This is a year of anniversaries. It has been 100 years since the signing of the armistice ending World War I — the “war to end all wars.” Eighty years ago, Hitler began his march across Europe with the twin annexations of Austria and Czechoslovakia on a line of march that would embroil nearly the entire globe in World War II. And the cease-fire ending the Korean Conflict was signed 65 years ago. Most Americans have multigenerational stories of family members who served in those and succeeding conflicts, such as the Vietnam War, Desert Storm, or Afghanistan or Iraq.
The Vietnam War was one of the most divisive of those conflicts, and this year marks the 50th anniversary of one of the largest head-on confrontations of that war: the 1968 Tet offensive. Among the hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers who took part, Sal Martella, a stalwart member of Elmont’s American Legion post 1033, agreed to share some of his memories of the battles that raged along much of the Vietnamese peninsula throughout most of that year.
“I enlisted in the Marine Corps when I was 15 1/2,” Martella remembered. “Just as the bus was about to leave to take me to basic training, my father pulled up with my birth certificate and told them I didn’t have his permission. I wasn’t 17. He said I’d have to wait till I was drafted if I wanted to serve.”
So Martella waited. Finally, in 1967, a 19-year-old Martella was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Ft. Jackson, S.C., for his intake. Then, he went to Ft. Gordon, Ga., for his basic training. Finally, he shipped out to Ft. Carson, Colo., to await orders. With a half-million men under arms in Vietnam alone, draftees in 1968 could be reasonably certain they would spend part of their time in uniform in Southeast Asia.
Martella was trained as a senior recovery mechanic, whose job was to retrieve heavy vehicles that had broken down in the field. “But I never did that job,” he said. “As soon as I got there, they made me an infantryman.” His original orders had him staying in Colorado. However, “I got into a fight with my sergeant, because a buddy wanted to see his girl before he shipped out. I said, ‘come on, Top. Let him go.’” Apparently, the company top sergeant hadn’t appreciated his suggestion, because “next day, I had my orders” for Vietnam.
Stepping off the plane
He arrived in mid-December 1967 as a fresh-faced corporal. “The first thing that hits you is the heat,” he said. “You step out of the plane and it’s like a blast. It’s a hundred degrees and humid.”
Although the offensive wouldn’t kick off for another month, “it wasn’t just out of the blue,” Martella said. North Vietnamese, South Vietnamese National Liberation Front and Vietcong forces had begun ramping up for the surge all through the fall of 1967, bringing in supplies via the Ho Chi Minh Train and “softening” targets throughout the south with artillery barrages and probing raids.
It had become customary for both sides to observe informal truces at Christmas and the lunar New Year — Tet, Vietnam’s most important holiday. Families would travel to visit relatives, and North Vietnam used this migration to shift troops in broad daylight.
On Jan. 28, the offensive broke out. “It was just insanity,” Martella said. North Vietnamese forces, along with their allies, quickly overran 40 percent of the country and attacked some 100 cities, including Saigon and the old imperial capital of Hué. In Saigon, a small force of NLF irregulars even managed to scale the walls of the U.S. embassy before being repulsed.
“I was in the field almost from the start,” Martella said. He was assigned to a 12-man infantry unit attached to a field artillery battery. “They were 175mm guns, the biggest things we had at that time.” Based in the Central Highlands, “they told us we were just on the Vietnamese side of the border” with Cambodia. “We made out that we were really on the [Cambodian] side. We were in the Iron Triangle” in Binh Durong Province, a tunnel-laced stronghold of Viet Minh guerillas in the wars with both France and the U.S. “The tip was right where the Ho Chi Minh Trail came in” from Cambodia.
Martella got to know the local Montagnard people, one of Vietnam’s indigenous minorities. “I even adopted one of them,” he said. “At Quan Loi, I couldn’t have him with me in the camp or on the base.” Vietnamese were not allowed on any U.S. bases after dark. “During the day, the [South] Vietnamese fought for us. At night, they fought for ‘Charlie,’” he said, using the soldiers’ term for North Vietnamese soldiers and irregulars. “At night, we had orders to shoot anyone in black pajamas.
“Tet wasn’t just one thing; it didn’t only last a few days,” Martella explained. “It went on for months. And then there was ‘mini-Tet,’” the second phase of the offensive that began in early May 1968. By this time, U.S. and South Vietnamese troops had succeeded in reclaiming much of the territory overrun in the first weeks of the initial battle.
Martella’s squad could be in the field anywhere from 20 days to five weeks. “My weapon was the M-14,” he recalled. But beginning in 1965, the Army had begun phasing out the M-14 in favor of the M-16. “It jammed,” Martella said, repeating the common complaint about the M-16. “If you kept it clean and only put 18 rounds in the magazine instead of 20, it’d work OK. My commanding officer asked me if I couldn’t carry more ammo,” he said. “I told him, ‘Sure, if you give me a slingshot.’” Eventually, “I asked for my old M-14 back and carried that until I mustered out.”
Nowadays, Martella visits schools regularly to recount some of his experiences. “I won’t answer all their questions, though,” he said. “They always ask veterans how many we killed. I won’t answer a question like that. Some guys just say, ‘More than one.’”
As with many returning Vietnam vets, Martella was in for a shock when he returned home. “People spit on me in the airport, cursed at me,” he said. “I loved the military. I was proud to wear my uniform, to serve and to protect our freedoms.” But Martella said he bore no ill will toward those who were against the war. “If you want to protest the war, I’ll stand with you shoulder to shoulder,” he said. “Nobody wants war. But you can’t protest the soldier.”