Veteran remembers New Year’s Eve in Vietnam

Wes Franklin

It had been a fun night for the American GI’s — or as fun as war-torn Vietnam could get anyway.

Then the base was attacked. And the sky lit up.

Dec. 31, 1968, is one New Year’s Eve that Neosho native and Vietnam War vet Kenney Gates will never forget.

At the time, Gates was 22 years old and an E-4 in the HQ 3rd Brigade, 3rd Cavalry (“The Third Herd”), operating from an elevated support base on the Saigon River.

Eight months earlier, he had been blown off the top of a 20-foot building while helping put a roof on. The Viet Cong had fired mortars into a nearby ammo dump and the concussion swept Gates like a wind onto the ground, injuring his back.

On the support base, Gates mostly did mechanical work and was frequently choppered off to repair generators at other bases, especially at Duc Thong, where he was never allowed to stay more than a day because of the nightly mortar attacks.

Gates said life wasn’t really too bad at the support base, located atop a hill beside the brown Saigon. Beer was delivered once a month by helicopter or, failing that, someone was usually allowed to take a truck and go on a beer run to the nearest supply base. Mostly they came back with Black Label, Falstaff or Sam Miguel.

And on this particular New Year’s Eve, there was plenty to go around.

“We were partying, you know, bringing in the New Year,” Gates said.

Little did the troops know that Viet Cong guerillas were nearby. About a minute after midnight, they came up even with the hill base.

Still in their boats, the enemy opened up with rockets, mortars and AK-47s.

“Charlie was really bringing in the New Year!” Gates said, laughing.

The warning sirens went off, Gates said, and he scrambled with the rest of his comrades to a bunker at the rear of the base. Then the “Fu gas” — 55-gallon drums filled with gas and detergent and connected to trip flares — lit up the night to reveal the scene.

“We could see Charlie down there on the river firing up at us,” Gates said, noting the Americans shot back at the now-illuminated enemy with entrenched .50 caliber machine guns and their personal M-14s.

“We fired at them, but I don’t know if we hit any,” he said.

No enemy bodies were found the next morning.

The attack lasted about 45 minutes. One GI was hit in the arm by what was probably an AK-47 round. Other than that, the unit came out of the fight lucky. 

Gates didn’t write his mom or step dad about his “exciting” New Year’s Eve, not wanting them to worry about him more than they already were.

But he did tell his older brother.

“I told him, yeah, we had a real good New Year — Charlie welcomed it in real good!” Gates said. “But that’s all. I didn’t want to worry him, you know.”

Neosho Daily News