Battle for Hue, 1968
James H. Willbanks, PhD
On 8 March
1965, elements of the U.S. 9th Marine Expeditionary Force came ashore
in Vietnam at Da Nang, ostensibly to provide security for the U.S. air base
there. A month later, President
Lyndon Johnson authorized the use of U.S. ground troops for offensive combat
operations in Vietnam. These events
marked a significant change in U.S. involvement in the ongoing war between the
South Vietnamese government and its Communist foes. Heretofore, U.S. forces had been supporting the South
Vietnamese with advisers and air support, but with the arrival of the Marines, a
massive U.S. buildup ensued that resulted in 184,300 American troops in Vietnam
by the end of 1965. This number
would rapidly increase until over 319,000 troops were incountry by the end of
ground troops were deployed in all four corps tactical zones and actively
conducted combat operations against the southern-based Viet Cong (VC) and their
counterparts from North Vietnam, the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN -- also
known as the North Vietnamese Army or NVA).
The first major battle between U.S. forces and PAVN troops occurred in
November 1965 in the Ia Drang
valley. Over the next two years,
U.S. forces conducted many large-scale search and destroy operations such as MASHER/WHITE
WING, ATTLEBORO, CEDAR FALLS, and JUNCTION
CITY. These operations were
designed to find and destroy the enemy forces in a war of attrition.
By the end of 1967 however, the war in Vietnam had degenerated into a
bloody stalemate. U.S. and South
Vietnamese operations had inflicted high casualties and disrupted Communist
operations, but the North Vietnamese continued to infiltrate troops into South
Vietnam. Nevertheless, General
William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, was very optimistic
that progress was being made; on 21 November 1967, he appeared before the
National Press Club in Washington and asserted, "We have reached an important
point when the end begins to come into view.
I am absolutely certain that, whereas in 1965 the enemy was winning,
today he is certainly losing. The
enemy's hopes are bankrupt."
Events in 1968 would prove him wrong.
The plan for
the 1968 Tet Offensive was born in the summer of 1967. Frustrated with the stalemate on the battlefield and
concerned with the aggressive American tactics during the previous year,
Communist leaders in Hanoi (the North Vietmanese capital) decided to launch a
general offensive to strike a decisive blow against the South Vietnamese and
their U.S. allies. This campaign was designed to break the stalemate and achieve
three objectives: provoke a general uprising among the people in the South,
shatter the South Vietnamese armed forces, and convince the Americans that the
war was unwinnable. The
offensive would target the previously untouched South Vietnamese urban centers.
The Communists prepared for the coming offensive by a massive buildup of
troops and equipment in the south. At the same time, they launched a series of
diversionary attacks against remote outposts designed to lure U.S. forces into
the countryside away from the population areas.
In the fall of 1967, the plan went into effect with Communist attacks in
the areas south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South
Vietnam along South Vietnam's western border in the Central Highlands. The main effort of this preliminary phase of the offensive
began on 21 January 1968 at Khe Sanh in northwestern South Vietnam, where two
PAVN divisions lay siege to the Marine base there.
Believing that the Communists were trying to achieve another Dien Bien
Phu; President Johnson declared that Khe Sanh would be held at all costs.
With all eyes
on Khe Sanh, the Communists launched the main offensive itself in the early
morning hours of 31 January 1968, when 84,000 North Vietnamese and VC troops,
taking advantage of the Tet (lunar New Year) ceasefire then in effect, mounted
simultaneous assaults on 36 of 44 provincial capitals, 5 of the 6 autonomous
cities, including Saigon and Hue, 64 of 242 district capitals, and 50 hamlets.
Many of the South Vietnamese troops were on holiday leave, so the
Communist forces initially enjoyed widespread success.
Within days, however, all of the attacks in the smaller towns and hamlets
were turned back. Heavy fighting
continued for a while longer in Kontum and Ban Me Thuot in the Central
Highlands, in Can Tho and Ben Tre in the Mekong Delta, and in Saigon itself.
longest and bloodiest battle of the Tet Offensive occurred in Hue, the most
venerated city in Vietnam. Located
astride Highway 1 ten kilometers west of the coast and a hundred kilometers
south of the DMZ, Hue was the capital of Thua Thien Province and South
Vietnam's third largest city, with a wartime population of 140,000 (see Map
1). It was the old imperial
capital and served as the cultural and intellectual center of Vietnam.
It had been treated almost as an open city by the VC and North Vietnamese
and thus had remained remarkably free of war.
Although there had been sporadic mortar and rocket attacks in the area,
Hue itself had been relatively peaceful and secure prior to Tet in 1968.
Nevertheless, the city was on one of the principal land supply routes for
the allied troops occupying positions along the DMZ to the north, and it also
served as a major unloading point for waterborne supplies that were brought
inland via the river from Da Nang on the coast.
was really two cities divided by the Song Huong, or River of Perfume, which
flowed through the city from the southwest to the northeast on its way to the
South China Sea ten kilometers to the east. Two-thirds of the city's
population lived north of the river within the walls of the Old City, or
Citadel, a picturesque place of gardens, pagodas, moats, and intricate stone
buildings. Just outside the walls
of the Citadel to the east was the densely populated district of Gia Hoi (see
Citadel was an imposing fortress, begun in 1802 by Emperor Gia Long with the aid
of the French and modeled on Peking's Forbidden City.
Once the residence of the Annamese emperors who had ruled the central
portion of present-day Vietnam, the Citadel covered three square miles and
really included three concentric cities and a labyrinth of readily defensible
positions. The Citadel was
protected by an outer wall 30-feet high and up to 40-feet thick which formed a
square about 2,700 yards on each side. Three
sides were straight, while the fourth was rounded slightly to follow the curve
of the river. The three walls not
bordering the river were encircled by a zigzag moat that was 90 feet wide at
many points and up to 12-feet deep. Many
areas of the wall were honeycombed with bunkers and tunnels that had been
constructed by the Japanese when they occupied the city in World War II.
Citadel included block after block of row houses, parks, villas, shops, various
buildings, and an airstrip. Within
the Citadel was another enclave: the Imperial Palace compound, where the
emperors had held court until 1883 when the French returned to take control of
Vietnam. Located at the south end
of the Citadel, the palace was essentially a square with 20-foot high walls that
measured seven hundred meters per side. The
Citadel and the Imperial Palace were a "camera-toting tourist's dream,"
but they would prove to be "a rifle-toting infantryman's nightmare."
South of the river and
linked to the Citadel by the six-span Nguyen Hoang Bridge, over which Route 1
passed, lay the modern part of the city. This
was about half the size of the Citadel, and about a third of the city's
population resided here. The
southern half of Hue contained the hospital, the provincial prison, the Catholic
cathedral and many of the city's modern structures, to include government
administrative buildings, the U.S. Consulate, Hue University, the city's high
school, and the newer residential districts.
1st Infantry Division Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) was
headquartered in Hue, but most of its troops were spread out along Highway 1,
from Hue north toward the DMZ. The
division headquarters was located at the northwest corner of the Citadel in a
fortified compound protected by 6-to-8-foot high walls, topped by barbed wire.
The closest South Vietnamese unit was the 3rd ARVN Regiment
with three battalions that was located five miles northwest of Hue.
A fourth ARVN battalion was operating some miles southwest of the city.
The only combat element in the city was the division's Hac Bao Company,
known as the "Black Panthers," an elite all-volunteer unit that served as
the division reconnaissance and rapid reaction force. Security within the city itself was primarily the
responsibility of the National Police.
only U.S. military presence in Hue when the battle began was the MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) compound, which housed
200 U.S. Army, U.S. Marine Corps, and Australian officers and men who served as
advisers to the 1st ARVN Division.
They maintained a lightly fortified compound on the eastern edge of the
modern part of the city south of the river about a block and a half south of the
Nguyen Hoang Bridge.
nearest U.S. combat base was at Phu Bai, eight miles south along Route 1. Phu Bai was a major Marine Corps command post and support
facility that was the home of Task Force X-Ray, which had been established as a
forward headquarters of the 1st Marine Division.
The task force, commanded by Brigadier General Foster C. "Frosty"
LaHue, Assistant Commander of the 1st Marine Division, was made up of
two Marine regimental headquarters and three battalions -- the 5th
Regiment with two battalions and the 1st Regiment with one battalion.
Most of these troops, including Brig. Gen. Lahue, had only recently
arrived in the Phu Bai area, having been displaced from Da Nang, and they were
still getting acquainted with the area of operations when the Communists
launched their attack on Hue.
addition to the U.S. Marines, there were also U.S. Army units in the area. Two brigades of the 1st Cavalry Division were
scattered over a wide area from Phu Bai in the south to Landing Zone (LZ) Jane
just south of Quang Tri in the north. The
1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division had recently
been attached to the 1st Cavalry and had just arrived at Camp Evans
(located north along Highway 1 between Hue and Quang Tri), coming north from its
previous area of operations.
the allied forces in the Hue region were 8,000 Communist troops, a total of ten
battalions. These were highly
trained North Vietnamese regular army units that had come south either across
the DMZ or more likely, down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They were armed with AK47
assault rifles, RPD machineguns, and B-40 rocket propelled grenade launchers.
In addition, the PAVN had 107mm, 122mm, and 140mm free-flight rockets,
82mm and 120mm mortars, recoilless rifles, and heavy machineguns.
The North Vietnamese units were joined by six Viet Cong main force
battalions, including the 12th and Hue City Sapper Battalions.
A typical mainforce VC infantry battalion consisted of 300-600 veteran,
skilled fighters. The VC soldiers were armed similar to the PAVN with the
exception that they did not have some of the heavier weapons.
During the course of the battle for Hue, the total Communist force in and
around the city would grow to 20 battalions when three additional infantry
regiments were dispatched to the Hue area from the Khe Sanh battlefield.
Before the Tet Offensive began, the Communists had prepared extensive
plans for the attack on Hue, which would be directed by General Tran Van Quang,
commander of the B4 (Tri Thien-Hue) Front.
The plan called for a division- size assault on the city, while other
forces cut off access to the city to preclude allied reinforcements. Quang and his senior commanders believed that once the
city's population realized the superiority of the Communist troops, the people
would immediately rise up to join forces with the VC and PAVN against the
Americans and the South Vietnamese, driving them out of Hue. Possessing very detailed information on civil and military
installations within the city, the Communist planners had divided Hue into four
tactical areas and prepared a list of 196 targets within the city.
They planned to use more than 5,000 soldiers to take the city in one
Communist documents captured during and after the Tet offensive indicate
that enemy troops received intensive training in the technique of city street
fighting before the offensive began.
Extremely adept at fighting in the jungles and rice paddies, the PAVN and
VC troops required additional training to prepare for the special requirements
of fighting in urban areas. This
training, focusing on both individual and unit tasks, included offensive
tactics, techniques, and procedures to assist in taking the city and defensive
measures to help the Communists hold the city once they had seized it.
While the assault troops trained for the battle to come, VC intelligence
officers prepared a list of "cruel
tyrants and reactionary elements" to be rounded up during the early hours of
This list included most South Vietnamese officials, military officers,
politicians, American civilians, and other foreigners.
After capture, these individuals were to be evacuated to the jungle
outside the city where they would be punished for their crimes against the
The enemy had carefully selected the time for the attack. Because of the Tet holiday, the ARVN defenders would be
at reduced strength. In addition,
bad weather that traditionally accompanied the northeast monsoon season would
hamper aerial resupply operations and impede close air support, which would
otherwise have given the allied forces in Hue a considerable advantage.
The city's defense against the impending attack hinged in large part on
the leadership of Brigadier General Ngo Quang Truong, commander of the 1st
ARVN Division, regarded by many U.S. advisers as one of the best senior
commanders in the South Vietnamese armed forces.
A 1954 graduate of the Dalat Military Academy, he had won his position
through ability and combat leadership and not because of political influence or
bribery, as was the case with many of his ARVN peers.
the morning of 30 January, the beginning of the Tet holiday, Truong received
reports of enemy attacks on Da Nang, Nha Trang, and other South Vietnamese
installations during the previous night. Sensing
that something was up, he gathered his division staff at the headquarters
compound and put them and his remaining troops on full alert. Unfortunately, over half of his division was on holiday leave
and out of the city. Believing
that the Communists would not attack the "open" city directly, Truong
positioned the forces left on duty around the city to defend outside the urban
area. Therefore, when the Communist
attack came, the only regular ARVN troops in the city were from the Hac Bao
"Black Panther" reconnaissance company, which was guarding the airstrip at
the northeastern corner of the Citadel.
Unknown to Truong as he made his preparations for whatever was to come,
there was a clear indication that there would be a direct attack on his city.
On the same day that the South Vietnamese commander put his staff on
alert, a U.S. Army radio intercept unit at Phu Bai overheard Communist orders
calling for an imminent assault on Hue. Following
standard procedure, the intercept unit forwarded the message through normal
channels. Making its way through several command layers, the intercept
and associated intelligence analysis did not make it to the Hue defenders until
the city was already under attack.
as the intelligence report made its way slowly through channels, the Viet Cong
had already infiltrated the city. Wearing
civilian garb, Communist troops had mingled with the throngs of people who had
come to Hue for the Tet holiday. They
had easily transported their weapons and ammunition into the city in wagons,
truck beds, and other hiding places. In
the early morning hours of 31 January, these soldiers took up initial positions
within the city and prepared to link up with the PAVN and VC assault troops. At
0340, the Communists launched a rocket and mortar barrage from the mountains to
the west on both old and new sectors of the city.
Following this barrage, the assault troops began their attack.
The VC infiltrators had donned their uniforms, met their comrades at the
gates, and led them in the attack on key installations in the city.
PAVN 6th Regiment, with two battalions of infantry and the 12th
VC Sapper Battalion, launched the main attack from the southwest and moved
quickly across the Perfume River into the Citadel toward the ARVN 1st
Division headquarters in the northeastern corner.
The 800th and 802nd Battalions of the 6th
Regiment rapidly overran most of the Citadel, but Truong and his staff held the
attackers off at the 1st ARVN Division compound, while the Hac Bao
Company managed to hold its position at the eastern end of the airfield.
On several occasions, the 802nd Battalion came close to
penetrating the division compound, so Brig. Gen. Truong ordered the Black
Panthers to withdraw from the airfield to the compound to help thicken his
defenses there. By daylight
on 31 January, the PAVN 6th Regiment held the entire Citadel,
including the Imperial Palace. The
only exception was the 1st Division compound, which remained in South
Vietnamese hands; the PAVN 802nd Battalion had breached the ARVN
defenses on several occasions during the night, but each time, they were hurled
back by the Black Panthers.
story was not much better for the Americans south of the river in the new city. It
could have been worse, but the North Vietnamese made a tactical error when they
launched their initial attack on the MACV compound.
Rather than attack immediately on the heels of the rocket and mortar
barrage, they waited for approximately five minutes.
This gave the defenders an opportunity to mount a quick defense.
The PAVN 804th Battalion twice assaulted the compound, but the
attackers were repelled each time by quickly assembled defenders armed with
individual weapons. One U.S. soldier manned an exposed machine gun position atop
a 20-foot wooden tower; his fire stopped the first rush of North Vietnamese
sappers who tried to advance to the compound walls to set satchel charges, but
he was killed by a B-40 rocket. The
PAVN troops then stormed the compound gates where they were met by a group of
Marines manning a bunker. The
Marines held off the attackers for a brief period, but eventually the PAVN took
out the defenders with several B-40 rockets.
This delay, however, slowed the North Vietnamese attack and gave the
Americans and their Australian comrades additional time to organize their
defenses. After an intense
firefight, the Communists failed to take the compound, so they tried to reduce
it with mortars and automatic weapons fire from overlooking buildings.
The defenders went to ground and waited for reinforcements.
the battle raged around the MACV compound, two VC battalions took over the Thua
Thien Province headquarters, police station, and other government buildings
south of the river. At the same
time, the PAVN 810th Battalion occupied blocking positions on the
southern edge of the city to prevent reinforcement from that direction.
By dawn, the North Vietnamese 4th Regiment controlled all of
Hue south of the river except the MACV Compound.
in very short order, the Communists had seized control of virtually all of Hue.
When the sun came up on the morning of January 31, nearly everyone in the
city could see the gold-starred, blue-and-red National Liberation Front flag
flying high over the Citadel. While
the PAVN and VC assault troops roamed the streets freely and consolidated their
gains, political officers began a reign of terror by rounding up the South
Vietnamese and foreigners on the special lists.
VC officers marched through the Citadel, reading out the names on the
lists through loudspeakers and telling them to report to a local school.
Those that did not report were hunted down.
The detainees were never seen alive again; their fate was not apparent
until after the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces recaptured the Citadel and
nearly 3,000 civilians were found massacred and buried in mass graves.
the battle erupted at Hue, other Communist forces had struck in cities and towns
from the DMZ to the Ca Mau Peninsula in the south.
Allied forces had their hands full all over the country, and it would
prove difficult to assemble sufficient uncommitted combat power to oust the
Communists from Hue. Additionally,
U.S. and South Vietnamese forces had been moved to the west to support the
action in and around Khe Sanh, thus reducing the number of troops available in
the entire northern region. This
situation would have a major impact on the conduct of operations to retake Hue
from the Communists.
Gen. Truong, who only had a tenuous hold on his own headquarters compound,
ordered his 3rd Regiment, reinforced with two airborne battalions and
an armored cavalry troop, to fight its way into the Citadel from their positions
northwest of the city. En route
these forces encountered intense small arms and automatic weapons fire as they
neared the Citadel. They fought
their way through the resistance and reached Truong's headquarters late in the
Truong tried to consolidate his forces, another call for reinforcements went out
from the surrounded MACV compound. This
plea for assistance was almost lost in all the confusion caused by the
simultaneous attacks going on all over I Corps.
Lieutenant General Hoang Xuan Lam, commander of the South Vietnamese
forces in I Corps, and Lieutenant General Robert Cushman, III Marine Amphibious
Force (MAF) commander, were not sure what exactly was happening inside the city.
The enemy strength and the scope of the Communist attack was less than
clear during the early hours of the battle, but the allied commanders realized
that reinforcements would be needed to eject the Communists from Hue.
Accordingly, Cushman ordered TF X-Ray to send reinforcements into Hue to
relieve the besieged MACV compound.
both ARVN and U.S. commanders tried to assess the situation and made
preparations to move reinforcements to Hue, the North Vietnamese quickly
established additional blocking positions to prevent those reinforcements from
reaching the beleaguered defenders. The
PAVN 806th Battalion blocked Highway 1 northwest of Hue, while the
PAVN 804th and K4B
Battalions took up positions in southern Hue.
At the same time, the 810th Battalion dug in along Highway 1
south of Hue.
Responding to III MAF orders, Brig. Gen. LaHue, commander of Task Force
X-Ray, dispatched Company A, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines
(A/1/1), to move up Route 1 from Phu Bai by truck to relieve the surrounded U.S.
advisers. The initial report of the
attack on Truoung's headquarters and the MACV compound had not caused any
great alarm at LaHue's headquarters. The
task force commander, having received no reliable intelligence to the contrary,
believed that only a small enemy force had penetrated Hue as part of a local
diversionary attack; little did he know that almost a full enemy division had
seized the city. He therefore sent
only one company to deal with the situation.
LaHue later wrote that "Initial deployment of force was made with
knowing exactly what to expect when they reached the city, the Marines from
A/1/1 headed north as ordered, joining up with four M48 tanks from the 3rd
Tank Battalion en route. The convoy
ran into sniper fire and had to stop several times to clear buildings along the
route of march. When the convoy
crossed the bridge that spanned the Phu Cam Canal into the southern part of the
city, the Marines were immediately caught in a withering crossfire from enemy
automatic weapons and B-40 rockets that seemed to come from every direction.
They advanced slowly against intense enemy resistance, but became pinned
down between the river and the canal, just short of the MACV compound they had
been sent to relieve. The company commander, Captain Gordon D. Batcheller, was
wounded during this fight, as were a number of his Marines.
his Company A pinned down, Lieutenant Colonel Marcus J. Gravel, the battalion
commander of 1/1 Marines, organized a hasty reaction force: himself; his
operations officer; some others from his battalion command group; and Company G,
2nd Battalion, 5th Marines (G/2/5), a unit from another
battalion that had just arrived in Phu Bai earlier that day.
Gravel had never met Captain Charles L. Meadows, the Company G commander,
until that day, and he later said that the only planning he had time to
accomplish was to issue the order: "Get
on the trucks, men."
little information other than that their fellow Marines were pinned down, the
relief force moved up the highway, reinforced with two self-propelled twin-40mm
guns. The force met little
resistance along the way and linked up with A/1/1st Marines, now
being led by a wounded gunnery sergeant. With
the aid of the four tanks and the 40mm self-propelled guns, the combined force
fought its way to the MACV compound, breaking through to the beleaguered
defenders at about 1515. The cost,
however, was high: ten Marines were killed and thirty were wounded.
linked up with the defenders of the MACV compound, Lt. Col. Gravel received new
orders from LaHue, directing him to cross the Perfume River with his battalion
and break through to the ARVN 1st Division headquarters in the
Citadel. Gravel protested that his
"battalion" consisted of only two companies, one of which was in pretty bad
shape, and that part of his force would have to be left behind to assist with
the defense of the MACV compound. Nevertheless,
LaHue, who still had not realized the full extent of the enemy situation in Hue,
radioed back that Gravel was to "go anyway."
Sending Gravel's battered force to contend with the much stronger PAVN and VC
north of the river would ultimately result in failure.
Company A behind to help with the defense of the MACV compound, Gravell took
Company G, reinforced with three of the original M48 tanks and several others
from the ARVN 7th Armored Cavalry Squadron, and moved out to comply
with LaHue's orders. Leaving the
tanks on the southern bank to support by fire, Gravel and his Marines attempted
to cross the Nguyen Hoang bridge leading into the Citadel.
As the infantry started across the bridge, they were met with a hail of
fire from a machine gun position at the north end of the bridge. Ten Marines went down. Lance
Corporal Lester A. Tully, who later received the Silver Star for his action,
rushed forward and took out the machine gun nest with a grenade.
Two platoons followed Tully, made it over the bridge, and turned left,
paralleling the river along the Citadel's southeast wall.
They immediately came under heavy fire from AK47 rifles, heavy automatic
weapons, B-40 rockets, and recoilless rifles from the walls of the Citadel.
mortar shells and rockets exploded around them, the Marines tried to push
forward but were soon pinned down by the increasing volume of enemy fire.
Gravel determined that his force was greatly outnumbered and decided to
withdraw. However, even that proved
very difficult. According to
Gravel, the enemy was well dug-in and "firing from virtually every building in
Hue city" north of the river.
Gravel called for vehicle support to assist in evacuating his wounded,
but none was available. Eventually, the Marines commandeered some abandoned
Vietnamese civilian vehicles and used them as makeshift ambulances.
After two hours of intense fighting, the company was able to pull back to
the bridge. By 2000, the 1st Battalion had established a defensive
position near the MACV compound along a stretch of riverbank that included a
park (which they rapidly transformed into a helicopter landing zone).
The attempt by the Marines to force their way across the bridge had been
costly. Among the casualties was
Major Walter D. Murphy, the S-3 Operations Officer of the 1st
Battalion, who later died from his wounds.
Capt. Meadows, commander of Company G, lost one third of his unit killed
or wounded "going across that one bridge and then getting back across the
Phu Bai, despite detailed reports from Lt. Col. Gravel, Brig. Gen. LaHue and his
intelligence officers still did not have a good appreciation of what was
happening in Hue. As LaHue later
explained, "Early intelligence
did not reveal the quantity of enemy involved that we subsequently found were
committed to Hue."
The intelligence picture in Saigon was just as confused; General William
Westmoreland, Commander of U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam, cabled
General Earle Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, that the "enemy has
approximately three companies in the Hue Citadel and Marines have sent a
battalion into the area to clear them out."
This repeated gross underestimation of enemy strength in Hue resulted in
insufficient forces being allocated for retaking the city.
Brig. Gen. Truong and the 1st ARVN Division fully occupied in the
Citadel north of the river, Lt. Gen. Lam and Lt. Gen. Cushman discussed how to
divide responsibility for the effort to retake Hue.
They eventually agreed that ARVN forces would be responsible for clearing
Communist forces from the Citadel and the rest of Hue north of the river, while
Task Force X-Ray would assume responsibility for the southern part of the city.
This situation resulted in what would be, in effect, two separate and distinct
battles that would rage in Hue, one south of the river and one north of the
retaking Hue, Lam and Cushman were confronted with a unique problem.
The ancient capital was sacred to the Vietnamese people, particularly so
to the Buddhists. The destruction
of the city would result in political repercussions that neither the United
States nor the government of South Vietnam could afford. Cushman later recalled,
"I wasn't about to open up on the old palace and all the historical
As a result, limitations were imposed on the use of artillery and close
air support to minimize collateral damage.
Eventually these restrictions were lifted when it was realized that both
artillery and close air support would be necessary to dislodge the enemy from
the city. However, the initial
rules of engagement played a key role in the difficulties incurred in the early
days of the battle.
divided up the city, Cushman-- with General Westmoreland's concurrence-- began
to make arrangements to send reinforcements into the Hue area in an attempt to
seal off the enemy inside the city from outside support.
On 2 February, the U.S. Army 1st Cavalry Division's 3rd
Brigade entered the battle with the mission of blocking the enemy approaches
into the city from the north and west. The
brigade airlifted the 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry (2/12
Cav), into a LZ about 10 kilometers northwest of Hue on Highway 1.
By 4 February, the cavalry troopers had moved cross country from the LZ
and established a blocking position on a hill overlooking a valley about six
kilometers west of Hue. This
position provided excellent observation of the main enemy routes into and out of
the same period, the 5th Battalion, 7th Cavalry (5/7 Cav),
conducted search and clear operations along enemy routes west of Hue. On 7 February, they made contact with an entrenched North
Vietnamese force and tried for the next 24 hours to expel the communists.
However, the enemy held their position and stymied the Cavalry advance
with heavy volumes of automatic weapons and mortar fire.
On 9 February, Headquarters 3rd Brigade, 1st
Cavalry Division, ordered 5/7 Cav to fix the PAVN in place, and directed 2/12
Cav to attack northward from its position.
The latter ran into heavy resistance near the village of Thong Bon Ti,
but continued to fight its way toward 5/7 Cav's position.
For the next ten days, the two cavalry battalions fought with the
entrenched communists, who held their positions against repeated assaults.
Despite the inability of the cavalry troopers to expel the North
Vietnamese, this action at least partially blocked the enemy's movement and
inhibited their participation in the battle raging in Hue.
almost three weeks, the U.S. cavalry units tried to hold off the reinforcement
of Hue by North Vietnamese troops from the PAVN 24th, 29th,
and 99th Regiments. The Americans were reinforced on 19 February when
the 2nd Battalion, 501st Infantry (2/501st) was attached
to the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, from the U.S.
Army's 101st Airborne Division.
The battalion was subsequently ordered to seal access to the city from
the south. The 1st
Battalion, 7th Cavalry (1/7 Cav), deployed south to the Hue area also
on that day after being relieved from its base defense mission at Camp Evans. While these U.S. Army units saw plenty of heavy action in
these outlying areas and contributed greatly to the eventual allied victory at
Hue, the fighting inside the city was to remain largely in the hands of South
Vietnamese troops and U.S. Marines.
As allied reinforcements began their movement to the area, the ARVN and
Marines began making preparations for counterattacks in their assigned areas.
Making their task more difficult was the weather, which took a turn for
the worse on 2 February when the temperature fell into the 50's (F) and the
low clouds opened up with a cold drenching rain.
As the rain fell, Lt. Col. Gravel's "bobtailed" 1st
Battalion, 1st Marines, was ordered to attack to seize the Thua Thien
Province headquarters building and prison, six blocks west of the MACV compound.
At 0700, Gravel launched a two-company assault supported by tanks to take
his assigned objectives, but the Marines immediately ran into trouble.
An M79 gunner from Company G recalled:
"We didn't get a block away [from the MACV compound] when we started
getting sniper fire. We got a
tank.went a block, turned right and received 57mm recoilless which put out our
tank"; the attack was "stopped cold" and the battalion fell back to its
original position near the MACV compound.
By this time, Brig. Gen. LaHue had finally realized that he and his
intelligence officers had vastly underrated the strength of the Communists south
of the river. Accordingly, he
called in Colonel Stanley S. Hughes, the new commander of the 1st
Marine Regiment, and gave him overall tactical control of U.S. forces in the
southern part of the city. Assuming
control of the battle, Hughes promised Lt. Col. Gravel reinforcements and gave
him the general mission to conduct "sweep and clear operations.to destroy
enemy forces, protect U.S. Nationals and restore that [southern] portion of the
city to U.S. control."
In response, Gravel ordered Company F, 2nd Battalion, 5th
Marines (F/2/5), which had been placed under his operational control when it
arrived the previous day, to relieve a MACV communications facility near the
VC-surrounded U.S. consulate. The
Marines launched their attack, fighting most of the afternoon, but failed to
reach the U.S. Army signal troops, losing three Marines killed and thirteen
wounded in the process. At that
point, Gravel's troops established night defensive positions; during the
night, Gravel made plans to renew the attack the next morning.
The next day, the Marines made some headway and brought in further
reinforcements. The 1st
Battalion finally relieved the MACV radio facility in the late morning hours,
and after an intense three-hour fight, reached the Hue University campus.
During the night, the Communist sappers had dropped the railroad bridge
across the Perfume River west of the city, but they left untouched the bridge
across the Phu Cam Canal. At 1100, Company H, 2nd Battalion, 5th
Marines (H/2/5), commanded by Captain Ronald G. Christmas, crossed the bridge
over the canal in a convoy, accompanied by Army trucks equipped with quad
.50-caliber machine guns and two ONTOS, which were tracked vehicles armed with
six 106mm recoilless rifles. As the
convoy neared the MACV compound, it came under intense enemy heavy machine gun
and rocket fire. The Marines
responded rapidly, and in the ensuing confusion, the convoy exchanged fire with
another Marine unit already in the city. As
one Marine in the convoy remembered, "our guys happened to be out on the right
side of the road and of course nobody knew that.
First thing you know everybody began shooting at our own men. . .out of
pure fright and frenzy."
Luckily, neither of the Marine units took any casualties.
Company H joined Lt. Col. Gravel where the 1st Battalion had
established a position near the MACV compound.
The PAVN and VC gunners continued to pour machine gun and rocket fire
into the position, and by day's end, the Marines at that location had
sustained two dead and thirty-four wounded.
On the afternoon of 2 February, Col. Hughes decided to move his command
group into Hue, where he could more directly control the battle. Accompanying Hughes in the convoy that departed for the city
was Lieutenant Colonel Ernest C. Cheatham, commander of 2nd
Battalion, 5th Marines, who had been sitting frustrated in Phu Bai
while three of his units - F, G, and H companies - fought in Hue under Lt.
Col. Gravel's control. Hughes
quickly established his command post in the MACV compound.
The forces at his disposal included Cheatham's three companies from 2/5
Marines and Gravel's depleted battalion consisting of Company A, 1/1 Marines
and a provisional company consisting of one platoon of Company B, 1/1, and
several dozen cooks and clerks who had been sent to the front lines to fight.
Hughes wasted no time in taking control of the situation. He directed
Gravel to anchor the left flank with his one-and-a-half-company battalion to
keep the main supply route open. Then
he ordered Cheatham and his three companies to assume responsibility for the
attack south from the university toward the provincial headquarters, telling him
to "attack through the city and clean the NVA out." When Cheatham hesitated,
waiting for additional guidance, the regimental commander who, like everyone
else going into Hue, had only the sketchiest information, gruffly stated, "if
you're looking for any more, you aren't going to get it. Move out!"
devised a plan that called for his battalion to move west along the river from
the MACV compound. He would attack
with Companies F and H in the lead and Company G in reserve.
Although the plan was simple, execution proved extremely difficult.
From the MACV compound to the confluence of the Perfume River and the Phu
Cam Canal was almost 11 blocks, each of which had been transformed by the enemy
into a fortress that would have to be cleared building by building, room by
The Marines began their attack toward the treasury building and post
office, but they made very slow progress, not having yet devised workable
tactics to deal with the demands of the urban terrain.
As the Marines, supported by tanks, tried to advance, the communists hit
them with a withering array of mortar, rocket, machine gun, and small arms fire
from prepared positions in the buildings. According
to Lt. Col. Cheatham, his Marines tried to take the treasury and postal
buildings five or six different times. He later recalled, "You'd assault and back you'd come,
drag your wounded and then muster it [the energy and courage] up again and try
Marines just did not have enough men to deal with the enemy entrenched in the
buildings. The frontage for a
company was about one block; with two companies forward, this left an exposed
left flank, subject to enemy automatic weapons and rocket fire.
By the evening of 3 February, the Marines had made little progress and
were taking increasing casualties as they fought back and forth over the same
following morning, Col. Hughes met with his two battalion commanders. Hughes ordered Cheatham to continue the attack.
He told Gravel to continue to secure Cheatham's left flank with his
battalion, which now had only one company left after the previous day's
casualties. As Gravel ordered his
Marines into position to screen Cheatham's attack, they first had to secure
the Joan of Arc School and Church. They
immediately ran into heavy enemy fire and were forced to fight house-to-house.
Eventually they secured the school, but continued to take effective fire
from PAVN and VC gunners in the church. Reluctantly,
Lt. Col. Gravel gave the order to fire upon the church and the Marines pounded
the building with mortars and 106mm recoilless rifle fire, eventually killing or
driving off the enemy. In the ruins
of the church, the Marines found two European priests, one French and one
Belgian, who were livid that the Marines had fired on the church.
Gravel was sorry for the destruction, but felt that he had had no choice
in the matter.
Gravel's Marines moving into position to screen his left flank to the Phu Cam
Canal, Cheatham launched his attack at 0700 on 4 February.
It took 24 hours of bitter fighting just to reach the treasury building.
Attacking the rear of the building after blasting holes through adjacent
courtyard walls with 106mm recoilless rifle fire, the Marines finally took the
facility, but only after it had been plastered with 90mm tank rounds, 106mm
recoilless rifles, 81mm mortars, and finally CS gas, a riot-control agent.
the rapidly deteriorating weather, the Marines found themselves in a room by
room, building by building struggle to clear an eleven by nine block area just
south of the river. This effort
rapidly turned into a nightmare. Fighting
in such close quarters against an entrenched enemy was decidedly different from
what the Marines had been trained to do. Accustomed
to fighting in the sparsely populated countryside of I Corps, nothing in their
training had prepared them for the type of warfare demanded by this urban
Capt. Christmas later remembered his apprehension as his unit prepared to
enter the battle for Hue: "I
could feel a knot developing in my stomach.
Not so much from fear--though a helluva lot of fear was there--but
because we were new to this type of situation.
We were accustomed to jungles and open rice fields, and now we would be
fighting in a city, like it was Europe during World War II.
One of the beautiful things about the marines is that they adapt quickly,
but we were going to take a number of casualties learning some basic lessons in
was savage work -- house-to-house fighting through city streets--of a type
largely unseen by Americans since World War II.
Ground gained in the fighting was to be measured in inches and each city
block cost dearly: every alley, street corner, window, and garden had to be paid
for in blood. Correspondents who
moved forward with the Marines reported the fighting as the most intense they
had ever seen in South Vietnam.
The combat was relentless. Small groups of Marines moved doggedly from
house to house, assaulting enemy positions with whatever supporting fire was
available, blowing holes in walls with rocket launchers or recoilless rifles,
then sending fire teams and squads into the breach.
Each structure had to be cleared room by room using M16 rifles and
grenades. Taking advantage of
Hue's numerous courtyards and walled estates, the PAVN and VC ambushed the
Marines every step of the way. Having
had no training in urban fighting, the Marines had to work out the tactics and
techniques on the spot.
One of the practical problems that the Marines encountered early was the
lack of sufficiently detailed maps. Originally
their only references were standard 1:50,000-scale tactical maps that showed
little of the city detail. One
company commander later remarked, "You have to raid the local Texaco station
to get your street map. That's
really what you need."
Eventually, Cheatham and Gravel secured the necessary maps and numbered
the government and municipal buildings and prominent city features.
This permitted them to coordinate their efforts more closely.
Making the problem even more difficult was the initial prohibition on
using artillery and close air support. The
Marines had a vast arsenal of heavy weapons at their disposal: 105mm, 155mm, and eight-inch howitzers, helicopter gunships,
close air support from fighter-bombers, and naval gunfire from destroyers and
cruisers with five-inch, six-inch, and eight-inch guns standing just offshore.
However, because of the initial rules of engagement that sought to limit
damage to the city, these resources were not available to the Marines at the
beginning of the battle.
Even after Lt. Gen. Lam lifted the ban on the use of fire support south
of the river on 3 February, but the Marines even then could not depend on air
support or artillery because of the close quarters and the low-lying cloud
cover. Lt. Col. Gravel later
explained part of the difficulty: "Artillery
in an area like that is not terribly effective because you can't observe it
well enough. You lose the rounds in
the buildings in the street. and you have a difficult time with
Additionally, the poor weather, which also greatly limited close air
support, had a negative impact on the utility of artillery because with low
clouds and fog obscuring the flashed, the rounds had to be adjusted by sound.
The Marines had other firepower at their disposal.
They used tanks to support their advance, but found they were unwieldy in
close quarters and drew antitank fire nearly every time they advanced.
The Marines were much more enthusiastic about the ONTOS with its six
106mm recoilless rifles which were used very effectively in the direct fire mode
to suppress enemy positions and to blow holes in the buildings so the Marines
Despite their preference for the 106mm recoilless rifle, the Marines made
use of every weapon at their disposal in order to dislodge the PAVN and VC
Progress was slow, methodical, and costly.
On 5 February, Capt. Christmas' H/2/5 Marines took the Thua Thien
province capitol building in a particularly bloody battle.
Using two tanks and 106mm recoilless rifles mounted on Mechanical Mules
(a flat-bedded, self-propelled carrier about the size of a jeep), the Marines
advanced against intense automatic weapons fire, rockets, and mortars.
Responding with their own mortars and CS gas, the Marines finally
overwhelmed the defenders in mid-afternoon.
The province headquarters had assumed a symbolic importance to both
sides. A National Liberation Front
flag had flown from the flagpole in front of the headquarters since the initial
Communist takeover of the city. As
a CBS television crew filmed the event, the Marines tore down the enemy ensign
and raised the Stars and Stripes. This
was a politically sensitive situation; the Marines should have turned over the
provincial headquarters building to the ARVN and continued the fight, but Capt.
Christmas told his gunnery sergeant, "We've been looking at that damn North
Vietnamese flag all day, and now we're going to take it down."
To Lt. Col. Cheatham, this proved to be the turning point of the battle for Hue.
He later said, "When we took the province headquarters, we broke their
back. That was a rough one."
The provincial headquarters had served as the command post of the PAVN 4th
Regiment. With its loss, the
integrity of the North Vietnamese defenses south of the river began to falter.
However, the fighting was far from over.
Despite the rapid adaptation of the Marines to street fighting, it was
not until 11 February that the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines,
reached the confluence of the river and the canal.
Two days later, the Marines crossed into the western suburbs of Hue,
aiming to link up with troopers of the 1st Cavalry and 101st
Airborne Division, who were moving in toward the city.
By 14 February, most of the city south of the river was in American
hands, but mopping up operations would take another 12 days as rockets and
mortar rounds continued to fall and isolated snipers harassed Marine patrols.
Control of that sector of the city was returned to the South Vietnamese
government. It had been very costly
for the Marines, who sustained 38 dead and 320 wounded.
It had been even more costly for the Communists; the bodies of over a
thousand VC and PAVN soldiers were strewn about the city south of the river.
While the Marines fought for the southern part of the city, the battle
north of the river continued to rage. Despite
the efforts of the U.S. units trying to seal off Hue from outside reinforcement,
Communist troops and supplies made it into the city from the west and north, and
even on boats coming down the river. On
1 February, the 2nd ARVN Airborne Battalion and the 7th
ARVN Cavalry had recaptured the Tay Loc airfield inside the Citadel, but only
after suffering heavy casualties (including the death of the cavalry squadron
commander) and losing twelve armored personnel carriers.
Later that day, U.S. Marine helicopters brought part of the 4th
Battalion, 2nd ARVN Regiment, from Dong Ha into the Citadel.
Once on the ground, the ARVN attempted to advance, but were not able to
make much headway in rooting out the North Vietnamese.
By 4 February, the ARVN advance north of the river had effectively
stalled among the houses, alleys, and narrow streets adjacent to the Citadel
wall to the northwest and southwest, leaving the Communists still in possession
of the Imperial Palace and most of the surrounding area.
On the night of 6-7 February, the PAVN counterattacked and forced the
ARVN troops to pull back to the Tay Loc airfield.
At the same time, the North Vietnamese rushed additional reinforcements
into the city. Brig. Gen. Truong
responded by redeploying his forces, ordering the 3rd ARVN Regiment
to move into the Citadel to take up positions around the division headquarters
compound. By the evening of 7
February, Truong's forces inside the Citadel included four airborne
battalions, the Black Panther company, two armored cavalry squadrons, the 3rd
ARVN Regiment, the 4th Battalion from the 2nd ARVN
Regiment, and a company from the 1st ARVN Regiment.
Despite the ARVN buildup inside the Citadel, Truong's troops still
failed to make any headway against the dug-in North Vietnamese, who had burrowed
deeply into the walls and tightly packed buildings.
All the time, the PAVN and the VC seemed to be getting stronger as
reinforcements made it into the city. With
his troops stalled, an embarrassed and frustrated Truong was forced into
appealing to III MAF for help. On
10 February, Lt. Gen. Cushman sent a message to Brig. Gen LaHue directing him to
move a Marine battalion to the Citadel. LaHue
ordered Major Robert Thompson's 1st Battalion, 5th
Marines, to prepare for movement to Hue. On
11 February, helicopters lifted two platoons of Company B into the ARVN HQ
complex (the third platoon from the unit was forced to turn back when its pilot
was wounded by ground fire). Twenty-four
hours later, Company A, with five tanks attached, plus the missing platoon from
Company B, made the journey by landing craft across the river from the MACV
compound, along the moat to the east of the Citadel and through a breach in the
northeast wall. The next day
Company C joined the rest of the battalion.
Once inside the Citadel, the Marines were ordered to relieve the 1st
Vietnamese Airborne Task Force in the southeastern section.
At the same time, two battalions of Vietnamese Marines moved into the
southwest corner of the Citadel with orders to sweep west.
This buildup of allied forces inside the Citadel put intense pressure on
the Communist forces, but they stood their ground and redoubled efforts to hold
The following day, after conferring with South Vietnamese President
Nguyen Van Thieu, Lt. Gen. Lam authorized allied forces to use whatever weapons
were necessary to dislodge the enemy from the Citadel. Only the Imperial Palace remained off limits for artillery
and close air support.
The mission of the 1/5 Marines was to advance down the east wall of the
Citadel toward the river, with the Imperial Palace on their right.
At 0815 on 13 February, Company A moved out under a bone-chilling rain,
following the wall toward a distinctive archway tower.
As they neared the tower, North Vietnamese troops opened up on the men
with automatic weapons and rockets from concealed positions that they had dug
into the base of the tower. The
thick masonry of the construction protected the enemy defenders from all the
fire being brought to bear on them. Within minutes, several Marines lay dying
and thirty more were wounded, including Captain John J. Bowe, Jr., the company
commander. These troops, fresh from operations in Phu Loc, just north of
the Hai Van Pass, were unfamiliar with both the situation and city fighting;
finding themselves "surrounded by houses, gardens, stores, buildings two and
three stories high, and paved roads littered with abandoned vehicles, the
riflemen felt out of their element."
heavy enemy fire, the Marine advance stalled; in the first assault on the south
wall, the Marines lost fifteen killed and forty wounded.
Maj. Thompson pulled Company A back and replaced them with Company C,
flanked by Company B. Once again,
the Marines were raked by heavy small arms, machine gun, and rocket fire that
seemed to come from every direction, but they managed to inch forward, using
airstrikes, naval gunfire, and artillery support. The fighting proved even more
savage than the battle for the south bank.
That night, Maj. Thompson requested artillery fire to help soften up the
area for the next day's attack. At
0800 on 14 May, Thompson renewed the attack, but his Marines made little headway
against the entrenched North Vietnamese and VC. It was not until the next day when Captain Myron C.
Harrington's Company D, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines
(D/1/5), was inserted into the battle by boat that the wall tower was finally
taken, but only after six more Marines were killed and more than 50 wounded.
That night, the PAVN retook the tower for a brief period, but Capt.
Harrington personally led the counterattack to take it back.
On the morning of 16 February, Maj. Thompson's Marines continued their
push southeast along the Citadel wall. From
that point until 22 February, the battle seesawed back and forth while much of
the Citadel was pounded to rubble by close air support, artillery, and heavy
weapons fire. The bitter
hand-to-hand fighting went on relentlessly.
The Marines were operating in a defender's paradise - row after row
of single story, thick-walled masonry houses jammed close together up against a
solid wall riddled with spiderholes and other enemy fighting positions. The
Marines discovered that the North Vietnamese units in the Citadel employed
"better city-fighting tactics, improved the already formidable defenses, dug
trenches, built roadblocks and conducted counterattacks to regain redoubts which
were important to.[their] defensive scheme."
The young Marines charged into the buildings, throwing grenades before
them, clearing one room at a time. It
was a battle fought meter by meter; each enemy strongpoint had to be reduced
with close-quarter fighting. No
sooner had one position been taken than the North Vietnamese opened up from
M48 tanks and ONTOS were available, but these tracked vehicles found it
extremely difficult to maneuver in the narrow streets and tight alleys of the
Citadel. At first, the 90mm tank
guns were ineffective against the concrete and stone houses; the shells often
ricocheted off the thick walls back toward the Marines.
The Marine tankers then switched to concrete-piercing fused shells that
"resulted in excellent penetration and walls were breached with two to four
From that point on, the tanks proved invaluable in assisting the infantry
assault. One Marine rifleman later
stated: "If it had not been for
the tanks, we could not have pushed through that section of the city.
They [the North Vietnamese] seemed to have bunkers everywhere."
a result of the intense fighting, Hue was being reduced to rubble, block by
block. By the end of the battle,
estimates tallied ten thousand houses either totally destroyed or damaged,
roughly 40 percent of the city.
Many of the dead and wounded were trapped in the rubble of homes and
courtyards. Enemy troops killed by
the Marines and South Vietnamese troops lay where they had fallen.
One of the MACV advisers later wrote:
". . . The bodies, bloated and vermin infested, attracted rats and
stray dogs. So, because of public
health concerns, details were formed to bury the bodies as quickly as
For those who fought in Hue, the stench and horrors of the corpses and
the rats would never be forgotten.
By 17 February, 1/5th Marines had suffered 47 killed and 240
wounded in just five days of fighting. Constantly
under fire for the whole time, the Leathernecks, numb with fatigue, kept up the
fight despite having slept only in three- to four-hour snatches during the
battle and most not even stopping to eat. The
fighting was so intense that the medics and doctors had a very difficult time
keeping up with the casualties. Because
of the mounting casualties, Marine replacements were brought in during the
battle, but many of them were killed or wounded before their squad leaders could
even learn their names. Some
replacements arrived in Hue directly upon their completion of infantry training
at Camp Pendleton, California. The rapid rate of attrition was evident from the fact that
there were Marines who died in battle while still wearing their stateside
fatigues and boots.
18 February, with what was left of his battalion completely exhausted and nearly
out of ammunition, Maj. Thompson chose to rest his troops in preparation for a
renewal of the attack. They needed time to clean their weapons, stock up on
ammunition, tend the walking wounded, and gird themselves for the next round of
bitter fighting. The following
morning, Thompson and his Marines again attacked toward the Imperial Palace.
They inched forward, paying dearly for every bit of ground taken.
After another 24 hours of bitter fighting, they secured the wall on 19
February, but had virtually spent themselves in doing so.
As the U.S. Marines had fought their way slowly toward the Imperial
Palace, the Vietnamese Marine task force entered the battle. At 0900 on the 14th, the South Vietnamese launched
their attack from an area south of the 1st ARVN Division headquarters
compound to the west. They were to
make a left turning movement to take the southwest sector of the Citadel, but
did not get that far because they immediately ran into heavy resistance from
strong enemy forces as they engaged in intense house-to-house fighting.
During the next two days, the South Vietnamese advanced fewer than 400
meters. To the north of the Vietnamese Marines, the 3rd
ARVN Infantry Regiment in the northwest sector of the Citadel was having
problems of its own and making little progress.
On the 14th, enemy forces broke out of their salient west of
the Tay Loc airfield and cut off the 1st Battalion, 3rd
ARVN Regiment in the western corner of the Citadel.
It would take two days for the ARVN to break the encirclement, and then
only after bitter fighting.
The enemy was also having his own problems.
On the night of 14 February, a U.S. Marine forward observer with ARVN
troops inside the Citadel, monitoring enemy radio frequencies, learned that the
PAVN was planning a battalion-size attack by reinforcements through the west
gate of the Citadel. The forward
observer called in Marine 155mm howitzers and all available naval gunfire on
preplanned targets around the west gate and the moat bridge leading to it.
The forward observer reported that he had heard "screaming on the
radio" monitoring the PAVN net.
Later, it was confirmed by additional radio intercepts that the artillery
and naval gunfire had caught the North Vietnamese battalion coming across the
moat bridge, killing a high-ranking North Vietnamese officer and a large number
of the fresh troops.
Shortly after this incident, U.S. intelligence determined that the PAVN
and VC were staging out of a base camp 18 kilometers west of the city and that
reinforcements from that area were entering the Citadel using the west gate.
Additionally, intelligence identified a new enemy battalion west of the
city and a new regimental headquarters with at least one battalion two
kilometers north of the city. Acting
on this information, elements of the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division were
ordered to launch coordinated assaults on the city from their blocking positions
to the west. On 21 February, the 1st
Cavalry troopers attacked and were able to move up to seal off the western wall
of the fortress, thus depriving the North Vietnamese of incoming supplies and
reinforcements and precipitating a rapid deterioration of the enemy's strength
inside the Citadel. The North
Vietnamese were now fighting a rear guard action, but they still fought for
every inch of ground and continued to throw replacements into the fight.
As elements of the 1st Cav advanced toward Hue from the west
and action continued in the Citadel, fire support coordination became a major
concern. On 21 February, Brigadier
General Oscar E. Davis, one of the two assistant division commanders for the 1st
Cav, flew into the Citadel to take overall control of the situation in order to
serve as the area's fire support coordinator.
He collocated his headquarters with Brig. Gen. Truong in the 1st
ARVN Division headquarters compound.
For the final assault on the Imperial Palace itself, a fresh unit,
Captain John D. Niotis's Company L, 1st Battalion, 5th
Marines, was brought in. By 22
February, the Communists held only the southwestern corner of the Citadel.
Niotis led his Marines along the wall to breach the outer perimeter of
the palace. Once inside, they were
faced with devastating fire from the entrenched Communists.
Niotis ordered his Marines to pull back so plans could be made for
While the Marines prepared for the next assault on the Imperial City, it
was decided that it was politically expedient to have the Palace liberated by
the South Vietnamese. On the night of 23-24
February, the 2nd Battalion, 3rd ARVN Regiment, launched a
surprise attack westward along the wall in the southeastern section of the
Citadel. The North Vietnamese were
caught off guard by the attack, but quickly recovered.
A savage battle ensued, but the South Vietnamese pressed the attack.
The Communists, deprived of their supply centers to the west by the
link-up between the 1st Cavalry and 2/5th Marines, fell
back. Included in the ground gained
by the South Vietnamese attack was the plot upon which stood the Citadel
flagpole. At dawn on the 24th,
the South Vietnamese flag replaced the Viet Cong banner that had flown from the
Citadel flagpole for 25 days. Later
that day, the ARVN 1st Division reached the outer walls of the
Citadel, where it linked up with elements of the 1st Cavalry
Division. The last Communist
positions were quickly overrun by the allied forces or were abandoned by VC and
North Vietnamese troops, who fled westward to sanctuaries in Laos.
2 March 1968, the battle for Hue was officially declared over.
It had been a bitter ordeal. The relief of Hue was the longest sustained
infantry battle the war had seen to that point. The losses had been high.
In the 26 days of combat, the ARVN had lost 384 killed and more than
1,800 wounded, plus 30 missing in action. The
U.S. Marines suffered 147 dead and 857 wounded.
The U.S. Army suffered 74 dead and 507 wounded.
The allies claimed over 5,000 Communists killed in the city and an
estimated 3,000 killed in the fighting in the surrounding area.
Although the U.S. command had tried to limit damage to the city by
relying on extremely accurate 8-inch howitzers and naval gunfire, the
house-to-house fighting took its toll, and much of the once beautiful city lay
in rubble. In the 25 days of
fighting to retake Hue, 40 percent of the city was destroyed, and 116,000
civilians were made homeless (out of a pre-Tet population of 140,000).
Aside from this battle damage, the civilian population suffered terrible
losses from the communist attackers: some 5,800 were reported killed or missing.
After the battle was over, South Vietnamese authorities discovered that
Viet Cong death squads had systematically eliminated South Vietnamese government
leaders and employees. Nearly 3,000
corpses were found in mass graves - most shot, bludgeoned to death, or buried
alive, almost all with their hands tied behind their backs.
The victims included soldiers, civil servants, merchants, clergymen,
schoolteachers, intellectuals, and foreigners.
It was estimated that many of the other missing South Vietnamese were
murdered by the VC and PAVN during the battle or as Communist forces withdrew
from the Citadel.
The fighting had been intense and bloody, but in the end the allies had
ejected the Communists and recaptured the city. The battle of Hue is a textbook
study of the difficulties involved in combat in an urban area. A number of factors that played a key role in the conduct of
the battle are worthy of particular note; they include intelligence, command and
control, training, rules of engagement, medical support, and population control.
Intelligence, or the lack thereof, had a major impact on the course of
the battle for Hue. The
intelligence system completely failed to anticipate that an attack on the city
was imminent. Even when there were
attack indicators, they were not provided to the commanders on the ground who
could have best used the warning. Once
the attack was launched, the intelligence systems failed to provide an adequate
appreciation for enemy strength and intentions in Hue.
This greatly inhibited the effectiveness of the allied response,
especially in the early days of the battle when both the ARVN and the Marines
were unclear as to how many enemy units were in the city.
This resulted in a piecemeal approach that saw units thrown into battle
against vastly superior numbers.
and control was also a crucial factor. The
division of labor between the ARVN and U.S. Marine and Army forces resulted in a
lack of coordination and unity of effort that inhibited the attempt to retake
the city. This can be seen even before the battle began.
When a radio intercept indicated that an attack on Hue was pending, it
was the convoluted command channels that led to a sluggish response and the
failure of the Hue defenders to be alerted in time.
Until Brig. Gen. Davis was placed in overall charge on 21 February, the
various allied forces had acted in isolation of each other.
The Marines took their orders from Task Force X-Ray, the ARVN obeyed the
commands of Brig. Gen. Truong, and the U.S. Army troops to the west, largely
ignorant of what the Marines and ARVN forces were doing inside the city,
operated on their own. The result
was three separate battles that raged simultaneously with no overall commander
coordinating allied efforts. By the
time that Davis was given overall control, the battle was effectively over.
As one Marine later remarked, Brig. Gen. Davis ". . . didn't have
anything to coordinate, but he had the name."
lack of an overall hands-on commander meant that there was no general battle
plan for retaking Hue, no one to set priorities, no one to deconflict the
requests for artillery and close air support, and no one person to accept the
responsibility if things went wrong. Also,
there was no overall system to ensure an equitable distribution of logistical
resupply. The U.S. Marines and Army
scrambled to take care of their own, while the ARVN got next to nothing.
It was a command arrangement that almost guaranteed difficulty in
achieving any meaningful unity of effort.
command and control situation caused problems in other areas as well. With no single commander orchestrating the battle, it was
difficult to coordinate the isolation of the city from outside reinforcement as
the Marines and South Vietnamese tried to clear the city.
This permitted the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong to rush replacements in
to take the place of the troops they lost during the intense fighting.
Thus, they were able to replenish their ranks even as the fighting
intensified and after they began to take increasing numbers of casualties. When the elements of the 1st Cavalry Division
effectively sealed the city from the northwest on 21 February, it had a decisive
impact on the battle inside the city. Perhaps
this could have been achieved earlier had there been a single commander to
better synchronize the efforts of the units outside the city with those fighting
inside the city.
command and control situation additionally had the potential for increased
fratricide because of the lack of coordination between the battles north of the
river and those south of the river. The
piecemeal insertion of forces also contributed to the potential of fratricide,
as can be seen in the incident on 3 February when forces being rushed to the
battle exchanged fire with forces already in the city.
played a key role in the conduct of the battle for Hue, particularly on the part
of the Marines from TF X-Ray. The
struggle for the city was made even more difficult by the fact that the allies
were unprepared for the type of fighting required during combat in a built-up
area like Hue. The Marines who
played such a crucial role in retaking the city were accustomed to fighting an
enemy in jungle or open terrain away from populated areas of any significance.
They had no training for urban warfare and essentially had to develop
their own tactics, techniques, and procedures as they went along. The first
three days of the battle had been a bloody learning process as the Marines went
through what was in effect on-the-job training in house-to-house fighting.
having any previous experience with fighting in a city, the Marines had to learn
by trial and error. The tactics
they had used so effectively in previous operations in I Corps had little
application inside the city. The
Marines therefore had to devise ways to defeat an entrenched enemy who used the
myriad of buildings, walls, and towers so effectively.
Different techniques were tried. One
of the best utilized an eight-man team. Four
riflemen covered the exits while two men rushed the building with grenades and
two other riflemen provided covering fire.
The team would rotate the responsibilities among the eight men and move
on to the next building. Lt. Col. Cheatham, commander of 2/5 Marines, later described
the tactics used: "We hope to
kill them inside or flush them out the back for the four men watching the exits.
Then, taking the next building, two other men rush the front.
It sounds simple but the timing has to be just as good as a football
Marines learned quickly that more heavy weapons were needed.
Tactics of fire and maneuver would not work in street fighting without
the threat of heavy weapons. Objectives
often could be reached only by going through buildings.
Tanks, 106mm recoilless rifles, and 3.5-inch rocket launchers proved
essential in the house-to-house fighting. The
rocket launchers, called "bazookas" in WW II, were easily the more portable
and, according to some Marines, the most effective.
The 106mm recoilless rifles were also extremely effective.
The gun could be employed singularly, either mounted on jeeps or mules or
carted around by hand (even though it weighed over 400 pounds dismounted). Or, it could be used in a unit of six on the ONTOS tracked
vehicles. The Marines used these
weapons to create holes in compound walls and the sides of buildings, through
which they would rush. They were
also extremely useful for providing suppressive fire and as counter-sniper
gas was used as an effective weapon to chase enemy troops from their bunkers and
spider holes. The Marines had tried
using smoke grenades on the treasury building south of the river, but what
little smoke they produced was quickly dispersed by the breeze coming off the
river. One Marine officer suggested
using an E8 tear gas launcher, which he had seen stacked against the wall of an
ARVN compound adjacent to the MACV compound.
The launcher, about 2 feet high, could hurl as many as sixty-four 35mm
tear gas projectiles up to 250 meters in four 5-second bursts of 16 each.
Unlike the grenades, the E8 could flood an entire area so that every room
and bunker would be permeated by the gas. The Marines used the CS dispenser very
successfully throughout the remainder of the battle, and one company commander
credited this approach with limiting his casualties during the fighting.
the early days of the battle when the Marines were trying to work out ways to
deal with the entrenched enemy in the city, they had to do it largely without
the artillery and close air support that they were so accustomed to using.
The rules of engagement initially agreed upon by the allied senior
commanders limited the use of artillery and close air support to minimize the
damage to the historic and symbolic city. This
made it extremely difficult, particularly during the early days of the battle,
for the Marines to dig the North Vietnamese out of their prepared positions
inside the city. These
restrictions, which the Marines generally obeyed, were later abandoned when the
allies argued successfully that adhering to that standing order was causing
unacceptable casualties. Nicholas
Warr, who had served as a platoon leader in C Company, 1/5 Marines, during the
battle for Hue, later wrote, ". .
.These damnable rules of engagement . . . prevented American fighting men from
using the only tactical assets that gave us an advantage during firefights--that
of our vastly superior firepower represented by air strikes, artillery and naval
gunfire--these orders continued to remain in force and hinder, wound and kill
1/5 Marines until the fourth day of fighting inside the Citadel of Hue."
of the initial restrictions on artillery and air strikes and the fact that most
of the available artillery from Phu Bai was directed at interdicting enemy
escape routes to the rear and not on the city itself, the Marines had to use
their own mortars for close-in fire support, using them as a "hammer" on top
of the buildings. Lt. Col. Cheatham
later observed, "If you put enough [mortar] rounds on the top of a building,
pretty soon the roof falls in."
The mortars also proved useful against enemy soldiers fleeing from
buildings being assaulted by the Marines. By
pre-registering on both the objective building and the street to that
building's rear, the Marines were able to inflict heavy casualties by shifting
fire from the objective to the rear street as they pushed the enemy soldiers out
The intensity of the bitter fighting resulted in a tremendous amount of
casualties. Because the bad weather
inhibited medical evacuation by helicopter, it soon became apparent that there
was a need for forward medical facilities.
The 1st Marine Regiment established the regimental aid station
at the MACV compound with eight doctors in attendance.
This facility provided emergency care and coordinated all medical
evacuation. Each of the forward
battalions had its own aid station. Lt.
Col. Cheatham, commander of 2/5 Marines, later lauded this highly responsive
medical support, declaring that it was "a throwback to World War II.
[I] had my doctor.one block behind the frontline treating the people
The Marines used trucks, mechanical mules, and any available
transportation to carry the wounded back to the aid stations.
From there, U.S. Marine and Army helicopters were used for further
evacuation, often times flying with a 100-foot ceiling.
In the battle for Hue, if a Marine reached an aid station alive, his
chances of survival were close to 99 percent.
to the heavy fighting in the city, population control quickly became a problem.
In urban warfare, the people are often caught in the middle between the
two opposing forces. Hue was no exception. The
initial attack provided the first trickle of civilians seeking refuge in the
relative safety of the MACV compound. The
trickle would become a flood over the next weeks, creating a logistical and
security nightmare for the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces in Hue, as the
refugee problem reached staggering proportions.
Every turn in the fighting flushed out hundreds of Vietnamese civilians
of every age. Whole families were
able to survive the shelling and street warfare by taking refuge in small
bunkers they had constructed in their homes.
Out of the rubble came old men, women, and children, waving pieces of
white cloth attached to sticks. Something
had to be done about this growing flood of refugees and displaced persons as the
battle continued to rage.
A U.S. Army major from the
MACV advisory team was placed in charge of coordinating the effort to manage the
refugee situation. Temporary
housing was found at a complex near the MACV compound and at Hue University,
where the number of refugees swelled to 22,000. Another 40,000 displaced persons were in the Citadel area
across the river. Most of the
refugees were innocent civilians, but some were enemy soldiers or
sympathizers--and many were ARVN troops trapped at home on leave for the Tet
holidays. All of these ARVN
soldiers who were fit for duty were put to use helping the Marines and MACV
advisors with the refugees.
In addition to dealing
with shelter for the refugees, U.S. and South Vietnamese officials had to
restore city services, including water and power; eliminate heath hazards,
including burying the dead; and secure food.
With the assistance of the local Catholic hierarchy and American
resources and personnel, the South Vietnamese government officials tried to
restore order and normalcy in the city. By
the end of February, a full-time refugee administrator was in place, and the
local government slowly began to function once more.
battle of Hue remains worthy of study when considering the complexities and
requirements for urban operations. It
was a bloody affair that resulted in a severe casualty toll, largely because of
the aforementioned reasons, not the least of which were intelligence failures
and lack of centralized command and control.
It was only through the valor of the individual Marines and soldiers,
both American and South Vietnamese, that they prevailed against a determined
enemy under combat conditions in an urban environment that far exceeded anything
that any of the allies had previously experienced.
However, the victory at Hue proved irrelevant in the long run. Despite
the overwhelming tactical victory achieved by the allies in the city and on the
other battlefields throughout South Vietnam, the Tet Offensive proved to be a
strategic defeat for the United States. U.S.
public opinion, affected in large part by the media coverage of the early days
of the offensive, began to shift away from support for the war.
On 31 March 1968, the full impact of the Tet offensive was demonstrated
when President Lyndon Baines Johnson announced a halt of all bombing of North
Vietnam above the 20th parallel and gave notice that he would not
seek reelection to a second term in the White House.
Thus, the Communists won a great strategic victory.
However, in doing so, they lost an estimated 30,000 fighters, and the
Viet Cong would never recover. Nevertheless, the Tet Offensive resulted in a sea
change in U.S. policy in Vietnam, and the United States soon began its long
disengagement from the war.
the outcome of the war, the battle of Hue remains a classic study in urban
warfare that clearly demonstrates not only the rigors and demands of fighting in
a built-up area, but also the valor and fortitude demanded of the soldiers who
are to fight in such situations. The
U.S. Marines and South Vietnamese soldiers retook the city from the Communists
and paid for the effort in blood; many of the lessons they learned the hard way
are just as valid for urban fighting today as they were in 1968.
1. U.S. military troop
strength reached its peak of 543,300 in April, 1969.
Spencer Tucker, Vietnam (London: UCL Press, 1999), 136.
The Viet Minh defeated the French forces in a decisive battle at Dien
Bien Phu on 7 May 1954 after a two-month siege.
The French subsequently withdrew from Vietnam.
Edward F. Murphy, Semper Fi Vietnam: From Da Nang to the DMZ, Marine Corps Campaigns,
1965-1975 (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1997), 189.
The Viet Cong, or as it was more properly known, the People's
liberation Armed Forces (PLAF), included regular forces, called main force
VC, full-time guerrillas, and a part-time self-defense militia.
The main force VC battalions were organized, trained, and equipped
similarly to the PAVN battalions.
Pham Van Son. Tet - 1968
(Salisbury, NC: 1980), 458.
Don Oberdorfer, Tet! (New York: Avon, 1972), 225.
George W. Smith, The Siege at Hue (New York: Ballentine Books, 2000), 17; Keith W.
Nolan, Battle for Hue (Novato, CA:
Presidio Press, 1983), 3.
James J. Wirtz, The Tet Offensive: Intelligence Failure in War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell
University Press, 1991), 98.
Jack Shulimson, Leonard A. Blasiol, Charles R. Smith and David A.
Marines in Vietnam: The Defining Year 1968
(Washington, D.C.: Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1997), 171.
Westmoreland message to Wheeler, dated 31 Jan 68, Westmoreland
Messages, Westmoreland Papers, Center of Military History, quoted in
Shulimson, et al., 174.
Quoted in Shulimson, et al., 176.
Shulimson, et al., 176.
1st Marines (Rein), 1st Marine Division (Rein)
Combat Operations After Action Report (Operation HUE CITY), dated 20 Mar
1968, 11 (hereafter referred to as 1st Marines AAR).
1st Marines AAR, 13; Marine quoted in Shulimson, et al,
Quoted in Shulimson, et al, 179-180.
Quoted in Stanley Karnow. Vietnam,
A History (New York: Penguin Book, 1997), 545.
Quoted in Shulimson, et al, 185.
Quoted in Murphy, 206; Nolan, 77-9.
Quoted in Shulimson, et al, 201.
Quoted in Shulimson, et al., 202.
Shulimson, et al, 204-205.
Ibid., 211; Nolan, 172.
Shulimson, et al., 219.
Quoted in Shulimson, et al, 223.
Quoted in Smith, 141-142.
Capt. G. R. Christmas, "A Company Commander Reflects on Operations
Hue City," in The Marines in Vietnam
1954-1973, An Anthology and Annotated Bibliography, ed. Edwin H.
Simmons, et al (Washington, D.C.: Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1974),
Nicholas Warr, Phase Line Green: the
Battle for Hue, 1968 (Annapolis, MD:
Naval Institute Press, 1997), 124.
Quoted in Shulimson, et al, 188.
Shulimson, et al, 219.
There are indications that public opinion had already begun to shift
by the end of 1967, but the Tet Offensive certainly accelerated this shift.
James R. Tet Offensive 1968: Turning Point in Vietnam. London: Osprey, 1990. One of the Osprey Military Campaign
Series that contains extremely good maps, diagrams, and photographs.
Cavalry Division, 14th Military History Detachment, Combat After
Action Report - Op Hue, Period 2-26 February 1968, dated 16 August 1968.
Marine Division, 1st Mar Div Commanders AAR, Tet Offensive, 29
Jan -14 Feb 68, dated 25 May 68.
Marine Division, TF X-Ray AAR, Operation Hue City, with enclosures, dated 14
Marines (Rein), 1st Marine Division (Rein) Combat Operations
After Action Report (Operation HUE CITY), dated 20 Mar 1968.
Ronnie E. Tet 1968: Understanding the
Frank Cass, 1995. Addresses the intelligence breakdown that contributed to the
surprise and impact of the Tet Offensive.
Eric M. Fire in the Streets: the Battle of Hue, Tet 1968.
Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1991.
A very thorough hour-by-hour, day-by-day account of the battle that
also addresses the strain that the surprise attack put on the South
Stanley. Vietnam: A History, 2d
revised and updated ed. New
York: Penguin Books, 1997.
One of the most comprehensive overall accounts of the entire American
experience in the Vietnam War that provides a useful context for the events
that unfolded in Hue in 1968.
Charles A. The Lost Battalion: Controversy and Casualties in the Battle of Hue. Westport,
CN: Praeger, 1993. A first-hand
account from the battalion intelligence officer of 1/12 Cavalry of
operations by the 1st Cavalry Division against the PAVN forces on
the outskirts of Hue in February, 1968.
Edward F. Semper Fi: From Da Nang to the DMZ, Marine Corps Campaigns, 1965-1975.
Novato, CA: Presidio, 1997. Addresses
U.S. Marine Corps operations in I Corps Tactical Zone during the Vietnam
Keith William. Battle for Hue: Tet, 1968.