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North Vietnam's surprise attack on the South during the holiday of Tet altered the entire course of the Vietnam War. and South Vietnamese troops was crushed, and Americans back home increasingly wondered why their soldiers were there in the first place.
That Hue looks familiar … Stanley Kubrick on set, possibly near Limehouse
The action moves to the city of Hue, the old imperial capital, and the site of a month's intense fighting. Joker joins a band of battleworn marines on a patrol north of the Perfume river. During the 25 days of combat in Hue, at least 40% of it was destroyed, including the Citadel and the Imperial palace and 116,000 of its 140,000 inhabitants were left homeless. It was left looking very much like the smoking ruin shown here. Stanley Kubrick filmed these scenes in London's Docklands, just before they were redeveloped into a gigantic yuppie containment unit. In the mid-1980s, Beckton was evidently doing an impressive job of looking like a full-scale war had recently been through. "I mean, we're getting killed for these people, and they don't even seem to appreciate it," complains one marine. Funny how that keeps happening.
Tet Offensive: 7th Infantry Regiment in Saigon
For obvious reasons, this would not be an airmobile assault. It had to be executed on the ground, and it could only be supported by a limited number of vehicles. That meant only one company could go in at a time. Gibler chose his the remote areas near Cambodia and Laos, while infiltrating Main Force VC and NVA units into the cities. The infiltrators would spring their surprise on Tet, the Vietnamese lunar new year and one of the country’s biggest holidays. Previous years had seen a wary truce during Tet, but not 1968. The Communists expected to be able to overwhelm the ARVN forces, rally the South Vietnamese people to their cause and destroy the Saigon government.
In devising this offensive, the planners in Hanoi, like their counterparts in Washington, saw what they wished to see. They thought they could go toe to toe with American firepower, and they believed their own propaganda-that the people of South Vietnam were itching to be rid of their ‘imperialist’ American overseers and would welcome their northern countrymen with open arms. As it turned out, they were dead wrong. The Americans rallied quickly and decimated the enemy attackers in a conventional style of battle that played right to American strengths. Moreover, ARVN units, often fighting for their homes and families, were quite effective, and the people of South Vietnam did not even come close to a popular, pro-Communist uprising. In fact, many of them were as determined as ever to reject Northern rule.
In the days leading up to the offensive, Lt. Col. John Gibler, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, studied intelligence reports from his unit’s recent contact with enemy forces and decided something was not quite right. He had a powerful sense of uneasiness about the enemy’s whereabouts and disposition. ‘We knew something was up,’ he said later. ‘We had several contacts in the last few days before Tet, but none of the enemy wanted to join battle. You’d see ’em, you’d go after ’em, and they’d fade-and that wasn’t like the enemy we knew.’
Gibler had been a battalion commander since September 1967. In his experience, when the VC outnumbered an American unit, they usually closed quickly to point-blank range, ‘grabbing the enemy by the belt’ so as to neutralize American firepower, and tried to inflict as much damage as possible before breaking contact. Instead of doing that now, however, they would immediately disengage and move east. That prospect alarmed Gibler.
Gibler’s battalion was based at Binh Chanh, a small village about 30 miles southwest of the heart of Saigon. Day after day throughout the fall of 1967 and the early weeks of 1968, his soldiers patrolled a concentric area of operations in the muddy rice paddies, streams, rivers and plantations around the village. These men-who routinely battled leeches, immersion foot, heat, mosquitoes, malaria, booby traps and a resilient, slippery enemy-were only the latest representatives of a unit with a remarkable combat lineage.
The 7th Infantry, one of the U.S. Army’s oldest combat units, traced its history to the Battle of New Orleans, when it fought under the command of Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson. Unit folklore held that the soldiers of the 7th had battled the British from behind cotton bales, earning the nickname the ‘Cotton Balers.’ In fact, the 7th Infantry fought the British from the cover of earthen embankments-cotton bales would have caught fire and were probably only used to hold artillery pieces in place-but the nickname stuck.
In subsequent years, the 7th Infantry played an important and sometimes even a pivotal role in every significant American war. The regiment fought in the Seminole Wars and in smaller engagements against American Indians. During the Mexican War, the Cotton Balers repeatedly served as assault troops, helping to win the battles of Monterrey, Cerro Gordo and Chapultepec. The regiment fought at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Little Bighorn, Big Hole, El Caney, Belleau Wood, the Marne and the Argonne Forest, usually distinguishing itself as a crack infantry unit.
During World War II, no U.S. Army regiment fought in more battles over a longer period of time, from North Africa all the way to Germany. The regiment made four amphibious assaults and fought in such costly battles as Sicily, the Volturno River crossing, Anzio, southern France, the Vosges and the Colmar Pocket. In Korea, the 7th fought near Chosin Reservoir during the terrible winter of 1950-51 and then endured nearly three more years of continuous combat.
Now, in 1968, on the verge of the Tet Offensive, the soldiers of the 7th Infantry were about to add another chapter to their colorful history. Proud as he was of the unit’s lineage, Gibler could think of none of that as he sat in his command post bunker at his battalion’s firebase just outside Binh Chanh in late January. He could not escape the sense that the enemy was about to attack somewhere, and soon.
Perhaps in his assessment he was influenced by the attitude of Lt. Gen. Frederick Weyand, an old Cotton Baler himself and one of the most noted American soldiers of the 20th century. An ROTC graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, Weyand had served as an intelligence specialist in World War II. In Korea he commanded the 1st Battalion, 7th Infantry, in 1951, during some of the fiercest fighting of the war. In 1966-67, Weyand commanded the 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam, before moving up to command of the II Field Force, Vietnam, the functional equivalent of corps command.
In the days leading up to Tet, Weyand became convinced that the enemy was about to strike the cities of South Vietnam. He vehemently and successfully urged Westmoreland to redeploy significant numbers of American troops so that they would be able to respond to such an attack. ‘Our radio intercepts began picking up the movement of units toward Saigon, which caused us to cancel a major multidivision operation we had planned to launch…about 100 miles north of Saigon,’ Weyand later recalled. ‘That really proved to be a stroke of good fortune, for if those units had gone north, the VC would have had a field day in Saigon.’
Gibler, meanwhile, was feeling spooked on the eve of Tet. He told his operations officer, Major James MacGill, to issue orders to every company to return to the firebase. MacGill wondered why. ‘I don’t know, I just want ’em on their way back in,’ Gibler replied.
Late that afternoon, Gibler’s eyes kept wandering to a map of Saigon. He could not escape the sensation that a fight would soon break out there. That night he ordered his newly returned company commanders to immediately instruct their troops in the tactics of urban combat.
The Tet Offensive began the next morning. Main Force VC fired 122mm rockets at Long Binh, the main base of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, the 7th Infantry’s higher headquarters in Vietnam. The enemy also hit nearby Bien Hoa Air Base very hard. They infiltrated and attacked Saigon, including, most famously, the U.S. Embassy. The Cotton Baler compound near Binh Chanh remained quiet, but Gibler soon received word that the embattled forces in Saigon needed help.
Viet Cong attackers had captured Cholon, the western section of Saigon, including the strategically important Phu Tho Racetrack. This horse racing facility was located at the hub of many streets, and also made an ideal landing zone for helicopters. If the VC could hold the track, they would have a good chance of holding Cholon. Gibler’s Cotton Balers received orders to take it back.
For obvious reasons, this would not be an airmobile assault. It had to be executed on the ground, and it could only be supported by a limited number of vehicles. That meant only one company could go in at a time. Gibler chose his strongest company, Alpha, for the difficult task of going in first. Alpha was led by one of the toughest junior officers the Cotton Balers had in Vietnam. Captain Tony Smaldone, who hailed from Cohoes, N.Y., was already a veteran of three Vietnam tours and had been wounded four times. He was the perfect leader for an infantry company in combat-resolute, fair-minded, tough, smart, no-nonsense and brave. One general called him ‘the best damned company commander I’ve ever seen.’
Smaldone’s company linked up with a platoon of M-113 armored personnel carriers (APCs, or tracks) from the 17th Cavalry. The infantrymen loaded onto 2 1/2-ton (‘deuce-and-a-half’) trucks and the cavalry onto APCs for the short drive. At 0800 hours they started their movement down Highway 4, straight from Binh Chanh to Saigon. Two APCs led the column, two were wedged into the middle and two brought up the rear. Immediately overhead, Major MacGill guided the column in an observation helicopter.
Smaldone’s column rumbled uneventfully for about an hour until it reached the outskirts of Cholon, where the GIs could see evidence of fighting. ‘As we got into the outskirts, we started passing bodies along the road,’ a cavalry gunner remembered. ‘You’d see a smashed moped, and a Vietnamese would be laying there shot up. They might have been civilians or ARVN returning to their units-or running away.’
This sight was grim enough, but soon they saw the sprawled remains of Americans, blood still trickling from multiple gunshot wounds, flies buzzing around them. Hovering overhead, MacGill studied the grisly spectacle: ‘They were in khakis and had obviously been going into Tan Son Nhut or another duty station…in Cholon. They had just been slaughtered in their jeeps.’
The Cotton Balers and their cavalry comrades kept pushing deeper into Cholon. Buildings, most of them wooden two-story structures, flanked either side of the road. Small numbers of VC began shooting from the rooftops. The cavalrymen opened fire on them with a 106mm recoilless rifle mounted on one of the tracks. The rounds served to drive off the VC. The column continued for a few more blocks.
When they were within six blocks of the racetrack, an enemy soldier fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the convoy. Like an out-of-control Fourth of July rocket, the RPG round streaked ominously through the air and smashed into the lead APC. The front of the APC exploded, showering sparks and debris everywhere. The cavalry platoon leader and two other men were killed instantly. A split second later, a cacophony of enemy small-arms fire broke out. The enemy seemed to be everywhere. The shooting came from both sides of the street, straight down onto the Americans.
Immediately the GIs sprang into action. The cavalrymen returned fire with their 106mm and machine guns. Smaldone’s infantry scrambled off the trucks and raced into the buildings. Others took cover behind the APCs andreturned fire as best they could. They went through ammo magazines in a flash, firing on full automatic.
After the first few bewildering moments of the firefight, when enemy rounds ricocheted off the street and APC treads, the battle settled down into a routine. Smaldone took charge and began methodically working his men through the buildings. He knew the area well from an earlier tour of duty. His infantry worked closely with the APC troops. The tracks blasted away with the 106mm, while the infantry laid down a base of fire on the rooftops. Enemy soldiers went down or fled. Shards of wood, glass and tin sprayed all over the place. Empty casings from machine guns and rifles jangled on the street. MacGill designated targets for the helicopter gunships hovering in the area, which added their immense firepower to the hellish scene.
Inside the buildings, the Cotton Balers used C4 plastic explosive to blast holes in the interior walls so they could advance from building to building without endagering themselves in the open. At close range, the soldiers shot any VC they saw. The whole area smelled of cordite, urine, rotten fish and recent death. Several times the Americans held their fire as frightened, fleeing civilians ran past them on the street. Other civilians got killed in the cross-fire.
In more than two hours, the grunts and their cavalry support slowly advanced five blocks, and by 1300 they were only a block away from the racetrack. They could see their objective, but the Communist resistance was getting stiffer. The VC, lying prone behind and under the concrete benches of the track, sprayed the area with automatic-weapons fire. Several machine- gunners added their own deadly fire from a building that covered every approach to the racetrack. The Americans withdrew into buildings opposite the track.
Tired and hungry, the GIs took a break while helicopter gunships refueled and officers decided what to do. When MacGill’s command helicopter landed on a nearby rooftop, the major spotted two American MPs firing at the VC across the street. MacGill jumped out and joined them. He gave them ammo for their M-60 machine gun and watched as they shot at occasional VC running among the buildings. Then MacGill saw a VC come out of a building, hide his rifle, remove an identifying red armband and raise his hands in an attempt to pass for a civilian. The major leveled his rifle and squeezed the trigger, dropping the man.
Smaldone, meanwhile, used the downtime to scout the VC-held building that commanded the approach to Phu Tho Racetrack. He felt very confident that a 106mm round or two could reduce the place to submission or rubble, whichever came first. He collected two cavalry crewmen and took them on foot to his concealed observation spot just opposite the building. Once there, he showed them exactly where he wanted them to drive up with their APC, and how they could get a shot at the building.
At 1630, Smaldone set his plan in motion. His infantrymen opened up with everything at their disposal. Rifles, M-60s and M-79 grenade launcher rounds splattered the building. The Americans poured out an incredible volume of fire. They wanted to make absolutely sure that the VC would keep their heads down and have no chance to aim an RPG when the cavalry APC rumbled forward into the street. In the meantime, the APC crew members drove their track up, positioned it in the street and then opened fire as quickly as they could.
In his helicopter, Major MacGill was just taking off from the building rooftop when the cavalry fired its recoilless rifle. ‘Debris from the [VC-held] building went about a hundred feet in the air right in front of the chopper,’ he said. ‘It scared the shit out of us. The secondary explosions started a horrendous fire, and I got on the radio…requesting that they call the fire department. I was worried about burning down all of Cholon!’
In a frantic rush, Smaldone led his men across the street onto the racetrack. Adrenaline coursing through their veins, they were psyched up and ready to kill at close quarters. But the enemy fire was desultory at best. With their machine gun strongpoint obliterated, the VC chose to melt away into Cholon. Phu Tho Racetrack belonged to the Cotton Balers, at the cost of one man killed and several wounded. The racetrack proved to be an ideal landing zone and a good base from which to operate in Cholon. Shortly after dark, helicopters brought in reinforcements, Cotton Baler grunts from Bravo and Charlie companies.
In the morning the Americans began a methodical, street-by-street battle for Cholon. It was the kind of fighting their World War II veteran fathers would have recognized. The Cotton Balers made no impulsive moves or reckless charges.
They systematically worked their way from building to building, blowing holes, clearing out rooms and rooftops. At every step of the way, they called on the full range of support from the APCs and helicopter gunships.
At one point on February 1 the VC tried taking back Phu Tho. American machine guns, small-arms fire and gunships cut them to ribbons. The enemy’s best hope now was to hole up in buildings and look for good ambush opportunities. The Communists were tough and did the best they could, but this kind of fight played to the Americans’ strength. The VC and NVA were at their best when they held the initiative, moving through advantageous terrain as light infantry, attacking small American units and perhaps pinning them down, at least until American firepower support came into play. But in Cholon, the Communists were cornered and basically at the mercy of the Americans.
For five days, the Cotton Balers slowly but persistently cleaned the VC out of Cholon. The work was dirty and exhausting. Soldiers choked and coughed in the dust of ruined buildings. They struggled to endure the seemingly endless house-to-house assaults. All the men sweated out the chance that a VC sniper, well hidden somewhere, might be staring down the sight of his rifle right at them at any moment, ready to squeeze the trigger. The grunts took no chances they sprayed the place with as much ordnance as they could, engaging the enemy in the American way of war, firepower-bullets, not bodies.
Cholon became a mangled mess of destruction. Everywhere there were ruined businesses, ruined homes, smashed-up cars, broken windows, blown-out walls and dead bodies, both civilian and VC. It often was hard to tell the difference between the two, which was exactly what the Communists wanted. They tried to blend in with the population of Cholon, but most civilians fled as quickly as they could. They wanted no part of their supposed liberation from the Saigon regime.
Within days, the Americans and South Vietnamese had a major troop presence in the Saigon area. The ARVN committed five ranger, five marine and five airborne battalions, while the Americans had seven infantry, one military police and six artillery battalions fighting in the city. The battle had turned against the Communists. The element of surprise was gone their soldiers were in a difficult spot, fighting on U.S. terms in a bloody struggle for each block. The South Vietnamese, for political reasons, requested that American troops be withdrawn. They wanted to prove to the world that they were strong enough to win back their own capital without any more help from their American partners.
The 7th infantrymen, dirty, tired and red-eyed, piled aboard helicopters and flew back to Binh Chanh, where they resumed their patrol routine. For several days, they humped through the paddy country and took fire from stray VC who had managed to escape Saigon.
Try as they might, though, the South Vietnamese could not quite administer the coup de grace at Cholon. The stubborn VC, augmented by a few NVA, were hanging in there, killing many ARVN soldiers. The Cotton Balers got the call to return. On February 10, the entire 3rd Battalion boarded helicopters at Binh Chanh and flew back to Cholon.
The operation was a bit bizarre. The Americans did not seem to know that the VC had taken back Phu Tho Racetrack, and helicopters landed on the main field, right on top of the VC command post. What could have been a bloody tragedy, however, turned out instead to be a fairly quick victory. The M-60 fire of the door gunners suppressed the enemy, while the grunts hopped off the choppers and into the strangest LZ any of them would ever experience. They stumbled and staggered into fighting positions and laid down fire on the stands, sending chips of concrete and dust everywhere. Within minutes the 3rd Battalion had Phu Tho back.
From there they repeated the routine of a week before, cautiously securing buildings, blasting VC and warily watching each other’s backs. The fighting lasted for the better part of another four days. This time the VC were not as well armed or as determined. Some fought to the death, but others melted away into the city, assuming other identities, hoping to fight again another day. They were the lucky ones. Most of the VC who infiltrated into Saigon amid so much hope and expectation in late January were dead by the middle of February. The capital remained firmly in allied hands. The 3-7th Infantry later received a Valorous Unit Citation for its action at Cholon. It was even thought-erroneously, as it turned out-that the unit had killed the VC commanding general in addition to destroying his command post.
In pure military terms, the Tet Offensive had been a disaster for the Communists. They achieved no major physical objectives and incurred tens of thousands of casualties. The Viet Cong were decimated in the kind of open, conventional fighting that guaranteed their demise. Basically, the Communists had abandoned their hit-and-run attrition tactics in favor of an all-out battle of firepower and maneuver, exactly the kind of fight at which the U.S. Army excelled. The Communists paid a heavy price in the process. ‘I think the VC made two major mistakes,’ General Weyand later wrote. ‘First, by attacking everywhere at once, they fragmented their forces and laid themselves open to defeat in detail. Second, and most important, they believed their own propaganda and thought there would be a ‘great general uprising’ wherein the South Vietnamese people would flock to their banner. There was a general uprising all right, but it was against them rather than for them. The vast majority of the South Vietnamese people wanted nothing to do with the VC.’
The Tet Offensive did achieve one critical strategic objective, however: It broke the will of the American people to continue the war indefinitely. The furious offensive seemingly negated all the optimistic talk about an imminent end to the war. It seemed to many Americans that, on the contrary, the war was only beginning. Many now began to wonder about the feasibility, perhaps even the desirability, of winning. What’s more, they began to wonder if Vietnam was worth sacrificing the lives and futures of so many young Americans. Public opinion increasingly began to favor scaling down the war and finding a way out.
The 7th Infantry spent two more years in Vietnam, moving from sector to sector around Saigon, sometimes fighting in rice paddies, sometimes in jungles. In total, the unit spent four years in Vietnam. In all that time, the Tet 1968 fighting in Saigon was the only occasion in which the Cotton Balers fought a pitched urban battle, an anomaly among the experiences of most American infantry battalions in the Vietnam War.
This article was written by John C. McManus and was originally published in the February 2004 issue of Vietnam Magazine.
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Hue City: A Battle in the Thick of Vietnam's Tet Offensive
As South Vietnamese relaxed during the Tet holiday in 1968, North Vietnamese and Vietcong launch the most audacious offensive of the Vietnam War.
Here's What You Need to Know: The Communist strategy of bringing local VC cadres into the streets resulted in an unmitigated disaster.
The city of Hue was the capital of a unified Vietnam from 1802 until 1945. With its stately, tree-lined boulevards, Buddhist temples, national university, and ornate imperial palace within a massive walled city known as the Citadel, Hue was the cradle of the country’s culture and heritage. As late as 1967, Hue remained an open city, unscathed by the various wars that since World War II had raged up and down the Indochinese peninsula. But when Communist leaders in North Vietnam felt compelled to alter their strategy and launch a massive offensive in South Vietnam in early 1968, the Battle of Hue City suddenly placed the city into of some of the heaviest fighting of the entire Vietnam War.
Stung by reversals on southern battlefields and fearful of an American invasion of their homeland, North Vietnam’s Politburo members voted to abandon protracted-war tactics and mount a three-phase general offensive that would reverse the course of the war against the South Vietnamese and their American allies. When Defense Minister and Chief of Staff General Vo Nguyen Giap, vanquisher of the French in 1954 after a brutal eight-year war, voiced opposition to the offensive, command was given to General Nguyen Chi Thanh, leader of Communist Viet Cong guerrilla forces in South Vietnam. When Thanh died unexpectedly, Giap reassumed command and rapidly massed six North Vietnamese Army infantry divisions in South Vietnam’s northernmost province, Quang Tri.
The Tet Offensive Begins
In the fall of 1967, Giap launched a series of big battles near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that had two objectives: draw American forces north, away from the heavily populated coastal and lowland cities, and determine if the Americans would respond with an invasion of the north. A massive buildup of Communist troops and equipment in the south began. General William Westmoreland, commander of allied ground forces in South Vietnam, responded by sending more troops and firepower into the northern provinces, but he did not launch an invasion of Laos or North Vietnam. This gave Giap the confidence he needed to order the winter-spring offensive to proceed. Giap would find Westmoreland a far more tenacious commander than France’s Lt. Gen. Henri Navarre, who had allowed 15,000 of France’s finest troops to be surrounded and destroyed at Dien Bien Phu. Westmoreland, for his part, welcomed Giap’s deployment of sizable forces in outlying, sparsely populated areas where America’s massive firepower could be brought to bear.
The main effort of Giap’s preliminary phase began on January 21, 1968, at Khe Sanh in northwestern South Vietnam, where two NVA divisions lay siege to the U.S. Marine combat base there. Believing the Communists might be trying to achieve another Dien Bien Phu, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared that Khe Sanh must be held at all costs. With all eyes on Khe Sanh, the Communists then launched the main offensive in the early morning hours of January 31. Some 84,000 NVA and Vietcong soldiers, brazenly violating the Tet (lunar new year) cease-fire, mounted simultaneous attacks on 36 of 44 provincial capitals, five of six autonomous cities, including Saigon and Hue, 64 of 242 district capitals, and 50 hamlets.
With many South Vietnamese soldiers away on holiday leave, the Communists enjoyed widespread early success—even the grounds of the U.S. embassy in Saigon were breached. Within days, however, all of the assaults in the smaller towns and hamlets were turned back. Heavy fighting continued for a while in Kontum Province, Can Tho, Ben Tre, and Saigon, but after a week the offensive, by far the largest of the war to date, had been essentially halted everywhere except for Hue. There, the longest and bloodiest battle of the Tet offensive began to unfold.
The third-largest city in South Vietnam with a wartime population of 140,000, Hue was located astride National Highway 1 just west of the coast, about 50 miles south of the DMZ, on one of the principal land-supply routes to allied troops. One-third of the city’s citizens lived north of the Perfume River in the Citadel. Just outside the walls of the Citadel to the east was the densely populated district of Gia Hoa. The Citadel was an imposing fortress, covering three square miles with a labyrinth of readily defensible positions protected by an outer wall 30 feet high and up to 90 feet thick. Many parts of the wall were honeycombed with bunkers and tunnels built by Japanese occupiers during World War II. At the south end of the Citadel lay another enclave, the Imperial Palace compound, a square with 20-foot-high walls that measured 800 yards per side.
The 1st ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) Division, commanded by Brig. Gen. Ngo Quang Truong, was headquartered in the fortified Mang Ca compound in the northeast corner of the Citadel. Unfortunately for Truong, who was regarded by many American advisers as one of the ablest senior commanders in the South Vietnamese armed forces, over half his division was on holiday leave and out of the city when the Tet offensive erupted. Most of Truong’s remaining units were spread out along Highway 1 from Hue north toward the DMZ. The closest South Vietnamese unit was the 3rd ARVN Regiment, with three battalions, five miles northwest of Hue. The only combat unit inside the city was the division’s Hac Bao Company, known as the Black Panthers, an elite all-volunteer unit that served as the division’s reconnaissance and rapid-reaction force. Security within the city was the responsibility of the National Police.
South of the river and linked to the Citadel by the six-span Nguyen Hoang Bridge, over which Highway 1 passed, lay the New City. This modern section was about half the size of the Citadel and included about two-thirds of the city’s population. It contained the hospital, provincial prison, Hue University, government administration buildings, and the MACV (U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam) compound, which housed 200 American and Australian military advisers to the 1st ARVN Division. The advisers were the only allied military presence in the area when the Battle of Hue City began. Their lightly fortified compound lay on the eastern edge of the city just south of the Nguyen Hoang Bridge.
The nearest U.S. combat base was at Phu Bai, eight miles south on Highway 1. Phu Bai was a major Marine Corps command post and support facility, home to Task Force X-Ray, a forward headquarters of the storied 1st Marine Division. Commanded by Brig. Gen. Foster LaHue, assistant commander of the 1st Marine Division, the task force consisted of two Marine regimental headquarters and three battalions—the 5th Regiment, with two battalions and the 1st Regiment, with one battalion. LaHue and most of the troops had only recently arrived in Phu Bai from Da Nang and were still getting acquainted with their area of operations when the Battle of Hue City began. There were U.S. Army units in the area as well. Two brigades of the elite 1st Air Cavalry Division (Airmobile), including the 7th and 12th Cavalry Regiments, were scattered over a wide area from Phu Bai in the south to Landing Zone (LZ) Jane just below Quang Tri in the north. The 1st Brigade of the famed 101st Airborne Division, recently attached to the 1st Cavalry Division, had recently arrived at Camp Evans, north on Highway 1 between Hue and Quang Tri.
Opposing the allied troops in the region were at least 8,000 well-trained, well-equipped Communist soldiers. The majority were NVA regulars armed with a vast array of weapons, including brand-new AK-47 assault rifles, RPD machine guns, B-40 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, rockets, mortars, and recoilless rifles. The NVA were backed by six Vietcong main force battalions, including the 12th and Hue City Sapper Battalions (a typical VC main force battalion numbered between 300 and 600 veteran, skilled soldiers). The Communists had prepared extensive plans for the assault on Hue, which would be directed by General Tran Van Quang, commander of the B4 (Tri Thien-Hue) Front. The plan called for a division-sized assault on the city while other units cut off access to block allied reinforcements.
With detailed information on civil and military installations within Hue, the Communists divided the city into four tactical areas and prepared a list of 196 specific targets. Communist assault troops received intensive training in urban warfare tactics before the offensive began. Vietcong cadres also prepared detailed lists of “cruel tyrants and reactionary elements” to be rounded up during the early hours of the attack. The list included South Vietnamese government and military officials, civil servants, American civilians, educators, clergy, foreigners, and other so-called “enemies of the people” who were to be relocated into the jungle outside the city once they were apprehended. The Communists were well aware that the bad weather that traditionally accompanied the northeast monsoon season would hamper allied aerial resupply operations and close air support, which would otherwise have given the allies in Hue a significant advantage.
Tet Offensive: Turning Point in Vietnam War
At 3 oɼlock in the morning of Jan. 31, 1968, North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces launched a wave of simultaneous attacks on South Vietnamese and American forces in major cities, towns and military bases throughout South Vietnam.
The fighting, the heaviest and most sustained of the Vietnam War, coincided with the Lunar New Year, or Tet, and it has been called the Tet offensive ever since.
It was a military turning point in the war, but it was far more than that in its painful demonstration of the limits of American power in Asia and in the psychological impact it was to have on Americans at home.
The daring of the Tet attackers extended into the heart of Saigon and, most startling, into the very confines of the American Embassy. A handful of Vietcong, wearing South Vietnamese uniforms, held parts of the embassy for the first six hours of the offensive. Martial Law Declared
Hanoi radio said the aim of the offensive was to overthrow the South Vietnamese Government of President Nguyen Van Thieu. The next day, President Thieu declared martial law throughout South Vietnam.
The Tet offensive is generally considered to have ended Feb. 25, when the last Communist units were dislodged from the ancient imperial citadel at Hue. But the struggle in Vietnam was to continue for another seven years eventually, a frustrated and war-weary United States withdrew and, at the end, Communist North Vietnam's army rolled over the demoralized forces of South Vietnam.
By mid-February, or two weeks into the offensive, Washington was estimating that enemy casualties had risen to almost 39,000, including 33,249 killed. Allied casualties were placed at 3,470 dead, one-third of them Americans, and 12,062 wounded, almost half of them Americans.
A week later, on Feb. 25, Gen. William C. Westmoreland, commander of United States forces, compared the Tet offensive to the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, Nazi Germany's last major drive in World War II. ➭vantage, but Defeat'
'ɺlthough the enemy has achieved some temporary psychological advantage, he suffered a military defeat,'' the general said in Saigon.
But American officials in Saigon also conceded that American and South Vietnamese efforts to ''pacify'' the countryside had been set back considerably as a result of the Tet offensive.
In the United States, a Gallup Poll in February reported that 50 percent of those surveyed disapproved of President Lyndon B. Johnson's handling of the war, while 35 percent approved. In March, Gallup reported a wave of pessimism about the war.
That same month, former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, in a private report to the President, said victory in Vietnam was not feasible within the limits of public tolerance. On March 31, President Johnson announced he would not run for re-election. Rice Paddies to Hilltops
By then, almost 4,000 Americans had died since the start of the lunar year in battles that raged from rice paddies to hilltops to more than 30 of South Vietnam's 44 provincial capitals. The number of enemy dead had climbed to more than 58,000. More than 14,000 South Vietnamese men, women and children also had died.
Of all the battles that together are known as the Tet offensive, the longest, bloodiest and most destructive was fought over Hue, in central Vietnam. Hue was also a battle that a New York Times reporter recently in Vietnam found Vietnamese officials most reluctant to discuss because evidence shows that the Communist troops massacred many South Vietnamese civilians. Many were found in mass graves, the victims of what one former Vietcong official called ''revolutionary justice.''
But perhaps nothing captured the horror of the Tet offensive and the war itself more than the photograph of South Vietnam's national police chief, pistol in outstretched hand, executing a suspected Vietcong guerrilla with a bullet through the head on a Saigon street as fighting raged in the city.
Why did the Tet Offensive (1968) weaken American support for the Vietnam War?
In late January, 1968, during the lunar new year (or “Tet”) holiday, North Vietnamese and communist Viet Cong forces launched a coordinated attack against a number of targets in South Vietnam. The U.S. and South Vietnamese militaries sustained heavy losses before finally repelling the communist assault. The Tet Offensive played an important role in weakening U.S. public support for the war in Vietnam.
North Vietnamese leadership hoped Tet would be a decisive victory
Ho Chi Minh and leaders in Hanoi planned the Tet Offensive in the hopes of achieving a decisive victory that would end the grinding conflict that frustrated military leaders on both sides. A successful attack on major cities might force the United States to negotiate or perhaps even to withdraw.
At the very least, the North Vietnamese hoped it would serve to stop the ongoing escalation of guerilla attacks and bombing in the North. Hanoi selected the Tet holiday to strike because it was traditionally a time of truce, and because Vietnamese traveling to spend the festival with their relatives provided cover for the movement of South Vietnamese National Liberation Forces (NLF) who supported the communist forces.
What We Learned: The Tet Offensive
The fall of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 led to peace talks in Geneva and the division of Vietnam into communist North and quasi-democratic South. Cold War tensions drew an ever-increasing commitment of U.S. troops and material support to the region. By January 1968 nearly a half-million American and 60,000 allied troops supported 340,000 South Vietnamese regulars, an equivalent number of militia and a 70,000-strong police force. Under General William Westmoreland, they fought a war of attrition against the North Vietnamese Army (70,000 in the south and Laos) and Viet Cong insurgents (60,000 regulars, as many as 200,000 guerrillas and perhaps an equal number of noncombatants). Westmoreland, as had French generals before him, prayed for setpiece battles in which his strength in troops, armor and airpower could destroy large numbers of guerrillas. In early 1968 the communists themselves answered his prayers.
A year earlier Hanoi had concluded that the corruption rife in South Vietnam’s civilian and military elite offered hope of a general revolt if it could seize control of southern population centers. So NVA forces prepared a coordinated offensive against southern targets, set for Jan. 31, 1968 (New Year’s Day in Vietnam and a period of announced truce). Perhaps due to misunderstandings, communist troops attacked five provincial capitals a day early. Local forces defeated most of those poorly coordinated attacks. Westmoreland didn’t respond with urgency even when, the following day, some 84,000 communists assaulted every major town, city and American airbase in Vietnam. The general instead focused on the siege of the American base at Khe Sanh, near the demilitarized zone separating North and South.
Despite initial communist successes —including the seizure of significant portions of Saigon and the old imperial capital of Hue—allied forces drove the communists from all urban areas by mid-April. Meanwhile, Operation Pegasus relieved the Khe Sanh defenders on April 8. Hanoi sent a new wave of assaults against 119 targets in South Vietnam on May 4 (known as Mini-Tet). Within days allied troops had stopped those units, ending the Tet Offensive.
On paper, Tet was a major allied victory. It did not spark a general uprising, South Vietnamese forces performed well, and body counts favored the allies, with as many as 100,000 communist casualties. The allies virtually destroyed the Viet Cong regular battalions.
But print and broadcast journalists brought a far different image to the American people: the (brief) communist takeover of the new U.S. Embassy in Saigon the South Vietnamese national police chief’s summary execution of a captured Viet Cong officer (who had murdered a police officer and his family) savage street battles in Hue and stark images of U.S. dead and wounded. Such coverage and its effect on public opinion would give Hanoi the strategic victory communist forces had not won in the streets of South Vietnam.
■ If the enemy has quantity and quality, do not attack.
■ Superior firepower almost always trumps ideological commitment.
■ Be wary when political masters ask you to carry the burden of attack. The Viet Cong were not wary and virtually disappeared as a political force after Tet.
■ Guerrillas rarely win set-piece battles against well-armed regulars with access to unlimited stocks of ammunition.
■ Don’t assume civilians will embrace a revolution forced on them at gunpoint.
■ Public opinion—no matter how ill-informed—can become the most effective weapon in your enemy’s arsenal.
■ Battles are won and lost by the actions of warriors on the field of battle wars are won or lost in the minds of civilians on the street.
Originally published in the January 2011 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.
Tet Offensive Reshapes the Vietnam War - HISTORY
Having lured General Westmoreland's forces into the hinterland at Khe Sanh in Quảng Trị Province, in January 1968, the NVA and NLF broke the truce that had traditionally accompanied the Tết (Lunar New Year) holiday. They launched the surprise Tet Offensive in the hope of sparking a national uprising. Over 100 cities were attacked, with assaults on General Westmoreland's headquarters and the U.S. Embassy, Saigon .
Although the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces were initially taken aback by the scale of the urban offensive, they responded quickly and effectively, decimating the ranks of the NLF. In the former capital city of Huế, the combined NLF and NVA troops captured the Imperial Citadel and much of the city, which led to the Battle of Huế. Throughout the offensive, the American forces employed massive firepower in Huế where the battle was the fiercest, that firepower left 80% of the city in ruins. During the interim between the capture of the Citadel and end of the "Battle of Huế", the communist insurgent occupying forces massacred several thousand unarmed Huế civilians (estimates vary up to a high of 6,000). After the war, North Vietnamese officials acknowledged that the Tet Offensive had, indeed, caused grave damage to NLF forces. But the offensive had another, unintended consequence.
General Westmoreland had become the public face of the war. He was featured on the cover of Time magazine three times and was named 1965's Man of the Year. Time described him as "the sinewy personification of the American fighting man (who) directed the historic buildup, drew up the battle plans, and infused the men under him with his own idealistic view of U.S. aims and responsibilities."
In November 1967 Westmoreland spearheaded a public relations drive for the Johnson administration to bolster flagging public support. In a speech before the National Press Club he said that a point in the war had been reached "where the end comes into view." Thus, the public was shocked and confused when Westmoreland's predictions were trumped by Tet. The American media, which had been largely supportive of U.S. efforts, rounded on the Johnson administration for what had become an increasing credibility gap. Despite its military failure, the Tet Offensive became a political victory and ended the career of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who declined to run for re-election. Johnson's approval rating slumped from 48 to 36 percent.
As James Witz noted, Tet "contradicted the claims of progress. made by the Johnson administration and the military." The Tet Offensive was the turning point in America's involvement in the Vietnam War. It had a profound impact on domestic support for the conflict. The offensive constituted an intelligence failure on the scale of Pearl Harbor. Journalist Peter Arnett quoted an unnamed officer, saying of Bến Tre (laid to rubble by U.S. firepower) that "it became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it" (though the authenticity of this quote is disputed). [ 160 ] According to one source, this quote was attributed to Major Booris of 9th Infantry Division.
Westmoreland became Chief of Staff of the Army in March, just as all resistance was finally subdued. The move was technically a promotion. However, his position had become untenable because of the offensive and because his request for 200,000 additional troops had been leaked to the media. Westmoreland was succeeded by his deputy Creighton Abrams, a commander less inclined to public media pronouncements.
On May 10, 1968, despite low expectations, peace talks began between the United States and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Negotiations stagnated for five months, until Johnson gave orders to halt the bombing of North Vietnam. The Democratic candidate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, was running against Republican former vice president Richard Nixon.
Widening the “Credibility Gap”
Back in late 1967, many U.S. leaders including Gen. Westmoreland, had portrayed a very optimistic picture about the war in Vietnam that the Viet Cong was weakened, the U.S. had “turned corner” and that the end of the war in somewhere in sight. However, it was now clear that none of those could be further from the truth.
The Tet proved to many Americans that their government had been misleading them about American progress in the war. The “credibility gap” between the administration’s claims and reality was widened significantly. Many started to hold a more cautious and distrustful attitude toward their government as well as the war in Vietnam. Since then, the Vietnam war became more and more unpopular among American people.
On 21 January 1968, the NVA began shelling Khe Sanh. When he learned of the attack on Khe Sanh, President Lyndon B. Johnson made the Joint Chiefs sign a pledge that the base would not fall, as he feared a repeat of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. Westmoreland and Johnson's main assumption was false, however, as Khe Sanh was the sideshow, and the main event would be the assaults on the cities and towns of South Vietnam. However, Le Duan's basic assumptions were also to be tested, as the ARVN would have to collapse and the Southerners would have to join the revolution in order for the plan to succeed.
By 30 January, an informal 36-hour truce for Tet was in effect. Thousands of ARVN troops went home for the holiday, but neither the NVA nor the Viet Cong did. Instead, on the early morning hours of 31 January, 84,000 Viet Cong and NVA troops attacked 36 of South Vietnam's 44 provincial capitals, dozens of US and ARVN military bases, and the 6 largest cities in the country. In Saigon, Westmoreland mistook the first explosions as holiday firecrackers. His deputy commander Creighton Abrams was asleep, and his aides did not bother to wake him. Not a single top commander was present at Pentagon East, the MACV headquarters at Tan Son Nhut Airbase on the outskirts of Saigon, when mortars and rockets began cratering the runways. The Viet Cong spread out to attack specific targets in and around the capital, and the war finally came to the streets of Saigon. One Viet Cong squad made it all the way to the Presidential Palace, where they were stopped by ARVN tanks. The survivors holed up in a building across the street, where they were shot by ARVN troops and American MPs. Viet Cong units took heavy losses from US troops and determined ARVN forces across the city, but they managed to seize the main Vietnamese-language radio station in Saigon. The Viet Cong prepared to broadcast a taped message from Ho Chi Minh calling upon the people to rise up, but a technician radioed to the transmission tower and convinced them to play Vietnamese waltzes and Beatles songs instead. In the first few hours of the fighting, a specially-trained group of 19 Viet Cong commandoes blasted their way into the US embassy. All of the intruders were eventually killed or captured, but they held onto the embassy for hours and woke up the American public, who watched the horrifying news coverage of the embassy attack. An American Marine and four Army MPs were killed at the embassy.
At the same time, Viet Cong assassination squads - some directed by the North Vietnamese - murdered several "blood enemies of the people", including bureaucrats, intelligence officers, ARVN commanders, ordinary soldiers home on leave, and their families. Brigadier-General Nguyen Ngoc Loan took vengeance on captured Viet Cong captain Nguyen Van Lem, shooting him in the head on live US television, with Eddie Adams capturing Loan's summary execution of Lem the murder of the prisoner-of-war disgusted and outraged the US public. The Saigon suburb of Bien Hoa was also attacked, and enemy forces attacked both the airbase there and Long Binh, the largest American installation in Vietnam. At Long Binh, the Viet Cong slipped through the wires and blew up a huge ammunition dump, creating a prominent mushroom cloud. However, the attacks on Bien Hoa and Long Binh were repulsed with heavy losses.
The American press mostly focused on the attacks on Saigon, but the Tet Offensive was happening everywhere. In most places, the attacks were being repelled by American and ARVN forces, and the NVA and VC suffered terrible losses everywhere. The Viet Cong captured Quang Tri Citadel for an entire day and night, with 600 men under Cao Xuan Dai going in and 300 being killed and 100 captured. The Americans called in massive air and artillery firepower to dislodge a Viet Cong regiment from the city of Ben Tre in the Mekong Delta, feeling that it was necessary to destroy the town to save it.
In Hue, the old imperial capital of Dai Nam, American supply boats heading up the Perfume River found themselves coming under heavy small arms and mortar fire around Hue. The longest and bloodiest battle of the Tet Offensive was fought in the streets of Hue, with the Viet Cong and NVA taking over both sides of the city on the shores of the Perfume River. Only the MACV compound on the south bank and the 1st ARVN Division headquarters within the thick-walled citadel on the north side held out against them. US reinforcements fought their way to the MACV compound before fighting days of block-by-block fighting to slowly retake the city from the communists. The once-beautiful city was devastated by the fighting the civilians were herded into the university, while their homes became battlegrounds. The NVA and Viet Cong were soon trapped inside the city, and it would take two weeks for the Marines to fight their way across the river to support the besieged ARVN. After 26 days of fighting, the South Vietnamese flag was raised over the citadel, and the surviving NVA and Viet Cong were allowed to pull out. 6,000 civilians had been killed during the savage fighting of the city's 135,000 residents, 110,000 had lost their homes. Before abandoning the city, the communist systematically executed 2,800 people whom they branded as "hooligans" and "reactionaries", including people who worked for the South Vietnamese government and the US military, as well as innocent civilians. They were afraid that, if they released their prisoners, they could return to the ARVN and US forces and identify the guerrillas.
President Johnson insisted that the Tet Offensive had been a devastating defeat for the communists. Militarily, he was correct, as the basic assumptions on which the NVA had mounted their offensives had all proven to be wrong. The ARVN did not crumble, no ARVN defectors came over to the communist side, the civilian populace was more opposed to communism than their own government, and no civilian uprising occurred. Vo Nguyen Giap, who had opposed the offensive from the beginning, saw Tet as a costly lesson paid for "in blood and bone". Several high-ranking NVA commanders surrendered, something which had never happened before, and some NVA companies only had 2 or 3 men left. Of the 84,000 NVA and VC troops who took part in the offensive, as many as 58,000 (most of them Viet Cong) were killed, wounded, or captured. The MACV celebrated their military victory, but the public learned that Johnson's claim that the war was being won was false, as the NVA and VC were not even close to defeated.