Battle of Huế
The Battle of Huế – also called the Siege of Huế – was one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War. Between 30 January and 3 March 1968, in the South Vietnamese city of Huế, 11 battalions of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), four U.S. Army battalions, and three U.S. Marine Corps battalions – totaling 18 battalions – defeated 10 battalions of the People's Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong (VC).
By the beginning of the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive on January 30, 1968 – coinciding with the Vietnamese lunar New Year (Vietnamese: Tết Nguyên Đán) – large, conventional, U.S. forces had been committed to combat operations on Vietnamese soil for almost three years.
Highway 1, passing through the city of Huế, was an important supply line for ARVN, US, and Allied Forces from the coastal city of Da Nang to the Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). It also provided access to the Perfume River (Vietnamese: Sông Hương or Hương Giang) at the point where 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 5,000 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.
- 1 Planning
- 2 Battle
- 3 Mopping-up operations
- 4 Aftermath
- 5 Huế under Communist control
- 6 Impact on American public opinion
- 7 Analysing the battle
- 8 Comparisons with Fallujah
- 9 In popular culture
- 10 See also
- 11 References
- 12 External links
Huế – the ancient imperial capital city of Vietnam – was a hundred kilometers south of the DMZ. It had a population of nearly 140,000, making it the third largest city in the Republic of South Vietnam. The Citadel, or Imperial City, is the walled in portion of Hue sitting on the north bank of the Perfume River. The walls of the fortress form a square with sides of 2,500 meters. The outer stone wall is one meter thick, five meters high and is separated from the inner wall by dirt fill. The distance between the walls varies from 75 meters to 17.5 meters. Half the population lived within the Citadel in 1-2 story houses surrounded by stones walls.
On the south side of the river was the new city of Huế, which contained most of the main government buildings, schools, and university set on wide boulevards. Connecting the old and new cities were the Trường Tiền Bridge ( Huế had great symbolism as the former capital of Vietnam since 1802 under the Nguyễn dynasty, and Ho Chi Minh, Phạm Văn Đồng, Võ Nguyên Giáp and Ngô Đình Diệm had all attended the Lycée in the city. Huế had been at the center of the Buddhist crisis of 1963, and other than the city's Catholics, its population of Buddhists and intellectuals were lukewarm supporters of the Nguyễn Văn Thiệu/Nguyễn Cao Kỳ government.:45), which carried Highway 1, and further west was the Bach Ho rail bridge.
The North Vietnamese plan for the Tet Offensive was known as the General Offensive-General Uprising. The General Offensive was to comprise conventional and guerilla military action aimed primarily at the "puppet" South Vietnamese military and government, destroying their legitimacy among the South Vietnamese population. The General Uprising was the expectation that the oppressed South Vietnamese population would then spontaneously rise up and overthrow the Thiệu/Kỳ government and that this would force the U.S. to withdraw in the face of the will of the people. The strategic objective at Huế was to capture/"liberate" and hold the city leading to the establishment of a revolutionary government.:59–60 While some senior PAVN leaders were skeptical about the plan, believing that the population was unlikely to rise up and that they could only hold out against the ARVN and U.S. forces for a few days before they would be forced to withdraw, they followed their orders, while younger soldiers were convinced by the party propaganda that they were on the verge of a great victory that would end the war.:60–4 When the PAVN/VC forces left their base camps west of Huế to commence the attack they had no intention of returning.:83
The ARVN and Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) were largely unprepared for the Tet Offensive, MACV's focus was on the Battle of Khe Sanh where a PAVN assault was believed to be imminent. In preparation for this MACV was in the middle of Operation Checkers, moving the 3rd Marine Division to Quảng Trị Province in order to support Khe Sanh and defeat any other PAVN attack across the DMZ.:16 Premature Tet Offensive attacks at Nha Trang and Qui Nhơn on the morning of 30 January led to the cancelation of the Tet ceasefire, but many ARVN soldiers were already away on leave, meaning that defenses in and around Huế were undermanned.:164
On the night of 30 January it started to rain; from 2 February onwards this rain, low cloud and fog would last throughout much of the battle and severely hamper Allied air and artillery support.:43:29
In the early morning hours of January 31, 1968, a division-sized force of PAVN and VC soldiers launched a coordinated attack on the city of Huế. At 02:33, a signal flare lit up the night sky, and two battalions from the PAVN 6th Regiment attacked the western wall of the Citadel. Their objective was to capture the Mang Ca Garrison, headquarters of Brigadier General Ngô Quang Trưởng's 1st Infantry Division in the northeast corner of the citadel. Other objectives included the Tây Lộc Airfield, and the Imperial Palace.
At the Chanh Tay gate (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. A 40-man assault team that was tasked with attacking Mang Ca through a sewer found the entrance blocked and moved around to assault the Huu Gate ( ) at the southwest corner of the Citadel, they were engaged by an ARVN machine gun and lost 24 men before seizing their objective.:106–7 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 PAVN.:167) on the west wall of the Citadel, a six-man PAVN
The 802nd PAVN 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 Trưởng 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, PAVN troops raised a liberation flag over the Citadel flag tower.:168
South of the river the PAVN 4th Regiment launched a simultaneous attack on the MACV compound (:166–7) in the new city. The attackers were engaged by a machine gunner in a guard tower and troops in a bunker who were able to hold off the attack for long enough to allow others in the compound to form a cohesive defense.
In the early morning a U.S. Army helicopter was shot down over the city, the crew sought refuge with a group of ARVN in a small compound. A U.S. Army UH-1 Huey piloted by CWO Frederick Ferguson landed in the compound and rescued the crew under fire, for his actions CWO Ferguson was subsequently awarded the Medal of Honor.:127–8
After failing to take Mang Ca and the MACV Compound in their initial assaults, the PAVN/VC did not attempt to seize them again, instead keeping them under fire and generally adopting a defensive posture, this tactical mistake allowed the ARVN and U.S. to bring in the reinforcements that would eventually clear the city.:29–30
The embattled General Trưởng 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 Mang 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 Highway 1. 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. 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 PAVN/VC stranglehold. He led an armored column toward Huế, 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 over the Phu Cam Canal (B-40 rocket made a direct hit upon Lieutenant Colonel Chi's tank, killing him instantly. The South Vietnamese armor pulled back.:168) into the new city. Coming upon the central police headquarters in southern Huế, the tanks attempted to relieve the police defenders, but an enemy
Three United States Marine Corps battalions were protecting the air base at Phú Bài (approximately 16 km southeast of Huế), Highway 1 and all western approaches 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 Marines faced rocket and mortar fire at the Phú Bài airfield and PAVN/VC 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 about 04:00 a PAVN company attacked the ARVN security detachment defending the Truoi River Bridge of Highway 1 ( ) and the nearby CAP H-8. Colonel Hughes ordered Captain G. Ronald Christmas, commander of Company H, 2nd Battalion 5th Marines to relieve the CAP unit and Company H engaged the PAVN/VC as they withdrew from the CAP position. Seeing an opportunity to trap the PAVN/VC, Lieutenant Colonel Ernie Cheatham reinforced Company H with his Command Group and Company F.:170 With his other companies in blocking positions, Cheatham hoped to pin the PAVN/VC against the Truoi River. However at 10:30, January 31, Company G was ordered to Phu Bai as the Task Force reserve and Company F was removed from Hughes' operational control later that afternoon. 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 PAVN/VC and captured 1, 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 Highway 1 between the Hải Vân Pass and Huế. All told, the enemy hit some 18 targets from bridges, CAP units, and company defensive positions. With Company A, 1/1 Marines as the Phu Bai reserve, Colonel Hughes directed LtCol Marcus 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." The convoy was then turned around and sent towards Huế.:171
Up to this point the fighting for Huế had been entirely a South Vietnamese affair. Brigadier General Foster LaHue, the Task Force X-Ray commander, actually had very little reliable intelligence on the situation. All he knew was that Trưởng'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
Initial U.S. Marines counter-attacks
As the Marines approached the southern suburbs of the city they came 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. LtCol Gravel met with Army Col George O. Adkisson, the senior U.S. 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 3rd Tank Battalion and a few ARVN M-24 light tanks from the 7th Armored Squadron, and attempted to cross the Trường Tiền Bridge, 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 ARVN tankers "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
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 Combat Base into the Citadel. Eight CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters made the flight in marginal weather with a 200–500 feet (61–152 m) ceiling and 1 mile (1.6 km) visibility, arriving in an improvised landing zone under enemy mortar fire. The deteriorating weather forced the squadron to cancel the remaining lifts with about 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 VC force. It was the main communications link for the Huế area, the DMZ, and for the besieged Khe Sanh Combat Base. 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
The 1st Cavalry Division attacks PAVN supply lines
On 20 January, the 1st Cavalry Division began moving 350 km north from Landing Zone English in Bình Định Province to Camp Evans as part of Operation Checkers. While the helicopters and men of the Division were soon in position, most of their heavy and support equipment was loaded on trucks that would have to proceed by convoy up Highway 1. While a new supply port was being constructed on the coast, the Division relied on the Marine supply line at Tân Mỹ Base and supply convoys along Highway 1 from Da Nang.:228 On the night of 31 January, the PAVN/VC launched a mortar attack on Camp Evans which caused an ammunition dump to explode, disabling most of the helicopters of the 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion.:232–7 Other attacks along Highway 1 damaged or destroyed 20 bridges and 26 culverts between the Hải Vân Pass and Phu Bai and Highway 1 was closed to convoy traffic until early March.:230
On 1 February, III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF) Commander General Robert 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 5th 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
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 PAVN Battalions around the villages of Que Chu and La Chu ( The 2/12th Cavalry dug in in position for the next 4 days.:343) which they were unable to overcome as fog prevented their usual gunship support. The 2/12th Cavalry withdrew to a night defensive perimeter, but at dawn on 3 February following a mortar barrage the PAVN 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 an ARVN hilltop position from where they could be resupplied and the casualties medevaced.
On 8 February 5/7th Cavalry began moving southwest from PK-17 towards La Chu while 2/12th Cavalry were ordered to retrace their route to form the southern pincer for an attack on the PAVN stronghold.:346 As the 5/7th Cavalry approached Que Chu the command and control helicopter was shot down by anti-aircraft fire, the crew was rescued by a dustoff helicopter. Company B then walked into an ambush north of Que Chu and was pinned down in the open with little cover, they were only able to withdraw after calling in close artillery support. Company D was also engaged by PAVN in the village of Lieu Coc and forced to withdraw. 1/7th Cavalry then dug in to night defensive positions.:347–9 On 9 February 5/7th Cavalry resumed their advance with artillery support from PK-17 and naval gunfire, they overran Lieu Coc finding PAVN bodies and fighting positions. As they moved closer to La Chu PAVN resistance increased and it was obvious that this was a major PAVN base. 5/7th Cavalry would be stalled north of La Chu for 2 weeks, probing but failing to penetrate the PAVN defenses.:351–2
On 16 February deputy COMUSMACV General Creighton Abrams flew into PK-17 for a meeting with General Tolson where Abrams expressed his displeasure at the Cavalry's slow progress. Following this visit 2 more cavalry Battalions (1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment and 2nd Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment) and additional air and artillery support were committed to the attack on La Chu.:475:45
On 21 February following intensive radar-guided airstrikes and artillery strikes, the 4 Cavalry battalions launched a four-pronged attack from the north, west and south on Que Chu and La Chu. While the PAVN strongly defended the perimeter, once the Cavalry forces broke through with the support of 2 newly arrived M42 Dusters, they found that the base had been largely abandoned while the Cavalry had been building up their forces for the attack. The Cavalry had finally captured the PAVN's main support base, but were still 8 km from the Citadel.:477–84 The 3rd Brigade would not reach the west wall of the Citadel until 25 February by which time the PAVN/VC had successfully withdrawn from the battlefield.:216 It was estimated that it would have taken at least 16 battalions to establish an effective cordon around Huế, at this time there were only 30 battalions available in all of I Corps.:28
Recapture of southern Hue
On the night of 1/2 February PAVN sappers successfully dropped the Bach Ho (railroad) and the Trường Tiền Bridges across the Perfume River, restricting movement from the south towards the Citadel, but had failed to drop the An Cuu Bridge over the Phu Cam Canal.:177
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. LtCol Gravel launched a two-company assault supported by tanks towards the provincial headquarters (Huế University building at the base of the Trường Tiền Bridge 2 blocks northwest of the MACV Compound so reducing enemy fire towards the LCU Ramp.:185–6 The Marines then tried to assault the Treasury building ( ) in the next block, but were stopped by fire from the 100 plus PAVN defenders and flanking fire from the Le Loi Elementary School.:269 The battalion consolidated its night defensive positions and waited to renew its attack on the following day. About 11:00, Company H, 2/5 Marines, crossed the An Cuu Bridge 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 and the Marine Ontos, quickly responded, in the resulting confusion, the convoy exchanged fire with a Marine unit already in the city. About mid-day, the PAVN, 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.:177–8 That night the PAVN overran the ARVN defenders at the Thua Thien prison releasing the prisoners, many of whom were VC who were soon armed with captured ARVN weapons and joined the fighting.:268) and Thua Thien prison, 7 blocks west of the MACV Compound where the ARVN were believed to still be holding out. The Marines did not progress further than one block before their advance was halted and after 3 hours of room to room fighting, the Marines captured the
Back at Phu Bai LtCol Cheatham was reviewing Marine urban fighting doctrine which recommended staying off the streets and moving forward by blasting through walls and buildings. He proceeded to gather the necessary equipment including M20 Bazookas, M40 106mm recoilless rifles mounted on M274 Mules, C-4 explosive, flamethrowers, tear gas and gas masks. This equipment was loaded onto a convoy which arrived at the MACV Compound at 1 pm on 3 February, LtCol Cheatham then joined his Company commanders in Huế University and they proceeded to develop the tactics to be used in recapturing southern Huế.:239–43
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 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. But as the intensity of the battle increased, the policy was eliminated.:185–6 PAVN tactics were to hold the Marines close, negating the use of artillery and air support. A forward fighting line was maintained directly opposite the Marines with a secondary line 2 blocks back. Each building on the fighting lines was defended by snipers and machine guns, while spider holes were dug in gardens and streets, creating cross-fire between all buildings and streets. If the Marines penetrated the forward line the PAVN moved to the secondary line and then reoccupied the abandoned positions at night.:268
On the night of 3 February, the PAVN commander seeing the buildup of Marines at Huế University thinned out his frontline forces leaving just a platoon to defend the Treasury Building and adjacent post office.:272–3 On the morning of 4 February the Marines launched their attack on the Treasury complex, the initial assault was on the left flank by Company A, 1/1 Marines which was tasked with securing a Catholic chapel and the Jeanne d'Arc High School ( ). The Marines secured the chapel and the east school building, but were pinned down for hours by interlocking fire from the west building. During this action Sergeant Alfredo Cantu Gonzalez would be killed while firing on PAVN machine gun positions, he was later posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in the battle. The Marines eventually broke into the west building and cleared it room by room.:274–8 Due to the delays on the left flank, the main assault in the centre by Company F, 2/5 Marines was delayed until mid-afternoon. The Treasury compound was hit by M-48 and 106mm fire and tear gas, while a Mule-mounted 106mm engaged the machine gun in the Le Loi Elementary School. Under cover of the tear gas and the 106mm backblast the Marines crossed the street and blew holes in the wall using C4 and Bazookas. The Marines then pushed into the Treasury building which the PAVN had hastily abandoned. The post office also seemed abandoned until the Marines located a vault inside the building, they proceeded to gas out the PAVN inside killing more than 24 of them as they emerged.:280–6 After securing the Jeanne d'Arc High School, Company A, 1/1 Marines recaptured the Le Loi Elementary School, more than half the Company's 147 men had been wounded or killed in that day's fighting.:288 That evening VC sappers succeeded in blowing up the An Cuu bridge, cutting the road link to Phu Bai.:290
Following the capture of the Treasury complex, LtCol Cheatham continued his methodical advance to the west leading with tear gas, M-48s and Ontos, followed by Mules and Marines, while PAVN resistance reduced as its manpower and ammunition was depleted.:320–2 The PAVN no longer tenaciously defended each building, relying more on sniper fire, mortars and rockets.:81 On 5 February the Marines recaptured the Huế Central Hospital complex ( ), rescuing LtCol Pham Van Khoa, the Mayor of Huế and Thua Thien Province chief who had been hiding in the grounds.:331
On 6 February the Marines attacked the Provincial Headquarters which served as the command post of the PAVN 4th Regiment. While the Marines seized the surrounding wall easily the area between the wall and the building was covered by fire from every window and spider-holes in the grounds. An Ontos was brought forward to blast an entry into the building, but was disabled by a B-40 rocket and a Mule was brought forward to blow a hole in the building and the Marines advanced under cover of tear gas. Entering the building the Marines fought room by room, clearing the building, but many of the PAVN slipped away. With the building secured the Marines then cleared out the spider-holes methodically shooting their occupants.:332–5 The Marines 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
After resting his men at the Provincial Headquarters, LtCol Cheatham resumed his advance west towards the Phu Cam canal then swung south and east to clear the area with the canal to his right.:361
On 7 February the PAVN twice ambushed a 25 vehicle supply convoy supported by 2 Ontos going along Route 547 (11th Marines Rockcrusher Firebase ( ), killing 20 Marines and wounding 39.) from Phu Bai to the
LtCol Gravel's 1/1 Marines had been clearing the area to the east and south of the MACV Compound and on 10 February they captured the soccer stadium ( ) providing a second, safer helicopter landing zone.:356 A pontoon bridge had been built across the Phu Cam Canal, restoring the road access that had been lost when the An Cuu Bridge was blown.:370
On 11 February Company H, 2/5 Marines secured a bridge over the Phu Cam Canal (Huế Railway Station that had been sheltering PAVN snipers before withdrawing back across the bridge.:99–101 On 13 February Companies F and H crossed the bridge again with the aim of securing the entire area, as the Marines advanced into the open countryside towards the Từ Đàm Pagoda they located fresh PAVN graves and then were hit by a barrage of mortar fire, forcing them to withdraw. The Marines had inadvertently located the PAVN headquarters for the battle.:105) and the block on the opposite side. The next day Company F swept the west bank of the canal fighting through houses and the
On 13 February, General Abrams established MACV Forward at Phu Bai, assuming overall control of all U.S. forces in I Corps.:140
Battle for the Citadel
Within the Citadel the ARVN 1st Battalion, 3rd Regiment and the 1st Airborne task force cleared out the north and western parts of the Citadel including Tây Lộc Airfield and the Chanh Tay Gate, while the 4th Battalion, 2nd Regiment moved south from Mang Ca towards the Imperial Palace, killing over 700 PAVN/VC by 4 February. On 5 February General Trưởng exchanged the Airborne with the 4th Battalion, which had become stalled. On 6 February the 1st Battalion captured the An Hoa Gate on the northwest corner of the Citadel and the 4th Battalion captured the southwest wall. On the night of the 6th, the PAVN counterattacked, scaling the southwest wall and pushing the 4th Battalion back to Tây Lộc. On the 7th General Trưởng ordered the 3rd Regiment, which had been futilely trying to break into the southeast corner of the Citadel to move to Mang Ca to reinforce his units inside the Citadel.:192
On 10 February 2 forward observers from the Marines 1st Field Artillery Group were flown into Tây Lộc to help coordinate artillery and naval gunfire to support the fighting within the Citadel, however General Trưởng instructed them that the Imperial Palace was not to be fired on.:195
On 11 February the Vietnamese Marines Task Force A comprising the 1st and 5th Battalions, began to be lifted by helicopter into Mang Ca to replace the Airborne, however due to poor weather this deployment would not be completed until 13 February. At 10:45 on 11 February Company B, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines was airlifted aboard Marine CH-46s into Mang Ca, however enemy fire forced several of the helicopters to return to Phu Bai. The Marines together with 5 M-48s from the 1st Tank Battalion would later be loaded onto Mike Boats at the LCU Ramp in southern Hue and ferried across to Mang Ca.:197
On 13 February Companies A and C 1/5 Marines left Mang Ca and moved south along the eastern wall of the Citadel, while Company B remained in reserve. Unknown to the Marines, the ARVN Airborne had withdrawn from the area two days previously when the Vietnamese Marines began to arrive at Mang Ca and the PAVN defenders had used this opportunity to reoccupy several blocks and reinforce their defenses, Company A was engaged by the PAVN and quickly suffered 35 casualties. The 1/5 Marines commander Major Robert Thompson ordered Company B up to relieve Company A and the advance continued slowly until it was halted by PAVN flanking fire from the Dong Ba Gate (:199 On 14 February the Marines resumed their attack supported by Marine and Navy gun fire and Marine close air support, but despite this support they made little progress as they had to withdraw when supporting fire was called in and the PAVN quickly reoccupied abandoned positions, after a day of attacks the Marines withdrew to their night defensive positions.:200 Company D 1/5 Marines arrived in the Citadel on the evening of 14 February after taking fire while crossing the Sông Hương. On 15 February Company D led the renewed attack against the Dong Ba Gate with Company C defending its flank, Company B joined the assault and after 6 hours the Marines had secured the base of the gate and later the entire gate at a cost of 6 Marines killed and 50 wounded and 20 PAVN killed. Overnight the PAVN counterattacked and briefly regained control of the Dong Ba Gate before being forced out by Company D.:201).
Also on 14 February the Vietnamese Marine Task Force A joined the battle. The operational plan was for the Marines to move west from Tây Lộc and then turn south, however they were soon stopped by strong PAVN defenses; after two days the Vietnamese Marines had only advanced 400 metres. Meanwhile, the ARVN 3rd Regiment fought off a PAVN counterattack in the northwest corner of the Citadel.:204 On the night of 16 February a radio intercept indicated that a battalion size PAVN force was about to launch a counterattack over the west wall of the Citadel, artillery and naval gunfire was called in and a later radio intercept indicated that a senior PAVN officer had been killed in the barrage. Later that night a radio message from the commander of PAVN forces in the Citadel was intercepted, he stated that his predecessor had been killed and requested permission to withdraw from the city but this request was denied and they were told to stand and fight.:204–5
On 16 February the 1/5 Marines advanced approximately 140 metres for a cost of 7 Marines killed and 47 wounded and 63 PAVN killed.:201 That day at a meeting at Phu Bai between General Abrams, BG LaHue, General Trưởng and South Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyễn Cao Kỳ, Kỳ approved the use of all necessary force to clear the PAVN and VC forces from the Citadel, regardless of damage to historic structures.:205
On 17 February the Vietnamese Marines and ARVN 3rd Regiment resumed their attacks south, while the Black Panther Company was moved to support the right flank of the 1/5 Marines, over the next 3 days these forces would slowly reduce the PAVN's perimeter.:206
By 20 February the 1/5 Marines advance had stalled and after conferring with his commanders Major Thompson decided to launch a night attack against 3 PAVN strongpoints that were blocking further movement with the entire Battalion attacking at daybreak. At 03:00 on 21 February, the 3 ten-man teams from 2nd Platoon of Company A launched their assault, quickly capturing the sparsely defended strongpoints which the PAVN withdrew from overnight. As the PAVN moved to reoccupy the strongpoints at dawn they were caught in the open by the Marines, 16 PAVN were killed for the loss of 3 Marines. The Marines were now only 100 metres from the south wall of the Citadel. That evening Company B was replaced by Company L, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines.:207–8 Unknown to the ARVN and the U.S., on the night of 20 February the PAVN had begun a phased withdrawal from the Citadel, leaving through the Huu and Nha Do ( ) gates and making their way southwest to return to their bases in the hills.:490
At 09:30 on 22 February, Company A 1/5 Marines led the day's attack to find that the PAVN had largely disappeared and the south wall was soon secured.:208 Company L 3/5 Marines was then tasked with clearing the area to the Thuong Tu Gate and out to the Trường Tiền Bridge, advancing with tank and air support they completed the mission meeting little resistance.:208–10
To the west the South Vietnamese forces continued to meet stubborn resistance. On 22 February after a barrage of 122mm rockets the PAVN counterattacked the Vietnamese Marines who pushed them back with the support of the Black Panther Company. 23 February saw little progress prompting General Abrams to suggest that the Vietnamese Marine Corps should be dissolved. On the night of 23 February the PAVN attempted another counterattack but were forced back by artillery fire and the ARVN 3rd Regiment launched a night attack along the southern wall of the Citadel, at 05:00 they raised the South Vietnamese flag on the Citadel flag tower and proceeded to secure the southern wall by 10:25. General Trưởng then ordered the 2nd Battalion 3rd Regiment and the Black Panther Company to recapture the Imperial City and this was achieved against minimal resistance by late afternoon. The last remaining pocket of PAVN at the southwest corner of the Citadel was eliminated in an attack by the 4th Vietnamese Marine Battalion in the early hours of 25 February.:210–11
While 1/1 Marines conducted mopping-up operations in southern Hue, 2/5 Marines had been conducting patrols south of the Phu Cam Canal. On 24 February 2/5 Marines launched an operation to the southwest of Huế to relieve the ARVN 101st Engineering Company whose compound (:211–3) had been under siege by the PAVN since the start of the battle. As the Marines approached the base at 07:00 they were met by PAVN mortar and machine-gun fire, artillery fire was called in on the PAVN positions and the Marines entered the base at 08:50. The base remained under fire from PAVN positions in a Buddhist temple to the south and a ridgeline to the west and at 07:00 on 25 February Companies F and G began to attack the ridgeline, but were met by intense mortar fire. Under cover of supporting fires the Marines secured part of the ridgeline, killing 3 PAVN for the loss of 1 Marine dead. The attack resumed the following morning and the ridge was secured with 20 PAVN and 2 Marines killed. Company H attacking a nearby hill was met with a stubborn defense, losing one dead and killing 6 PAVN. Company H withdrew so that air strikes could be launched and these knocked out mortar and machine gun positions killing 20 PAVN, however one bomb fell short killing 4 Marines. On 27 February the entire battalion attacked the hill but the PAVN had withdrawn during the night leaving behind 14 dead.
On 28 February 1/5 Marines and 2/5 Marines launched an operation to the east of Huế to try to cut off any PAVN forces fleeing from Huế towards the coast. While the Marines encountered few PAVN in their sweeps they located various abandoned infrastructure that had been used to support the battle including a 3 km trench system with over 600 fighting holes. On 2 March 1968 the Marines concluded Operation Hue City.:213
The fighting in other parts of South Vietnam during Tet was generally confined to a week or sometimes less, however the battle for Hue City was the longest, lasting from 31 January through 2 March 1968.:70
ARVN losses were 452 killed and 2,123 wounded, while U.S. losses were 216 killed and 1,584 wounded. PAVN losses are a matter of debate. The PAVN's Department of Warfare gives figures of 2,400 killed and 3,000 wounded from 30 January until 28 March. A PAVN document captured by the ARVN stated that 1,042 troops had been killed in the city proper and that several times that number had been wounded.:213 MACV gave figures of 5,133 killed at Huế.
844 civilians were killed and 1,900 wounded during the battle. 4,856 civilians and captured ARVN personnel were executed by the PAVN/VC or went missing during the battle according to the South Vietnamese government.
In addition to the significant civilian casualties inflicted in the battle, eighty percent of the city was destroyed and 116,000 civilians out of the pre-battle population of 140,000 were made homeless.:216
Huế under Communist control
The PAVN/VC were generally greeted with little enthusiasm by the population of Huế. Power and water supply into the city had been cut off, and people were aware that the ARVN and U.S. forces would soon counterattack.:125 While a few joined the PAVN/VC and others supported them by digging fortifications and preparing food, most of the population either tried to flee behind the ARVN/U.S. lines or were taking shelter in their homes or in churches and pagodas, which they hoped would be safe.:268
The PAVN set up provisional authorities shortly after capturing Huế charged with removing the existing Republic of Vietnam (RVN) administration from power within the city and replacing it with a "revolutionary administration." Working from lists of "cruel tyrants and reactionary elements" previously developed by Viet Cong intelligence officers, many people were to be rounded up following the initial hours of the attack. These included ARVN soldiers, civil servants, political party members, local religious leaders, schoolteachers, American civilians and other international people. Cadres called out the names on their lists over loudspeakers, ordering them to report to a local school. Those not reporting voluntarily were hunted down.
The PAVN/VC's actions were based on a series of orders issued by the PAVN High Command and the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam (PRG). In a 3500-page document issued on January 26, 1968, by the Trị-Thiên-Huế Political Directorate, the political cadres were given specific instructions: Operating in close support of the regular military and guerrilla elements, the political cadre were to: destroy and disorganize the Republic of Viet Nam's (RVN's) administrative machinery "from province and district levels to the city wards, streets, and wharves;" motivate the people of Hue to take up arms, pursue the enemy, seize power, and establish a revolutionary government; motivate (recruit) local citizens for military and "security" forces .. transportation and supply activities, and to serve wounded soldiers . . . ;" "pursue to the end (and) punish spies, reactionaries, and "tyrants" and "maintain order and security in the city".
Those identified by the PAVN/VC were initially marched out of the city for "reeducation", however few returned. Those deemed guilty of the most serious "crimes" were speedily tried and executed. As the PAVN area of control within Huế shrank, the pace of executions increased to prevent the "enemies of the people" being freed by ARVN or U.S. forces or identifying the VC who had revealed themselves.:49 Mark Bowden suggests that PAVN/VC anger at the lack of enthusiasm among the population of Huế may have fuelled the purges particularly as defeat loomed closer.:525
Estimates of Vietnamese civilians massacred by the PAVN/VC at Huế range from 2800 (based on bodies exhumed from mass graves) to almost 6000. According to Mark Bowden, South Vietnamese forces killed 1000-2000 people after the battle.:470
Foreign civilians captured in the city received varying treatment. Some were marched north into captivity, while others were executed, including 3 West German doctors, 2 French Benedictine monks and 2 U.S. government employees.:171–4
French journalists Catherine Leroy and Francois Mazure were captured by the PAVN but allowed to return to U.S. lines bringing photos of the PAVN side of the battle that were subsequently published in the 16 February 1968 edition of Life Magazine.
Impact on American public opinion
The initial press statements by MACV played down the events in Huế, claiming that only a small part of the city had fallen to a small enemy force and that the city would soon be fully restored to South Vietnamese Government control and that the main attack would be directed against Khe Sanh. This and subsequent optimistic reports were soon contradicted by press reports as journalists made their way into the city and reported on the extent of PAVN/VC control and the bitter house-to-house fighting that was underway.
On 10 February 1968, CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite visited southern Huế to film footage for a special report on the Vietnam War.:362 The "Report from Vietnam: Who, What, When, Where, Why?" screened on 27 February 1968, Cronkite closed the report with the editorial comments:
|“||We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. They may be right, that Hanoi's winter-spring offensive has been forced by the Communist realization that they could not win the longer war of attrition, and that the Communists hope that any success in the offensive will improve their position for eventual negotiations. It would improve their position, and it would also require our realization, that we should have had all along, that any negotiations must be that – negotiations, not the dictation of peace terms. For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. This summer's almost certain standoff will either end in real give-and-take negotiations or terrible escalation; and for every means we have to escalate, the enemy can match us, and that applies to invasion of the North, the use of nuclear weapons, or the mere commitment of one hundred, or two hundred, or three hundred thousand more American troops to the battle. And with each escalation, the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic disaster.
To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy's intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.:504–5
After watching Cronkite's editorial report, President Lyndon Johnson is purported to have said, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America." This account has been questioned in a book on journalistic accuracy.
Militarily, Huế and the entire Tet Offensive were Allied victories, however the shock of the Tet Offensive, coming so soon after General Westmoreland's "End in view" tour of the U.S. November 1967, undermined the credibility of General Westmoreland and his strategy within the Johnson Administration.:496–8 Over the coming months U.S. public opinion turned decisively against the war.:519
Analysing the battle
Throughout the entire battle the U.S. command consistently underestimated the size of the PAVN/VC forces engaged and the Allied forces necessary to deal with them.:185–6 Initially forces were identified as coming from the PAVN 4th, 5th and 6th Regiments. Additional battalions were later identified as coming from the 29th Regiment of the 325C Division, the 90th and 803d Regiments of the 324B Division and the 24th Regiment of the 304th Division, 3 of these Regiments were believed to be involved in the siege of Khe Sanh. Allied intelligence estimated that 16-18 PAVN Battalions totalling 8-11,000 soldiers were engaged in the battle.:213 Allied air and artillery support was restricted by the poor weather, supply difficulties and, initially, by restrictions intended to limit damage to Huế's historic structures.
While PAVN/VC defeat was inevitable in the face of U.S. firepower, the failure to sever the PAVN supply lines and isolate the battlefield meant that the battle lasted longer and was more costly to the ARVN and U.S. than was necessary.:216 Until the last week of the battle the ARVN, U.S. Marines and 1st Cavalry each fought separate, largely uncoordinated battles without any unified command structure, no overall strategy and competing demands for logistics, air and artillery support.:223 Delaying the counterattack until a clear strategy was developed and the necessary forces assembled might have reduced casualties among the ARVN, U.S. forces and civilians and shortened the battle.:519–20
The battle was an ARVN/U.S. victory in only the narrowest sense in that they had evicted the PAVN/VC from the city at heavy cost but failed to annihilate them. The PAVN/VC failed to hold the city or spark a General Uprising, but they had undermined confidence in the Thiệu/Kỳ Government and prospects of victory. Unplanned by the North Vietnamese, their greatest success was the shock and negative impact of the battle and the entire Tet Offensive on U.S. public opinion.:524–5
PAVN General Trần Văn Trà later wrote of the Tet Offensive "We did not correctly evaluate the specific balance of forces between ourselves and the enemy... [its objectives] were beyond our actual strength...in part an illusion based on our subjective desires."
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.
In his analysis of the Battle of Fallujah, Jonathan F. Keiler, a military historian and former officer in the Judge Advocate General's Corps, compares it to both Israel's Siege of Beirut and the Battle of Hue. He wrote:
The Marine Corps' military operations in urban terrain doctrine recognizes that tactical success does not necessarily translate to strategic victory. It notes the Israeli's tactical victory in Beirut was a strategic defeat—and observes the same about the Battle of Hue in the Vietnam War, when Marines defeated an enemy that sought to put up a good fight but never expected to win. Much the same can be said of Fallujah's defenders. In spite of the beating they took in November, they will continue to assert they repelled the initial attack and fought well thereafter.
In popular culture
The Huế War Museum (Vietnamese: Bảo tàng Cách mạng Thừa Thiên Huế) located inside the Citadel displays various weaponry used in the battle.
Film and literature
The battle comprises the second half of Stanley Kubrick's 1987 film Full Metal Jacket. The film is based on Vietnam veteran Gustav Hasford's semi-autobiographical 1979 novel The Short-Timers, part of which is also set during the battle of Huế.
This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the United States Army Center of Military History. This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the United States Marine Corps.
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