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Storming the Citadel

By Al Hemingway
7/26/2018 • Vietnam Magazine

Fighting house to house, the Marine battle to regain Hue’s south side and recapture the historic Imperial City was a bloody affair.

It was a chilly morning and the skies were a lead gray as the convoy slowly snaked its way along Highway 1. Captain Gordon D. Batcheller, commanding officer of Company A, 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment (1/1), was worried. His orders were to relieve the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) compound at Hue and link up with Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) units north of the city. But he had little information to go on. Moving up the main coastal highway that ran from Da Nang all the way through Dong Ha in the north, where the 3rd Marine Division Headquarters was located, things were unusually quiet. Batcheller knew something was up. The previous day, January 30, 1968, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong units had taken advantage of the Tet cease-fire to attack cities and towns throughout Vietnam. Fighting raged everywhere.

Batcheller’s understrength company advanced, fortuitously meeting four M-48 tanks of the 3rd Tank Battalion, 3rd Marine Division, also heading north. As they approached Hue, the polyglot force experienced harassing sniper fire that wounded several Marines, but the convoy hurriedly pushed on and crossed the An Cuu Bridge spanning the Phu Cam Canal on the outskirts of Hue. Large holes in the cement testified to the enemy’s attempts to destroy the bridge, but, luckily for Alpha Company, they had failed. A downed bridge would have delayed the Marines for hours, even days. Ahead of the convoy was majestic Hue City, the old imperial capital of Vietnam.

The column halted while Batcheller assessed the situation. There was no one visible in the streets. Odd, he thought, since Hue was the third-most-populated city in the country. An eerie silence prevailed. Batcheller gave the order to move out, and the Marines climbed aboard the tanks. As the clanking machines roared forward through the narrow streets, the leathernecks raked the surrounding structures with automatic-weapons fire.

Suddenly a B-40 rocket ripped into the lead tank, shattering Batcheller’s eardrum and fatally wounding his radio operator, whose legs were severed at the knees. Both sides exchanged a tremendous fusillade of small-arms fire. The North Vietnamese Army troops began dropping mortar rounds among the Marines, as the tanks’ 90mm cannons and .50-caliber machine guns opened up to support Alpha Company. All radio sets were jammed with Vietnamese voices. Pinned down, the infantrymen dragged their wounded to safety behind the tanks, in ditches, anywhere to escape the deadly barrage. As the morning sun burned away the overcast, giving way to a pale blue sky, the first day in the struggle to retake Hue City had begun.

Not realizing it, the Marines of 1/1 had walked right into a deathtrap. The 800th and 802nd battalions of the NVA 6th Regiment had launched a two-pronged assault from the west in the early morning hours of January 30. Storming through the lightly defended gates, their plan was to destroy the ARVN’s 1st Division near the Citadel. However, both NVA units were repulsed by the ARVN’s elite Black Panther Battalion and their drive was abruptly halted. Brigadier General Ngo Quang Truong, 1st ARVN Division commander, a short, wiry man, had heeded the reports of mass NVA/VC troop movements and consolidated his forces in the HQ compound. Although half his men were on leave because of the Tet holiday, he managed to deploy his units and keep the enemy at bay.

While this fight was raging on, two additional units, the 804th and K4B battalions of the NVA 4th Regiment, swept in from the south and east to attack the MACV compound in Hue. Two hundred Americans held off the enemy throughout the night. Meanwhile, another NVA unit, the 806th Battalion, set up blocking positions on roads leading out of the city to the north and yet another enemy unit, the KC4 Battalion, did the same in the south, along Highway 1. In all, nine enemy battalions were firmly entrenched in the town.

Around noon, news of Alpha Company’s Hue dilemma had reached Task Force X-Ray (1st Marine Division Forward HQ) at Phu Bai. Lieutenant Colonel Marcus J. Gravel, commanding officer of 1/1, quickly set out with his operations officer Major Walter J. Murphy and Company G, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines (2/5), attached to Gravel’s command.

Racing up Highway 1, 2/5 reached the beleaguered Marines and, with cover fire, were able to drive the NVA back. The wounded were evacuated, and Batcheller, peppered by shrapnel, was medevaced to the 1st Marine Medical Battalion at Phu Bai. Pushing forward, the Marines reached the MACV enclave and hastily established a perimeter. They also secured the Navy boat ramp and the base of the Nguyen Hoang Bridge, an important move, since it was directly across from the Citadel. A small park near the boat ramp was utilized as a landing zone (LZ). A few Marine and ARVN tanks formed a semicircle around the LZ to protect it from enemy fire across the Perfume River. The Marines had gained a small foothold.

On the second day of the Tet battle, February 1, the Marine headquarters at Phu Bai was in a quandary. The men had little information as to what was happening at Hue. Brigadier General Foster C. LaHue, assistant commander of the 1st Marine Division, thought his Marines were in control of the south side and that the enemy would soon be finished because it lacked resupply capabilities. Also, Saigon had issued a press release saying the “enemy was being mopped up.” Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF) HQ at Da Nang concurred, stating, “[Marines] were pushing VC out of Hue this morning.” Even Lt. Gen. Hoang Xuan Lam, overall head of I Corps, thought the enemy had been routed with the exception of a “platoon” holding out in the Citadel. They were all woefully incorrect.

Despite this optimism, two additional companies, Fox and Hotel of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, were alerted for immediate duty in Hue. As the C-46 Sea Knight helicopters approached the embattled city, several Marines were wounded in their seats when bullets tore through the thin-skinned “birds.” Landing on the university soccer field, the heavily laden infantrymen scrambled from the rear door and bolted for cover near the MACV HQ. That night was spent organizing for the following day’s attack.

Lieutenant Colonel Ernest C. “Big Ernie” Cheatham Jr., 2/5 commander, and Colonel Stanley Smith Hughes, 1st Marine regimental commander, arrived on the scene. Hughes’ orders were simple and straightforward—clear Hue’s south side. To Cheatham’s 5th Marines went the bulk of the task: push west from the MACV compound, following the Perfume River all the way to the Phu Cam Cathedral. Their main route would be along Le Loi Street paralleling the river. Unknown to the Marines, this was the site of the NVA HQ and the location of most of their troops. Gravel was given the assignment of keeping Highway 1 open for traffic, since Alpha 1/1 had suffered the most casualties and was undermanned.

The attack began on February 4, but this was not the type of combat 2/5 was accustomed to. Since arriving in Vietnam, it had been a frustrating game of cat and mouse for the leathernecks. Booby traps, hit-and-run tactics and nightly ambushes were the mainstay. Some Marines would go months without ever seeing an enemy soldier. This time it would be different—the fighting would be house to house, and the NVA and VC had no intention of retreating.

Hunched over maps scrounged from a nearby Shell gas station, Cheatham was dismayed. Confronting his Marines were 11 blocks of enemy-held territory, all with excellent fields of fire for their mortars, recoilless rifles and automatic weapons. It would have to be taken a house at a time, street by street and block by block. Captain Michael Downs, Fox Company, was slated to assault the Treasury complex, and Captain Ron Christmas’ Hotel Company would move on the public health building. Golf Company would be in reserve. The use of supporting arms was restricted—no bombing or strafing runs by jets, no naval bombardments and no heavy artillery. Saigon wanted to save the city from complete ruin.

“You must dig the rats from their holes,” Cheatham informed his company commanders.

Advancing up Le Loi Street, the Marines of F 2/5 used smoke grenades to shield their movements, as platoons scrambled to gain entry to buildings. A mechanical “mule,” a small flatbed vehicle, brought up a 106mm recoilless rifle, and it silenced several NVA machine-gun nests. Bazooka men, armed with a 3.5 rocket launcher, provided additional support fire. However, it was the aggressiveness of the grunts that ousted the enemy from their lairs.

“The NVA in Hue were mean, motivated bastards,” said one combat correspondent, “but, the plain fact is, we were better.”

The streets sprang to life with the unremitting noises of combat. The fighting grew in intensity as squads of Marines converged on the buildings. It was precision. As four men covered the exits, two rushed in hurling hand grenades and several others followed with their M-16 rifles on full automatic. “Timing,” said Cheatham, “has to be as good as a football play.”

While 2/5 was moving westward along Le Loi Street, Gravel’s 1/1 command, 2-1/2 platoons of Alpha Company, was ordered to take the Joan of Arc School, just 100 yards from the MACV compound. Approximately 100 NVA soldiers were quartered there, pouring fire onto Hughes’ HQ. Tanks and recoilless rifles pounded the structure. The roof was completely blown off, glass and cement flying everywhere. Rushing in, fire teams blazed away, and the fighting was at close quarters. Screams of the wounded, the incessant “pop-pop” of the M-16s mixed with AK-47s, exploding grenades, Light Antitank Weapons (LAWs) and B-40 rockets filled the air. One by one the enemy was flushed out of the rafters, classrooms and school grounds. Bodies were everywhere. The leathernecks suffered 22 casualties. Huge holes gaped in the wall where the school’s crucifix was hanging. It was still intact.

That afternoon, the remaining platoon of Alpha Company, along with Bravo Company, arrived at Hue. In the evening, as red and green tracers filled the night, the 12th VC Sapper Battalion blew the An Cuu Bridge, cutting the land route from Hue to Phu Bai, but not before five reinforced Marine companies had crossed it. Had the NVA destroyed the bridge several days earlier, it might have been a disaster for the allied forces.

By February 6, 2/5 had in its possession the Treasury complex, the university library and the hos- pital. Hotel Company was given the assignment of assaulting the Thua Thien Province capital, a two-story building with enemy troops on the top floor. Beside its tactical importance as the NVA Command Post, it was a major irritant to the Marines. The red and goldstarred flag of North Vietnam fluttered from the flagpole. And the Marines wanted it.

Tear gas was fired at the building as the attack commenced, but a cold wind blew the gas away from its objective. Donning gas masks, Lieutenant Leo Myers’ First Platoon sprinted through an iron gate, across the street to an open courtyard facing the capitol. Captain Christmas, using the radio in the rear of his vehicle, directed a tank forward. Several 90mm rounds exploded against the masonry walls as the leathernecks rushed through the front door. The first two were cut down by small-arms fire. A flurry of fragmentation grenades was hurled, M-60 machine guns spewed empty brass shell casings in every direction and the NVA fell back. Then, as fire teams hunted down the stragglers, Gunnery Sergeant Frank Thomas pulled down the NVA flag and replaced it with the Stars and Stripes.

On February 7, VC sappers detonated another bridge over the Perfume River. Luckily, the Navy boat ramp was in full operation. As replacements and supplies motored in and out of Hue, sporadic enemy fire from the opposite shore was directed at the vessels, but it had little effect. Also, choppers from the Marine helicopter squadrons ferried in reinforcements and took out wounded.

As the infantrymen progressed in both directions along the south bank, the fighting began to slacken off. But a considerable “mop up” would have to be implemented before the area could be considered safe.

In the wake of the battle, other major problems arose. Thousands of homeless refugees who had fled the fighting had to be cared for. One Catholic church housed 5,000; another 17,000 camped around the university. Food and medicine were in short supply and had to be brought in. Navy doctors and corpsmen, U.S. civilians from the Public Health Office, an Australian doctor and Vietnamese medical personnel worked wonders.

By the second week, the once-beautiful “lotus flower” was in a shambles. Shell-pocked buildings, remnants of houses, debris scattered all along the tree-lined avenues that once teemed with shoppers, and bullet-riddled walls were evident throughout the city. Then there were the dead and wounded. Navy doctors and corpsmen went without rest to patch up Marines. Some begged to return to their outfits to be with their friends. Others with minor injuries never even bothered to report them. They stayed in the battle.

Although the south side of Hue was officially declared secured on February 10, pockets of snipers continued to plague Marine patrols trying to root them out. Enemy troops mingled with the civilian population and, as a result, innocent people were killed or wounded. On one street, a father held his blood-splattered child as he stared vacantly at the ground after getting caught in a crossfire.

“A woman knelt in death,” wrote one reporter. “A child lay…crushed by a fallen roof. Many of the bodies had turned black…rats gnawed at the exposed flesh.” The people of Hue were suffering badly.

With the An Cuu Bridge damaged, only one overpass remained over the Phu Cam Canal that permitted entry into Hue City’s south side. Called the Ga-Hue, it was located on the extreme northwest bank, where the waterway emptied into the Perfume River. It was imperative that it be held, and a platoon from Hotel 2/5 cleared a one-block area around the vital causeway. Establishing a perimeter, the Marines repulsed numerous counterattacks through the night, and at dawn, the bridge was still in their hands. They were relieved by 1/1. Out of the way though it was, this bridge allowed the land route between Hue and Phu Bai to remain open while combat engineers repaired the An Cuu roadway.

General Truong and his 1st ARVN Division, cut off and surrounded on the north side of the city, were making a defiant stand of their own. One Black Panther Company, led by Captain Tran Ngoc Hue, repelled Communist units at the Citadel airfield. A wounded ARVN officer, Lieutenant Nguyen Hi, with a collection of office clerks, drove the enemy back when they gained entry to the medical area. Truong maintained radio contact with his people, and each unit fought its way back into the compound. From there, Vietnamese paratroopers, marines and rangers clashed with a tenacious enemy to gain control of the Citadel. Whole companies became stranded and had to claw their way back using grappling hooks to scale walls within the maze of parapets. Finally, on February 9, his units weakened to the point of exhaustion, Truong grudgingly requested U.S. assistance. The 1st Battalion, 5th Marines (1/5), were ordered up to Hue.

From Phu Loc Combat Base, two platoons from Company B, under Captain Fern Jennings, were helicoptered into the ARVN HQ stronghold. The 3rd Platoon, coming under intense fire, was forced to pull out after the pilot was wounded, and limped back to base camp. On the south side, Major Robert H. Thompson, commanding officer of 1/5, conferred with Colonel Hughes. It was decided that Thompson would take Companies A and C, via Navy landing craft, join up with Company B and attack southward, pushing the NVA toward the Perfume River. There, the enemy would be caught between 1/1 and 2/5 on the opposite side.

The morning of February 12 was like most mornings in Hue during the Tet battle—cold and windy, with a misty rain. The Marines boarded the landing craft for the short trip to the northern tip of the Citadel, where they quickly disembarked at a ferry landing. Thompson and his men made their way to the ARVN command post, where Thompson met with Truong. The feisty Vietnamese general informed him that the Communists had two battalions in the Citadel and another to the west that was resupplying them. The enemy held the northeast and southeast walls near the Imperial Palace. Thompson was responsible for securing the northeast wall— 2,500 yards long, 20 feet high and widths from 50 to 200 feet. With the 1st ARVN Airborne Battalion attached, the three Marine companies (Company B’s 3rd Platoon arrived with Thompson) would make a frontal assault down the wall. Meanwhile, the 3rd ARVN Regiment would continue attacking to the southeast, moving in their direction, on their right flank. Once the Imperial Palace was taken, they could begin their southward sweep.

That evening, the Marines received some good news. General Lam, after meeting with South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu, authorized allied forces to use whatever weapons were available to them in the Citadel. The only exception was the Imperial Palace. It was still off-limits.

Tuesday, February 13, Captain J. J. Bowe and Alpha 1/5 proceeded down the northeast wall. They had advanced only a few yards when the entire area erupted in an ear-shattering barrage of AK-47s, B-40 rockets and mortars that cascaded from a large tower onto the Marines below. The ARVN unit that was supposed to have taken the southeast cordon had been pulled back, but no one told Thompson. In only 10 minutes, Alpha Company took 30 casualties. Preparatory fire from 155 howitzers and 5-inch shells from Navy destroyers offshore were placed directly in front of Marine lines. By day’s end, the grunts of 1/5 held the wall 75 yards from where the ARVN unit had retreated. Thompson summoned Company D, still on the south side, to join him.

Captain Myron C. Harrington, Delta Company’s commanding officer, reached Bao Vinh Quay where Thompson had landed the previous day, near dusk on February 13. Throughout the next day, his men rested and reorganized in the ARVN sanctuary while Bravo and Charlie 1/5 once again hurled themselves at the NVA bastion. Six-inch projectiles from a cruiser slammed into the ominous-looking tower that was hampering the leathernecks’ progress. Fighters from the 1st Marine Air Wing fired rockets and dropped napalm and nonlethal tear gas inside the wall. Still no headway could be made.

The following day, February 15, Harrington’s Marines crept cautiously down the northeast barricade, after ships in the South China Sea and artillery from the 11th Marines sent rounds crashing into the tower. Chunks of brick and cement crumbled to the ground, and houses nearby were razed. Two F-4 Phantoms roared overhead and released canisters of napalm and 500-pound bombs on the seemingly invincible spire.

As if untouched by the pounding they had just received, within a few minutes the NVA let fly a broadside at the Marines. A driving, miserable rain made the going treacherous, and the screams of the wounded and the cries of “Corpsman!” filled the air. Tanks lurched forward to lend support, sending 90mm rounds screeching at the fortified Communist bulwarks. Men with 3.5 rocket launchers and disposable light antitank weapons moved back and forth to help trapped infantrymen. Second Lieutenant Jack S. Imlah and his 1st Platoon slugged their way through the rubble and placed themselves at the rear of the tower. From here, the Marines lobbed grenades into spider holes where individual NVA soldiers would emerge like jack-in-the-boxes, let loose a few bursts and rapidly disappear. After nearly three hours of continuous combat, the tower was in Marine hands. From its summit, which made an excellent observation point, the Imperial Palace could be seen through the fog.

An enemy message was intercepted on February 16 and relayed to Major Thompson: “…original commander of the force inside Hue…killed…many officers killed or wounded…[new commander] recommended [his units] to withdraw. Senior officer ordered new commander…in Hue…to remain in position and fight.” The outcome was inevitable. The NVA and VC, who had lost 219 confirmed dead as well as an undetermined number of wounded thus far, knew they were going to die.

For the next four days, the Marines of 1/5 hammered away at the northeast wall. Each day was an exact duplicate of the day before: artillery and heavy gunfire, followed by infantry assaults with tanks, bazookas and mortars. Numbed with fatigue, many of the men could barely walk. The constant flow of wounded kept the medical teams busy. To expedite things, the more serious cases were set aside and those who had any hope of surviving were attended to immediately.

After one week’s fighting, the Marines had suffered more than 300 casualties. Companies were now at half-strength. Morale was low. “We’ve got to get some help,” said one anguished Marine. “They’re going to annihilate 1/5.” But there were no available additional troops that could be committed.

In spite of everything, when ordered to attack, the Marines attacked. Finally, on February 21, Thompson’s grizzled grunts had in their possession the northeast wall. However, the ARVN units had literally stopped and waited. To their horror, the Marines of 1/5 were told to turn right and take the southeast wall as well. Reinforced by Company L, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, the infantrymen set out for the Imperial Palace. As the Marines pressed forward, 106mm recoilless rifles and tanks hurled round after round at the temple. When the sun came out and the weather cleared, Captain John Niotis, Lima Company commander, called in air strikes. Coming as close as possible without damaging the cherished building, fixed-wing aircraft discharged napalm against the palace wall. The jellied gasoline mixture created fireballs that leaped high in the air very close to Marine lines. The Marines pressed warily onward, clearing each building house to house. The attackers tossed grenades through broken windows while fire teams kicked down doors and rushed in, shooting anything that moved.

As they slowly inched forward, the riflemen noticed a huge structure with a tile roof and decorative carvings. The Marines ventured in and discovered an ornately decorated room, whose walls were completely covered in gold leaf. Inside, two thrones perched atop a raised dais. The room was also garnished with caricatures of lions and dragons richly adorned in red and gold lacquer. In a corner lay the crumpled bodies of two dead NVA soldiers. A sergeant sauntered over and nudged the motionless corpses with the barrel of his rifle. The leathernecks had reached the venerated throne room of the Vietnamese emperors.

Led by Captains James Coolican, a Marine adviser, and Tran Ngoc Hue, a Hoc Bao (Black Panther) company stormed over 200 yards of open terrain to conduct the final assault on the Imperial Palace. Many there knew this was “strictly public relations.” To the South Vietnamese government, it was a matter of pride to have an ARVN unit seize this historic place. But every Marine there knew that 1/5 had taken the Citadel. The grunts watched as the NVA flag was torn down and replaced with the yellow and red banner of South Vietnam. It was fastened and hoisted— ironically—over the Palace of Perfect Peace. Everyone cheered. The city of Hue had been recaptured. Liberation had taken 26 days.

But the true agony of Hue was not to be fully realized until the Communists had fled. During the occupation by NVA/VC troops, thousands of civilians were massacred by death squads. The district worst hit by the slaughter of innocents was Gai Hoi, a large triangular residential zone northeast of the Citadel. Because it had little military importance, it was left untouched and not liberated until the end of the battle. Government officials, teachers, priests, nuns, doctors, foreigners and anyone aiding the Americans were singled out for execution. Coaxed from their homes by loudspeakers and radio broadcasts and, in some cases, forcibly abducted, they were led away never to be seen again. With hands tied behind their backs, they were removed to a remote area and shot, bludgeoned or buried alive. As late as September 1969, mass graves were being discovered. In one, the skulls and bones of 428 people of Phu Cam stretched as far as a football field, scrubbed clean by a running stream. In all, 2,800 citizens of the city were systemically and methodically murdered. It was political mass-murder at its most barbaric.

Upon being relieved, the Marines returned to the rice paddy war they were all too familiar with. During Operation Hue City, the Marines lost 147 killed and 857 wounded (these figures don’t take into account casualties among those serving with support units, or who died of wounds later in hospitals). The South Vietnamese units lost 384 killed and 1,800 wounded. The exact count of Communist dead may never be known, but existing records show the NVA/VC dead to be 5,113, an unknown number of wounded and 89 captured.

In 1969 the Hue battle streamer was affixed to the Marine Corps flag, and every outfit that participated in that fight was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, which read in part: “The men of the 1st Marines and 5th Marines [Reinforced] soundly defeated a numerically superior force…by their effective teamwork, aggressive fighting spirit and individual acts of heroism…achieved an illustrious record of courage and skill which was in keeping with the highest tradition of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.”

But it was the dirty, bearded and exhausted Marine grunt who deserves the accolades. With rifle in hand and a “tight knot” in his stomach, he overcame his fear and drove the invaders from Hue.

 

Originally published in the February 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here

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