Tet Offensive: Battle for Hue

6/12/2006 • Vietnam

For Vietnam, it was a comfortable assignment. As an Army specialist, I had been assigned since May 1967 as a clerk-typist for MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) Advisory Team 3, which provided U.S. military advisers to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam’s 1st Infantry Division, headquartered in Hue, the ancient imperial capital of Vietnam.

It was a beautiful city, and my time there had been made even more enjoyable by the fact that throughout the war–evidently in deference to its historic past–Hue had been treated almost as an open city by the Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA). Although there had been intermittent mortar and rocket attacks on our compound south of the Perfume River, which bisects the city, Hue had seemed peaceful and secure. In fact, Washington Post war correspondent Don Oberdorfer had reported that South Vietnamese army officers ‘paid large bribes to be assigned to duty there.’

But all that changed in a heartbeat. An explosion brought me back to reality. This was not a dream–it was Vietnam. I screamed, ‘Incoming!’ as I always did when the enemy lobbed mortars and rockets into our compound. By now it was automatic. I scrambled out of my cot, ripped away the protective mosquito net, donned my helmet liner and steel pot and slipped on my flak jacket. In a matter of seconds I had my carbine and ammunition and was out the door with my shower shoes on. My fellow hooch mates always made fun of me because I never took the time to put on my uniform. So there I was in combat gear in my underwear and shower shoes. To me, speed was the most important thing–I wanted to stay alive!

Usually ‘Charlie’ (the VC guerrillas) would lob some mortars or fire rockets into the compound and we would be on alert for about half an hour. After we got the all clear signal, we would return to bed to get some rest. But not this time! It was early morning on January 31, 1968– the beginning of the NVA and VC’s Tet Offensive. All hell broke loose after we were all safely in our bunker, which held five or six men. Small-arms fire could be heard from every direction, and more loud explosions continued after the mortars and rockets. The enemy had succeeded in scoring a direct hit on our ammunition bunker. The noise level was deafening, the smell of gunpowder filled the air, and I could sense the fear. The intensity of the fighting seemed to escalate with each passing minute.

The sergeant came by and instructed us to fire at anything that moved. When we opened up with a barrage, we hit the trip wires, and the flares on the barbed wire were ignited. Our entire corner of the compound was lighted up like it was daytime. We heard intensive small-arms fire coming from the school on our right and automatic weapons fire coming from the direction of the commanding officer’s quarters. Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) soldiers in billets directly in front of us fired a few rounds at our position, but we thought it was an accident so we did not return fire. After a minute or two, the fire from the ARVN billet stopped. But the explosions, the flares, the small-arms fire, the loud noises, the yelling, the screaming and the chaos seemed to go on forever.

We did not realize what was going on around us. We stayed in our bunker, followed the sergeant’s orders to defend the corner, and prayed that we would survive this hell. We would later learn that the 804th NVA Battalion had conducted a sapper-and-infantry assault in an effort to completely overrun our compound.

Suddenly, there was a loud explosion to our right. The hooch occupied by a group of Australians had taken a direct hit. The yelling and screaming indicated that one of the Aussies had been hit by shrapnel; he later died from a throat wound.

There was heavy fighting to our left next to Colonel George O. Adkisson’s quarters. Colonel Adkisson was the commanding officer of MACV Advisory Team 3. Our bunker got a message that Specialist Frank Doezema was in the tower, spraying machine-gun fire at the police station that the enemy had overrun earlier. As Doezema was firing at the NVA, an explosion blew off the lower part of his legs. His place at the machine gun was taken by another soldier, and Doezema was taken to the MACV dispensary. A medevac chopper was called in to evacuate him to Phu Bai, but the enemy snipers prevented the Huey from landing. I learned later that Doezema bled to death.

When day broke, we ventured just outside the bunker. When we looked around, we saw that things were in bad shape. The compound had taken many rounds from mortars and rockets. Sniper fire continued to erupt all around us. We were told to go back to our hooches in shifts and prepare for the day. In my case, I had to return to get dressed in my uniform. There was constant sniper fire while I ran back to the bunker and dressed. I heard the bullets ricocheting off the roof as I hurriedly got into my full combat gear. We were not attacked again, but we did spend the rest of the day in our bunker, on alert.

During the rest of that day, January 31, we discussed what we would do in case of a ground attack. We reviewed grenade procedures and the best place to throw them in case of an all-out assault. We had a radio on in the bunker and were listening to Armed Forces Network reports telling us that the entire country had come under attack, but that things were not that bad. We yelled at the radio announcer because at our base things did look pretty bad.

We learned that the Marines from Phu Bai, eight kilometers south of Hue, were on their way north to reinforce our position. I got the feeling that the situation was worse than anyone knew. Even though things were in bad shape, we were all glad to be alive. We remained on guard duty, looked for the snipers and ate our C rations. That afternoon, as I was talking to a sergeant outside the bunker, a piece of shrapnel about the size of a closed fist came crashing to the ground just three feet away from me. I picked it up from the ground and still have it today.

On February 1, a sergeant informed a group of us that there were some civilians trapped a couple houses away from the MACV compound. He was volunteering us to accompany a few Marines who were going in on a tank to save those people. I was scared. I had never done anything like that before. But I did remember my basic training drill sergeant’s telling us that we were being trained to be soldiers first. The sergeant had told us that the enemy would shoot at anything brightly colored, so we took the time to rip off our shoulder patches and stripes. I loaded up my uniform with extra carbine ammunition, .45 clips and grenades. We then helped the Marines load the tank with as much ammunition as it could carry.

We left the compound through the main gate. I was afraid of being shot and going home in a body bag, but I concentrated on the job at hand. I knew the other guys were depending on me. And I was depending on them!

Staying close to the tank, we moved out onto Route 1 (which ran right next to the compound) and crouched down against the walls of the house across the street. Suddenly I came under fire from a sniper in the house facing the compound. The fire was coming from a slatted window in the attic area. I did not return fire because I had to ask the sergeant for permission to shoot. So I said, ‘Sarge, there’s someone up there shooting at me.’ He asked, ‘Where?’ I pointed and said, ‘There.’ He said, ‘Well, they’re not shooting at you now.’ ‘Well, no,’ I said. ‘Do I have permission to shoot back?’ He said, ‘If he starts shooting again, call me and then shoot.’ I thought how crazy this war was–a soldier needed permission to defend himself!

The tank turned right onto Tran Cao Van Street and inched down the road. Small-arms fire erupted, and a Marine who was in front of the tank went down wounded. We were behind the tank so we couldn’t see much and could only hear what was going on. Somebody yelled, ‘Corpsman!’ and we stopped. The heavy sniper fire was coming from the church steeple on the left, down Tran Cao Van Street. The other Marines advanced closer, and we remained by the wall. The tank commander aimed the tank cannon at the steeple. Then there was a thunderous boom and the steeple came tumbling down onto the street. Needless to say, we didn’t get any more sniper fire from the church.

After that incident, we searched the house behind the wall and across from MACV, where I came under sniper fire. We were supposed to completely secure the location and then meet in the rear of the house in the courtyard. In pairs, we charged the front door and entered the foyer without incident. We searched the first floor without finding any enemy soldiers. I remember thinking that this was just like what John Wayne would do.

One of my buddies from MACV was almost killed in that house. When he and a Marine went into a room on the second floor, an NVA soldier threw a grenade into the room through a window. Instinctively, the Marine turned around and started shooting. Luckily, he hit the grenade, which bounced out the window and blew up outside the house.

I was with another group of soldiers searching the second floor. We entered a large room that looked like a small hospital area. There were many beds around the room, but in the middle was a bed with a curtain around it. Our job was to secure the room, so we had to make sure that no one was in the bed. I really started to wonder about killing someone. Do I shoot first and ask questions later? Or do I wait until they open up the curtain and in a split second decide to kill the person who is there? Or do I not pull the trigger? All that was going through my head as I approached the bed, ready to shoot. One of the guys crept up to the curtain and quickly yanked it open. There was no one there. I took a deep breath.

We completely searched the house and secured it before going to the courtyard. We could not go beyond the courtyard because there was a thick wall in our path. We stopped until the tank reached us. The tank belched a 75mm round and blew a hole in the wall big enough for us to get to the other side and reach the trapped civilians. Then our group advanced under covering fire.

I went over to the covered walkway by the house where the people were trapped and covered their exit. We did not receive any fire from the enemy while we were evacuating the frightened civilians. They were escorted back to the MACV compound, and then we withdrew, with the tank covering our backs. The enemy advanced behind us but did not fire.

When we got back to Route 1, the Marines paused to look over the area, especially toward the west, in the direction of the Hue Hospital, which was about a quarter mile away. They could see snipers in the palm trees, shooting. Some of the Marines used M-79 grenade launchers to eliminate the snipers. We were then ordered to return to the compound. The enemy was all around us. We desperately needed reinforcements, and all we could do was wait.

For participating in the action that day, I was later awarded the Bronze Star Medal for Valor.

When I returned to the compound, the administrative officer, Captain Rolf S. Mijares, assigned me to the compound dispensary to keep an accurate count of Americans wounded and killed in action. Our compound dispensary was a small building that housed an outside storage area, two small office areas and an operating room with four surgical beds. It was more like a glorified first-aid station than a MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) unit, but during the offensive the dispensary did resemble a mini-MASH unit. It was run very efficiently considering the extreme circumstances.

I spent the next three weeks at the dispensary serving in any capacity that was required. During the day I performed a variety of services. At night I was on call or sleeping on a medical stretcher on the floor in one of the office areas, and I often helped treat the many wounded during the night.

The first KIA (killed in action) I had to record resulted from friendly fire. The Marines from Phu Bai had run a hellish and deadly gantlet coming up Highway 1 to reach our compound in Hue. As they entered the outskirts of the city, they came under intense enemy fire. The Marines opened up with their M-16 rifles, firing in all directions because the enemy was not out in the open. The Marines did not know the exact location of our compound. A young captain in the compound who stood up and looked over the wall of sandbags was shot in the head and died.

The Marines were first to receive attention in the dispensary. Some had minor wounds and only needed stitches. I would talk to them, give them cigarettes, ask them questions about anything and everything, and basically try to boost their spirits. I remember one Marine who held onto my hand while the doctor sewed up a flesh wound on his arm without any painkiller. He was really looking forward to going back into battle.

It got very busy at times. On many occasions, the four-bed operation room was full of badly wounded Marines. I remember the first Marine wounded by an enemy AK-47 rifle who was carried into the dispensary. He had a nasty head wound, and the blood would not stop flowing. The doctors bandaged the soldier and did a tracheotomy, but that was about all they could do. I was instructed to hold his legs during the treatment because his body quivered and shook. The doctors commented on the fact that the AK-47 bullets really tore up human flesh. That was confirmed by many other Marines, who told me that the AK-47 was a much more powerful weapon compared to the U.S. M-16. The Marines said that they could tell which side of the street the enemy was on by the deeper bullet holes in the walls on the opposite side of the street. M-16 bullet imprints were not as deep.

As the days passed, I tried to keep my wits about me. I had run an errand upstairs in the hotel area and was coming down the steps of the open stairwell when I ran into Walter Cronkite and two members of his film crew. All of a sudden, a hail of sniper fire came from the direction of the Perfume River. As bullets whizzed by my head, I ran down the steps and sprinted across the open courtyard, trying to avoid getting shot by the snipers. I sought shelter in the mess area, where other soldiers were waiting for the firing to stop. As I dashed in the door, I said, ‘A guy could get killed out there!’ We all laughed. I tried to keep a sense of humor about this whole experience. I knew that there were certain things I could control and other things that I could not control. So I tried to make the best of the situation. In the end, it helped me to keep my sanity.

One dark, overcast night, as the siege continued all around us and there was a lull in the mini-MASH chaos, I got a chance to look out the dispensary door and glance up to the sky. I could hear the heavy fighting going on across the Perfume River. My eyes focused on the compound’s flagpole. There, in all its glory, flew the United States flag. It was waving in the breeze and was all lighted up by spotlights. At that moment, I was proud to be an American, even though I was in a world of misery and danger.

To say that the doctors were amazing would be an understatement. Without much sleep and under enormous stress, they worked long hours to care for the wounded. One day a Vietnamese civilian whose penis had been partially severed was brought into the dispensary.. He was treated with respect and care just like everyone else. The doctor operated, and the Vietnamese man had an excellent prognosis for a complete recovery. You never saw such a grateful person!

On another afternoon, a badly wounded Marine was brought into the dispensary after a street battle. Shrapnel had taken off most of the young man’s foot; only a few ligaments were holding his foot to his ankle. The doctors administered a shot of morphine, then cut off his foot–still in its jungle boot–and put it into a body bag. An army chaplain was by his side during the whole operation. After the operation, the wounded Marine looked up at the chaplain and asked, ‘Padre, how can God love them and us?’ The chaplain was speechless.

I was raised as a Roman Catholic. I volunteered my time Sunday mornings at church services in the compound chapel. During the siege, a foreign priest who had been trapped in a house in the city was rescued by the Marines and brought to the MACV compound. He talked with me about his experiences while we were both sitting in a small, dark room in the dispensary. He described how the enemy used innocent civilians as cover so they could shoot at American soldiers, knowing that the Americans would not shoot the civilians. The priest told me how the snipers would shoot from one location and run to another area. The Marines would then fire on the empty spot. It was very strange to be listening to the priest’s ‘confession’ about war.

I received the sad message that Major Aloysius P. McGonigal, our MACV Catholic chaplain, had been killed in action while he was across the river accompanying the Marines. He was a maverick priest who loved to be with the men. His death was a great loss to us.

One night the chaplain who had stayed by the Marine’s side while his foot was amputated celebrated Mass. A few of us gathered in an NCO living quarters, with a few candles for lighting, and the chaplain set up the altar on a footlocker. That was a very special time in my young life. The true meaning of celebrating life really meant something. Amid all the fighting, destruction, and death, we were alive. Not all the personnel who visited the dispensary had physical wounds. One morning a young Marine was brought in who was very emotionally upset, crying and shaking. All he kept saying was, ‘I can’t take it anymore!’ over and over again. We never did discover the source of the trauma. He was medevaced to Phu Bai.

The administrative officer, Captain Mijares, came over to the mini-MASH unit to check on my progress and to tell me that I had to be exact on my counts for wounded and killed. I explained that I was very busy helping the doctors by holding patients with severe head wounds. He didn’t seem to understand the entire situation. Just then a few Marines with head wounds arrived for treatment. Mijares was called upon to hold the legs of a young private who was shaking as the result of a severe AK-47 bullet wound to the back of the head. After that experience, Captain Mijares said, ‘I see what you are doing. Just do the best you can.’ He left and never returned to the dispensary during the offensive.

One afternoon I was told to go to the main gate with a body bag. A dead American civilian–probably someone who had been working for the Mission–was brought into the compound. He had been dead for a couple of days. It was our job to search for his wallet in order to identify him. It was sad to see the pictures of his family that we found when we looked through his papers. After that, we put his body in the bag and stored it with the other KIAs behind the dispensary.

A tragic accident occurred about two weeks into the Battle for Hue. After a long day of house-to-house fighting, a Marine was taking a well-deserved rest. He was sitting on the floor of the compound’s activity room, writing a letter home. His M-16 rifle accidentally fired and hit him in the head. He was listed as KIA.

Toward the end of the Battle for Hue, I was called on to pull guard duty on the corner of Tran Cao Van Street and Highway 1. We were informed that rabid dogs were roaming the city and eating the numerous dead bodies that were decomposing in the streets. These dogs were a dangerous menace and we were ordered to shoot them. But before we would shoot them, we had to get permission. My buddy and I saw what looked like a rabid dog, so we called the sergeant of the guard for permission to fire. He said, ‘Wait, I have to check with the officer of the day.’ The officer of the day gave the sergeant of the guard permission. The sergeant telephoned us to let us know that we had permission to kill the dog. As you might guess, the dog was long gone by that time.

During the offensive, a strange thing happened. A white goose appeared at the MACV compound and stayed around throughout the 26 days of fighting. We all joked that it was seeking a safe place. We named the goose Garfield, and he gave us something to take our minds off the battle.

The Tet Offensive was reported back home as a significant turning point in the war. The news reports in State College, Pa., said that the NVA had completely overrun the ancient imperial city of Hue. Because of those dire reports, my parents contacted the Department of the Army and started to make funeral arrangements for me. I am sure there was much rejoicing when my letter finally reached them a few weeks after the initial attack.

The period of January 31 to February 25, 1968, left a lasting impression on me. I was witness to man’s inhumanity to man in some of the fiercest fighting during the Vietnam War. Amid the pain and suffering, however, I discovered heroism, sacrifice and tremendous courage. I learned about myself during that time, and I also learned to appreciate life.

This article was originally published in the February 1997 issue of Vietnam Magazine and written by Army veteran James Mueller who was a contributor to David ‘Doc’ Anderson’s Adventures in Hell (Ritz Publishing). For further reading, try Don Oberdorfer’s Tet!, the definitive work on the 1968 Tet Offensive.

For more great articles be sure to pick up your copy of Vietnam.

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