PITTSBURG — In the early hours of January 31, 1968, Richard Fulton looked up from his bunk at Tan Son Nhut Air Base — outside of Saigon, Vietnam — to see a stream of enemy tracer fire. It was the beginning of the Tet Offensive.
Fulton was a journalist with the United States Air Force and got to Tan Son Nhut in 1967. On that morning in January 1968, he got out of bed and pulled his boots on — most of the men on base had slept in their uniforms after rumors there may be an attack.
“I looked through the screen above my hut and saw the tracer fire,” he said. “That was an attention getter.”
Fulton recalls that two other Air Force journalists, Master Sgt. Bob Need and Technical Sgt. Dave Lardy, grabbed cameras — and some .38 caliber revolvers from an officer’s desk — and headed outside. Need put Fulton to work on the phones to open lines of communication and track down officers.
“Outside the building I was at, a big gunfight started between the air police and some Viet Cong folks,” Fulton said.
Much of the fighting at Tan Son Nhut that day was done by the Air Force’s 377th Security Police Squadron and soldiers from the United States Army. Fulton said the day went on like that.
“My own part of the Tet story isn’t much,” Fulton said. “I did my job, which was to be a journalist. I think I got one story out that day.”
But on the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive, Fulton said the story isn’t about him.
“It shouldn’t be about Rick Fulton,” he said. “It should be about the Vietnam veterans here — some of whom were at the Tet.”
The Tet Offensive — named after the Tet holiday, Vietnam’s new year — was one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War. In phase one of the Tet, the allies together lost more than 9,000 killed in action. Another 35,000 were wounded, and 1,500 were listed as missing. The campaign was ultimately a failure for the North Vietnamese communists, but the offensive changed perception of the war.
Fulton was in Vietnam for 23 months before returning to Pittsburg and going to college. Since returning, he and a group of other veterans have worked to inform people about the Tet Offensive.
“Many people think Tet was only a few days, but it wasn’t,” Fulton said. “Every town, every city, every province had activity, and it came in waves.”
Large battles occurred at Bien Hoa Air Base, the city of Hue and others.
In February of 1968, Tan Son Nhut was hit again, this time with rockets. Master Sgt. Bob Need was hit in the back of the head with shrapnel and medically discharged.
On the 20th anniversary of the Tet, in 1998, Fulton and others pulled together declarations from governors in Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Alaska as part of the event’s national remembrance. When the 40th anniversary rolled around, Fulton said the turnout was smaller.
Fulton said the truth is that the U.S. lost the war in Vietnam, but not militarily. He said it lost it politically, and that many folks don’t understand the context of what went on during events like the Tet Offensive.
“There were a lot of bad things that happened in Vietnam that can’t be justified today — nor should they attempt to be,” he said. “But that was one or two percent of what went on, and people focus on those things and forget the rest of the men who fought bravely. The ones that did things right and legal.”
Because of the ideas associated with the Vietnam War, Fulton said veterans of events like the Tet Offensive are not always honored — a large reason why over the years he and others worked to inform about the event. He said to this day there is still sometimes a disconnect between the veterans who were there and people back in the U.S.
As much as he hated to say it, it said you had to be there to really understand.
“Battle belongs to the soldier, but war belongs to the nation,” he said.
The one story Fulton got out that day 50 years ago was about such a soldier. Fulton wrote his article about a member of the air police who was driving a jeep during the gunfight. His tire was shot out, and he got out under fire to change the tire and keep going.
Those are the men Fulton wishes for people to remember during the anniversary of the Tet Offensive.
— Chance Hoener is a staff writer for the Morning Sun. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @ReporterChance.