Americans remember grinding, exhausting Hue battle as ‘particularly brutal’

Americans remember grinding, exhausting Hue battle as ‘particularly brutal’

As 1968 dawned, Hue in South Vietnam had largely been spared the violence of war.

As the 150-year seat of Vietnam’s final dynasty, which ended in 1945, the city was venerated by Communist-led North Vietnam and by American-supported South Vietnam.

That all changed Jan. 30, 1968, when fighters from the North Vietnamese Army, or NVA, and Viet Cong — supporters of the Communist cause living in the South — seized Hue as part of the sprawling Tet Offensive, beginning what would be the bloodiest, longest battle American troops would face during the Vietnam War.

On the ground, the battle was a decisive victory for American and South Vietnamese troops, with Communist forces routed after almost a month of intense fighting. But media images of dead and wounded Marines, hollow-eyed refugees and a city laid waste undermined efforts by American officials to convince the public that the enemy was demoralized and near collapse, that the end of the Vietnam War was within sight.

A Patton tank makes its way through the streets of Hue, Vietnam, in 1968. John Olson/Stars and Stripes BUY PHOTO

Within a year newly elected President Richard Nixon would set in motion plans to withdraw American troops from Vietnam, with the goal of turning the war over to the South Vietnamese army.

“The whole city just stank of corruption and rotting and death and cordite,” said Dale Dye, a Marine Corps correspondent who fought his way through most of the 26-day battle.

“It was, I guess, the one battle that still haunts me because you saw so many things,” he said, pausing to think of the words to sum it up. “I don’t think it was because I was naïve; I think it was because it was that brutal.”

Today, Hue is a tourist mecca with little evidence of such a violent clash. Tourist walk through the open grounds of the sprawling imperial Citadel, where scores of buildings were destroyed and hundreds of fighters died in close-quarters combat.

As the lunar new year began in 1968, 10 battalions of Viet Cong and NVA moved to occupy Hue, divided by the wide Perfume River, with the imperial Citadel to the north of the river and the newer part of the city — filled with French colonial-style buildings — to the south.

The sole U.S. presence in Hue had been a headquarters compound of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, or MACV. Its staff advised the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, or ARVN, whose headquarters were in the Citadel. There were no Marines in the city.

“Essentially overnight the VC and NVA captured the whole city,” said James Willbanks, author of “The Tet Offensive: A Concise History” and General of the Army George C. Marshall Chair of Military History at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in Leavenworth, Kan.

The two compounds were surrounded.

Marines from Phu Bai Combat Base, about 8 miles south of Hue, were the first relief to be sent to help defend the MACV compound.

Dye was at Phu Bai, along with Steve Berntsen, a fellow combat correspondent, when he heard about some kind of dustup in Hue, despite the North’s announcement in late 1967 that it would observe a seven-day ceasefire for Tet.

“It became obvious on the trip up that something was wrong, because we didn’t see many people out to celebrate,” said Dye, adding that “all hell broke loose” as his convoy of Marines entered southern Hue.

“It was plunging fire at the time from enemy troops that were on high buildings on either side,” he said. “We realized very quickly that we were in a mess here and that this was no small uprising. This was serious business.”

Berntsen also recalled heading up to Hue after hearing reports of snipers there. When the convoy he was on crossed the final canal bridge into the south side of Hue, it came under intense fire by machine guns, mortars and grenades. The convoy reached the MACV compound, and soon after, the enemy blew up the bridge.

A Marine sniper takes aim from behind a tree as his comrade looks through a pair of binoculars to establish the enemy position. John Olson/Stars and Stripes BUY PHOTO

Berntsen said he was “struck and surprised” at the compound as he took in the sight of corpses in the streets around it.

The immediate and obvious problem for the Marines in Hue was that they had no training for urban fighting, Dye said.

Every round fired ricocheted off stone walls and streets, shredding into deadly pieces of shrapnel; rock fragments scattered with their own high velocity. “They can kill you as much as anything else,” Dye said.

Berntsen said it was “the guys who grew up in the big cities” who took the lead in this new breed of fighting in the Vietnam War.

“They knew how to move and maneuver and how to get around in the city, in city blocks, in buildings,” he said. “They pretty much took charge of leading the squads into the buildings, up the stairs.”

The Marines spent about 10 days sweeping through the south of Hue clearing the buildings along Le Loi Street, which paralleled the Perfume River. Among them were the hospital, provincial headquarters and university — all large complexes and fortified by the NVA for battle to the last man, Berntsen said.

On a second-floor hospital ward an enemy fighter who had been posing as a patient leaped out of bed and fired an AK-47. A nurse charged up a stairwell, firing a Kalashnikov automatic rifle as she went.

By Feb. 12, the south side of the city had largely been secured except for a few pockets.

It had been an exhausting, grinding fight, but as the Marines gained footholds in the major buildings on Le Loi, “everybody began to turn and look across the river knowing that we would have to go over and eventually attack the Citadel over there,” Dye said.

Fight for the Citadel

The massive Citadel was a square of fortified stone walls, with each side about a mile long. Most of the wall was about 2 yards thick, but wider in some spots. Surrounding the entire thing was a moat.

Inside the Citadel was a warren of small shops and homes that had been built over many years. They surrounded the Imperial City, another walled bastion at the core of the Citadel.

“It was like a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” Dye said. “We were like, ‘What the hell are we going to do with this thing?’”

Tens of thousands of laborers worked for 30 years to build the Citadel, moving millions of cubic feet of earth and rock. In less than two weeks in February 1968, almost all of the Imperial City’s 160 buildings were destroyed.

"We realized very quickly that we were in a mess here and that this was no small uprising. This was serious business."

The Marines began a concerted assault on the Citadel on Feb. 13, joining South Vietnamese troops who had killed hundreds of enemy troops over 10 days while trying to retake northern and western portions of the walled stronghold.

Berntsen, who said he was “exhausted, hungry, pretty much numbed” by everything he’d seen on the south side, had the chance to go back to the Marine base camp to sit out the Citadel chapter.

But there was a Viet Cong flag flying over the Citadel.

“That had become an obsession with the Marines — including myself — and I wanted to be there to see that when it was taken down,” he said.

Dye recalled at one point the Marines were ordered to push from north to south inside the Imperial City wall to clear all NVA.

“We organized ourselves in a line and tried to sweep southward, but people were getting shot up and we were running into ambushes and having to clear houses so that line just never really held all it could,” he said.

“That really turned into a meat grinder, because they had those walls and we were down on the streets,” Dye said. “It was brutal.”

“I guess the thing that stays with me is how close everything was,” he said. “In the jungle you tend to see fleeting shadows and you see muzzle flash, but you rarely see the bad guy. You rarely see the enemy. But that wasn’t the case in Hue. I mean, you saw those guys; you saw them put the rifle on their shoulder and shoot at you. You see them everywhere.”

They were in constant need of resupply of hand grenades.

“We were using every one we had, and anything else we had,” Dye said.

They also needed a flow of replacements for wounded or killed Marines.

“They’d still have their airline boarding passes in their pockets,” he said. “They were just being pumped up in there.

“I’ve never seen more shell-shocked and just plain exhausted troops anywhere in my life,” Dye said. “There just never seemed to be an end to it. The more we killed, the more we found.

“When we would sweep along the walls trying to get to these gate accesses, they would dig into these holes and you just walk right up on them. I remember jumping into one hole and shooting a guy, an NVA trooper who was in that hole.”

Berntsen spent his days on the Citadel front line carrying wounded and dead off the battlefield and hauling ammo.

On Feb. 18, he joined a corpsman atop one of the walls to help carry out a Marine who had been shot in the throat.

They’d gotten off the wall and around a corner, near an overturned bus, when the corpsman began an emergency tracheotomy because the Marine was choking on his blood. Berntsen spied a nearby shutter door that could be used as a stretcher, rose to get it, and the next thing he recalled was waking up in the middle of the street with shrapnel “still burning in my arm and my legs and my back.” He could not get up.

He’d been hit by a B40, an armor-piercing rocket that the North Vietnamese had adapted as an anti-personnel weapon in the Citadel to use on Marines, he said.

With severe loss of blood and a nearly severed arm, Berntsen was taken to an aid station, beginning a year of healing that included numerous operations.

By Feb. 25, the Citadel had been recaptured.

Dye recalled no “cheering or flag-raising.”

“I don’t remember anyone doing anything but staring around the area,” he said. “It was so grinding, so exhausting, that the only high you got, really, was the fact that you were alive for the next 15 minutes.”

The aftermath

At the end of the Battle of Hue, 218 U.S. troops were dead and 1,364 were wounded. The South Vietnamese had 384 dead and 1,830 wounded.

The U.S. estimated that 1,042 enemy fighters had been killed.

The citizens of Hue, though, suffered the worst punishment. About 5,800 civilians died, with 2,800 of those executed by the Viet Cong during their short occupation. They included schoolteachers, government employees and local religious leaders and their families.

More than three-quarters of the city lay in ruin, with 116,000 refugees left in the wake.

Two U.S. Marines try to help a fellow Marine, severely wounded in the battle for the tower guarding the Eastern Gate of the walled citadel in Hue. John Olson/Stars and Stripes

“Dead bodies were everywhere,” said Nguyen Huu Vinh, 76, who was on leave from the South Vietnamese army in his hometown of Hue when the city was occupied. Unarmed, he spent three days hiding in a tunnel until friendly forces retook the area. “There were bodies of Viet Cong, local people and soldiers from the South. No one had buried them.”

Once the Viet Cong had been driven out, most of the city was without water and electricity, he said, but locals began the grim task of gathering the bodies.

Ushi Clark, who was 8 in 1968, said her mother took the family to the local Catholic church in the south part of Hue, where several thousand people hunkered down in sandbag shelters.

“It was scary,” said Clark, who owns a restaurant in Hue and lives in Da Nang. “That’s what I remember. We played but we were still scared because everyone talked about someone being killed.”

They stayed in the church for about 10 days because the family’s house had been badly damaged in the battle and was barely livable.

Meanwhile, Americans who had been told they were winning the Vietnam War had watched news reports with scenes looking like “hell on earth,” Willbanks said.

“When you see a tank withdrawing piled up with Marine bodies on it, that sends a message that’s counterintuitive to what you’ve been told,” he said.

Berntsen, who went on to a journalism career, did not see that Viet Cong flag come down. It does not matter to him today.

“Over the 50 years, I’ve come to peaceful terms with all my memories of those days,” said Berntsen, who was awarded a Bronze Star with “V” device for valor for his work in moving the wounded.

“I never particularly hated anybody,” he said. “In war, people die, and I was always grateful I wasn’t one of them.”

By WYATT OLSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 17, 2018