OCEAN PINES — In a solemn, quiet ceremony this week, about a dozen U.S. veterans gathered at the Worcester County Veterans Memorial at Ocean Pines to commemorate the 44th anniversary of the Tet Offensive, a major attack by communist forces on South Vietnam in 1968 that helped escalate the ill-fated conflict.
After a few brief remarks, Vietnam War veteran Bob Bates and Worcester County Sheriff Reggie Mason, also a Vietnam veteran, placed a wreath with a sash simply saying Tet 44 at the base of the memorial along Route 589 in Ocean Pines. It was the fourth time the anniversary of the Tet Offensive was recognized in the area and each time, the number of attendees has grown by a small measure. About a dozen U.S veterans attended the ceremony on Tuesday.
On Jan. 20, 1968, North Vietnamese troops and their guerilla allies, the Viet Cong, launched a major offensive across a large front throughout South Vietnam, attacking around 100 major cities and towns. The attack came as a surprise to U.S. troops and their South Vietnamese allies because it came during an agreed-upon ceasefire called to honor the Vietnamese holiday of Tet, the lunar new year.
In some cities and towns, the communists were quickly repelled within hours, but in some areas, the fighting raged on for weeks. At the height of the Tet offensive, North Vietnamese forces were able to seize the U.S. embassy in Saigon. U.S. troops were able to retake the embassy after about eight hours, but it took U.S. and South Vietnamese forces about two weeks to retake Saigon.
There has been some debate over the years about the impact of the Tet Offensive in escalating a war that had largely been fought in smaller skirmishes with guerilla forces in the years leading up to 1968. In military terms, the U.S. was the clear victor in the Tet Offensive because North Vietnamese troops were unsuccessful in maintaining control over any of the attacked areas in South Vietnam.
The communist forces also suffered heavy losses with a reported 45,000 killed. The Tet Offensive escalated the war in Vietnam and in the wake of the concerted attacks, an additional 200,000 American troops were called into the conflict, necessitating the activation of reserves.
American Legion Post 166 Commander Sarge Garlitz, who has coordinated the anniversary recognition for the last four years, served in the armed forces for 34 years, but was never sent to Vietnam. Garlitz on Tuesday said commemorating the Tet Offensive was a fitting and proper thing to do.
“We’re here to recognize, not celebrate, and to honor those who fought in that great battle,” he said. “We honor those who fought and didn’t return, along with those who fought and did return, those who returned and found a media that claimed it wasn’t a win.”
Garlitz said public sentiment about Vietnam often prevented those who fought there from getting the recognition they deserve.
“I feel for a lot of you guys that went that it was a major accomplishment that doesn’t always get recognized,” he said. “You guys are the heroes. There are a lot of Vietnam vets joining the American Legion and some are just now starting to open up and talk about it.”
For Mason, who was at Khe Sanh, the site of a major battle just prior to the larger Tet Offensive, Tuesday’s ceremony also had special meaning.
“I don’t understand to this day why we weren’t overrun at Khe Sanh,” he said. “I feel very lucky to have made it back because I lost a lot of buddies over there. It was hard, but a lot of us survived. We lost 58,000 in that war and we should consider ourselves lucky to live in this great country we live in.”