Diplomatic Security SitRep Flashback: 1968 Saigon Embassy Offensive
Viet Cong bullets pinged off the Cold Spring Granite in the lobby of the new U.S. Embassy in Saigon.
It was Jan. 31, 1968, and 20-year-old Sgt. Ronald Harper, a Central Minnesota native, could hear the voices of enemy combatants seeking to break into the building with rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47 assault rifles.
Dust and smoke filled the air that first night of the Tet Offensive, a key moment in the Vietnam War marked by Viet Cong attacks throughout U.S.-backed South Vietnam.
Five Americans and 19 of 20 Viet Cong guerrillas died in the fight at the Embassy. Harper earned a Bronze Star for his service.
Historians describe the Embassy attack and entire Tet Offensive as a turning point in favor of the North Vietnamese and against America. It showed the war was far from over. Amid growing anti-war sentiment, President Lyndon B. Johnson just two months later would call for talks to end the war and announce he would not seek re-election.
Now, 50 years after that attack, Harper runs his own business, Quality Appliance & TV Center, in Waite Park.He thinks regularly of that long night in Vietnam.
He remembers the comfort of a mid-fight cigarette provided by the Embassy’s Vietnamese night watchman after Harper pulled him from the fray. And he remembers the Americans who died at the Embassy.
“When my son went to Iraq (in 2009), it was on my mind daily,” Harper said, choking up.
The veteran, now 70, went on to have nine children with his wife, Cathy. The son who served in Iraq, Harper said, “he’ll be my successor at the store.”
Harper smiles easily as he talks about his work, family, and life in the military and after it. He grew up in Cambridge, an hour east of St. Cloud and an hour north of the Twin Cities.
Harper joined the Marines in 1965. His friend came to visit for Harper’s birthday and suggested they enlist together.
Harper then became part of the elite Marine Security Guard, whose members have guarded U.S. Embassies worldwide for 70 years. Harper chose the Vietnam Embassy amid the war.
“I felt it was my duty,” Harper said. “I was always very patriotic. It was in my heart all my life. I loved my country. I still do.”
He held the keys to the Embassy in Saigon on Jan. 31, 1968 — 50 years ago come Wednesday. He was delivering a round of coffees to fellow servicemen on the night shift, and he was caught a few hundred yards away when Viet Cong soldiers blew through an exterior wall.
“The sky just lit up in a big explosion,” Harper said.
Harper made it back to the Embassy to lock the doors, thanks to two military police officers. They fought and died there.
Harper first secured the rear doors. At the front, teak doors, he pulled in the Vietnamese staffer. A rocket injured the other Marine security guard who was bleeding profusely.
“I wrapped him up like a mummy, but I couldn’t get him to be quiet,” Harper said. He could hear Viet Cong fighters within 10 feet.
Instructions came and Harper was ordered to double-check the doors. Harper found the watchman in the lobby and pulled him back again.
The guard offered Harper a cigarette then, a relief for the Marine who didn’t bring his own smokes that night. Harper wasn’t even supposed to work that shift because a doctor had treated him for lung-tissue inflammation called pleurisy the day prior.
The fight continued for hours outside the Embassy, and Harper kept four civilians safe in the building.
“You’re tense,” Harper said of the six-hour skirmish. “You didn’t know what was going to happen in the next minute.”
Daylight brought the “best feeling” after Harper listened to fire all night. After 8 a.m., American forces broke through the front gate and opened fire again, Harper said.
“Here I am safe, and now they’re shooting at me,” he said with a laugh.
Harper didn’t go to bed for two days after the attack, he said. He was in shock and had some shrapnel injuries he didn’t notice at first. “The adrenaline was so high.”
The Tet Offensive prolonged his stay in Vietnam by three months. And it marked a shift in the war.
John Decker, an associate archivist at Stearns History Museum, lived through that change and served as a Navy Hospital corpsman in Japan from 1970 to 1972.
“It changed what people thought of the war,” Decker said. “We came back and we weren’t really welcomed.”
In the whole of the Vietnam war, Stearns County military casualties reached about 37.
Decker lost friends, classmates and two cousins. “We miss every one of those guys,” he said.
The U.S. lost over 16,000 troops in 1968, Decker said.
In mid-1968 Harper’s term in Vietnam ended. He went on to guard the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia.
When he returned to Central Minnesota, Harper worked in retail then opened his appliance store. That was 40 years ago.
Looking back on his service in Vietnam, Harper feels the U.S. did the right thing.
“I was in a different part of the world than the guys in the field. I didn’t meet a Vietnamese person I didn’t like. And I didn’t meet a Vietnamese person who didn’t like me,” Harper said. “In my mind, they were worth fighting for.”
Nora G. Hertel: 320-255-8746 and on Twitter @nghertel.