“I Wake Up in War”: Infantryman Recalls Final Days of Tet Offensive

Ron Harre, a Ramsey resident born and raised in Brownstown, decorates his bedroom in Vietnam memorabilia: a hand-embroidered jacket with a map of the country on the back, caps, a carefully-arranged shadowbox, a collection of patriotic statuettes and displays on a shelving unit. But like many Vietnam veterans, Harre’s experiences aren’t limited to the medals and maps displayed on his walls. They stay fresh in his memory, relived in dreams and doctors’ appointments even 50 years later.

It was his 21st birthday, Oct. 21, 1969, the day he shipped for Vietnam. Harre, an infantry radio operator, was stationed in Củ Chi, a district of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) that played headquarters to the 2nd Infantry Division (to which Harre’s 14th Infantry Regiment “Golden Dragons” were a component), as well as detachments of field artillery, cavalry, and Army airborne battalions. Củ Chi was also famous for the immense tunnel network that ran under the entire district, which allowed Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops pockets of relative safety and stealthy access to much of the city. Despite a one-week operation in early 1966 intended to destroy the tunnels (Operation Crimp) and another campaign in 1967 (Operation Cedar Falls), many parts of the network remained intact, as well as the majority of the troops. The tunnels were key in staging communist forces during the Tet Offensive, which was in its height when Harre arrived in Vietnam.

Saigon, home to Củ Chi Base Camp, was one of about two dozen locations of major communist attacks starting in February of 1968, and was the focal point of the offensive. However, attacks in the first wave of the Tet Offensive, which nationally lasted until early April, were mainly over in Saigon by the second week of February. Another major attack on Saigon came in early May, then the “Mini-Tet,” targeting no American installations, and finally a “dismal failure” of a final offensive in August of that year.

During the Tet Offensive, some of the Golden Dragons’ work took them to the Cambodian border at the end of the Sihanouk Trail, later called the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Though Cambodia was officially neutral from 1955-1970, then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk allowed North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops to use Cambodia as a staging area. The Golden Dragons, in retaliation, conducted numerous nighttime ambushes against the troops at the border. These small-scale ambushes eventually led up to the Operation Menu bombings in early 1969, which remained largely secret to the public for years.

Operating partially in neutral-designated territory was, understandably, a struggle for Harre’s detachment. He recalls finding a base of North Vietnamese soldiers at one point—he commented to a commanding officer that he would call in artillery fire to clear the base, but the officer stopped him.

“’They’re on base,’ he said. ‘You can’t do it.’”

Harre made it through the Tet Offensive, but not much longer after: in February of 1969, Harre, his assigned bodyguard Brown, and two other men ran across a section of woods crawling with Viet Cong insurgents. Harre, intending to radio in an artillery assault, assigned Brown to point so that their group could move into a buffalo grass field to get away from the intended assault site. Brown, a newcomer to the Vietnam War, moved into the field without caution and immediately stepped on a concealed explosive.

The landmine killed Brown instantly. Harre, right behind him, lost his left eye, took damage to his right, and broke both arms and legs. Another soldier behind Harre, Daly, lost one of his lungs.

When Harre woke up, the first thing he saw was a Hopalong Cassidy rerun on a nearby television, dubbed in a foreign language. “’Aw, [expletive], I’ve been captured,’ I thought,” says Harre. “But a nurse came by and told me ‘no, you’re on your way home.’”

Harre had awoken in the field hospital at Củ Chi Base Camp, and was later transferred to hospitals in the Philippines, Okinawa, and Alaska before a final transfer to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. He stayed at Walter Reed for a year and two months before his discharge back to civilian life in mid-1970.

Civilian life after the war wasn’t the same life he’d left before his enlisting. Unlike many other Vietnam veterans, Harre had support from his family, both during his hospital stay and afterwards while he was looking for work. “The hardest part [of returning to the State],” Harre says, “was learning how to dress, talk the lingo, and get back in [to society]… I had to adapt back to life.”

To this day, Harre deals with the effects of his final day on the battlefield, noting remaining shrapnel in his limbs and his artificial left eye. And like many other Vietnam veterans, Harre also notes long-lasting issues with Agent Orange contamination. Fairchild C-123 Providers, accompanied by Lockheed C-130 Hercules aircraft, often passed overhead during his deployment, spraying herbicide on the dense jungles. Harre shows some degree of skin damage on his arms, which could be either chloracne or porphyria cutanea tarda, both of which are prominently listed as Agent Orange-related conditions and are eligible for VA treatment. Harre theorizes further that shrapnel and Agent Orange contamination caused him to later develop diverticulosis, a condition characterized by small pouches or pockets in the lining of the digestive tract. In 2009, the Veteran’s Administration concluded that “the criteria for establishing entitlement to service connection for diverticular disease… as due to exposure to Agent Orange, are not met, and tumors may not be presumed… incurred in service,” though new conditions are added to the VA-accepted list of related issues to this day.

And as many other servicemembers who saw the battlefield up close and countless others besides, Harre struggles with symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. “I wake up in war,” he says.

To combat the effects of his PTSD, Harre retreats into the woods behind his house, where he’s set up a hut for such occasions. “I like to be alone,” he says. “I talk to the Lord and I talk to my friends in Vietnam that got killed.”

(Editor’s note: This story was produced as the at-present last entry in a series about Vietnam veterans in the St. Elmo area. The St. Elmo Banner thanks our interview contacts for letting us tell their stories, and thanks our readers for revisiting the lives and experiences of the men and women who experienced the Vietnam conflict.)

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