In 1968, New Year’s Day took on a very different tone in Southeast Asia. While the night was undoubtedly lit with flashes and the air thick with the caustic smell of cordite, the circumstances weren’t exactly cause for celebration.
The battle -a prolific struggle between the North Vietnamese Army/Viet Cong and elements of the US Army’s 25th Infantry Division- wasn’t particularly long (lasting only a few hours) or even brought up in the news, but by its very nature would later earn notoriety for its close-in nature and brutal ferocity.
In fact, an account of the battle by infantry Larry Heinemann would be adopted into film form by his fellow battle survivor, Oliver Stone. I’m speaking of course about the 1986 “must-see” Vietnam film Platoon, which was lauded by Vietnam veterans for its realism and continues to hold a top ranking in terms of modern war films.
For the Americans of the 25th Infantry Division, New Years Eve had gotten off to a good start. On the ground at the time was Platoon director Oliver Stone, who gave an account in a 2008 interview with AARP:
“On January 1, we were out in the bush on the Cambodian border, in these big foxholes”what they call a two-company perimeter, with artillery,” he said. “We’d set up a kind of a quick LZ [landing zone], and for some reason all the packages for Christmas arrived on the 1st. I was opening all these beautiful things that were sent from home, from Mom, from my friends.”
“Then the night came,” as Stone put it. “And that was some night.”
In the first 48 hours of 1968, the North Vietnamese Army violated a truce (set up by Pope Paul VI) six hours early, launching a heavy attack on the 25th’s two-battalion strong “Fire Support Base Burt” and troops in the surrounding area.
Mortaring American positions at 11:30 PM, the NVA sent their first wave of troops from two battalions to take the US-held locations. Unrelenting, they sent a second and third wave within hours of each other.
Fighting desperately, the US troops held their own on the ground in what was often close-quarters combat with the NVA until friendly air and artillery support could arrive.
After bravely holding their positions, air support came in the form of helicopter gunships and the revered AC-47 “Spooky”, a World War II transport converted into a fearsome gunship that would later lead to the development of the modern-day AC-130 Spectre.
Fire rained from the sky as gunships circled overhead, minigun tracers tearing into North Vietnamese troops. Rockets and minigun fire from helicopters pierced the night as the flat thump of artillery set the tempo for a symphony of assorted small arms. New Year’s Day, it would seem, was destined to go out with a cacophony of chaos, death and destruction that would forever affect those who bore witness to such a grotesque concerto.
By the early hours of January 2, the North Vietnamese fled with the morning light, their last contact being recorded sometime around 5AM, with American units still able to fight in hot pursuit.
The official body count: 23 Americans dead and 153 wounded, with the North Vietnamese body count reaching nearly 350 by US estimates.
In a desperate fight for survival, the two battalions had endured a brutal assault that would welcome them into 1968, an event forever burned into the psyches of its participants, including Stone.
“That was a hell of a way to start the year,” he said. “It was hard. But I became a better soldier that year. I learned a lot about life and the realities of dealing with other men. I saved lives. I didn’t kill people unnecessarily. I kept my soul, while a lot of people came out dead. I did not come back against the war, though. I came back in a blur. I was numb, frankly. But I knew I would never be the same again.“
Stone would go on to be a filmmaker, eventually drawing inspiration for Platoon after reading Heinemann’s Black Virgin Mountain: A Return to Vietnam. Wanting to do the event justice, Stone demanded that all the actors present conduct military training for the role (a relatively new concept at the time) and become as physically ragged as possible.
“You can’t just tell an actor to be an Infantry soldier,” Stone would later say. “It doesn’t work like that. They have to experience it.”
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