The Tet Offensive and the Media
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Battle of Hue: Vietnam War

Longest and bloodiest of all the Tet Offensive battles. The old imperial city of Hue, astride Highway 1 and located ten kilometers from the coast and a hundred kilometers south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), was a cultural and intellectual center of Vietnam. The city's Quoc Hoc school boasted among its alumni Ngo Dinh Diem, Ho Chi Minh, and Vo Nguyen Giap. South Vietnam's third largest city in 1968, Hue was a complex metropolis, divided by the Perfume River. North of the river, the two-square-mile Citadel formed the interior of the city, with the tightly packed district of Gia Hoi outside the Citadel's walls to the east. South of the river lay the hospital, the prison, the Catholic cathedral, many of the city's modern structures, and the newer residential districts.

The imposing Citadel was built in 1802. The fortress was surrounded by a zigzag moat and protected by an outer wall 30 feet high and 20 feet thick. The heart of the Citadel was the imposing Imperial Palace of Peace. There were two key Allied military installations in Hue: the headquarters (HQ) of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) 1st Division at the northwest corner of the Citadel and the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) compound on the south side of the river, near the eastern edge of the city. On the morning of January 30, 1968 Brigadier General Ngo Quang Truong, commander of the ARVN 1st Division, put his headquarters on alert after receiving reports of the premature Tet attacks against the cities to the south. Truong's move was critical in preventing a complete Communist takeover of Hue.

Inside the city, Communist supporters had been preparing for several months. Two days before the actual attack, elements of the Viet Cong (VC) 12th and Hue City Sapper Battalions slipped into Hue and began preparations. At 0200 on January 31, ARVN patrols reported battalion-sized People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) elements advancing on the city from the west. Aided by dense fog, these forces made their approach march unhindered. Less than two hours after the first reports, the 1st Division HQ compound came under attack from 122-mm rocket fire.

The main attack on Hue was made by two regiments. The 6th PAVN Regiment, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Trong Dan, attacked north of the river from the west. Its objective was the Citadel. The 4th PAVN Regiment, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Van, approached from the south and east. Initially delayed by an ARVN ambush, it finally attacked the southern part of the city and the MACV compound. By dawn, Communist forces held much of Hue south of the river, all of Gia Hoi, and the southern half of the Citadel. At 0800, they hoisted the Viet Cong flag on the huge flagpole in front of the Palace of Peace.

ARVN troops, however, still held the northern half of the Citadel, while inside the MACV compound, approximately 200 Americans and a handful of Australian advisors continued to hold out. These two unexpected Allied enclaves completely unhinged the Communist plans for holding the city. Some eight miles south of Hue, the U.S. Marine Corps base at Phu Bai received the distress call from the MACV compound and dispatched a relief column. Unfortunately, this force, Company A, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, commanded by Captain Gordon Batcheller, was far too small to accomplish the mission.

With additional augmentation, the Marines eventually reached the MACV compound. They were then ordered to move across the river and link up with General Truong's ARVN forces. The Marines still did not have enough combat power to accomplish that mission and were beaten back. Over the next few days, the Marine 1st Division continued to send units piecemeal into the action, all without achieving the desired effect of clearing the city.

When the Communists first stormed the city, they captured the jail and freed some 2,500 inmates, about 500 of whom joined the attacking forces. The PAVN troops also captured an ARVN depot, well stocked with American-made weapons and ammunition. For most of the next three weeks, the main Communist supply line into the city from the A Shau Valley, 30 miles to the west, remained open, ensuring that the attackers were well armed and supplied. Eventually, five PAVN reinforcing battalions joined the nine that made the initial assault.

Believing that the situation in Hue required only local mopping-up action, the American high command underestimated the size and nature of the PAVN threat until well into the battle. MACV Commander General William Westmoreland also continued to believe that the Communists would attempt to overrun Khe Sanh, and thus for several weeks he kept tight rein on Allied strategic reserve forces in that area. The nature of the urban fighting considerably neutralized U.S. advantages in mobility, and the desire to minimize the damage to Hue itself hamstrung the Allies' enormous firepower assets. As the fighting dragged on, however, ARVN I Corps commander Lieutenant General. Hoang Xuan Lam on February 12 finally authorized Allied forces to use whatever weapons necessary to dislodge the Communists.

In an attempt to cut the Communist supply lines into Hue, on February 2, the 2d Battalion, 12th Cavalry of the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division began an air assault into a landing zone six miles northwest of the city. Instead of cutting the supply lines, the Americans ran into a strong Communist blocking force. After three days of fighting, the 12th Cavalry was still four miles from the city. Meanwhile, another unit from the 1st Cavalry Division, the 5th Battalion, 7th Cavalry, approached from the west and attempted to link up with their sister battalion but were prevented from doing so until February 9.

PAVN blocking forces were much stronger than the Allies had anticipated. In fact, the units opposing the 1st Cavalry Division consisted of elements of the PAVN 304th, 325C, and 324B Divisions, all of which U.S. intelligence had placed at Khe Sanh massing to overrun the Marine base there.

By the second week in February, Westmoreland had committed six battalions to cutting off Hue. The 3d Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division (reinforced to a strength of four battalions) attacked from the west and north, and two battalions of the 101st Airborne Division attacked from the south. The Marines also continued to feed forces into the fight. By the time the south bank of the city was cleared on February 10, elements of the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines and 1st and 2d Battalions, 5th Marines were in the fight.

Late on February 11, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines crossed the river and joined the fight for the Citadel. ARVN forces, which now had close to 11 battalions in the city, had cleared about three-quarters of the Citadel, but the enemy stubbornly held on to the southernmost section against the river. For another two weeks, the bitter house-to-house fighting continued. In one of the few such instances in the Vietnam War, both sides used CS (tear) gas. Sometimes Allied progress was as slow as 200 meters per day.

On February 21, the 1st Cavalry Division finally closed off the last Communist supply route into the city. Three days later, the ARVN 2d Battalion, 3d Regiment overran the defenders on the south wall of the Citadel. On February 25, ARVN troops swept into the Imperial Palace, only to find that the few surviving Communist troops there had slipped away during the night. The battle for Hue was over.

On February 26, the Allies unearthed the first of the mass graves containing civilian victims of the Communist occupation. This systematic slaughter, which apparently was carried out by local VC cadres rather than PAVN regular troops, started as soon as the Communists had moved into Hue. Entire classes of people were purged—foreigners, intellectuals, religious and political leaders, and other "cruel tyrants and reactionary elements." Searchers eventually found 2,810 bodies, while thousands more remained missing. Vietnamese scholar Douglas Pike has estimated that the Communists may have assassinated as many as 5,700 people.

Hue was a costly battle. The U.S. Army suffered 74 dead and 507 wounded, the U.S. Marines lost 142 dead and 857 wounded, and ARVN losses totaled 384 dead and 1,830 wounded. PAVN and VC losses exceeded 5,000 dead, 89 captured, and countless more wounded. In addition to the civilians executed by the Communists, many others died or where hurt in the cross fire between the opposing forces. Fifty percent of the city was destroyed, leaving 116,000 civilians homeless—of a population of approximately 140,000. The experience produced a sharp change in the attitude of the population there against the Communists, even from among Communist sympathizers.

David T. Zabecki


Further Reading
Braestrup, Peter. Big Story. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1977.; Hoàng Ngoc Lung. General Offensives of 1968-69. Washington, DC: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1981.; Palmer, Dave R. Summons of the Trumpet. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1978; Pearson, Willard. The War in the Northern Provinces 1966-1968. Washington, DC: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1975.; Pike, Douglas. The Viet-Cong Strategy of Terror. Saigon: U.S. Mission South Vietnam, 1971.; Stanton, Shelby. The Rise and Fall of an American Army: U.S. Ground Forces in Vietnam 1965-1973. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1985.
 

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