By Staff Sgt Bruce Martin, USMC
When the Viet Cong shattered the Tet truce to enter South Vietnam’s most revered and ancient city of Hue, Marines left their war in the mountains, jungles and rice paddies to fight house to house. For both sides, it was a costly, bitter engagement.
It was the dirtiest kind of warfare.
Marines swapped the war in the rice paddies for the streets of South Vietnam’s most beautiful city – Hue. Here Marines fought North Vietnamese regulars and Viet Cong in house-to-house combat.
To retake the city which had fallen into the hands of the enemy at the outset of the Vietnamese Lunar New Year (Tet), the Marines would have to meet a threefold challenge: first, destroy as many of the enemy as possible; second, keep their own casualties to a minimum; and, third, spare as much of the city from destruction as was humanly possible.
Initially, elements of the First and Fifth Marine Regiments were sent into the city to relieve pressure on the U.S. Military Advisory Command (MACV) compound located on the southern side of the Perfume River, which divides Hue. The Marines, spearheaded by tanks, pushed the Red invaders away from the MACV compound, then turned to securing the southern half of the city.
Fighting was slow, hard, street by street, house by house.
Civilian refugees flooded the streets, often walking into the middle of a firefight between Marines and Communists.
From the rooftops, snipers fired on Marines. From street barricades, the Communists fired rockets at Marine armor. And the enemy gunners indiscriminately mortared and rocketed Marines giving aid to civilian refugees.
For the Marines, it was the first time that they had been involved in street fighting since Santo Domingo in 1965, and the first major fight in a large city since they recaptured Seoul during the Korean War in 1951. Their memory was soon refreshed as they carried the fight to the enemy.
Marine snipers, like Sergeant William L. Hardey who was credited with killing five enemy soldiers in 10 minutes, inflicted severe casualties on the enemy.
Tenacity was the byword for Marines taking the shattered buildings one by one. Private First-Class Norman Estelle led the way for one of the numerous assaults to dislodge the enemy from once-peaceful homes turned into strong points. His own assault routed five of the enemy from their position, forcing them to leave behind a variety of weapons, including machine guns, rocket launchers, rifles, pistols, grenades, satchel charges and several boxes of ammunition.
There were cases when just a hunch on the part of a Marine paid dividends in keeping Marine casualties low. PFC. Bill Tant figured that sniper fire he and his buddies had been receiving came from a harmless-looking tree. His friends laughed when he fired his M-79 grenade launcher at its branches. They stopped laughing when a dead enemy soldier tumbled from the tree.
There were times when the Marines found themselves momentarily outgunned by the enemy. But they responded with determination as did, for example, PFC Donald R. Bergman, who noticed an enemy 57 mm recoilless rifle aiming in on his company from only 100 meters away. The gun barrel protruded slightly from a recessed embrasure. Bergman knocked the weapon out with a light antitank weapon – the hard way.
Because of the angle of the gun to Bergman’s position, the Marine had to ricochet his missile off a pole to make it hit the enemy position. One dead VC was found at the gun site and blood trails indicated two others manning the gun were also wounded. The enemy gun never had a chance to fire its first shot.
The spirit of the Iwo Jima flag raisers also prevailed during the fight when a trio of Marines from Co H, 5th Marines, replaced a VC flag with the Stars and Stripes shortly after they had recaptured the Thua Thien Province headquarters.
The VC flag was hauled down by PFCs. Walter R. Kaczmarek and Allan V. MacDonald. Gunnery Sergeant Frank A. Thomas joined the pair to raise an American flag he had been given by another Marine.
It was shortly after the American flag was raised that the southern half of Hue returned to Allied control. Only small pockets of enemy resistance remained to be mopped up.
On the northern banks of the Perfume River stood the centuries-old Citadel, built to halt invading hordes of Chinese hundreds of years ago. Its 12-foot-thick walls surrounding the ancient Imperial Palace from which Vietnam’s emperors once ruled were commanded by well-entrenched VC holding out in a fight to the death against attacking Republic of Vietnam forces.
It was only after the Marines had assured the allied command that the enemy no longer posed a serious threat to the southern half of Hue that they were sent to battle in the 6-square-mile redoubt. Again, the challenge to the Marines was to carefully measure their destructive power and use only minimum means to destroy the enemy.
The long, straight streets of the Citadel left the Marine armor open to virtually unchecked frontal attacks from Red rocketeers. The thick stone walls harbored impregnable machine guns and automatic weapons emplacements. Even the weather favored the enemy during the Marines’ initial attacks – in the low ceiling, supporting aircraft could not provide cover.
Yet, the Marines fought man to man, rifle to rifle, against the Reds, marking progress on some days by mere feet. When the monsoon rains broke, Marine aircraft flew in to give the riflemen the support needed to dislodge the last of the aggressors, permitting the Marines to capture the Imperial Palace without inflicting any serious damage to the treasures and artifacts stored within.
For the second time, Marines hoisted another American flag, this one on the ramparts of the Citadel. Hours later, the rest of the Citadel fell to ARVN forces who had been fighting on the Marines’ flank. Only isolated snipers remained throughout the entire city.
Marines pondered over the devastation caused during the 22-day-long battle. Allied air support, artillery fire, and Naval gunfire had been held to a minimum. The VC apparently had hoped that destruction caused by the fighting would be blamed on the Americans and incite the city’s 145,000 inhabitants to rally to the Communist cause. However, most of the Vietnamese were incensed by the audacity of the VC in bringing the war to their peaceful city.
One Hue resident rushed to a Marine rifleman to inform him that a North Vietnamese sniper was using his home as a sniper post. The Marine accompanied the Vietnamese to the house where the sniper was dispatched following a brief firefight. There were countless other cases where the Hue citizens, often at the risk of their own lives or those of their families, helped save the lives of Marines by pointing out enemy positions.
In one known case, a mass grave containing the bodies of 140 Vietnamese was uncovered by the allies. The dead had refused to aid the Communists.
When the battle was over, among the rubble and debris were more than 3,000 dead enemy soldiers who had given their lives for nothing more than the dream of obtaining a propaganda victory. Undeniably, they had fought well in a hopeless cause.
But the Marines had defeated the enemy in the place he had chosen to fight. It was the Marine, with his rifle in his hand, and, perhaps, a tight knot in the pit of his stomach, who had routed the invader from Hue.
Editor’s Note: From the Leatherneck Archives: May 1968