Battle of Huế
The Battle of Huế (also called the Siege of Huế), was one of the bloodiest and longest battles of the Vietnam War. In February 1968 in the South Vietnamese city of Huế, eleven battalions of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), two U.S. Army battalions, and three understrength U.S. Marine Corps battalions, for a total of 16 battalions, defeated 10 battalions of the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN or NVA) and the Viet Cong (VC).
With the beginning of the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive on January 30, 1968, the Vietnamese lunar New Year (Vietnamese: Tết Nguyên Đán), large conventional American forces had been committed to combat upon Vietnamese soil for almost three years. Passing through the city of Huế, Highway 1 was an important supply line for ARVN, US and allied forces from the coastal city of Đà Nẵng to the Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). It also provided access to the Perfume River (Vietnamese: Sông Hương or Hương Giang) at the point the river ran through Huế, dividing the city into northern and southern parts. Huế was also a base for United States Navy supply boats. Considering its logistical value and its proximity to the DMZ (only 50 kilometres (31 mi)), Huế should have been well-defended, fortified, and prepared for any communist attack. However, the city had few fortifications and was poorly defended. While the ARVN 1st Division had cancelled all Tet leave and was attempting to recall its troops, the South Vietnamese and U.S. forces in the city were unprepared when the Viet Cong and the PAVN launched the Tet Offensive, attacking hundreds of military targets and population centers across the country, including Huế.:164
The PAVN/Vietcong forces rapidly occupied most of the city. Over the next month they were gradually driven out during intense house-to-house fighting led by the Marines and ARVN. In the end, although the Allies declared a military victory, the city of Huế was virtually destroyed and more than 5000 civilians were killed (2,800 of them executed by the PAVN and Viet Cong according to the South Vietnamese government). The Communist forces lost an estimated 2,400 to 8,000 killed, while Allied forces lost 668 dead and 3,707 wounded. The losses negatively affected the American public's perception of the war and political support for the war began to wane.
In the early morning hours of January 31, 1968, a division-sized force of PAVN and Vietcong soldiers launched a coordinated attack on the city of Huế. Their strategic objective was to "liberate" the entire city to help sweep the Communist insurgents into power. At 02:33, a signal flare lit up the night sky and two battalions from the PAVN 6th Regiment attacked the western bank of the fortress-like Citadel on the northern side of the city. Their objective was to capture the Mang Ca Garrison (ARVN 1st Division headquarters in the Citadel), the Tây Lộc Airfield, and the Imperial Palace. The PAVN 4th Regiment launched a simultaneous attack on the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) compound in the new City on the south side of the river.:166–7
At the Western Gate of the Citadel, a four-man North Vietnamese sapper team, dressed in ARVN uniforms, killed the guards and opened the gate. Upon their flashlight signals, lead elements of the PAVN 6th Regiment entered the old city. The 800th and 802nd Battalions pushed through the Western Gate and then drove north. On the Tây Lộc Airfield, the ARVN "Black Panther Company", reinforced by the 1st Division's 1st Ordnance Company, stopped the 800th Battalion. Although one battle account stated that the South Vietnamese "offered no strong resistance", the PAVN report acknowledged "the heavy enemy ARVN fire enveloped the entire airfield. By dawn, our troops were still unable to advance". The fighting for the airfield continued to seesaw, with first the ARVN having the upper hand and then the Communists.:167
The 802nd NVA Battalion struck the ARVN 1st Division headquarters at Mang Ca. Although the enemy battalion penetrated the division compound, an ad hoc 200-man defensive force of staff officers and clerks staved off the enemy assaults. General Truong called back most of his Black Panther Company from the airfield to bolster the headquarters defenses, which kept division headquarters secure.:167
At 08:00, North Vietnamese troops raised a Vietcong flag over the Citadel flag tower.:168
From February 12 through the 29th (it was a leap year) the embattled General Truong called in reinforcements. He ordered his 3rd Regiment; the 3rd Troop, 7th ARVN Cavalry; and the 1st ARVN Airborne Task Force to relieve the pressure on his Mong Ca headquarters. Responding to the call at PK 17, the ARVN base located near a road marker on Highway 1, 17 km north of Huế, the 3rd Troop and the 7th Battalion of the Airborne task force rolled out of their base area in an armored convoy onto Route l. A PAVN blocking force stopped the ARVN relief force about 400 meters short of the Citadel wall. Unable to force their way through the enemy positions, the South Vietnamese paratroopers asked for assistance.:168
The 2nd ARVN Airborne Battalion reinforced the convoy and the South Vietnamese finally penetrated the lines and entered the Citadel in the early morning hours of the next day. The cost had been heavy: the ARVN suffered 131 casualties including 40 dead, and lost four of the 12 armored personnel carriers in the convoy. According to the South Vietnamese, the enemy also paid a steep price in men and equipment. The ARVN claimed to have killed 250 PAVN, captured five prisoners, and recovered 71 individual and 25 crew-served weapons.:168
The 3rd ARVN Regiment had an even more difficult time. On the 31st, two of its battalions, the 2nd and 3rd, advanced east from encampments southwest of the city along the northern bank of the Perfume River, but PAVN defensive fires forced them to fall back. Unable to enter the Citadel, the two battalions established their night positions outside the southeast wall of the old City. Enemy forces surrounded the 1st and 4th Battalions of the regiment, operating to the southeast, as they attempted to reinforce the units in Huế. Captain Phan Ngoc Luong, the commander of the 1st Battalion, retreated with his unit to the coastal Ba Long outpost, arriving there with only three eight-round clips per man for their World War II vintage M1 Garand rifles. At Ba Long, the battalion then embarked upon motorized junks and reached the Citadel the following day. The 4th Battalion, however, remained unable to break its encirclement for several days.:168
South of the city, on January 31, Lieutenant Colonel Phan Hu Chi, the commander of the ARVN 7th Armored Cavalry Squadron attempted to break the enemy stranglehold. He led an armored column toward Hue, but like the other South Vietnamese units, found it impossible to break through. With the promise of U.S. Marine reinforcements, Chi's column, with three tanks in the lead, tried once more. This time they crossed the An Cuu Bridge into the new city. Coming upon the central police headquarters in southern Huế, the tanks attempted to relieve the police defenders, but an enemy B-40 rocket made a direct hit upon Lieutenant Colonel Chi's tank, killing him instantly. The South Vietnamese armor pulled back.:168
Three United States Marine Corps battalions were protecting the air base at Phú Bài (approximately 16 km southeast of Huế), Highway One and all western entrances to Huế, when there should have been two complete regiments.:169 The Commanding Officer of the Marines in Huế was Colonel Stanley S. Hughes, a veteran of World War II and the Korean War who had already been awarded the Navy Cross and Silver Star for action in World War II and was eventually awarded his second Navy Cross for Hue City.
On the night of January 30 – January 31, the same time the North Vietnamese struck Huế, the Marines faced rocket and mortar fire at the Phú Bài airfield and Communist infantry units hit Marine Combined Action Platoons (CAP) and local Popular Force and Regional Force units in the region including the Truoi River and Phu Loc sectors. At the key Truoi River Bridge, about 04:00 a PAVN company attacked the South Vietnamese bridge security detachment and the nearby CAP H-8. Colonel Hughes ordered Captain G. Ronald Christmas, commander of Company H 2nd Battalion 5th Marines to relieve the embattled CAP unit. The Marines caught the enemy force beginning to withdraw from the CAP enclave and took it under fire. Seeing an opportunity to trap the North Vietnamese, Cheatham reinforced Company H with his Command Group and Company F.:170
With his other companies in blocking positions, Cheatham hoped to catch the enemy against the Truoi River. While inflicting casualties, the events in Huế were to interfere with his plans. At 10:30, January 31, Company G departed for Phu Bai as the Task Force reserve. Later that afternoon, the battalion lost operational control of Company F. Captain Downs years later remembered the company "disengaged ... where we had them pinned up against a river, moved to the river and trucked into Phu Bai." With the departure of Company F about 16:30, the PAVN successfully disengaged and Companies H and E took up night defensive positions. 2/5 Marines killed 18 enemy troops, took 1 prisoner, and recovered sundry equipment and weapons including 6 AK-47s, at a cost of three Marines killed and 13 wounded.:171
While the fighting continued in the Truoi River and the Phu Loc sectors, the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines had begun to move into Huế city. In the early morning hours of January 31 after the rocket bombardment of the airfield and the initial attack on the Truoi River Bridge, Task Force X-Ray received reports of enemy strikes all along Route l between the Hai Van Pass and Huế. All told, the enemy hit some 18 targets from bridges, Combined Action units, and company defensive positions. With Company A, 1/1 Marines as the Phu Bai reserve, Colonel Hughes directed Lieutenant Colonel Gravel to stage the company for any contingency. At 06:30, Colonel Hughes ordered the company to reinforce the Truoi River Bridge. All Captain Batcheller recalled several years later was that "we were rousted up about 04:00 on the 31st and launched south on trucks to rendezvous with and reinforce ARVN forces about a map sheet and a half south of Phu Bai.":171
Up to this point the fighting for Huế had been entirely a South Vietnamese affair. General LaHue, the Task Force X-Ray commander, actually had very little reliable intelligence on the situation. All he knew was that Truong's headquarters had been under attack, as was the MACV Compound. Because of enemy mortaring of the LCU ramp in southern Huế, the allies had stopped all river traffic to the city. As LaHue later wrote: "Initial deployment of forces was made with limited information.":171
As the Marines approached the southern suburbs of the city, they began to come under increased sniper fire. In one village, the troops dismounted and cleared the houses on either side of the main street before proceeding. The Marine convoy stopped several times to eliminate resistance in heavy house-to-house and street fighting before proceeding again. At about 15:15 after bloody fighting the Marines managed to make their way toward the MACV Compound. By this time, the enemy attackers had pulled back their forces from the immediate vicinity of the Compound. Lieutenant Colonel Gravel met with Army Colonel George O. Adkisson, the U.S. senior advisor to the 1st ARVN Division.:171–3
Leaving Company A behind to secure the MACV Compound, the Marine battalion commander took Company G, reinforced by the three M-48 tanks from the 3d Tank Battalion and a few South Vietnamese tanks from the ARVN 7th Armored Squadron, and attempted to cross the main bridge over the Perfume River. Gravel left the armor behind on the southern bank to provide direct fire support. As he remembered, the American M-48s were too heavy for the bridge and the South Vietnamese tankers in light M-24 tanks "refused to go." As the Marine infantry started across, an enemy machine gun on the other end of the bridge opened up, killing and wounding several Marines. One Marine, Lance Corporal Lester A. Tully, later awarded the Silver Star for his action, ran forward, threw a grenade, and silenced the gun. Two platoons successfully made their way to the other side. They turned left and immediately came under automatic weapons and recoilless rifle fire from the Citadel wall. The Marines decided to withdraw.:174-4 This was easier said than done. The enemy was well dug-in and firing from virtually every building in Huế city north of the river. The number of wounded was rising, the Marines commandeered some abandoned Vietnamese civilian vehicles and used them as makeshift ambulances to carry out the wounded. Among the casualties on the bridge was Major Walter M. Murphy, the 1st Battalion S-3 or operations officer, who later died of his wounds.:174
By 20:00, the 1/1 Marines had established defensive positions near the MACV Compound and a helicopter landing zone in a field just west of the Navy LCU Ramp in southern Huế. On that first day, the two Marine companies in Huế had sustained casualties of 10 Marines killed and 56 wounded. During the night, the battalion called in a helicopter into the landing zone to take out the worst of the wounded. The American command still had little realization of the situation in Huế.:174
The next morning at 07:00, COL Gravel launched a two-company assault supported by tanks towards the jail and provincial building. The Marines did not progress further than one block before they came under sniper fire. A tank was knocked out by a 57 mm recoilless rifle. After that the attack was stopped and the Battalion returned to the MACV Compound. North of the Perfume River, on the 1st, the 1st ARVN Division enjoyed some limited success. Although the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 3rd ARVN Regiment remained outside of the Citadel walls unable to penetrate the PAVN defenses, the 2nd and 7th Airborne Battalions, supported by armored personnel carriers and the Black Panther Company, recaptured the Tây Lộc airfield.:176
About 15:00, the 1st Battalion, 3rd ARVN reached the 1st ARVN command post at the Mang Ca compound. Later that day, U.S. Marine helicopters from HMM-165 brought part of the 4th Battalion, 2nd ARVN Regiment from Đông Hà into the Citadel. Eight CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters made the flight in marginal weather with a 200–500 foot ceiling and one mile visibility, arriving in an improvised landing zone under enemy mortar fire. The deteriorating weather forced the squadron to cancel the remaining lifts with about one-half of the battalion in the Citadel.:176
Shortly after 15:00 Company F, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines made a helicopter landing into southern Huế. They were to relieve a MACV Microwave/Tropo communications facility surrounded by a Vietcong force. It was the main communications link for the Huế area, the DMZ, and for Khe Sanh. The company spent the better part of the afternoon trying to reach the isolated United States Army Signal Corps 513th Signal Detachment, 337th Signal Company, 37th Signal Battalion communications site which was approximately 2.5 km southeast of the MACV Compound. They never made it. The Company sustained casualties of 3 dead and 13 wounded.:176
On February 1, General Cushman alerted the 1st Cavalry Division commander, Major General John J.Tolson, to be ready to deploy his 3rd Brigade into a sector west of Huế. By 22:15 that night, Tolson's command had asked III MAF to coordinate with I Corps and Task Force X-Ray its designated area of operations in the Huế sector. Tolson's plan called for an air assault by two battalions of the 3rd Brigade northwest of Huế. The 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry was to arrive in the landing zone first, followed by the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry to be inserted near PK-17. Attacking in a southeasterly direction, the two battalions would then attempt to close the enemy supply line into Huế.:177
Under difficult circumstances, the 1st Cavalry began its movement into the Huế area. In mid-afternoon on 2 February, the 2/12th Cavalry arrived in a landing zone about 6 miles (10 km) northwest of Huế. The Cavalry force soon encountered two dug-in NVA Battalions which they were unable to overcome as fog prevented their usual gunship support. The 2/12 Cavalry withdrew to a night defensive perimeter, but at dawn on 3 February following a mortar barrage the NVA attacked their position and the attack was only beaten back with heavy artillery fire. Losses continued to mount throughout the day from mortar and small arms fire and that night the Battalion commander decided to breakout from the encirclement by a night march to a hill from where they could be resupplied and the casualties medevaced.
In southern Huế, on February 2, the Marines made some minor headway and brought in further reinforcements. The 1st Battalion finally relieved the MACV radio facility that morning and later, after a three-hour fire fight, reached the Huế University campus. Although the PAVN, during the night, had dropped the railroad bridge across the Perfume River west of the city, they left untouched the bridge across the Phu Cam Canal. About 11:00, Company H, 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, commanded by Captain G. Ronald Christmas, crossed the An Cuu Bridge over the canal in a 'Rough Rider' armed convoy.:177
As the convoy, accompanied by Army trucks equipped with quad .50 machine guns and two M50 Ontos, entered the city, enemy snipers opened up on the Marine reinforcements. Near the MACV compound, the Marines came under heavy enemy machine gun and rocket fire. The Army gunners with their quad .50s and the Marine Ontos, each with six 106 mm recoilless rifles, quickly responded. In the resulting confusion, the convoy exchanged fire with a Marine unit already in the city. About mid-day, the NVA, continued to block any advance to the south. An enemy 75 mm recoilless rifle knocked out one of the supporting tanks. By the end of the day, the Marines had sustained 2 dead and 34 wounded and claimed to have killed nearly 140 of the enemy. The battalion consolidated its night defensive positions and waited to renew its attack on the following day.:177–8
Heavy street fighting followed the Marines all the way through the city for more than three weeks. Marines of the 1st and 5th Regiments, fighting alongside the ARVN 1st Division, and also supported by U.S. Army 7th and 12th Cavalry Regiments drove the PAVN and Vietcong forces out of Huế little by little and retook the city one block at a time.
Many of the Marines of Task Force X-Ray had little or no urban combat experience, and the US troops were not trained for urban close-quarters combat, so this battle was especially tough for them. Due to Huế's religious and cultural status, Allied forces were ordered not to bomb or shell the city, for fear of destroying the historic structures. Also, since it was still monsoon season in that area of the country with heavy rain and low clouds on many days during the battle, it was virtually impossible for the U.S. forces to use air support.:185–6 But as the intensity of the battle increased, the policy was eliminated. The communist forces were constantly using snipers, hidden inside buildings or in spider holes, and prepared makeshift machine gun bunkers. They organized local counterattacks and, during the night, they prepared explosive booby traps. Sometimes booby traps were even placed under dead bodies.
On 6 February the Marines captured the Provincial Headquarters which had served as the command post of the PAVN 4th Regiment and raised an American flag to celebrate their victory but shortly thereafter were ordered to lower it, for in accordance with South Vietnamese law, no US flag was permitted to be flown without an accompanying South Vietnamese flag.:189–90
Battle for the Citadel
On 24 February 1968, the Imperial Palace was secured and the elite Black Panther Company of the ARVN 1st Division, along with Task Force X-Ray, tore down the NLF flag, which had flown since the battle's start on January 31. By 25 February the PAVN and Vietcong had been completely pushed out of the city.:210–11
The Communist forces suffered heavy losses in this battle, losing 5,133 men at Huế; about 3,000 more were estimated to be killed outside of the city (according to MACV). Moreover, in addition to the significant civilian casualties inflicted in the battle by U.S. forces to retake the cities from the Vietcong and PAVN, eighty percent of the city was destroyed by US airstrikes.
Comparisons with Fallujah
The November 2004 anti-insurgent Marine operation in the city of Fallujah that took place during the Iraq War, has been compared to the Battle of Hue. Both battles were fought in close quarters in an urban setting where the enemy ensconced itself in the midst of civilians. In Fallujah, Sunni insurgents turned mosques into fortresses, in a similar way to how NVA forces utilized Buddhist temples in Hue. Both battles also had insurgents and other forces utilizing snipers, significantly increasing the combat potential of the combatants, while the Marines also constituted the advanced fighting elements of the US forces deployed in both Hue and Fallujah. Lastly, both battles constituted some of the heaviest fighting that took place in their respective wars. The operation in Fallujah killed 95 U.S. servicemen, while operations in Hue resulted in more than 200 U.S. servicemen being killed.
Impact on American public opinion
Militarily, Huế was an Allied victory, because the PAVN and Vietcong forces were driven from the city paying a heavy price for their offensive, but because of the change in the opinion of the American public, Huế was the beginning of the end. Marine Captain Myron Harrington who commanded a one-hundred-man company during the battle said: "Did we have to destroy the town in order to save it?" Years later in a 1981 interview, Harrington answered in the affirmative, saying "I think in the case of Huế that it was required, because the NVA wanted it." From this time forward, American support for the war in Vietnam declined, and during the next five years American involvement slowly but steadily decreased until March 1973 when the last American troops left Vietnam and communist forces captured Saigon in 1975, thus ending the war.
In popular culture
In the 1987 film Full Metal Jacket (based on Gustav Hasford's 1979 novel The Short-Timers), the main characters are sent from Đà Nẵng to Huế to cover the fighting, and the majority of the Vietnam scenes take place during the battle.
The Battle of Hué is referenced in the 2012 novel The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam
The Battle of Huế also appears in the video games Battlefield Vietnam (2004), Conflict: Vietnam (2004), Men of Valor (2004), Vietcong 2 (2005), and Call of Duty: Black Ops (2010), which covers the protagonists attempting to break into the MAC-V compound and subsequently fighting their way out.
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Contemporary news reporting
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- Lescaze, Lee (1968-02-24). "Hue Marines Keep Determined Vigil Over a Dead Comrade". Washington Post. pp. A8.
- Emery, Fred (1968-02-25). "Allies Clear Enemy from Hue's Palace". Washington Post. pp. A1.
- "Hue Ruin Inspected By Thieu". Washington Post. 1968-02-26. pp. A1.
- "After 26-Day Battle, Hue Is Devastation and Misery". Hartford Courant. 1968-02-27.
- Braestrup, Peter (1968-02-29). "Capture of Hue Citadel Was a Must for S. Viet Unit". Washington Post. pp. A22.
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- Braestrup, Peter (1968-03-07). "Foe Seen Aiming At Hue". Washington Post. pp. A1.
- "Unburied Dead Lie Around the Citadel". Hartford Courant. 1968-03-10. pp. 18A.
- "After "Tet", Measuring and Repairing Damage". Time. 1968-03-15. Retrieved 2007-04-18.