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South Vietnam: Tet Offensive and Vietnamization

USAF C-130 taking off from Khe Sanh, 1968. (U.S. Air Force photo)

USAF C-130 taking off from Khe Sanh, 1968. (U.S. Air Force photo)

President Johnson visited Gen William C. Westmoreland, U.S. military commander, in South Vietnam a month before Tet. (U.S. Air Force photo)

President Johnson visited Gen William C. Westmoreland, U.S. military commander, in South Vietnam a month before Tet. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Saigon was a communist target during Tet. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Saigon was a communist target during Tet. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Communists destroyed buildings and aircraft at Tan Son Nhut Air Base. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Communists destroyed buildings and aircraft at Tan Son Nhut Air Base. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Communists destroyed buildings and aircraft at Tan Son Nhut Air Base. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Communists destroyed buildings and aircraft at Tan Son Nhut Air Base. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Before Vietnamization, the South Vietnamese Air Force flew only propeller-driven aircraft like this A-1. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Before Vietnamization, the South Vietnamese Air Force flew only propeller-driven aircraft like this A-1. (U.S. Air Force photo)

South Vietnamese pilots learn from an American instructor. (U.S. Air Force photo)

South Vietnamese pilots learn from an American instructor. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The U.S. gave South Vietnam modern aircraft like this F-5 Freedom Fighter. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The U.S. gave South Vietnam modern aircraft like this F-5 Freedom Fighter. (U.S. Air Force photo)

TURNING POINT

Late in January 1968, the communists launched their famous Tet Offensive throughout South Vietnam. They hoped to achieve a dramatic victory that would force South Vietnam and the US to accept defeat. First, they attacked Khe Sanh, a U.S. Marine base in far northwest South Vietnam. Nine days later, they attacked throughout the country, striking numerous installations, cities and airfields simultaneously. Initially, the enemy made some gains, but under a withering assault from both air and ground, the offensive failed by late February.

The Viet Cong suffered disastrous losses, but the Tet Offensive had a devastating effect upon the American public. Many people at home, watching nightly television news, were appalled by the carnage they saw -- some mistakenly believed the Communists had won and the U.S. had lost.

Vietnamization
Shortly after taking office in January 1969, President Richard Nixon started the "Vietnamization" program. Vietnamization was a gradual process to withdraw American combat forces, significantly increase aid to South Vietnam, and transfer major combat responsibility back to the South Vietnamese military. The first U.S. ground troops left in July, and by the end of the year, 69,000 had been withdrawn.

In 1970 as South Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) capability grew, the USAF began withdrawing. Inside South Vietnam, enemy activity remained low. Even so, the USAF flew more than 48,000 sorties, mostly against North Vietnamese forces that had infiltrated into South Vietnam.

The U.S. withdrawal from South Vietnam continued through 1971. By December, the USAF was down to 277 fighter and strike aircraft and 28,791 personnel from a 1968 high of 737 aircraft and 54,434 personnel. The VNAF was now responsible for 70 percent of all air combat operations. Enemy guerilla activity continued to be sporadic.

Click on the following links to learn more about the Southeast Asia War.

Protecting the Force: Air Base Defense

Click here to return to the Southeast Asia War Gallery.

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