Remembering the Vietnam War’s Bloody Urban Battle of Hue
Mark Bowden's 'Hue 1968' is a riveting ground-level story
Mark Bowden’s new history Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam pulls off a rare feat — it takes a conflict of terrible scale and consequence, and allows us to see it unfold at the street level, through the eyes of Vietnamese and American soldiers engaged in the struggle, journalists and activists observing the chaos, and the civilians caught in the crossfire.
Bowden is already renowned for his detailed account of the Battle of Mogadishu in Black Hawk Down. His emphasis on firsthand accounts gives a vital heart to the unfolding events.
He establishes the connection between the struggle over individual street blocks, the loss of individual lives, the filing of news reports and the actions or nonactions further up American and North Vietnamese chains of command desperately clinging to illusions of their own success.
Not only are the personal stories Bowden uncovers at turns deeply moving and horrifying, but they also pose uncomfortable parallels with current events in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
The airfield at Hue Citadel, July 1967. Photo via Wikimedia
Imperial city on the Perfume River
I had the good fortune to visit Hue a few years ago. Reading Bowden’s book, I was struck by how well he managed to describe the city’s layout and capture its relaxed charm compared to the bustling vibe of Hanoi or Saigon.
The former imperial capital, which in 1968 had a population of 140,000, is divided in two by the Huong River, also known as the Perfume River. On the north side stand the “sheer and unassailable” walls of the citadel and the grounds of the royal palace of the Nguyen Dynasty, styled in imitation of architecture in Beijing.
On the south bank lay the American military assistance [MACV] compound, one of only a few military bases in a city that lay a short distance from the demilitarized zone separating the two Vietnams.
Hue’s citizens, many of them devout Buddhists or Catholics, did not harbor great affection for the corrupt and disunited regime in Saigon, nor the authoritarian government in Hanoi. But communist forces commanded greater support in the surrounding rural communities.
In 1967, an aggressive faction in Hanoi led by Pres. Le Duan insisted on embarking on the Tet Offensive, a surprise attack targeting virtually every major community and military base in South Vietnam, scheduled for the Tet holiday in late January 1968 — normally a time of truce.
But Hue was the one place Hanoi was really counting on capturing: it would deploy four regiments of regular North Vietnamese Army troops and eight battalions of local Viet Cong insurgents to the invasion, backed up by rocket and conventional artillery, heavy mortars, recoilless rifles and numerous rocket-propelled grenades. The leadership believed that if a strong force captured a lightly defended city, it would inspire a popular uprising in its citizens.
However, both Ho Chi Minh and North Vietnam’s top general, Vo Nguyen Giap, disapproved of the scheme and distanced themselves from what they felt was a foolhardy venture. Local field commanders also knew their odds of success were low, but grimly committed themselves to the attack, determined to make their sacrifice a memorable one.
Meanwhile, the head of U.S. forces in Vietnam, Gen. William Westmoreland, was feeding the White House a steady diet of upbeat reports on his progress defeating the communist insurgency, based on “body counts” that he believed showed lopsided kill ratios in the South’s favor.
If the members of the press who actually made it to the front line were reporting a much less favorable situation — and were horrified by the realities of the pacification program — they were branded as anti-American defeatists, the “fake news” of the 1960s. But it was the body counts that were the real fake news, vastly exaggerated by commanders in the field for their own self-promotion.
Countless real people are sketched out in lively detail throughout Hue 1968. As not all of them survive the events of the battle, it’s hard not to feel suspense as their stories unfold over the course of the battle.
To offer just a few examples: A Buddhist revolutionary poet tests the limits of charisma attempting to smuggle weapons into the city. A future Medal of Honor recipient write home with plans to start his own farm while counting the days before his enlistment ends; what could go wrong with just a few days left at a post far removed from the front line? A teenage girl who survived torture at the hands of South Vietnamese troops uses her youthful looks to spy on troop positions — then later hunts American tanks with a rocket launcher. An American diplomat visits his Vietnamese fiancée’s family for the holiday — only for the two to be separated and trapped as artillery fire rains down on the city and enemy troops invade.
Urban warfare 101
When the Tet Offensive finally struck on Jan. 30, Westmoreland downplayed the reports coming out of Hue in favor of emphasizing his success in containing a much more limited attack on Saigon. He remained fixated by the threat of an NVA assault on the besieged Marine firebase at Khe Sanh.
But the threat to Khe Sanh is today widely considered to have been a diversion. Meanwhile, the communist forces staged a remarkable coup de main in Hue, seizing nearly all of the city in a surprise night assault.
A North Vietnamese tank base was knocked out of action in a daring raid. The royal palace was captured and a giant nationalist flag, specially made for the occasion, was raised upon it. Only in a few isolated pockets remained in the city, notably the American MACV compound and the Mang Ca garrison in the citadel.
However, idealistic young communist organizers were disappointed when a massive outpouring of popular support failed to materialize. While North Vietnamese troops began digging in throughout the city, squads also began rounding up supporters of the Saigon regime and foreigners, leading to a thinly rationalized purge that slaughtered at least a thousand citizens.
Many locals tried to slip out the city to escape the crackdown. They not only had to dodge Viet Cong patrols, but they were also in danger of being shot by South Vietnamese troops.
In response to these development, a response force of only two companies of Marines from Task Force X-Ray at the nearby camp at Phu Bai was sent to relieve the MACV compound in Hue. The truck-mounted leathernecks supported by a handful of tanks ran straight into a deadly ambush shortly after crossing the An Cuu bridge, as Bowden recounts in excruciating detail.
They approached a cluster of two-story houses built close to the road on both sides. It reminded [Captain] Batcheller of a town in an old Western movie. They raced through, guns blazing, and were surprised when nearly the same volume of fire came back at them.
A rocket exploded against Batcheller’s tank and he felt a stinging spray of shrapnel. When they reached the end of the gauntlet, his radioman, who had been right next to him, was gone. He must have been blown off. Leaning across the turret was one of his navy corpsmen, who in addition to to other wounds was missing both of his legs at the knees … There were downed marines scattered behind on the road, and others trying to drag them to safety. One was missing both arms and both legs, still alive and screaming.
The Marine column barely made it to the safety of the MACV compound after fighting its way through several city blocks, upon which it was promptly ordered to recapture the citadel on the other side of the river.
When the Marine battalion commander tried to explain how badly outnumbered and outgunned his troops were, his supported refused to believe him and ordered him to attack anyway with his 400 men — against a heavily fortified position held by several thousand NVA and Viet Cong troops.
Remarkably, two platoons of Marines managed to charge across the Truong Tien bridge as machine gun fire raked its spans — only be greeted on the other side by withering fire from the walls of the citadel. The Marines were forced to beat a hasty retreat across the bridge, commandeering trucks to evacuate the wounded.
Westmoreland willfully disregarded the reports of his own troops in favor of estimates that only a few hundred Viet Cong had occupied Hue. Modestly reinforced, the Marines were again ordered to attack Vietnamese troops fighting from fortified positions in apartments and houses, backed up by machine guns, mortars and antitank weapons.
The initial assaults were a disaster, as Marines advancing openly up the street were picked off one after another. The U.S. infantry were used to counting on heavy air and artillery support to pin down and destroy their enemies. But the troops in Hue were not permitted to call upon them, nor use the main guns on their tanks, for fear of destroying the city’s historic buildings. Bad weather and a paucity of nearby artillery units further enforced these restrictions.
After punishing early experiences, Col. Ernie Cheatham literally reread the manuals on urban warfare. He realized advancing down the streets was suicide, and that the best way to assault a building was not through the door or window, but by blowing a hole in the wall.
He mustered all the heavy weapons he could find — mortars, 106-millimeter recoilless rifles, M42 Duster self-propelled anti-aircraft guns, LAW anti-tank rockets — and then used them to systematically blow open opposing defensive positions one building at time. Then he’d send in riflemen to clear the ruins of survivors.
One obscure weapon which featured prominently was the Ontos anti-tank vehicle, which mounted six recoilless rifles. You can see one in action in Hue in the video below.
A single platoon of M-48 tanks played an outsized role as well, their metal hulls providing vital cover for Marines advancing down streets, and transport for the injured.
The shell-shocked crews also occasionally disobeyed the rules of engagement to blow up an enemy position.
The North Vietnamese were well equipped with their own recoilless rifles, and these punched through the M-48s’ armor on several occasions, injuring or killing crew. The tankers grew paranoid about leaving their armored vehicles, which became clouded with pot fumes during their breaks from combat at the MACV compound.
After a brutal battle to capture the city stadium, the tankers raced each other around the track before being relieved by a replacement platoon, though not before a last tanker was seriously wounded by a mortar round while loading his tank on a boat.
The terrible toll
Hue 1968 pays particular attention to key role played by journalists played in exposing the fact that a major battle was taking place in Hue, contrary to inaccurate claims from Saigon and Washington that all was under control.
Bowden also describes the attempts by U.S. Army units to relieve pressure on the Marines by hitting the NVA logistical base in the nearby jungle. Once again, initial attacks were given too little support to succeed, and one surrounded Army battalion was even forced to exfiltrate by night to avoid destruction.
Bowden does not mince words about the cruelty and senselessness of the North Vietnamese executions, nor the casual racism and disregard for civilian refugees exhibited by U.S. forces in Vietnam. Civilians attempting to cross the shifting front lines ran unfathomable risks. Thousands of refugees would eventually gather around the the MACV compound, where they were left without food or water for days.
One U.S. soldier recalls a middle-aged woman prostituting herself in exchange for combat rations to feed her family.
Not everyone was heartless. Vietnamese civilians risked their lives to shelter foreign guests. Priests harbored thousands of civilians in their places of worship on the Northern-held side of the city. Military and civilian medical personnel alike worked tirelessly to save as many lives as they could.
After a week and a half of bloody warfare, Cheatham’s battalion succeeded in clearing the southern triangle of Hue. The task of recapturing the formidable walls of the citadel was then assigned to the fresh troops of Maj. Bob Thompson’s Alpha 1/5 Battalion.
Crossing the Perfume River under a hail of fire, the new unit repeated many of the mistakes of its predecessors and suffered atrocious casualties in the opening days of its push in the citadel. For the following three weeks, Marines fought for control of citadel’s fortified towers, with soldiers scaling up stone walls as if assaulting a medieval fortress.
Clear skies and changes to the rules of engagement finally allowed the wrath of American air power and artillery to fall upon the citadel. Used to crush the fiercely defended communist strongpoints, the bombs and shells also killed countless civilians hiding in their homes. Others were shot down by soldiers on both sides who treated everything moving as a target.
Hue 1968’s later chapters lack the diverse Vietnamese viewpoints featured in the first part of the book, both from the North Vietnamese side and even more so from the South Vietnamese, who were present in Hue in larger numbers and suffered heavier casualties than the Marines.
Bowden’s street-level approach also provides only incidental detail about Air Force and Navy operations in Hue, which clearly grew considerable, as Navy ships provided direct naval gunfire fire support and Air Force Skyhawk and Phantom jets blasted the citadel. The ambitious global scope of the early chapters narrows down to the more fragmented view of Marines struggling to capture one building at a time.
By the time the survivors of the last NVA units slipped out of the city on March 3, Bowden estimates that 10,000 had died in the struggle for Hue — including roughly 250 U.S. military personnel, at least 10 times that many North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers, 500 South Vietnamese military and around 6,000 civilians.
The Tet Offensive marked an unusual turning point in the war. In military terms, North Vietnamese forces a costly defeat from which its troops spent years recovering.
But in committing to a losing battle, Hanoi had won the war. The battle shattered Washington’s confident illusion of steady progress, the faith in the “body counts” being propagated by Westmoreland. It made clear that South Vietnam could barely hold on to its major population centers without heavy American support.
To an American public already leery about the escalating costs and moral compromises of the Vietnam War, the Battle of Hue established that “winning” in Vietnam would require far more time, effort and lives than it was willing to sacrifice. And it demonstrated that communist forces were ready to sacrifice a lot.
Hue today stands as testimony to how communities can recover from even the greatest trauma given enough time. The city is now once again a center of culture, religion and even cuisine. Small family-owned restaurants along the canals beckon passersby to sample their delicacies. The imperial palace has been partially restored from the ravage of the war.
In one corner of the citadel, a small military museum with a collection of tanks, jet fighters and heavy weapons also bears some personal relics of the conflict, providing a pro-Hanoi narrative of the battle with more than a bit of swagger. A plaque under a light machine gun proclaims that it was used to “shoot down four American helicopters.”
But Vietnam today is more likely to buy an American helicopter then shoot one down, as Washington and Hanoi tentatively explore closer economic and military ties. Political differences remain between the United States and Vietnam, of course, but the deepest scars of war gradually fade as new buildings, new national projects and new generations come into being.
Bowden’s book reminds us of the cruel lessons learned at Hue by intertwining the personal and the political, and the tactical realities of combat with the strategic dysfunctions underpinning the American war in Vietnam.
A few critics have grumbled that Bowden is too harsh on the generals, that his very personal account lacks the comprehensive strategic vision to evaluate America’s options in the war, that it is impossible to describe any battle as a turning point, that his hundreds of footnotes are not meticulous enough and so forth.
Yes, given the choice between writing an intimate and riveting narrative or a more guarded, academic, high-level analysis, Bowden opts for the former.
That is no mistake, in my view — the historical lessons that have a human face, that sicken our guts and tug at our heart strings, are more intuitive and more persuasive than dry scholarly formulations abstractly speculating about the victories that could have been.
This article originally appeared at The National Interest.