Saving Ben Tre

   

About the famous quote of the Vietnamese 1968 Tet Offensive:

“We Had To Destroy Ben Tre In Order To Save It”

 

The Men of Task Force Builder

 

I was the Commanding Officer of Task Force Builder, an Army engineer group of 60 soldiers that was stationed in the small rural village of Rach Kein, Vietnam in 1968. Rach Kein was approximately 20 miles SW of Saigon, located in Long An Province.  Our base camp was next to the base camp of the 3/39 Infantry Battalion of the 9th Infantry Division.

Ben Tre, Vietnam,  is a moderately size town that is located on the Mekong River about 25 miles SE of Rach Kein. It was much bigger than Rach Kein, probably even bigger than the town of Long An. 

During the first week of the Tet Offensive the VC made their big move of attacking Saigon. The 3/39 Inf. was initially sent to fight in the big battle for Saigon. This left us alone to face an NVA regiment of 5,000 men that surrounded us on January 29. We survived that. And we remained surrounded and cut off for several weeks. As best I recall, the 3/39 Inf. was in Saigon for about two weeks. I certainly remember this, because while they were gone from Rach Kein we were on our own as far as defending against ground attacks. These must have been likely, for at one point, the 9th Inf. Div. sent in several companies of the 2/39 Inf. to bolster the town defenses and to conduct sweeps around Rach Kein while the 3/39 was away. 

I especially remember that one platoon of infantry was wiped out in a well laid ambush in an open rice paddy. It was just a few hundred yards from where we eventually built a school near the first village North of Rach Kein (can’t remember its name). The VC had cleverly built machinegun bunkers into the rice paddy dikes (it was the dry season), and the infantry walked right up to them before the VC opened fire. 

Then the 3/39 returned. Or I should say that 75 percent of them returned. The fighting in Saigon had been intense. After only a few days rest, they were air-lifted by chopper to retake the town of Ben Tre.  Ben Tre had been occupied by the VC during Tet. The VC had dug in heavily, and were not ready to retreat without a big fight. So the still exhausted and depleted infantry troops of the 3/39 were thrown into another vicious fight. I cannot tell you how much respect that I have for those guys. True heroes, every one of them. Tough, plucky, and mostly draftees. I still remember my wonder at the ability of America’s youth to endure. 

I sometimes wonder if I am the only one who remembers them.  So I willingly tell this story, so you can help me to remember. Their deeds should not be forgotten. The 3/39 Inf. Bn. suffered 100% casualties during the year 1968. I watched it. It is something that still haunts me. Eight hundred young men gone, dying bravely to serve the country they so loved. 

Anyway, the fighting in Ben Tre went badly for the Americans. House-to-house all the way. The VC were so well dug in and barricaded that progress got stalled. So, in desperation, artillery and air strikes were called in on the town. Much of the town was heavily damaged in the resulting melee, but the town was retaken. 

Several days later, Major Robert Black (the Rach Kein U.S. Army Advisor) invited me to attend with him an evening briefing that the 3/39 was going to give for a group of journalists and Saigon army brass. I had never before been invited to attend an infantry battalion briefing. I accepted the invitation. The briefing was held in a Vietnamese house that served as the S-3 office. It was about 7 houses East of where the VC barbershop was at one time set up. The house was on the left side of the road as you drove through the infantry compound, just about across from the infantry mess hall. 

Anyway, the living room of the house was packed, mostly with civilians. The purpose of the briefing was to explain the battle of Ben Tre. Such briefings are usually conducted by the S-3, in this case, Major Booris. He was a heavy-set fellow. 

He was also not my favorite officer. This was because he was the guy who told the infantry on guard to open fire on us the morning when we were walking back to Rach Kein across the rice paddies. This was when we had chased the VC who had ambushed the infantry Road Runners that one infamous and well-remembered morning (but that is another story). Fortunately for us, the infantry sergeant (an E-5) on duty had ignored the major’s orders. I’ll never forget his grin as he told me that he had saved our bacon by ignoring the S-3’s orders. He could clearly see that we were friendlies, so he withheld his fire. 

Anyway, at one point the journalists were pressing Major Booris to explain why it had been necessary to wipe out the town. They were definitely pressing the point that perhaps too much force had been applied by the US forces. Major Booris was trying his best to put a good face on the situation. But at one point he got flustered, and blurted out, “We had to destroy Ben Tre in order to save it.” I have to admit that I almost laughed when he said that. It was a really unfortunate comment. But Major Booris, in his defense, was trying his best to defend his battalion’s honor. His CO, Lt. Colonel Anthony P. Deluca, deftly jumped to his feet and interceded to rescue Major Booris from this difficult moment. He smoothly carried the rest of the conversation. I really liked LTC Deluca. He was a good combat leader, and he was always fair to Task Force Builder. 

Anyway, that was the only briefing of the infantry that I ever attended. But it turned out to be the most famous. Some of the journalists present at that briefing seized Major Booris’ comment, and they really publicized it. As I recall, it appeared on the cover of Newsweek or Time magazine within the month. And it has gone down in history as an example of the some of the insanity that was Vietnam. 

Last year I was reading an historical assessment of the Vietnam War. The famous historian who wrote it actually challenged whether or not that Ben Tre statement was ever made. Well I know, because I witnessed it being made. I wrote to the historian, explaining this. I hope that he got my message.

 

Regards,

Michael D. Miller
Former Captain, US Army Corps of Engineers
Commander, Task Force Builder, 1968
46th Engineer Battalion
159th Engineer Group

 

PO Box 640
Crestone CO 81131
Tel 719 256 4926 Oct 25, 2006

 

Postscript: On 7/5/08 I was emailed by Jonathon Hubbert who was a lieutenant with an engineer unit attached to the 9th Infantry Division in 1968. Jonathon says that he also attended the infantry briefing in Rach Kein where Major Booris made his infamous comment. Jonathon's address is 114 Charlotte Close, Georgetown KY 40324

 

Additional info about Task Force Builder: http://www.nhe.net/TaskForceBuilder

Additional info about the 46th Engineer battalion: http://www.46thengineers.com

 

 

Michael D. Miller Captain Michael D. Miller
2008 1968