METHUEN -- Fifty years ago, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army launched massive attacks throughout South Vietnam.
The Tet Offensive, named for the Vietnamese new year, surprised the American and South Vietnamese military forces that were fighting to keep the country from falling under communism. Although they eventually beat back the attackers, the Tet Offensive turned many Americans against the war in Vietnam.
Edward "Hoppy" Curran, who served in the U.S. Army's Fourth Infantry Division and was stationed in South Vietnam at that time, does not like to talk about the offensive. He thinks, however, that it's important for Americans to know about what happened a half-century ago.
Curran is lucky that he survived the Tet Offensive. A rocket landed near his tent and for whatever reason did not explode.
"I wouldn't be here today," he said, if it had exploded.
Curran enlisted in the Army March 1, 1967. He had graduated from Lawrence High School the previous June and wasn't sure what he was going to do for the rest of his life.
Many of his friends enlisted in the armed forces and "I joined also," he said. After completing advanced individual training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, his commanding officer told the troops, "I have good news and bad news. Half of you are going to Germany and half of you are going to Vietnam."
Curran was among those sent to Vietnam. After a two-week leave, he went to Fort Dix, New Jersey, and was flown to the U.S. base at Long Binh. He was then assigned to Camp Smith, where he guarded Viet Cong prisoners.
"It wasn't bad duty," he said. He and other soldiers guarded the POWs while they filled sandbags.
Curran was briefly posted to Camp Holloway, a base in central Vietnam, "not a good place to be," he said. He was then transferred to the Fourth Infantry Division and assigned to the First Logistical Command.
In the early morning of Jan. 31, 1968, Curran and seven other soldiers were in a tent at Camp Enari that was protected by sandbags.
"They were probably filled by the Viet Cong prisoners," he said. Camp Enari was a few miles from Pleiku, in the Central Highlands.
"We heard rumors that something was going on," he said. Sure enough, at 2 or 3 a.m., the sirens started wailing.
"We could hear the rockets coming in," he said. "I'll never forget it."
He and the other soldiers grabbed their rifles and took cover in a trench. They could see and hear the helicopters shooting at the attackers. Heavy artillery on Dragon Mountain was also pounding the North Vietnamese Army troops.
One enemy rocket landed 30 feet from Curran and just stuck in the ground without blowing up. The Russian letters for USSR were plainly visible on the projectile, he recalled.
For the next three nights, the attacks continued.
"It was the biggest battle of the Vietnam War," Curran said. Forty-thousand communist troops were killed while American and South Vietnamese losses were only a fraction of that total, he said.
Militarily, the communists were defeated in the Tet Offensive, he said. Politically, however, they gained, because American public opinion began to shift sharply against the war.
The Vietnam War was the first conflict that Americans could watch on their televisions, he noted. They were shocked to see the Viet Cong attack the U.S. embassy in Saigon.
The public execution of a Viet Cong officer by a South Vietnamese police commander during the Tet Offensive, captured by an Associated Press photograph, contributed to Americans' disillusionment with the war.
Yet the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army never defeated United States forces on the battlefield, he said.
"There is nothing better than the U.S. fighting man or woman," Curran said with pride.
Like most American troops, Curran spent a year in Vietnam, from Aug. 1, 1967 until Aug. 1, 1968. He guarded convoys and for two or three weeks, he was assigned to protect some fuel tanks.
In May, the communist forces staged a "mini-Tet Offensive."
"It was not as bad as the original Tet," he said.
Some of the men in Curran's unit were assigned to unload the bodies of dead soldiers from helicopters that retrieved from battlefields. That duty was called graves registration. Curran is thankful he did not have to perform it.
While Curran left Vietnam in August 1968, he was not quite done with the war. He was stationed at Fort Lee, Virginia, and served in the honor guard for soldiers killed in Vietnam. In November 1969, he was among the troops sent to Washington, D.C., to maintain order when thousands of anti-war protesters converged on the capital.
"They were calling us killers and druggies," he said. After he left the Army, Curran would not mention his status as a Vietnam War veteran on job applications.
Most war veterans do not like to talk about what they endured. Talking about his experiences is not easy, he said, but he thinks he has a responsibility to do so.
"I want to speak for the fallen," he said. Curran lost his best friend while serving in Vietnam. Larry Curry, from Front Royal, Virginia, was on guard duty during a heavy monsoon downpour when a lightning bolt struck his rifle and electrocuted him.
"I had to clean out his locker," he said.
Life has been good to Curran since he was discharged from the Army in 1970. He earned a history degree at Boston State College, now part of the University of Massachusetts Boston.
He had hoped to get a teaching job and did a lot of substitute work, but Proposition 2 1/2, the law that restricts property tax increases to no more than 2.5 percent, killed that aspiration, he said.
Curran was employed by the Lawrence Department of Public Works for 27 years. He led the Division of Parks and Trees for several years.
He then worked as the veterans' services officer for Methuen from 1998 until he retired in 2007. Curran took a leadership role in erecting the Lawrence Vietnam War Veterans Memorial that stands in Bellevue Cemetery.
The memorial honors the 18 Lawrence men who died in Vietnam. Three of them were friends of his while they were growing up in South Lawrence. Their names and the dates on which they died are:
Marine Pfc. Joseph T. Gile Jr., Oct. 7, 1966.
Marine Lance Cpl. Gregory P. Kent, March 28, 1968.
Marine Lance Cpl. Edward J. Wolfendale, Feb. 24, 1969.
Curran and his wife, Ellen, have been married for 45 years. They live in Methuen and have two adult sons, Patrick and Matthew, and two grandchildren. Calleigh, 9, is the daughter of Matthew; Brayden, 5, is the son of Patrick.
"I'm really blessed," he said.
Regarding the war he fought in a half-century ago, he said, "I don't want people to forget." ___
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