Comrade Giap’s Clever Nuggets is yet another series, where David Galster shares some of his tips and techniques in scenario research and design for CS: Vietnam.
What do Ho Chi Minh, Vo Nguyen Giap, and Ngo Dinh Diem all have in common?They attended the Quoc Hoc High School in Hue. (At various times, of course.) The school (Lycee) was located on the south bank of the Perfume River in the “modern” city sector. But, don’t worry comrades, this article covers Tet Offensive military operations around Hue.
The Imperial City
Hue was the the ancient imperial capital of Vietnam. Its great symbolism dated back to 1802 under the Nguyen dynasty. With a population of 140000, it was the third largest city in the Republic of Vietnam.
Construction of he walled city on the north bank of the Perfume River (Song Hu’o’ng) began in 1804 under Emperor Gia Long. Thousands of workers were conscripted to build the walls and surrounding moat, measuring 10 km per side. The original earthwork was later reinforced, and faced with brick and stone, resulting in 2 meters thick ramparts.
The Citadel, or Imperial City, is the walled-in portion within the larger walled city. The walls of the fortress form a square with sides 2500 meters long. The outer stone wall is one meter thick, five meters high and is separated from the inner wall by dirt fill. The architecture was modelled after the Forbidden City in Beijing, because of strong Chinese influence during the early Nguyen Dynasty.
The Ngo Mon Gate to the Imperial City
Intellectual and Religious Aloofness
The beautiful and serene city of Hue was the cultural center of Vietnam. It attracted a large community of intellectual and religious elites, who embraced Confucian traditional values. Buddhist influence was strong as well, as Hue had many pagodas, with numerous ascetic monks observing rituals and practicing meditation.
The academic and religious atmosphere fostered an aloofness to the rest of the country, and particularly the war. Naturally, the elites mistrusted the Americans, but also the Hanoi Communists as well. The Ngo Dinh Diem regime had shown Catholic favoritism, and so the Buddhists resented the central Saigon government.
A “militant” Buddhist uprising began when Thich Quang Duc burned himself to death on a Saigon street as an act of defiance in 1963. The prominent activist leader was Thich Tri Quang, who agitated his followers, and initiated the 1966 “Struggle Movement.”
Despite Hue’s aloofness and reputation for dissidence, the Viet Cong had failed to take advantage of the situation. Neither the South Vietnamese Army nor Viet Cong troops showed any aggression in the surrounding area or in Hue itself. A sort of unspoken truce was in effect. Hue had been like an oasis, affording both sides a respite from the war.
The NVA Attack
The tranquillity would soon end. The NVA’s Tri-Thien-Hue Front, commanded by Maj. Gen. Tran Van Quang had redeployed the 4th and 6th Regiments from Base Area 114, 20 km west of Hue. They knew US and ARVN forces were concentrated in the north, expecting attacks along Route 9. Hue was a weak link. As a North Vietnamese author wrote: “The enemy knew nothing of our strategy; by the time our forces approached the city of Hue, the enemy still had not taken any specific defensive measures.”
The NVA operation, commanded by Secretary Le Tu Minh, (Provincial Party Committee,) would deploy 6th Regiment’s 800 and 802 Battalions to attack the old city of Hue. The objectives were to capture the entire Citadel including the Mang Ca compound, Tay Loc Airfield, and the Imperial City. Meanwhile, the 4th Regiment’s 804 Battalion attacked the “modern” city on the south bank of the Perfume River. The 804 Battalion objectives were capture of the Provincial Building, prison, and occupy university and government buildings, including the MACV HQ.
On 30 January, NVA shock troops and sappers entered the old city, disguised as peasants. Their uniforms and weapons were hidden in baggage, and under their street clothes. They mingled with the Tet holiday crowds. These were from the Hue City Sapper Battalion. They went to predesignated positions, and awaited the attack signal.
At 0233, 31 January, a flare lit up the sky. At the Citadel Western Gate, a four-man sapper team, disguised as ARVN, killed the guards and opened the gate. The 800 and 802 NVA Battalions poured through the gate, and drove north. The Hue upheaval had begun.
The NVA command also provided the 9th Regiment to shield the outside of Hue and block US/ARVN reinforcements. This unit also would help reinforce units inside Hue as needed.
The only ARVN defenses inside the Hue Citadel were the 1st Division 200-man HQ located in the Mang Ca compound, (NE corner,) and the Black Panther Company, defending the Tay Loc Airfield. The Black Panthers were General Ngo Quang Truong’s personal guards. Truong commanded 1st Division.
Fighting for the airfield went back and forth: first the ARVN had the upper hand and then the NVA. The 802 Battalion struck 1st Division headquarters at Mang Ca, penetrating into the compound. The HQ ad-hoc defensive force managed to repulse assaults. General Truong called the Black Panther Company to reinforce HQ defenses.
On the south bank of the Perfume River, the 4th NVA Regiment’s 804 Battalion took many objectives, and set up HQ in the Provincial building. Like the ARVN 1st Division HQ at Mang Ca, US Advisors and staff at the MACV compound successfully repulsed the initial attack. While not mounting any further assaults, the NVA kept a siege on the compound with mortars, rockets, and machine guns.
On 1 February, the embattled General Truong called in reinforcements. 3rd ARVN Regiment, 7th ARVN Cavalry Squadron, 1st ARVN Airborne Task Force began move on Hue. Responding to the call at PK 17, (ARVN base at 17 km marker on Route 1,) 3rd Troop and the 7th Battalion of the Airborne task force moved from PK 17 southward armored convoy along Route 1.
However, blocking forces stopped the ARVN relief force 400 meters short of the Citadel wall. Unable to force their way through the enemy positions, the paratroopers asked for assistance. The 2nd ARVN Airborne Battalion reinforced the convoy, and the force finally penetrated the lines, and entered the Citadel in early morning of 2 February.
The 3d ARVN Regiment had an even more difficult time. On the 31st, the 2nd and 3rd Battalions, advanced east from encampments southwest of the city along the northern bank of the Perfume River. NVA defensive fires forced them to fall back. Unable to enter the Citadel, the two battalions established their night positions outside the southwest wall of the old City.
NVA surrounded the 1st and 4th Battalions, operating to the southeast, as they attempted to reinforce Hue. Captain Phan Ngoc Luong’s 1st Battalion retreated with his unit to the coastal Ba Long outpost. The battalion then embarked upon motorized junks and reached the Citadel the following day. 4th Battalion was unable to break its encirclement for several days.
South of the city, Lt. Col. Phan Huu Chi, commander of ARVN’s 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. When an NVA B-40 rocket made a direct hit upon Chi’s tank, killing him instantly, the South Vietnamese armor pulled back.
Marines Clear Modern Hue City
General Foster “Frosty” LaHue, the Task Force X-Ray commander, had little intelligence on the situation. The task force had been formed previously at the Phu Bai Combat Base, 12 km southeast of Hue on Route 1.
Initially, LaHue sent Company A of the 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment northwest to reinforce the MACV compound. They were accompanied by four tanks of the 3rd Tank Battalion. Ultimately, the entire 1/1 USMC Battalion would be reinforced by the 1/5 and 2/5 USMC Battalions.
However, the 5th Marine Regiment was still tied up in combat around Phu Loc, southeast of Phu Bai. The 1/5 Battalion would remain fighting in this region until 10 February. But, the 2/5 Battalion, commanded by Lt. Col. Ernest Cheatham was ordered to Hue on 3 February.
On 3 February, command staffs of the 1st USMC Regiment and 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines arrived in Hue in a “Rough Rider” armed convoy. The weather was rainy and foggy. Although the trucks came under sniper and mortar fire, they safely reached the MACV Compound.
Colonel Hughes set up the 1/1 USMC Battalion HQ and organized the forces. The 2/5 USMC Battalion set up along the Perfume River just east of the University and north of MACV. They began to advance west, with the river on their right flank. The 1/1 USMC Battalion began at MACV, and pushed west with 2/5 USMC on their right flank. These two battalions would push toward the Provincial Building and clear government buildings along the river and Le Lo’i Street.
CSVN Map of Hue
The advance was slow. The thick walled buildings seemed to be impervious to bullets and LAAWs. (Light Anti-Armor Weapons) Sometimes several assaults were needed to take a building. They would attack, and then have to fall back, dragging the wounded to safety. And then the troops regrouped and assaulted again.
Company A of 1/1 USMC guarded the supply line between the An Cuu bridge on the Phu Cam canal and the MACV compound. That route connected them to Route 1 and the Phu Bai Combat Base, where supplies originated.
On 4 February, Lt. Col. Cheatham’s 2/5 Marines blasted through the walls with 3.5 inch rockets. This was followed by fire team rushes. They used 106mm recoilless rifles to cover these movements. Sometimes the 106s were used to knock holes in the walls, and stun NVA defenders. Once the infantrymen could spot the defenders, 81mm mortars could then fire on the positions.
The NVA 804 battalion defenders were very tenacious. They covered all avenues of approach with fire, using all the weapons in their arsenal, from B-40 anti-tank rockets, (RPG) to machine guns.
Lt. Col. Cheatham directs a target for Ontos, equipped with 106mm recoilless rifle
The Marines began to use tear gas (CS) to disrupt the defenders. As Marines entered buildings, donning gas masks, “the NVA wanted no part of us, and they exited the building as quickly as they could.”
The M50A1 “Ontos” proved useful. These were lightly armored, tracked anti-tank vehicles armed with six coaxially-mounted 106mm recoilless rifles. Marine tank battalions had four platoon of these, each with five vehicles.
The two Marine battalions fought side by side, and advanced west, building by building, block by block for several days. Finally on 6 February, Marines captured the Provincial building, HQ for the NVA 4th Regiment. After that, the NVA resistance was only isolated pockets that needed to be cleared. By 10 February, the entire waterfront along the “modern” city was cleared.
Unfortunately, NVA sappers had blown the main bridge connecting the Citadel and “modern” city on the south bank near the MACV compound. Also on the western part of town, Marine engineers had previously blown the railroad bridge to prevent NVA from bringing in reinforcements from the west. Now, Hue was two cities.
1st Air Cavalry Deployment
With General Westmoreland’s approval, the III MAF commander arranged for 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) to join the Hue battle. On 1 February, Maj. Gen. John Tolson deployed 3rd Brigade to a sector west of Hue. They coordinated with TF X-Ray. On 2 February, 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry landed about 16 km northwest of Hue, and then pushed towards the city.
Early on 3 February, the battalion advanced southeastward along a route paralleling Route 1. NVA troops had set up defenses in Que Chu, a thickly wooded village. Under cover of rocket fire from helicopter gunships of 1st Cavalry’s Aerial Rocket Artillery (ARA) Squadron, the cavalrymen attacked After several hours, 2nd Battalion cracked the defenses, and established a night perimeter in Que Chu.
Under cover of darkness the NVA moved up reinforcements in regimental strength. After a heavy mortar barrage at daybreak, The NVA launched a counterattack. Surrounded and outnumbered, 2nd Battalion repulsed several assaults, with the help of ARA helicopters. Forced into a shrinking perimeter, 2nd Battalion sustained casualties of 11 dead and 51 wounded in two days fighting.
Lt. Col. Richard Sweet was concerned about the enemy overrunning their position. 2nd Battalion made a night march to elude the enemy, and set up defenses in a better location, a hill mass at Nha Nhan.
While the 2nd Battalion remained on Nha Nhan, 5th Battalion, 7th Cavalry advanced toward Que Chu on the 5 February. On 7 February, Lt. Col. Vaught’s forces ran into a strong NVA force that had reoccupied Que Chu. Unable to push the NVA out, Vaught called in ARA helicopters and artillery.
The next morning, the troopers renewed the attack, but were forced back in the face of machine gun fire, RPGs, and mortars. They dug in for the night. Attempting to assist, 2nd Battalion deployed off its hill, and bumped into a NVA battalion at Bon Tri, 3 km south of Que Chu. For the next several days, 1st Cavalry units faced stalemate. They were unable to drive away NVA forces surrounding the Hue citadel.
Stalemate in the Old City
The ARVN efforts to clear the Citadel faltered. 1st Battalion, 3nd ARVN Regiment cleaned out much of the northwest corner, while the 1st ARVN Airborne Task Force pushed from the Tay Loc Airfield towards the western wall. To the east , 4th Battalion, 2nd ARVN Regiment advanced south from Mang Ca compound toward the imperial palace grounds. The battalion made excellent progress until resistance stiffened about half-way toward the objective. By 4 February, the 1st ARVN Division reported that it killed nearly 700 NVA troops.
On 5 February, General Truong moved the airborne task force to the northeast sector, relieving the 4th Battalion, 2nd ARVN. Assuming responsibility for the airfield, 4th battalion pushed all the way to the southwest wall. South of the Citadel, on the Perfume River north bank, the remaining three battalions of 3rd ARVN Regiment, futilely butted against the southeastern wall, in an effort to roll up NVA defenses from that direction.
On the night of 6-7 February, the NVA counterattacked. Using grappling hooks, fresh NVA troops scaled the southwestern wall and forced 2nd Battalion, 4th ARVN to fall back with heavy losses to the Tay Loc airfield. The cloud cover lifted briefly enough for the South Vietnamese Air Force dropped bombs on the southwest wall.
With NVA reinforcements pouring into the old city, General Truong redeployed the three battalions of the 3d ARVN Regiment from south of the Citadel to move into the city. These forces embarked on South Vietnamese motorized junks, which landed the troops at a wharf north of Hue. The 3rd ARVN units then entered the Citadel through the northern gate, and took positions at the Mang Ca compound.
Despite ARVN reinforcements in the old city, General Truong’s forces made almost no further progress. The dug-in NVA refused to be budged. The NVA controlled 60 percent of the Citadel.
On 11 February, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines began moving from Phu Bai to Hue by a “rough rider” convoy. The commander, Major Robert Thompson and his advance group spent the night at some damaged Hue University buildings. Ultimately, the battalion would go by LCU landing craft from the dock by MACV to the northeast corner of the old city by way of the Perfume River.
Once inside the old city at Mang Ca, the 1/5 USMC battalion began to advance southeast along the Citadel wall. With two tanks in the lead, Company C advanced 300 meters before heavy enemy fire stopped them. The fire came from an archway tower along the Citadel’s eastern wall leading to the Dong Ba Bridge. The NVA had dug in at the base of the wall, and tunnelled underneath the structure.
On 14 February, 1st Battalion resumed the attack. Offshore, Navy cruisers and destroyers opened fire with 5-inch and 8-inch guns. Marine 8-inch and 155mm howitzers firing from Phu Bai and Gia Le added to the bombardment. Marine F-4B Phantoms and F-8 Crusader jets flew support missions. Despite this the Dong Ba tower still stood.
The NVA 6th Regiment remnants under Lt. Col. Nguyen Trong Dan employed “better city-fighting tactics, improved the already formidable defenses, dug trenches, built roadblocks, and conducted counterattacks” to regain redoubts vital to the defensive scheme. Major Thompson later noted that the old city consisted of “row after row of single-story, thick-walled masonry houses jammed close together and occasionally separated by alleyways or narrow streets.”
But, Thompson depended largely on his unit’s own firepower, especially mortars, machine guns, and and the tanks and Ontos that reinforced the battalion. At first, the M48 tank 90mm guns were ineffective against the concrete and stone houses. The shells occasionally even ricocheted back on the Marines. Tank crews began to use concrete-piercing fused shells which got good penetration. The walls were breached with two to four rounds.
In addition to the 1/5 USMC battalion, the 1st and 5th VNMC Battalions departed from the LCU ramp across the Perfume River to the northern landing site. General Truong assigned them the southwest sector of the Citadel, west of the Imperial Palace.
Taking the Citadel
In the Citadel, General Truong prepared for the final thrust against the entrenched and determined NVA forces. The Vietnamese Marine Task Force was assigned to clear the southwestern wall. The 3rd ARVN Regiment attacked south toward the Imperial Palace.
Despite slow house to house progress, ARVN forces closed in on the Imperial Palace, and the 1/5 USMC battalion closed in to the southeast, taking all of its objectives. Finally, on 25 February, the 4th Vietnamese Marine battalion made a surprise attack into the Imperial Palace and eliminated the last pocket of resistance there.
Major Thompson had hoped to participate in the taking of the Imperial Palace, but as he later ruefully observed : “For political reasons, I was not allowed to do it. To save face, the Vietnamese were to retake the “Forbidden City.”
After the recapture of Hue, South Vietnamese authorities exhumed 3000 bodies thrown into hastily dug graves. These were claimed to be victims of Communist roundups. Although the North Vietnamese admitted tracking down and punishing “hoodlum ringleaders,” they claimed most of the reported civilian deaths were the result of happenstance, exaggerations by the South Vietnamese, or caused by the allies. This is controversial, and the Saigon government allowed no journalists to view the grave sites or bodies. The ARVN 10th Political Warfare Battalion made the official investigation. This was a propaganda and psychological warfare unit. They concluded that a massacre had occurred. Comrades, you’ll have to draw your own conclusions about this.
The battle cost both sides dearly. Marines of Task Force X-Ray sustained casualties of 142 dead and 1100 wounded. US advisors with the 1st ARVN Division in Hue reported 333 ARVN killed, 1773 wounded, and 30 missing. 1st Cavalry Division listed casualties of 68 killed and 453 wounded, while 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne showed 6 dead and 56 wounded. Overall, US and ARVN casualties totalled more than 600 dead, and nearly 3800 wounded and missing.
Estimates of NVA and VC dead ranged from 2500 to 5000. Captured Communist documents admitted to 1042 killed, and an indeterminate number of wounded.
Damage estimates claim 80 percent of the structures in Hue sustained damage or were destroyed. Out of a population of about 140000, more than 116000 people became homeless, and 5800 were either dead or missing. Hue was a devastated city. However, US forces restrained artillery and bombing in the Imperial Palace itself, in order to preserve sacred and historical buildings.
The political impact of Hue was significant. According to North Vietnamese General Secretary Le Kha Phieu: “Hue is not as big as Saigon, but it is an ancient capital, so hitting the ancient capital and capturing the ancient capital will have a great echo …” In addition, Walter Cronkite visited Hue during the battle. Much of what he had to say influenced the course of American war politics.
“Imperial City, Hue,” Wikipedia
“Political Monks: The Militant Buddhist Movement during the Vietnam War,” Mark Moyar
“U.S. Marines in Vietnam the Defining Year 1968,” Jack Shulimson
“The Battle of Mau Than in Hue,” Wikipedia – translated from Vietnamese
“The 1968 Hue Massacre,” D. Gareth Porter
General Vo Nguyen Giap