TAMPA — Exactly 41 years ago, Bruce Carbone was sitting in his base camp, just north of Saigon, as mortar rounds thundered in the distance and a screaming alarm warned American troops of imminent attack.
It was Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, in 1968, and a cease fire had been called in honor of the holiday. The American soldiers didn't expect the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops to attack, but Carbone said his unit had heard rumors that something might happen.
"We were ready," said Carbone, 61, who lives in Mulberry.
On Saturday, Carbone joined about a dozen veterans and history buffs to commemorate the 41st anniversary of the Tet Offensive.
They brought helmets, guns, rucksacks and a tent to Tampa's Veterans Memorial Park to give locals a hands-on lesson about the Vietnam War. They'll be back today, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
"I'm part of history now," Carbone said "So I want to pass along my memories to the younger generations."
In the United States, the North Vietnamese Army's and Viet Cong's massive, coordinated attacks on major South Vietnamese cities and military installations during the Tet holiday caught people by surprise.
The battle shifted overnight from guerilla fighting rural hamlets and jungles to an all-out assault on urban centers and U.S. military strongholds.
Ultimately, American and South Vietnamese troops drove out and defeated the attackers. The bold strategy was a military disaster for the Viet Cong.
But the bloody street fighting went on for weeks, even longer in some places. And it became a public relations loss for President Lyndon Johnson's administration, eroding public support for the war.
From his vantage point, Carbone said, it certainly looked like an American victory. He remembers the massive casualties on the enemy's side.
"The Viet Cong, as a fighting unit, was effectively wiped out," he said.
Lee Stephens, 58, also remembers that day well. He was a senior in high school in Bradenton. "Everybody followed what was happening, primarily because we wanted the war to come to an end before we got drafted," he said.
But in 1970, he was sent to Vietnam as a helicopter pilot.
About a month later, machine gun fire brought down his chopper over the dense jungle. A bullet struck Stephens in the leg, and shrapnel grazed his head.
"I had so much adrenaline going through me," he said. "I was running and dragging my leg. I had to find some place to take cover"
After 45 minutes hiding from enemy forces, American soldiers in a helicopter noticed the 19-year-old below and rescued him.
"I felt real good once I got to the hospital," he said.