Marking history: A battlefield story
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on January 31, 2008 2:06 PM
Today might well have marked the 40th anniversary of David Bennett's death.
Life could have taken an unfortunate turn for the Grantham native that day in Vietnam.
Historians remember Jan. 31, 1968, as the beginning of the Tet Offensive -- a period of the conflict characterized by widespread death and growing disapproval of President Lyndon Johnson's handling of the war.
But Bennett only recalls lying face down in a rice patty -- praying he would not be forced to use the bayonet his commanding officer passed out when the attack on his base commenced.
"They called us out at about 3 in the morning and ran us all straight to the armory," he said. "Overhead, there were helicopters and artillery shells going off. It was just like you would see in a war picture. We were scared to death, all of us -- a bunch of 18-, 19-, 20-year-old boys."
The sound of enemy fire was everywhere.
"We got to this rice patty and the captain taps us on the back and says, 'Get on the ground. Get on the ground. Get on the ground.' He walked right down the line," Bennett said. "Then he says, 'Get your weapons. Load your weapons. Be prepared.'"
For an 18-year-old supply man with no combat experience outside of basic training, the reality of manning a weapon he might have to discharge on enemy targets was frightening.
But the "real fear" did not sink in until that captain started passing out bayonets.
"It's something you never want to get in combat," Bennett said. "We knew we were in trouble. All the guys I was with, we all started looking at each other. We just about cried."
In reality, the men would never have to use them -- the Viet Cong forces had not surrounded the camp, but were attempting to break through its center to disrupt American forces on either side.
"It was chaos," Bennett said. "What they were doing was coming in behind us through a big ammo dump, trying to cut the base in two."
All the while, Bennett and his comrades stayed on the ground.
They had not been there but two hours when the "world stopped."
"All of a sudden, we started hearing chatter on the radio. We couldn't understand it but they were screaming, 'Help. Help. They are in the wire.' Now we're all scared to death," Bennett said. "Something goes boom. We all looked over our shoulder and behind them we could see the sky light up. It looked just like a nuclear weapon."
The Viet Cong had blown up one of the largest ammo dumps in the region.
But for those men on the ground, a fear much greater than death took hold.
"When it started going off, it looked like a 4th of July firecracker," Bennett said. "You could just feel the ground move. It looked like a mushroom cloud -- it went up and then out and we could see it through the clouds.
"The captain runs out and starts hollering at everybody, 'Get on the ground. Now drop your weapons, hold your hands over your ears and, when I tell you to, scream. Everybody scream as loud as you can,'" he added. "We thought we were dead. We thought it was a nuclear weapon. You could see the shockwaves moving through the air like ripples."
The men later learned about the attack on the ammo dump and found comfort in the fact that a nuclear weapon had not, in fact, been discharged.
But the images and sounds that surrounded Bennett for the several days that followed stayed with him as if life had really stopped that day.
"It's a real image of war. It's a real image that somebody could come out of that jungle and kill you just as quick as you're lying there," he said. "We were all just scared to death that they were going to come and kill all of us. We didn't know how many were out there, and we heard the radio calls from Saigon and everything."
Many, including Bennett, would tell you that the Tet Offensive was the "turning point" in the war, that American support of the effort plummeted after the surprise attack concluded.
And for one Wayne County man, it's sad.
"When we were over there, we all thought we were doing something good, helping that country," Bennett said. "After Tet, everything changed. That's when (TV broadcaster and news anchor) Walter Cronkite changed his tune. That's when the country turned against the Vietnam War."
Maybe that's why when he came home, it was "difficult" for Bennett to shake the feeling that those men he saw stacked in a blood-filled ditch had died for naught -- that the supply driver he met one day and never saw again was fighting in a lost cause.
"It's real emotional when I get to thinking about it," he said. "We could have won that war."
So he will make today about the fallen -- about remembering that not all was lost during the Tet.
Because when that young man came home from the jungle, he lived with the Vietnam he came to know there for decades after -- and still does.
"I could close my eyes and see all those dead bodies right now," Bennett said. "Every time I hear a helicopter it comes back. You heard it day and night. We ought not forget about what happened at Tet. I was kind of like being in a hurricane -- it's quiet, but then it gets to blowing again."
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