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Alabama man was Marine, CIA operative in Vietnam War

A Marine sniper takes aim from behind a tree as his comrade looks through a pair of binoculars to establish the enemy position in Hue during the battle for the city in 1968.

JOHN OLSON/STARS AND STRIPES

By TROY TURNER | Opelika (Alabama)-Auburn News | Published: February 10, 2018

AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — No one saw it coming that previously calm, cool, 1968 morning in the heart of Vietnam, and certainly not a young United States Marine captain from Auburn, Alabama, who found himself there working on a CIA mission before the enemy struck.

Sadly, 50 years ago, during that surprise attack that changed the course of an entire war, Capt. Robert W. Hubbard lost his life.

But not until he put up a damned good fight, as one witness described it.

The following is an account of how Capt. Hubbard fought to the end, killing numerous enemy combatants while saving the lives of fellow Americans at a time when enemy yells struck fear, their bullets struck death, and heroes struck back.

They attacked everywhere

Out of ammunition, out of food, out of water and mostly surrounded, the handful of young Marines knew they had to do what Marines do: stay mobile.

It would be days after his death on Feb. 4, 1968, before Hubbard’s bullet-riddled body could be recovered and returned to Auburn for burial, but the story behind the four harrowing days leading up to that tragic ending recently was allowed by the CIA to be shared by one of the men who survived the events.

It was called the Tet Offensive.

Tet, which celebrates the lunar new year, is the most important holiday on the Vietnamese calendar.

Vietnam at the time was torn from years of war, with the Communist North Vietnam battling the U.S.-supported South Vietnam. American officials feared the spread of communism if the North took control of the entire country. The war in general, however, seemed to be at a stalemate.

The overall strategy of the North Vietnamese was to inflict as many casualties as it could and try to sway an already-divided American public against the war and for the U.S. to leave Vietnam.

The war’s momentum took a drastic shift with the massive holiday offensive launched on Jan. 30-31, 1968, when most Vietnamese families were celebrating the first day of Tet, associated by them with the first day of spring.

Within 24 hours, the enemy engaged in more than 120 attacks throughout South Vietnam, some of them involving massive military assaults and others involving organized suicide squads at strategic targets such as the American embassy.

One such target was the city of Hue.

Hubbard was there.

The CIA’s role

Hue lies in the center of Vietnam, and in addition to a population of more than 350,000 today, it features several historically significant palaces and shrines.

Hubbard was recruited by the CIA for what some called a “pacification program,” akin to more contemporary descriptions of “winning the hearts and minds” of the local people. His job was to help plant seeds on why the Vietnamese living there should be more interested in freedom and democracy than in a communist style of government.

He often wore civilian clothing because of that role, as did Marine Capt. Ray Lau, who joined Hubbard and a small group of others temporarily living and operating in Hue. It was Lau who would manage to survive the Tet attacks and who was allowed to tell his story last December to the Studies in Intelligence magazine, which focuses on topics of interest to the Central Intelligence Agency community.

Lau, like Hubbard, was recruited by the CIA to act as a so-called adviser.

The timing of his arrival, however, was a bit more ominous.

The fighting begins

Lau arrived in Hue on Jan. 30. After the long journey to get there, he was assigned to a house with two other men, and on the morning of Jan. 31, “We were awakened at about 4 a.m. to the sound of gunfire and explosions in the distance,” he wrote in his first-person account.

South Vietnamese guards were concerned, reporting that a guard camp across a nearby canal was under attack, but to Lau and others, nothing seemed unusual from previous, small-scale attacks.

After a sustained firefight and the continued sound of gunfire, they realized something bigger was afoot.

Hubbard and Marine Sgt. Howard Vaughn arrived in a Jeep about 7 a.m. Hubbard was concerned about not having had radio contact that morning with other colleagues, so he and another man named Jim, a former Special Forces member, left on foot to learn more.

Lau and Sgt. Vaughn were standing by their compound’s gateposts when Vaughn noticed enemy soldiers running down the street about 70 yards away.

Vaughn let loose a short burst of fire with his M-16 rifle.

“Almost immediately, his volley was answered with automatic fire,” Lau wrote in his accounts. “Vaughn wheeled away from the post and fell to the ground.”

He was wounded, but not killed. Mortar rounds began falling and an explosion from one on a roof showered the men with debris.

Hubbard and Jim returned, and Hubbard checked on the injured Sgt. Vaughn and moved him into a side bedroom of the house they all occupied now as they watched steady streams of enemy soldiers pour into the city across the main streets farther away and wondered when more troops would approach their location.

The men took up positions inside the house and prepared for a fight they knew was coming.

No surrender

A foreign service officer named Tom lived in a neighboring house. As enemy soldiers began searching and destroying pockets of resistance, surrender did not seem to be an option.

Lau later would learn that Tom and the other man had surrendered when their house was surrounded.

“Tom’s story was especially sad,” Lau wrote. “He was in his 60s and had served in the army through World War II and the Korean War.

“In World War II, he was captured by the Italians. In Korea, he was captured by the North Koreans. This time the North Vietnamese were not so kind, as Tom did not make it.”

Tom and the other man were taken into the bathroom and executed.

Although Hubbard, Lau and the injured Vaughn did not know those details at the time, they knew enough about their enemy.

Cornered in the house and already exchanging fire when an enemy soldier would approach, they began to realize the large scale of the attack and knew they would be taking enemy lives in this fight. So they made a vow:

They would not be taken alive.

Death at close range

There were two Jeeps parked in front of their house, and at least one had a radio, but efforts to reach someone for help were fruitless, as battle waged on throughout the country in the concerted attack.

American troops and officials throughout South Vietnam were fighting for their lives.

About 8:30 a.m., Lau saw a grenade fly through the air and land in one of the Jeeps. It exploded and the Jeep burst into flames.

The same happened to the second Jeep moments later. “So much for using the Jeeps to escape,” Lau recalled.

About 9:30 a.m., an enemy soldier entered the house.

“He walked slowly and stealthily in, toward the right-side bedroom where Bob Hubbard and Jim were,” Lau said, describing how the scene unfolded. When the enemy soldier was about 10 feet away from Hubbard, “Hubbard stood up, and they both started firing on full automatic. It was like the movies, where chips of wood were flying off the door around Hubbard.

“But Hubbard’s bullets found their mark, and the (enemy) wheeled, staggered a couple of feet and collapsed at our front entrance.”

Lau described how seeing a man killed a close range was not the same as firing a rifle at a more-distant target.

“I thought about how easy physically it was to kill a person,” he wrote, “but it is the psychological aspect that is more difficult.”

Surviving another day

About 10 minutes later, an explosion blasted the house at the front door from a rocket-propelled grenade.

About 10 a.m., the enemy attacked again, and then, again moved onward.

The men stayed quiet and patient for the rest of the first day of battle. Vaughn’s condition, meanwhile, continued to worsen as he bled from his wounds.

Day 2 arrived. about 11 a.m., the enemy returned.

Grenades and gunfire sprayed the house and soon it was again close-quartered fighting.

“It seemed as if the (enemy) were now in the other bedroom, as one grenade rolled into our room,” Lau recalled. “Bob Hubbard dived for it and threw it back outside the living room, where it exploded.”

A second grenade rolled in and exploded near the doorway. Lau suffered a small shrapnel wound in his left arm.

They waited for their attackers to charge the room, but to their surprise, no charge came. Most likely, the enemy thought they were dead.

The men knew, however, they had to move. No doubt, more soldiers would be coming, and sooner or later they would be outgunned if they sat there as targets.

Hubbard helped the injured Vaughn through a back window and the men moved to a smaller house.

It wasn’t long before their next encounter with soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army.

Shots were fired into the small room they occupied. One of them hit Vaughn as he lay on the floor, inflicting yet another serious wound.

Lau recalled Hubbard’s response:

“Hubbard yanked the door opened and fired, killing three NVA.

“Hubbard pulled back, yelling that he was out of ammunition.”

Lau went to the door to help, but the only NVA he could see were the three men Hubbard had killed.

Once again, the American trio survived.

But how long could it last?

Looking to escape

Lau peered over the dead bodies and saw a usable AK-47 rifle and clips of ammunition. He picked them up, as the American servicemen were about out of supplies.

Little did he know that simply carrying the rifle later would help save his life without even firing a shot.

During a tense moment in a move to find another location, Lau looked toward a building and saw an enemy officer staring at him. But the officer didn’t order any shots fired, nor did he take any other action before moving elsewhere.

Lau reasoned that because he was wearing civilian clothes and carrying an AK-47, the officer likely thought he was a North Vietnamese guerrilla fighter.

The men became more desperate as the days passed, supplies ran out, and the enemy continued to hold the city. They knew American forces would retake the area sooner or later, but they had no idea how widespread the attack had been, and it was obvious that their survival depended on finding help.

Lau described more firefights before the men eventually became separated.

Vaughn’s injuries had become too serious to move him, and he passed away.

Lau became separated from the others because of his small body frame and his ability to crawl through a small culvert. He soon realized the others were making a dash the best way they could.

Villagers during the next several days hid Lau and gave him food and water. They stashed him away in a pig sty, but it kept him alive, as enemy soldiers continued their search for Americans.

Finally, on Feb. 7, 1968, Lau heard the most wonderful words he could hear being shouted in English:

“U.S. Marines!”

They were looking for survivors, and in Lau, they found one.

Only later did he learn that his fellow serviceman who had fought so heroically and helped save his life, Bob Hubbard of Auburn, was killed by gunfire while trying to cross a bridge in his own escape attempt. One report said he was leading others, armed only with a single hand grenade.

“He had been shot at close range and likely died instantly,” Lau wrote.

But Lau hasn’t forgotten about his brave friend.

And he came to Auburn to tell about it.

A sincere dedication

The Marines don’t leave anyone behind. Nor do they forget.

Bob Hubbard, who posthumously received the Navy Cross for his bravery, had a lifelong connection to Auburn, and Auburn to Hubbard, who was a 1963 graduate of Auburn University.

Recently in Auburn University’s Langdon Hall, an all-star cast of heroes participated a dedication ceremony organized in part by Alabama Assistant Attorney General John Davis, a family friend.

Hubbard “spent the last Christmas of his life with my family, Christmas 1967,” said Davis, whose wife, Barbara, an artist, will present a portrait of Hubbard that later will be displayed in the Nichols Center, home of Auburn’s ROTC programs.

Among those attending and speaking at the portrait dedication were Medal of Honor recipient and 1962 Auburn graduate Marine Maj. Gen. James E. Livingston and Opelika resident and Medal of Honor recipient Army Sgt. Maj. Bennie Adkins.

And, retired Marine Capt. Ray Lau.

Semper Fi, Capt. Robert W. Hubbard.

Semper Fi.

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