet offensive, Walter Cronkite observed, "We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds."
Public support for the war in the U.S. eroded, and protests against the war increased.
But the American service members who were on the front lines in Vietnam -- like Bedford County natives James Donald Hester, Andrew Lane and Curtis Posey -- were not to blame for American policy. They say that politics hampered the ability of soldiers to fight or win the war.
"Our hands were tied," said Hester. While on guard duty, soldiers would even have to get permission before responding to threats.
They were just trying to serve their country, and for them, the Tet Offensive was the first time they saw the enemy face-to-face.
Hester, Lane and Posey all joined the Army at the same time, in 1966.
"We were all drafted," said Lane. Posey was the youngest, at 19. Lane and Hester, about five years older, were already married.
It was October, and Posey said that day there was the heaviest frost he'd ever seen. The men spent two weeks at Fort Campbell before going to basic training and advanced infantry training at Fort McClellan in Anniston, Alabama.
Posey and Lane were sent to An Khe, Vietnam, to serve in the 625th Service and Supply Company, working in support of the First Cavalry. When Hester was sent to Vietnam later, he happened to ask about the 625th, and was asked if he'd like to serve there with his friends.
"We were blessed to have been together," said Hester.
On June 20, 1967, the Times-Gazette published a story noting that the three local men were serving in the same unit.
Their time in An Khe was relatively uneventful, compared to what would come later. At one point, Lane's job was making ice cream for the troops. There were occasionally mortar attacks at night, but they never saw the enemy face-to-face.
Then came the Tet Offensive, and everything changed.
"The enemy made a big push on us at that time," said Hester. "There were thousands -- thousands -- of Vietnamese killed."
Heart of battle
They were sent north to Dong Ha, one of the northermost cities in South Vietnam, only a few miles from the enemy. They were traveling on a boat on the Perfume River, shooting machine guns at the enemy, with mortar shells and tracers all around.
"That was the absolute worst day of my life," said Hester.
At one point, the men hadn't had anything to eat in a week. They talked to Marines at a ration yard but were denied. That night, they crawled under the fence and grabbed the first two boxes they could find, which turned out to be cans of corned beef hash, each with two inches of fat on top, and grape juice.
"I haven't eaten any corned beef hash since that day," said Posey.
Later, when Lane was guarding a ration yard, he let some hungry service members have food.
Hester said he weighed 145 pounds when he left for Vietnam and 127 pounds when he returned.
"If God lets me get home," announced Hester, "I'll never complain about anything again." He laughs that his vow lasted about two weeks.
All three of the men say they've suffered health problems that they blame on Agent Orange, the exfoliant used by the Army in Vietnam which has been linked to numerous health concerns. Hester is currently a cancer patient.
But while Hester, Lane and Posey, and 2.7 milion other American service members suffered and sacrificed to serve their country, with 58,220 killed, they did not receive credit for this on their return stateside.
All three men came home on the same plane. When they landed at Seattle-Tacoma Airport, they were greeted by protestors.
"It was a bitter pill," said Lane. They didn't talk about their experiences. It was 30 years, they said, before they felt the country showed any gratitude for the service of Vietnam vets.
Politicians at fault
They believe that the war was lost by politicians, not soldiers, and that if soldiers had been allowed to wage the war it would have been won. Instead, America gradually withdrew, and the Communist north eventually took control of the whole country.
And the three men see reflections of Vietnam in America's current conflicts in places like the Middle East and Afghanistan.
"We just keep making the same mistakes," said Hester.
The three men have kept in close contact through the years, even during the 36 years when Hester was living in California. The memories, good and bad, are still vivid.
"Some of the stuff is like yesterday," said Hester. "You never forget it."