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
As a small boy I was terrified by Bud Abbot and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein, a comedy which featured Lou Costello in constant danger of being attacked by such horror film villains as Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Wolf Man. Each time Lou was in peril, I would hide my eyes, while my dad would comfort me with the words, “Don’t worry. It’s only a movie.” I soon relaxed. No one was really hurt.
In 1969, I became the senior advisor to a South Vietnamese River Assault and Interdiction Division (RAID), consisting of 21 river boats which had been transferred from the U.S. Navy’s “Brown Water Navy.” I was a Navy lieutenant, and I was assisted by about six enlisted men. We provided technical support and advice in the maintenance and operation of the heavily armed boats. We liaised with U.S. units when the Vietnamese needed air or artillery support. We also helped with logistics in obtaining fuel and ammunition.
My position as an advisor gave me a sense that I was sort of an observer of the passing scene, only becoming involved when help was needed. While I had been to school to learn riverine tactics, the Vietnamese had actually been at war for decades. I had more to learn than to teach.
RAID 72 had the job of transporting a battalion of Vietnamese marines into combat in the U-Minh Forest of the Mekong Delta. We would typically put the marines ashore at a point determined by intelligence to have a concentration of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. Our boats would then move into blocking positions, while the marines with air and artillery support would attempt to drive the enemy into our ambush. More commonly, the enemy would fade into the jungle while the marines gave futile chase, leaving the boats to sit and wait for the marines to return.
During Tet of 1968 the enemy had suffered so many casualties that they withdrew into the U-Minh Forest to lick their wounds and to regroup. Both the U.S. and South Vietnamese believed we had the enemy on the run. The South Vietnamese launched a “Dark Forest” Campaign to destroy the remaining enemy in that area.
Our boats carried the marines down a long, narrow canal, the Song Cai Lon. We had to fight our way down. Ahead of my boat, a monitor (a boat bristling with guns) was sunk by an IED made from a U.S. 500 lb. bomb, killing all five sailors on board.
Ever the dispassionate observer, I photographed the boat as it was sinking. After all, this seemed just a movie. There was nothing for me to do but to send a report.
Farther down the canal we bivouacked at a place on the canal shown as the village of Dong Hung. It had been destroyed years before, the villagers had been relocated to a government area, and the jungle had closed in. Still there were the 273rd North Vietnamese Regiment and thousands of VC.
The marines established a small command post (CP) at Dong Hung and the main force went out into the jungle to find the enemy. Our boats moored on both banks of the canal near the CP. My Vietnamese counterpart, Lieutenant Commander Binh, the commanding officer of RAID 72, explained to me that the plan for defending ourselves if attacked was to move the boats to the outside ends of the stretch of the canal bounding our encampment. The boats could then have interlocking fields of fire. I had been concerned that no defensive barrier had been established, no barbed wire had been strung, nor had trees been felled to provide those fields of fire. They assured me that this would have to do since they did not know how long we would be there. I just thought about Roman Legions on the march who erected timber palisades wherever they stopped, even if it were only for the night.
I don’t recall how many days we were there while the marines were away looking for the enemy. Reports generated by me tracked Vietnamese marine movements, engagements, casualties, and the status of boats. In addition to the 110 Vietnamese sailors, there was one of my enlisted advisors, Radioman 3rd class Bruce McIver, and two enlisted advisors from RAID 74, which provided some of the boats in our group of twenty-one. At night, I would lie under mosquito netting on an air mattress and listen to the chatter on my AN/PRC-25 short range (VHF FM) radio. There were just brief communications between the U.S. Marine advisor, Maj. Mike Cerreta, and the pilot of an Army single-engine forward air control (FAC) aircraft which coordinated air support.
At about 1 a.m. on November 6, I was listening to the Marine advisor and the FAC pilot when the FAC signed off and headed for his base. That meant that there would be no further communication, so I drifted off to sleep. Thirty minutes later, I was jarred awake by explosions all around me. Was this just a movie? Mortar rounds were impacting throughout the CP and among the boats. Soon, it became apparent that we were under attack by a large force, perhaps two battalions (500-600 men each) armed with 82 mm mortars, 60 mm mortars, 57 mm recoilless rifles, rocket propelled grenades (RPG), Chinese machine guns, and AK-47 assault rifles. Swarming from the jungle, they quickly overran the CP, destroying tents, huts, bunkers, and communication equipment. The small contingent of Vietnamese marines and their U.S. advisors were forced to retreat onto the boats.
Plans to move the boats to the edges of the CP evaporated under the speed of the attack. Soon the enemy was among us, climbing on some boats with hand grenades and satchel charges. Most boats got underway from the west bank of the canal and moved to the east bank, for, although we were completely surrounded, the main force of the attack was from the west.
Maj. Cerreta retreated to my Command and Control Boat (CCB) with many Vietnamese marines, some of whom were badly wounded. The CCB tried to back off the west bank but it was tied with nylon lines to a bush on the bank. The CCB backed at full power, but it could only fishtail helplessly three feet from the bank while the enemy on the bank was raking us with rockets and small arms fire. Maj. Cerreta and I crawled to the bow trying to free the line, but it was hopeless. The major even tried unsuccessfully to shoot the line in half with his military issue 1911 Colt.45 Cal pistol.
I jumped below, fetched my Buck knife, and ran back up to the deck. We had been hit by four B40 RPGs, and the boat was on fire from burning fuel. I told Maj. Cerreta that I was going to crawl up and cut the line. Reinforcing my feeling that this was only a movie, he held up his pistol and said, “I’ll cover you!” I crawled exposed up to the bow and found a Vietnamese marine still trying fruitlessly to free the line; I shoved him aside and cut it loose. The CCB quickly moved to the east bank, only 20 yards from the enemy who pounded us with crew manned weapons from the west bank. We fired back with every weapon we had.
The fierce fighting continued until dawn. A medevac helicopter relayed a request for air support. This turned out to be Shadow and Spooky gunships, cargo planes fitted with high speed Vulcan guns. Those Gatling type guns fired so many rounds that it appeared they were pouring liquid metal on the enemy.
In the morning, I organized the evacuation of the many wounded. A man pressing a battle dressing against his belly to hold his intestines in place was begging me to get the helicopters there fast. Each time the helos approached, the VC would fire mortars at us.
After it was all over, I had fired every one of the 500 rounds of M-16 ammunition that I had. A quick survey revealed that all of the boats were out of ammunition, too. I urgently requested helo delivery of all types of ammunition. It did not arrive until the following day. Had we been attacked that night, we would have been wiped out.
Searing my soul for life is a scene from the morning after the fight. Lacking body bags, the Vietnamese had wrapped one of our sailors in a plastic rain poncho. I remember thinking irrationally as I looked at the face limned against the plastic, “He can’t breathe!” Then it came home to me â he would never breathe again! We suffered 44 killed and 151 wounded. Seventy-five enemy bodies were found.
The night of November 8, the enemy attacked again, this time sinking two boats, but we held them off again, but with more casualties on both sides. My realization at this point that this was not a movie and that I had nearly five more months of this affected me deeply. Clearly, this was serious business.
The week in March 1970 that I left Vietnam, we killed a VC whose possessions included a citation for his role in the November 6, 1969 attack on us. Unfortunately, the same firefight which killed that VC resulted in the death of a U.S. Army advisor to Regional and Popular Forces we were transporting.
Al Bell is a writer and publisher who just released his second book “Sea Story!” and Other Sketches: Memories and musings from a life of adventure. Available from Amazon.com/books (search term; “CDR BELL”). My first book, “Sea Story!” & Other Sketches, is still available there.
The book is a collection of previously published stories, essays, rants, and musings by ‘Skipper Al’ Bell, whose adventurous life has given him a unique perspective on the world. The writings range from interesting accounts of real events to humorous lampoons and fiction. Some are inspiring, while others are ironic. The gentle reader may not agree with the author on some issues, in which case the reader is almost certainly wrong. His writings are part Mark Twain, part Jonathan Swift, and a large dose of Mad Magazine. Some stories are serious and uplifting. Others reflect brooding depression. All are entertaining.
Although the Tet Offensive began on Jan. 31, 1968 when the North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces launched massive, well-coordinate surprise attacks on major cities, towns and military bases throughout South Vietnam, it’s planning began in early 1967. The plan’s architect was General Vo Nguyen Giap, North Vietnam’s most brilliant military mind. He also engineered the Viet Minh’s decisive victory over French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
His overall plan for the Tet Offensive was somewhat similar: to ignite a general uprising among the South Vietnamese people; shatter the South Vietnamese military forces; and topple the Saigon regime. At the same time he wanted to increase the level of pain for the Americans by inflicting more casualties on U.S. Forces. At the very least, he and the decision-makers in Hanoi hoped to position themselves more favorably in any peace negotiations they hoped would take place in the wake of the offensive. Much in the same way the April 1954 Geneva Agreements forced France to abandon its colonies on the Indochinese peninsula.
The first step in Giap’s plan was to draw U.S. and Allied attention away from the population centers, which would be their ultimate objectives for the 1968 Tet Offensive. This phase began in the summer months of 1967when NVA forces engaged the Marines in a series of sharp battles in the hills surrounding Khe Sanh, a base in western Thua Thien Province, south of the DMZ near the Laotian border. Further to the east, additional NVA forces besieged the Marine base at Con Thien just south of the Demilitarized Zone. Further south, Communist forces attacked Loc Ninh and Song Be, both in III Corps Tactical Zone, and in November they struck U.S. forces at Dak To in the Central Highlands.
In purely tactical terms, these “border battles” were costly failures for the Communists and they no doubt lost some of their best troops; three enemy regiments were mauled so badly that they were unavailable for the January 1968 Tet Offensive. In the intense bloody battle of Dak To alone Communist fatalities were estimated at 1,455 enemy killed.
However, at the operational level, these battles achieved the intent of Giap’s plan by diverting General Westmoreland’s attention to the outlying areas and away from the urban target areas that would be struck during the Tet attacks.
In late December 1967, intelligence indicate a significant enemy built-up in the Khe Sanh area. Westmoreland, his staff and the White House decided that this build-up signified that the enemys main effort would take place at Khe Sanh. In anticipation of the big battle, Westmoreland began ordering large numbers of American units north leaving urban areas vulnerable to attack.
On January 21, 1968, North Vietnamese artillery began large-scale shelling of Khe Sanh followed by renewed heavy fighting in the hills surrounding the Marine base. This surge of enemy attacks confirmed Westmoreland’s assumption that Khe Sanh was the focal point of a new Communist offensive. But he was mistaken. It was a ruse planned by Giap.