The first seven months of Allan Sather’s tour of duty in Vietnam in 1967-68 were different than he anticipated. Much different.
Sather, who now lives in La Grande, was based in the South Vietnam city of Can Tho on the Mekong River in a combat zone where he was serving as a personnel specialist in the U.S. Army. It was a surprisingly peaceful time for Sather.
“There were no problems. We joked that we were receiving combat pay (without actual combat),” Sather said. “There were lots of sights to see.”
Sather often went into Can Tho, then a city of at least 10,000 people, and took in the culture of South Vietnam.
“We went all over town. It was almost like we were tourists,” he said.
There were a few enemy attacks on Can Tho, but they were minor.
“We rarely felt in danger,” Sather said.
The sense of security vanished on Feb. 2, 1968, when the North Vietnamese launched a surprise attack on Sather’s base, where several hundred American soldiers were stationed. Countless rockets and mortars were fired at the base that day and night, killing five soldiers.
Sather did not know it at the time, but the attack was part of the beginning of the Tet Offensive, in which the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong increased their attacks on at least 100 towns in South Vietnam.
The atmosphere at Sather’s base was drastically altered in an instant.
“It was a complete change,” he said. “Suddenly we felt like we were in a war zone.”
The Tet Offensive is generally considered to have ended Feb. 25, 1968, but Sather said that attacks continued on Can Tho and the Army base there through at least June when his tour of duty in Vietnam ended.
After Feb. 25, the rocket and mortar attacks “tapered off a little but not that much,” Sather said. “I never felt safe again.”
Nighttime was particularly harsh, when “mortars and rockets would sometimes be fired all night long,” he recalled.
He said you couldn’t hear mortars coming, but the rockets were easy to hear.
“They made a swishing sound and then there was an explosion,” Sather said.
The evenings were terrifying and the days were not much better, for attacks were periodically made by the North Vietnamese against the base in broad daylight. Needless to say, Sather’s visits to Can Tho quickly became a thing of the past.
“You didn’t feel safe in town,” Sather said.
Sather said that when rocket and mortar attacks occurred, they would often run to sandbag bunkers covered with steel plates.
“It would have been difficult for anything to penetrate them,” said Sather, a draftee who grew up in Northern California and was in the Army four years.
The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong timed their attacks when the Americans were the most vulnerable. For example, they often fired at midday when the soldiers were standing around eating lunch.
“They knew our schedule,” Sather said.
The North Vietnamese also likely knew that there was a good chance their rockets and mortars would hit the helicopters that were constantly leaving and landing.
The helicopter traffic “was 24-7, all day and all night,” Sather said.
Regardless of what was happening around him, Sather found time almost every day to write a letter to his wife, Judith, in the United States. His letters focused on family matters rather than the dangers he faced in Can Tho. He wrote more than 300 letters from Can Tho, all of which his wife saved.
Allan Sather sometimes looks back upon his letters and is struck by how little he wrote about what was going on in Can Tho.
Allan and Judith Sather moved to La Grande four years ago. Allan, who was not injured in Vietnam, said his memories of the attacks sometimes come rushing back to him when he hears firecrackers.
“I get a little more on edge on July 4,” he said. “I want to jump under my seat.”