The loud explosion of a big satchel charge blasting a hole through the wall around the nearby Vietnamese naval headquarters, immediately followed by even closer AK-47 and M-16 automatic fire, startled me from a deep sleep. I had been kept awake until past midnight by thousands of firecrackers set off outside the restaurant below my second story room in the Hotel Majestic, a French colonial landmark on the Saigon River. Prosperous Vietnamese had been celebrating Tet, the Lunar New Year which in 1968 fell on January 31st, by exploding long festoons of firecrackers hung just under my windows. As AK-47 firing erupted in the riverfront street beside the hotel I reached for my only weapon, a fighting knife I had bought in arctic Finland. My favorite knife had “sisu” (guts) engraved on its blade. I remember the surges of anger I felt while quickly dressing. For, like all the officers in that Saigon hotel, I had no gun! I was unarmed except for my knife, although my father had given me a Winchester .22 semi-automatic rifle and a Winchester 410 shotgun when I was a five-year-old Texan. At seven I had killed my first buck. Yet while traveling all over Vietnam I had to depend for protection on young soldiers who were unlikely to be as good shots as I. Before the Tet Offensive neither American civilians in Vietnam nor American military personnel in Saigon who were not with combat units were permitted to have firearms. If armed, somebody might get shot.
To my relief, I heard no firing inside my hotel. In its lobby were two prudent Vietnamese guards who did not shoot at Vietcong in the street a few yards away from them. The daring infiltrators were firing at ARVN troops farther down the riverfront. Close-by firing ceased after a few minutes, but shots and explosions not far distant continued throughout the first night of the Tet Offensive.
Since World War II my back has pained me less if I sleep on a pallet on the floor or on plywood on a bed. So, after barricading my door, I lay back down under the bed’s heavy foam-rubber mattress, which was supported above my pallet on one side by the edge of the bed and on the other by two chairs. That mattress would have protected me against blast-hurled glass had the windows been shattered by one of the back-packed Russian 120 mm rockets that the Vietcong for the past several days had been occasionally launching into the neighborhood from the uninhabited floodplain across the Saigon River. Drifting off to sleep while the changing yellow light from parachute-suspended flares illuminated the surrounding area I mused on what a crazy war this was, in which because of my simulated rank of general I was provided with a large, private, air-conditioned room —but was not permitted to have a gun.
Shortly after sunrise I went up to the Hotel Majestic’s covered, open-sided rooftop dining room for a normal breakfast, and to see Cholon, Saigon’s Chinese section that had been seized by the Vietcong, being repeatedly bombed. The surrounding streets were deserted. However, a few passing ARVN soldiers were not being subjected to sniper fire. After breakfast I ventured briefly into the street to pick up AK-47 cartridge cases. To my surprise, that enemy “brass” was dirty, coated with a cosmoline-like grease. Later I learned that in preparation for the Tet Offensive many of the attacking Vietcongs’ AK-47s and thousands of cartridges had been hidden submerged in the Saigon River. The Vietcong sappers who blasted through the wall around the Vietnamese naval headquarters had merely fished their weapons and ammo out of the river and fired successfully without any cleaning. Another proof of the famous reliability of the AK-47, a dependability that contrasted with the chronic jamming and other malfunctioning problems of the M-16.
On examining those greasy, dirty, Chinese-made AK-47 cartridge cases, for the first time I fully realized how pronouncedly tapered all AK-47 cases are. (See Fig. 7-1.) On casual inspection, M-16 cases appear to be cylindrical; actually they taper per unit length about one third as steeply as do those of an AK-47. Much less force is needed to extract a dirty AK-47 cartridge case than to extract an equally dirty M-16 case. For when an AK-47’s case is pulled back a short way by the extractor, the space between the case and the wall of an AK-47’s chamber is promptly increased enough to markedly reduce the friction caused by grit or dirt around the case.
Fig. 7-1. Very slightly tapered M-16 cartridge case (5.56 x 45 mm M193) on the left. Steeply tapered AK-47 cartridge case (7.62 x 39 mm M43) on the right.
Having a cartridge case with a taper so steep that its diameter is reduced about 10% between its base and where the case begins to neck down toward the diameter of the bullet is an advantage possessed by the whole Kalashnikov family of rifles and machine guns. M-16s and all other U.S. small arms do not have this advantage. Nor does the M-16 have as powerful and dependable an extractor as do AK-47-type weapons.
Only the traditional refusal of Army Ordnance to copy and improve superior foreign weapons can explain why Americans in Vietnam did not have improved Kalashnikov-type rifles that would fire much higher velocity bullets than the standard AK-47. (The Soviets made that improvement in 1974 with the adoption and production of the AK-74.)
As the first day of the Tet Offensive wore on into late afternoon, my unarmed state made me increasingly uneasy. Heavy fighting continued in Cholon, the Chinese district about a mile away, and firing in more distant parts of Saigon was proof that all of the Vietcong infiltrators had not been killed or driven out. But, since there were no shots in the area around the riverfront street that led to the U.S. Navy small-arms armory about four long blocks away, I walked briskly down the middle of that deserted street, carrying my briefcase. At the Navy armory that day there were only two enlisted men, who fortunately knew who I was. While we chatted intermittently about the failure of the Vietcong’s attack I acted as if I were nervous, so that without attracting their attention I could pace about in the office and in the room where arms and ammunition were stored. When my Navy acquaintances were not looking I picked up a .45 Colt and two loaded magazines and slipped them into my briefcase. Then I said I had better get back to the hotel while it was still broad daylight, and departed. (Not until about two weeks later, after I was issued a Colt, did I return my borrowed gun and cartridges.)
That night I had the Navy’s loaded Colt .45 beside me in my briefcase while other guests and I dined in the Hotel Majestic’s unscreened rooftop dining room. The food was good and the little gecko lizards were walking on the ceiling as usual, stalking and catching insects. In the dark the continuing bombing of the Vietcong-held part of burning Cholon, slightly over a mile away, was impressive. We diners watched the flaming show until two French dancers unexpectedly appeared at the entrance door and paused for dramatic effect. (Throughout that irrational war we helped unhelpful France send her artistic emissaries to Vietnam to maintain French cultural contacts.) The two dancers were not particularly beautiful but they were sexy, and all eyes immediately focused on them. With flaming Cholon for background effects! I recall thinking that the director of a serious anti-war film probably would avoid using such a surrealistic scene; most Americans do not realize how basically boring looking at distant bombing and shelling soon becomes if you yourself are not immediately endangered.
For the first three days after the Tet Offensive struck Saigon most American offi- cers and civilians could not get to their offices in the air conditioned, sprawling headquarters of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), outside the city. A few brave Vietcong infiltrators put a temporary stop to the daily commuting from pleasant accommodations in the decadent capital.
In Saigon and elsewhere in Vietnam I observed a little of how difficult it is to dislodge resolute infantrymen from a city. From Stalingrad to Hue, history has proved that eliminating even lightly armed brave fighters defending an urban area results in the attackers suffering numerous casualties, even if they employ heavy weapons. The American public would not tolerate the greatly increased casualties that our forces would suffer if they were to employ the tactic advocated by General Bruce Palmer, Jr. in his informative book, The 25-Year War: America's Military Role in Vietnam, published in 1985 by TOUCHSTONE – Simon and Schuster:
Weaponry used in populated areas would be limited to infantry-type direct-fire weapons. The employment of close air support (fixed wing and attack helicopter), artillery, and mortars would be permitted only in very lightly populated areas.